Healing a Princess. . . 26 (Sherstone)


 Healing a Princess 26
By Tim Knight
            “What ya doing short stuff?” Nevyre poked his head over the stable door.
            “Just brushing Sefu.” Adiah yawned. “I like him so shine when the Captain rides him.”
            “Kinda hard for him to shine in these, caverns isn’t it?”
            “Sefu knows and I know, and the Captain knows.” Adiah covered another yawn.
            “Didn’t sleep well last night?” Nevyre inquired.
            “No. Comyn, Princess Tonya’s horse was restless. She should take him out for some exercise again, soon.”
            “You’re sleeping with them?”
            “Captain’s orders. It’s okay, I love horses.”
            “So have you practiced that little trick any?” Nevyre inquired.
            “Some, I’m not very good though.”
            “Let’s see.” Nevyre tossed Adiah a silver piece.
            Adiah carefully balanced the coin on the top of one knuckle then slowly started to flip the coin from one finger to the next almost dropping it once. She looked up biting her lip and with a discouraged look in her eyes. “I’m not very good.”
            “You are doing wonderful, little thief.” Nevyre smiled encouragement. “It take time, patience and lots and lots of practice.”
            Adiah held the coin out for him.
            “Nah, keep it to practice with.” Nevyre smiled.
            “But you gave me one to practice with already.” Adiah protested.
            “Well, now you have a back up.”
            “Lets get these horses ready. The Captain and Princess will want to be on their way soon.” The Stablemaster called down the line of stables.
            “I’ll let you get back to your work.” Nevyre winked. “If you need anything just give me a call.”
            “Thanks Nevyre.” Adiah waved with the currying brush in hand.
            Nevyre went down the line of stables and found his own mount that Kadyr had provided for him. He saddled the dun mare and walked her out into the large corridor leading back to the highway.   He wasn’t the first one to get into place. Cavalrymen, Heavy fighters, and a few of the servants were already calmly awaiting for the rest of the Procession to arrive.
                                                *            *            *
            “Good morning, Highness.” Monyka greeted her Princess as she opened the curtains to the still dark veranda looking out over Hobro.
            “Morning? It isn’t even light out.” Tonya grumbled. “Wake me later.”
            “The Captain says that we are to have a long journey today if we are to reach Sherstone this evening.”
            “Aren’t you just the morning lark.” Tonya grumbled.
            “I’d have thought that kissing a handsome soldier would have led to a better disposition.” Monyka smirked ducking her head to avoid the thrown pillow.
            “It’s too early to have a disposition.”
            “Come on, or you’ll keep everyone waiting and cursing your laziness.”
            Tonya squinted out the window up at the sky. The stars were still sparkling overhead, but the eastern horizon was turning from midnight blue towards a silver color.
            “You know, if I had known that I was paying for a concert last night I’d have charged this ‘hole’ admission.” Tonya grumbled back. “I hope he played more than just your flute last night.”
            “That is none of your business.” Monyka threw a pillow back at the Princess, hitting her on the side of the head.
            “Neither is the lake.”
            “Oh, but its everyone else’s business. You should hear the rumors going around.”
            “What are they saying?” Tonya flung the covers off.
            “One story is along the lines of that the Captain tried to get fresh with you, and you pushed him overboard. Another says that you fell in, and that the Captain had to breathe life back into you. My favorite” Monyka giggled, “is that you were performing some rite of spring and bedding each of your guard in turn.”
            “They’re saying that?” Tonya almost glowed she was so red. 
            “Oh, I’m sure it has gotten worse.” Monyka helped the Princess off the bed and to the piss pot.
            “Where is Annyka?” Tonya looked around. “She had been helping me with this lately.”
            “I’m letting her sleep in.” Monyka explained pulling a gown from one of the wardrobes. “She’ll be keeping you company this morning, while I ride the line.”
            “Ride the line?” Tonya looked puzzled.
            “Ride up and down the caravan talking with the servants and soldiers, putting to bed any ‘other’ stories that might have arisen from yesterday’s afternoon outing as well as letting the retinue and especially the servants know that you haven’t forgotten about them.” Monyka helped the Princess into the already drawn and steaming tub of water.
            “Forgotten about them?”
            “Yes, a lot of them haven’t seen much of you in the past few days. We’ve dragged them from the only place they have ever known, over oceans, up rivers, through floods and mud. They’ve fought off river pirates and a failed attack in the cursed fog. They have then been drawn into the dark depths of the earth under a mountain, and who knows what else they’ve suffered that we haven’t heard about.”
            “I didn’t drag anyone. They’re all volunteers.” Tonya pointed out.
            “Most didn’t know what they were volunteering for.”
            “That’s not my responsibility.”
            “It may not be, but you are their beloved Princess. Whether they do if for love of you, your father, or their kingdom, they see you as the reason for their blistered feet, cold, wet feet, and weary legs.”
            Tonya didn’t reply. She dunked her head under the water to block out anymore that Monyka might say.
                                                *             *            *
            The mornings journey towards Sherstone was much like the mornings before. Endless walking or riding through a long dark tunnel that was lit here and there by glowing grubs as they neared or left behind a small niche of a settlement. Most of the settlements they came across in these poorly lit areas were places that a tired wagon driver could pull off and spend a few copper for a worn bed and feed for his animals. 
Or grilled meats of unknown varieties, or home brewed swill that passed as ale. 
            As the days before them, the clean walls and smooth floor of the highway would suddenly be interrupted as they would travel into a large cavern. The smooth road under horses hoof would wind its way around large stalagmites and columns of stone that had formed together over a millennia ago. Every once in a while they would come across an interesting flowstone or a ceiling covered by millions of tiny hollow tubes. Kalgar informed them that they were called ‘straws’ These interesting features would cause the party to slow down to get as good a look as their lanterns or torches would allow them.
            The cooks having had the previous day to buy supplies and prepare for the continuing trip, handed out sandwiches, cheese and fruit as they pushed on, only stopping to water their horses.
            Not long after lunch had been eaten Ambassador Kalgar called for a halt.
            “What is it, Ambassador?” Captain Kalhoun asked.
            “We are about to enter Echo Chasm.” Kalgar explained. The Highway follows the edge of a deep crevasse that drops into the very depths of the earth. We need to warn everyone to stay away from the edge. If they were to fall, we’d be in Sherstone by the time they hit bottom.”
            Tonya shuddered at the thought of an open space that fell to such depths.
            “We’ll follow it for a bit, then we’ll come to a bridge that spans it. There is a small rail on each side, but we should slow down as we cross it. I don’t want the horses or anyone else getting spooked and bolting in the wrong direction.”
            Captain Kalhoun nodded. “Grymm, Dyrk, Yyan.” He called. Three Cavalrymen pulled their mounts up next to him. “Ride down the line and explain the upcoming situation. Anyone afraid of heights, needs to let Sergeant Takoda, Lieutenant Kollyns, Sergeant Galyway or myself know. One of us will help escort them across the bridge.”
            The three saluted and rode off down the line.
            As Ambassador described, the Road opened up to a large underground cavern. The Highway was carved out of the shear rock. It hadn’t changed in width, which Tonya was thankful. She took one look down the side and saw only blackness. Her stomach spun as did her head. She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, she squinted into the dark to see the other side of the chasm, but could only see darkness.
            “Don’t bother trying, Highness.” Ambassador Kalgar spoke from beside her.
            “Bother what?” Tonya inquired.
            “The other side is too far to be seen, even for us dwarves. We’ll follow this long the edge until we come to a narrowing of the canyon.”
            “Couldn’t you have tunneled over it, under it, or at least down far enough that you could bridge it at a narrower spot?” She turned away from Echo Chasm and concentrated on not looking at it.
            “It would have put a hardship on the travelers, going up or down such a grade to go over or under it. It would have been very much like the spiral we wound around when we entered near Bolton.” Kalgar explained.
            “What about going around it?” Tonya asked.
            “It’s too long.” The dwarf stroked his beard. It would add a day to the travel either way.”
            “Has anyone gone to the bottom?” Tonya gulped. “Other than falling to their death?”
            “There is a small trail about three leagues back that way. It is a steep, and dangerous trail. Many thrill seekers go down there to hunt.”
            “Sure. All kinds of creatures live down in niches and old caverns such as this canyon. In fact, a few of your guard went with some of the Battleaxe’s men yesterday to go hunting in some old tunnels and caverns. There has been talk of Carrion Crawlers that were wrecking havoc on some of the outlying settlements.”
            “Did they kill anything?”
            “I believe your Sergeant Galyway was awarded the kill of a Cave Fisher.” Kalgar grinned.
            “What, do I dare ask, is a Cave Fisher?”
            “Its more of a menace than a danger, really.” Kalgar smirked. “They are large crab like creatures that set up a lair, then string out sticky strings. When a creature or even a dwarf happens to get tangled into the strings, the Fisher pulls in the catch and eats it.”
            “It eats dwarves?”
            “Sure. Don’t know why, we are pretty tough and bony.” Kalgar chuckled.
            “Sergeant Galyway killed one? By himself?”
            “Yep. It sounds like he insisted on doing it himself.”
            “How big do these. . . these Fishers get?”
            “Oh, they get to be almost as big as your wagon there.”
            Annyka listening in on the conversation let out a small gasp.
            “Great, now my assistant is going to have night terrors. Thank you Ambassador.”
            Kalgar looked alarmed then apologetic. “I’m sorry, Lady Annyka. I don’t know what I was thinking, explaining the more gory details.”
            “It’s alright Ambassador. I’ll think of flowers and sunshine when I go to sleep.”
            “I’ll ah. . . I’ll go see if the Captain needs any help.” Kalgar excused himself.
            Tonya again tried to busy herself with anything to get her mind off of the deep hole that they were traveling beside.
            “Good day, your Highness.” Nevyre rode up beside the carriage.
            “Good day to you too. . . Nevyre.”
            “I was speaking to a certain stable boy this morning.” Nevyre began. Tonya’s ears perked up and she listened with more interest. She hoped that Adiah was doing alright. “The stable boy says that Comyn needs a bit of exercise, that it is keeping the stable hands awake at night with restlessness.”
            It had been a long time since she had ridden Comyn. But where could she ride her horse in these tunnels? She would definitely have to wait until they were away from this Chasm. There is no way she would risk either of them plummeting thousands of feet to their deaths.
            “Thank you, Nevyre. Please inform the stable boy that I will see to it as soon as I am able.”
            Nevyre dipped his head and fell back in behind the guard.
            The royal caravan of Riponians slowed down as they came to the foot of a bridge. 
Captain Kalhoun rode up beside the Princess’s makeshift wagon. “Would you feel more comfortable in the wagon, Highness, or mounted?” he bit his lip, “I could get your wheeled chair out and take you across on that.”
Tonya thought about the choices for a few moments. “I think I’ll be alright, Rikki. If you can brave these caverns, I can brave a few minutes going over a bridge.”
Rikki smiled at the Princess. “Very well. But I’ll ride beside you until you are safely across.”
Tonya nodded her thanks. She took one last look at her Captain, then closed her eyes and held a pillow close to her chest as the wagon began across the stone bridge. Closing her eyes, she quickly discovered didn’t help any. Her mind raced imagining the horses bolting and dragging the wagon, with her in it, over the side of the bridge, and falling. She pictured the stone bridge crumbling beneath their feet, stones, cascading into darkness as she plummeted head over heels with them. Her eyes snapped open as a chill caused by adrenaline raced through her system. Sweat beaded up on her forehead as she clung to the pillow and began hyperventilating. 
“Easy, Tonya.” Rikki murmured just for her ears. “Slow down your breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth.”
Tonya used all of her will to slow down her breathing, when all she really wanted to do was to run screaming as loud as she could across the expanse.   Word of that scenario going around court was one of the things that kept her glued to her seat. The other was that she didn’t think she could move, she was having a hard enough time just breathing.
“Okay, you are there.” Rikki announced as he held Sefu back. 
Tonya’s eyes got real big as she watched him stay behind as her wagon proceeded on.
“I’ve go to help others who are afraid of heights as well.” Rikki informed her.
Looking back, Tonya realized for the first time, just how big the crevasse was, seeing lanterns spread out across to the other side. It was huge, and this was the narrowest part. The bridge that they had crossed was actually three bridges. Two short ones and a long one. The first two bridges connected to what could only be called pinnacles jutting up through the darkness like two fingers.
“That was so cool.” Monyka rode up beside the wagon. Her braided hair clinked and jingled as she swung down off of her horse and climbed up into the wagon as it still moved. She was still wearing the filmy veil that the dwarven women used to accentuate their eyes. “Kadyr handed me a torch to drop off the bridge.” She continued settling herself across from Tonya. “That is one deep hole. The torch just kept falling. Eventually, I couldn’t see it anymore. I think it is still falling.”
Tonya shuddered at the thought.
“Oh, sorry.” Monyka teased. “How did you get across?”
“I tried closing my eyes, but that didn’t help. I kept visualizing disasters. The Captain had me concentrate on breathing.”
“On your own or with his help?” Monyka giggled.
Tonya just glared.
“That bad, huh?” Monyka grimaced. She looked to Annyka.
“I thought she might sick up.” Annyka admitted.
“You’re okay now, though aren’t you?” Monyka’s voice was laced with concern.
            “Yes.” Tonya nodded. She glanced back at the string of lanterns again as they began to enter another tunnel. I brought all of these people here. She thought. Here under a mountain range, cut off from their families, from everything that they’ve known. Her heart began to feel as if the mountain over head was crushing in.
            The tunnel turned a corner blocking the view from her sight. The Princess sighed and tried to make herself comfortable again, hoping that Ambassador Kalgar had more interesting sights ahead to show her that didn’t include Chasms, or crevasses. She’d have to think on how to repay all of these people later.
                                                *            *            *
            The sound of drums and marching boots echoed up and down the highway. It sounded like thunder as it rolled through the cavernous highway.
            “What is that?” Tonya finally raised her voice to be heard.
            “It must be Emperor’s bodyguard” Kalgar explained. He cocked his head to one side listening to the thunderous noise. After a moment he nodded and smiled. “Yes. It’s the Emperor’s Elite.”
            “How can you tell?” Tonya inquired.
            “The cadence that the drums are playing is only played by Emperor Ramah’s Elite.” Kalgar explained. “I should go warn your Captain.”
            “I think he’s heard them by now.” Tonya frowned.
            “Yes, but he won’t be expecting to see what is coming down the highway. You should feel honored Princess. You and your retinue are about to be the first humans to see what is coming.” With that cryptic explanation, Kalgar went off towards the front of the parade to find Captain Kalhoun.
            Captain Kalhoun, Sergeant Takoda and Lieutenant Kollyns were all at the front of the front guard, peering into the darkness down the highway.
            “It has to be friendly.” Kadyr surmised. “If it wasn’t the Dwarves would have killed it by now.”
            “Captain!” Ambassador Kalgar greeted. “I need to inform you of what you are about to see.”
            “What is making all of that racket, Ambassador?”
            “It’s Emperor Ramah’s Elite force.”
            “Is the Princess in danger?” Captain Kalhoun was immediately on alert.
            “No.” Kalgar held up his hand. “It is Ramah’s way of welcoming you all and showing off his strength.”
            “It’s a pretty loud welcome alright.” Takoda wondered aloud.
            “The thing is this.” Kalgar went on. “This Elite force has never been seen by human eyes. In fact I’m shocked that the Emperor has dispatched them.
            “What is so secret about them? That they can stomp and beat on drums?” Takoda inquired.
            Kalgar drew the three off to one side but maintained their lead in the procession. “The Emperor’s Elite are made up of Muls.”
            Takoda shook his head. “I must be hearing things. The Emperor’s Elite is made up of ‘mules’? as in asses?”
            “No.” Kalgar shook his head. “We call them Muls. They are a hybrid of human and Dwarf.”
            “There is no such thing.” Kadyr shook his head.
            “Actually there are.” Kalgar was serious. “The Muls were and are to be the most fearsome warriors that Emperor Ramah has in his arsenal. They were created by Dwarven men coupling with Human women.”
            “But Human women can’t survive the birth of such a hybrid.” Takoda exclaimed.
            “They don’t.” Kalgar was solemn. “It was a program that was begun to create an ultimate fighting machine, but the ethics of the way that the Muls were created became an issue and the program was stopped, but not before the Emperor had this force of warriors made up of Muls. They have been trained since birth to be the ultimate in fighters, shock troops if you will.”
            “Monsters more like it.” Takoda shook his head in disgust.
            “I think you’ll find that they aren’t.” Kalgar rebuffed.   “Anyway, you are about to meet them. I just wanted to warn you so that you didn’t panic and attack.”
            “What do these mules look like?” Kadyr asked.
            “Think human sized Dwarves with more muscle and no hair.”
            “By the Gods.” Kadyr swore.
            “Grymm!” Captain Kalhoun shouted above the noise. “Grymm!”
            “Coming Captain!” the Cavalryman galloped up.
            Captain Kalhoun related what they were expecting to see and dispatched Grymm to warn the soldiers. He then turned to Kadyr. “Go advise her Highness of what we are coming up against, then caution the servants and retinue.”
            “Yes, Sir.” Kadyr wheeled his mount around and galloped back to the Princess’s wagon.
            “So the Emperor sentenced Human women to death by giving birth to these Muls?” Takoda was disgusted.
            “Not exactly.” Kalgar defended. “The women who bore the Muls were already sentenced to die. They were given a choice whether or not to carry the Muls.”
            “What a waste.” Takoda shook his head.
            Captain Kalhoun called a halt in the procession and along with Sergeant Takoda and Ambassador Kalgar, rode forward to meet the on coming storm.
            Sefu shied away from the noise as they rounded a corner, but the Captain’s firm hand kept him from getting too far out of line. The sight before them would have frightened any battle tried general. Loping towards them were four columns of large, heavily armored men.   Upon seeing the Riponians, the lead warrior raised a hand and bellowed, causing the mass of warriors to come to an organized halt. The last beat of the drum and last step of the booted soldier rang up and down the highway. Silence fell around them like a blanket over a tired child.
            “Greetings Pikeman.” Kalgar greeted the front warrior. 
            A large man, or was he more of a giant Dwarf, stepped forward and saluted. “Greetings Ambassador. The Emperor sends his regards to the Riponian Princess and her subjects.” The deep commanding voice greeted. “We are sent to welcome the honored Riponians and see them safely to the Emperor of the underworld.”
            “Thank you, Pikeman.” Kalgar dipped his head. “This here is Captain Kalhoun, the soldier in charge of the Princess’s bodyguard. And this is Sergeant at Arms Takoda,”
            The Mul turned towards the Captain and saluted. “Welcome Captain. I am Pikeman Tymar. My fighters are under orders to precede you into Sherstone. I was also instructed to post two Muls near the Princess and a small contingent as a rear guard.”
            “Are you expecting trouble?” Captain Kalhoun was nervous about having troops not under his control sandwiching his men, the Princess and the servants.
            “Not at all, Sir. It is strictly a demonstration of the Emperor’s esteem.”
            Captain Kalhoun looked over at Kalgar who nodded in agreement. “It’ll be okay, Captain. If the Emperor wanted any harm to come to your people or to the Princess, you would never have made it into the underworld. This is strictly the Emperor’s way of saying ‘welcome.’
            Rikki nodded. “Okay, Pikeman.” He relented. He looked from Tymar to some of the other Muls. By the Gods they were big. Not one of them was under six feet tall and all were as wide or wider than Sergeant Galyway.
            “Why couldn’t he have sent a basket of flowers and fruit like any other Kingdom?” Takoda grumbled.
            A drummer next to Pikeman Tymar struck out a short spurt of notes. Two large warriors sprinted forward and came to stand just behind Tymar. Their stance looked to be at parade rest, but everything about them seemed on the edge of pouncing into an attack.
            Tymar didn’t even look at the two, but instead looked at Rikki. “These two are Kama Takar and Kama Lutala. Are they acceptable to be near the Princess?”
            Rikki was stunned. He was told that he was going to have to allow these warriors in amongst his men and close to the Princess, then he was asked if they were acceptable? At a loss, Rikki looked over at Kalgar. Who nodded assent to him.
            “Yes, they are. . . acceptable.” Captain Kalhoun shrugged. What else was he supposed to say. 
“Pikeman Tymar, how large of a contingent are you stationing behind the Princess’s retinue?” Sergeant Takoda asked.
            “Six.” Tymar stated. “I can assign more to that post if the Captain wishes.”
            “No, no, Six is plenty.” Captain Kalhoun sighed a bit of relief.
            “The Two Kama’s are being placed under your orders Captain. Use them as you see fit.” Tymar indicated the two that he had called forth, Takar and Lutala. Both Kamas snapped a salute to the Captain.
            Stunned, Rikki looked again at the two heavily armored soldiers. He was dumbfounded when he realized that the shorter of the two, Lutala was a female. She wasn’t quite as large as the male Muls around her and her armor was crafted to allow for her different anatomy. “Ah, Sergeant?” Rikki caught Takoda’s attention, “Could you take these Kamas back and find a position for them?”
            “Yes, Captain.” Takoda wasn’t happy about putting two possible assassins near Tonya.
            Captain Kalhoun looked directly at the two Kamas. “Please follow the Sergeant. He will see to you.”
            The two gave a quick salute and with the grace of a wolf followed Takoda back down around the bend to the rest of the party.
            “I was also instructed to give you this.” Pikeman Tymar held out a folded piece of paper. 
            Rikki took the piece of paper, broke the seal and scanned it.
          Welcome to Sherstone, Captain. This afternoon we received word that your injured being cared for by Badiah and Brother Tagyrt, are entering Hobro now, and that they have just missed your departure. They will rest the day there, and join you when you reach Narva.
          In the Emperor’s service,
          Counselor Bardolf
            “Thank you Pikeman.” Rikki nodded to the leader of the Muls “Will there be anything more?”
            “No, Captain.” The Pikeman nodded back. “If you will follow us, we will take you to the Emperor.”
            “Lead on.” Captain Kalhoun saluted.
            The drum next to Pikeman Tymar sounded a distinct rhythm as Rikki turned Sefu around. Rikki looked over his shoulder as the fighting unit of Muls turned an about face and waited for the rest of the Riponian caravan to approach them.
            Instead of being followed, Takoda felt as if he was being stalked. The two Muls were almost silent as they gracefully kept pace with him. Several of the Riponian guards stared as the two giant armored creatures traveled past their ranks.     
            The Royal carriage was being drawn up to the Princess’s wagon.  Grymm and Kadyr assisted the Princess down from her makeshift wagon that Nevyre had created for her and helped her into the Royal carriage which she hadn’t used since before entering the dark of the underworld.
            Annyka looked over at Takoda and the two strange creatures following him. She missed the step of the wagon and stumbled forward sprawling on the ground.
            “Are you alright?” Monyka jumped out of the carriage. She looked up and found herself staring at the newcomers.
            “These are two of the Emperor’s bodyguards. They will be flanking the carriage.” Takoda announced. He turned to the two Muls. “You can take up position just behind the carriage.” He pointed. The two saluted practically in unison.
            “Come on, into the carriage.” Monyka encouraged Annyka. 
            The Royal procession was soon on it’s way again. When they rounded the corner in the highway they heard a quick cadence from a drum and a few evenly spaced taps. 
            The Royal carriage was by far more comfortable than the wagon, but its walls obstructed most of the views and seemed to isolate the Princess from what was going on around them. Tonya lit the interior lanterns and pulled the dwarven science book from one of the leather pockets while Monyka pulled out some neglected needlepoint and began showing Annyka how to do it.
            Every few minutes, Annyka would peer out the window of the carriage and spy one of the Muls, then throw herself back into her task.
            “They aren’t going anywhere until we reach the Emperor.” Monyka mentioned.
            “I know. . . It’s just that I’ve never seen anything like them before.” Annyka looked out the window again.
            “No one has.” Tonya looked up from her book. “How far are we from Sherstone?”
            “It’s only early afternoon.” Monyka looked up from her needle point. “The Ambassador said that if we pushed on through that we’d get there tonight. So I’d imagine we have a few more hours.”
            Tonya sighed.
                                    *            *            *
            “How are you doing in there, Highness?” Rikki asked from his mount outside the carriage window. Even after the day’s long ride, she looked marvelous.
            Tonya didn’t realize that she could miss the sound of his voice so much. He looked worn, tired, but he looked in control and very hansome. She set the book down in her lap. “Are almost there yet?”
            “Yes, your Highness. We are just entering the city now. The Ambassador says that they’ll lead us down the major thorough fare to the Emperor, that the Dwarves of Sherstone are excited to see the Riponian Princess.”        
“They mean the crippled Princess.” Tonya muttered.
            “Oh, stop that.” Monyka admonished. “Most of these Dwarves have never seen a human before let alone Royalty.
            “We’ll be stopping up ahead in just a few moments.” Rikki informed them. “It’s been a long ride today. We’re gong to water the horses and allow the soldiers to clean up a bit so that we don’t look too ragged when we are paraded through the capitol.
            “Would it be alright if I get out and stretch a bit?” Tonya asked. 
            “I don’t see why not.” Rikki smiled. Those beautiful eyes, that flawless skin, those incredible lips. Oh Tanitha he wanted to taste her lips again. Rikki mentally shook himself. “I’ll check in with you later.”
            The stop was a brief one. Just long enough to water the tired horses. Mounts too tired were quickly changed out for fresher beasts from the rear. Rikki spotted Princess Adiah with a water bucket in her hands and offering it to the tired horses. The troops brushed dust and horse hair from their uniforms. Corporals made sure that their colors were buttoned while Galyway and a few servants quickly ran a cloth over the Heavy fighter’s breast plates and helms. It wouldn’t pass a parade inspection, but it would have to do to enter Sherstone after a long day of riding. The front Cavalrymen were instructed to unsheathe and fly the Riponian colors.
            The Emperor’s Elite stood in formation at parade rest, only shifting their weight a little from time to time. Not only had they marched the whole afternoon with out stopping, they had kept up a pace that had worn the horses and humans out. Two Muls broke ranks and handed out a couple of water skins to be passed around for those who needed to hydrate.             The two Muls near the Princess, too, stood at parade rest and watched the activity around them with out expression.
            Captain Kalhoun and Sergeant Takoda sat astride their mounts and inspected their weary soldiers, as they rode past, Telling them to sit proud in their saddles, or to button up a collar. The Captain bowed with a smile to Tonya as the carriage passed. 
            A few minutes later, the roaring drum cadence of the Emperor’s Elite echoed back to them. It was then that Tonya noticed Dwarfs, men, women, and children lining the corridors waving and watching as they passed. Annyka began to wave back, then pulled her hand back into the carriage with a cautious look at Tonya.
            “No, it’s alright, Annyka, let them know that we are friendly.” Tonya encouraged. She put her hand out the window and waved to a Dwarven woman that had four small Dwarven children with her.
            The roaring cadence of the Elite abruptly became more distinct, Tonya was able to make out each of the beats.   A moment later, she found out the reason why. The Underground Highway emerged into a gigantic cavern, easily three times the size of Hobro. Tonya peered out of her window, wishing to be riding in the wagon, and found that the cavern, like Hobro was lined with flicking lights and verandas. The cavern its self was crosshatched with smooth roads, inns, warehouses, and places of business.
            The Dwarves lining the sides of the street and looking out of their windows tossed flowers down at the feet of the Riponian soldiers. Tonya began to feel like she was returning a conquering hero with this kind of attention. 
            The Emperor’s Elite led them on a wide avenue that cut straight through the heart of the cavern. Stone statues and fountains passed by the carriage window. All of them had Dwarves perched upon them watching the strange parade and hoping to catch a glimpse of the crippled Princess.
            The carriage pulled up to a large, flat, stone platform. Two large fire braziers burned bright lighting the assembled welcoming party. Dwarven nobles dressed in formal kilts and brightly colored doublets stood proudly beside Dwarven women who’s braided hair was so full of trinkets and gems that it drooped around their ears. Behind them on each side were a line of red liveried servants, backed by uniformed guards all carrying a glimmering halberd.
            The two Muls who had flanked the carriage the entire afternoon, stood at attention on either side of the carriage door. Captain Kalhoun rode his black stallion up beside them and dismounted as a Dwarf draped in elaborate robes and a shaven head came forward through a large dark doorway.
            “Welcome to Sherstone, Princess.” He greeted with a slight bow at the carriage.
            Rikki swung open the door to the carriage and peered inside. “How are you feeling?” he asked Tonya.
            “Tired but I’ll be fine as long as they don’t have anything elaborate waiting for us.”
            “Shall I bring around your wheeled chair? or your stool that Queen Dianthe had built for you?”
            “Could you have the stool set up just inside the entryway?” Tonya asked. “I’d like to walk at least that far.” She looked longingly at Rikki, “With your help.”
            “I’ll be right back,” he promised turning.
            Tonya watched as several Dwarven servants in red began carrying what looked to be her wardrobes behind the line of Nobles and into the dark entryway. Following them Grymm carried her wheeled stool.
            Rikki opened the door again, “Okay, your Highness, I believe we are ready for you.”
            Rikki held her hand and supported her as she stepped out of the carriage and on to the raised platform. Monyka and Annyka followed quickly. Monyka stood to Tonya’s left side and waited to assist. Annyka stood slightly behind her. 
            “You sure you don’t want me to have the stool brought over here?” Rikki questioned. “I could carry you if you like.”
            Tonya shot him a glare, “don’t you dare.” She muttered. “Just help me.”
            The robed dwarf approached. “Princess Tonya, welcome again to Sherstone. I am counselor Baldorf. I hope your trip in Thame has been comfortable.” It was a statement, not a question.
            Rikki took Tonya’s arm in his, to disguise the fact that she was putting more weight on it than it appeared. He looked at the robed Dwarf. “Thank you for the note that you sent with the Elite’s.” he gave the counselor a slight bow of his head. 
            “Of course, Captain.” Baldorf smiled. “I figured as Captain, you’d want to know about your men.” Baldorf walked backwards in front of them. “Would you like to freshen up before meeting with the Emperor?”
            “What does his Majesty have planned for this evening?” Tonya inquired.
            “Just to welcome you to Sherstone.” Baldorf grinned. “The Emperor gets tired quite easily these days. He’d be more available for you tomorrow. If that is all right with your Highness?”
            Rikki helped ease the Princess onto her rolling stool. Monyka and Annyka adjusted the Princess’s skirts.
            “That would be very nice indeed.” Tonya sighed gratefully.
            “The Emperor and Empress understand how long a day it is between Hobro and Sherstone.” Baldorf bowed and waved at some servants against the wall. Three dwarfs in red approached, each carried a silver tray with a steaming hot towel.   To refresh yourselves.”
            Tonya blotted the hot towel against her face, rubbed it against her neck, arms and hands. Monyka, Annyka and Rikki did likewise. Tonya was surprised at how such a simple nicety felt so good.
            Two more dwarfs stepped forward each had a silver tray carrying silver goblets cool with condensation beading up on them.
            “The road can be quite dusty.” Baldorf gestured at the goblets. “Fruit juice.” He added.
            Tonya sipped at the juice, tasting it. She didn’t realize just how thirsty she was, and began drinking it with more zeal. “That is very good.” She handed the goblet back to the servant.
            “If you could follow me?” Baldorf began walking sideways, making sure that the human guests were following.
            Rikki took Tonya’s hand in both of his and gave it a squeeze. Tonya looked up at him unexpectedly startled.  Rikki smiled, his blue eyes filled with such care. Tonya smiled back and allowed him to pull her on her stool as she used her good leg to help keep up.
            Huge stone columns wrapped in beautiful marble soared up to a ceiling carved in relief’s of ancient battles, and ancient kings of Thame. The large room was lit by dozens of flickering gas flames. The wavering light caused the shadow on the three dimensional shapes to move, making them seem to come to life.
            The sound of an army marching behind her caused Tonya to look over her shoulder, only to find that the Nobles that had watched her enter the palace, had come in behind her at a respectable distance. The sight of Gymm, Lieutenant Kollyns, Sergeant Takoda and Sergeant Galyway behind Ambassadors Zareb and Kalgar eased her anxiety. Ambassador Kalgar further eased her mind by giving her a wink and a smile.
            Baldorf led them through two giant stone doors, each flanked by three guards. At the entrance of the throne room, instead of a red carpet, red stone tiles three paces wide ran the length of the room to a white dias. Two large chairs flanked by, what Tonya guessed were counselors, faced them Behind the counselors and what was most astounding were two large glass columns filled with water and what looked to be thousands of the glowing fish. The glowing cylinders cast a bluish white glow that back lit the dwarves waiting for their arrival.
            Tonya tore her gaze away from the spectacle and glanced around the room. More of the flickering gas torches dotted the walls and columns. Dozens of well dressed Nobles filled the room, all eyes watching the crippled Princess and her Riponian guard.
            Tonya smiled at the dias as they neared. A Dwarven woman sat in one of the thrones. Her hair was so full of gems and trinkets that it looked like someone had dumped a treasury chest over her head. Her eyes, the only visible part of her face due to the concealing veil held warmth and sparkled with intelligence. The other throne contained a dwarf so gnarled by age, so wrinkled and gray that Tonya almost believe it to be a mummy.
            “The Emperor Ramah welcomes you, Princess Tonya, to Sherstone.” The woman greeted. Her eyes drifted across the Riponian party. “Welcome subjects of Riponia,” She gestured with an open hand, dripping with diamonds. “Welcome home Ambassador Kalgar.”
            Monyka, Annyka and the guard bent to a knee before the throne.
            “I am Empress Bakana, first wife to Ramah, Emperor or Thame and the Underworld.” The Empress introduced herself. 
            “Is this the crippled Princess.” The withered old man asked.
            “Yes, Sire.” Baldorf answered in a loud clear voice. “This is Princess Tonya of Riponia.
            “My husband does not hear as well as he used to.” Bakana smiled.
            This old dwarf, who looked liked a dried piece of fruit who could barely hold his head up, was the great Emperor Ramah? The Dwarven Emperor who could smell an elf ten leagues away and hunt him down and tear him to pieces with his bare hands? Tonya was stunned. The old dwarf sitting in front of her probably couldn’t tear his own food with what teeth he had left in his mouth. She recovered and smiled politely at the Empress. “I am so pleased to meet you, your Majesty.” She dipped her head slightly. “You have such a fascinating kingdom.”
            “What?” Ramah sounded almost as if he had grunted. “What was that?”
            Tonya raised her volume and enunciated her words more clearly. “Your Kingdom is fascinating.”
            The old man grinned and nodded. “Thank you.”
            “Please, stand and relax.” A red haired dwarf spoke from Ramah’s side.
            “Oh, yes, I’m sorry, please be at ease.” Bakana agreed taking in the Riponian guard and Ambassadors. She shot a look over at the dwarf and smiled. “This is my oldest son, Prince Caldric.” She introduced.
            The red haired, red bearded dwarf bowed formally to Tonya. “Welcome, Princess.”
            “Thank you Prince Caldric, it is a pleasure to meet you.”
            “And this is Duke Taman, first son of Ramah’s second wife.” Bakana smiled.
            “Welcome, Princess.” Duke Taman shot a tight guarded smile with hard eyes.
            “Thank you Duke Taman.”
            “I’m sure that you and your retinue are exhausted after such a long day of traveling.” Empress Bakana shifted. “And now that the nobles have all seen the Princess of Riponia, they will not feel so slighted.” She winked at Tonya. “I have a suite of rooms made up for you on one of our lower levels, it’s near the bathing pools. Caldric would be happy to escort you to your rooms, and Counselor Baldorf will see to the care of your retinue.”
            “Thank you, your Majesty,” Tonya dipped her head, she turned to Prince Caldric, “Your Highness.”
            The Prince took a long handled battle axe and banged the butt end of it against the dais three times. Tonya looked around as the nobles and courtiers began to shuffle out of the throne room.
            Once the room had been cleared, Baldric stepped down from the dais and approached Tonya. “We clear the room before moving the Emperor and Empress.” Caldric explained. “Father doesn’t get around much anymore.”
            Tonya watched as two servants lifted the frail looking Emperor out of his throne and propped him up on a pillow and fur covered litter brought out from a hidden door. Four dwarves picked up the litter and gently carried the Emperor off. She could understand the wish for privacy. She often wished that she could have a room cleared before entering or leaving. Well, She occasionally did. Rikki seemed to be protective that way.
            Tonya looked around the room, Duke Tamon had already taken his leave, but the Empress was still sitting on her throne. A second litter was brought forth and set a few steps away.
            “Getting old, really stinks.” Empress Bakana sighed. She heaved herself off of the throne and stepped to the litter where her servants helped her into a reclined position. Her pretty eyes smiled up at Tonya, “Once you’ve settled and have cleaned up from your trip, if you aren’t too tired, I’d love to have a meal with you.”
            “Of course, your Majesty.” Tonya nodded.
            Counselor Baldorf was already leading the Ambassadors out of a side door talking about their trip.
            “Your Highness, Captain, if you would follow me.” Caldric led them to one side of the throne room. He stopped next to a column and pressed on a marble tile. A door in the wall opened up revealing a wide corridor lit by gas torches.
            “One of the private halls.” Caldric explained.
            Rikki with the help of Monyka propelled Tonya along the even stone floor as they continued down the hall. Behind Grymm and Sergeant Galyway, the two Muls followed silently ignoring the occasional wary looks from Galyway.
            Our visiting nobles usually stay in our up stair suites.” Caldric explained. “But there are many stairs to reach them, and they are a ways from the bathing pools. Mother thought you’d enjoy not having to negotiate the stairs and halls to reach them.”
            “Don’t you have bathing tubs in the rooms, Prince Caldric?” Monyka inquired.
            “Of course, but the pools are much nicer. I have been told that the over world people don’t have anything quite like them.”
            “Are they private or public?” Tonya inquired. Not sure she’d want to bathe with a horde of other people.
            “While you stay here, they are private.” Caldric explained “The nobles must bathe in their suites.” Caldric turned down a different corridor. “I’m afraid there are a few stairs ahead.” He cautioned.
            Caldric led them through what seemed like a maze of tunnels before he stopped in front of a heavy stone door.
            “Grymm, Kadyr.” Rikki called. The two Cavalrymen stepped forward. “They’re to secure the room.” Rikki stated.
            “Of course, Captain.” Caldric smiled. “I don’t blame you. If I was in Riponia, I’d probably be in the same situation.” Caldric opened the door and allowed the Cavalrymen to do their sweep.
            “Prince Caldric?” Tonya asked.
            Caldric looked up at the Princess openly.
            “Your brother, Tamon, seemed upset or angry with us.”
            “Don’t pay much attention to Tamon, Princess. He along with a minority here don’t like the fact that father and mother are allowing humans to see Sherstone.”
            “We haven’t come across any resentment along the way.” Tonya professed. 
            “The Sherstone Dwarves are more elitist, Princess. Unfortunately my brother seems to agree with them. I asked mother to send the Elite to meet you so that the minority wouldn’t cause you trouble.” Prince Caldric looked over Kadyr and Galyway’s heads. That is one of the reasons why I’ve asked Pikeman Tymar to have these Muls assist in guarding you. They will remain within the sound of your voice until you leave.”
            “What about shift changes, your Highness?” Captain Kalhoun inquired.
            “Every two cycles, They will be relieved for their needed sleep.” Caldric assured.
            “Every two days?” Captain Kalhoun questioned.
            “The Mul has an incredible endurance, Captain. They could go longer, but then their effectiveness would start to slacken.”
            “But they’ve already been on a forced march for much of the day.”
            “That was more of a warm up for them. Believe me Captain, these are warriors like you have never seen.”
            Prince Caldric and Captain Kalhoun helped the Princess into her suite. 
            A fire in the fireplace had been tended to for most of the day, for it was comfortably warm in the outer room. Rich rugs from Ladamore covered the floor. Colorful designed screens helped to hide and soften the stone walls and silky fabrics covered human sized furniture. A stone screen similar to the one in Bolton separated the main room from the bed chambers. A large human sized bed filled the room. Her wardrobe chests had already been delivered and stood in one corner.
            “A small bathing room is through that door, Highness, but I think you’d rather take advantage of our pools.” Caldric explained.
            “Where are these pools?” Tonya inquired.
            “Just down the hall. One of the Muls can take you there when you are ready. Unfortunately this is not one of our better rooms, but it is one that is convenient to the throne room my family’s private quarters and to the pools. I hope that they will do.”
            “They are quite comfortable, Caldric, thank you.” Tonya tipped her head. “When I am ready to eat with your mother, where shall I go?”
            “Just ask the Muls to take you there.” Caldric smiled. “I hope to see you later.”
            “So do I.”
            “Captain, if you and your men will follow me, I’ll show you to your quarters. They are just down the hall here.”
            Tonya looked around the suite provided. It was by no means a Royal suite, but it looked like the Empress did what she could to make it feel more welcoming. 
            “Are you too tired to dine with the Empress?” Monyka asked.
            “No. I think we should check out these bathing pools and see what all of the hype is about, then meet with her Majesty. Ramah doesn’t look like he’s going to be ruling much longer, let alone chasing down any elves. We need to figure out who is in charge and who is succeeding him.”
            “Hopefully it will be Caldric.” Monyka sighed. “We may lose a powerful ally if that other brother gets to the throne.”
            “What should we wear to the bathing pools?” Tonya looked to Monyka and Annyka.
            “I don’t know. Do we bathe clothed, or in the nude?” Annyka wondered.
            “I’ll go ask one of those Muls.” Monyka put down the dress that she was shaking out.
            Monyka came back a few moments later. Her braids bouncing and tinkling as she entered the bed chambers. “Did you know that one of those Muls was a woman?”
            “Really?” Tonya was surprised.
            “Yes. The shorter one is a woman. She looked to be stronger than Sergeant Galyway.”
            “What about the bathing pools?” Tonya changed the subject.
            “Oh, She said that wearing a chemise was normal, and that everyone who bathes is usually nude, but since you will be using the baths, no one else will be permitted to enter, to give you privacy.”
            The Princess and her assistants emerged from their suite into the corridor.
            “Could you please take us to the bathing pools?” Tonya asked the Muls.
            The two Muls saluted in unison and began walking down the corridor, leaving Tonya and the other two stumbling to keep up.
            “Ah, excuse me.” Monyka ventured. “The Princess has a hard time walking, could you slow down?”
            One of the Muls looked over their shoulder and halted. The other Mul stopped and kept a wary watch up and down the corridor. 
The Mul facing them pulled off it’s helmet revealing a hairless head. “My apologies, Princess.” A deep, yet feminine voice said. “Would you like me to carry you?”
“Ah. . . are there any stairs?” Tonya answered, awed by the sight.
“No, but it would be no problem for me to simply carry you.”
“Is it much farther?” Monyka asked.
“No. it is just ahead, I can already smell it.”
“No. just allow me a little extra time to get there.” Tonya sighed.
The Mul nodded and turned back around.
“What’s your name?” Tonya inquired. “I feel funny calling you, Mul.”
The Mul turned back around and finished resettling its helm on It’s hairless head. “I’m Kama Lutala. He is Kama Takar.” She gestured to the other Mul.
“Lutala and Takar. It’s nice to meet you both.” Tonya accepted Annyka’s help and began down the corridor again.
            A couple of dozen steps later, Tonya could smell the bathing pools too. A warm humid feel to the air, brought scents of minerals.  The Muls stopped before an open door.
            “Here are the bathing pools, Princess.” Lutala gestured. “Takar will remain here to guard the entrance.” Lutala led the way into the bathing area. 
            Tonya entered a steaming room. It was more difficult to breathe in here. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the lower light and found that she, Monyka and Annyka were standing on a stone patio that circled half way around a large cavern. The ceiling of the cavern was left natural which allowed the condensation to cling to the stalactites and drip back into the pool.
            Wide shallow steps receded into the pool. Tonya surmised it was for elderly bones and joints that didn’t like normal sized steps or ladders.
            “There are pegs to hang your clothes on over there.” Lutala pointed.
            “No one will come in here?” Tonya questioned.
            “Only you three and myself.” Lutala promised.
            Tonya stripped out of her chemise and hung it on one of the pegs. She waited for Monyka next to the water and together they stepped into the warm water.
            “Oh, this is going to feel wonderful.” Tonya was getting excited.
            “And no one is needed to fill it, empty it, or keep it warm.” Monyka grinned.
            “Can I jump in?” Annyka asked from one side.
            “As long as you can swim.” Monyka smiled. The two young women watched as Annyka leaped off of the patio and splashed into the steaming water.
            Tonya and Monyka waded in down each level of step until they were up to their chins in the hot water.
            “By the Gods, this feels good.” Tonya sighed.
            “Now we know what the big deal about this place is.” Monyka agreed.
            “Look there’s a waterfall.” Annyka howled with glee.
            Tonya followed her pointing finger to a recessed corner. A small waterfall, plunged down from the ceiling into the middle of the recess in the cavern. The Princess watched as the young girl swam over to the falls.
            “Oooh, it’s cold water.” Annyka retreated quickly from it.
            Off to the left of the recessed falls there was a low marble wall that separated the main pool from a much smaller one in a slightly larger recess.
            “What’s that over there?” Tonya pointed.
            Annyka swam across to the marble wall. A thin sheet of water pored over the marble and into the large pool. “The water in there is really hot.” Annyka called back.
            Tonya smiled at Monyka. “I’m going to just lay back and float for a bit. Go have fun.”
            Monyka nodded her head, causing her charms to jingle. She pushed off and swam towards Annyka who was still exploring the hot water pool with out actually going in.
            Tonya lay back and allowed the water to cradle her. The water enveloped her ears, blocking all of the sounds of the cavern out except for the low roar of the water. She closed her eyes and relished the almost weightless feeling in the warm water. Her aching muscles from the long carriage ride began to relax as she drifted in the pool, hearing only her own breathing and the occasional splashing of Monyka and Annyka.
            A drop of water hit her on the forehead, startling her to an upright position. Another drop of water fell into the pool beside her. Tonya looked up to find that she had drifted under a stalactite. She sighed to herself and fell back to her dreamlike floating state.
            It felt so good in here, she felt that she could stay an entire day floating in the warm embrace of this pool. Her stomach chose that point to start grumbling. Tonya sighed and emerged to an upright position.
            “Is there any soap?” She inquired.
            “There are small tubs of soap along the edge.” Monyka pointed.
            “We need to have one of these built into the palace at Ripon.” Tonya sighed.
            “Where would they put it? next to the kitchens?” Monyka sat on the wide steps, the water up to her neck.
            “Speaking of food, I’m hungry.”
            “I am too.” Annyka sat down on a step a few feet shallower.
            “Let me finish cleaning, then we’ll go meet with the Empress.” Tonya scrubbed at her skin with the soap.
                                    *            *            *
            A less than a candle mark later, the three girls where escorted to the Royal chambers by the Muls.
 “Her Majesty is expecting you, Princess.” A servant led them in through the large door into a formal sitting room. The servant ushered them through a sliding door and into a more relaxed dining room. Divans surrounded a low central table which was covered with trays of finger foods.
“Please take a seat and make yourselves comfortable.” Empress Bakana greeted from the door on the opposite side of the room. She stepped up to one of the divans and reclined on one gesturing that the others do the same. “You’re probably starved from your days journey, please dig in. Try a little of everything.” The Empress unhooked the veil from the side of her head and pulled it off. “In private we take them off, so that we can talk freely and eat unrestricted.”
Monyka assisted the Princess in lifting her leg, and then getting settled into a comfortable position before sitting on a divan near her.
“What is it little one?” Bakana asked the puzzled look of Annyka.
“I’ve just never eaten while laying down.” Annyka blushed.
Bakana threw back her bejeweled head and laughed. It was a warm, friendly laugh that invited others to join her. “Try it out and let me know what you think.” She invited.
            Several servants appeared with trays, and pitchers. They pored tall glasses of what looked to be more of that fruit juice served when they first arrived. Tonya took a sip, then a long drink.
            “This is very good.” She complemented.
            “Baldorf said that you enjoyed it.” Bakana smiled. “I’ll arrange for a keg of it to be shipped with you.”
            “Thank you.” Tonya nodded.
            “How did you like the bathing pool?” Bakana grinned.
            “They are absolutely heavenly.” Tonya sighed. “I am trying to figure out if we can have one built in Ripon.”
            “I might be able to help with that.” Bakana looked thoughtful. “I’ll have to talk it over with Caldric and Baldorf, but we might be able to send a small crew of dwarves to Ripon to see if it’s possible.”
            “That would be so incredible.” Tonya was feeling giddy at the possibility of having her own bathing pools. “Bakana?”
            “Yes, Tonya.”
            “Does anyone spend the day in the pool? Do they have food brought in to them?”
            “On occasion, I’ll get a strange fancy and I’ll invite some of my friends to join me there for an afternoon meal while soaking.” Bakana admitted. “It is quite fun.”
A metal bowl set over a candle smelled wonderfully of melted cheese. 
            “I think you will enjoy this, little one.” Bakana smiled.
            “I am so sorry.” Tonya interrupted. “This is Annyka, and this is Monyka. Monyka has been my assistant since I was a girl. Annyka is being trained up to assist her and to perhaps even take her place.”
            “Annyka, Monyka, welcome to Sherstone. I’m glad that Princess Tonya has such loyal and thoughtful subjects.” She picked up a long thin stick and stabbed a small cube of bread. “This is how you do it.” She smiled at Annyka. She dipped the cube of bread into the cheese, then held it aloft for the excess to drip off, then swung it into her open mouth.
            “They had something like that at the Truno Cherry Blossom Festival.” Tonya smiled. “It is delicious. Annyka you will love it.”
            The three older women watched as Annyka speared a cube of bread and followed the Empress’ lead. Bakana smiled as she watched Annyka’s face savor the treat.
            Tonya tried several of the different things to dip, before reaching for a sweet.
            “Ambassador Kalgar said that you liked sweets.” Bakana chuckled. “I asked the cooks to whip you up some of my favorites.”
            “My mother would be ashamed if she knew my weakness was such common knowledge.” Tonya frowned.
            “What your mother doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” Bakana nodded, taking a sweet for her self.
            “Empress, how is Emperor Ramah doing?” Tonya decided to get down to business.
            Bakana sighed. “As you can see, his health is failing him. I’m afraid he won’t make it through this coming winter.”
            “I have to admit I was a bit taken back by the sight of him.” Tonya bit her lip. “All I have ever heard is about the strong, determined, powerful Ramah. The Dwarf who could sniff out and hunt down an elf within his borders.”
            It was Bakana’s turn to sigh. “We try to keep those tales going. It helps keep away strife and uncertainty about him as a ruler.”
            “Who is ruling now?” Tonya inquired.
            “Myself, Caldric, and a few of the counselors. The very important stuff, I have to explain carefully to Ramah and help assist him in signing the paperwork for it.”
            “I’m sorry.” Tonya’s lip started to hurt from her biting it. “Kalgar had assured us that Ramah and Thame would be a great help as we try to counteract the Elven raids.”
            “You don’t need Ramah for that. Thame will support and assist Riponia and its allies in getting rid of those nasty creatures.”
            Tonya breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you Bakana. I have to admit that when I saw Ramah, I was suddenly in doubt.”
            “Fret no longer, Tonya.”
            “Who is to replace Ramah?” Monyka asked.
            “Prince Caldric has already started taking on many of his father’s duties. His brother Duke Tamon has been tutored and has been working with the counselors. They will be a formidable team ruling after Ramah.”
            “It was mentioned that there are a number of dwarves unhappy with our visit to Sherstone.” Tonya pressed.
            “Ah, that.” Bakana sighed. “There are many of the nobles who want to continue to sequester themselves and isolate Thame and especially the Under-kingdom from the rest of the world. They are a minority and don’t realize how foolish cutting off them selves from the rest of the world is. Don’t worry too much about them. Mostly it’s just political squabbling.”
            Tonya finished off her cold juice, she was about to set the cup down when a servant gently took it from her hand and refilled it.
                                                *            *            *
            Rikki entered the stables with a carrot for Sefu. The stallion was doing well in these tunnels, better than he was. The black horse crunched on the carrot and scratched his forelock on the Captain’s arm.
            “I know boy. I want out of here too.” Rikki sighed. “Just a few more days and we can get some fresh air. As soon as we get an open road, I promise to allow you to stretch your legs.”
            “Hello Captain.” A small voice greeted.
            “Ah, Adiah, just the person I came to see.”
            “Did I do something wrong?” the runaway princess asked.
            “No. Sefu has been looking excellent. His coat is glossy smooth and shiny every morning. He is well fed and relaxed when I get on him. I saw you out there this afternoon, making sure that the horses were watered without over indulgence.” Rikki complemented. “I am however, worried a bit about you.”
            “I have heard that you aren’t sleeping at night and only getting a cat nap during the day.” Rikki sighed and took her around the shoulder. “You are coming with me.”
            “Where to?”
            “A bath, some food and a bed. In that order.”
            “But Captain-“ Adiah began to protest.
            “But nothing. I’m the Captain and I am giving you an order.”
            Rikki led the princess out of the stables and into a room. “Rose?”
            “Ah there she is.” The laundress woman greeted. “Why she’s skin and bone, and Captain, look at the dark circles under her eyes. You should have brought her to me three days ago.”
            “Three days ago she wouldn’t have come.” Rikki sighed. “I’m forever cursed with stubborn women.”
            “I’ll take care of her, Captain.”
            “Thank you, Rose.”
            Rikki exited the room and went down to find the hall to find Pytr and find out how the boy’s pigeons were doing and how many he had left.
                                                *            *            *


Powered by Drupal, an open source content management system