THE PRICE OF MAGIC


PART FIVE: QUESTIONS OF LIFE


CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO


     Seeress and wizard, an unlikely pair to be sure, they arrived from the sky. The trip northward had been a dizzying one, with Wil's magic keeping them aloft since their middle-of-the-night departure from Falnora. Meg's return journey to Vorti took less than a quarter of the time it had taken her to seek out Wil's Halcyon Meadows village.
     When confronted with the situation in Vorti, Wil hadn't hesitated to accompany the seeress. Even if Lis had yet lived, his concern for Reg, Eya, and Lora would have been sufficient to persuade him to leave Falnora and break a decades-old promise never again to set foot within the border of the city of his birth. He cared little for Sor's fate, but, even after all these years, he felt a kinship with the men and women of Vorti.
     It was an understatement to say that Wil had been surprised by Meg's appearance at his door. Like everyone else in Devforth, he had heard rumors of the existence of seers - the only group of humans more rare and mystical than Apaths - but had never before met one. Meg's message had been simple and direct: Vorti was under siege and, without his help, the city would fall. Wil's preparations to leave took less than two hours. He handed over rulership to Gav before heading north with Meg.
     Now, as the pair of them alighted atop the palace walls amidst a group of startled guards, Wil found himself face-to-face with his old nemesis. Eya was there as well, but she appeared deep in a trance and oblivious to her surroundings. Sor was working magic, but his concentration was divided between whatever spell he was weaving and his environs.
     Wil's first impression of Sor was that he looked older than his physical age. The two Apaths had been born within months of each other, yet the king of Vorti looked like he was closing his second half-century of life, not beginning it. Sor's shoulders were slumped and his head was bowed. Weariness and grief had etched themselves into his features. Wil felt a flash of gratitude at the capricious whim of fate that had kept him from seizing the throne when the opportunity had presented itself all those years ago. The temptation had been there, but he had avoided it. Happiness was a rare thing. He had found it; Sor obviously had not.
     "Welcome back, Meg," said Sor, his voice hoarse and drawn. "I see you've brought a visitor with you." He nodded wordlessly to Wil. "You will find this is not the best time to visit the city of your birth. Technically, you shouldn't be here, but I'm in no position to protest your decision to break your exile. At this moment in time, such things have little meaning."
     "I came to help," said Wil. "Meg indicated that you could use another Apath. I owe a debt to Vorti. This is my opportunity to repay it."
     "As far as I remember, you owe this city nothing," said Sor. "With me at its helm, Vorti gave you little cause for joy and you were eager enough to quit it when I gave you the opportunity. Nevertheless, I'm grateful for the help. One of the three Apath defenders was killed during the night and neither Eya nor myself has much stamina left."
     "She's feeding you energy?" asked Wil. It was a logical question. He was one of the few people alive that was privy both to the questionable status of the king's magical reserves and the unique applications of magic which Eya had uncovered in Falnora.
     Sor raised an eyebrow. "You know about the process?"
     "I was there when the method was revealed. Since then, I've done some studies. Probably nothing on the level of her accomplishments, but I know it can be worked and that it takes a tremendous amount of physical and mental effort. If she pushes too hard, her heart will stop without her realizing what has happened."
     "The fate of this city rests of what she and I do. If it costs both our lives, we must die. If you want to help, take the load off her. Feed me enough energy to keep the spell going."
     "I've never done anything like this before," began Wil. He had expected Sor's need to be of a more conventional nature. He had not anticipated being called upon to attempt something he had barely experimented with. "Perhaps I could help you in whatever spell you're involved in..."
     "I have this under control. Besides, without additional energy, there's little more you could do with it."
     "But you're weak. I could take over the burden long enough for you to rest."
     "This spell has already undergone one transfer of control. It might not withstand a second one. I'm stronger than I look. As long as the energy is available, I'll do what I have to."
     "At what price?"
     "At whatever price is necessary."
     Turning to Meg, Sor said, "Seeress, I think you should go below. It isn't safe here. Mat's death points out how vulnerable we are. A few guards and a parapet are little defense against a well-thrown ax."
     Meg nodded. "Fare you well, King of Vorti. Many threads will be cut this day. I pray that the aid I have brought will be sufficient to assure that the thread of Vorti is not one." Escorted by a guard, she left the palace walls.
     During the exchange between Sor and Meg, Wil had moved to Eya's side. She was unresponsive to his gentle prodding.
     "She's had it," said Wil.
     "Then you must take her place. I'm going to need more energy soon. The last reserves she funneled to me are drying up. After that, I'll only have my own emotions to draw upon, and they run too shallow to be useful for long."
     "All right," agreed Wil with a sigh. He had come to help, never putting conditions on what he was willing to do. If this was how he was needed - if there was no other way - he had no choice. First, however, he had to be certain that Eya was out of danger.
     Wil slapped her hard across the face. The guard supporting her moved to stop a second blow, but a signal from Sor held him back. Wil struck twice more, each slap jerking Eya's head to one side. Blood oozed from a nostril and the corner of her mouth. It wasn't until the third hit that she stirred.
     When her eyes focused, the first thing she saw was Wil's face. Puzzlement creased her features. "Wil?"
     "Rest," he advised. "You almost let yourself go too far. Next time you should consider the dangers of what you attempt before trying it." Sound advice which he was about to ignore. If anything, Eya was more aware of the pitfalls of this process. He was walking into it blindly. Then again, if something went wrong, at least he could claim to have lived a full life. Eya was too young to die in circumstances like these.
     "Take her below," said Sor to the guard who supported her. "Put her in the infirmary with her brother. Give her warm broth to drink and see that she isn't disturbed."
     Wil nodded his approval. "What do you want me to do?"
     "Eya was skimming energy from the tides of emotion in the city. In her words, she was taking a little superficial emotion from everyone. I need you to siphon off that same energy and give it to me. Quickly."
     The effort of complying with the king's request was more difficult than Wil expected. He could readily understand why Eya had come so close to collapse. He had to be certain that he didn't allow himself to go that far, although he didn't have a choice. He was working blindly, with no concrete idea of what Sor was doing with the energy. It had something to do with containing the dwarves in the city, but, other than that, Wil was ignorant of the specifics. There hadn't been time for a briefing.
     For Sor, the circumstances were too dire to consider the oddity of his position, fighting back-to-back with a man who had once been considered his deadly enemy. The flow of Wil's energy was not as smooth as Eya's, but it was usable. Sor's greater concern was not Wil's aptitude, but how long his own strength would hold out. Even without draining his emotional reserves, the process of keeping the web intact was taxing his resources.
     Around mid-morning, a soldier came to the palace walls with an urgent message for His Majesty. Sor motioned the man over and listened to a report on events to the west. The army of Tsab had broken camp and was marching for Vorti. The king almost breathed a sigh of relief. Had Hwo's army waited another day to attack, Sor was sure there was no way the city could have held out. This way, the plan stood a chance of succeeding...if everything went right.
     After the courier had departed, Sor called one of the guards over to him. "Dispatch a message to the commanders, especially those in charge of the archers, that they should prepare for the second phase of the battle. Impress upon them that they are not to become involved until all the necessary conditions have been met - even if they see dwarves butchering humans from Tsab. This is a battle for the city, not a race war."
     Less than an hour later, another messenger approached Sor. "Your Majesty, a party of three riders approaches from the West under the banner of truce. They wish to parlay and discuss terms of our surrender."
     "Warn them off. Let them know that Vorti does not recognize the flag of truce. If they ignore the warnings, have them killed."
     "Your Majesty!" exclaimed the guard, horrified.
     Sor was not in an argumentative mood, nor did he feel compelled to explain himself to this man. "Do as you are commanded! Dismissed!"
     Predictably, however, the matter did not rest there. Shortly, Commander Orf himself arrived atop the palace walls, demanding to speak with the king.
     "I am led to believe that you have ordered the breaking of the flag of truce?"
     Sor, whose concentration was beginning to waver under the pressure of weariness, spared the irate head of the militia only a small portion of his attention. "My orders were to the point. The Tsabians are to be warned off. If they failed to heed the warning, they are to be shot down."
     "I cannot countenance such an action, Your Majesty."
     "You aren't being asked for permission or approval. Doesn't the commander of Vorti's army have better things to do in the middle of a battle?"
     "The breaking of the flag of truce is a most serious issue."
     "It will readily be apparent to any Tsabian entering Vorti that the battle with the dwarves is far from over. That's an impression we can't afford for them to have. They must be convinced that, though beaten, we are still defiant. It is what Hwo expects from us."
     "But the breaking of the flag..."
     "If the Tsabians are smart, they won't test whether we'll break it. Regardless, I expect my orders to be carried out, unless you wish to assume responsibility for Vorti's survival. Dismissed, Commander."
     As it happened, the trio from Tsab challenged the king's edict with predictable results. All three riders, along with their horses, were killed by archers one-hundred paces from the western boundary of the city. The Tsabian army was enraged by this action and a further message was sent ahead saying that as Vorti was unwilling to abide by standards of common decency in war, the forces of Tsab felt no need to do so either. Women - and children - were declared as fair game for whatever King Hwo's soldiers might want them for.
     From atop the palace walls, it was impossible to see the entrance of the well-ordered Tsabian forces into Vorti, but Sor noticed a sizable contingent of his men moving westward. They had been commanded to offer token resistance - the kind that might be expected from a badly depleted army weary from a debilitating battle. In actuality, little pretending was necessary.
     It was past noon when the battle between Tsab and Vorti was joined. Sor had to redouble his efforts at keeping the dwarves penned in. They had to remain ignorant of the situation until the moment arrived.
     "I've had it," said Wil as he collapsed to his hands and knees after feeding Sor a final burst of energy. "I can't give you any more." His breathing was labored.
     The king said nothing. He would have to make due with the energy at hand. If nothing delayed the Tsabians' progress, it might be enough, and Sor still had those last vestiges of his own emotions to bolster the energy fed to him by Wil.
     "Have the men fall back!" demanded Sor. "Let the Tsabians through!" A quick meeting of Hwo's army and the dwarves was mandatory. One of the guards turned and hurried from the walls to relay the message.
     Moments later, the advance group of Vorti's defenders fell back. The Tsabians marched after them, breastplates gleaming in the midday light and sun glinting off pikes and swords. The dwarves, held by Sor's spell, continued to mill around, unaware that they were about to become involved in a pitched battle.
     The soldiers of Vorti did their best to get out of the way of both invading forces, frequently seeking shelter on rooftops. The Tsabians, true to their statement to disregard common practices of war, butchered any members of Vorti's militia they captured, including those that threw down their weapons and surrendered. Women and children were dragged from houses and raped in the open.
     Sor reached the dregs of energy sent to him from Wil and began to burn up his own reserves. Through vision obscured by dancing black spots, he could see that the time was not yet ripe for releasing the spell. If he did it now, it was possible that the dwarves would recognize the peril of their position before they were committed, or they would become frightened by the daylight - part of Sor's spell simulated darkness for them.
     Sor was aware that someone was urging him to get down. Below, armed men flowed into the streets - the trained troops of Tsab. King Hwo's standard - a black-and-white tiger on a red background - fluttered in the stiff breeze as the trumpeteers heralded the arrival of the heart of Tsab's military.
     At a prearranged signal, Vorti's archers let loose a volley of arrows, peppering the front ranks of the human invaders. The Tsabian soldiers, unprepared for organized resistance, scurried for cover, breaking down doors to houses. While many of the initial missiles glances harmlessly off armor and helmets, several dozen injured and dead fell in Vorti's streets. It was then that Sor, with little emotion left to expend, released the spell.
     Chaos erupted as the Tsabians came face-to-face with the huge swarm of disconcerted dwarves. Initially, it was difficult to determine who was more confused - the humans, who had expected an easy invasion, or the dwarves, who had thought themselves to be roaming benighted, deserted streets. However, it didn't take more than a moment for the two sides to recover and begin the battle.
     Sor sat back and closed his eyes, willing the world to stop spinning. At least events had gone according to plan. The only way for Vorti to have a chance to survive the twin attacks was through a battle between the dwarves and the men of Tsab. Even now, the city's safety was not assured - the conflict could tear Vorti apart.
     Sor had little emotion remaining and less physical stamina. Burgeoning Apathy was close. He could feel its touch, but he no longer cared. Now that it had arrived, what was supposed to be the most dreaded possibility for wizards did not seem so horrible. In a strange way, it was peaceful - no more emotions fighting for control of Sor's heart and mind. The dearth of feeling gave rise to a clear and precise logic.
     In the streets, the violence of the clash was horrible to behold. Adding to the carnage created by the struggle between Tsabians and dwarves were the missiles flung into their midst by the rooftop archers. Occasionally, someone would set fire to a house to bring down a bowman, but most of the Tsabians were too preoccupied to give the men of Vorti much notice.
     The dead began to pile up. The Tsabians, with their vastly superior armor and weapons, were more than a match for the dwarves, but there were a lot of those creatures and their sheer numbers brought down foe after foe. A warrior who could fend off three or four dwarves with a sword and shield could do nothing when a dozen of them swarmed over him, pulled him to the ground, tore the weapon from his hands, and shredded his exposed flesh.
     Fires flared up all over Vorti, some set by the invaders, others products of bonfires raging out of control. There was nothing that could be done except let the blazes burn. Seeking shelter, humans and dwarves alike broke into houses, killing the inhabitants. All the while, the remnants of Vorti's army remained aloof, recognizing that premature action, while it might alleviate suffering, could lead to defeat.
     Wil was becoming aware of his surroundings. In the streets below, humans battled dwarves amidst a fierce cacophony of screams and howls. It was impossible to tell who was winning the swirling melee, only that the specter of death was busy. The stench of blood was thick in the air.
     If Vorti was to survive this double-pronged invasion, it would be a bitter victory. More than half the city was in ruins or aflame, and the civilian dead numbered close to a third of the population. Even though the city had changed greatly since Wil's last view of it, the damage being done today was painful to observe.
     Every time the commanders of the Tsabian army attempted to regroup their forces, the dwarves redoubled their attacks. The result was an uncontrolled battle where strategy and tactics played no part. Retreat was impossible for either side. Victory or death were the only alternatives, and whoever emerged standing would have to face the rested survivors of Vorti's militia.
     As the afternoon waned, the Tsabians' tactics became desperate. Humans always broke off engagements with nightfall, but the dwarves showed no inclination to do so. King Hwo's men, fighting from a defensive posture most of the afternoon, pressed forward the attack, tearing through the weakening dwarf positions with renewed vigor. At that moment, it became apparent who would emerge victorious.
     By an hour before sunset, the dwarves had been routed. As their numbers dwindled to a fraction of the force they had brought to Vorti, they broke and fled. The surviving three-hundred Tsabians had neither the will nor the desire to follow. All they wanted was to return home. The remnants of Vorti's militia, which outnumbered their invaders by one-third, had other intentions.
     Sor's objective had been plain from the beginning: whichever force won the battle between the dwarves and the humans was to be annihilated. No surrender would be accepted, no quarter given. The attackers had to be taught the lesson that aggression against Vorti would not be tolerated. The final, decisive phase of the battle was not made harder because the battered survivors were humans. The Tsabians had, during the day's activities, shown few characteristics to set them apart from the creatures they had fought.
     As soon as the men of Tsab realized that the cause was hopeless - that they could not take Vorti - they retreated. As the last ranks of King Hwo's depleted army headed west, a ragged cheer went up from Vorti's militia. Impossibly, the day had been won.
     From his vantage point atop the palace walls, however, the king was not satisfied. Turning to one of his three personal bodyguards, he demanded, "Take this message to Commander Orf: Have a sizable contingent follow the army of Tsab and eradicate what remains of them. I don't want Hwo to have that many men to start building a new army with."
     "But Your Majesty..."
     "Now! Every minute we delay makes the task that much harder!" The authority in Sor's voice was such that the guard, normally not cowed by his liege, scampered away.
     "Time to start rebuilding," said Wil, who had gotten to his feet to join Sor looking over the city as night fell.
     "Rebuilding...again. My whole reign has been a series of destructions and rebuilding. Hopefully the enemy has been put down for good."
     "For a generation at least," said Wil. "That's the minimum it will take Tsab to rebuild their army. Who knows what they'll try then. Not another alliance with dwarves, I wager."
     "By then, Hwo will be dead. So will I. Perhaps our successors will be better able to negotiate than we were. My father once said that there are some enmities that can be cured only by a succession. For him, it was the nobility. While he was alive, Vorti was divided in two."
     "You found a solution for that," said Wil, suppressing a shudder.
     Sor nodded. "It was a solution my father never could have enacted. Not just because he wasn't an Apath, but because his mind-set had become rigid where the nobles were concerned. For him, the struggle was always there. I think he would have been a little lost without it."
     "For you, it was Hwo?"
     "Hwo and the other cities, but mostly Hwo. I've had difficulties with Llam and Fels, but Tsab has always been openly hostile. Hwo has been scheming for decades how to bring me down. He was behind countless assassination attempts, prospective brides, and, as his coup de grace before this, Chancellor Til's rebellion."
     "Now you've ended Tsab's aggression."
     "Not really. I've disabled them, but the wound will fester. As it took me to find the solution to my father's greatest struggle, so it will take my successor to find the solution to this one."
     "Do you have an heir? I know Apaths are supposed to be sterile, but you already fathered one child..."
     "I have a daughter. She's part elf, but my blood is in her veins. Vorti has never had a queen before, but there shouldn't be any difficulty getting the people to accept her."
     "What about another child?"
     "My wife - my third queen - died yesterday. I will have no more wives and no additional children. Lea shall be my heir, and, if she survives to adulthood, the next ruler of Vorti."
     Wil nodded but said nothing. Sor had not mentioned, or acknowledged, Gav. For that he was grateful. He did not want the child he considered his own to become embroiled in Vorti's murky politics, especially where a succession was concerned.
     It was odd for them to be talking like this, considering the enmity which had once flourished between them. But that had all been years ago, part of a distant past. Since then, invisible bonds had drawn them together. Wil could sense a bizarre kinship. Two weary Apaths who had survived together despite the passage of time.
     "Why don't you go into the palace and see Reg and Eya. They can tell you everything. I'm too tired to start reciting long stories, and this is a very long one," said Sor.
     "And you, Your Majesty?"
     "I'm going to wait up here and watch the sun set."
     Wil did not mention that because of the encroaching clouds, there would be no visible sunset this evening.

* * *

     In the aftermath of the battle, a contingent of guards in the palace caught ex-Chancellor Til as he attempted to make his way to the top of the palace walls with the intent of killing the king. Til was filthy and emaciated, the result of years in a cell in Vorti's dungeons. As soon as his identity was verified, he was brought before Chancellor Jav, since the king had asked not to be disturbed.
     It had been years since Jav had seen his predecessor, and he was shocked at how little the twisted man resembled the person who had been condemned to live out the rest of his life below ground. Previously, Til had been haughty and defiant, the last of the Rels who had briefly usurped the throne. This man, aside from being physically broken, was bitter and vindictive. His single self-confessed goal was to destroy the king of Vorti.
     Little questioning was required to assure Jav of the man's guilt. Til boasted of how he had escaped from the dungeons during the dwarf attack, killing a number of the invaders in the process. After that, he had hidden in the palace cellars waiting for his opportunity to strike at the king. When the battle ended, it had seemed a perfect time to attack. Security around Sor might be lax and even an Apath would die from a knife through the heart. However, the guards had not been as indolent as Til had anticipated.
     Since taking the post of chancellor, Jav had disagreed with Sor's policy on Til, but the king had insisted that keeping the man alive, detained deep in the dungeon, was a worse punishment than death. Jav's concern had been that a man ceased being a danger only when he was dead. In this instance, at least, he had been proven correct. It was obvious from Til's description of his escape that, although unaware of it, he had killed Queen Joi.
     Jav pronounced a death sentence on Til and called one of the guards to carry it out immediately. Technically, it was not within the chancellor's powers to order such a punishment - that was normally the king's exclusive province - but, given the circumstances, no one was about to question Jav's authority. Sor would not be pleased when he learned about it, but Jav felt that he had a strong enough case to mollify the king's displeasure.
     Kicking at his captors with stick-thin legs and spewing curses, Til was dragged bodily from the throne room and quickly beheaded in the small courtyard between the main entrance to the palace and its walls. The assembled crowd for the execution was small - most people were busy cleaning up from the invasion - but, as always, there were curious onlookers. Few knew who the criminal was, or what he had been charged with.
     It was at that moment that the great bell of Vorti began to toll, announcing the death of Queen Joi.
* * *

     It was nearly midnight when Eya went looking for Sor. Fully recovered from the draining weariness which had incapacitated her, she intended to inquire whether the king wanted her help in regaining some of his lost emotion. While that process was another experiment she had only briefly tinkered with, it was a minor variation on what she had already accomplished, and she felt it could be done with little effort and less danger. Wil had confided to her that Sor had plundered his reserves to keep the plan from collapsing at the last moment.
     Eya had been overjoyed to see Wil, but the happiness of the reunion had been short-lived. Telling Wil of Lora's death had sobered the situation. It was difficult to maintain a sense of levity amidst so much destruction and pain. After Reg, Eya, Bre, and Wil had spent hours discussing everything from the ramifications of Vorti's victory to the simple goings-on in Falnora, Eya had excused herself to go in search of the king.
     Sor was not an easy man to find, even though there was no place in the palace where Eya was not allowed. He was not in his quarters, nor in the throne room, nor in the little throne room, nor in the small chamber where his wife's body had been laid out. She searched the palace room-by-room until one of the guards told her that the king was atop the walls, watching as the city recuperated from the blow it had been dealt.
     Eya found Sor's three bodyguards at the base of the stairs, rather than on top with him. When she asked Urt, their leader, about it, he said that the king had asked to be left alone. Because of her unique stature, however, they permitted her to pass - an honor that might not have been accorded even to the chancellor.
     It was dark atop the walls. Several lanterns had been lit but otherwise only the distant flickering fires of the city provided illumination. Clouds had filled up the sky, blocking out the moon and stars and promising rain within the next few hours. At least a downpour would help to put out the more stubborn and persistent of Vorti's blazes.
     At first, Eya didn't see Sor, then she noticed him kneeling against the parapet, his head bent as he gazed into the streets below. He was as still and silent as the night, and Eya wondered how much of his emotional reserves he had expended this afternoon.
     "Your Majesty?" she asked, approaching him.
     The moment Eya laid a hand on the king's shoulder, she knew he was dead. Kneeling by the edge, kept from toppling to the square below by the chest-high wall, Sor had bowed his head, closed his eyes, and passed beyond this life. On his face was an expression of serene repose the likes of which she had never seen there before. Death, while lifting the tremendous burden of kingship from his shoulders, had stripped away the years, leaving him as he might have appeared had he lived a less demanding life.
     She brushed a hand against his weathered cheek. The flesh was warm and pliant, but growing colder. He had not been dead more than an hour, but it had been long enough that no known method of resuscitation could bring him back. Sor's dismissal of the guards indicated that he had expected, and perhaps wanted, this. It was impossible to tell whether this was the result of Burgeoning Apathy, or whether the events of the day had placed too much stress on the body of an aging man who had lost his beloved wife.
     Eya knelt beside Sor and studied him for what would be the last time. He didn't look like a legend, but this was the man who was known from coast to coast as the first Apath king, the man who had dared to take on the nobility and sweep away class distinctions from his city. And, on this, his final day of life, he had commanded an army that had won an impossible triumph. Bards would sing the song of this battle for centuries to come, about the wizard king who had led his people to victory against two armies, giving his life in the process. No doubt the sagas would claim that Sor had fallen in battle, but no amount of embellishment could change the look of peace that would mask his features for the thousands filing past his bier over the next few days.
     Less than an hour later, the timber of the tolling bells changed to announce the passing of Sor, Apath king of Vorti.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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