THE PRICE OF TERROR


PART THREE: THE EDGE OF THE BLADE


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


     Vorti's army arrived home in a mid-afternoon drizzle. Travel-weary and mud spattered, there was not a man among them who didn't desire a warm fire and a full tankard of ale, but the commanders allowed no respite. With the threat of an imminent invasion hanging over the city like a pall, the soldiers were dispersed to their posts, not their homes. It would be a long time before anyone wearing armor was presented with an opportunity to rest.
     When Lea reached the palace, she was in no better condition than her men. Despite the grime coating her clothes and clinging to her skin, she refused a bath and went directly to the little throne room, where she demanded audiences with Eya, her battle commanders, and King Guc - in that order.
     The chancellor did not accompany his queen to the palace, having already been given instructions about what role he would play in the preparations for battle. His task was not an easy one, and he was uncertain how to go about it, but he recognized the necessity of attempting what Lea had requested. If humanity was to survive this dire crises, as many Apaths had to be gathered as could be found, and it was his duty as Devforth's most notorious practitioner of magic to lure members of his kind out of anonymity to the defense of their race.
     After entering the audience chamber where her queen rested wearily and crownless on the throne, Eya offered no more than a brief curtsey. Observing proper etiquette and ceremony had little meaning in these circumstances.
     "A wasted journey, then," noted Eya. "You look exhausted."
     "I am exhausted," replied Lea. "The situation is bad, though. I didn't see Tsab, but we have Guc's survivors with us, and they say there's nothing left. The quatics have a blood debt to pay, and they've put the whole ferocity of centuries of festering ill into it."
     "We'll see how they fare when they meet the heart of human resistance. It's one thing to tear apart an inferior army. It's another to come up against a well-fortified city guarded by stalwarts and Apaths. I doubt the quatics are aware of what they'll be facing. If anything, the ease of their victory at Tsab should help us. They may think of our race as soft and weak."
     "I see you've put the stonemasons to work building a wall."
     "Not just the stonemasons. Every able bodied person who isn't filling some other important function. We're going to need some kind of barrier, if only to slow down the quatics. I'm not foolish enough to think anything built this quickly will stop them, but it will be a barricade."
     "It's a good idea. I don't think I would have thought of it."
     "That's why you have advisors. Speaking of which, where's Wil?"
     Lea outlined the mission she had constructed for her chancellor. When she was done, Eya said, "Coordinating a magical offense is better suited to me than him. As deeply as I respect Wil, I don't see him as our greatest asset in battle. Something happened between him and your father long ago that soured his taste for using magic as a weapon. He's never told me exactly what it was."
     "Why is Guc here?" asked Lea suddenly.
     "Something to do with Meg. He hasn't been forthcoming. Except for a brief appearance in the throne room, he's spent all of his time with the seeress. Apparently, she's gone blind. Lost her abilities. No one knows how or why it happened."
     "Is she all right?"
     "Unharmed, but despondent. Now, can I ask the same question about my brother's son?"
     "Sor? How should I know?"
     "He was a member of your army. I assumed he made his presence known to you sometime on the march."
     Lea shook her head. "I had no idea. And at his age... he should never have been allowed..."
     "Oh, come, Your Majesty. He's only a year younger than you and, as a male, far more eager to prove himself. Valor is the man's badge of honor that he presents to his intended mate."
     "Meaning me, I suppose."
     "Would he be that bad a choice? He's devoted to you, which is more than can be said for your 'official' betrothed. And, now Guc is without a city to present to you as a wedding present, I think that marriage need no longer be pursued."
     "At the moment, there are more important issues to deal with than who I choose as my husband."
     "I agree, Your Majesty, but it's an issue that won't go away."
     "If I don't survive the battle, it will. Now, send Guc to me. My prospective bridegroom owes me a full report on what transpired at Tsab and thereafter."
     Shortly after Eya departed, Lea's top military strategists arrived, most - save the few who had remained behind in Vorti - looking as bedraggled as the queen.
     The war council was brief and pointed. Lea spoke little, allowing her generals to sketch plans for Vorti's defense. There were the expected arguments, but in a surprisingly short period of time, a workable scenario was mapped out for preparing the city for battle, implementing an advance scouting network, and, when the time came, defending Vorti.
     "Fortunately, time appears to favor us, at least for the moment," noted Battle Commander Dus after Lea had agreed to his latest compromise proposal. "The quatics will almost certainly try to take the Twin Cities and perhaps Llam before moving on us. That should give us the better part of a week to prepare. We probably don't need half of that, but the less we rush, the more unlikely the chance we'll miss some hidden chink. After all, 'twas the one missing scale that killed the dragon."
     "I want the men ready as soon as possible, Dus," said Lea, a hint of steel in her voice. "It's time to stop judging the quatics as if they were a human army. We've been thinking that about them all along, and look what's resulted. You have forty-eight hours, Battle Commander. By that time, this city must be sealed and ready to withstand the most brutal siege in its history."
     

* * *

     Meg lay alone in her palace chamber. After she had awakened, the healers had departed, convinced "the danger was past." Guc had stayed with her, mostly silent as he sat by her bedside. His aide Caa had come and gone, but the king had remained until Lea's demands for an audience had called him away. It was a summons issued directly by a none-too-pleased Eya who, after cursorily inquiring after the seeress' health, had gone about her business. The palace was bustling with activity in the advent of war. Or, perhaps more appropriately given Meg's visions, in the advent of a bloodbath.
     At the moment, she lay prone, silent, and immobile, trying hard not to think. Considering the traumatic nature of her ordeal, it was necessary - although difficult - to blank her mind if she was to retain her sanity. Inwardly, she cursed Guc for coaxing her from the world of gray nothingness where she had cocooned herself. There, the pain and loss had been distant things. Here, they were all too real and immediate.
     A sudden chill raced through Meg's body and her breath caught in her throat. There had been no sound to alert her keen hearing, but the sensation of no longer being alone came over her like an avalanche, with almost as much supernatural power as if she still possessed her former abilities. Whoever, or whatever, it was, the power brushing Meg's consciousness was not of the natural order.
     "Who's there?" she demanded, her voice tiny and frail in her own ears. There was no response, but she had not expected any. The sensation of being watched not only persisted, but grew stronger. There was no sense of danger, only a vague aura of foreboding. She could have called for someone - she could hear voices in the hall - but she was certain by the time anyone arrived, there would be nothing to notice.
     "There is nothing I can do for you. I no longer have my powers," said Meg. The only reason anyone ever came to her was for a reading... with the lone exception of one man. At one time, they had been kindred spirits, he and she - equally lonely travelers on the road of life. But he was dead and she was still here, doomed to inhabit this body until her unnaturally long lifespan sputtered to its conclusion.
     As if her thought summoned his voice, he spoke into the unnatural darkness around her. "Your abilities were rarely the reason I sought you out."
     It was King Sor's voice, but changed - as hollow and insubstantial as his form would surely be if she could gaze upon it now. He sounded as if he was speaking from a long distance away - as indeed he was. There was no more cavernous gulf than the one between life and death. The fact Sor had not passed to his next consciousness was cause for puzzlement and concern.
     "How is it that you are here?" demanded Meg, forgetting for the briefest moment her own loss.
     "I never left. Perhaps it would be more correct to say I have not been permitted to leave. My death has not been as it is for others. Yet I don't think this is the first time for my restless spirit. But speaking of me is futile. I'm an insubstantial phantom. I can no more reach out from beyond the grave to save your world than I can heal the injury dealt to you."
     "I don't understand! Why has this happened?"
     Sor's soft, distorted laugh unnerved Meg. Like an icy needle, it seemed to pierce her skin and freeze her blood. A fit of violent trembling seized her body.
     The ghost either didn't notice or didn't care. "Death doesn't give me omniscience. In fact, I probably know less than the living. But, like you, I have glimpsed the future, and it is bleak."
     "Why come to me?"
     "Do you think I can appear at will? Would it were that easy! No, I appear when people draw me to them. Emotional energy, willpower, magic - all can summon me, and I have little choice but to come. Other than my daughter, you and Wil are the only ones to bring me out of my slumber, and he did so quite deliberately, not really expecting what he got."
     "So if we could learn, we might be able to conjure you at any time?"
     "Perhaps. I don't know any more about these 'rules' than you, but there is one thing I can tell you - I must tell you. The veil of death has been pierced, although not by me. The rip threatens both sides of reality, both yours and mine - but that is a concern for later. Know this, however: a spirit has passed through in full knowledge of who he was. There is a creature in Devforth with knowledge and experience of more than one life."
     "Who?"
     Silence. Silence and a sudden emptiness. The sense of being watched was gone. Without requiring eyes, Meg knew the specter had vanished. She did not need to hear the answer, for she knew it already: Vas.
     
* * *

     Life in Vorti's army was not what Sor had expected it to be. He had joined in hopes of proving his valor to Lea. Perhaps, on some level, he had acknowledged that to be an unrealistic goal, but he had never imagined he would end up wet and miserable, caked in mud, helping lift the huge, oddly-shaped chunks of stone being used to form the city's impromptu wall.
     It was as irregular as it was ugly. In some places, it stood nearly twenty feet from base to top, while in others, the first stone of the second tier had yet to be placed. The higher the wall rose, the more ready it looked to topple. Vorti's masons, along with their ragtag force of citizens and soldiers, weren't concerned with how barrier appeared. Besides, when the invaders reached it, they would tear it down anyway.
     "They don't expect this thing to keep out the quatics, do they?" demanded Tui, helping Sor lift a granite block that weighed as much as both of them.
     Sor didn't answer, although he had the same misgivings. Other than perhaps providing a momentary inconvenience, the wall served little purpose. It was too poorly constructed. Tsab's walls - a real, fortified barrier - hadn't done that city any good. Even the most stout edifice was only as strong as its weakest point, and this wall was riddled with flaws.
     Tui grumbled something Sor didn't catch, in part because he wasn't paying much attention. Since returning to Vorti to learn that rather than being allowed to go home, they would be require to "participate in fortifying the city for war", Tui had not stopped complaining. He spoke longingly of his lover Eli and argued that after traipsing halfway across Devforth and back in the pouring rain, he was entitled to some recreation.
     The work continued for what seemed like an eternity, with little progress seemingly made. When the plentiful supply of stones had been excavated and used, leaving the surrounding countryside pitted and bruised, the builders had to resort to continuing their construction with mud - a tactic that seemed to make more of a mess than anything else.
     By late afternoon, as Sor's aching muscles were urging him to defy his commanding officer and head home, something happened to keep the young soldier at his post.
     Sor was on a ladder depositing an armload of mud atop the fifteen-foot high segment of the wall he was working on when Tui called up to him. "Hey Sor, come on down! There's someone here to see you!"
     The "someone" in question was a girl about two years Sor's junior. Dressed in breeches and a shirt, and with her fair hair cropped short, she looked like a boy. Like everyone else out working, her clothes and skin were spattered with drying mud.
     "Something to drink, Sir?" she asked, shyly avoiding his eyes while extending a wineskin. Sor glanced in Tui's direction, as if to ask how he should react, but the other lad simply shrugged.
     Taking the proffered container, Sor pressed it to his lips. The wine that spilled into his parched mouth was of a surprisingly good vintage. Even served tepid, it retained the body and flavor of the sort his parents reserved for special occasions.
     Tui drank next, practically snatching the skin from Sor when he was done. After several long gulps, he handed the empty container back to the girl, who wordlessly dropped it into a satchel cluttered with skins - some empty, some full.
     "Is there anything else I can get either of you?" she asked and, though the question was directed at both of them, her gaze was fixed unwaveringly on Sor.
     "No. Thank you," said Sor.
     At that, she smiled once at him, fleetingly, then turned to head for the next group of workers. Sor watched as she reached them, repeating her offer of refreshment with another skin from the bulging back she carried.
     "An innkeeper's daughter," noted Tui. "Rather mature for her age, don't you think?" Sor didn't look at him, but he could sense the lascivious grin. "I think she likes you, too."
     "I'm sure she was just being friendly."
     "'Being friendly' isn't part of her job. If your father told you to trudge through the mud bringing skins of wine to a bunch of filthy, sweaty men building a wall with mud, would you flash your smile and flutter your eyelashes at someone you weren't trying to attract? And for all the attention she spared me, I might have been one of these thousands of cursed horseflies." He aimed an energetic swat at a fingernail sized insect. Without effort, it darted out of harm's way.
     "So what? It doesn't mean anything."
     "Not unless you want it to," agreed Tui, going after - and missing - another fly. "Oh, but I forgot. You've already got a girl. This beautiful, mysterious one you don't want to talk about. For all you keep her a secret, you might be carrying a torch for the queen!"
     Sor was never sure what betrayed him - a subtle body movement, the fractional change of expression on his face, or some other reaction he was unaware of. Whatever it was, though, the ever observant Tui didn't miss it.
     "You're not serious?" he said. Then, after a moment's pregnant pause. "You are serious! The queen is the one you've been talking about!"
     Sor stood stock still, his back to his companion. His face was getting redder by the moment, although beneath the mud, the change was difficult to detect.
     Tui began to laugh. "No wonder you were embarrassed by those suggestions I was making! Imagine doing some of those things with Queen Lea! Her regent would eat you alive!"
     "Actually," said Sor. "Lea's regent is my father's sister. She has always been in favor of a match between Lea and me."
     That stopped Tui's laughter, although not his mirth. "Well, either you're lying or there's a lot you've kept hidden. Either way, it doesn't look like we'll be paying a surprise visit to your girlfriend tonight. Pity - I'd been looking forward to meeting her. Now, you'll just have to be satisfied with meeting my barmaid, and maybe the innkeeper's daughter, if she's around."
     So saying, Tui went back to work, filling a bucket with mud and climbing the ladder to slop it into place. After a moment, Sor followed suit, throwing himself into the job in an attempt to forget the secret he had just revealed - not to mention its attendant embarrassment.
     
* * *

     Her expression cold, Lea met Guc's eyes. "And that's the whole story?" she demanded. She didn't trust the king of Tsab. Not even to tell her the truth now, after his city had been demolished and his people slaughtered
     "Yes, Your Majesty," he replied.
     Thus far, this had been a formal - albeit private - audience, much more what might be expected between two distant rulers than a queen and her betrothed.
     "How is Meg?"
     "Alive. Awake. And understandably distraught. What she's experiencing is worse than any of us losing our sight."
     "I'm aware of that. I don't need to be lectured. I've known Meg all my life and understand what her powers mean to her."
     "My apologies, Your Majesty. Will that be all?"
     "No," said Lea. "There's one other thing. How many Tsabians are here in Vorti?"
     "I don't know. I haven't had an opportunity to check."
     "Approximately."
     "A few score."
     "I expect you to put them under my command."
     Guc was shocked by the suggestion, especially phrased as it was. His expression betrayed his feelings. "Your Majesty, those are my subjects and, city or not, I am still a sovereign king."
     "Save the speeches, Guc. You have nothing left, and the battle is on its way here. There can be only one ruler when the quatics arrive, and that will be me. I want fealty from you and, through you, your subjects. Even at times like this, there will be tension between our people, and fighting between humans will weaken our position."
     "Are we still betrothed?" demanded Guc.
     "I hardly see what that has to do with..."
     "It matters in how I present the situation to my people. Are we still betrothed?"
     "For the moment. I won't have time to consider that situation until all this is over."
     "Very well, then I'll tell them to give their loyalty to their future queen. Will that satisfy you, Your Majesty."
     Lea nodded. At that moment, the flames in the lanterns and braziers flickered eerily, as if from a draft. But the air was still.
     The queen shivered, even though the little throne room was relatively warm. For her, this was not a new sensation. She knew what was coming, even if Guc did not.
     "Father?" she whispered. She couldn't see him, at least not yet, but she knew he had to be close.
     "What??" demanded Guc, thoroughly confused. "What do you mean, 'Father'? Your father's..."
     "Dead?" supplied Sor's ghost, blinking into view above and slightly behind the throne upon which Lea sat. He was as he had been the other times the queen had seen him: dressed in his oversized turquoise robes, with the features and form of a young man.
     Guc's face had gone white and his expression was one of stupefaction. He rubbed at his eyes as if trying to banish a hallucination.
     For her part, Lea was nearly as startled. Not since her coronation had the specter spoken, and on the occasions of its other appearances, it had come when she was alone in her chambers, late at night. After gazing at her for a few moments, it had dissipated, making her doubt the evidence of her vision. This time, however, though the dead king's body was no more solid than previously, his presence seemed more substantial.
     "I am dead," acknowledged the phantom. "How I come to be here is a mystery which you can ponder at some length, as my own knowledge is too limited to be of help. Tonight, on the eve of a vast bloodletting, I have come to haunt the corridors and rooms of this palace."
     "Then the attack will come tomorrow?" gasped Lea. Surely the quatics could not be so close.
     The ghost shrugged. "Time has little meaning in this place. Tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after that - I cannot say exactly when. But it will come soon. And the number of spirits sent on to their next lives will be numerous."
     "You can see the future?"
     "There are echoes of what is to come, and death calls out to the dead, drawing me like iron to a lodestone. You must be brave, my daughter, and accept those powers you inherited from your mother. The time may come when they will save your life. For now, the only concrete advice I can give you is to recall Wil. Sending him away was a grievous error. The crux of the coming struggle will turn on whether he is here or elsewhere."
     "Father, this is the second time you mentioned my powers. What are they?"
     "Farewell."
     "Father! My powers...?"
     But the specter was gone, vanished into whatever shadowy realm it came from, leaving a frustrated queen and shaken king alone in its wake.
     "Do you make a habit of speaking with the dead?" ventured Guc after a lengthy pause.
     Lea turned to her betrothed, a strange light in her eyes. "Only one particular dead man. He probably deserves a place on my council of advisors, although I'm not sure how many people would believe we actually communicate."
     "I believe," said Guc, trying to regain his composure.
     Their conversation was interrupted by a discreet knock at the door. "Come," said Lea.
     A guard entered, bowed deferentially, then said, "Your Majesty, I'm sorry to disturb you, but the Seeress Meg is here, and has requested an immediate audience. She says it's urgent and wishes..."
     "Show her in."
     Looking wan and weary, but on her feet and cognizant of her surroundings, Meg entered the little throne room on the arm of another guard. A chair was brought for her. After she was seated and the guards had departed, Lea stepped down from the throne to take the seeress' hands in her own.
     "Meg, how are you?"
     "Not well, Your Majesty. I'm sure you've heard of my... misfortune. But there is something I feel you need to know. Sometimes, even those without sight can obtain useful information."
     "Did you receive a visit from my father?"
     Meg nodded. If she was perplexed at how Lea guessed, she didn't show it. "King Sor came to me with a warning. There is someone - he didn't say who - in this world with knowledge of a previous life. Apparently, this... entity... presents a significant danger. Based on things I saw before the blindness struck me, I believe it to be your father's old chancellor, Vas. Who he might be now, however, I do not know."
     "I received a visitation as well. He said many deaths would occur, and the battle would happen soon. Also that Wil is the key of the battle. If he isn't back by the time it starts, we may not be able to win."
     "That concurs with one of my more cryptic visions. But Wil has ever been crucial to the fate of this city. He and Vorti are inextricably connected. Even his time in Falnora couldn't change that. In the end, he had to return."
     Guc, who had been following the exchange with increasing incredulity, chose this time to make a comment. "Are we expected to build battle plans around the words of a phantom? Who's to say the apparition we saw was really King Sor, and not some illusion to confuse and mislead us?"
     Meg turned her head in Guc's direction. "Humans may be fooled by such trickery. My kind cannot. Even though I have lost my sight, I know certain truths. It was the spirit of King Sor, and whatever warnings he gave, we would do well to heed."
     Guc sighed, but said nothing further on the matter. "Will that be all, Your Majesty? If there's nothing else, I'd like to take the Seeress back to her rest chamber."
     "You're dismissed, Guc," said Lea. "But I expect you to act on my instructions. I need the undivided loyalty of you and your men. When the battle comes, we must present a united front to our enemies."
     "I will do what I have said I would. I'll make a public pronouncement of support for Vorti and allegiance to her queen."
     Having said that, Guc departed, leading Meg and flanked by a pair of guards, leaving Lea alone to contemplate the future - a future about whose certainty she had grave doubts. There were so many riddles - most of them posed by her father - and so little time to discover the answers.


© 2006 James Berardinelli

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