THE PRICE OF TERROR


PART ONE: THE PROPHET OF THE QUAG


CHAPTER ONE


     Flaz' Quag teemed with life, much of which was malignant. Even in the heart of winter, with the temperature across most of Devforth hovering near the freezing point, the land's southernmost swamp exuded an aura of warm, humid decay. Mosquitoes and other insects, fat on the blood of their animal victims, thrived here when the cold had killed off their brethren elsewhere. With its capricious footpaths and teeming winter vegetation, the Quag was like no other place in Devforth. For that reason, among many others, few humans ventured into it - and none emerged.
     One biped lifeform thrived in the rancid moistness of Flaz' Quag. With hides as tough as sun-hardened leather and constitutions that not even the most virulent sickness could conquer, the quatics were among Devforth's fiercest and most-feared races. Cousins to their mountain-bound kindred trolls, quatics were similar in form and temperament, but superior in intelligence. While trolls preferred the high, dry climate of Vorti's peaks, quatics prospered in the swamps.
     Legend had it that centuries ago quatics had freely roamed Devforth, raping and slaughtering as they saw fit, with little to impede their progress. No race on its own was strong enough to stop the quatics, and only the Confederation of Garvad - a desperate allegiance of elves, humans, and various crossbreeds - had driven the quatics back to the swamps. Since that time, the remnants of the once-powerful race had hidden away, sullen resentment festering like a sore.
     Following their defeat at the hands of Garvad's army, a change had come about in quatic society. Once a social race, the creatures became recluses, shunning contact with their own almost as zealously as they avoided other races. Small, closely-knit communities sprung up throughout the swamps, each interacting with the others only to trade females to keep the bloodlines from becoming stale.
     By the year 600, nearly four centuries after their cataclysmic defeat, the population of quatics had surpassed that of the time when they had been Devforth's dominant race. However, with no central leadership to band the creatures together, they posed little danger to the elves and humans who had once dreaded a quatic resurgence. Quatics kept to themselves, hidden away in their marshy dens, until 610 when Grundig the prophet announced himself.
     Born in 580, Grundig did not come into power in his own tribe until 603 when, at the age of 23, he killed his father, the previous chieftain. By right of combat, Grundig took over leadership of his people, inheriting his father's one-hundred fifty wives. Added to the sixty he already possessed, that gave Grundig over two-hundred mates capable of bearing him children. Since quatics measured wealth and prestige by the number of wives and children, Grundig was considered rich.
     Nearly three years after his elevation to the position of chieftain, Grundig revealed to his people the truth about his power. The disclosure not only raised his name to legendary status, but changed the fabric of quatic society. Since childhood and a violent sickness that had nearly killed him, Grundig had been aware of his abnormal abilities. However, not until the blood-rituals of adulthood when he had listened to the lessons of the elders had he realized what those abilities signaled. He, Grundig, son of the chieftain Zaab, was an Apath, a user of magic - the first in the history of his race.
     Magic, he learned, was one of four energies, the other three being emotion, electricity, and lifeforce. Since energy could neither be created nor destroyed, but merely changed in form, and because magic did not exist naturally, it had to be transformed from one of the three other energies. Electricity and lifeforce were too potent and mysterious for any creature to dabble in, but a select few - those born as Apaths - could manipulate their own emotions, changing that energy into magic. The penalty was that every time an Apath used magic, he drained his emotional reserves. The amount of available power corresponded to the depth of the user's emotions, and emotion, once transformed, could not be replaced. Those who pushed themselves beyond the limits of their emotional reserves, invariably died.
     Grundig did not use his abilities often, but he had put on a spectacular display when proof of his claims was demanded by the doubters in his tribe. Since then, further use of magic had not been necessary. His reputation spread throughout Flaz' Quag and even to the distant Vorti Marsh. Quatics began to travel to Grundig to pay tribute. It was not until the year 610, however, that Grundig formulated a plan by which he could use his abilities and status to increase his power and prestige, as well as better the lot of his race.
     It was a cool afternoon when Grundig decided to put into action the first phase of his campaign. A low-hanging fog blanketed much of Flaz' Quag, including the hummock where Grundig's lair was located. Alone on this day, having dismissed those who normally served him, the self-proclaimed prophet of the quatics paced from one side of his strip of land to the other, mists eddying around his body as he moved.
     By quatic standards, Grundig was a powerfully handsome specimen, standing taller than a horse and weighing at least as much. His body was excessively muscled and his midsection lacked the customary bulge that characterized nearly every adult male quatic. Although his hairless skin, shaded blue-green and covered with a variety of knobby growths, scars, warts, and other assorted blemishes, was weathered and toughened, he nevertheless wore a suit of crude plate mail fashioned from the bones of some giant creature. Grundig didn't use a weapon, relying instead on the talons of his webbed, four-digited hands and feet. His face was elongated, with small, yellow pupiless eyes under a bony ridge from which a gigantic, three-nostriled nose sprouted. The lipless mouth below his nose was large and filled with dozens of blackened, rotting teeth that made Grundig's breath reek of decay.
     At the moment, Grundig was unsure of himself, an unnatural feeling for one of his boundless self-assurance. Never in his seven years of rule had any of his underlings seen him waver or falter. Had any of them witnessed his current state, they would have marveled at his uncertainty.
     The reason was the immensity of the task Grundig had set for himself. Having never faced a legitimate challenge, he had never been forced to consider failure. The result of every action Grundig had undertaken - even something as momentous as the killing of his father - had been assured. However, to attain the next level of power - a step demanded by his towering ambition - Grundig had to expose himself to risk. The secure life he led here, hidden safely within the bosom of his tribe in the reedy southern reaches of Flaz' Quag, had to be terminated. It was now necessary for Grundig to face the dangers of the unknown, including possible failure, physical injury, and even death.
     For quatics, humans and elves were the enemy. The stories of the atrocities committed by Garvad's army had been passed along from father to son and mother to daughter, a never-dying oral tradition to keep the race aware of who deserved their hatred. Women had been violated with swords and red-hot pokers, children spitted and roasted alive over blazing bonfires, and men trussed up and made free sport of. The Confederation had not been content merely to kill quatics. They had humiliated and brutalized them in every manner possible. War had become genocide, and quatics like Grundig did not forget.
     Grundig had never been outside of Flaz' Quag. It was not in the nature of quatics to be adventuresome - a tendency which Grundig would have to change for his aspirations to be achieved. Of course, the first obstacle to overcome was his personal fear of the unknown. He would have to investigate the outside world to see what unforeseen dangers it held for his kind. It was shortsighted and dangerous to make plans based on old stories and second-hand information.
     Although Grundig had never seen a human or an elf, he had once looked upon their bones. Based on their skeletons, they appeared to be puny creatures, and he wondered how an army of even superior numbers could have defeated his ancestors. They were no match for the might of quatics.
     Grundig did not know for how long he would be absent from the swamp. If all went well, it might be as short a span as a season. Adverse circumstances, however, could easily require more than a year's worth of travel and exploration. Grundig did not intend to inform his people of his departure. As a ruler, he was beholden to none. If the tribe had need of his leadership while he was away, they could turn to his firstborn son, the natural heir to his position, who was capable of ruling for a short period. The danger existed that Castabal might become too accustomed to the position, which would be unfortunate. Grundig would prefer that his first act upon returning to Flaz' Quag would not be the execution of his favorite child.
     The only map of Devforth possessed by Grundig was an old goatskin drawing that dated back to the time of the war. While its accuracy was in doubt, the basic representation of terrain was unlikely to have changed over a several-centuries span of time. Grundig intended to head west, into the Merk Woods, then toward the coast, where one of the great cities stood.
     It was not in the nature of quatics to collect possessions. So, other than the bone armor that adorned his body, the prophet of the quatics had nothing to bring with him on his trek. One of his greatest concerns was whether he would find food to sustain him outside the swamp, but he had eaten enough over the past weeks to store some excess away in case hunting was lean in the forest and beyond.
     Admittedly, Grundig would miss his wives during this excursion. Since his ascension to the position of chieftain, there had been few nights when he had not enjoyed the company of at least one of them, and now he was about to forsake such pleasures for an indefinite period. However, in the overall scheme of things, it was a small price to pay.
     Grundig's passing from the lands of his tribe went largely unnoticed, with the exception of a lone hunter he encountered near the marked perimeter. The quatic, an elderly and bloated creature whose name Grundig could not recall, executed a clumsy bow the chieftain ignored. Without a word or action to acknowledge the other's presence, he continued on, his attention already captured by the distant backdrop rising out of the mists - the splash of darkness and shadow that represented the Merk Woods.
     The forest was a place where elves dwelt. Legend had it that they enjoyed capering about in that gloomy place, and some of their larger settlements were built high above the earth, supported by the interlacing branches of the more prodigious trees. Having only seen the stunted specimens that dotted the marsh, Grundig found it impossible to accept the likelihood of a "tree city".
     Darkness was approaching as Grundig moved beyond the outskirts of the swamp, heading southwest. His ultimate goal was the city of Tsab, assuming it existed after all these years. Grundig felt that humans, because of their greater numbers, represented a more legitimate challenge than elves. He needed to observe his quarry in order to be prepared to move against them.
     To Grundig, the Merk Woods were a strange and frightening place. In the marshes, quatics were ferocious and fearless, but amidst the towering trees - behemoths that stretched over a hundred feet into the air - Grundig felt insignificant. The ground was carpeted with dead and decaying leaves and the quatic found it impossible to move silently. With each footstep, he expected to be confronted by the elves he imagined to be lurking about.
     It was a dark night, with the moon hidden behind a lowering bank of clouds. To the north, these would hold the promise of a steady snow. In the forest and its environs, however, the temperature was high enough that the precipitation would fall in the form of a cold rain. Grundig looked forward to this. As a creature of the marshes, he appreciated water in any form.
     The eyes of quatics were capable of seeing in darkness. As long as there was the faintest trace of light, Grundig could make out his surroundings. The world of the forest challenged him, however. On a night when even the stars were obscured, the only source of illumination came from insects with glowing abdomens.
     Initially, Grundig had intended to travel through the night and rest, when rest was needed, while the sun stood high in the sky. Given the difficulty of maneuvering through the forest's deepening gloom, not to mention the possibility that members of one of his race's ancient enemies could be close by, he decided to wait until early morning to continue his journey. So, resting his back against the bark of a gigantic tree, Grundig closed his eyes. He wouldn't sleep - quatics needed less than an hour's sleep every fortnight and Grundig had enjoyed nearly two hours of undisturbed slumber three nights ago.
     More than half the night had passed before Grundig was disturbed. The sound of a twig snapping close by caused his eyes to pop open. The blackness surrounding the quatic was nearly impenetrable, but Grundig could make out a thicket to his left, two-dozen strides away. It was likely that the noise had come from there.
     Tensing in anticipation of an attack, Grundig shifted his position so he could be on his feet instantly. He neither liked nor trusted this strange land of trees, and he suspected the elves, as denizens of the forest, had been watching him since he had first walked beneath the canopy of interlocking branches.
     Moments passed with no further indication of danger, but Grundig knew he had not imagined the sound. Unwilling to play pawn to tension and waiting, the quatic took action, springing upright and sprinting in the direction from which the noise had come. When he was less than two strides from the thicket, a large, hairy animal burst from cover, charging directly at him.
     Despite its obvious mass, it was a squat creature, low to the ground, with a pair of curved tusks and a large snout. Two beady eyes glared at Grundig as the beast lunged in his direction. Never one to refuse a challenge, and finding an opportunity to obtain food for a stomach already feeling empty, the quatic faced the onslaught squarely.
     The battle, such as it was, was short-lived and one-sided. Grundig had intelligence, agility, and strength on his side. It took little effort to avoid the first deadly thrust of the tusks. A powerful leap took the quatic over the beast. He then attacked from behind, slamming the creature to the ground and twisting its neck until the crack of bone signaled that the struggle was over.
     Accustomed to eating uncooked meat, Grundig wasted no time ripping off a leg and tearing into the bloody haunch with his teeth. By daybreak, he had devoured nearly all of the animal, leaving behind a carcass with little meat or sinew remaining for the carrion creatures to ingest.
     With the dawn of a new morning, Grundig resumed his trek through the Merk Woods. On this occasion, he experienced the sure sensation of unease that comes from being observed by unseen eyes. Whoever - or whatever - was watching, however, Grundig could not spy. The forest around him seemed as lifeless as ever.
     Shortly after noon, the size of the trees diminished, and their density thinned, as the Merk Woods became the Plains of Tsab. Unlike in the east, where the edge of the forest was distinct, the line here was blurred. Grundig was not certain where the Merk Woods ended and the Plains began.
     The quatic's first view of humans came shortly after his journey had moved from beneath the trees. Some distance to the north, a ten-wagon caravan was moving west, probably toward the city of Tsab. At this distance, Grundig couldn't distinguish individuals, so he didn't know how many he would have to battle if he chose to approach. Estimating that there would be at least one or two per wagon, that was more than he was willing to engage, at least until he had ascertained the relative strengths and weaknesses of these creatures. Grundig wanted his first encounter with humans to be with a small group - preferably only two or three.
     Although his knowledge of lands outside of the swamps was limited, Grundig guessed that the presence of such a large convoy likely meant there was a road to the north - something he wanted to avoid. So Grundig struck out to the southwest, angling away from the wagons. Eventually, he turned his footsteps directly west, knowing that if he reached the coast he had gone too far.
     As the afternoon wore on, clouds moved in rapidly, indicating the approach of a storm. It was cold out on these plains, far colder than in either the swamp or the forest, and Grundig's body was occasionally wracked by shivers. With temperatures as low as they were, any precipitation that fell was sure to come in the form of snow.
     At this time of the year, the days were short, and the building blackness to the west curtailed the span of daylight. Nevertheless, there was enough light for Grundig to travel for a short time after normal wayfarers would have halted. Eventually, however, even the quatic was forced to halt his progress, or risk losing his direction. Grundig settled down amidst the thigh-high grass as the first flakes of snow began to fall.
     Having never seen frozen precipitation, Grundig was at first fascinated by it - how if a flake fell on his tongue, it would melt into a tiny droplet of water. However, as the night matured and the temperature dropped, discomfort overcame fascination, and the quatic began to long for morning.
     The only evidence of dawn's approach was a lessening of the darkness of a bleak and forbidding sky. Clouds hung low to the earth, spitting forth fitful squalls of snow as frigid winds howled across the plains. Grundig, hugging his arms to his chest as he moved westward, searched vainly for shelter that was nowhere in sight. His feet were numb from treading through the three inches of snow that coated the ground, and his teeth were chattering.
     He was in no danger of dying, of course. Quatics were tough creatures, with bodies that could adapt to a variety of environments. But being able to survive and enjoying it were different things. It was possible to live and be miserable and, for Grundig, that was the case at this moment. It had been years since he had suffered this much. Thoughts of his warm swamp lair were like a pleasure long denied.
     Grundig came upon the coast before mid-day. The plains ran to the edge of a vertical cliff which dropped away over a hundred feet into a swirling surf below. The waters, stirred up by the violence of the storm at sea, crashed with a roar into the smoothed wall of rock at the base of the cliff. Awestruck, Grundig stared at the spectacle below him. For the past half-hour, he had heard the crashing of the waves, but had assumed it to be distant thunder.
     The snow had abated, but the frigidity of the air had not. If anything, it was colder now than it had been during the height of the storm. With the wind whipping off the sea, this promontory was unbearable. Grundig headed a distance inland, intending to make his way up the coast from a locale where it was less bitter.
     Night was approaching when the quatic was granted his first distant view of a human city. Even he, biased against the race as he was, could not help but be impressed. In the deepening twilight of a cloudy evening, much of Tsab was already alight, with lanterns hanging at regular intervals along the streets, and lights blazing through the unshuttered windows of every tavern, inn, and after-hours gathering place. From a distance, it was a place of enchantment, an edifice of stone and mortar set aglow by forces more potent and ancient than magic.
     Grundig looked down on Tsab from the apex of a gentle slope that led to the city from the south. He was still some distance away, so humans were too small for him to see. Nevertheless, their handiwork gave the quatic reason for concern. Creatures that could create such a majestic settlement were not without their abilities and, regardless of how puny their individual strengths might be, such a race would not be easy to overcome, even for a group as powerful as the quatics.
     It would not do for him to approach the city. That would be a mistake. Grundig could watch from afar, but it was mandatory that he remain hidden from Tsab. He needed to encounter representatives of humanity, but not in such mass quantities that they would overwhelm him. He had not come so far through such unpleasant circumstances without a plan. Now was the time to implement it.
     

* * *

     Red was an unusual hair color for a woman of Tsab, and Evi possessed it in abundance. Bright as the flames of a fire or the leaves on an autumn tree, her tresses cascaded over her shoulders and halfway down her back. Had they been straight, rather than curled, they would have reached to her waist. It had been a decade since, as a little girl fulfilling the perplexing wish of a dying father she adored, Evi had last allowed shears to touch her hair.
     Memories of her father brought tears to her eyes. A month ago, they would not have, but the recent death of her mother was a fresh wound, and memories served only to salt it. For the first time in her life, she was alone. This small farm, which had been owned by her family for three generations, was hers now. Only, aside from a little garden she kept in the spring and summer, she had little use for it. Evi did not know how to farm, and the man she was to have married had run off last summer with a local barmaid he had gotten with child. It was to have been his duty to keep the farm productive.
     Evi regarded herself in a looking glass. At twenty, she was growing too old to be considered a prime match, even with the land she would bring to a union. And those whose task it had been to find her a husband - her mother and father - were ashes scattered to the wind. Comeliness - and she was pretty in a reserved sort of way - was not enough to attract most men. Perhaps for a night in bed, but not for a lifetime commitment. The trouble was that Evi did not know what else a potential husband required. Her mother had been the keeper of that knowledge, but her unexpected death under the wheels of a runaway wagon had occurred before she could impart the truth to her only child.
     When spring arrived, Evi believed she could grow enough to ensure her survival. After all, she did not require much to eat and her parents had left her with a storehouse full of grain. Unfortunately, the land would lie fallow. At a time when so many across the countryside were starving, it seemed criminal to allow her seven acres to go unplanted, but there was no solution to the dilemma. Not unless she could find a husband before planting season, and since she almost never ventured into the city proper where she might meet someone, that seemed an unlikely possibility.
     Tonight was an unpleasant night outside and, despite the blaze burning brightly across the hearth and filling the main room with warmth, Evi shivered. Once, evenings like this had been pleasant, with her and her parents gathered around the fire, sipping mulled cider, singing songs, and telling stories. Now, however, being alone gave way to loneliness, and a certain foreboding of something dangerous approaching through the frigid darkness.
     Moving to close the shutters of the lone window, Evi paused to gaze south toward the city proper. Although officially falling under the jurisdiction of Tsab, the farm was removed from the crowded streets and byways of the inner city, situated a short hike northward, on the gradual slope of a gentle hillside.
     From here, all that could be seen was the distant glow of amalgamated lanterns and torches the provided the night light. As a result of reflections off the new snow, it was brighter tonight than on most evenings. Uncomforted by what she saw, Evi shuttered the window and went to sit by the fire.
     Until her mother's death, she had always seen a purpose to life, but now she was no longer sure. The blow of losing a prospective husband had not been difficult to bear until she had been left alone. Now it seemed like a tragedy. And what was the likelihood of her finding someone else, even if she went into town and campaigned, letting everyone know that she was the sole owner of a farm? In Tsab, men were hard to come by. The city had not recovered from the annihilation of its army fifteen years ago. Most of the able-bodied males over fourteen had died in battle. As a result, husbands were in demand. Wives, even those who owned substantial amounts of land, were not.
     Evi's father had been mortally wounded in that battle. He had struggled on living for three years after returning from the campaign in the East, but eventually complications from his injuries - which included a leg amputation - had claimed his life. Evi didn't remember him before he went off to war, but she would never forget the haunted look in his eyes after he returned. Even the mention of the word "dwarf" had been enough to cause him to go into a seizure.
     To this day, Evi didn't know whether she believed the cause for that war had been just or not. The king had claimed that Tsab was fulfilling its duty as the greatest city in Devforth by ridding its "sister city" of Vorti of a hated and belligerent ruler. The problem was, Sor of Vorti had been an Apath, and his magic had decimated the army sent to bring him down. Somehow, a force of dwarves, those hideous cave-dwelling gnomes, had become involved in the struggle. Factual details had never been made clear, although horror stories abounded. Now, fifteen years later, Sor was dead and buried, but the resentment between Vorti and Tsab smoldered as hotly as ever. The citizens of Tsab blamed their troubles on Vorti, and Evi was certain the reverse was also true.
     In retrospect, it was obvious that the attempt to force Sor's dethronement had been a catastrophic mistake, but at the time, there had been widespread support for the move. As a five-year old girl, Evi had seen rallies for the departing army, and recalled a fevered speech by some noble that called on Tsab to release Vorti from the oppression of its "demonic leader" so the city might change its status from an enemy of Tsab to an ally.
     It was odd that Vorti had never sent her army to Tsab after winning the war. Supposedly, the eastern city's forces had suffered minimal casualties, having used the dwarves to crush Tsab's men. Had Sor pressed his advantage, he could have flown the flag of Vorti from Tsab's palace within a fortnight. But he had kept his entire militia at home - or at least his successor had. Rumor was that the king had been killed in battle.
     As for Tsab's leader the architect of the humiliating defeat had been deposed by his son, then executed for treason. King Guc seemed not to share his father's desire for global conquest, but it was clear that, given an opportunity, he would relish another chance at bringing down Vorti. For all his talk about "amity" and "peaceful existence with our neighbors to the East," he was on the look-out for revenge.
     Beyond those simple truths, which were known to every citizen of Tsab, Evi paid little attention to politics, and even less now that she was by herself. There didn't seem to be any point worrying about what was happening in the world when she was so bewildered about what should happen on her farm. Perhaps she would do better to try to sell the land and move elsewhere. Or, if she couldn't get a fair price for it, to simply abandon it.
     Life away from the cities was becoming increasingly popular. Settlements were springing up all over the plains, from the Plains of Tsab to the Halcyon Meadows. Evi wondered if such a life would suit her. At least in a place like that, there would be a chance she could meet people, develop a few friendships. But the idea of leaving the house where she had lived her entire life was a daunting prospect. It might almost be easier to go on eking out an existence with the diminishing hope that some day something good might happen.
     Sitting cross-legged by the open hearth, Evi reached for the well-read book she spent her winter evenings with and opened it to the page she had marked. Books were rare things for common people to have, even among the small portion of Tsab's populace that could read. Not only were they difficult to find, but those few available in the markets often sold for such sums that only the richest of the nobility had the means to consider a purchase. Rumor had it that some cities of Devforth had places call libraries, where citizens could browse through books of their choosing. Given the situation in Tsab, Evi found that difficult to believe.
     The only book her family owned was called Tales of the World that Was. Passed down through generations on her mother's side of the family, it was thick, numbering nearly five-hundred pages, and contained fifty stories of Devforth of the past. Supposedly the facts behind each were true, but there was enough melodrama, romance, and heroism that Evi decided the details were fabricated. That didn't lessen her enjoyment, however. She had read each tale at least a dozen times - some many more - and she still found enjoyment in the simple act of turning the yellowing, well-fingered sheets of parchment.
     Evi had almost never learned to read. Her mother had known, but her father had been illiterate and hadn't wanted his daughter learning "all that gibberish" when she could be doing useful things on the farm. However, during the three-year convalescence leading up to his death, while he was bedridden, he had learned to read just to have something to do, and Evi had studied along with him.
     She hoped some day she might be able to buy another book or, failing that, a scroll or two. Tales of the World that Was were comfortable stories, but they no longer held any surprises. Evi knew a few of them by heart, like "The Knight's Challenge," about a valiant knight who died slaying a troll, and "The Swamp Beast," about a sad creature that roamed the marshes by moonlight. It would be exciting to read something new, something unlike those fifty accounts that were so familiar.
     The banging on the front door immediately captured Evi's attention. It sounded like someone knocking, only louder and rougher. And who would be all the way out here after dark when snow covered the paths and made traveling treacherous? No one visited her in good weather.
     The pounding came again, shaking the entire house, causing the china to jump on the table and the door to creak on its hinges. Whoever - or whatever - was outside was in earnest about coming in. Evi was not about to help, and was relieved that she kept the entrance locked and barred. It was a sturdy door; she doubted even the strongest man in the city could break it down.
     On the third try, the door exploded off its hinges, sending chips and splinters of wood everywhere as the bar that held it was snapped in half. Evi let out a shriek and took several steps away from the door, but the horrific sight that greeted her silhouetted in the entranceway froze her in her tracks, stilling a second scream deep in the recesses of her throat.
     
* * *

     Grundig's first reaction on seeing the human was one of surprise. Over the years, his mind had conjured images of his race's enemy, but none had resembled the living example before him. This creature was frail, with a head crowned by unruly orange-red tresses. Based on appearance and his limited experience with human bones, the quatic guessed this was a female.
     He was astonished that she neither screamed nor ran. This human merely stood in her place, one hand held over a gaping mouth.
     Bending over almost double, Grundig moved across the threshold and into the house. The distance from floor to ceiling was less than his height, so the quatic had to stoop once inside. Despite a healthy fire burning across the hearth, the room was chilly.
     For the first time since Grundig had burst open the door, the human moved, taking a tentative step backward and lowering her arm. Some unintelligible sounds came from her mouth. Although Grundig didn't understand the words, the tone was plain. Just because she had not run did not mean she wasn't frightened.
     Communication was going to be a problem, but for Grundig's goals to succeed, it would be necessary. He had come to this house prepared equally to kill or not, as circumstances dictated. Faced by this fragile human, he had decided upon the latter course, at least for the moment. In an attempt to convey his intentions, the quatic made some open-armed gestures that he hoped she would understand to mean he did not wish to harm her.
     Turning his back on the human, Grundig lifted the door and set it back in place. The hinges would have to be repaired, but at least in its present condition it would block out many of the wayward snow flakes being blown into the house by the night's cold wind.
     Acting as casual and non-threatening as possible, Grundig made his way to the fire and sat down cross-legged on the hard-packed dirt floor. The warmth from the flames felt good.
     The woman, who had been watching him warily, continued to follow his actions with her eyes while her body remained rooted to the spot. She attempted to say something but the words died in her throat.
     The tableau lasted for a surprisingly long time, with the quatic sitting silently by the fire while his unwilling hostess watched him with a mix of terror, confusion, and uncertainty.
     Finally, tentatively, she moved closer. Grundig paid little attention to her approach, convinced by now that she couldn't harm him. Noticing that the flames were beginning to fade, he reached over and plucked a faggot from a pile by the fireplace and added it to the blaze. Sparks and embers exploded up the chimney.
     The woman flinched at Grundig's sudden movement, but did not retreat. By now, she was within an arm's reach - his arm, at least - and appeared to be studying him intently. Some of the terror in her expression had been replaced by something else. Curiosity, perhaps?
     He gestured for her to sit facing him. After a moment's hesitation, she took a deep breath and lowered herself to the floor. Grundig continued to watch his companion casually, his amber eyes betraying no hostility. It was essential for his purposes that this human trust him. Not an easy thing considering the manner of his entrance.
     "Evi," she said, enunciating the word distinctly.
     Grundig cocked his head to one side, but betrayed no other reaction.
     "Evi," she repeated, indicating herself.
     Grundig grunted in response, rumbling his own name as he stabbed one finger at his chest. Evi nodded with satisfaction and, while pointing at him, repeated, "Grundig."
     This is what Grundig needed from the woman - communication and an understanding of her language. He was not foolish enough to believe that either would come easily, but he had planned a long absence from the swamps. At this point, mastering the manner of human speech was of primary importance, regardless of what sacrifices had to be made.
     
* * *

     Evi was frightened of her visitor - terrified might be a better word - but since the first moments following his explosion through her front door, she had never believed he intended to kill her. Had that been his goal, he would have done it quickly rather than surveying his surroundings, standing the door upright, and sitting down next to the fire.
     She didn't know what to think of the stranger. He was gargantuan compared to her, and of one of the races that humans identified as monsters, being either a quatic or a troll. Yet there was something majestic about him, an indefinable quality of nobility she had not noticed in any human. Anyone would be intimidated by a creature of Grundig's size, but mixed with Evi's fear was awe.
     Communication was a problem. Other than a few rudimentary gestures of universal meaning, they had no way of interacting. Evi had dozens of questions, but no way to ask them. It was disconcerting yet strangely exciting.
     This was like a page from her book coming to life. Never had she hoped to encounter something like Grundig. In fact, many humans had begun to dismiss tales of trolls and quatics as ancient myths and stories designed to frighten children, though few would venture into the swamps or mountains to demonstrate the truth of those beliefs. Evi, however, had never doubted.
     Normally by this hour, she would be in bed, but Grundig's arrival had chased away the weariness of the day. Instinctively, she knew that if she curled up and went to sleep, she would awaken unharmed in the morning, but she did not want to sleep for fear he would leave during the night, depriving her of an opportunity that would never come again. Perhaps he had simply come in to get out of the cold and snow. If so, he would be off again at first light.
     They passed the night in relative silence - talking would do them no good anyway. Evi did little things to facilitate Grundig's scrutiny of her, and he reciprocated. She spread her hands on the ground and doffed her sheepskin moccasins so he could see her five fingers and toes, which were slimmer and less knobby than his webbed digits. In an act of uncharacteristic brazenness, she opened the front of her shift so he could gaze upon her small breasts, then brushed back her hair so he could see her ears, with their flaps and lobes so unlike the small holes in the side of his head.
     The webs on his fingers and toes gave her a clue to his identity. Trolls and quatics, while related to each other, inhabited different terrain. With their tendencies to roam rocky promontories, trolls would not have developed webs. For creatures that lived in swamps, however, the webs could be useful. So, apparently, Evi's visitor was a quatic.
     Evi realized that most humans would be repulsed by the sight of Grundig, with his oddly colored skin and monstrous features, but she was fascinated. She did not think her visitor was attractive, but she had seen more terrible sights in her short life. The twisted, rotting body of a dead fox, with its stench and the sight of grubs feeding on the wasted flesh, had given her nightmares for weeks.
     By dawn, a subtle rapport had developed between them. As yet, Grundig had made no threatening moves and Evi had begun to relax. As the muddy light of the new day filtered in, she found herself stifling a yawn.
     As Evi rose and stretched, Grundig made a motion lifting a cupped hand to his mouth. Apparently, he was asking for something to eat or drink. She smiled and nodded, then headed for her kitchen. Moments later, she returned with a platter piled high with cured and dried meats, day-old bread, and aged cheese. Her next trip from the other room brought a flagon of watered-down wine and two mugs.
     As Grundig sampled the breakfast, sniffing at the strips of hard beef, Evi moved to the window and threw back the shutters. The day outside was brilliant, but only because of the glow of a bright white sky off the unsullied snow. The sun was still blanketed behind clouds, although no new flakes were falling.
     Grundig, nibbling on a chunk of hard bread, appeared defeated by the pitcher and mug. Designed for someone with smaller, five-digit hands, the wine-jug was difficult for him to grasp properly. With a chuckle, Evi came to his aid, pouring some of the pinkish liquid into both mugs, then showing Grundig how to drink. He had a little trouble with his cup but, using one hand, managed to lift it to his lips. He drained the contents in one gulp.
     Evi had to return to the kitchen and refill the platter twice more before her guest showed signs of being satisfied. He probably wasn't full, though. It would take a whole animal to accomplish that feat. Grundig also drank nearly two full pitchers of the wine, which amounted to a quarter of what was available in the house. Diluted as it was, even such a quantity wasn't enough to make an ordinary human drunk, but Evi wondered if quatics were susceptible to inebriation.
     She was surprised when, after eating, he stretched out on the floor instead of rising to leave. Oddly, she found herself pleased by this. Company - even that of a creature with which she could hardly communicate - was a welcome thing in this dreary house. If loneliness was a kind of madness, at least Grundig's presence gave her a period of sanity.
     He appeared only to be resting, not sleeping, and Evi recalled that Tales of the World that Was claimed many non-humans required minimal sleep. Nevertheless, after being up all night, she was tired, as her frequent yawns indicated. So, with minor misgivings, she stretched out on the floor near him and closed her eyes. Within moments, as she listened to his heavy, regular breathing, she realized she would probably sleep through most of the day. Her last thought before drifting off was that she hoped Grundig would be there when she awoke.


© 2006 James Berardinelli

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