Book 2, Chapter One: "Silence From the South"
by James Berardinelli

All of Vantok, greatest city of the South, lay before King Azarak as he gazed out over its buildings from the vantage of the rooftop gardens of his palace. This was his kingdom; these were his people. And they were dying. The relentless heat bubbling up from the area known as The Forbidden Lands was sapping the life of the city and the will of its citizens. If not for the low angle of the sun in the sky, one might easily assume it was a late Summer morning. But it was the second week of the warmest Winter Vantok had ever seen.

Azarak’s cool blue eyes roved from left to right and back again, scanning the city he had come to love above all else. Even if everyone left Vantok, he would remain, ruler of a ghost city. A welcome breeze stirred from the north, teasing with a reminder of the cold which held sway as close as a week’s walk away. It ruffled Azarak’s short-cropped reddish-brown hair and brought a flicker of a smile to his lips. His face, with its bronzed skin and slight goatee, looked older than its 27 years. Even dressed informally in a light tunic and loose pants, Azarak looked every inch a king.

Yet even as he scanned the quiet majesty of his city, Azarak found his eyes drifting to the south, drawn like iron to a lodestone to the distant horizon.

Where is he?

It had been eight weeks since Sorial and his four companions departed on their quest to penetrate The Forbidden Lands on a search for the portal of Havenham. The trip should have taken no more than three weeks in each direction. There should have been word by now. The silence was stubborn and spoke of ill possibilities. As each day passed with no news, Azarak became increasingly convinced of the mission’s failure. The why of it hardly mattered. They could have been killed seeking their goal or Sorial might have been rejected by the portal. At best, they might have become lost or been unable to find the portal, but even those possibilities weren’t encouraging. Prelate Ferguson, the orchestrator of the journey, seemed unconcerned, arguing that expectations of anything less than a full season were unreasonable. He claimed he wouldn’t contemplate the loss of Sorial and his fellows until Winter was done. But Azarak was a pragmatist and he couldn’t share what he deemed to be irrational optimism.

Of course, if Sorial returned today, there would be a problem. His intended bride, the Lady Alicia, had fled Vantok seven weeks ago and hadn’t been heard from since. All indications were that she had gone north in the company of a paid man-at-arms, a rogue of Sorial’s acquaintance, and Sorial’s mother. Aside from a few early sightings on the road to Basingham, they hadn’t been seen. Azarak’s best spies were looking for her, but they were frustrated in their efforts by bad weather and worse luck. Perhaps it was just as well that Sorial had vanished.

Objectively, it was a beautiful morning. With the full brutality of Summer’s heat in retreat, this was the kind of day when being outside was a joy. The market would be abuzz, farmers would be in their fields, and children would be playing in the streets. It was almost enough to make one forget how dire Vantok’s future might be. The latest census put the permanent population in excess of 25,000 souls, all of whom might be homeless, rootless wanderers in another year or two. No matter how he wracked his brain, his thoughts returned to a single question: how did one combat magic if not with magic?

* * *

The trial of Lieutenant Horspath lasted longer than expected, consuming not only the entire morning, but the first few hours of the afternoon. The throne room, where the proceedings were held, was filled to capacity. Ever since Horspath’s arrest, there had been great interest in how the king would rule. The lieutenant was a well-liked and respected leader of the Watch. His men would lay down their lives in defense of his reputation. But he was accused of a long list of crimes against the men and women he was supposed to protect. The citizenry - at least the peasants - wanted blood.

Azarak had appointed Horspath to his current position, so the king felt a burden of responsibility for the man’s actions, which included extortion, intimidation, theft, and most likely murder. Yet, although he was the highest ranked member of the Watch to stand trial for offenses of this sort, he wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last. Since Azarak had instituted mandatory conscription, opportunists had invaded the guards’ ranks. Weeding them out was a necessary and unpleasant business but, like all unwanted growth, once one was extracted by the roots, another would replace it.

The people demonized Horspath, turning him into a scapegoat for all the ills suffered over the past two seasons. It was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it provided the demoralized citizens of Vantok a tangible focus for their bitterness. On the other hand, it meant that the trial was a sham. If Azarak found the man innocent or pronounced too lenient a sentence, riots would be unavoidable. Fortunately, Azarak was convinced of Horspath’s guilt on a majority of the charges. However, his decision to impose a prison term of no less than 10 years in Vantok’s deepest, dankest dungeons wasn’t met with universal approval. Most of those in attendance were hoping for, and expecting, the headsman to gain a new client.

Ten minutes after the ordeal was over, Azarak was seated in his private audience chamber, the windowless room where most of the real business of governing was done. He had doffed the heavy robes of state he always wore while in public, but was still regally attired. The heavy, gem-encrusted crown of Vantok had been replaced by a lighter circlet.

By his side stood Toranim, his close advisor and friend. Thirty-three years’ Azarak’s senior, the older man had been chancellor to the king’s father as well as one of Azarak’s teachers. Toranim had aged noticeably since the days when his wooden stick would rap his unruly pupil’s knuckles, but he was still a commanding figure. His once-dark hair had gone gray and he had recently begun sporting a mustache. His steely eyes were as lucid as ever and, despite his advancing age, his mind showed no slippage. He was a handspan taller than his liege so, when they stood together in public, he was careful to stand far enough behind Azarak to make them appear to be of the same height.

There was one other man in the room, sitting across the broad table from the king. Still in chain link armor with the dust of the road on his clothing and in his hair, he had been ushered in to see Azarak immediately upon his arrival. The king knew the soldier on sight: Kubrizik, one of the scouts sent on a mission to the region bordering The Forbidden Lands. He was the first to return.

The soldier drank deeply from a chilled goblet of wine to wash the dirt of the journey from his mouth before turning his attention to the king. He was clearly weary, having ridden hard for three days to deliver his report. It was succinct and to the point: something was happening in The Forbidden Lands. He didn’t know what, but all was not as expected. He had found numerous nomad encampments recently inhabited and newly abandoned. There were no traces of the men and no indication where they had gone. In fact, during the week he had patrolled the border, he had seen no one else, living or dead, but ample evidence existed that people had been there as recently as several days before his arrival. The heat assailing Vantok lessened the closer one got to The Forbidden Lands, approaching what could be considered “normal” for this time of the year.

After hearing Kubrizik’s report and asking a few questions, Azarak dismissed the man so he could return to his wife and children. The king pondered quietly for a few moments before motioning for Toranim to take the seat the solider had vacated so they could face each other as they discussed what this might mean.

“What’s the total number of men we sent to The Forbidden Lands?” Azarak knew the approximate figure but wanted specifics.

“Twenty to patrol the border, either singly or in pairs. A lone group of six was sent to penetrate into the region. And eight more were dispatched last week to search for Sorial and his party.”

“I suppose others might yet return.” Azarak’s voice held no trace of optimism.

“It’s possible, Your Majesty, but they’re all overdue. It appears Kubrizik was overlooked by whatever eliminated our scouts.”

“Overlooked or allowed to escape. His observations may be designed to provide us with a message; the difficulty is in decoding it. What are they trying to tell us?”

“It could be an attempt to hide something transpiring in The Forbidden Lands. Our scouts are our eyes - put them out and we’re blind.”

“Perhaps,” acknowledged Azarak. “But I think it’s an invitation. He, whoever he is, wants me to send more men, proceed with a large force into The Forbidden Lands to investigate. Divide and conquer. Whatever portion of Vantok’s army he can destroy there leaves fewer men to face when he comes north. You know as well as I do that one of the most basic tactics of war is to choose your battlefield.”

“If you’re right, this is another sign that war is coming. Should I send more scouts?”

Azarak disliked the idea of deploying men on suicide patrols, but he needed information. More importantly, he needed to know when and if troops were spotted moving north. “Volunteers only, in groups of no less than three. Offer them double pay for the duration. They aren’t to penetrate The Forbidden Lands yet and they’re to turn back if threatened in any way. Engagement with the enemy is a last resort. I want messengers on fast horses actively moving between all patrol groups at all times and as soon as anyone is reported missing, the operation is to be suspended.”

“It won’t be enough. You know we’ll lose men.” Toranim’s voice was somber.

“I know, but maybe we’ll learn something useful, like how they’re killing well-armed, trained soldiers when the only inhabitants are supposedly ill-equipped nomads, hunters, and traders who avoid direct contact with city-dwellers unless they have something to sell.”

“As you command, Your Majesty.”

Scouts dying in and near The Forbidden Lands was a bad sign, but there was one young man above all others whose life or death most concerned him. Without magic, Azarak didn’t think he could win this war.

* * *

Several days later, Azarak received a request for a private audience from a priest named Farber, a member of Prelate Ferguson’s inner circle. There was little to distinguish Brother Farber from the hundreds of men of similar rank who had succeeded within the cloistered confines of the religious life. One of the objectives of the Temple was to depress individuality so active members of the order were encouraged to look and dress alike: anonymous gray robes, a tonsured head, shaved eyebrows and no facial hair, and meticulously manicured fingernails. As was common among the devout, the small finger on his left hand had been removed at the first knuckle. That one so young - Farber couldn’t have been much beyond the early years of his third decade - had risen so far within the Temple hierarchy bespoke of commitment and intelligence. Ferguson surrounded himself only with the best and the brightest.

To accommodate Farber’s request for secrecy, Azarak and Toranim agreed to meet the priest in the private audience chamber rather than a more public locale where such a session would customarily occur. It was unlikely, however, that the prelate would remain ignorant of the meeting. The palace staff was peppered with spies whose primary loyalty was to Ferguson; little that went on within these walls remained hidden from the prelate unless Azarak went to great pains to achieve that goal.

“Thank you for seeing me on short notice, Your Majesty.” Farber’s eyes were downcast; he didn’t meet the king’s gaze. That followed an antiquated etiquette practiced by few today. Once, to make eye contact with a king was to court death.

“My chancellor assures me you bring words of importance.”

“I come to you because my conscience dictates this to be the right choice. I’ve wrestled with it for many nights now, weighing my duty to Prelate Ferguson and the Temple to my duty to Your Majesty and Vantok. Only after many hours of contemplation did I arrive at this decision.”

Azarak said nothing, knowing Farber would make his point in his own time. Clearly, he viewed what he was about to say as a betrayal of Ferguson and Azarak didn’t want to speak unwise words that might make him reconsider. If he was about to break a sworn oath to the prelate, his future in the Temple would be in jeopardy. Ferguson had excommunicated men for less.

“I believe Prelate Ferguson isn’t being entirely open and honest with Your Majesty.”

That wasn’t a revelation to Azarak, who had long known Ferguson to be the keeper of a vast store of secrets that he dispensed as he saw fit.

“The Prelate has known the location of The Wizard’s Bride for several weeks. His agents located her at a rest stop along the northern road some time ago. He ordered that her progress be tracked but her journey shouldn’t be impeded and no attempt should be made to retrieve her. Those of us who learned this information were told that under no circumstances was it to be revealed to Your Majesty.”

Only Azarak’s schooling at maintaining a calm façade prevented his face from expressing the shock he felt. This wasn’t a minor infraction; it was treason. If Farber wasn’t mistaken, Ferguson had overstepped his boundaries by more than a little. By hiding Alicia’s location, he had acted criminally.

“There’s more, Your Majesty. Prelate Ferguson is aware that you independently deployed resources to locate The Wizard’s Bride. The priesthood has been given orders to obfuscate the trail, confuse any pursuit, sow disinformation, and do whatever is necessary to ensure you’re unable to locate and re-capture the Lady Alicia.”

As stunned as Azarak was by these revelations, his mind screamed one question: Why?? What possible reason could Ferguson have for keeping Alicia from being brought back safely to Vantok? Even as a power play, it made no sense. If Sorial returned and Alicia wasn’t here to greet him...

“Have you noticed whether His Eminence has been acting erratically lately?” asked Toranim, voicing a concern he and Azarak had discussed from time-to-time. Ferguson was ninety-five years of age and it was rare for a man to reach that advanced state of life with his full intellectual prowess intact. This might be an indication of a decline in Ferguson’s mental faculties. It was hard to imagine a worse time for something of that nature to be happening.

“There are causes for concern. But this is the first time any of my brothers or I have seen him stand in open defiance of Your Majesty. We are sworn servants of the Temple but, considering what happened with the gods, many of us now consider our secular responsibilities more important than our religious ones. We serve two masters: Prelate Ferguson and Your Majesty. Neither is a god but, to be blunt, you outrank him. Many of my fellows don’t share this opinion. In fact, I am one of only three who believes Prelate Ferguson to be in the wrong.”

The conversation continued but little additional information was forthcoming. Before dismissing Farber, Azarak wanted to ensure that the man’s loyalty wasn’t transient.

“Can I rely on you to bring information of a similar nature to me going forward?”

The priest nodded. “For as long as I am privy to it, Your Majesty. Should the prelate suspect that my loyalty is no longer unconditional, he may remove me from his circle. His Eminence has shown signs of paranoia in recent weeks; holding his trust is becoming an uncertain thing.”

“For as long as you’re close to him, I rely on you to be my eyes and ears in the temple. Can you do that?”

“I can, Your Majesty.”

“Then go with my gratitude. And know that should you require support from the Crown, you’ll have it, even if it requires me to face down Prelate Ferguson. As you so rightly pointed out, I outrank him. Perhaps not once but certainly now. You’re dismissed to return to your duties. Chancellor Toranim will show you a concealed exit route.”

After Toranim and Farber departed, Azarak sat in silence, brooding over this latest development. To this point, the depth of the prelate’s insubordination had been concealing secrets; acting to interfere with a mission of this importance couldn’t be tolerated. Yet the problem of how to address it remained. Raising it in conversation would do no good; Ferguson would deny the allegation and reaffirm his commitment to serving the king and the city. Charging him with treason or some lesser crime would serve no purpose beyond driving a wedge between the Crown and the Temple. Ecclesiastical privilege would assure that Ferguson never stood trial. The only remaining option was to remove him from power. But how?

Azarak knew the answer although he didn’t like. Ferguson would never give up his position as long as he lived. The king had used assassins before, albeit on rare occasions and as a last resort. Never had he sought to eliminate a target this important. But the matter of Ferguson’s ouster couldn’t be set aside and allowed to stew. Azarak had done that for too long and the brew had turned noxious. Action in this matter was no longer a luxury.