THE PRICE OF TERROR


PART ONE: THE PROPHET OF THE QUAG


CHAPTER FOUR


     Midwinter's Day dawned clear, bright, and cold. The fountain in the palace gardens had frozen solid overnight, as had the surfaces of many of the city's drinking wells, causing men and women with torches to venture out early to burn off the icy skim. The breaths of those so laboring in the early morning hours streamed through the air as white plumes, and only those required by duty remained outside longer than was necessary.
     Inside the palace, the servants had been busy all night, stoking fires to keep the many important guests comfortable in their sleep. No less than forty visiting dignitaries were present, including the leaders of all five of Devforth's other cities, and of three of the four major settlements: Knex, Torg, and Falnora. An invitation had been sent to Hons, but there had been no response, nor had a representative from that isolationist village appeared in advance for today's ceremony.
     Even though the coronation was scheduled for high noon, Lea was up before sunrise, pacing her carpeted chamber. Despite the hearty blaze burning across the hearth, the room was chilly, and she had to wear a woolen shawl over her sleeping dress to keep from shivering. In her brief fifteen year life, the soon-to-be-crowned queen could not remember such a frigid morning. Of course, it was rare that she was up so early. Normally, her day started several hours later, when Eya came to rouse her.
     While the windy cold was not ideal weather for the day's activities, especially the parade through the city streets, at least it wasn't snowing. One of her weather readers had claimed it was too cold to snow. Whether that was true or not, Lea was glad the sun would shine upon her this day. Foul weather would have been a bad omen, and Lea was superstitious.
     Placing her hand against the chilly pane of one of the windows, she wiped away the condensation and looked outside. The night watch was proceeding through the city extinguishing lanterns, and a few early-risers were rushing to the wells, bundled in woolen garments and animal furs. No one stopped or spoke, as they might at some warmer time, and it hardly looked like the beginning of one of the decade's most festive occasions. But Lea knew not even these conditions would keep people from toasting to her reign as they gathered in taverns at the close of the day, especially since the first round was on the Crown.
     Over the past three days, Lea had been introduced to her fellow rulers of Devforth, and had formed opinions about them. Siv, the elderly king of Llam, seemed to be a sweet old man and, after spending the better part of an afternoon speaking with the grandfatherly ruler, Lea was unable to fathom how such a chasm had developed in the relationship between the two cities. On the other hand, it was easier to understand why Vorti and Fels were not on best terms, at least judging by that city's leader. King Yax, although easily as old at Siv, was of a nastier temperament. Lea wondered how she would be able to sit across a table with the Felsian ruler and negotiate the treaties her advisors told her must be hammered out.
     Queen Mia of Xert was gracious but cool in expressing her wishes that Lea would have a happy and prosperous reign. Nom of Merk, the youngest of the rulers besides Vorti's queen, was enthusiastic and bubbly, but obviously self-centered. It seemed every other sentence he spoke used "I" as the subject.
     The leaders of the settlements were more subdued than those of the cities. Mayor Bru of Knex said little but wore a perpetually sour expression that told Lea as plainly as any words he disapproved of the ostentatious display being put on for the coronation. The town council of Torg had sent a youthful and handsome representative who had spent the better part of his two days flirting with the maids. Falnora, Vorti's nearest neighbor, had sent Gav, their titular ruler and the son of Chancellor Wil.
     Then there was Guc, who had been in the city for two weeks. Since his arrival to beg forgiveness for the attack on Reg, he and Lea had spent time together as they attempted to foster a better mutual understanding between the two cities. At last there seemed to be hope the ages-old hostility between Vorti and Tsab might be coming to an end, for it seemed impossible two communities could war when the leaders genuinely liked each other. And Lea was fast coming to enjoy being with Guc. He was charming, gallant, and amusing, and she found his company a refreshing change from many of the serious men and women who populated her Court.
     Today, however, there would be little time for Guc, or any other personal business, for that matter. Eya had said the coronation would be like a wedding, and Lea wondered if all brides were this nervous. She hoped when the time came, she wouldn't forget the formula she was expected to recite, and she figured if she could get through today, the rest of her reign would be less intimidating.
     

* * *

     "You're here early," said Eya, opening her chamber's door to admit her brother. Outside, the sun had barely emerged from beneath the horizon.
     "I couldn't sleep," said Reg. "Are you...?" He left the question unfinished, but cast a significant glance in the direction of his sister's bedroom.
     Eya laughed. "Alone? Yes. Neither Wil nor I was up to it last night, so we spent the night apart. We prefer separate beds if we're not going to do something."
     Reg doffed his multiple cloaks and hurried over to the fire to warm himself. "It's damn cold out there. The parade through the streets is going to be an ordeal."
     "Lea's hearty; she'll be able to endure it. Besides, I'm going to make rare use of my talents to keep her a little warmer than she might otherwise be. Not enough so she'll notice it, but at least it will make things bearable. I have to be out there as well, remember."
     "Coronation Day at last," mused Reg. "There were times I thought we'd never get to this point. Are you going to miss the throne?"
     "No," said Eya. "I admit there are some unique perks to ruling a city, but the headaches are more than they're worth. It will be nice to be just a citizen again."
     "You'll never be 'just' a citizen."
     "I can pretend."
     "Well, you're welcome to visit my home whenever you need to get away from the palace. As soon as her father goes back to Falnora, Bre will have the guest room ready for you. And the children would love for their Aunt Eya to spend the night."
     "Speaking of your children, how is Sor dealing with his recent rejection?" From birth, it had been envisioned that Reg's eldest-born, a boy named after the late king, would be a perfect match for Lea. And while Sor had been in favor of the potential union, Lea's emotions had run no deeper than friendship. A week ago, when Sor had come close to an informal proposal, she had decided to make it clear there would be no marriage between them.
     "He was hurt at first," acknowledged Reg. "But he's resilient, already bouncing back. I think he was more stunned than hurt. The rest of us had an inkling this was coming, but it took Sor by surprise. He believed Lea loved him."
     "So much for our best-laid plans. But the thought of who Lea may choose scares me. She won't admit it, but I know she's infatuated with Guc, and it's no secret he's looking for a wife. What a catch she would make!"
     "Don't you think you're being premature? They've only known each other for two weeks. Besides, would it be all that bad if they married? The two cities would be wedded as closely as their rulers, and that would ensure peace."
     "It would be a brilliant idea, if I felt I could trust Guc."
     "The point is, with two Apaths at Lea's side, you don't have to trust him. Together, you and Wil are all the insurance she needs. Just make sure you don't alienate our queen by opposing a match if it comes to pass. She's not going to take kindly to interference any more than you did when Jav commented upon your relationship with Wil."
     Eya grimaced at the memory. The event had taken place several years ago when Jav had been uncharacteristically blunt about her sleeping with the chancellor, calling it "inappropriate" and "unwise." Using her Apath's powers, Eya had let him know the worth she attributed to that opinion. Fortunately, the little pyrotechnic explosion had not seriously injured him.
     "I see your point," she said.
     "What's this I hear about something unusual happening at the Coronation? There's a lot of hush-hush speculation, but I haven't been able to find out anything concrete."
     "You know how people like to talk."
     "Somehow I got the impression this was more than idle gossip."
     "I suppose there's something unique about every coronation. Vorti hasn't seen a real one since long before you and I were born, when Sor took over from his father."
     "If you don't want to tell me, just say so."
     "Actually, I'd love to tell you, if I knew what it was. But this is Wil's little surprise, and he's being secretive about it."
     As if on cue, there was a knock on the door. "I bet that's him now," said Eya. "It's too early for Lea."
     Sure enough, the Regent opened the door to reveal the smiling features of Wil. Already dressed in his full robes of state, he looked ready to participate in the ceremony immediately.
     "Good morning to you both," said Wil. To Eya, he added, "And where are your guards this morning?"
     Eya shrugged. "I sent them on an extended break."
     "It's not a good example for young Lea. We're trying to encourage vigilance in the palace, and you leave your chambers unprotected. You would have a fit if she did that."
     "She isn't an Apath, and I didn't send them away permanently, just to get something to eat. Besides, I have Reg to protect me."
     "You're a stubborn woman," sighed Wil.
     "Yes, but you wouldn't want me any other way," replied Eya, leaning over to give her lover an affectionate kiss on the cheek.
     Turning to Eya's twin, Wil said, "I guess you couldn't sleep, either."
     "It's a big day. I doubt anyone involved in this ceremony got much sleep - even Lea, who's known for late mornings."
     "I did," noted Wil with a smile. "Reg, are you here for moral support, or to work?"
     "Both, I suppose. If you need an extra pair of hands, that is."
     "My boy, we can always use an extra pair of hands. Three hours from now, with all I'll have you doing, you may wish you'd stayed in bed with your lovely wife."
     "I'm used to hard work, as well you know. After all, that's your old farm my family is working."
     "All right, let's get busy. We have a queen to crown."
     
* * *

     Although the robes of state tradition dictated Lea had to wear were old and unflattering, they were the perfect attire for a morning as cold as this one. From this day forward, she would be expected to wear "official" apparel to all public and semi-public functions, but those would come from a series newly designed for Vorti's queen, using different patterns than those favored by King Sor and his father.
     The coronation robes were another thing altogether. These heavy turquoise garments were the same worn by the past two rulers of Vorti. Slipping them on, Lea could sense living history around her. How had her father felt fifty-three years ago when he had worn these to stand before the assembled nobles and common people just days after consigning his dead father's body to a pyre? And what had it been like for Kan, nearly one-hundred years ago, when he had stood before the people as their choice for ruler following the bloody ouster of Rel XVI?
     "Are you ready, Your Majesty?" asked Wil, the only one in the small room with Lea. He would accompany her down the corridor to the audience hall, then up the aisle to the empty throne by which Eya stood, ready to relinquish her power. The crown of Vorti, which had been reworked during the recent regency, would be waiting. The ceremony would be brief, and at its conclusion, the queen would assume the throne and her position in history.
     "No," confessed Lea with a lopsided smile, responding to the Apath's question. "I'm scared."
     "That's only natural, but it's something you have to go through. By now, you've rehearsed enough that you can't possibly mess things up."
     Lea gave the chancellor a dubious look. Her words were tinged with a trace of panic. "I've forgotten everything."
     "When the time comes, you'll remember. I'll see to it, even if I have to use magic. Now let's go show the people the mettle of their new ruler."
     As expected, the audience hall was full. In addition to the visiting dignitaries from across Devforth and the fifty-five knights of the queen's personal guard, some one-hundred fifty citizens of Vorti had been permitted inside on a purely first come, first served basis. Most of those in attendance had been waiting for admittance since last night, standing outside through the small hours of the morning in the bitter cold. Such was the loyalty of some to their new queen.
     At Lea's entrance, everyone rose, and remained silently standing as she and Wil made their way up the red-carpeted aisle. The throne loomed ahead, the crown resting on its seat, with Eya by its side. In all her years as acting ruler, the Regent had never sat there, although many had claimed it to be her right. Her response had always been that the throne, like the crown, was for the queen alone.
     When Lea reached the front of the audience hall, she knelt before Eya. Everyone in the vast chamber followed her lead, except the two who would supervise the ritual. Wil joined the woman he had served for the past fifteen years in front of the one he hoped to serve for the rest of his natural life, and together they began the ceremony which would finally, officially elevate her to the rank for which she had been born.
     "All you who are gathered here this day, bear witness to the transfer of power from the one who has held it in stewardship to the one to whom it rightfully belongs," said Eya, reciting a formula that was as old as the tradition of regency, her magically amplified voice carrying the softly spoken words to every corner of the room. "I do hearby give up all claims to dominion over the city of Vorti, and ask that the chancellor bear witness that the one to whom these rights pass has attained the age of majority and is worthy of them."
     "The one who stands before us is Lea, sole heir to our late beloved King Sor. Fifteen years and fifty-eight days ago, she came into this world, her parentage undisputed. She has learned what she needs to know and is worthy of the position in which she is to be installed," stated Wil.
     At these words, Eya extended her right hand to the chancellor, who removed the ring of state from her middle finger. Its huge ruby glinted with inner fire. "By this action, let it be known that you, Eya of Vorti, former Regent of Lea, have yielded your guardianship. May the rest of your life be happy and prosperous in service to your new liege."
     "I do hearby yield," said Eya, kneeling beside Lea.
     "Rise, Lea of Vorti, and accept your father's legacy."
     Lea rose to take the proffered ring, which Wil slipped onto her index finger. The chancellor then also knelt, leaving the queen the only one standing. Every eye in the room was fixed on her.
     Lea didn't know if magic was involved, but as promised, the words were clear in her mind. "I, Lea daughter of Sor, do accept both this crown and the responsibility which accompanies it. I vow to do all within my power to protect and nurture this city, and to keep faith with the principles established by my father and his father before him. Until death takes me from this life, I swear to devote myself to the service of Vorti and her people."
     Reaching forward, Lea lifted the crown from where it rested then, as she ascended the two steps to the dais, placed it upon her own head.
     As she sat upon the throne, Wil's voice rang out, "All hail Her Majesty Lea, Queen of Vorti!" Two-hundred fifty voices echoed the chancellor's, a thunderous chorus, and the fifty-five swords of Lea's personal guard were raised in salute.
     Normally, after a final word from the chancellor, the ceremony would end, but Wil had plans for one final facet to the changeover of power. Concentrating, he let himself slip into the easy trance-like state that preceded an act of magic.
     Of all those gathered in the hall, only Eya noticed the chancellor's state. Within seconds, however, as the stained-glass windows in the hall began to darken and the light dimmed, everyone became aware that something unusual was happening. The thirty lighted lanterns winked out simultaneously, although the blazing fire behind the throne remained lit. A murmur rose from the assembled audience.
     An image began to form out of the fading light, its misty profile gathering shape from the insubstantial air. At first, it was amorphous, but gradually it took on the appearance of a man, and, as its features became apparent, few in the room were left in doubt of who it was meant to be.
     The specter never became corporeal, and the fire burning behind it could be seen through its translucent body, but this King Sor was more real than the statues and paintings that had been created before and after his death. The King was not a large man, but the oversized turquoise robes, twin to those worn by his daughter, hid the smallness of his frame. His wavy blond hair, neatly cropped near his shoulders, showed none of the silver it had acquired in his later years, and his youthful features were unblemished by age. The image of Sor sported a thin mustache but no beard. The gaze of his emerald eyes was clear as he looked fondly upon his daughter, who now had tears running down her cheeks.
     With that, Wil released his concentration, bidding the image to dissipate and the hall return to normal. Neither happened however, even when the gentle trickle of magic ceased. No one saw the Apath's look of alarm, since Sor's apparition had everyone's attention. And then it did something Wil had never intended - it spoke.
     The image's voice was a cross between that of Sor and a ghost - having the king's inflection and timber, but with a more hollow quality. An invisible wind seemed to envelop each word, chilling those in the audience.
     "Peace be to you, People of Vorti, and greetings, Daughter, on this most auspicious of days. It gladdens my heart to see that those who would thwart you have not succeeded in preventing this moment. Vorti is my legacy to you. Cherish and keep her well. You may not have my abilities to use in her service, but your own limits have not yet been tested.
     "Beware, however, Queen Lea, for a new and more dangerous foe is soon to rise from the quags and marshes. Even now, he stalks Devforth, preparing to unleash a cataclysm that not even you and all your advisors may be able to stop. Before his advance, petty human quarrels shall be swept away like chaff in a gale. Remember these words, and seek him ere it is too late.
     "Now fare you well, my beloved child, until next we meet, in this life or the next."
     Having delivered his message, Sor's image dissolved, fading away as the light gradually returned to the audience hall. Even when the torches had winked alight and all was as it had been before the ghostly appearance, no one dared to move or make a sound until Lea, who had fallen to her knees during her father's short speech, rose and cleared her throat.
     "By all that has happened this morning," she began, her voice initially unsteady but gaining strength and authority with each word, "I am now your queen, and thus do I command each of you: Go in peace, love one another, and celebrate this happy day."
     "The ceremony is ended," said Wil, his own voice not as strong as he might have wished it to be.
     Even dismissed as they were, it took a long time before the men and women in the audience chamber began to file out the exit, awe holding them rooted to the spot even once the double-doors at the rear of the hall were opened. Finally, after one elderly man started hobbling out, the spell was broken and people bestirred themselves to leave, but the exodus was slow and stately, with almost no talking, and little of the pushing and shoving that typically characterized such events.
     
* * *

     "That was very impressive," said Eya to Wil as they entered Lea's informal audience chamber, the "little throne room," to make sure all was in readiness for a number of closed audiences that the new queen was scheduled to have this afternoon.
     The chancellor, whose mood was abnormally subdued, even for one as stoic as him, nodded his agreement. "Yes, it was. Very impressive. I wish I knew who was responsible for it."
     At that comment, Eya looked startled. "You mean it wasn't you? That wasn't your big surprise?"
     "Yes and no," said Wil. "I'm not really sure what went wrong...or right, depending on your point of view. My intention had been to conjure an image of Sor, but when I released my control and bade it to dissipate, it took on a...life...of its own. At this point, I'm no longer sure it was my conjuration that formed it. Maybe it was using the magic as a channel to facilitate its appearance."
     "You think you may have summoned something?" gasped Eya. "Sor's ghost?"
     Wil shrugged. "I don't understand it any more than you do. But unless there was someone else in that hall working magic, that image was acting under its own power. I cut off the energy before it spoke, so every word of that speech came from some agent other than me."
     "You mean that warning - the one about a threat from the swamps - might have been genuine?"
     "All I can say is it didn't originate from me. And one other thing: my intention had been to darken the room by blocking off the windows, not eclipsing the sun, which is what happened. The whole city - and for all I know, the whole world - was plunged into darkness. As an Apath, you know how much energy an act like that would cost."
     "Far more than surface emotions, which is all anyone would be willing to expend on such a presentation."
     "That doesn't leave us with many alternatives. It's a damn shame Meg turned down the invitation to attend the coronation. It would have been enlightening to know what she could make of that."
     Meg, Vorti's resident seeress, rarely ventured out of her small home near the city's northern border, especially during the winter. Her official reason for declining the invitation had been a mild illness, which might or might not have been true. Seeresses were required to justify their actions to no one. Even more so than Apaths, they were outside the law.
     "Maybe we should pay her a visit," said Eya. "If the city was eclipsed and it had to do with what we witnessed, maybe she noticed something."
     Wil nodded. Lea's coronation parade was expected to begin around noon, with the afternoon audiences following immediately after. While Eya's presence was expected for both events, Wil was supposed to be in attendance only for Lea's reception of Devforth's other leaders. The dignity of his position allowed him to skip the frivolity of the parade. As a result, he had a few hours free.
     "While you and Lea are riding around the city, I'll see Meg."
     "Now? Today?"
     "There's no reason to procrastinate, and it's better to check while the recollection is fresh. I wouldn't venture out into this cold if I didn't think it was important to do right away."
     "I hoped to go with you," said Eya.
     "Despite her sneaking fondness for you, I'm sure she'll answer my questions as readily as she'd answer yours."
     Further discussion was interrupted by the entrance of the queen, accompanied by three hand-picked guards. Eya and Wil executed bows, but Lea waved off the courtesy. Her face was flushed and her manner animated.
     "Everyone is talking about it," she began without preamble. "They say that I'm especially favored to have the honored dead attend my coronation!"
     The two Apaths exchanged glances. "We're not sure that's what it was, Your Majesty," said Wil.
     "What else could it be? Unless one of you used magic..." Lea's eyes narrowed suspiciously as she viewed her two advisors.
     "Neither of us caused His Majesty's unexpected speech," said Eya, skirting the truth. Mentioning Wil's involvement would only needlessly complicate matters, especially if the apparition turned out to be genuine. "The darkening of the sun would have demanded far too much energy."
     "That's another thing! The people are saying it's a sign, that the sun itself was doing homage to me. Do you think they're right?"
     "Symbolic it may be," said Wil. "But the sun is an object in the heavens, like the stars. It has no will and is incapable of doing homage to anyone, Queen or other."
     "Is the parade ready to begin?" asked Eya.
     "Soon. I came to get you. Jav said the people are jamming the streets already, despite the cold. He thinks we're going to be outside longer than originally anticipated."
     That notion didn't please Eya. Even using magic to keep herself and the queen warm, it was going to be unpleasant. The bitingly cold wind that was howling through Vorti's streets would require a major working to thwart. With the tedium of official audiences to follow the parade, this afternoon was going to turn into an endurance contest. Eya wondered how long it would be before Lea's boundless enthusiasm began to flag.
     "Have fun," said Wil, smirking slightly. "I'll give you a full report of my activities when you get back."
     Had Eya been alone with the chancellor, she would have let loose with a withering reply but, considering her company, she bit back the retort and instead smiled sweetly as she exited behind her queen.
     
* * *

     Despite the magical aura of warmth Wil created beneath his heavy bearskin cloak, it was a miserable journey to the small plot of land Sor had given to the seeress Meg nearly thirty years ago. Had the wind been a little less brisk, the chancellor wouldn't have moved so quickly. He had experienced colder days during his seventy years, but not many, and all of them from inside a fire-warmed home.
     The brightness of the day belied the temperature. Glancing outside and seeing the brilliance of a yellow orb against a blue backdrop, it would be easy to assume spring was close. Such an assumption would only last, of course, until one ventured beyond the heated comfort of the indoors.
     This was only Wil's fourth visit to the dwelling of the seeress. Before his death, Sor had occasionally summoned her to the palace but, beginning with a visit paid to her shortly after his third marriage, the king had unwittingly begun the custom of all visitors - including those from the palace - of meeting Meg on her own land.
     Wil's previous trips here had been during the summer, when Meg's garden had been teeming with vegetation, and alive with the sounds of insects and birds. Being blind, she seemed to enjoy surrounding herself with noise, and even Wil, who had grown up on a farm and spent much of his life in the fields of Falnora, could not remember a more pleasantly sound-filled place.
     In the winter, however, the garden was a patch of half-frozen snow, and the entire property had the serene appearance of being deserted - except for the plume of smoke puffing out of the chimney. There were few footprints in the snow, and those led from the front door of the house to a dwindling woodpile along the western side. Wil made a mental note to have a guard come here and cut down a few trees so Meg's supply of fuel wouldn't run out before the cold weather snapped.
     He walked up to the door, but before he could knock, Meg's strong, calm voice called out, "Come in."
     She was sitting in a chair by the fire, placidly rocking as Wil shut the door behind him and doffed his cloak. "It is good to 'see' you, Chancellor. In some ways, I'm surprised you came under these conditions and on this day. In others, I am not."
     Wil glanced at the seeress, wondering whether she suspected his reason for the journey. It was impossible to tell from her expression.
     Meg was a small woman with a lithe form. Dressed in a clinging white robe hanging to her bare feet, she looked emaciated. Her head was hairless; she took great pains to shave not only her scalp, but her eyebrows as well. Although typically unconcerned about hygiene, Meg appeared clean today, or at least her arms and face were free of the smears of dirt Wil had noticed on his previous visits. Then again, with no garden to tend at this time of year, how could she get dirty?
     Even though this was far from his first time with her, the chancellor found his gaze straying involuntarily to the scarred, mutilated eye sockets. In her youth, when her talent for seeing beyond the physical had been discovered, those close to her had destroyed her eyes to facilitate the "vision." Wil shuddered every time he thought of the pain such an act had caused a little girl.
     As an Apath, Wil knew what it was to age slowly. Nevertheless, the years took their toll on him, if not in the same way they did with normal humans. For Meg, however, time seemed to stand still. She looked as young today as she when he had first met her fifteen years ago. How old that was, Wil could not say, but it was no more than thirty, and Meg was far older than that.
     "Do you know why I'm here?" asked Wil.
     Meg inclined her head. "What you saw and heard, I also experienced. For one with my senses, it was not necessary to be present. The power of what occurred transcended anything we might define as normal."
     "Then it was Sor?"
     "Sor is dead, and the dead cannot come back to life. However, his immortal essence continues its existence and somehow, probably through your magical intervention, that essence, with its memories and knowledge intact, found a path back to the corporeal world."
     "It was Sor's spirit, then."
     Meg nodded. "There has always been much about him that is hard to understand. In the history of Devforth, he is the first Apath to sire a child. When I gazed at him to see his past, I peered through a mist that not even my vision could penetrate. And there was always an aura around him I could not fathom. If there was any who could slip the bonds of death, it would be him."
     "Could others do it?" asked Wil, thinking briefly of his long-lost wife, Lis.
     Meg shrugged. "If one can do it, how can I declare it impossible for others? But in the history of all Devforth, this is the only instance I am aware of. It is not a common thing, even for Apaths."
     "What of his warning?"
     "I would take that seriously. I myself have seen indications of something similar - a sinister presence lurking in the future, rising out of marshy lands and putrid mists. I wish I could be more specific, but until I heard the specter's words, I was not sure of the substance of my visions. Vorti's dangers are not past. On the contrary, the worst may be to come. More dear blood is yet to be spilled. Perhaps even you and I, who have seen through so many crises, will not escape this one unscathed."
     "How long?"
     "I don't know. Time has no meaning in the world where I see, but there are indications that the past is folding into the future. What that means specifically, I cannot say, but the image is worth remembering in case it sometimes gains meaning."
     Wil nodded his head in silence as he decided how to break the news that pretty little Lea, who nearly trembled at the thought of ordering a man's execution, might be forced to take up the sword and lead her people into battle against some as-yet nameless foe rising from the swamps. They had all known it was possible when she accepted the crown, but no one had dreamed how immediate and real the danger could be, and that a supernatural visitation had been necessary to assure that preparations were made.
     Despite the jubilation of the crowds in the wake of the queen's passage, Wil's journey back to the palace was somber. Even as he set foot inside, where blazing fires waited to ward off the cold, there was little any flames could do to melt away the ice that gripped his heart.
     War again. More bloodshed. Sor's warning echoed again and again through Wil's mind, the dead king's hollow voice like the klaxon of doom. No longer did this day seem fit for festivities. Instead, it seemed more appropriate for a funeral.


© 2006 James Berardinelli

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