THE PRICE OF TERROR Chapter Thirty-Two
THE PRICE OF TERROR


PART FOUR: WORLD'S END


CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO


     Two years after the end of the human/quatic war, there was a state of uneasy co-existence in Devforth. The quatic expansion, quelled by the death of their leader, had stalled at the Goldenwater River. They had never crossed over into Merk, although they had occupied Xert. Most of eastern Devforth, from Flaz' Quag to the Vorti Marshes, was controlled by quatic forces, with the exception of the immediate environs of Fels, which had been left unmolested. Western Devforth was in human hands, and the quatics showed no ambitions of attempting an invasion.
     Although no quatic had set foot in Merk, it had been largely abandoned. Some citizens had returned, but many felt uncomfortable being so close to the quatic-controlled ruins of Xert. From the walls of Merk, it was possible to see the creatures roaming the crumbling ruins of the sister city. The majority of the human inhabitants of Devforth, except those living in the unmolested but isolated Fels, had congregated in a settlement that had arisen near the ruins of Tsab. The new city being raised there bore the name of its antecedent, and the ruler was the same.
     Guc lounged indolently on his "throne," which was actually an overstuffed chair. Like almost all of Tsab, this was temporary. When the new palace was completed, he would move there and have a proper throne. Rebuilding was a long and tedious process, especially since Guc had demanded the new city be larger and stronger than the earlier one. Tsab had fallen once; he was determined it would not happen again during his lifetime or after.
     It had taken Guc nearly all of the past two years to consolidate his position as ruler of the human survivors. In the beginning, he had been one of many candidates, and not necessarily the most popular. Ruthless tactician and opportunist that he was, Guc had gradually removed the obstacles separating himself from the crown, until he had eventually been proclaimed ruler by popular acclaim. Since his coronation, he had been careful not to alienate any large group of his subjects. He was aware that, in these volatile times, those who had made him king could easily de-throne him.
     Arguably Guc's greatest rival for rulership had removed herself from contention by taking a ship and running away. Almost no one knew Lea's true fate; most assumed she had died in Vorti, even though some claimed to have seen her alive in Xert days after the eastern city had fallen. Officially, Guc had been betrothed to Lea at the time of her "death," so he had used this to his advantage. Many of his early supporters had been the Vorti refugees, believing that, as Lea's future husband, he was their rightful king.
     Queen Mia's death during the battle had left her twin daughters officially in charge of Xert's citizenry. Out of political expediency and because he needed as many heirs as possible as quickly as could be arranged, he married both of them. In Devforth's past, it had not been unusual for a king to have multiple wives, but such a thing had not happened in centuries. Considering the circumstances, no one objected, including the co-queens, who were flattered to receive the attentions of such a cultured, handsome man. Their father was less pleased, but Guc's threats of imprisonment for the rest of his life had quieted his objections.
     King Hur of Merk had proven to be a potentially dangerous foe. His real personality, less meek than previously assumed, emerged after the war, but he had fallen ill with a mysterious wasting sickness and died shortly thereafter. Those healers who suspected poison were careful not to speak openly about their suppositions. Rulers of Tsab were said to be skilled in the identification and administration of toxic substances, but no one was going to be foolish enough to point a finger at Guc, who was rapidly becoming the most powerful human.
     Despite Guc's maneuvering, there was one man who could have defeated his plans had he possessed any ambition. Following the war, no individual was more acclaimed than Gav. Wil's actions in the battle had made him the hero of Devforth and, as Wil's son, Gav was included in the outpouring of adulation. Unlike Hur, Gav was suspicious of Guc, so eliminating him would have been difficult, if not impossible. Fortunately for the king, Gav had no interest in ruling the survivors. When the news arrived that his settlement of Falnora had apparently survived the quatic war, Gav elected to return there, even though it was deep within quatic territory. Guc provided him with horses and 20 heavily armored men as an escort, and let Gav ride away.
     Exaggerated stories about Guc's courage on the battlefield were widely circulated. According to one popular, oft-repeated tale, he had singlehandedly killed five quatics while holding off an entire force of them to allow Wil to engage Grundig in single combat. As ridiculous as even Guc thought the tale was, it gained traction and he did nothing to dispel it. When asked about it, he typically smiled and made no comment. Most people took that to mean it was true but he was too modest to boast about it and did not want to in any way detract from Wil's glory.
     Several weeks after the battle, Guc took a raiding party to Xert. Their goal was specific: Grundig's head. The quatic leader's body lay were it had fallen, but Guc wanted a trophy, both to bolster the spirits of his people and to remind the surviving quatics of what had happened to their revered leader. The humans encountered surprisingly little resistance on their trip, although a minor skirmish resulted in ten dead soliders and three mortally wounded quatics.
     Grundig's skull, long since stripped of skin and tissue, now hung from the re-constructed gates of Tsab. The rest of the quatic's body lay where it had fallen and, as a result of the passage of time and the appetites of carrion eaters, it was no more than a pile of sun-bleached bones. Of his opponent, there was no trace. Wil had apparently been annihilated completely, although tales persisted that he had used his magic to save himself. A popular story said he had returned alone to the ruins of Vorti to search for the body of his queen.
     Guc knew the truth. Neither Wil nor Lea would return to plague him. That gave him license to use their names as he saw fit. If pretending a closer, more amicable relationship with the late Apath increased his popularity, it was worth the slight to his ego. In life, Wil had been one of his greatest adversaries. In death, he was his best ally.
     The sound of someone clearing his throat brought Guc out of his reverie. Standing before him was his chamberlain. "All is in readiness, Your Majesty."
     Ah yes, the proclamation…
     Guc rose, straightened his robes and made sure that his crown was not crooked, then followed his chamberlain out of the makeshift throne room. Outside, the crowds were gathered – a mass of humanity stretching as far as the eye could see.
     Guc stepped onto the raised platform that had been erected for this occasion. Armed guards ringed his location - not that it was likely anyone would try to harm him, but it was always best to be prepared for assassins. Criers were sprinkled throughout the crowd to relay Guc's words to those not close enough to hear them from his mouth. It was not as efficient as having an Apath magnify his voice but, despite intensive searches, none had been found since the war.
     "Welcome, citizens of Tsab, on this most glorious of days. I, Guc, your rightfully chosen leader, have come in front of you to issue a proclamation that shall stand until the end of human history. The Apath Wil, the instrument of our victory over the quatics, is hereby decreed to be the Savior of the Human Race. This title has only once before been accorded to another, Garvad the Great, who preserved our kind during the previous quatic uprising. Henceforth, let this day – the anniversary of Wil's greatest victory – be a day of public celebration."
     It was a simple speech, but the roar of approval with which it was received told Guc what he had known when he decided to make it: in times of peace, it was little gestures like this that placated the general populace and made a ruler beloved. Some day, perhaps a future king would name a day of celebration in honor of him. For now, however, Guc's ambition was not to forge a reputation for the ages, but to rebuild his city and establish it as the greatest settlement of human habitation ever known. For once, a black cloud did not hang above the dawn.
     

* * *

     Falnora, the quaint, uncomplicated settlement on the Halcyon Meadows, had not only survived the quatic war but, despite being deep within what was commonly termed as "quatic territory," it had thrived. The settlement, unlike so many other, similar places, had avoided the scourge of the enemy as it swept across the continent, and the quatics had not come here after the war. For creatures that loved wet, humid conditions, the aridity of the plains was anathema to them. Falnora was located near several small streams, but that was not enough to entice the quatics to explore this part of the world. They were content to remain in more accommodating habitats.
     The Falnora Gav returned to after the war had not been the blackened, blasted wasteland he had feared. The population had nearly doubled as a result of an influx of refugees, most from Vorti. There were a small number of citizens from Llam, but the quatics' devastation there had been so great that survivors were few. With Falnora's abundant resources stretched to the limit that first winter, it had been a hard season. Things had improved since then, with new farms starting and the new 250 residents incorporating seamlessly into the community. Once coming to Falnora, no one left, even though everyone was aware that Tsab was being rebuilt to the far west.
     Not having been comfortable as a member of Guc's "court," Gav happily accepted the leadership of Falnora when it was offered to him by the village council. He had occupied the post before the war, having succeeded his father when Wil left for Vorti. At one time, this position had been unofficial but, as the population had expanded, it had become necessary to establish a rudimentary sort of government.
     Gav's return to Falnora had given him one thing beside the peace of a lifestyle he appreciated: a wife. For many years, Gav had given up the hope of having a wife and a family, but he had found love with Sea, a survivor of the Battle of Vorti. A beggar and prostitute who had been brought up on the streets, she had been transformed by coming to Falnora. Now, having buried her past in the ruins of the city where she had been born, she lived a new life as the wife of the village's leader and the soon-to-be-mother of his child.
     Gav rarely thought of Guc. He was sure the King of Tsab would prevail in his struggle to rebuild the city. Guc rarely failed at anything, although his means were questionable. At some point, Guc would probably take up the sword again and try to drive the quatics back into the swamps, but that was at least 20 years away. A whole new generation of soldiers would have to be born and raised to manhood. At some point, the human world, which consisted primarily of Tsab and Fels, would re-discover Falnora, tucked away in this safe corner of Devforth. By the time that happened, however, Gav might be in his grave.
     He often thought of his sister, and wondered if she had survived the trip across World's End. He liked to think she had. Sometimes as he lay abed at night waiting for sleep to come, he would imagine her alive and well, half a world away, possibly a guest in some great king's court. Surely, her arrival in a foreign land would have been greeted with much pomp. Perhaps by now, she might be married and have a child.
     Some day soon, he intended to travel to Vorti. His scouts had informed him the way was clear and the quatic population in and around the former city was sparse. Gav wanted to see what was left. It would be painful, he knew, but some part of him felt he could never have closure until he went there one last time and paid silent homage to those who had fallen there, either in battle or in the ravaging that had taken place afterward.
     Living in Falnora, in the same house where he had grown up with his parents, Gav found himself thinking often about his father. Like nearly everyone else on both sides, he had seen Wil's last stand, but he had not been shocked by what happened. He had known from the beginning that his father intended to hold nothing back, that he would go to whatever lengths were necessary to end Grundig's threat. Wil had not anticipated surviving the battle, and Gav had known that beforehand. So had everyone else who had been in the Apath's confidence.
     Gav had not expected Sor's phantom appearance, but when the insubstantial form had appeared alongside Wil, he had known who it was. He was perhaps the only one – most simply believed it was a manifestation associated with Wil's magic. Only a few had associated it with Sor, and they were unwilling to speak their opinion publicly for fear of ridicule. Gav found a strange kind of symmetry that both of his fathers had stood together in that last moment. It was something he would have liked to ask Meg about, but she was gone. He suspected, however, that the mysterious conversation between his father and the seeress hours before his death had focused on that subject.
     Falnora was as wonderful a place to raise a child today as it had been when Wil and Lis had reared him. It was larger, but its innocence was unspoiled. It was growing rapidly; in fact, before Gav's death, it would probably hover in size between a settlement and a city. Given an opportunity to build from the ground up, Gav wanted to do things right, and that meant adopting King Sor's template for a classless society. There would be no nobility in Falnora. Everyone would be equal. Vorti might have perished but through Gav and Falnora, many of the things that had made it unique would live on.
     
* * *

     Sor drained his third tankard of ale and decided it was time for him to go. "I have to see my wife and son," he said to his drinking buddy and oldest friend, Tui.
     "So early? There's no work today. It's a holiday!"
     This was Disembarkation Day, the second anniversary of the arrival of the ships at what would eventually become the harbor of New Vorti. There was a second reason to celebrate, although few outside the ruling inner circle were yet aware of it: Meg the Seeress had returned after a year and a half's absence.
     "I know," said Sor. "But just because there's no work doesn't mean I don't have responsibilities." He looked around the crowded barroom. Compared to the taverns he had frequented in Vorti, this one was small, primitive, and cramped, but it was the most popular place in New Vorti. Constructed in only two weeks, it had become a meeting place for the new inhabitants of the village long before most of the settlers had finished houses.
     "You on duty tomorrow, Captain?" asked Tui, adding a mock salute.
     "As always." Not that there was much point. The natives – the few they had encountered – were as friendly as they were sparse. New Vorti was surrounded by wilderness and, aside from a few scattered human tribes, most of their neighbors were four-legged. Somewhere on the vast continent that was their new home, Sor was sure they would find large tribes and cities, but as yet they had made no such contact. Perhaps Meg, who had traveled far and wide, would have more information.
     "Well, have fun with your 'responsibilites,'" said Tui. "I take mine seriously as well, and the one I'm going to pursue for the rest of the day is doing my best to help a few girls contribute to the expansion of our population." Tui's period of mourning for his lost girlfriend Eli, who had died in Vorti, had not lasted more than a few weeks since their arrival. Since then, he had shown no signs of interest in monogamy.
     With a chuckle, Sor pushed back his chair, clasped hands with his friend, and exited The Wayfarer's Respite. The narrow street outside was more crowded than it would normally be during the day, but the men and women of the city were using their time to do things other than till the fields, tend to the crops, and erect new structures. Saying hello to a few acquaintances – almost everyone in New Vorti knew everyone else, at least in passing – he headed for his home.
     It didn't take much time to get to his two-room quarters. There weren't many streets, and few of them were long. Behind the stockade encircling the settlement, there were only enough dwellings to house the 258 survivors from the ships, plus the handful of children who had been born since their arrival. Every place, including what was jokingly referred to as the "palace," was equally small. The streets were lined with one crudely formed wooden cabin after another, all so close there was barely enough room for a man to fit between one and its neighbor. The privy pits, which were behind the dwellings, were communal, with each one serving up to twelve houses.
     Sor entered his house to find his wife sitting placidly on a divan, knitting a garment for their as-yet unborn child. She was close to half-term and the roundness of her belly was beginning to betray her condition. She smiled when she saw him, and he gave her an affectionate kiss on the forehead.
     "You're done drinking early. Didn't Tui try to persuade you to stay?" asked Mika, putting down her yarn and needles.
     "He has plans of his own. I think they involve just about every unattached barmaid."
     Mika frowned. "He never changes."
     "I have to see Lea. Apparently, Meg has returned, and I need to find out what she can tell us about the environs."
     "Plus, you want to see your son."
     Sor nodded. "Yes. I want him to know me as he grows up. I want to be there every day for him."
     "I understand." For a long time after learning about Lea's pregnancy, Mika had been jealous of the queen, but eventually the three of them had sat together and discussed the situation. Sor was the child's father, and Lea would openly acknowledge the paternity, but she did not intend to marry Sor or, at this time, any other man. Several weeks later, with the queen's blessing, she and Sor had been married. She had no illusions that he loved her the way she loved him, but he was kind and affectionate, and that was enough. Mika sometimes fretted what might happen if Lea decided she wanted Sor after all, but she had to hope that would not happen.
     After changing into more formal garments – a procedure that amounted to putting on a less mud-spattered cape – Sor left his house for the palace, which was literally around the corner. Lea's abode was larger than any other in New Vorti – a five room structure with an indoor commode. In addition to chambers for Lea, her maid, and her son, there was an audience "hall" and a dining room. The palace did not have a separate kitchen. Lea's meals, like those of everyone else in New Vorti, were cooked at a central location – an open fire pit near the east gate.
     Sor was admitted without question, and found Lea in the audience hall. She was casually dressed and wore a smile. "Good Disembarkation Day to you, Captain of the Guards," said Lea.
     "Good Disembarkation Day, Your Majesty," replied Sor with a slight bow. "I have learned of Meg's return."
     "She's with the baby now. She insisted on seeing him alone, saying she needed to look into his eyes. Wil is sleeping now, so I sent her in."
     "Did you hear her report?"
     "I did. It's filled with interesting things about this new world, but nothing alarming. As we suspected, we are not alone, but even in her extensive travels, Meg never encountered what we would consider to be a city. But she learned a few things. Some tribesmen told her rumors about a great shining white place of spires and towers a long distance off. And none of them were familiar with magic."
     "So, do we send a delegation to this 'shining white place of spires and towers'?"
     "For now, no, but it's something to consider for the future. At the moment, we have much more to do here. New Vorti is a thriving community, but I have greater aspirations. It may take generations, but I want New Vorti to be a 'shining white place of spires and towers.'"
     "Your Majesty, both your father and Chancellor Wil would be proud of you."
     Lea smiled. "Thank you, Sor. You could not have paid me a more welcome compliment."
     
* * *

     Meg quietly approached the sleeping baby, a serene expression on her face. Over the past year and a half, she had learned a great deal about the world around them, but she had always wondered what she would see when she gazed upon Lea's child, a baby who had not yet been born when she departed. Now, she knew.
     They had named him Wil, after Lea's beloved chancellor. A better name could not have been chosen. "Hello, little Wil. Or should I say little Sor. Joined together at last, I see. So we did not leave you behind at Xert – either of you."
     The baby stirred, awoke, and gazed curiously at the blind woman bending over his crib. Meg reached out to gently touch his forehead. "Welcome back to the world of the living, Garvad. The balance is restored."


THE END



© 2006 James Berardinelli

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