Sor was marching again, but this time it was to the sure certainty of war, not the ambiguous potential. On this occasion, he would be drawing his weapon for a meaningful reason: protecting his family, his city, and his queen. Of course, Lea would not be leading the charge. She would remain in the city, under the direct protection of her corps of specially trained guards, until such time as her evacuation was necessary.
     Sor did not know the plan, nor did Tui or anyone else in the immediate vicinity. They had been ordered to march, and that was enough. They knew the quatics were near and bloodshed was likely before nightfall. But the full details of what was happening had not been confided to the troops, although the man who led them, General Gav, was aware of the scope of the campaign.
     Surprise was not their aim, nor could it have been given the flatness of the Vorti plains. The army marched openly and loudly, which would give ample warning to the enemy of their approach. Of course, the reverse would be true. The quatics and humans would be facing each other across a vast open space before the first blow was struck.
     Sor couldn't be certain, but he didn't think all of Vorti's army had left the city. That likely meant a two- or three-pronged attack. There were a large number of men on the move, but there didn't seem to be any more than had marched to answer Tsab's distress call, and the battle commanders had been holding back substantial reserves to protect the city. Perhaps that was the case now, although Sor's personal opinion was that the more men they had for the first assault, the better their chance of victory.
     "What do you think they'll look like?" asked Tui, having to shout over the clanking clamor made by the moving armor-clad men.
     "They're supposed to be ten feet high and hideous. Something like a cross between a snake and a giant man. My father said the biggest challenge in this battle will be overcoming fear."
     "I won't be scared," vowed Tui. "No matter how ugly they are. You haven't seen my sister - now she's ugly."
     Sor didn't say so, but he thought Tui might be underestimating the impact of the quatics' appearance. Based on the descriptions he'd heard, he was nervous about the prospect of seeing one, not to mention engaging one in a fight. But the adrenaline and excitement of the situation more than compensated for any disadvantages. However much the quatics resembled the incarnations of monsters designed to frighten little children, they were still flesh and blood. A well-aimed sword thrust could kill them as easily as it could an ordinary man.
     "Still, we've got apaths on our side," continued Tui. "Even if I did look like a giant lizard, I don't think I'd want to face Eya on a battlefield. They say her stare can freeze a man in his steps or..."
     "It's okay," laughed Sor. "In fact, I agree with you. She can be ferocious. When I was little, I was scared to death of her. I never wanted to go to the palace. As much as I enjoyed playing with Lea, I dreaded Eya."
     "Actually, it's always the chancellor who has frightened me," said Tui. "He never says or does much, but you know he's dangerous. And he's been alive forever."
     "Wil is one of the nicest men I know. It's hard to believe some of the stories about him in the old days - how he tried to take the kingdom from Lea's father and did some hideous things to a nobleman and his henchmen. Wil says not to believe everything you hear, although he won't talk about the specifics. According to him, his life before he came back to Vorti was that of a different person."
     "He's still against the nobility, though."
     Sor nodded, understanding dawning. He hadn't forgotten Tui's claims to be a descendant of one of Vorti's extinct noble lineages. According to the stories, the only thing Wil and King Sor had agreed about was the evil of the titled class. "I think he approves of the current policy, and will back it if Lea asks for his advice."
     Tui grunted, but made no further comment. Instead, he asked, "So, how do you intend to celebrate the victory?"
     "Don't you think it's a little premature to think about that? The battle hasn't started."
     "Look Sor, it's never too early to think about parties. And when this is over, we're going to be heroes. Assuming we can avoid getting our arms and legs ripped off in the middle of the fight."
     "I think when it's over, I'll check my family to make sure they're all right, then go out to a tavern and have a few ales."
     "You can't be serious???" gasped Tui in mock horror. "That's what you do if we lose! I tell you what - I'll grab Eli, you grab Mika, and we'll find some convenient loft to have a real celebration. Eli will be less coy under those circumstances, and I don't think you'll have any problem with Mika - not after Midsummer's Day." He winked.
     Sor took the bait. "What exactly did happen?"
     "It's not my place to tell, you understand. That's up to Mika - or one of about ten men. It makes for an interesting story, though. Ask her about it next time you see her."
     "If she's such an easy mark, why haven't you tried her?"
     "Who says I haven't?" At the look of shock on Sor's face, Tui quickly added, "Okay, okay, so I haven't. But she's not my type. I don't fancy her and, frankly, she doesn't fancy me. Eli's curves are a lot more pronounced. You would have noticed that if your eyes hadn't been on Mika."
     "You're imagining things. We've only met each other twice."
     Tui smiled. "That's a naive thing to say. All it takes is once. Anyone who saw you two in the common room yesterday would have known twice is more than enough."
     Sor wanted to protest, but he was afraid Tui might be right. He couldn't deny his attraction to the strange girl who claimed her family was from across the ocean. But there was an antidote to Mika, and her name was Lea. This new infatuation couldn't hold a candle to Sor's abiding love for Vorti's young queen.
     While the two youths were talking, the army ground to a halt. Ahead, near the front, officers were yelling orders that were slowly being relayed backwards. There seemed to be a lot going on that Tui and Sor, near to the back, couldn't decipher. But one thing was clear: the enemy was in sight. The first engagement of the battle of Vorti was about to begin.

* * *

     Since the dawn of Devforth, there had never been a battle on the Vorti Flat. The level, peaceful grasslands, which extended from the Vorti Marsh on the north to the Forest of Llam on the south, rarely saw more bloodshed than the occasional downing of a merchant's caravan by a group of bandits. Now, that was all about to change. Even as the tall, gentle grass bowed to the prompting of an autumnal breeze, two armies faced each other across a span of slightly more than a league. Although still some distance from conflict, each could see the mass of the other, and recognized the size of the force they would soon be facing.
     The quatics had finished fording the Vordi River when Grundig noticed the distant human army. A wry smile twisted his lips. At last they were doing something unexpected. Ultimately, it wouldn't save them, but at least it would hasten the battle. Grundig's plan would have postponed the confrontation until after midnight, but the approach of Vorti's army would advance things by at least nine hours. The quatics, like their leader, were eager for the next round of bloodshed to begin.
* * *

     Atop a horse at the fore of the human forces was Gav, Vorti's battle commander. Of the three major figures in the battle - Lea, Eya, and him - he was the only one with the spearhead force. If the other two were in place, Eya would be somewhere to the east of the city, holding her magic at bay for the critical moment, and Lea would be atop the palace walls, where she could gaze upon the battle without fearing for her life. Gav, on the other hand, needed to be on the front lines. Tides turned rapidly in battle, and he had to be in the middle of the conflict in order to guide his forces on the best course of action. More than likely, his most important decision would be choosing the best time to retreat. At this point, the battle was unwinnable, and Gav needed to save as many men as he could while accomplishing what was necessary.
     The quatic army was huge. Gav could tell as much even from this distance, when individual figures were nothing more than dots in a steadily-advancing mass. Calling his own forces to a halt - there was no need for them to move further forward now that the engagement was assured - the battle commander inspected Vorti's finest. They seemed ready for a battle, but they hadn't yet seen the enemy. He wondered how demoralizing the quatics' appearance would be. That was one of many unknowns in this campaign. Fear, as much as raw strength, was the enemy's weapon. The militia was trained to do battle with other armies, not with monsters out of stories told to frighten children.
     The quatics' advance was deliberate. They neither rushed forward nor held back, evidence that some influential leader was reigning them in. "Coordinated" and "orderly" were not terms normally applied to quatic behavior, yet that was how this army was behaving. The mixed tension and anticipation in the human army was tangible, and it grew with every step the quatics took.
     Gav signaled for the archers to come forward. Since it was uncertain whether ordinary arrows would do damage against the thick-skinned quatics, Gav had commanded that the metal heads be dipped in pitch, which would be lit prior to firing. Not only would it burn the quatics when it struck them, but the arrows that missed would light fire to the plains grass. Dry as it was at this time of year, it would ignite quickly. Gav was willing to use any tool to assist in winning this war, and if he had to burn the entire Vorti Flat to a blackened wasteland, he would do so.
     As Gav was contemplating the advancing army, a messenger from the south bearing Llam's colors galloped up to him. "General," he began without preamble. "I am Captain Wur of Llam, and I bear a message of great urgency." At Gav's nod, the young man continued, "My battle commander, Zir, sends his regards and best wishes for the upcoming struggle. It is my duty to inform you that the agreed upon plan is now under action. The armed forces and citizens of Llam are sealing themselves within the city in anticipation of an imminent attack. There have been no signs that aid might be forthcoming from the elves."
     Gav nodded, but he wished the alternative plan - for the militia and citizens of Llam to evacuate and fall back to Xert - had been given more consideration. He could understand people not wanting to abandon their homes, but at what cost? Llam was too small and isolated to stand alone. Like Tsab, it would be easy prey for the quatics once they stormed past Vorti. Gav wanted to gather as many people at the Twin Cities as possible, and it was pointless to waste lives trying to save Llam. If Vorti fell, which seemed likely, Llam stood no chance. The difficulty, as always, had been convincing Llam's rulers of the necessity of an evacuation.
     "I am at your disposal, General Gav," continued the messenger. "I am only one sword, but my commander bade me lend whatever aid I can provide."
     "Any assistance is welcome. It will be good to have a representative of Llam fighting alongside us. General Por," continued Gav, turning to one of his seconds-in-command. "Fill in Captain Wur on the current situation, and give him a post in accordance with his rank."
     "Aye, Commander," replied Por, one of the few aged veterans accompanying Gav's advance legions. Most of Vorti's experienced warriors had remained behind to take command of the segments of the army that would later be brought into the fray.
     Uus, another sub-commander, and one of the men who had accompanied Gav from Falnora, voiced his opinion about the advancing army without taking his eyes off them. "There are too many. I don't think this strategy is going to work."
     For a moment, Gav said nothing, since a part of him believed the same thing. But then, their chances had been slim from the beginning, and Uus was probably seeking reassurance that this wasn't a suicide mission. He was still young and, in Gav's experience, most men his age feared death.
     "It will be chancy, I'll admit that," said Gav. "But we'll give them the best fight we can before we retreat. The more we can thin their ranks, the better it will be for future battles. This isn't going to end here, and I don't intend to sacrifice any more lives than necessary. We can't afford to be wasteful. This is only the first conflict in a long campaign."
     "I certainly hope you're right, Commander," said Uus softly.
     Silently, Gav agreed with him.
* * *

     "Thank you," said Queen Lea, taking the proffered scroll from her wizened chamberlain. She avoided looking at it for the moment, instead letting her gaze drift westward, over the city's buildings and to the Vorti flat, where she could see the trailing edge of her army as they marched off to the conflict. If the quatics were out there, which they surely were, she couldn't see them yet. Time, undoubtedly, would remedy that situation.
     "Is all in order, Your Majesty?" questioned the chamberlain, referring to the scroll. Reluctantly, Lea read it over. It was, after all, something that had to be faced, especially considering the likelihood that she might not survive the upcoming battle. The document in question explicitly named her successors:

     I, Lea of Vorti, having no issue to follow me on the throne, do hereby declare that in the event of my death, Eya of Vorti shall succeed me. Should she die before an official coronation allows her to name a successor, Chancellor Wil of Vorti shall come to the throne, followed by, in due order, Reg of Vorti, Gav of Falnora, and Dus of Vorti. In the event that none of these survive, a general election shall be held to determine Vorti's next ruler. Under no circumstances is Guc of Tsab to assume the throne, and he shall be declared ineligible to stand in any election.

     "It seems fine," observed Lea, before taking a quill and signing her name, then sealing the furled scroll with her wax-imprinted seal.
     "Sad business, Your Majesty," remarked the chamberlain. "No one so young should be forced to name a successor. Your father resisted the notion for decades."
     Handing the scroll back to the chamberlain, Lea turned away from the westward view to observe the others who had joined her atop the palace walls to await the quatics' approach. Most of Vorti's core battle commanders were present - Generals Dus, Yon, and Bar - as well as Lea's faithful ex-tutor, Jav. A dozen or so minor court functionaries were also present, but the queen ignored them. Those toadies would be wherever they thought it was safest.
     Notable by their absence were a number of Lea's chief advisors. Wil was obviously not present, although none other than the queen, Eya, Reg, and Gav knew the reason for his absence. Neither the regent nor her brother were there, either, since the battle plan called for them to be elsewhere.
     "Well, Your Majesty, I hope we all live to see the sunrise tomorrow," whispered Jav, having come to her side to offer his support. With everyone else involved in conversations of varying importance, no one except the old chancellor noticed how lonely, and alone, the queen was.
     "What about sunset tomorrow, Jav. That's what I'm really worried about."
     Jav smiled, compressing the wrinkles around his mouth. "At this stage in a battle, you take it one sunrise or sunset at a time. If we're all still here tomorrow morning, then we can start worrying about tomorrow night."
     "Good advice, I suppose. It's all going to be so difficult, though. In all the years this city has stood, no ruler has ever ordered an evacuation. I'm going to be the first."
     "No one has ever faced a situation like this before. Not even your father with the dwarves, and that was bad enough. The last time our race saw this kind of danger was in the days of Garvad. No, my little queen, you are sacrificing the stone and mortar of this city to save the men and women. What the quatics tear down can be built up again. Ruined buildings can be reconstructed, but dead people can't be brought back."
     "You sound like Wil."
     "At one time or another, we had the same job. Where is he, by the way? I would think his magic would come in handy at a time like this. Preparing, is he?"
     "Sort of. He's out looking for help," said Lea. Help that would not come - not even in the form of her faithful chancellor, who was lost somewhere in Fels.
     "Too bad. He's the kind of man you want around in a struggle. We never would have beaten the dwarves without him. And, of course, his return helped seal one of the rips in your father's soul."
     "Wil doesn't like talking about his relationship with Father."
     "It doesn't surprise me. There were a lot of terrible things said and done on both sides. In the end, I think Wil left Vorti because he was afraid."
     "Everyone was afraid of my father," said Lea.
     Jav shook his head. "Not of Sor. Of what Sor had become. Of what power and loss could do to a man. No one knows exactly what went on between them the night your father exterminated the nobility, but Wil once said he'd never known what it was like to look into the eyes of a man without a soul until he looked into Sor's that night. That was a very dark time."
     "I wish I was ruling two or three-hundred years ago. Nothing happened back then. Kings were born, got married, had children, ruled a peaceful city, then died. It went on like that for centuries, until Kan assassinated Rel XVI."
     "But the line of Rels had grown corrupt. Once, they were good rulers, but in the end, they were hated despots. As for what's happened over the last one-hundred years - I think history is like that. There are long periods when nothing happens, then it all takes place in one relatively short burst. The last one was when Garvad ruled Devforth. He did a great number of things and fought more than one war in his time on this world. Then, after he relinquished rulership of the Old City, peace came to Devforth. The modern cities rose up and the only wars were skirmishes."
     Lea sighed. "Thanks for the history lesson. I should never forget you were my teacher. I suppose if I'd paid more attention in the past, you wouldn't have to be telling me this now."
     "Reminding you," replied Jav with a smile. "You were a more apt history student than you give yourself credit for. And I think you'll be a better Queen than you imagine, as well."
     "If there's any Vorti left to rule over."
     "Stones and mortar, Lea. Remember: it's the people, not the buildings."

* * *

     "I hate waiting," complained Eya.
     "I know," said Reg with a smile. He and Eya were the only two inside the run-down little hut. Some twenty or thirty guards ringed the perimeter, however - those remaining members of Eya's personal retinue she hadn't sacrificed to the general army.
     "Can you believe Wil once lived here?" she asked, looking around her. The walls were made of wood and, despite having been coated with a foul-smelling pitch-like substance sometime in the past, looked badly rotten. The roof, which had fallen in any number of times, contained gaping holes and what thatch remained was moldering and playing nest to rodents. Outside, the fields which had once yielded rich harvests, were weed-choked. They hadn't been planted in at least ten years - the last time an itinerant farmer had lived here.
     "It's a sorry sort of house," agreed Reg. "But it probably wasn't always like this. When Wil lived here, and that must have been over fifty years ago, I'm sure it was inhabitable."
     "Just barely, though, to hear him tell it."
     "Anyway, we're not here forever - just until the battle moves past Vorti. That's when we come into play."
     "I know exactly what my part is. It's not such a bad plan after all. Gav's a unique tactician, making the most use of limited resources. Of course, I'll use my little 'trick' to give myself free access to emotion."
     "But you're still only one person. Remember that. King Sor didn't during the last war, and that's what killed him."
     "No one knows what killed him. It could have been exhaustion, burgeoning apathy, or a broken heart. But I take your point. Don't worry, when I don't have the stamina to continue, I'll stop. Then it will be up to you to carry me all the way to Xert."
     Reg smiled. "Not a chance. That's why we have horses stowed."
     "When all this is over, can I ask you for a favor?"
     "Of course."
     "Don't you want to know what it is before you commit to it?"
     "Not really," replied Reg with a smile. "Especially if it keeps me away from home."
     "It will. I need someone to come with me to Fels. I intend to find Wil and punish those who did this to him. Once the quatic threat is past, someone is going to pay dearly for what they did to him." There was a quiet intensity in her voice.
     "So the truth finally comes out. Despite all your protestations to the contrary, you really do love him."
     For a while, Eya said nothing. Finally, with characteristic bluntness, she responded, "No one knows. Not him. Maybe not even me, until recently."
     "What are you going to do about it?"
     "I wonder if I'm too old to get married? For that matter, I wonder if he'd ask me. He always used to say the only one he'd ever love was Lis."
     "Things change over the years, and I'm not close enough to him to read his heart. But, if you do get married, I'd venture to say you'll have waited long enough to make a good match. Not like Bre and I. What a mistake we made..."
     "You have two fine children," objected Lea.
     Reg grunted. "I'm proud of Sor, but Lor's another matter. She's trouble, and I'm afraid she's going to come to a bad end. She has too much of her mother in her - both are stubborn, willful, and impossible to live with. When all this is over, maybe I'll go off somewhere and not come back."
     "Yesterday, you said it wasn't that bad," accused Eya.
     "Yesterday, I lied. But now we're getting close to what could be our last sunrise, and it's time for a few confessions, I suppose."
     "Face your next life with a clear conscience?"
     "Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that. Whatever the case, though, nothing will ever be the same."
     "Life is change, Reg. It's always been like that, especially for us. Heltala, Falnora, Vorti. Who would have guessed? We've lived interesting lives."
     At that moment, the bells of Vorti began to ring - only this time, it was not to signal the passing of a member of the Royal Family, but as a sign that the evacuation was to begin. Somewhere to the west, battle had been joined.
     "Well, that's it," said Eya. "It has begun."

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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