THE PRICE OF TERROR


PART TWO: FIRST SURGE


CHAPTER NINE


     It was a dreary day in the early autumn of 612, the second full year of Queen Lea's reign, when the long-anticipated announcement of her impending marriage was made to the populace of Vorti. Rumors had been circulating since late spring, but this was the first official confirmation of the wedding.
     Resplendent in a silver gown, and wearing the newly designed, gem encrusted crown, Lea borrowed her late father's favorite method of addressing the citizens by standing atop the fortified walls surrounding Vorti's palace. In addition to a full score of bodyguards, there were three others with her: Chancellor Wil, his expression impassive; Eya, who did little to hide her displeasure; and King Guc, the prospective bridegroom and soon-to-be King of Vorti.
     Eya was present purely because of her prominence in the Queen's circle of advisors, but Wil was atop the wall not only because he was Chancellor, but because Lea wanted him to magically amplify her voice so it could be heard by everyone in the city.
     Even now that the announcement was ready, the behind-the-scenes wrangling was far from over. Lea had flatly refused Guc's offers of marriage until at least one of her two Apath advisors agreed, and Wil and Eya had initially been strongly opposed to the notion. In the end, it was only Guc's promise to allow his position as King of Vorti to be as subordinate as Lea's position in Tsab that earned Wil's grudging support.
     Whether or not this was best for either of the two cities, Wil could not say, but he knew how desperately in love with the ruler of Tsab Lea was, and recognized that a continued refusal to sanction the marriage might lead to a loss of trust. Already the rift between Eya and the queen was threatening to become a gulf. The former regent had come close to resigning twice since Guc's first late spring proposal. And there was another, more pressing reason only Wil and one other were aware of.
     Guc was dressed in pale turquoise robes - the color of Vorti - as befitting one playing suitor to the city's queen. Wil was dressed in his customary black garments, and Eya had donned as plain an outfit as she could come up with - a brown dress that was almost homespun in its simplicity, and a heavy cowl.
     Despite the drab nature of the day, with a sky that looked ready to let loose with a torrent of rain and streets already turned muddy by days of precipitation, a massive crowd had come out for the announcement, stretching down the streets and alleys radiating from the palace for as far as the eye could see.
     Once, the pronouncement of an engagement between the rulers of Vorti and Tsab would have set the people to grumbling, but the war was seventeen years in the past, and Guc had taken pains to impress upon the people of both cities that this match was a joining of the new order, not the old. He had been much in evidence at court this year, attempting to prove to any doubters that he was as debonair and cultured as he looked, not the monster some anti-Tsabians would have the people of Vorti believe.
     "People of Vorti, attend!" commanded Wil, stepping forward and slamming his solid oak staff on the parapet. Aided by magic, his voice echoed down Vorti's byways. "Her Royal Majesty, Lea of Vorti has come forward on this, the ninth day of Autumn in the year of Common Reckoning 612 to announce her intended husband, he who will be your next king."
     Stepping back, Wil allowed the focus of the observers to shift to the queen. "My people, I know there have been many rumors over the past weeks, and I speak to you this morning in an attempt to end misinformation and allay any fears. What I do, I do not only in answer to the stirrings of my heart, but because Vorti must have an heir, and because I seek through my marriage to bring an end to generations of strife.
     "Therefore, I present to you the next King of Vorti, Guc of Tsab."
     Bowing deeply to Lea, Guc stepped forward to the thunderous applause of the gathered throng. By his side, the queen snaked an arm around his waist and drew his lips to hers in an action that brought the crowd’s frenzy to a fevered pitch.
     It took a quarter-hour and numerous bows from the king-to-be before the uproar quieted enough for Guc to say a few words.
     “Men and women of Vorti, from the depths of my heart, I thank you for this joyous welcome, and hope that in the years to come I will earn not only your praise, but the continuing affection of your beloved - and my beloved - queen. Be assured I in no way intend to usurp her title as proper ruler of this city, for that is a role none other than the daughter of Sor the Magnificent should hold. But it is with great pride we will see our firstborn son set upon the throne of not only Vorti, but Tsab as well - that by our love, the war which has long separated Devforth’s greatest cities might be ended once and for all.”
     The king of Tsab would have said more, but the crowd would not allow it. As they roared to life again, Guc decided his short speech had been sufficient. Bowing once more to the people, he fell in with Lea, Wil, and the guards as the procession descended from the walls.
     The traditional betrothal banquet was held that night in Vorti's palace, with almost everyone who wielded any influence in attendance. Although titles of nobility were outlawed, the so-called guild masters had all the power of a duke or count. Wil, who could remember a time when nobles ruled the city, sensed an impending return to the days before King Sor's bloody creation of a "classless" society.
     Also in attendance was a delegation of Tsabians, including the members of Guc's council of advisors and several prominent citizens. Since both the engagement announcement and the wedding were to be held in Vorti - that was another concession Guc had been forced into - the king of Tsab at least wanted a contingent of his own people on hand.
     Surprisingly, Eya attended the banquet, and made an attempt to appear civil to her soon-to-be-king. Guc didn't mistake her frosty smiles as anything more than a mask, however. Of all the potential dangers he would face over the next year, he counted Vorti's former regent as his most formidable opponent. Even had Eya not been an Apath, her influence alone was something to be wary of. There were sections of the city more loyal to her than to Lea. Eya had to be eliminated, and the sooner, the better
     Making a rare appearance at court was Jav, Vorti’s former chancellor and one of Lea’s tutors. Since resigning his official post fifteen years ago, Jav had taken to shrinking from public functions, but his love for his pupil forced him to make this concession. As a result, he became the center of much surreptitious attention.
     Many were surprised that a man whose name featured prominently in stories of the dwarf war was still so young and healthy. The common image of Jav was of an old hermit, not a man just past the prime of his life, with a strong, lean body and stern features. Jav’s dark flesh and pronounced accent marked him as a native of Torg, although all but the first decade of his life had been spent in Vorti. His curly black hair, now liberally peppered with gray, was cropped short.
     Much to the surprise of many of those at the banquet, Lea spent more time with her teacher than she did with anyone else, including her husband-to-be. Since ascending the throne, the young queen’s opportunities to enjoy Jav’s company had been curtailed, so she was determined not to waste this one.
     “What do you think of my choice?” she asked him.
     Jav chuckled. “I think your father would not have approved. Tsab and Vorti...it’s an interesting notion, but bitter blood lies between those two cities.”
     “One of the reasons we’re marrying is to end that. Our first son will rule both.”
     “You have a naive view of politics, my dear. The enmity between Tsab and Vorti goes deeper than a union of rulers will salve. I admire your intentions, but surely you must be aware that the price of this marriage could be civil war."
     Lea appeared shocked by the notion. "Are you suggesting my people would rebel against me?"
     Jav nodded gravely. "Though none will admit it aloud, at least not within your hearing, there are those who would rather die than see Vorti unite with Tsab, and I'll wager a number of Guc's subjects feel the same. While it's true most of the men and women of Vorti love you and are proud to have you as their ruler, the feeling is not universal. Such was the case with your father, but his Apath's powers made him feared by those who refused him honor."
     "I have two Apaths at my court."
     "So you do, and their loyalty is beyond question, but you must never place your safety in the hands of others. Early in his tenure as king, your father learned that lesson in the most bitter way possible. Rely on your advisors, and listen to what they have to say, but never place your fate completely in their hands."
     "Are you saying I shouldn't marry Guc?" demanded Lea. After a pause, she added, "If you tell me not to, I'll cancel the wedding. I value your advice above that of all others, Jav."
     "Knowing how you feel about him, how can I force you to such a decision? There may be reasons of state for this marriage, but it doesn't take a seer to recognize this is as much a match of the heart, at least as far as you are concerned. But can you be sure of his feelings?"
     "As sure as I ever can be," said Lea. "Some believe me to be a love besotted fool, but that has never been the case."
     "I give you more credit than others do," acknowledged Jav. "I have noted some of the groundwork you have laid, but is it enough?"
     "It will have to be. Guc came here with the intention of wooing me for his own purposes - to shift the burden from Tsab to Vorti. I never knew how sincere his words of peace were, though I wanted to believe them. But it would have been unfair to this city to enter into a union with him at that time. So, while he courted me, I worked to soften his heart, and by the terms of this betrothal, I believe I have succeeded.
     "I recognize Guc's feelings for me are not as deep or as passionate as mine are for him, but I equally believe I have awakened something within him that cannot be put back into slumber. Unless I mistake him badly, he will treat Vorti fairly after we are wed, and I will never cede full control to him. Wil would not have agreed to this match if he didn't think this to be true, and I meant what I said about not marrying without at least his or Eya's support."
     "You are a true queen, Your Majesty," said Jav. "And a worthy successor to Sor. Perhaps your marriage will bring a new and brighter era to both Vorti and Tsab, but I pray you to be wary. Always seek carefully for your enemies. Often, they are closer than you believe."
     At that moment, one of the minor functionaries from the Tsab party interrupted the conversation to offer his obsequious congratulations. As he droned on about how pleased he and his entire city were about their new queen, Jav quietly took his leave.
     After what seemed like a parade of Tsabians, Lea was rescued from boot-lickers by her own healer, Master Fyc. Since her return from Tsab more than a year ago with a miraculously healed hand, she had developed a great deal of respect for the simple man who served as Palace Healer. Fyc was a solid and sensible individual, and had never been able to understand - much less explain - what had happened to his queen. Nevertheless, he had made it his personal mission in life to find out the truth. As a result, though she had met him only once or twice before her ill-fated trip across Devforth, he had been a nearly constant companion since her return.
     Had he been younger or more attractive, Guc might have been jealous, but Fyc was an aging man, with a circlet of gray hair surrounding the smooth crown of his head. Perhaps to compensate for what he didn't have up top, he had a full white beard and equally puffy mustache. His soft blue eyes were kind, and he often wore a smile, something that seemed to be a rarity in Vorti's court these days.
     As always, he began the conversation by asking about her hand. "How is it today, Your Majesty?"
     "The same as it was yesterday," she replied with a laugh. "It’s not about to fall off, you know. If it was going to, it would have already."
     "One never knows. Things that come through unnatural means may often leave in the same manner. Your Majesty should not take such things lightly."
     "I assure you, I don't, but I believe my chancellor's theory that the new hand springs from a latent application of my mother's shape changing abilities. After all, if she could change the form of her body, why can't I grow a new hand?"
     Fyc wrinkled his nose in disdain. Not having been at court during the brief marriage of Lea's mother to Sor, the healer was unsure how many of the stories about Queen Joi/Mora could be believed. He felt the shape changing rumors were exaggerations, if not outright fabrications, and he was unwilling to attribute Lea's new hand to anything that uncertain. The difficulty was coming up with a plausible alternative explanation...
     "At any rate," continued Fyc, his smile reasserting itself, "I have not come to you this evening to discuss your health, which appears to be splendid. Rather, I want to wish you the very best in your upcoming marriage, and hope I may continue to serve you thereafter."
     "Thank you very much, and of course I intend to keep you as my healer!" exclaimed Lea. With a sly wink, she added, "Who else would put up with my mood swings?"
     Across the room, Mak and Guc had wandered into a corner where they could speak without being overheard. With all the noise in the hall, it was certain anything they said to one another would remain private.
     "You're not getting everything you hoped for, are you?" inquired Mak mildly. "I saw a copy of the official contract earlier. King of Vorti in name, but Prince of Vorti in privileges of rank? That makes you subordinate. I thought you would insist on something more substantial."
     Guc had known this subject would come up. Over the past few months, Mak had become increasingly less enthusiastic about his king's approach to winning over the queen of Vorti. A rift had opened between them, and the rapport they had once shared had eroded.
     "My priorities have changed."
     "Then you're a fool!" said Mak, deciding bluntness was the best approach. This was perhaps his last opportunity to breach the barrier that had arisen between them. He had seen their friendship slipping away because of Lea of Vorti, and he was determined not to let it go without a fight. His king had once been sensible about matters, but this unexpected infatuation with the girl had clouded his judgment. Where he had once intended for the match to be a means to enhance his own position and that of Tsab, he now seemed content to marry her regardless of the constraints placed upon that union - and Wil of Vorti would see those were considerable.
     “You may be my friend and advisor, Mak,” said Guc, his voice low and dangerous. “But you are also my subject, and there are bounds to the abuse I’m willing to endure. As your king, I demand respect.”
     “What’s happened to you, Guc? Has this girl bewitched you? Two years ago, you had everything planned. Now, it’s a mess. You’re giving things away!”
     “Don’t presume to question my plans, Mak. The means may have changed, but the ends are the same. Vorti and Tsab will be united, and as Lea’s husband, I’ll be the second-most powerful person in this city.”
     Mak shook his head, “You’re wrong, Your Majesty. The ends have changed, as well as the means. You once hated Vorti, and wanted to bring it to heel. Now, you’re talking of a union. Has it occurred to you there are a number of your nobles who would balk at this marriage if they believed Tsab was to be anything less than superior to Vorti in this exchange?”
     “The nobles will do as they’re told.”
     “Like they did when they supported your bid for the throne? Face it, Guc, you’ll only be king for as long as the nobility wants you in that position. You may be more powerful than any of them individually, but if they gather under a common banner, you couldn’t stand against them. Until now, they’ve supported this union because they thought - as did I - your intention was to subordinate Vorti. But it’s becoming clear your ambitions lie elsewhere.”
     “Are you threatening me?”
     “No, Your Majesty. I’m letting you know what to expect. Rulers have been assassinated for less obvious examples of duplicity.”
     “Duplicity!” exploded Guc, the volume of his voice causing heads to turn in his direction. In a more subdued tone, he continued, “And where do your loyalties fall, my friend?” Bitter sarcasm adorned the final word.
     Mak took a deep breath. “I believe this betrothal should be canceled. This is not what was planned, and when the Council of Nobles learns of the specifications of the marriage agreement, they will react violently. If you feel a need for companionship, choose a woman from among our people.”
     “Answer my question. Where do your loyalties lie?”
     “Don’t make me choose between my friend the king and my city. I don’t believe either of us would be comfortable with the choice.”
     Guc nodded. It was answer enough. “Perhaps you’d best leave this banquet. And, if you can’t continue to support me in good conscience, you can depart for Tsab in the morning. But don’t consider speaking out against me, Mak, or I’ll see your head on a pole. You’re a fool if you think you can understand the scope of my plans, and I would view any premature presentation to the Council of Nobles as an act of treason.”
     “Understood, Your Majesty,” said Mak. “I believe I’ll ride at dawn. My resignation from your council will be tendered upon your return. Apparently, you no longer have need of my advice.” Bowing stiffly, he turned and strode from the room, pushing aside anyone who got in his way.
     After a moment’s consideration, Guc motioned for another member of the Tsabian party to come to his side.
     Baron Caa excused himself from the group of guild masters he was conversing with to join his liege. Caa was a tall, wiry man with elongated features. His overlarge body looked almost comic in court finery, and his bulbous nose and bushy eyebrows gave him a buffoon-like appearance belied only by the cool intelligence of his eyes. His face was clean-shaven and his head was topped by an unruly mop of wheaten hair.
     “I have task for you, Baron,” said Guc.
     “As always, I am yours to command, Your Majesty,” replied Caa.
     Guc allowed himself a thin smile. Caa had originally entered his service as a result of Mak’s efforts. Ironic that now the baron would be used against the man who had first brought him to court.
     Few outside of the king’s immediate circle of advisors knew Caa was an Apath. Guc had been careful to reveal the truth to necessary parties only. When it came to dealing with Wil and Eya, Caa would be his secret weapon. As Mak had once pointed out, if one intended to kill an Apath, it was best to use another of their kind to do the deed.
     Caa had been “recruited” through Guc’s matchmaking. The king had arranged a marriage between the Apath and Baroness Ina, with whom Caa had been hopelessly in love. Guc’s personal intervention in the situation had earned him, as planned, a new and potentially powerful subject, whose talents he occasionally put to use.
     “I have a small task for you, and one which you may find troublesome.” This was not the first time Caa had been used as an assassin, but the others had all been strangers to the Apath. That was not true of Mak.
     “As you command.”
     “Although it chagrins me to say this, Lord Mak has become unreliable, and must be eliminated. Since I cannot be seen to act in this matter, I leave the specifics up to you. Whatever you choose, it must appear accidental, and I don’t wish him to suffer. He and I were once... very close.”
     Caa nodded sagely. “I understand. How soon?”
     “Immediately. He intends to ride from Vorti with the dawn, and I cannot risk him arriving at Tsab.”
     “He will never leave Vorti, Your Majesty.”
     

* * *

     After spending most of the evening in the stuffy confines of the throne room where the betrothal banquet was being held, Wil decided he needed a breath of fresh air. While his preference would have been to leave the palace grounds altogether, he was expected to make a speech before the night was over, so he had to remain close.
     A misty drizzle was falling as the cloaked chancellor entered the palace gardens. In the spring and summer, with an event such as this taking place, this would have been a favorite spot for young lovers to steal kisses and walk hand-in-hand among the flowers and bushes, but on this wet, chilly night in autumn, it was empty - or so Wil thought until he spied a robed and hooded figure moving toward him out of the mist.
     “Good evening, Chancellor,” she said, her light voice immediately recognizable. Wil knew his companion to be the seeress Meg before she lifted her hood to reveal her shaved head.
     “I’m surprised to see you, Seeress.”
     “You shouldn’t be. Of all people, you should know I am drawn to great events like a moth to the flame, and the queen’s guards could hardly refuse me entrance to the palace grounds.”
     “You weren’t in the audience hall.”
     “No. I shun large crowds. The images are too chaotic. Here, near yet physically removed, I hoped to gain better understanding of some of my recent visions. Alas, my impressions this night have done little to clarify matters.”
     “Is there anything more you can tell me?”
     “How can I relate what I myself do not understand? One of the burdens of my kind is to know the future, whether I recognize it or not. There are only three things I am sure of: this betrothal had to take place to avert incalculable disaster; war and death of the most brutal and grisly form looms close; and many who are under this roof tonight will not come through the storm alive.”
     The chancellor nodded. She had told him these things three weeks ago when she had come to him to insist he give his consent to Lea’s impending engagement. Failure on his part to do so, she claimed, would result in a “negation” of humanity. Everyone believed Wil’s change of heart regarding the betrothal to be the result of assurances from Guc. Eya had accused him of betraying their trust to care for the young queen. Only Meg knew the truth.
     “What do you see when you look at me?” demanded Wil.
     “Confusion. Blood. Death. Half a person. Your past is clouded; I can not say who you were before you bore the name of 'Wil.' Little, I’m afraid, to offer hope. In fact, there are few visions I have these days that give me cause for optimism. Once, I could see cherubs and jewels. Now, it is corpses and excrement.”
     “What about Lea?”
     “She troubles me the most. Not only have I had no visions about her, but I can barely see her. It’s as if she’s fading away, becoming a non-entity like her mother. Before the coronation, it was never like that, but over the past two years, the process has been constant. At least I can see her past, so I know she is real.”
     “I’d better get back inside before I’m missed. If you learn something, or make sense of what you’ve seen, let me know. Others may be wary of your visions, but I trust them. I’ve seen too many come to fruition not to.”
     “There is one other thing, Chancellor. I can’t be certain, but I believe Vas has been reborn.”
     The simple pronouncement sent a shiver of dread up Wil’s spine. Vas, an Apath near emotional exhaustion, had been Sor’s chancellor half a century earlier, and had participated in the wanton murder of the king’s first wife. Few names in the city’s recent history were more infamous. “How do you know this?” he asked.
     “Normally I don’t know unless I study a person, but this is different. Late at night, I have felt his spirit stirring, and I wonder if this might be an incarnation that violates quiescence.”
     The possibility shocked Wil. “You think this person may have memories of Vas?”
     “Remember what happened at Lea’s coronation and ask yourself if the boundaries between one life and the next are as secure as they once were. I have never believed in a ‘great evil’ - nor do I now - but I believe in chaos, and I sense its approach.”
     Meg’s words were not reassuring, and suddenly Wil had something of a graver nature to absorb his attention than the consequences of Lea’s marriage to Guc.
     
* * *

     “Your Majesty, might I have a word?” Mak caught up to Lea in the corridor leading to her quarters. The two guards escorting her eyed him warily, but since he was apparently unarmed, they didn’t restrain him.
     “It’s late, Mak. Can this wait until morning?”
     “I shall be gone with the dawn, Your Majesty, but there are things you should know before I leave. Things of importance.”
     With a heavy sigh, wondering if she would see her bed this night, Lea consented.
     Moments later, Mak was seated in Lea’s private sitting room, awaiting the queen’s arrival. The guards stood watch outside, giving the queen her privacy while being close enough to respond to a summons. Had she not felt she could trust Mak, they would have remained within.
     Lea’s sitting room reflected her personality, with lacy curtains adorning the single window, and plush chairs with pastel-colored upholstery. The walls were covered by rich velvet drapes. The carved wooden table had belonged to Sor, as had the simple desk in one corner.
     Her hair now unbound and freed from the constraints of her crown, and the heavy royal robes shed in favor of similarly colored lighter garments, Lea entered and sat opposite Mak. Even in his bitterness and anger, he could not fail to notice her youthful beauty, and it was a little more apparent to him what had enraptured his king.
     “What’s so important, Mak? I’m really tired," she said, the dullness of her voice confirming her fatigue.
     Killing her now would be easy, though his own life would be forfeit. But he had not come here for that. Whether Lea lived or died was not his concern; saving Tsab was. And he was not foolish enough to believe there was honor in suicide. His next life might await him, but he was content with this one.
     “I’m leaving in the morning, Your Majesty, but there’s something I thought you should know first. Being aware of my friendship with King Guc, you will appreciate the pain it costs me to tell you these things, and..."
     "Oh, get on with it!" exploded Lea. "If you're going to betray him, don't try to justify the betrayal. You've come here to say something, so spit it out so I can get to bed before dawn!"
     Had circumstances been more normal, Mak would have been angry at Lea's words, but as it was, his reaction was resignation. "Very well, Your Majesty. I'm here to tell you that your entire courtship with my liege has been a sham. From the first, his only interests have been in restoring Tsab at the expense of Vorti - and you." Slowly and deliberately, Mak outlined the entire tale, occasionally embellishing things to make Guc's intentions seem less honorable than they had been, were that possible.
     After he finished, Lea did not react immediately, and he was unable to gauge whether she believed him or not. It was vital she accept his account. For the good of Tsab, the marriage could not take place, and Guc had to be deposed.
     Finally, Lea spoke, but her words were neither bitter nor angry. "Do you suppose I was unaware of these things? Do you believe these stories to be revelations? If so, then your opinion of my intelligence must be remarkably low. I have known Guc's intentions from the start and, while it didn't stop me from falling in love with him, it forced me to examine any union from a pragmatic viewpoint. I have learned from the past, Lord Mak, and was not willing to repeat the folly of my Aunt Nia, who nearly brought disaster upon this city through an ill-advised marriage.
     "Thank you for your concern - and your honesty - but I assure you I am fully aware of all the facets of my relationship with King Guc. Now, unless you have something further to say, I'm ready for bed."
     For a moment, Mak stared at her, his expression one of speechless horror. Clearly, he had expected a different reaction. Lea avoided a smile, which would have been inappropriate, no matter how little respect she had for this man. She had never liked him, but his willingness to turn against his ruler and friend branded him as treacherous and unreliable. She would inform Guc of this in the morning and let him deal with the situation.
     Realizing he would not get the desired results from this conversation, Mak stormed from the room, slamming the door behind him. Lea watched him go dispassionately, stifling a yawn with the back of one hand.
     Nevertheless, though Lea proceeded immediately to her bed, sleep did not come as her mind and heart wrestled with what she had learned. Despite her assurances to Mak, it was entirely different to suspect someone's intentions than to know them for certain. While a part of her had recognized that her want of Guc's adoration was a childish fantasy, her visitation this night, so soon after her official betrothal, had shattered that dream and left an ache beneath her left breast.
     When at last the queen slipped beyond the realm of consciousness, her cheeks were wet from silent tears shed for a lost innocence.
     
* * *

     Mak didn’t intend to wait until morning to leave. Aside from no longer being certain he was safe in Vorti after what he had told the queen, he had no stomach for being around his king. Guc’s actions were a disgrace - a betrayal of everything they had worked to achieve since his ascension to the throne. Even if Mak could not see the destination, he knew that the road along which Guc traveled led to disaster.
     At the moment, he wasn’t sure about the wisdom of heading immediately for Tsab. If Guc found out about his conversation with Lea - and that seemed likely - he wouldn’t be forgiving. Men had been executed for less. Perhaps a short sojourn in a place like Torg or Knex would be advisable. Mak had no intention of leaving Tsab permanently, however. Eventually, some sort of reconciliation would have to be addressed so he could return to the only home he had ever known.
     In retrospect, going to Lea had been a poor decision. He should have recognized ahead of time she was so deeply in thrall to Guc that she wouldn’t hear a word against him. But he had gambled on her objectivity, with disastrous results. What bothered him more than anything was that the queen didn’t seem to care that she had been duped.
     After packing his belongings into his traveling sack, Mak went to the stables and saddled his chestnut mount. The stableboy bade him good night and a guard nodded to him, but other than those two, there appeared to be no one around. The palace gates were ajar, and he passed into the city proper without incident.
     Even at this late hour, a few people bustled along the streets of Vorti, most of them resolutely refusing to look anywhere but at the road ahead, lest they see something not meant for their eyes. Nighttime in Vorti was no different than in any of Devforth’s other cities - lonely and dangerous. Impatiently, Mak urged his horse forward.
     Had he been other than an accomplished swordsman, Mak never would have ventured beyond the city limits before dawn. The countryside around Vorti was not tame, and there were tales aplenty of merchants’ caravans being attacked along the Vorti-Fels road. Only the brave or the foolhardy wandered the roads of Eastern Devforth between dusk and dawn, but Mak had an ugly premonition of what might await him if he remained to see the sunrise.
     Beyond the densely populated inner city, the roads grew rougher as the closely spaced shops, inns, and houses gave way to the newly harvested fields of open farmland. This far from the hub of Vorti’s limited late-night life, Mak was the only wayfarer around, and the lantern he held aloft the lone source of illumination with the heavens obscured by lowering and thickening clouds.
     Shivering and pulling his cloak more closely about him, Mak huddled lower on his mount’s back as a stiff breeze blew from the northwest, bringing with it a foretaste of the upcoming winter. The northern village of Torg was not the place to go, at least not at this time of the year. Knex was more hospitable, even if it was directly between Flaz’ Quag and the Vorti Marsh, in an area that was fast becoming known as “Quatics’ road”.
     Sometime, someone was going to have to do something about that situation. What had begun with a few raids had escalated into a campaign of terror and brutality. No longer afraid of venturing outside of the swamps, the quatics had taken delight in massacring parties of humans traveling between the East and West, and had sacked and pillaged several small villages on the Northern Plains, leaving no survivors to tell the tale.
     Fortunately, this was not Mak’s problem, or wouldn’t be if he managed to avoid the quatics in his westward progress. It was obvious, however, that the rulers of the six cities couldn’t continue to ignore this threat for much longer. That was especially true of King Yax of Fels, who stubbornly clung to an outdated policy about the creatures even though the northern fringes of his city bordered on the Quag.
     Mak wouldn’t have felt so bad about leaving Guc if it didn’t seem like running away. It wasn’t just their long-standing friendship that pricked his conscience, but the realization if something did happen with the quatics, his king would need him. Guc might be too proud to openly admit it, but Mak was one of the best military minds on his staff.
     Mak’s horse came to an abrupt halt, nearly unseating the rider. Momentarily annoyed, Mak dug his spurs in, but the animal refused to advance, shying away from some invisible obstacle ahead in the road.
     After quieting the horse, Mak dismounted and listened. Silence was all around him - not the usual stillness of the lands between western Vorti and the Vordi River, but an ominous quiet, unpunctuated by the typical sounds of the nighttime plains. There were no insects chirping, no small creatures rustling through the underbrush, no owls hooting at the passage of a lone rider. This was unnatural, and Mak didn’t trust it.
     His lantern exploded in his hands, flaring up in a burst of orange and red before going out completely. Mak staggered backwards, his left hand and arm burned, and the flesh of his face lacerated by shattered glass. He cursed as he stumbled through the darkness toward his horse.
     Something inhuman threw him to the ground and began to pummel him. Lashing out with his fists, Mak encountered only air. The harder he struggled, the more determined the blows became. Eventually, as he lost the battle, his awareness slipped into a sea of darkness.
     Only after a suitable lapse of time did another light appear. This one was not the comforting orange glow of fire, but the cool bluish-green of an Apath’s conjuring. It lit the entire area, revealing a terrified horse; a man lying senseless on the ground; the tall, thin frame of the wizard Caa; and a shadowy form that was visible only when viewed askance.
     “Excellent,” purred Caa. “This is indeed the one we wanted, and he came so close to getting away. His Majesty will be pleased. Now,” he continued, his voice acquiring a hard edge, “finish the job!”
     With an inaudible grunt of assent that registered directly in the Apath’s mind, the creature summoned from the realms of darkness complied with the command that could not be refused.


© 2006 James Berardinelli

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