It was approaching midnight when the messenger from Tsab arrived at the gates to Vorti’s palace. Queen Lea, who was already abed, was roused and escorted to the Little Throne Room for an emergency audience, along with Eya, Wil, and Reg, none of whom gave the appearance of having had any sleep in the past several days.
     There was a sense of dread anticipation as the road-weary rider from the Western city was shown into the presence of Vorti’s ruling body. As the man bowed low, he tottered and looked for a moment as if he would pitch forward on his face.
     Lea motioned for a chair and wine to be brought. When the courier was seated and had gulped down the contents of two crystal goblets, he delivered his message.
     “I bring greetings from His Majesty, King Guc of Tsab, Sovereign of the West and Betrothed to Your Majesty.
     “My Liege requests immediate aid in a time of dire and desperate need. A quatic force numbering approximately 5000 is marching on Tsab from the north, having already destroyed the settlement of Hons. Even pressing every able-bodied man into service, Tsab cannot muster an army in excess of 1000, which is a far inferior force. Because of the threat posed not only to our city, but to the continent itself, His Majesty requests immediate and substantial aid, in the form of whatever troops can be spared. The army of Tsab will attempt to harry and hold the quatics, but it is unclear for how long they can be successful.
     “King Guc would also appreciate that his trusted advisor Lord Caa ride west with the force sent by Your Majesty.”
     “They bypassed Fels and went straight for Tsab? Why??” demanded Lea. Every tactical scenario presented by her military advisors had hinged on a quatic assault on Fels. It was not only unexpected, but virtually unthinkable, that they would strike at Tsab.
     “No one knows, Your Majesty,” said the Tsabian. “When I was sent out, the king was readying the city for battle. I believe he intends to meet the main force outside the gates while locking the non-combatants inside. He realizes it will take at least two or three days for relief to come from Vorti, and is relying on earlier aid from Merk, Xert, and Llam.”
     “Not Fels?”
     Wil responded. “If Fels was spared, there could only be one reason. King Yax must have made an arrangement with the quatics.”
     “That is what King Guc believes,” said the courier.
     “Is there anything else you can tell us?” asked Lea.
     “Unfortunately, no. When I was dispatched, the battle plans had not been readied, and the approaching quatics had just been sighted. Depending on their intentions, the battle could already be underway, or it might not start until dawn. Either way, it will be well advanced by the time your army arrives.”
     “Thank you,” said Lea. “You can rest now. We’ll summon you if we have further questions.”
     Lea convened an immediate meeting of her full council, including the battle commanders and Jav, who was not usually present for such occasions. Some few complained about being roused from their beds, but when they heard the tidings as recounted by Wil, each of the dozen men and women was stunned into silence.
     After the initial shock had worn off, the queen addressed her assembled advisors. “Vorti’s army must march by dawn. Even making excellent time, it will take nearly two days forced march to reach Tsab. By then, there may be nothing left. Five-thousand quatics are equal to a force of humans at least four times as large. Not even the best fortified city with the most experienced army could hold out for long against effective odds of twenty-to-one.
     “I know we are ill-prepared for this eventuality, having anticipated more time and a different target, but the quatics have proved more surprising than we expected, and our plans will have to be adapted, and quickly.”
     “There will be difficulties, Your Majesty,” began the veteran Dus, Lea’s battle commander.
     “Which you will overcome,” demanded the queen. “The finest military minds of this city are assembled in this room. I expect a workable battle plan, and an army ready to execute it, by first light. We march at dawn.”
     “Will you be accompanying us, Your Majesty?” inquired Dus.
     Wil flinched at the response, although he had been expecting it, and Eya’s eyes widened with surprise, but neither said a word. Both intended to speak to the queen in private about the ill-advisedness of accompanying her army into an uncertain war, but embarrassing Lea in public would serve no good.
     General Yon, one of Dus’ subcommanders, and a man chosen more for his ability with troops than his tact, had no such qualms, however. “That would not be wise, Your Majesty. There is no rational reason why your presence would influence the course of battle.”
     Lea fixed the man with an icy glare. “I don’t recall asking for opinion, General. If you cannot hold your tongue, perhaps you would like to return to the ranks through which you rose to attain your current position.”
     Yon’s handsome face paled. “I beg your forgiveness, Your Majesty.”
     Ignoring his apology, Lea addressed her assembled advisors, “General Yon may have been the only one foolish enough to have voiced that opinion, but I’m certain he’s not the only one to hold it. I may be young, and lacking in experience, but I am Vorti’s ruler, and I will not have my decisions or commands questioned or debated. I intend to rely heavily on the advice of everyone in the room, but once an order has been issued, I expect it to be carried out promptly and efficiently. Is that clear?”
     Murmurs of assent rose from those gathered around the little throne room’s table, some more reluctant than others.
     “Very well. I intend to accompany the army West, as is my duty as leader of Vorti and overcommander of the militia. I will not place myself in the line of battle, nor do I intend to direct any of the fighting, but my presence should be a rallying point for our people. Just because I am a woman, do not think I will shirk the duties you would expect from a man.”
     “None of us would dare, Your Majesty,” said Jav fondly. Of those gathered, he was the only one smiling, grateful to see the fire Lea had exhibited as a pupil had not been quenched by her tenure on the throne.
     “Pardon me, Your Majesty, but what portion of the full militia do you intend to send to Tsab’s aid?” asked General Bar, the oldest member of Vorti’s army. Ten years Dus’ senior, Bar had been in the army for most of his life, dating back to the latter years of King Kan’s reign. His grasp of tactics was limited, but he recognized and understood the capabilities of his fellow soldiers.
     “General Dus?” asked Lea, deferring the question.
     “We had considered that a force of twenty-five hundred might be sufficient to head off the quatics at Fels.”
     “And at Tsab?”
     Dus scratched his gray-stubbled chin. “Considering the circumstances, it might be best to muster an additional five-hundred to seven fifty men. We want to leave Vorti well-defended, but there are ample reasons to make sure we give as much aid as we can. Besides, with everyone arriving at different times instead of as one massive force, casualties will be higher.”
     “Three-thousand?” exclaimed Bar. “That’s nearly three-quarters of the army! Excuse my saying so, but shouldn’t we be sending less, not more? Those bastards in Tsab have been trying to bring this city down for years! If the situation was reversed, how many men do you think they would send here? Anything more than a token force is a waste. Keep the men here to defend Vorti rather than sending them to the aid of a city Devforth would be better without!”
     Lea reflected that the difficulty of having several older men on the council was all of them felt the way Bar did, including Dus. Despite the announcement of Lea’s engagement to Guc, old grudges died hard.
     The battle commander, however, despite his negative feelings about Tsab, recognized the military necessity of stopping the quatics in the west. “We need to end this at Tsab. These quatics have a force of devastating power, and they have to be stopped before they can sweep across the continent.”
     “Sound military strategy is unlikely to be their method of attack. Conquest, while it surely has its attractions, is not their primary goal. This is a race war - an attempt to avenge a defeat that happened centuries ago when humans and elves banded together to drive them back into their swamps,” said the Chancellor.
     “If these quatics are so dangerous, wouldn’t it make sense to keep the bulk of the army at Vorti, so we’ll have a defense if they attack?” asked one of the guildmasters.
     “Neither our militia, nor the militia of any other city, can stand against these quatics alone. Combined, there is hope. If the quatics aren’t stopped, or at least crippled at Tsab, it’s unlikely any number of men can save us,” said Wil.
     “You speak like a prophet of doom,” muttered another guildmaster.
     “No,” replied the Chancellor calmly. “I speak like one who is willing to look straight into the mouth of reality.”

* * *

     Lea faced her two closest advisors squarely. Despite the plush surroundings of the queen’s private sitting room, none of them were sitting.
     “I assume you two are going to try to dissuade me from accompanying the army.”
     Eya and Wil glanced at each other. They had considered the possibility, but discounted it. During the course of her brief reign, their queen had proved to be headstrong, sometimes to a fault. If she had decided to ride into war with the militia, there was little they could say or do that would hold her back.
     “No,” replied Eya. “You’re right in wanting to go with your men. As their ruler, it’s your place to be with them when they go into battle. Kings of Vorti have done this for centuries; there’s no reason tradition should change because the sex of the ruler is different.”
     Lea’s only reaction was a raised eyebrow.
     “Rather,” continued the former regent. “What we’re trying to assure is that you don’t put yourself in undue danger. This city doesn’t need another coronation so soon after the last one.”
     “I have no intention of placing my life in danger.”
     “Good,” said Wil. “Then we’re agreed. You stay well out of the fighting - beyond longbow range at a minimum, and if the tide of battle looks ugly, take a sizable escort and ride for home. If the battle is lost, there’s no point staying behind and being slaughtered. I doubt the quatics will take prisoners, even royal ones.”
     “I’ll consider what to do if we lose, when that happens,” said Lea.
     “No,” said Wil. “You’ll consider it before you ride out, because it’s a very real possibility. For this war to be won at Tsab, the armies arriving before us have to have eliminated approximately two-thirds of the quatic force. I’m not sure that’s possible. Be aware that you may be riding into a disaster.”
     “You think we’re going to lose this war, don’t you?” said Lea, suddenly realizing her chancellor’s perspective.
     “You saw the quatics fight in person. You know what they can do. How many humans will it take to balance five-thousand of them. Twenty-thousand? Thirty? At best, the combined armies of all six cities totals seventeen thousand - and these circumstances are far from the best. Fels’ fifteen hundred won’t be there, unless they’re on the quatics’ side.”
     “If it’s hopeless, why send so many of our men?”
     “I never said it was ‘hopeless,’” replied Wil. “I said the odds are that we’ll lose, but we have to grab every opportunity. In circumstances like this, risks are necessary. And in the meantime, there are other alternatives to pursue. Despite what was said during the council meeting, Tsab is just one battle - an important one, but not the entire war. Humanity isn’t the only race the quatics want revenge upon.”
     “Elves?” asked Lea.
     Wil nodded. “Don’t think they’re watching passively. Elves and humans haven’t had much contact over the past few centuries, but if you, as the sovereign queen of Vorti, call for their help, they will answer, and not only because their future is at stake.”
     “Do they know my mother was a half-elf?”
     “You can be sure of it.”
     “We should send emissaries.”
     “We already have,” said Eya.
     “Is there any danger?” asked Lea. “For the couriers, I mean. Traditionally, elves have treated human interlopers harshly.”
     “You aren’t the only citizen of Vorti to have mixed blood,” said Wil. “And even were there not others with a part-elf heritage, the situation is too dire for any courier to be harmed or ignored.”
     “What kind of force do you think they can muster?”
     “I don’t know, but if it isn’t sizable, when this bloodbath is over, the quatics will rule Devforth, and those few humans and elves left alive will be hunted down from coast to coast.”
     “Garvad should have slaughtered them when he had the chance,” muttered Eya.
     “Agreed,” said Wil. “But it’s pointless considering what happened hundreds of years ago. What we have to discuss is the best way to maximize our chances during the upcoming battle, and who should be left in command of the city while our queen is leading the troops.”
     “Eya,” said Lea without hesitation.
     The former regent scowled, but didn’t say anything. She knew the reasons for the choice. Between her and Wil, she was the most experienced at statecraft, and in battle, his stronger natural talents would prove more beneficial. Eya was powerful and innovative as an Apath, but she readily acknowledged the Chancellor’s greater skill.
     Wil’s response, however, surprised both Eya and Lea. “Consider carefully, Your Majesty. There would be significant advantages to having two Apaths in your army.”
     “Could two turn the tide of battle where one couldn’t?”
     “I can not say. When your father battled the dwarves, he needed three other Apaths to defeat them, one of whom perished in the attempt. Until we engage the quatics, it’s impossible to say how effective - or ineffective - each of us will be.”
     “I need someone on the throne who knows how to rule this city, in case I don’t come back. Other than you, Wil, Eya’s the only one qualified. And if the quatics can’t be stopped at Tsab, she may need her abilities to defend Vorti.”
     “There is uncertainty in either choice, and more than usual because we’re unsure of the dangers,” agreed Wil. Turning to his fellow advisor, he inquired, “What do you think?”
     Eya hated being asked that, because as surely as she knew that she wanted to ride into battle with Vorti’s army, she recognized where her duty lay, and it was within the walls of the palace. Given the dire considerations, it was likely that an experienced Apath ruler in Vorti would have more of an impact than a second wizard on the battlefield.
     “I believe Her Majesty’s decision is correct.”
     Wil nodded. As Chancellor, it was his responsibility to present alternatives, but he also agreed with the choice made by his queen. Now, it was a matter of putting the elements of the plan into action - and hoping fortune smiled kindly upon the humans of Devforth.
* * *

     His vision cleared slowly, but the ringing in his head would not abate. Without looking, he knew there was a dent in his helmet. Had he not been wearing it, he would be another of the hundreds of lifeless corpses littering the battlefield. Instead, he was just a dazed, unhorsed rider, struggling to his feet while fighting down wave after wave of nausea that threatened to force him back to his knees.
     He spied his great sword nearby, impaling the twisted body of the quatic who had smashed a fist into his head. This was his third kill of the day, but for every soldier in the army like him, there were dozens who had been torn limb-from-limb without scoring a telling blow. This battle had quickly turned into a rout.
     Taking a moment to steady himself on his feet, Guc gazed over the corpse-strewn Plains of Tsab, which stretched from here to the coast. It seemed that for every dead quatic, there were five dead humans. The riderless contingent of the army had been wiped out in the first attack, and perhaps only half the mounted legions had survived. In the second engagement, more casualties had been inflicted, and the king doubted his surviving army could number more than one-hundred.
     The fighting had moved to the north and east, away from where Guc had fallen, and toward the city. He could hear the distant clamor, and see the dust clouds being kicked up. Leaderless and confused, the remnants of the Tsab army were probably trying to regroup. They still had a chance - at least at survival - if they weren’t surrounded, but if the quatics had ringed them in, they were finished.
     Despite what they had been told before the first engagement, Tsab’s defenders had been unprepared for the raw viciousness of their attackers. Even once the shock of coming face-to-face with bellowing giants had worn off, the power of the quatics’ attack had made it apparent there was no way the humans could win the battle. Staying alive became the priority.
     As it turned out, the quatics had been more clever than Guc and his battle commanders had given them credit for. When the riders had attacked and the foot soldiers had retreated up and down the coast, the opposing army had been waiting for the strategy, and had moved quickly to cut off the escape routes, resulting in a massacre.
     It was sometime after noon, but the sun was still high in the sky, and Guc felt as if he had spent half his life fighting this battle. He kept gazing eastward, looking for aid from another city, but there was no sign of help. It was unrealistic to believe that troops from the Twin Cities could arrive before daybreak on the morrow. By then, Tsab might no longer be standing.
     All that was left now was the siege. The pitiful remains of Guc’s force could do little more than harry the flanks of the quatic army, and that was only if they survived their current predicament. Forty-eight hundred of those creatures would lay siege to the city. How long could the gates and walls hold out? They had been built to withstand years of pummeling, but that was by human aggressors.
     An Apath might have made all the difference, and Guc again berated himself for leaving Caa in Vorti. Not that he - or anyone other than a Seer or Seeress - could have envisioned this. Centuries of peace, then this confrontation.
     Guc retrieved his sword from its bloody sheath and wiped the blade clean as he noticed a rider approaching from the north. Quatics were too large to be carried by horses, but it the midst of battle, unpreparedness was any man’s greatest foe. Supposed allies were not always all they seemed.
     The horseman was dressed in the uniform of a common Tsab soldier, with Guc’s symbol emblazoned on his shield. He looked haggard and weary, and his left arm was bandaged with blood-soaked rags. As soon as he recognized the king, he practically tumbled from the saddle and fell to his knees.
     “Rise,” commanded Guc, surprised at the hoarseness of his voice. As the tip of his sword touched the ground, the soldier clambered to his feet, leaning against his mount to stay upright.
     “Your Majesty,” he breathed. “We thought you dead. We thought everyone dead.”
     “Everyone?” echoed Guc. “What’s happening? Who’s leading the army?”
     “Captain Yob is in charge, Sire.”
     “Yob? What about Fam, Rug, Irn, and Tyw? Are they all dead?”
     The guard nodded. “There aren’t many of us left. Even mounted, we couldn’t stop them. There were so many - they seemed to be everywhere. The battle commanders fought bravely, but against those odds...”
     “What are you doing away from the fight?”
     “Captain Yob is calling a retreat, and he wanted any wounded and stragglers told that we’re pulling out. With this arm, I can’t hold the reins and a sword, so I was chosen to deliver the message.”
     “Is the army retreating or regrouping?”
     “It’s not much of an army, Your Majesty. One-hundred at most. I don’t think there’s much of a choice about...”
     “I didn’t ask your opinions on tactics, Soldier!” barked Guc. “Is Captain Yob ordering a full or temporary withdrawal?”
     The guard swallowed hard at his king’s rebuke. “Full, Your Majesty. At least until reinforcements arrive.”
     Guc considered. Although he despised leaving the city undefended, there was no choice. The best the remnants of the army could accomplish if they remained was to provide a few hours respite as they were systematically butchered. Captain Yob, while not imaginative, was at least practical.
     “All right,” said the King. “Continue with your duty. I’ll get in touch with Yob myself.”
     “Take my mount, Your Majesty. You need speed to reach the captain, and I can continue on foot.”
     Guc didn’t argue. Without another word for the young soldier, he vaulted atop the horse, took the reins in his hands, and headed north at a gallop. He did not see the bloody tableau enacted behind him when a scavenging quatic discovered a live human among the dead.
     The king pushed the steed to its limits, and a little beyond. He had barely covered half the distance to the city and the vestiges of his army when he recognized that something was very wrong. It took him a moment to determine where the source of his unease lay, but when he recognized that, the conclusions were inescapable.
     Smoke billowed skyward from within the city walls, and the distant screams of men and women - mostly women - could be heard over the lessening sounds of battle. Somehow, the gate or the walls had been breached. The quatics were within the city. Tsab was lost.
     Bile rose into Guc’s mouth at the thought of the massacre that was happening. His soldiers had been little match for the quatics; what chance did a ragtag band of women, children, and old men stand, most of whom had never lifted a weapon before?
     Still he rode north, while recognizing this path likely led to his death. He had to see the damage for himself, even if it cost him his life. This was, after all, his city, and he would not abandon it until all hope was lost.
     Quatics seemed to be everywhere, and it took Guc several moments to locate the struggling remains of the Tsab militia. They were to the south and east of the city, and appeared to be attempting to pull back. The group of quatics they were facing barely outnumbered them, since the majority of the enemy’s warriors were engaged in the invasion of the city. Unsheathing his sword, the king headed straight for them, shouting the ancient battle call of Tsab at the top of his lungs.
     When the beleaguered force recognized their king, a cry went up from their ranks. As if rejuvenated, they banded together more tightly, and the retreat took on an ordered formation.
     It wrenched Guc’s heart to see what had happened to Tsab. The gates had been thrown wide, and a huge portion of one of the walls had been torn down - probably the breach through which the invaders had first entered. Whole portions of the city were in flames, and the screams from within were fainter and less frequent than moments ago. Soon, Tsab would be a giant funeral pyre.
     That realization spurred the king to immediate action. It was imperative that the army break the engagement now, before the main force of quatics emerged from the city. The humans had to get away while the slightest glimmer of hope for escape remained. Tsab was lost, and there was no sense spending lives to defend something beyond salvation. As of this moment, Guc was a ruler without a city.
     In the midst of the chaos, the king located Captain Yob. Still on his horse, the new leader of the militia was holding his own against a pair of quatics. As his mount reared and kicked at one, Yob fended the other off with broad strokes from his two-handed sword. His shield was gone, and his left arm was bloody where the armor had been ripped away.
     Guc spurred his mount directly into the heart of the frenzy, lashing out left and right with his weapon. It contacted with solid flesh once, as testified to by the bone-jarring ripple of shock that traveled up his arm and the grunt of angry surprise from his victim. Then the king was by the side of his battle commander, taking on the enemy the horse had been fighting.
     This quatic was already wounded, with its left arm dangling useless from a shattered shoulder. Nevertheless, the creature’s attack was ferocious, and Guc was nearly unhorsed as the quatic hurled itself bodily at him. The mount was well-trained, however, and danced out of harm’s way, even as its rider brought his sword to bear. The deathblow split open the back of the enemy’s skull, and the creature sank into the muddy floor of the battlefield without another word.
     His attention no longer divided, Yob made quick work of his enemy, but he was breathing hard and it was clear to Guc that he, like most of the men in this fray, was on the brink of exhaustion.
     “We’ve made a good showing, Your Majesty,” panted Yob. “These bastards may look tough, but they’re no match for a good mounted soldier armed with steel.”
     But we don’t have nearly enough men with the skill to win a battle like this, and even if we did, the physical prowess of these brutes would win out in the end, thought Guc. Plainly and simply, the quatics were too tough. It was as much through luck than experience that he was alive, and the same was true for every man who had more than one kill to his name.
     “You’ve ordered a retreat?” demanded Guc.
     Yob was apologetic. “It was the only chance I could see. The men were willing to fight to the end, but when we heard you had fallen, and when the gates to the city were opened so the quatics could enter, there no longer seemed a reason to stay behind. It was either retreat or be slaughtered.”
     “The gates to the city were what???”
     “Opened, Your Majesty. By someone from inside. The quatics didn’t breach the wall until after they had already been let into the city. Tsab was betrayed by one of her own.”
     Guc was stunned, and his first thought was that Yob had to be misinformed. The idea the quatics had allies - human allies - within Tsab was unthinkable. Yet it was hard to dispute the evidence before his eyes, and the reminder of the duplicity of a human - King Yax of Fels - was never far from his thoughts.
     Guc was a king, however, born and bred to make difficult decisions and cope with the unexpected, so the shock didn’t paralyze him for long. “All right. Break off the engagement and sound an immediate retreat. We have to get out of here before the quatics abandon their entertainment in the city and catch what’s left of the army in a pincer movement. We ride east to the fringes of the Merk Woods, then south to the northern shore of Lake Merk, where we’ll gather at Pipit’s Cove and await the troops from the Twin Cities. It’s every man for himself, Captain. I’ll see you at the rendezvous.”
     With one final look at the city, the flames bathing it in a hellish red glow and billowing clouds of black smoke rolling skyward from its depths, Guc wheeled his mount, spurred it to a gallop, and fled eastward, for the moment not caring whether anyone was following him.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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