PART FIVE: QUESTIONS OF LIFE
Gathered in the little throne room was Vorti's war council. Headed by Sor, the band of strategists included the heads of the militia, several of the more influential guildmasters, Chancellor Vas, and a young woman whom few of the others recognized. The king convened the meeting without mentioning her identity, and none of those present were willing to suffer Sor's anger by questioning her position.
"As you are all aware, Vorti is on the brink of a crisis," began Sor. He was interrupted by General Dus, the commander of the city's volunteer civilian corps.
"Your Majesty, I believe you think too highly of those Tsabian dogs and underestimate your people. The men and women of Vorti will not give up their homes easily. They will fight to the last drop of their blood to keep the Tsabians from their houses and children. What incentive do the invaders have, far from their wives and with only the promise of a full purse to help them through the difficult times? They may outnumber us, Your Majesty, but we will beat them back."
"Are you finished?" asked Sor, eyes flashing dangerously. "Or would you prefer to continue making a fool of yourself?"
"Your Majesty?" gasped Dus.
"The threat to Vorti, while real and immediate, has nothing to do with Tsab. Since King Hwo's declaration of war, the Tsabian army has remained far from this city. Scouting parties dispatched to the west have confirmed that there are no indications of an advance. Our danger comes from elsewhere."
"What could be more dangerous than an invasion by Tsab? They have the most powerful army in all of Devforth. Even the Twin Cities combined would be hard-pressed to match them," said Corporal Eng, commander of Vorti's southern perimeter, a nervous man by nature. The oldest officer on active duty, he had first put on the uniform of a guard under Kan.
"While King Hwo 's troops may be the most skilled in Devforth, we are threatened by creatures whose chief weapons are their numbers and our ignorance. We know less about them than may be necessary to win a victory, and in that lies the root of my concern."
"Creatures?" squeaked Eng.
Sor nodded. "The attack faced by Vorti comes not from humans, but from dwarves. A swarm of them, possibly from the Green Mountains."
For the first time in three sessions, there was silence. During the pause, Sor allowed his gaze to pass over every face at the table, registering expressions from indifference to incredulity. The impassive Commander Orf, leader of Vorti's militia, reacted as if the information was commonplace while Eng looked as though he might faint.
"This will require a change in tactics," proclaimed Orf after everyone had been given an opportunity to digest the news.
"Dwarves cannot be fought as humans can," agreed Sor. "Not only are their weapons and methods different, but they appear to be following an insidious plan for striking at Vorti. Instead of relying on numbers to overwhelm us - which they may possess - they intend to make use of subversion."
"One moment," said a blond-haired young man, the leader of the dockworkers' guild, whose name Sor could not remember. "How is this possible? Dwarves here? They're mountain creatures!"
"That is a question we have debated at some length, Mys," said Jav, supplying the guildmaster's name. "We haven't arrived at a satisfactory conclusion. But the motives of these creatures for leaving their homeland is a secondary concern. The fact is that they are here and we must be ready to counter the threat, or perish trying."
"Excuse my ignorance, Your Majesty, but what is a dwarf? Like everyone else, I've heard the stories, but I've never seen one. How do we fight them?" asked General Dus.
Several of the other military men seated at the table echoed the questions.
"Dwarves are a lower form of life, existing on a level somewhere between the creatures of instinct and the creatures of reason. Physically, they are small - their heads coming only to the waist of man. They have twisted bodies and pale skin. Belligerent by nature, they are driven by primal needs. While not intelligent, they have the brain capacity to communicate with each other and to organize when necessary. Their migration from their normal places of habitation indicates that an outside agency may be manipulating them.
"Many of you have doubtless noticed the presence of Mistress Eya," said Sor, indicating the hitherto anonymous woman. "She has experience with dwarves and will familiarize you with what she knows."
For the next forty-five minutes, Eya detailed as much as she could remember about the creatures threatening Vorti, describing everything from their physical appearance to the way they had reacted during the attack on Heltala. She closed with a cryptic comment. "Even though dwarves are naturally war-like, there is no logical reason for them to be this far from home. They will defend the mountains and roam for food, but a mass migration is incomprehensible. For the dwarves to have traveled this far, something must be driving them. Whatever it is, it presents a danger to this city."
"This situation is difficult, but not untenable," said Commander Orf after Eya had finished her briefing. "This is one of those occasions when a walled city is preferable, but if the creatures are incapable of coming up with a superior plan of attack, we should be able to beat them back even if they outnumber us three-to-one."
"From what I understand, Commander, three-to-one may be a conservative estimate. At full force, Vorti's army numbers one-thousand. There may be seven or eight thousand dwarves out there," said Sor.
"Then we are in a dangerous situation," stated Orf.
"You have perhaps not heard the worst. We have reason to believe that the dwarves are attempting to infiltrate Vorti from within, perhaps seeding small pockets throughout the city. Numerous cellars have been tunneled into and we have no way of knowing how many of the creatures are within the perimeter at this moment. It's possible that when the main strike comes, it will be a two-pronged attack, with one force striking at our vulnerable underbelly."
"Those don't sound like the tactics of an army relying on instinct and brutish power," protested Eng.
"As I said before, there is an intelligence of a superior nature at the heart of the dwarves' attack."
"So we have to assume that in some circumstances they may move counter to what we would expect from creatures of their nature," said Orf.
"We can't assume anything," replied Eya.
Sor agreed. "Assumptions at this point would be dangerous."
"Even the most comprehensive battle plan must make assumptions," countered the commander.
"Very well," said Eya. "Assume that the dwarves want Vorti. We don't know why, but that's apparently their goal. Their chief advantage is numbers, and that's the one they'll be exploiting. Individually, they aren't intelligent, so there won't be any unplanned modifications to their method of attack. Once it becomes clear what they're doing, you won't have to worry about sudden changes. Surprises in battle are likely to frighten and disorient them. And they don't like light. The attack will probably come at night."
Orf seemed impressed. "That's something to work with at least. But no matter how rudimentary their methods, there's no way to protect the whole city against a force of that size. Even if we arm the citizens, it's too much."
"Armed citizens are usually more of a danger to themselves than to the enemy," said Dus.
"Isn't that a little unfair?" demanded the representative of the merchant's guild.
"It may be unfair, but it's usually true. If you give a man a weapon, if he doesn't stab himself or his neighbor with it, he'll think he's capable of fighting, and promptly get slaughtered when he tries to go into battle. I've seen it happen many times."
"What if everyone barricades themselves inside?" asked Eng.
"If dwarves can burrow, that's hardly a good solution, is it?" replied Dus.
"In Heltala," began Eya, "the houses were windowless, and made out of stone. That didn't stop the dwarves from burning people out. The majority of Vorti's buildings are more vulnerable to fire."
"We're going to have to pull all of the people living on the outer farms into the inner city. We can set up a defensible area and have guards twenty deep blocking every street, with archers on the rooftops. We'll also need a roving contingent to patrol within the perimeter to stop pockets of the enemy that come out of hiding," suggested Dus.
Orf nodded his agreement. "With spot checks of cellars. The fall-back position will be the palace. We should get as many of the women and children as possible inside, along with a number of armed men. At least there are walls here. If worse comes to worse, we can probably hold out forever."
"As long as they don't get in through the dungeons," said General Dag, leader of the western corps.
"I'll place a legion of men down there to make sure that doesn't happen, although frankly I don't see how the dwarves could burrow through solid stone," said Orf.
"Don't underestimate them," cautioned Eya. "They live in caves. Cutting through stone is second nature to them."
"Retreating to the palace should be a last resort option," said Sor.
"Realistically, Your Majesty, we may have little choice," said Corporal Hys, protector of Vorti's port. "Dwarves may be small and stupid, but there's little that the best organized army can do when faced with overwhelming numbers. No matter how much strategy we employ, the simple fact is that more than ten of them will have to fall for every one of us for this city to survive, and that would cost Vorti her entire army."
"It would not be a good idea for us to be defenseless while at war with an army as accomplished and professional as King Hwo's," said Orf. "As soon as he learns of our misfortune, he will attack."
"It hasn't escaped my attention that Tsab will benefit greatly from a dwarf attack on Vorti. For that reason, I've been persistent in attempting to discover whether Hwo could be behind this plot. Eya thinks it unlikely," said Sor.
"Coincidence could be as much his ally as plotting," said Orf. "The fact is that if we successfully beat back the dwarves, we will have Tsab to deal with."
"I suggest we deal with the first danger, then worry about others as they come," said Dus. "Otherwise we'll realize how hopeless this situation is."
This statement provoked a general outcry from the five guildmasters present. "Your Majesty," pleaded Upp, leader of the fishers, "It is your solemn duty to protect your citizens and their property."
"What can be done, will be done," said Sor. "General Dus is correct. We cannot concern ourselves with Tsab at the moment. The dwarves are the immediate threat and it's their attack we have to prepare for first."
"Mistress Eya, do you know whether dwarves can climb?" asked Orf.
Searching her memory, Eya found nothing to base an answer on - except one item. "My encounters with the dwarves were never in a situation where climbing would be useful. However, the houses in Heltala were all two stories. Since the town was designed to provide its inhabitants with the best defenses against a dwarf attack, that might indicate they might not be adept at climbing or scaling."
"I suggest that placing large numbers of men atop the roofs, armed with burning pitch, arrows, and other missiles, might be the best means of defense."
"And when the dwarves set fire to the houses the men are on?" asked Sor.
"Your Majesty, risks have to be taken. We cannot engage the dwarves in pitched street battles. We will lose. To take down more than ten of them for every loss on our side, we need a strong assault from above. Put enough men in the streets to offer token resistance while everyone else goes atop the roofs."
There was, of course, an issue whose mention was inevitable. Eya was the first to broach it. "Your Majesty, isn't there something that you, I, and Mat can do - as Apaths?"
"Mistress Eya, magic is not a talent to be spent capriciously. If it is necessary to save Vorti - if all other means have failed - I will not hesitate, but it will serve no one's best interests to begin with a magical attack."
While the military men and guildmasters seated around the table accepted this doctrine without question, Eya was puzzled. While it was true that wasting magic was unwise, she could not understand why Sor was opposed to its use in a situation where the tide of battle could be turned. If they waited to use their abilities until all other alternatives had been exhausted, it might be too late.
She felt the issue could not simply be brushed aside. "Your Majesty, I've used magic before in battle. It was effective and many lives were spared."
"If I recall correctly, this was against Tsabian soldiers," said Sor.
"It was, but I see no reason..."
"Dwarves are not human. Their reaction to magic is unlikely to be the same. You may remember that I told you of my encounter with a group of dwarves outside the house of the seeress Meg. The only magic that stopped them was the killing kind. Simple pyrotechnics did not frighten them off. Killing magic is taxing and dangerous."
"But Your Majesty..."
"Enough! We will speak no more of this here!"
During the silence that followed the king's proclamation, Eya glared at Sor, although more in frustration than anger. She could not understand why he was so inflexible about the issue, especially when it could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
After a suitable pause, Dus asked, "What is our timetable, Your Majesty?"
"If the dwarves are already burrowing into the city, as appears to be the case, the main assault cannot be far away. Since this night is more than half over, I think we're safe for a while longer, but I want everyone in place by sundown tomorrow."
"How do you propose we alert the citizenry without causing a panic?" asked Guildmaster Mys.
"We dare not keep the nature of the attackers secret," said Sor. "Better to cause a panic now than when the dwarves appear in all their ugliness attacking the city. We must attempt to present the populace with a realistic - but not too bleak - picture of what Vorti is up against."
"Some will flee the city," said Dus.
"We can't waste the manpower to stop them," said Orf. "While I suggest that the curfew remain in effect, Your Majesty, if we are to prepare for battle, there is little we can to do enforce it. Those that wish to leave Vorti will do so."
"Those that try leaving will be butchered on the roads," said Sor. "Let the people recognize that. As long as they stay in their homes, they are under the protection of the militia. If they break the curfew, we won't protect them from any roving bands of dwarves they encounter."
"Begging Your Majesty's pardon," said Nod, a burly man who held the title of Guildmaster of the Smiths, "But jus' as there are people who will run, there are many who will want to lend a hand defending their homes. Personally, I would rather be outside swinging my hammer than cowering inside like a woman."
"As much as I sympathize with the sentiment, Your Majesty, I don't think it's a good idea," said Orf, supporting the view Dus had earlier voiced. The army is run on discipline and order. Adding untrained men to our ranks will create confusion. The proper chain of command will break down and orders - possibly critical orders - may be missed. Also, in case groups of dwarves break through our ranks, some kind of secondary defense will be necessary. If all the able-bodied men are on the front lines, who will fill that role?"
"Very well, all those not enrolled in the militia will be ordered clear of the fighting."
"But Your Majesty..." protested Nod.
Sor lifted his hand for silence. "I will not have my judgment questioned. Commander Orf has presented sound reasoning for his objections."
"Your Majesty," interjected Jav. "Will you be making a public proclamation about the situation?"
Sor considered before replying. Although it might help morale for the citizens of Vorti to hear a speech, it would create difficulties for the militia. "No, Jav. Let the soldiers carry the message through the city. We don't need a huge crowd hampering preparations."
"Should I at least draft something to clarify your position on the situation?"
"There's no need, Jav. I think everyone is aware of it."
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