From the highest point in all of Tsab, the uppermost story of the northern watchtower, King Guc gazed northward as if his height could compensate for the distance between his city and the massive army of quatics his scouts informed him was out there...somewhere. Five thousand of them, headed in this direction. Five thousand vicious, warlike quatics against his scant population of 5000, more than two-thirds of whom were infirm, women, and children. The standing militia of Tsab numbered 600, and perhaps another 800 could be pressed into service. Even with the walls, Guc knew it would not be enough.
     "Has this morning's scout returned yet?" asked Guc, addressing the question to the captain of the guards who stood silently by his side.
     "No, Your Majesty."
     Guc stifled the impulse to sigh. "Send out another one," he commanded.
     With a crisp salute, the captain turned to carry out his sovereign's orders. Guc spared the officer a glance as he began his descent down the long spiral staircase that would take him to ground level.
     This morning's scout was probably dead, joining several others who had vanished in the past day. Less than half the men Guc sent out returned. Theirs was a dangerous mission, and each loss was one less able body to defend the city, but this kind of campaign needed intelligence more than people. When it came down to it, one sword arm - or a score, for that matter - would mean little.
     How he wished for someone other than the silent Captain Yob to stand by his side - a Caa or a Mak, or anyone who would offer suggestions and not simply agree with his every decision. Guc understood tactics, and knew what had to be done to prepare the city for what was to come, but he yearned to hear a voice other than his own speak thoughts that were not born in his mind.
     Guc didn't know exactly when the attack would come, but it would be soon, perhaps as early as tonight, if the quatics flouted conventional warfare and began a starlight siege. The situation presented several dilemmas, each of which needed an immediate solution.
     Convinced that the quatic army was far beyond the reach of his vision, Guc descended from the watchtower. On the way down, he encountered Yob, bearing a message that the full council was seated and awaiting His Majesty's presence.
     Rather than going to the chamber where his hand-picked group of sycophants would be whining for reassurance, Guc headed for the militia barracks, where strategy sessions were being conducted. There, at least, he might be able to learn something. Council meetings at times like these were needless annoyances. Had it not been dangerous to his public image, Guc would have disbanded the circle of fourteen long ago. The people, however, viewed those men and women as their links with the king, even though there were perhaps two people who had anyone's interests other than their own at heart.
     Four of the highest-ranking military minds in Tsab were gathered around a large map of Devforth. The position of the quatics based on the last scouting report was indicated by a large red marker. When the men noticed who entered, they gave perfunctory salutes before returning to the matter at hand.
     "What do you think, gentleman?" asked Guc, moving uninvited into their midst.
     The eldest of the four, an ancient, battle-tested veteran named Fam, spoke first. "If we don't get help from somewhere, they'll beat us back no matter what we do." Though his face was a mass of wrinkles and blotches, his eyes were alert and lively. Fam, who had once been Tsab's battle commander, had resigned that post a dozen years ago, but remained available for occasions such as this.
     "I think we can withstand a siege," muttered Tyw, the youngest of the four, a newly promoted captain who was popular with the men because he never put them through anything he wasn't willing to endure. Tyw was perhaps the ugliest man Guc had ever seen, but he had an open, easygoing manner that encouraged people to forget his twisted, out-of-proportion features and gangly body.
     "I doubt it's a siege they're after," said Fam. "Creatures like that, with their strength and in those numbers, they can bring down the walls. They aren't going to sit out there and wait for us to surrender. They want blood."
     "We need to devise a defense," said Irn, the current battle-commander, an impressive man of fifty-five years with iron-gray hair, a full beard, and eyes that could capture and hold a man's attention. He was an imposing presence who bowed to two men only - the king and Fam.
     "We can’t possibly hold them off in an open battle," argued Tyw. "We don't have enough men to try field maneuvers, then withdraw and wait it out behind the walls. The whole army numbers only three-hundred fifty horse and two-hundred fifty foot soldiers. I wouldn't want to throw any emergency conscripts into immediate fighting."
     "We may have no choice," noted Irn.
     "Still, if we plan for a siege, we can take a defensive posture..."
     Guc interrupted the proceedings. "There will be no siege. If we stay behind the walls, these creatures will tear them down to get to us." He remembered the group of quatics he had encountered on the previous trip from Vorti to Tsab and knew instinctively that waiting was not these creatures' way. "What we have to decide is which plan will keep the maximum number of our people alive for the longest time, in the hope aid will arrive from the east. I believe we're all in agreement that if it's just us against them, there's no way we can win."
     Reluctantly, all four nodded.
     "I have sent messengers to Merk, Xert, Llam, and Vorti requesting immediate aid." Guc didn't mention Fels, and everyone understood why. It was widely believed King Yax was guilty of collaboration with the enemy. Otherwise, how had his city, lying on the border of Flaz' Quag, gone untouched by the massive quatic army?
     "So the question is whether to keep the army within the walls and fight the creatures as they attempt to scale them, or shut up the citizens inside while sending our forces out to engage the enemy in open combat. Not a pleasant choice," commented Captain Rug, the rugged undercommander to Irn, and the only one not to have previously spoken. Rug, a veteran of the Vorti war, rarely offered a comment, but when he did, his fellows listened.
     "I agree," said Irn. "If we close up the forces within the gates, we negate their effectiveness. Women can throw boiling pitch on climbing quatics as easily as trained guards. On the other hand, if we send the army into the field, we consign them to slaughter. A pitched battle would devastate us."
     "What about lightning raids?" questioned Guc. "None of the quatics are on horses. They can move fast, but not as fast as mounted men. If we have the cavalry attack quickly and repeatedly, then retreat, we might be able to harry their forces enough to give the other cities time to respond."
     "And how do you propose to use the foot soldiers, Your Majesty?" asked Fam.
     As bait, thought Guc, but he didn't voice the idea. As leaders of the army, these men wouldn't appreciate the notion of sacrificing half their soldiers.
     "I leave that up to you gentlemen," said the king. "Deploy them as they can best serve their city without committing suicide."
     "Your Majesty, pardon my saying so, but aren't you placing undue reliance upon the other cities? What if they decline to come to Tsab's aid? We are not the most popular city in Devforth," said Tyw.
     "They will come because the threat we face is a danger to the whole continent, not just one city. They would rather see Tsab as the battleground, rather than their own cities, and they recognize that if the quatics aren't stopped here, they'll march on to the Twin Cities and beyond. The armies will come - all of them. The question is whether we'll be able to hold out long enough for them to get here."
     "How many men can they bring?" asked Tyw.
     Irn, who knew the strengths of the other cities' armies, responded to that question. "Undoubtedly, none will bring their full military might, but the forces will be larger than a token show of strength. The first aid should come from the Twin Cities. Assuming they send about half their militias, we’ll have an influx of twenty-five hundred men in one day. Llam will take longer, and they'll probably only contribute one-thousand men. If we can hold out three days, Vorti should send another three-thousand - or perhaps more, considering the Queen's relationship with Your Majesty."
     "We have to hold for three days, then," noted Guc. "If we can keep the quatics out of the city until Vorti's reinforcements arrive, we have a legitimate chance."
     "Begging Your Majesty's pardon," noted Fam, "But I'm not sure even Vorti's militia will be enough against these beasts."
     "His Majesty was thinking less of the men than the wizards," stated Rug. "Vorti has two assets which make her dangerous: her military might and her Apaths. Both undoubtedly will come to our aid, and what the first cannot accomplish, the second may succeed at."
     “Exactly,” agreed Guc. “The question is: how best to keep this city from falling before help can arrive?”
     “What we have to ensure is that they fight our type of battle, not the other way ’round,” said Tyw. “We have to choose the terrain, and the manner of combat, and that means somewhere where our foot soldiers can be as much of an asset as our mounted men.”
     “You have a suggestion?” demanded Fam.
     Tyw nodded. “The cliffs by the coast. If we can lure the quatics there, we’ll have the higher ground just before the sheer drop. While they’re moving up to destroy us, the mounted riders can attack from behind.”
     “And if things go wrong, the foot soldiers will be pinned in an untenable position with no way out,” noted Rug. “You place them with their backs to the edge where they’ll have to stay until the battle ends or the quatics retreat.”
     Tyw disagreed. “If the mounted charge breaks or merely scatters the quatic forces, the foot soldiers can divide, with one group moving up the coast and the other in the opposite direction. Splitting the forces will form two smaller, more mobile groups that can make for more difficult targets. The more confusion we create, the longer we can hold out.”
     “And the less likely the quatics will turn to the city gates for amusement,” stated Guc with approval. “What do you others think?”
     “It’s workable,” agreed Fam. “Dangerous, as with all timing maneuvers, but if we pull it off, it might be possible to keep our forces reasonably intact until reinforcements arrive.”
     “It needs refinement,” said Irn. “But I agree with Fam. The basic strategy could be effective against this sort of superior force. As long as we stress to the men that we’re acting as a diversion, not trying to win. If we get into a ‘real’ battle, it doesn’t matter how good our timing is, or how strong our position. Against such an overwhelmingly superior force, we’ll be crushed.”
     “We’ll be sure the men understand what’s expected of them,” said Rug.
     When he was certain his four battle leaders were in agreement, Guc gave his approval. “Let’s get it done, then. I’ll leave it to you gentlemen to work out the details. I have other things to attend to.”
     “Your Majesty?” questioned Irn. “When will you be riding from Tsab?”
     Guc regarded the man quizzically. “What do you mean?”
     Irn shrugged. “Eastward. To Merk or Xert, perhaps.”
     Now Guc understood. “Fleeing, you mean?” His scowl expressed his opinion of the suggestion.
     “A withdrawal,” corrected Irn. “For morale. So that the men will know their sovereign survives...”
     “ a craven bastard who runs away with the approach of danger,” finished Guc, his voice thick with scorn. “Not only do I intend to remain behind, but I will lead the attack of the mounted force. This king will not abandon his city. Let the people know that and see how it affects their morale!”

* * *

     Lea had been distracted for the better part of two days, waiting for word. Of the seven messengers she had sent, only three had returned - those sent to the Twin Cities, Llam, and Falnora - all with little to report. Two couriers had been dispatched to Knex, one shortly after Gav’s arrival and the other late yesterday when it became apparent the first would not return. The messengers to Torg and Fels likewise had not come back, and Lea was starting to feel blind.
     Knowing how dangerous the situation across Devforth was, it was difficult to focus on the small, domestic matters brought before the throne by her subjects. A dispute over a dowry or the ownership of a colt sired by one family’s horse and birthed by that of another, seemed trivial. Yet her advisors indicated it was important to keep up normal appearances, lest a panic start. The people of Vorti had heard the unsettling rumors; now was not the time for the Queen to give credence to them.
     Lea had left the preparations for war to her chancellor and her battle commander, a veteran named Dus who had served as leader of the civilian corps under her father. While Lea had sat in on their sessions during the last two evenings, and would do so again tonight, she had little of practical value to offer. Most of her training was for peacetime ruling, not battle. It was fortunate many of her advisors were experienced in that ugly craft.
     The composition of her court had changed subtly over the past few days. With Wil’s time spent exclusively in preparing for the upcoming crisis, Eya had usurped his public position. Reg had returned to the palace, along with his family. His rank as General required him to be on hand for the battle meetings. And Jav, who dearly loved his seclusion, had begun to attend Lea’s private nighttime “strategy sessions”, where she plotted the non-military ramifications of a continental war.
     “Your Majesty?” asked Eya, bringing Lea’s attention back to the matter at hand. The two supplicants stood before the throne, gazing at her expectantly, each believing they had presented the superior case. The problem was, the queen hadn’t heard a word either had said.
     “Your advice, Eya?” she inquired, hoping to hide her lapse.
     Her former regent wasn’t fooled. “Perhaps Your Majesty would like a recess?”
     “No,” said the queen, shaking her head emphatically. “We’ll continue. I was just wondering what your opinion was on this matter.”
     “I would give the colt to the sire’s family, then mandate the stallion be made available to father another.”
     Lea nodded. It was as good a resolution as any, she supposed.
     As the queen was about to deliver her judgment, the double doors to the throne room opened and Eya’s brother entered. Walking briskly, he approached the throne, his face a mask of determined concentration.
     After executing a truncated bow, he barely waited to be acknowledged before delivering his message. “Your Majesty, your presence is requested in the Little Throne Room. One of your scouts has returned.”
     Moments later, flanked by Eya, Reg, and a half-dozen guards, Lea entered the Little Throne Room and took her seat. Her sudden departure from the great audience hall had caused a stir, and fueled speculation, but Lea had read the importance of what Reg had not said.
     The scout was shown in immediately. Mud-spattered and carrying a large burlap sack, he was the same man Lea had wished good luck to a half-day ago. To reach and return from Knex in such a short time, he must have ridden his horse near to death. His expression bespoke his own weariness - and something darker.
     “Your Majesty,” he acknowledged with a bow. “I return with news of Knex...and this.” He undid the ties of the sack and let its contents drop to the floor.
     It was a quatic head, features distorted by what had been an unpleasant death. While Lea, having seen worse on her trip to Tsab, showed no reaction, Eya flinched at the sight.
     “Get that out of here!” demanded the former regent of one of the guards.
     “Obviously, you encountered quatics,” said Lea. “Where and how many?”
     “Only this one, Your Majesty. He was injured, or I might not have finished him off so quickly, if at all. I met him several miles east of... where Knex used to be.”
     Shock, but not surprise, greeted this statement. Neither Lea nor her advisors had dared to believe the settlement still stood. Directly in the path of the Vorti Marsh force and poorly protected, it never had a chance.
     “No survivors?” asked Lea.
     “None. No bodies, Your Majesty. No buildings. Nothing. It was as if there had never been a Knex.”
     “Any indications there might be refugees?”
     “Not in that area, Your Majesty. If anyone survived the attack, they’re probably still running. I know I would be. But after seeing that quatic, and what happened there... the only way anyone could have gotten away would be if they were permitted to, and I think the quatics were intent upon total destruction.”
     Lea nodded. “Is there anything else?”
     “Nothing, Your Majesty.”
     “Get cleaned up. You’ll make a full report to the battle commanders as soon as you’re able to.”
     After the scout had departed, Lea turned to Eya and her twin. “Not that there was ever really any doubt, but at least now we have independent confirmation.”
     “More than that, we now have a clue to their intentions,” said Eya, her voice clipped.
     “Revenge? Wil postulated that.”
     “Not just revenge. Genocide.”
* * *

     Late that night, as the quatic army marched towards Tsab and Guc put the final touches on his battle plan, Lea sat at her dressing table fretting with her hair as she readied herself for bed. Dressed in a gossamer sleeping gown, the queen looked calm and demure, which was far from how she felt. Inside, the turmoil was roiling.
     Eya, still dressed in her day clothes, stood behind her queen’s chair. It was only after some pointed arguments and near-bullying by her former regent that Lea had agreed to go to bed. Eya reminded her that when her people would need her, she would have to be awake and functioning at peak capacity. The time would come for sleepless nights, but it was not yet here - at least not for a young queen.
     “Do you think I’m doing the right thing?” asked Lea suddenly, turning to face her advisor.
     Eya framed her reply carefully. “Since your coronation, you’ve made some mistakes, but that’s only to be expected. On the whole, though, you’ve been more than equal to the tasks set before you.”
     “I mean with Guc. Should I really be marrying him? Is he the right one for me? For Vorti?”
     Eya reflected that those questions would have been better addressed several weeks ago, before an official announcement had been made. And before she had ventured to Meg’s house to hear the Seeresses’ dire prediction about the consequences of the union not occurring. How was it possible to be objective after learning something like that? She still disliked and distrusted the king of Tsab, but it was her duty to champion the marriage.
     “I thought you had this all figured out,” murmured Eya. “And your chancellor certainly believes in the match.”
     “But not you.”
     Eya hesitated. How to avoid the truth, yet not tell a direct lie? Whatever else, she couldn’t reveal Meg’s warning to Lea. That was a burden not meant for the queen’s shoulders.
     “At first, I was against a marriage between you and Guc. I thought he was wooing you to gain control of Vorti. Now, I wonder if I may have been mistaken.”
     “And I wonder if you may have been right.”
     “No,” conceded Eya sadly. “I think I was influenced by old prejudices. Since Guc took the throne from his father, he’s never made an aggressive move against Vorti.” Not that he’d had the army to do anything but play the conciliatory monarch... “When I think of Tsab, I see the enemy your father and I faced - dwarves and men, grappling in Vorti’s streets. Those of my generation were marked by it. You have a fresh viewpoint.”
     “Now, after all your protests, you think I should marry Guc??” asked Lea, incredulous.
     “Do you love him?”
     The queen bit her lower lip. “Yes.”
     For a moment, Eya despised Guc with her whole heart. In a flash she saw his plan, and how it had succeeded. All it had taken was a little charm and a few displays of affection to capture Lea’s heart. An orphan queen just flowering into womanhood - vulnerable despite her outward toughness.
     Letting the hatred drain away, she said, “You must marry, Lea. You are Vorti’s queen, and must have heirs. For that, you need a king. The alliance with Guc is a good one, given the terms Wil has placed upon it. Why not follow your heart? Perhaps if I had found someone to marry, I might be a less...harsh person. Magic is not a tender lover, nor is the rulership of a city.”
     “But what about Wil? I thought you and he...”
     “We are friends, and we share each other’s bed from time-to-time, but that’s all. In fact, he’s almost a father to me, or once was. There was only ever one woman for Wil, and she’s been dead since I was a girl. If there ever was a man for me, I didn’t find him.”
     “But what if Guc is a threat to Vorti? How can I marry him suspecting that?”
     “Have faith in Wil and me, and your other advisors. No matter what schemes the king of Tsab may be hatching, we’re more than a match for them.”
     “But first, we have a war to win.”
     “Yes,” agreed Eya somberly. “We have a war to win.”
* * *

     His expression unreadable, Guc watched from astride Vengeance as the gates to Tsab swung slowly shut. They would not open again until the quatic army had been vanquished. Or until the city’s guardians were all dead and the walls breached.
     Dusk had descended, and the cool autumn evening was lit by the dazzling light of a full moon. Sometime tomorrow, these peaceful plains, now bathed in white, would be trampled and stained crimson. The environs of Tsab were about to be turned into a war zone. Guc hoped the city proper could be spared the devastation that would sweep across the fields surrounding it.
     Behind Guc were 350 mounted soldiers, the best of his trained army. As a result of the lost war with Vorti some seventeen years ago, there were few older than age twenty-five, and most were barely old enough to be called “men.” Supporting the riders was an infantry numbering 700. Many of those on foot were farmers or merchants by trade, and less than half of them had received any formal training, but Tsab’s army needed every able-bodied man it could seize. Most of them would die, but perhaps their deaths would buy the time for the armies of the other cities to begin arriving.
     With a thud that sounded unnaturally loud in the strange stillness of the night, the great bolt was slammed home. At this point, not even Guc could command the gates to open. He had been explicit about that order, over the arguments of several left in charge within the walls. If captured, the king refused to be the pawn that would give his enemies access to his city.
     The quatics still had not reached the outer perimeter of Guc’s scout network, which stretched some ten miles in all directions. But they would soon arrive. The wind that blew this night was an ill one, foretelling tomorrow’s carnage.
     As midnight approached, Guc’s commanders presided over the distribution of the army, with the foot soldiers camped along the cliffside to the northwest of the city, and the mounted warriors awaiting the attack from the south. The strategy had been carefully considered and refined through a day of intense planning, but not even the most brilliant plot could overcome odds this insurmountable.
     The greatest danger was that fear would paralyze the troops. Few of the men were seasoned veterans, and in the face of such an unnatural enemy, panic would be a natural human reaction. Guc remembered his emotions when battling the quatics on the road from Tsab to Vorti. How many would lose their nerve? The defection of even a few could bludgeon the army’s morale.
     Once everyone was in position, the waiting began. The time between midnight and dawn dragged on, a seemingly endless span. Guc paced back and forth beside his steed, listening to the occasional messages of the perimeter scouts who rode in to say there was still no sign of the quatic advance.
     The early rays of the new day’s sun were beginning to stain the far eastern horizon when the first quatic sighting was reported. The entire force, numbering close to 5000, was moving south at a forced march. At their current pace, they would be within sight of the city in less than an hour, and the battle would commence as the sun was clearing the horizon.
     After sending a messenger to sound the alarm, Guc ordered his battle commanders to prepare the attack. Sleeping soldiers were roused and began falling into formation. Row upon row of armed, armored men atop leaped astride powerful steeds. Each was impressive, but there were not nearly enough. Against 5000 quatics, Guc wondered if there were enough warriors on the continent. But the Apaths should shift the balance. Caa, Wil, and Eya. If they got here in time.
     Guc had given his speech the day before, as the men prepared to ride out of the city, so no words were expected of him now as the men sat tense and waiting. The slow, daunting progress of time was oppressive, even as the constant stream of couriers appeared to report on the advance of the quatics. Ten miles away, then half that, then half again.
     At first, it sounded like distant thunder, but the rumble grew louder as it rolled closer. It was not a storm in the sky, but one on the ground. The men of Tsab listened in fascinated horror to the trembling of the earth under the march of quatic feet. Somewhere within the city, the alarm bell began to peel, warning citizens that the attack was imminent.
     Shortly thereafter, the front lines of Grundig’s forces turned toward the coast and the infantry awaiting them, and the battle of Tsab was joined.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

Back To Main Contents
Back to Chapter Eleven
On to Chapter Thirteen