Reets groaned like an old bear. “Not again,” he mumbled, tracking the ruckus to the side of the bed and finding the eldest of the advisors peeking over the rim of his book, one corner of his mouth glistening with drool.
     “He passed?” Godfry asked.
     “No yet,” Reets chided. “I told yeh I’d wake yeh if’n he did.”  
     “Did you, now,” Godfry said, blinking heavily at the crumpled mattress and scratching his massive brush-pile mane. Finding no answers there, he said, “What was that about death, then?”
     “Fixin problems, Godfry,” Reets said. “Had nothin to do with ole Sam.”
     Godfry screwed up his face. “Problems, you say.”
     “Like the rivers?” Godfry asked. “And that fellow with no skin?”
     Reets let the limping strides of his boots echo in the room before saying, “Yep.”
     “Ah, good, good,” Godfry said. “Any solutions then?”
     Reets looked to the rafters, wondering how to proceed. He would have preferred that Godfry return to his book and, ultimately, to slumber. But since the old man seemed intent on remaining awake—and since he was, technically, part of the royal council—Reets decided to humor him.
     Jabbing a crooked finger at the slurping darkness in the corner, the halfling said, “Won’t be no solutions so long as ole big mouth keeps gettin in the way.”
     Godfry mouthed the word big mouth and turned in the direction of the halfling’s finger. Watching this, Reets thought for sure the old man would either ask him to explain who was in the corner or why their mouth was so large. But instead, the ancient counselor raised his bushy white brows and began to nod, bobbing his head up and down as one does when what they hear resonates to the core.
     “I see, I see,” he mumbled.
     From her seclusion in the shadows, the titan said, “As usual, Godfry dear, Counselor Baggershaft will not be satisfied until we declare war on every rock and rill this side of Erinthalmus. And our friend, Counselor Sneel,” she added, helpfully, “still suffers from the delusion that all things can be solved by hiring his impoverished brethren to the south.”
     “Ahhh,” Godfry said, his head tottering. “Yes, that sounds about right.”
     Curling his upper lip, Reets shot the old coot a dirty look and said, “Wha’ do you know bout anythin, sleepy-head?”
     The wintery haystack of hair tottered towards him. “What’s that, now?”
     “You heard me,” Reets snapped. “Stead’a sittin over there and playin the fool, why doan’ you try comin up with answers? You been here longer than the rest’a us.” 
     Godfry stared at him—no surprise there—then began to dig in his beard. “I’m not sure I can say,” he offered weakly. “I’m not sure anything like this has ever happened,” he added. “We had the occasional ugling wander out of the Bottoms, and every once in a while someone would go to close to the Harriun and get suck in by whatever it is that sucks people in, but…but we never had anything like this, never a lost river or a crushed animal or…or anything like this.” He shook his head at the memories or, possibly, the lack thereof.
     Reets made a self-righteously huff and said, “No solutions, huh?”
     Godfry pulled his hand from his beard. “No. No, I don’t think so,” he said. “What did we have so far? It was the, um…the military, yes.” He nodded at Reets. “And then the mercenaries,” he said, pointing to Bal. Turning to the corner, he gawked openly for a time, then said, “What was Mums’ idea?”
     Reets allowed himself a smirk. “Ask her, why doan’ yeh?”
     This couldn’t have worked out better. Reets had gona after the feeb and was now getting a piece of the big mouth as well, putting her right out there to squirm. He knew this because they would never hear the Muminofilous Solution to the happenings. That just wasn’t her style.
     Her style—also known as the coward’s style—was to sit on the fence and throw stones at everyone else, tearing apart their ideas, while being sure to protect and conceal her own. And when asked to share those precious ideas, she would tell them all to pack sand. Well, not in those exact words—she’d be diplomatic about it—but rest assured there’d be no solution. 
     “I agree with Godfry,” Mums said, and when the halfling nearly fell over, she added, “I think this is a new phase in the history of the land.”
     Regaining his balance, Reets stopped his pacing and turned to face her, embracing the shadows and inertia and awaiting her response. But instead of hearing a response, he watched as something enormous—crafted of old yak skins and dusty llama hides—stood to its feet.
     First came the knees, followed by the elbows and shoulders, and then Mums was lumbering out of the darkness and into the candle light, something with tree-trunk legs and long swinging arms, something that had to duck each rafter as it moved to the four-poster.
     Once there, she rested her huge, liquid-brown eyes on the mattress and studied the rumpled blankets in the middle… and the purple glow at the headboard.
     “He’s dying,” Mums said, and somehow that obvious statement took the halfling off guard. Perhaps it was hearing such a harsh declaration stated in the titan’s sweet and mellifluous tones, but he felt the words sink a little deeper in his chest. He liked old Sam. They all did. For that matter, anyone who ever met him did.     
     Still gaining his bearing, Reets limped to the foot of the bed and completed the political pattern; a counselor on each side of the mattress: Igus, Erinthalmus, and Onador, respectively.
     Craning his head over the bed, straining every warped tendon in his atrophied neck, Reets peered at the white and wasted face peaking up from the covers. It was the face of death to some—the face of horror to others—but to the halfling, it was the face of an old friend.
     He remembered, distinctly, the day he’d been appointed to this crummy little kingdom on the other side of nowhere and he’d not been pleased. He’d already heard rumors of how weak and whiny the humans were—just a step up from the titans, when you got down to it—and he was dreading his arrival like a swift kick to the groin.
     Samrod Denbauk, however—the king of that crummy little kingdom and Great Diplomat to so many other lands—had changed all that. Old Sam, as he was known to friends and family and subjects, had met the twisted halfling not at the roundtable or at the throne room, but at a tiny inner door set in the Rivergate on the west end of the castle.
     Sam had been smiling broadly and extending both hands at the time, one hand to grip the halfling’s twisted digits and the other to clap over the top and squeeze. Reets let him, responding with the traditional halfling greeting—a curt grunt and nod—and then waiting for the silly-hearted suck-up’s true colors to shine through.
     But that never happened. Old Sam greeted everyone like that. Some he even hugged, pulling them in with both arms and pounding them on the back.
     Old Sam, he thought grimly, peering down at the pale and wrinkled face. Good ole Sam.
     In a voice that matched Reets’ expression, Mums said, “He ruled well, did he not? Arn may have tamed the land and Fendly may have built it and Galimose might have defended it, but it was old Sam who…,” she trailed off, a long and rueful sigh escaping her lips, “…it was old Sam who peopled it.”
     On the other side of the bed, Godfry made a dry and rasping noise with his throat. When Reets looked over, he caught the old man smiling.
     “But now,” Mums said, pointing at the dull glow at the king’s throat, “his light leaves him, as did his royal protector.” She gestured to the room. “The king’s own protector—that has never left his side or the side of any king before him—has forsaken our loving king, forsaken him not from spite or complacency, but from simple resignation.
     “For our good king is beyond the point of saving. Not by war,” she announced, locking eyes with Reets, “not by men,” she reiterated, turning to Bal. “Please remember that,” she said, turning to Godfry, “because when it comes time to address the happenings and seek out a course of action, you should be prepared for the eventuality that our land is as sick as our king.”
     She stepped back from the bed, silence descending and candle lights dancing.
     “But unlike kingdoms…,” Balthus wheezed, “…kings have heirs.”  
     “Oh, I agree,” Mums said, “but Sam’s heirs are not Sam, and they will not carry on as Sam, no more than Sam carried on as his father.” 
     Wrinkling his face, Reets said, “Are yeh sayin his heirs won’t fare so well? Cause we ah’ready know—”
     Mums whirled on him. “I am not speaking of heirs, Reetsle. I am speaking of land, the land that is waking up and will soon replace the kingdom we know. I have this deep and unpleasant feeling that this new land is going to burst from its cage like a wild beast—And when that time comes,” she said, lumbering to the shuttered window opposite the bed and indicating it with a thick and furry finger, “the kingdom we call Jashandar will be no more.
     “That kingdom will whither and die while something dark and terrible rises in its stead. I am, of course, speaking of the monster that Arn suppressed over an epoch ago, the monster which Sam’s ancestors referred to as Drugana.”
     Reets looked around at his fellow counselors, eager to see if they looked as confused as he felt, but if Balthus were struggling with the titan’s speech, he made no outward sign other than to lick his scaly lips. Godfry, on the other hand, had slumped in his chair and was snoring at the ceiling.
     Reets pulled the pipe from his gnarled lips and poked the stem at her. “Tha’s a load of pig swill,” he said, emphasizing pig swill with a stab of the pipe. “But even if it weren’t, woman, yeh still din’t give us no course’a action.”
     The titan stared at him. “I thought it was self-evident,” she said, speaking in a tone that was somewhat cold and heartless. “We leave.”
     Reets mouthed the word, refusing to give it power by speaking it aloud. Retreat—the titan’s cowardly answer for practically everything—was the only profanity not allowed in the Halfling Book of Curse Words, worse even than using a halfling’s full name.
     Still wrestling with this, Reets heard Godfry speaking near the bed, a low and muttering sound that sounded like it was coming from the other side of the world. He turned to face him, still reeling from the titan’s bizarre solution and only half-interested in what the eldest of the counselors had to say. But as he lay eyes on local representative, he found him still slouched in his chair and very much asleep.
     A cold draft stole through the halfling as he thought back to the voice. It hadn’t really sounded like Godfry now that he gave the voice some reflection. It had sounded dull and ethereal, not unlike the whisper of a moan seeping from a dream.
     Part of that interpretation could have been his atrocious halfling hearing—which was akin to wearing steel mugs tied over both ears—but quality aside, there had been a voice at the bed, because he could see the other two advisors moving steadily towards it, Mums reaching the mattress in two massive strides and Balthus shuffling forward with the soft caress of his slippers and the hard tap of his cane.
     Tell me it weren’t him, Reets thought, limping to the bed and hooking his fingers in the sheets. But as he twisted his deformed neck over the blankets once more, he saw that it was him. He knew this even before he heard his spooky voice a second time, even before he saw his quivering lips trying to form the words.
     He knew this because he could see the Raya Amulet around the king’s neck and noticed the way it blazed with purple light. But in case there was any doubt, he watched as the king wrestled his mouth into place and spoke again his low and ghostly words: