Along the southern fringes of Flaz' Quag, the plains were not as verdant as elsewhere, almost as if the grayish mist that hung like a cloud over the swamp had leeched the color from the neighboring grasslands. The rain, which had intensified over the past hour since the departure from Fels, was deepening the gloom.
     Lea was trying to project more confidence than she felt, although it was difficult with sodden garments weighing her down and wet hair plastered to her face. She avoided looking north, as if by not gazing into the murk of Flaz' Quag, she could dispel the creatures that lived there.
     If anyone else was nervous about the proximity of the quatics, they didn't show it. The talk between Wil and Guc was of where to ford the Goldenwater River, which they expected to reach within the hour. Wil claimed he remembered a crossing just south of their current position, but Guc said that had been washed away two years ago and they would have to angle to the north, closer to the Quag and its dangers.
     When the attack came, it did so without warning. The creatures, each as tall as a horse and more monstrous in appearance than any animal, had been lying in wait, using the tall grass for camouflage. By the time the horses scented the danger, the quatics were on the move, leaping to their feet and charging at their would-be quarry.
     Lea did not scream, although she felt terror constrict her throat at the first sight of the quatics. Nearly twice as tall as she and possessing more bulk than her mount, they had warty, bluish green hides that looked capable of turning aside a sword. Beady yellow eyes glared from beneath a bony forehead ridge, and a three-nostriled nose dominated the face. While many of the quatics' teeth were rotten, those that weren't looked as dangerous as the blade-like claws on the four-digited hands and feet. Each was naked, its tough skin covered by a layer of fine, reddish-brown hair. There were six of them.
     Three of the six horses reared, including Lea's. The queen, not an expert rider, was thrown from the saddle to land on her back in the mud. Someone shouted something to her, but she couldn't make out the words over the cries of her horse and the roars of the attackers. The impact stunned the queen, and as she tried to catch her breath and rise to a kneeling position, her mount kicked her in the head. Blackness rushed in, enveloping her consciousness immediately.

* * *

     The first of her senses to return was hearing. The chaos of battle was all around her. Men were screaming, some of their cries raw with agony. The inhuman bellows of the quatic attackers were also audible, beast-like in their ferocity. The cacophony was deafening, and Lea didn't have to open her eyes to imagine the scene of carnage.
     Her head throbbed, and it was difficult to focus her concentration. The soreness in her back and left leg were nothing compared to the searing ache between her temples. She imagined there was an egg-sized bump above her left ear, although she didn't dare reach up to probe with her hand for fear of exacerbating the situation.
     Despite the gloom of the day, the light hurt her eyes when she opened them. This was worse than having a hangover. Yet it was the images before her, not the painful brightness, that captured her attention.
     The bloody confusion was worse than she expected. Fully half of her armed escort lay dead or dying, and four of the quatics remained standing, fighting with demonic fury. The guards couldn't seem to get within striking distance, and when one managed a blow, he usually paid for it with his life.
     If she wondered why her chancellor hadn't employed his special skills, it didn't take long to arrive at the answer. Wil was lying on his back in the mud, an ugly weal across his forehead. Whether he was dead or unconscious, Lea couldn't tell, but it was clear that he, like her, had fallen early in the fray.
     Guc was the only one still mounted, and he was at the fore, lashing out at one of the quatics with a two-handed broadsword. The creature had several gaping wounds that proved the king of Tsab's mettle with his weapon.
     For the first time, Lea noticed she couldn't feel her left hand. Her leather glove had been shredded, as had much of the flesh beneath it. The fingers were pulpy masses of tissue barely concealing bones, many of which were broken. How this had happened, Lea couldn't guess, but it was apparent she should have been in excruciating agony. Instead, she felt nothing. Beneath the wrist, it was as if her body ended.
     Circumstances didn't give her time to contemplate the damage. Guc had noticed her struggling into a sitting position and was using her as a rallying point for the battered troops. "The Queen lives!" he cried, his voice as loud and strong as a trumpet. "For Lea, attack!"
     A roar went up from the twenty-odd survivors, and the men of Vorti and Tsab surged forward with renewed vigor, driving the quatics back step-by-step. Even as several more soldiers fell from vicious maulings, the quatic facing Guc went down, and another began to fight a defensive struggle, warding off blows where it had previously been dealing them.
     The death of the third quatic turned the tide of the precarious battle, freeing the sole mounted human to join another of the small frays. The force against each of the remaining creatures increased from five men to seven.
     Lea tried once to get to her feet, but dizziness and nausea forced her back to a squatting position, and she vomited the contents of an unsettled stomach onto the ground at her feet. When she had regained her equilibrium enough to look around, a fourth quatic had fallen, and the four survivors from that battle were regrouping around the final two attackers.
     Much to Lea's relief, Wil began to stir. After groaning several times, he struggled to a sitting position, lifting a hand to his head wound. The queen would have gone to her chancellor's side, but she didn't trust herself to stand, and it would have been embarrassingly unbecoming to crawl.
     When the fifth quatic fell, the other one fled. Guc didn't attempt to rally the men for a pursuit. Their total number had been cut to less than one-third of the original force, and none knew what dangers the swamp held. What they had to do now was help the wounded and get moving as quickly as possible. Here, in the open, they were easy targets.
     The total dead numbered forty-one and, of the nineteen survivors, ten were wounded, including the queen and her chancellor. Guc's entire entourage was among the dead, excepting only himself and his friend Mak, who bore an ugly slash across his chest. Blood from that wound had seeped through his ripped leather armor and tunic.
     Fortunately, Wil was only dazed. As soon as he recovered sufficiently, he made rounds of the wounded, using his magical abilities to heal the most serious injuries, starting with those of the queen.
     The head injury caused the Apath little difficulty. Placing his hand gently on the protrusion, he closed his eyes and concentrated. Lea felt a tingling in her scalp, and the pain dissipated, along with the dizzy sensation. She closed her own eyes in wordless gratitude.
     "This puzzles me," said Wil, indicating the hand, his expression disturbed.
     "I can't feel anything. No pain. Nothing."
     The chancellor probed the damage, his eyes locked on Lea's, searching for signs of discomfort, of which there were none. The queen couldn't tell whether he was employing his skills, but the wound wasn't getting better.
     "I'm not a master healer," confessed Wil. "My training has been limited to the most crude uses of magic, so there's nothing I can do for this injury that wouldn't leave you permanently crippled. I can't see things clearly enough to knit all the muscles and tendons back together without forcing the loss of your fingers. Once I've acted, there will be little that a conventional healer can do. Since it's not causing you distress - and that in itself concerns me - I think you should bandage it and have it seen to as soon as we get to Tsab. Surprisingly for an injury of this severity, it isn't bleeding much."
     Lea nodded. She tried to flex her fingers, but got no response. It was as if the hand had been hacked off, not just mauled.
     Guc, who appeared unharmed, rode his lathered horse to the queen's side. "Are you all right, Your Majesty?" he questioned, dismounting.
     Wordlessly, the queen lifted her wounded hand. As Wil related what he had told Lea, Guc's expression became grave.
     "Several of the men have similar injuries, all where the saliva of the quatics touched them. It may be a poison."
     Wil nodded. "I considered that, but we need the resources of Tsab before we can make further determinations and decide what actions should be taken. As soon as I've seen to the most serious injuries, we can move. With everyone on foot, it will take longer to reach the city."
     As the chancellor moved to aid the next victim, Lea gazed across the rows of bodies and asked, "What about the dead?"
     "A quick pyre," replied Guc. "We don't have time for something formal, and we don't have the manpower to transport that many bodies to Tsab. If your chancellor can't do anything to help the mortally wounded men, they'll have to be given the coup de grace."
     Lea didn't flinch at the pronouncement, aware as she was of the tenuousness of their situation. Men who couldn't travel would not be left behind for the quatics. It would be more merciful to put them to the sword here than let them bleed out their lives in the cold mud. Just because it was a fact of circumstances, she didn't have to like it, however.
     "They're fierce fighters," she said, indicating one of the dead quatics.
     "That's what worries me," acknowledged Guc. "If six of them can do this much damage, what could an army do? They don't die easily, either. I practically had to chop that one's head off before it fell." He indicated a body that had a bloody gash across the neck.
     "We should send a message to Yax," decided Lea. "This is his backyard and he deserves to be informed about what happened."
     Guc nodded his agreement. "Mak!" he shouted, calling over the other surviving Tsabian.
     "Your Majesty?"
     "Take my horse and ride to Fels. Demand an immediate audience and tell King Yax what has happened. Then get a new mount and take the southern route to Tsab."
     After saluting his liege, Mak mounted. Pushing the horse as fast as its weary body would allow, the Tsabian headed east.
     Wil proved able to help all but one of the injured, a guard whose throat had been partially ripped out. There was quatic saliva in the wound and the chancellor was unable to visualize past the numbness to bring his healing abilities to bear. He had similar experiences in other cases, but none with such a critical injury. It was one thing to be unable to repair a severed tendon in a foot, but something altogether different to prove incapable of stanching a mortal wound.
     "There's nothing I can do for him," the Apath confessed. "Something in the quatic saliva paralyzes the vitality of the tissue around the injury. Without being able to attune my senses to the damaged area, any work I do is like a blind man groping in the dark."
     "Couldn't you try something?" asked Lea, gazing at the dying man. One of his fellows was holding a bloodsoaked cloth to his throat, trying to mop up what was seeping from the wound. "He'll never survive the trip to Tsab."
     "Then you must do what's necessary," advised Wil. "There are more efficient ways to kill a man than subjecting him to a hopeless healing. Remember that my magical reserves are not without limit. One way or another, the man will die. If you order me, I will do my best, but there is no hope I can save him."
     "I rely on your judgment, Chancellor. If you say his life is lost, then so be it, but I won't see him suffer needlessly."
     The only volunteer answering the queen's challenge to end the dying man's suffering was Guc. There were offers by several of the guards to carry their fallen comrade, but Lea rejected those. Prolonging the inevitable was not a kindness, and bearing the body would slow the company's progress. Her duty was clear in this matter, even if it felt like she was condemning an innocent man.
     Guc's action was swift and sure - a quick thrust of the sword through the heart. Few of the man's compatriots watched, turning away instead at the decisive moment, but the queen forced herself to look. It wouldn't do for her to show weakness at this time, when so much hung in the balance.
     Once the dead were stacked together, a funeral pyre was lit. What remained of the royal escort moved westward as soon as the flames began hungrily devouring the victims, but the stench of charring flesh pursued them for almost as long as the plume of black smoke lifted skyward, a tragic monument to the first major engagement between humans and quatics in centuries.
     Paranoia clung as tightly to the company as their dripping cloaks. The gray dampness of the day did little to improve sagging morale, and no one was willing to speak, even to break a silence that was becoming oppressive.
     Lea was more self-absorbed than her companions, certain that in her decision to take the more dangerous route lay the responsibility for what had transpired. In retrospect, it was obvious they should have headed south to seek a night's refuge at Merk or Xert, but she had wanted to reach Tsab as soon as possible, and the price had been forty-two lives.
     What had her argument been, that the rulers of the Twin Cities might be upset by the unexpected appearance of a king and queen at their gates? While that might be true, it would have built no permanent ill-will, and not one man would have perished. Lea was certain her dreams for weeks to come would be haunted by the sightless eyes of the corpses they had burned.
     "Don't do this to yourself," said Guc, his tone stern. Lea started, unaware she had been the object of his scrutiny, then lifted her eyes to meet his. Whatever compassion she saw there was tempered by something cold.
     "You believe what has happened is your fault." It was a statement, not a question.
     "Who else should I blame?"
     "The quatics, perhaps?" suggested Guc. "You made the rational decision based on the information at hand. Despite the rumors, no one could have believed that a group of quatics would attack a well-armed royal escort. No one here questions the decision you made."
     "Except me."
     "Your Majesty, these men swore an oath to either you or me. Their duty is to live or die in our service. Mistakes will be made, and subjects will die, even for the best rulers. Have you ever asked how many men died in service to your father?"
     "I don't object to men dying for me, but not for something like this - something so... meaningless."
     "I doubt the dead would be flattered by your description of the circumstances of their deaths."
     "I didn't mean..."
     "You think there is no meaning in having the rumors about the quatics confirmed? In seeing for ourselves how they fight and what it takes to kill one? If their plan is to emerge from the swamps, this could have been the single most important confrontation since my father's botched invasion of your city."
     Although Lea would not openly admit it, she felt better after being lectured by her fellow ruler. Eya had once told her that one of the arts of being a queen was to subjugate your guilt without losing it entirely. It was a lesson she had not followed. Once a leader was wracked by doubt and uncertainty, she could never act decisively, and if her subjects saw her thus, her every command would be questioned. It had taken Guc's words to revive those teachings and remind her of her position.
     "How long until we reach Tsab?" asked Lea, shifting the subject.
     Guc gazed into the slate-gray expanse of sky, as if searching for the sun to determine the time of day. "Late tomorrow, if we're lucky," he said at last. "We have to find a suitable ford of the Goldenwater River. There's a good crossing point less than half a mile to the north, but I don't think we want to progress any closer to the Quag's fringes than we already have. We'll have to follow the river southward and hope for the best. If it's been raining heavily, some of the fords will be flooded."
     The weary group of travelers reached the Goldenwater within the hour, but it took almost twice that time to find a point where the water was shallow enough to attempt a crossing. At least this far south, the ominous presence of the Quag had vanished in the drizzle and mist. None of the seventeen survivors felt safe even now, however.
     Lea walked near the front of the group, between Guc and Wil, as they continued toward the southern Merk Woods. The plan had been revised. Without horses to carry those unused to the rigors of long, hard marches, there was little hope they could reach their destination with less than two full days of travel. They would now strike southwest past the northern shore of Lake Merk, then follow the coast up to Tsab. The king was hopeful they might reach the city gates around dusk on the morrow.
     Once they were far enough from the swamp that the threat of an immediate attack was unlikely, the guards started to engage in limited conversation, and the general mood of tension lessened. Now that the personal danger had passed, Lea began considering global implications.
     "How widespread are these attacks likely to be?" she asked Wil.
     "It depends. If the quatics are acting independently, they should present little danger. If some force is molding them into one nation, the civilized world is in danger. Last time, it took the combined might of all the humans and elves together to drive them back, and the difficulty of forging an alliance between those two races today would be a nearly impossible task."
     Guc agreed. "We don't have anyone with Garvad's charisma, magic, and skill. Even in the face of genocide, I don't see humans and elves fighting side-by-side. Not that it will come to that. There's nothing that can unite all the factions of quatic society."
     "That, I fear, is a dangerous belief to hold," said Wil. "We know too little about quatic society to make such a statement."
     "True," conceded Guc reluctantly. During his stay in Vorti, he and Wil had developed an uneasy relationship. Each respected the other's skills and intellect, but neither liked the other. "But a premature overreaction on our part because of a few raids is unwise."
     Camp that night was made along the banks of the River Merk, upstream from the lake. During the first portion of the night, half the guards stood watch while their compatriots slept. The switch came around midnight, at which time Lea rose from her bed and went in search of someone to talk to. Although weary in body, she was too restless to sleep. She found Guc sitting by a small fire warming his hands against the chill damp. The rain had stopped for the moment, but a heavy mist hung in the air, keeping everything moisture laden.
     "You're up late, Your Majesty," commented Guc, making room for her to sit on a log beside him.
     "And you," noted Lea.
     "I'm used to short nights on journeys. I may sleep the full course from dusk till dawn in a palace, but I spend less than half of that abed when I'm on the road. I doubt the same is true of you."
     "You know I've never been away from Vorti in my life."
     "So what do you think of the world?"
     Lea shook her head. "From Vorti to Fels, it seemed wonderful. After that... There was a man who got his throat ripped open in that battle. I saw the blood gush from it, spilling all over the ground. When I close my eyes, that's all I see. Not flowers or the blossoms any more, but blood and death."
     Guc put an arm companionably around her shoulders. "If I were to tell you all the terrible things I've seen in my life, you'd wonder that I got any sleep at all. I had to kill my own father, remember. I still have nightmares about that sometimes. Patricide isn't undertaken lightly, but it was for the good of the city. Kings and queens have to endure more than their subjects. That's our lot in life. It may not be the kindest thing to say, but over your life, which hopefully will be long and happy, you'll see a lot worse than what you witnessed today."
     "Death is horrible," observed Lea. "Horrible and ugly."
     "Of course it is. That way life isn't cheapened."
     "How do you know if you're a good ruler?"
     Guc appeared surprised by the question. In truth, it wasn't something he had considered. Since the day he had first sat upon his father's throne, he had taken it for granted that he was doing the job necessary for Tsab. Judging by most of the other rulers of Devforth, being a "good" king or queen had little to do with that.
     "I don't think there's an answer. No matter what you do, some people are going to be happy, and some unhappy. You can't please everyone, and if you try, that's the sure path to disaster. Kings and queens have to make decisions. You are the Law, Your Majesty. You can be merciful, but once you make a decree, it must stand, and you cannot let anyone contradict you, especially not in public. If you're seen to waver, there will be men ready to topple you.
     "Your father had magic to help him. In fact, that's how he held his throne. You don't have that advantage, even though two of your advisors do. You must discover your own inner resources and use those to protect your position. And be wary of Eya and Wil. I know you trust them implicitly, but wasn't it King Sor's own chancellor and mother who conspired to betray him? Trust is a luxury the ruling class cannot afford."
     "You paint a bleak picture, Your Majesty," said Lea. "But if either Lea or Wil wanted the throne, they could have had it dozens of times already. In general, you may be right about power, but there is an exception: if a person repeatedly turns down their opportunities, then there's no reason to fear them. Eya and Wil won't betray me, at least not knowingly."
     Long after Lea had returned to her bed, Guc lay on his back gazing into the blackness, unable to sleep. Why had he said those things to Lea? Advice like that wasn't in his own best interests. Sometimes, he needed someone like Mak to remind him of what his real motives were. Yet he was beginning to wonder if those hadn't begun to change, like everything else around him.      

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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