The rain started during the night. When Sor shut his eyes sometime before midnight, gazing up at the sky, the stars had been winking brightly at him and the slender crescent of the waxing moon had been sliding toward the horizon. Shortly thereafter, the clouds had come scudding in from the northwest, bringing with them a plummet in temperature and a storm citizens of Devforth frequently referred to as an "Autumn splash."
     Sor awoke with the falling of the first cold, fat drop on his face. By the time he sat up in his bedroll, it was raining steadily, and it didn't take more than a few minutes for the precipitation to become a downpour.
     There was little a common soldier could do other than get wet. The high-ranking officers had tents, but everyone else was supposed to endure the rigors of the weather. Professional militia men were not to be disturbed by little things like long marches, blistered feet, and getting soaked in the middle of the night. Sor grimaced considering the sort of advice his unwanted companion of the day would have given him.
     At least his unease about the coming battle was gone. Glancing around, Sor saw no evidence of the lieutenant who had come to his and the others' cookfire and taught them the value of singing and joking on the eve of war. Right now, that man was probably sleeping soundly beneath one of a dozen canvas pavilions.
     Although he would never have admitted it, a part of Sor wished at the moment he was home beneath his parents' roof - warm and dry. If love meant making the kinds of sacrifices he had gone through today, he was sure it was overrated. The poets never wrote ballads about sore calves, muddy campsites, and wet bedrolls.
     "Are you awake?" came a voice from out of the darkness nearby. It was a silly question, since Sor, sitting up, was obviously not asleep. He turned to see that another of the small group of recruits, a lad named Tui, had shed his blankets and gotten to his feet.
     Tui was about a year older than Sor. He was good looking, with a lean body and shoulder-length fair hair, and sunny-natured. His parents were farmers although, according to him, his father was the son of nobles who had gone into hiding around the time of the purge. Sor didn't know whether to believe Tui about this or not but, either way, it was a harmless story.
     "What is it?" asked Sor, also rising. He didn't see himself getting any more sleep in this weather. Used to curling up next to a fire on a night like this, the idea of rolling around in freezing mud lacked appeal.
     "There's a rumor we may not be going on to Tsab tomorrow - the city has already fallen and we're on our way back to Vorti to defend her against an invasion."
     "Who says this?"
     Tui shrugged. "I heard a pair of sentries talking. They said a messenger arrived a few hours ago, and the pair that just rode in were also from the front. The lights have been on in the queen's tent all night, and none of the battle commanders have gone back to their own pavilions."
     "They're planning," said Sor.
     Tui shook his head. "They had everything planned beforehand. The only reason they'd be meeting this late is if they were changing the strategy. Mark my words, when we march tomorrow, it will be east, not west."
     "And what does that mean for Tsab?"
     "I'd think that was obvious. If we head for home, it means there is no more Tsab."

* * *

     Guc's two messengers rode into Vorti's camp just before the onset of the storm. They were shown immediately into Lea's presence, where they delivered the news about the defeat of the Twin Cities' army.
     After the pair had been given refreshment and told to wait before carrying a message back to Guc, Lea and her advisors entered into a new heated debate over their next course of action.
     "Your Majesty, I agreed with you about continuing on, but this changes everything," said Dus, who had backed her decision to march on Tsab. "Now, with the forces of Merk and Xert vanquished, our hope for additional support is gone. Even if Llam doesn't turn back - which seems unlikely, given the circumstances - we have already lost the most significant contribution to our forces."
     "Those fools were stupid not to wait," said General Bar. "What was Jut thinking?"
     "Jut was always an impulsive glory-hound," noted Dus. "But the issue here isn't whether the Twin Cities' army acted intelligently - which they obviously didn't, since they've been wiped out. Rather, it's one of picking our battlefield. Before, we were constrained to fight on the Plains of Tsab. Now, with half our allies are gone, options have opened. Given a choice, I would rather fight in the east than the west."
     "If the elves are going to support us, the aid will come more quickly to Vorti than Tsab. There are more in the Forest of Llam, and the eastern clans are less suspicious of human motivations," said Wil.
     "So you think we should turn back?" Lea asked him.
     "I'm just presenting a fact no one else may be aware of."
     "Is there anyone who still supports moving forward?" demanded Lea. The only response was the drumming of rain on the tent's canvas.
     "You're probably right," she said. "And I'm not about to flout the advice of those who know more about battle than I'll ever learn. So we turn back and make our stand at Vorti. Our last stand."
     At least there, they would have two Apaths defending them. And, regardless of what concerns Wil had about the morality of taking emotion from others, Lea didn't expect to find the same uncertainty in Eya. In many ways, Vorti's regent was colder and more practical than her chancellor. In a time like this, those traits might be what saved Devforth from disaster.
* * *

     The storm that hit the Northern Plains launched its full fury at Vorti less than two hours later. Accompanied by gusty winds and occasional lightning, the cold rains swept over the city, sending nighttime travelers scurrying for cover, and encouraging those at taverns to order another round to avoid going outside. It was a good night for barkeeps, who had seen business down since the army had marched off, taking nearly half the city's able-bodied men.
     In the palace, Eya became aware of the storm by the rat-a-tat-tat of pin-sized hail against the window in her sitting room. She got up, threw wide the sash to peer outside, then quickly shut it when a deluge of windswept water sprayed into the room. Wiping droplets from her face, she returned to the divan where she had been reclining, and to the conversation with her brother, who sat opposite her in a plush chair.
     "Except for the thrice-daily status reports, I haven't heard anything," noted Eya. "Lea probably doesn't know that Sor is in the army. I doubt he's gone out of his way to make his presence known."
     Reg smiled. "Love can do strange things to people. Remember Bre and me."
     "How could I forget? If you two hadn't gotten married, you would have killed each other. Still, embarrassment is as powerful a motivator as love, and Sor would be mortified if Lea found out about him, because you know she'd put him in a 'protected' position. He's on this campaign to prove his manhood."
     "And to guard her against becoming a woman."
     "That's a rather crude way to put it."
     "Crude, but true. He's determined that nothing happens between Lea and Guc. I think he'd rather kill the king of Tsab than let him have our queen."
     "The thought has crossed my mind more than a few times. Personally, I have no doubts that Guc's plot is to get his hands on as much territory as possible. I can't believe a sensible girl like Lea fell for that oily charm."
     "Anyway, I hope this little excursion into manhood doesn't cost Sor his life. I've already got enough problems with my other offspring."
     "When's the baby due?"
     "In half a season."
     "And she won't name the father?"
     "Won't...or can't, I don't know which. Lor used to confide in her mother, but she doesn't any more. It's impossible to get through to her. And now a fatherless child... That destroys any chances she had of a decent marriage. Bre is going gray over the situation."
     "How did she react when you told her about Sor?"
     "I haven't. Not yet."
     "The time hasn't been right yet."
     "So where does she think he is?"
     "Off on an apprenticeship."
     "And when exactly did you intend to tell her? When his body comes home for burning?" No sooner had she said that, Eya bit her lip. Tact had never been one of her strong suits. As her twin, though, Reg understand what she was trying to say, and didn't take offense.
     "You're right of course. I'll tell her when I get home."
     Eya was poised to say something about him not leaving the palace until the rain let up, but a knock at her door interrupted her. A puzzled expression on her face, she rose to answer it. Except in emergencies, she wasn't to be disturbed after midnight.
     Moments later, she re-entered the sitting room with a furled piece of parchment, sealed with Lea's mark. Opening it, Eya skimmed the contents before reading them aloud to Reg. They summarized the message delivered to Lea by the first courier from Guc, telling of Tsab's fall.
     "Not good news," commented Reg when she was finished. "And they only killed two-hundred quatics?"
     "That's what it says. Although, with the exception of a few survivors of their botched campaign against us, most of their soldiers were little more than boys."
     "Like my son."
     "Not exactly. Vorti's army has at its center a core of reliable, experienced veterans. It's a little different when your whole militia is made of raw recruits."
     "So what do you do now?"
     "Wait. There's little else I can do. Vorti's immediate defense is prepared for, although I want to talk to the stonemason's guild about building a wall - not that it has any hope of being completed in time. If the armies don't stop the quatics in the west, they'll probably be here within a week. Then I'll have to be ready."
     "What else? Using some of the things I've learned over the past decade, I might be more formidable than anyone anticipates. Wil is a pacifist at heart, and he doesn't agree with some of the more weaponlike developments I've made, but they may come in handy if the quatics move to attack Vorti."
     As his sister said this, Reg saw a momentary something in her eyes that disturbed him. It wasn't the first time he'd seen it, either. It was like an unsatiated hunger - a ravenous need nothing was fulfilling. Once, she had never been like that, but that had been years ago, before they came to Vorti.
     "What's happened to you, Eya? You never used to be so cold."
     The regent's laugh was mirthless. "Try ruling this damned city for fifteen years and see what it makes of you. Any belief you have in human nature will be stripped away. Our race is not a pleasant one, Reg. You should see some of the things they'll do to one another for a trinket or a small plot of land. It almost makes creatures like the quatics seem civilized."
     "It's more than that, though, isn't it?"
     Eya sighed. "I suppose so. Ever since we've come to Vorti, I've been alone, Reg. And that sort of loneliness when you're in a position of power does something to a person. King Sor knew all about it - he left a diary of sorts, and I understand a lot of what he wrote. He was alone, too - for a very long time."
     "But you're not alone. You have me."
     "Once, we were very close. But when you found Bre, things changed. You had her to satisfy. You shared her bed and life. I had no one except the throne, and Vorti is a cold mistress."
     "What about Wil?"
     "I don't think there's a misconception we're madly in love. I suppose there's an affection between us that goes back to when you and I were children living in Falnora, but we're not 'lovers' in the traditional sense of the word. We use each other to satisfy certain physical needs. That's all. It doesn't do much for the emotional void."
     Reg shook his head sadly. "I can't believe we've drifted this far apart. I wish I'd known."
     A bemused smile cross Eya's features. "What would you have done? I made my own decision when I decided to stand for Regent. Anything I may regret, I willingly turned my back on. And, for what it's worth, I think I did a fine job holding this city together during the transition between Sor and his daughter."
     Another knock at the door interrupted them again. With an unladlylike snort of disgust, Eya went to answer it.
     Standing outside was the half-elf chamberlain Cova, an ancient and graying servant who had worked in the palace, in one capacity or another, since the days of King Kan. Cova only looked a fraction of his one-hundred twenty years; his father's elf blood kept him hale when most of his human contemporaries were long in the grave, including the father and son he had served for so many years in the capacity of footman. Now, under Lea, he had been raised to a position befitting someone of his long-term faithfulness.
     "What is it, Cova?" Even though Eya knew it had to be important, she found it difficult to disguise her annoyance at the interruption.
     "An emissary from the Forest of Llam has arrived, Your Grace. He requests an audience."
     "Arrange suitable quarters and fit him into my schedule for early tomorrow morning. I don't do audiences at this hour."
     "Your Grace, Ambassador Atun is an elf, and he wishes to be gone from Vorti by sunup. He believes it necessary to meet with you, but I do not think he will wait past dawn."
     "Oh, very well! Show him into the little throne room. I'll be there as soon as I get dressed."
* * *

     For Guc, it was impossible to get comfortable in the midst of all the rain and mud. The Tsab survivors' encampment at Pipit's Cove had turned into a bog as a result of the unrelenting storm that had swept in before midnight. Now, everything was soaked through, and the downpour showed no signs of abating. Guc's only consolation was that the weather was likely pinning the quatics at Tsab - not that they had shown any inclination of moving elsewhere at the moment. They seemed to be waiting for Devforth's other armies to come to them.
     Now what?? was the question that most frequently forced its way to the fore of the king's thoughts. Now what, indeed. His city lay in ruins, his subjects were all dead, and half the armies of Devforth had failed to kill off more than a fraction of a massive quatic force poised to ravage the continent.
     There were perhaps a total of two-hundred men at Pipit's Cove, most of whom were wounded. Some had suffered permanent damage, and still others were not expected to survive. There were only two healers, and the burden of caring for so many in such inhospitable conditions was wearing them down. There was only so much they could do for others when their own stamina was close to the breaking point.
     Probably half the survivors were from the Twin Cities. That army had been as thoroughly mangled as Guc's own, but some men had escaped the quatics, and they had been arriving in small groups since before midnight.
     Messengers had been dispatched to Llam, Vorti, and Merk and Xert, but there was little more Guc could do. If he assembled all his able-bodied men, he might form a force of about three-dozen, but there was no way he was going back into battle with less than one-hundred times that number - and at least one Apath. If this war was going to be won, Guc was convinced magic would tip the balance. Quatics had superior strength and ferocity, but humanity had an edge they could not match: wizards.
     So now what?
     The most logical course of action was to wait here, but there was danger in waiting, especially if the quatics chose to move. Pipit's Cove was not isolated: it was an ideal spot for a routed army to gather. The quatics - or more probably their leader - would know this. If genocide was truly the creatures' intention, they would not pass the cove without checking for survivors.
     On the other hand, movement at this time was difficult, if not impossible. There were too many who would die if moved, and many others who were incapable of making a long journey. The nearest cities were Merk and Xert, but even they were too far for a group with numerous leg injuries, and almost no horses to pull litters. It was also unclear how much additional aid could be expected from those places.
     "Your Majesty, Guc of Tsab." The voice, despite its dulcet tones, nearly jarred the king out of his skin. He whirled to rebuke the speaker who had come upon him silently, but the harsh words died unspoken when he saw who it was: Meg, Vorti's resident seeress. Perhaps the last person he might reasonably expect to meet here, under these conditions. Not that the weather appeared to bother her. She ignored the mud that sucked in her bare feet as easily as the rain that plastered her thin hood to her shaven skull.
     Now what??
     "I have come for you, Your Majesty. You must accompany me to Vorti."
     The pronouncement was so sudden - and ludicrous given the circumstances - that Guc found himself stammering an unintelligible reply.
     Meg was patient with him for only a moment before cutting him off with a curt hand movement and demanding "Now!"
     "I can't leave. These are my men; they're here because they followed me into a battle we lost. They need me."
     "Let me explain something to you, Your Majesty. The lives of these men mean nothing compared to the future of humankind. Upon occasion, I am given a glimpse of some piece of the future, and what I saw in my last vision made clear one crucial fact: you must be in the east when certain events transpire. I do not know when those things will happen, so haste is mandatory. I assure you I would not have come all this distance alone if circumstances didn't demand it."
     "You're serious?" gasped Guc, incredulous.
     "I am in deadly earnest. If you do not agree, I will have your men bind you to a horse and you will be carried to Vorti like a sack. One way or another, you are coming with me."
     "You wouldn't dare! On what authority?"
     "The authority of a seeress," stated Meg, straightening to her full height. Even though she was more than a foot shorter than the king, she momentarily seemed to tower over him. "Your men would not refuse the commands of one with these marks" - she indicated her scarred eyesockets - "even if those orders went against the wishes of their ruler."
     Faced with such an alternative, there was little that Guc could do other than to acquiesce.
* * *

     Ambassador Atun was a "typical" elf. Over four-hundred years of age, he didn't look past middle-age. His shoulder-length blue-black hair obscured his ears, but his features possessed the elf angularity and his eyebrows were upswept. His thin lips were tightly pursed into an expression of perpetual disapproval. His presence was more imposing and dignified than one might expect from someone shorter than Lea.
     Dressed in the turquoise robes of state she had worn while Regent, Eya faced the elf emissary from Lea's throne. Aside from the two guards who stood motionless just inside the chamber's main entrance, they were alone.
     "Your Grace, I am honored you agreed to see me at this most unusual hour," stated Atun. Despite a curious accent, his pronunciation was flawless, although he spoke the words deliberately, as if concerned to get them right.
     "It is most inconvenient, Ambassador, but I was assured you consider it necessary."
     Atun nodded. "My people do not like to be among humans during the daylight hours. Since the former queen of this city is descended from my race, perhaps you are aware of this?"
     "I am not."
     "I apologize for my unorthodox manner of arrival. Elves mingle only rarely with the other races of Devforth, and never when the sun rules the sky. It is a matter of cultural significance."
     "Ambassador, I spent the early years of my life in the settlement of Haven, where humans and elves mingled freely. While I admit your kind kept themselves aloof, there was no prohibition against the races mixing between dawn and dusk."
     "Haven, or Heltala as it is called among my people, was a renegade settlement that practiced rites considered abominable by our leaders. Judging the entire race by them would be inaccurate."
     "I see. The hour of this audience aside, I assume you have something you wish to discuss with me. Your presence here indicates at least one of our couriers delivered his message."
     "In deference to the open sincerity of your attempts at communication, we did not kill your messengers, as we are wont to do with uninvited human intruders in our lands. I hope you will not be affronted by my frankness, Your Grace, but elves do not hold your kind in high regard. It is a matter of evolution, I suppose, but we find many aspects of your society not only barbaric but offensive."
     Eya was insulted by the statement, but didn't say so. "In circumstances such as these, however..."
     "Quite," agreed Atun with a slight nod. "The emergence of quatics, the ancient enemy, has brought a halt to many customs. We are appreciative of the risk you took in informing us of events, although our own scouts have noticed unusual behavioral patterns since last winter. Until the sudden western migration by what appears to be a battle force, however, we were uncertain what these indications portended."
     "The more relevant question is how we can defeat the quatic threat. They have already overrun Tsab, apparently with little more than token resistance."
     "That bodes ill for the rest of humanity, certainly," said Atun.
     "And the elf communities. If the human cities fall, the quatics will turn their attention to the forests after that."
     Eya was beginning to get a bad feeling about the direction in which this interview was heading. She had dealt with enough diplomats in the past to recognize when one was stalling. "The elves are as much the quatics' enemies as the humans. Don't be fooled into thinking once they've finished with us, they'll stop."
     "Who can say what the quatics' plans are, or how much they remember after centuries in the swamps? And battles in the forests can be far more difficult than those in the open."
     "Are you saying the elves don't intend to oppose this quatic offensive?"
     Atun considered - probably, in Eya's opinion, attempting to figure out the best way to word an undesirable response. "My people are readying for battle. When the time comes - if it comes - we will be ready. However, it is not our intention to fight for lands that are not ours. If the quatics invade the forests, we will attack. Until then, it is in our best interests to adopt a neutral attitude."
     "You may remember in the last war it took the combined forces of humans and elves to defeat the quatics. Separate offensives may result in disaster."
     "We are no longer in Garvad's era."
     "So you intend to let my race face extinction wearing down the quatics so you can sweep in and eliminate whatever force they have left with comparatively minor casualties on your side." Eya had to admit it was an advantageous plan for the elves. It was humanity, however, she was concerned about. Without elf aid, the picture looked bleak.
     "It's unfortunate you choose to view things in that manner," said Atun.
     "Is there an interpretation I'm missing?"
     "My people do not wish the extinction of humans. We have co-existed peacefully with you since the time of Garvad. However, we do not feel we can effectively fight alongside you. Our methods of war are different. If the quatics choose to attack us while still fighting you, we will enter the struggle. Until then, however... there is no human/elf alliance to uphold. It would be foolish to enter a battle with an enemy who has no intention of going to war with us."
     The bottom line, therefore, was that the elves would not become involved, even though the queen of Vorti had elf blood coursing through her veins. But Atun had dismissed that rather effectively by referring to Haven's elves as renegades. Considering how devastating a blow this was to Devforth's human settlements, it was a wonder the elves had bothered sending an emissary.
     Eya, however, had never been the sort meekly to accept something like this, especially when she had the means to do something. One of the abilities she had studied and refined over the past decade was that of compulsion - entering the mind of another and implanting a command that had to be obeyed. Wil considered it unethical and, under normal circumstances, Eya agreed with him. In this case, however, there was little she wasn't willing to try.
     Although physical contact wasn't required, it made the process easier, and since this was Eya's first "real" attempt at a compulsion, she felt it would be better to make use of any advantage at her disposal.
     "I guess this audience is at a conclusion, Ambassador. Send my best wishes to your King."
     "Leaders, Your Majesty. Unlike in the time of Garvad, we no longer have a single sovereign ruler."
     Eya extended her hand for Atun to kiss. At first, he appeared confused by the custom, but it took only a moment for him to grasp the intent of the gesture. Lowering himself to one knee, he pressed his lips to the Regent's knuckles. At that moment, like a serpent uncoiling, Eya struck.
     The hand that Atun was kissing reached up and grabbed him by the hair. Eya's other hand extended to his neck. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed one of the guards start in their direction, but the other restrained him. Then her entire concentration was devoted to the elf.
     Jerking his head upward so she could stare directly into his eyes, she let her mind detach itself from its close union with her body. In this state, she could feel all emotions - most strongly her own, then Atun's - as palpable forces. Rather than expending her energy, she reached into the elf and skimmed off the fear he was experiencing.
     Transforming that emotion into magic, Eya plunged deep into the labyrinth of the ambassador's mind. While the mental patterns of an elf were different from what she was familiar with, there were enough similarities for Eya to orient herself. The compulsion had to be placed deep within the brain's logical center, so that's what she searched for.
     Random musings flitted by like living things for Eya to avoid. Quick and ephemeral, they dodged away even as she sought to avoid them. Such bursts of thought, chaotic and unattached, could be dangerous for an interloper. If caught unaware, a foreign mind could get pulled in and stranded in any such pocket.
     Siphoning off more emotion, Eya probed deeper, eventually locating the most ordered portion of Atun's mind, where the compulsion had to be established. Every rational thought needed to be filtered through it; ideas that did not serve the intent of the compulsion were eliminated at this point and replaced by those that did. Although limited in scope, this method of mind-control had the advantage of being self-sufficient. Once the compulsion was set, Eya would never again have to enter Atun's mind.
     It was then that she found a shocking discovery: a compulsion had previously been established. Someone had already tampered with the elf's mind.
     As a third party not privy to the exact thoughts affected by this control, Eya had no way of knowing what the intent of this compulsion was, but she recognized it would interfere with what she intended to do. As such, it had to be eliminated. The problem was, she had never attempted a magical working of this nature, and there was a real concern that she would burn out the elf's brain.
     She began working, using magical energy to dissolve the links holding the compulsion to the brain. It was slow, tedious work that required an expenditure of more emotional energy than Eya had originally intended to take from Atun. The compulsion was tightly attached and intricately woven into his brain pattern. Strand by strand, Eya unwove it, grateful for the long-ago knitting lessons given to her by Wil's dead wife Lis.
     Just when triumph appeared near, however, Eya made a mistake. Although born more of inexperience than carelessness, it had the same effect. One strand, similar yet different, when removed, triggered another deeper compulsion - something Eya had not seen. When she realized what had happened, she had to jerk her mind free from Atun's to avoid being caught in his death-seizure.
     By the time she was looking out of her own eyes again, his head was lolling to the side, his eyes glazed over and a trickle of blood running from his nose. Eya's body was bathed in sweat. The entire process, from start to finish, had taken no more than a matter of seconds. Yet now the elf ambassador was dead, killed by Eya's tampering.
     More sinister than the implications of Atun dying in Vorti's palace was the realization that someone - an Apath someone - was tampering with the minds of key elf decision-makers. Exactly how much of the elves' intransigence was based on a natural caution to preserve their race, and how much was the result of other influences? Perhaps more importantly, who was doing the manipulation, and why?
     More questions, and too few answers.
     "Get rid of this offal," demanded Eya of the guards, gesturing at the body. Had she trusted these two any less, they would have been sent on a suicide mission to assure their silence, but this pair had been loyal to her for more than a decade. They would say nothing. Now, it was up to Eya to come up with a plausible explanation for why Ambassador Atun would never return to his sylvan home.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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