THE PRICE OF MAGIC


PART FIVE: QUESTIONS OF LIFE


CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE


     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."

* * *

     The early morning sunlight was streaming through the east-facing window of the royal bedchamber when Lora entered. Lying propped up in bed with her hands folded on her stomach was the queen of Vorti, her expression troubled. The only other person in the room, Joi's maid, slipped out as the elf came to sit beside her mistress' bedside.
     "Where is the child?" asked Lora, avoiding eye contact. That baby was her daughter's daughter; it was an unsettling realization.
     "They've taken her away for an examination. They're trying to find out why she looks like an elf when both her parents are obviously human. I don't think they accept your explanation about there being an elf strain in either Sor or me."
     "Elves do not spring into existence out of nothingness. Two humans cannot create an elf. The blood of my race must be in either you or Sor."
     "I know that, but explain it to the healers. They claim she's a freakish mutation."
     "Have you named her?"
     "Lea, after Kan's first wife. Sor chose the name. He felt it was one the people would approve of."
     "Lea is not a proper elf name."
     "She has more human blood in her than elf."
     "How can you be certain?" asked Lora.
     "Look at Sor. Look at me."
     "Appearances can be deceiving, can they not? Who knows what truth lurks behind a facade? Is there any way anyone can be sure how much elf blood you or your husband has coursing through your veins?"
     The queen gave Lora an alarmed look. "Are you feeling all right, Lora? You don't seem yourself this morning."
     "As it happens, you are right about your child. She is only one-quarter elf. Assuming that Sor's line is pure, that is."
     "How can you know that?" There was apprehension in Joi's tone as well as her expression.
     "Because I am a full elf. I mated with a pure human and you were the result of that union."
     Silence ensued. For the first time this morning, Lora's eyes met the queen's. The shock she saw reflected there told Lora that whatever her daughter might be hiding, that was one truth of which she had been unaware.
     "I...I don't understand," breathed Joi, her features ashen.
     "It is simple. I am your mother."
     "You can't be. I'm not an elf!"
     "You are a half-elf. A very unusual one."
     "Look at me! There isn't a trace of elf blood in me! I'm a human!"
     "You wear the guise of a human. Your abilities at mimicry are impressive, but they were ever so. As a baby, you became like the person who held you. Over the years, you must have learned to control the power. Before you attempt another protest, you should know that I have seen your true form. Your image of Joi slipped during the birth. I was the only one who saw, but when I did, I did not doubt your identity. Shapeshifters are rarer than Apaths."
     "So you know," acknowledged the queen. "What will you do now? Denounce me? Reveal the truth? What do you think that will do to Sor? Is it worth destroying him, and the city along with him, to hurt me?"
     "You are my daughter. I bear you no ill-will. In many ways, I consider myself responsible for all that has happened."
     "Then you won't tell Sor?"
     "I came to you because I have not yet decided what, if anything, to do. I want to know why you participated in this masquerade. What was its purpose?"
     "All right," said Mora, bowing her head in resignation. "I'll tell you everything. But first you owe me an explanation. You said you consider yourself responsible for my actions. Why? And how is it that my first memories are not of you or my father, but of a dirty cave with a half-dozen naked dwarf children? I want to know what happened."
     "You deserve that much," acknowledged Lora. In a measured, detached tone, she related the details of her life in Heltala from the rape to the night that she, Reg, and Eya had fled. She spared Mora nothing - not the bleak truth of her origins or the method by which she had become a shapeshifter.
     "How strange to think that I owe my abilities to Eya," said the queen when the tale was complete. "All along, I thought they were something I had been born with. Then again, never would I have thought you to be my mother. You hardly seem older than me."
     "Elves age differently from those with human blood. I am more than twice your age, but that is still young - even immature - for one of my kind. Now, tell me why you have taken on the form of Queen Joi."
     "I don't feel I owe you - or anyone else - explanations. To understand what I feel you have to have lived my life. You claim to have led a hard existence - it doesn't compare to being raised by dwarves and not knowing who or what you are. No matter how you try to explain it, Lora, you abandoned me. You left me with those beasts. I think I agree with you when you claim responsibility for what I've become."
     "You said you would tell..."
     "And I will, because there's something that has to be done, and in my current condition, I need help to do it. It must be accomplished before dusk, or Vorti may never see another sunrise."
     Lora waited patiently, knowing that Mora's need to talk would force out the tale.
     "As I said, the first memories I have are of growing up among dwarf children. I recognized almost immediately that they were not the same as me. I looked and smelled like them, but their minds were sluggish. It became frustrating to play their games, because I learned fast and the things they enjoyed were dull and foolish. They neither understood nor shared my desire to explore and experiment. The adults were no different than their offspring. All they were concerned about was sleeping, rutting, and eating. They had no desire to expand their minds - no curiosity, no ambition.
     "It must have been around my seventh year when I learned that my body possessed a unique ability. Unlike the other children, I could change my shape. The first time it happened was an accident. I remember the incident - there was a large and beautiful gem embedded in the wall of one of the tunnels near the cave where my tribe lived. It was three feet above my head. Even jumping, I couldn't reach it. Then I started to think that if I was taller, I could get to it and, before I realized what was happening, my body had elongated. I was the biggest dwarf in the history of the race.
     "At first, I was frightened, but the fear soon gave way to excitement. With practice, I learned how to control the ability. I kept it secret from the others - considering how slow their minds are, it wasn't difficult. As long as I contributed to the tribe, they didn't care what I did on my own. In exploring what I could do with my body, I discovered my genuine form. It's difficult to say how I recognized it, but it felt...comfortable, natural. It was then that I knew with certainty that I was not a dwarf, although I was aware of too little outside of the dwarf community to guess my origins.
     "As I got older, I lost my desire to live in the caves. I came to hate the dirt and darkness, and the creatures that scuttled around in them. I grew to despise my childhood playmates and the males and females who had provided for me from infancy. I wanted to get away so I could change into a more pleasing form. It was then that I began plotting my freedom. Unfortunately, dwarves are protective of their offspring and it became apparent that I wouldn't be able to slip away. Even the most stupid creatures can be effective guards.
     "Then I learned about the prophesy, or the 'great legend', as they call it. It's not very detailed, and much of the story has been corrupted by its word-of-mouth passage through the centuries, but it told of one who would come from within the race to lead the dwarves to domination over the outside world. In that foolish story, I discovered my salvation. I became the One Who Is Foretold. With my shape-shifting ability, it wasn't difficult to convince the elders that I was who I claimed to be. After the first demonstration of my powers, the five oldest dwarves in the tribe bowed before me and kissed my feet.
     "I told them that I had to leave for a period of years to prepare the world for their emergence, and that when I returned, they should be ready to accompany me to dominion. The prospect of leaving their homes terrified them, but they vowed to follow wherever I led. I was, after all, the One Who Is Foretold, the greatest dwarf ever to live.
     "When I left the mountains, I went alone and in the guise of a human girl. The first men I encountered were soldiers on patrol from Tsab. Thinking me an orphan, they took me into their care and brought me to their city. There, one of those who found me, a childless man living with a barren wife, adopted me into his family. I lived with the couple for almost a year, learning the customs and language of humans. My time with them ended when my 'mother' discovered me practicing shifting. Ignorant of my true nature and thinking me to be a wizard, she had me brought before the chancellor, who, after seeing a demonstration of what I could do, arranged an audience with the king.
     "Most of what I told King Hwo was the truth - about my heritage and the dwarves. He was fascinated by my abilities and asked if I was interested in working in his service, saying that it would mean power and position for me in human society. When I told him I would do anything to avoid returning to a life in the caves, he invited me to live in the palace. I was given excellent quarters and several servants.
     "Eventually, Hwo found a use for me. He said that the city of Vorti had been a thorn in his side for decades, but he dared not act directly against it as long as an Apath was in power. Then he outlined a plan that he and his advisors had come up with - one that required a shapeshifter's abilities. At first, I was convinced it could never succeed. It was audacious, and demanded gullibility on the part of everyone involved, especially the king of Vorti. But I had agreed to serve Hwo, and his words were persuasive. At the outset, I knew the price for failure, but at that time, death didn't seem such a terrible thing. It was preferable to living out a life in the damp darkness of the dwarves' burrows.
     "The thing about the plan I disliked the most was that it required me to return to the Green Mountains and re-establish my role as the One Who Is Foretold. Although I never wanted to go back, I had no choice if I was to fulfill my mission. My solace was that my actions would lead to the virtual extermination of the Green Mountain dwarves. By then, I hated them enough to wish for nothing less.
     "So, after being away for nearly two years, I returned. Dwarves may be slow-witted, but they have long memories. They paid me homage, and when I told them what had to be done, they agreed. Not that there had been any doubt. My authority was total - they were too stupid to question it. Over the next several years, I led them on sorties to Vorti and its environs, getting them used to the lands outside the mountains. With each successful mission, their apprehension diminished.
     "The greatest advantage of Hwo's plan was its relative simplicity. I was to masquerade as Queen Joi of Vorti, capture the affections of Sor, then bear his child - the natural heir to the throne. That was the difficult part, the part that I didn't expect to succeed at. I never imagined that the depth of Sor's need for his dead wife would make him so vulnerable.
     "Lea's birth heralds the invasion. First, the dwarves are to attack and attempt to seize the city. That will come tonight. Whether they win or lose is irrelevant. Whichever force emerges victorious - Vorti's militia or the dwarf army - will be greatly depleted and no match for the full army of Tsab, which even now awaits the opportunity to sweep in an occupy whatever remains of the city. Hwo's intention is for Sor to die, either in battle or by my hand, and for me to take the throne as regent to the next king.
     "For a while, after I first arrived in Vorti, I maintained contact with representatives of both Tsab and the dwarves. We met covertly, and usually in the black of night after I had tainted Sor's before-bed ale with a sleeping draught so he would not awaken and find me gone. At one point, when I feared the seeress Meg might discover me to be a fraud, I arranged for a group of dwarves to kill her. They failed because of Sor's intervention, but Meg's death was unnecessary. She was unable to see me.
     "There is one problem, however, which no one could have foreseen some time between my wedding and the birth of my daughter, I fell in love with Sor. I suppose I was vulnerable, never having been the object of anyone's affections, but I found with Sor a life that I wanted.
     "Since my pregnancy, I have had no opportunity to make contact with the dwarf invasion force to abort the attack. Now, with only hours to spare, there may still be a chance, but I can do nothing confined to this bed. I must get down into the dungeons, where there are surely dwarves in hiding, and command a stop to the invasion. Only then can Vorti survive what is to come."
     Lora was stunned by the effrontery of her daughter's tale. Duplicity and betrayal she had expected from the moment she realized who the queen was, but never anything on this scale. It was frightening that such a complex web of deceit had been spun without anyone coming close to the truth. Mora was right. They were all gullible.
     She didn't know what to make of the queen's claim to want to stop the attack at this late stage. Mora seemed sincere, but she never would have gotten this far without being convincing with every lie.
     "Why wait until now to do this?" demanded Lora. "How can I be sure this is not a trap, a lure to keep me from telling Sor until it is too late?"
     "It's already too late. What could he do if you told him now? The dwarves are in position and ready to attack. I'm the only one who can stop the bloodshed."
     "What makes you sure the dwarves will listen to you?"
     "Because of who they think I am. If I tell the tribal elders to disperse and return to the Green Mountains, they'll march off without a word of protest. They're not here because they want to fight this war, but because the One Who Is Foretold commands them to do it. Without my prodding, they'd still be hiding in their tunnels."
     "Even if the dwarves stop, how can you be sure that Tsab will back off?"
     "Hwo will not send his forces if Vorti is at full strength. He's relying on the dwarves to decimate the city's militia."
     Lora considered. Everything Mora said was sensible, but the depth of her daughter's betrayal was not lost on her and she refused to be implicated as a co-conspirator. Yet if she went to Sor and told him the truth, how would those revelations affect the king?
     As if reading the elf's mind, Mora said, "If you go to Sor now, I'll fight you. It's your word against mine. You know he'll never believe you over me. He doesn't even like you."
     "But just a worm of doubt will be enough to get him thinking. And the baby with her elf features..."
     "Lora, we only have a few hours. I'm begging you to help me!"
     "All right, under the condition that as soon as this threat is over, you agree to go to Sor and tell him the truth about your origins."
     There was a moment of silence. Mora stared at her mother as if unable to believe what she had heard. Lora returned the gaze impassively.
     "Lora, you can't ask me that. I'm doing this to protect what I have with Sor, not to throw it away!"
     "I thought you were doing this because you love him."
     "I am, but..."
     "You can not place conditions on love. You must do this thing not to preserve the lies, but to save him."
     "Why must he be told? What does it matter? In the end, it will only cause hurt to both of us!"
     "He has a right to the truth. Had he known it before today, this crisis might have been averted without need of your last-minute intervention."
     "Lora, you don't understand what knowing the truth will do to him! His life has been a series of betrayals. His mother. His chancellors. His advisors. Over the past year, he has finally begun to live again. Would you take that away from him?"
     "He has a right to the truth," repeated Lora. "And the truth is that you have betrayed him as well. You claim to love your husband. Love sometimes demands sacrifice."
     "If I tell him, he'll hate me."
     "That is a risk you will have to take."
     "All right," said Mora finally. "I agree to your terms. As soon as the threat is over, I'll tell Sor the truth."
     "Then I will help you do this thing. How do you propose to get past the guards?"
     "Call the midwife to my bedside. Once she's here, hit her over the head with something. While she's unconscious, I'll take on her form and we can leave the room."
     "You want me to attack the midwife?"
     "Can you think of another way?"
     With a sigh of resignation, Lora went to the main door to the royal suite and asked one of the guards on duty to summon the queen's midwife.
* * *

     Deep in the lowest level of the palace dungeon, where the only sounds were the harsh rasp of prisoners' breathing, the occasional clanking of chains, and the persistent dripping of water, something began to stir in the shadows. The only sources of illumination were widely-spaced torches mounted in sconces, many of which were burned down to virtually nothing. Except at feeding time, which was once a day in the afternoon, there was no need for light.
      The two jailers, guards named Wag and Pli, sat throwing dice at a rickety wooden table near the long stone stairway leading up. Their duties were primarily ceremonial, since there was no way any of the prisoners could escape from their cells and no one ever came to visit the criminals incarcerated this deep in the dungeon. The nine men on this level were being kept alive because the king had determined that death was too easy a punishment for their crimes. Six of them had been here for more than a decade, spending each day confined in a six foot-by-six foot cell, rarely seeing light or hearing another human voice. Most of them looked little better than skeletons.
     Although Wag and Pli were expected to make hourly patrols of their level, they rarely did. In their view, there was no point, and it interrupted the flow of their dicing games. Had either of them been more attentive to their responsibilities, however, they might have survived the morning, or at least lived long enough to sound an alarm.
      The dwarves appeared out of nowhere, leaping from the shadows and making short work of the guards. Their finely-honed axes cleaved through flesh and bone alike, severing heads from necks and limbs from trunks. While four of the fifteen intruders began a meal, the others retrieved the single set of keys from Wag's body and proceeded down the hall, looking for the additional food they were certain was contained in the cells. The pickings there, however, were not as easy as they expected them to be.
     One of the prisoners in particular had been biding his time, waiting for an opportunity such as this to attain his freedom. He had been waiting ever since that long-ago day when Sor had returned from exile with a foreign army behind him, seized back the throne, and thrown him into the dungeon to rot. Through those long, lonely years, a single thought had sustained him - that he would one day kill the king of Vorti. He had nothing to lose; his own life could not have been of less value to him.
     Now, as the key turned in the lock of his cell door, his chance had arrived. He was weak from malnutrition and there were more than a dozen gibbering creatures between him and freedom, but the prisoner saw the odds as being in his favor. Hatred, after all, was a powerful equalizer.
     The first dwarf, expecting to find a victim as weak and half-dead as those in the other three cells it had opened, was unprepared for an attack. The prisoner had never seen a dwarf before, but the sight of the squat, misshapen creature caused him no distress. These things were just another obstacle to overcome.
     With a kick to the groin, he unbalanced the dwarf, then snatched the ax from its hands. Before it recovered, the prisoner had buried the weapon in its skull and was pulling it free, dripping blood. Outside the cell, chaos erupted as the creature's fellows realized what had happened. Armed, ready to kill, and scenting freedom, the prisoner plunged into their midst.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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