Healing a Princess. . . 27 (Plans, Politics, and Pools)


Healing a Princess 27
(Plans, Politics, and pools)
By Tim Knight
            Monyka was awakened as the suite door quietly opened. She became immediately alert when a short husky shadow slipped into the outer room. The intruder was too broad to be Annyka. Monyka looked next to her and confirmed that the young girl was still sleeping quietly beside her. Adrenaline charged through her bringing her senses to a heightened state. She slowly inched the blankets open so that she could fling them out of the way and spring at the prowler.
            The dark shape made its way over to the fireplace, not towards her or the Princess. Monyka held real still and tried to keep her breathing slow and steady as if she was sleeping, although her heart beat against her chest like a hammer hitting an anvil. The shadowy figure stooped over and began rustling around, it’s back turned towards her. Monyka flung the covers and jumped towards the bent over person. Just as her fit hit the floor, a flame flared up. Instead of screaming at the intruder, she yelped, jumping back. The shadow flinched, and turned it’s head to the Princess.
            “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.” The voice said. “I only came in to start the fires and light some candles. It’s the beginning of the day.”
            Monyka held her hand to her pounding chest. “Tanek’s tits, you gave me a fright.”     
“The Muls would not have let me pass if I had meant any harm to the Princess the voice stated. 
The small flames in the fireplace began to grow in height and heat, showing the face of what Monyka assumed was a young dwarf. His beard was quite short and patchy, like an adolescent male trying to coax his facial hair to grow. He slowly stood up, coming to his full height below Monyka’s chin.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes with some breakfast.” He dipped his head and slid quietly out the door again.
            Monyka went back to the bed that she shared with Annyka and gently shook the blonde girl. “Come on sleepy head. We need to get up and start on our day. Breakfast is on its way.”
            Annyka stretched her arm over her head and yawned wide. “Already? I thought we just went to sleep.”
            “I’m afraid so.” Monyka stretched herself. “Look at it this way. We’ll be spending a lot of time in the pools today.”
            Annyka smiled at the thought. Those were cool. Do you really think her Highness will be able to build some in Ripon?”
            “If she wants it bad enough.”
            The door opened again, and the dwarf who had entered earlier, came in with a large tray covered by a silver dome. He set it down on a low table and pulled the dome off, setting it off to the side. “I’ll be back later to clean up.”
            “Thank you.” Monyka dipped her head as the dwarf slid back out of the door. She turned to see Annyka eyeing the food hungrily.
            “Go ahead.” Monyka told her.
            “Don’t I have to wait for her Highness to start before I can?” Annyka looked quizzically.
            “Only when we are in a group of people, or when the Queen is around.” Monyka grimaced at the thought of Queen Isabelle. “Go ahead, Tonya won’t mind.” Monyka left the young girl to pick through the food on the tray while she badgered Tonya to get out of bed.
            “What do we have planned on the agenda today?” Tonya asked from the bathing room.
            “Not a whole lot, unless you want to sit in on the war counsel.” Monyka grabbed a sliced peach from the tray and bit into it.
            “I have Captains and Ambassadors for that. They’ll just ignore me anyway.” Tonya sighed. “I’ll just have to get a detailed report from Ambassador Zareb and Captain Kalhoun this evening, or tomorrow. Anything else?”
            “There is always the sights of Sherstone to see.” Monyka suggested.
            “Do they have any industrial things here?” She asked. “As far as I knew Sherstone was the political hub of the Empire.”
            “Nothing that you haven’t really seen already.” Monyka nodded.
            “Good, we can spend the day in the pool then.” Tonya’s eyes flashed with mischief.
            “Soak until our fingers turn to prunes.” Monyka agreed. “Should we even get dressed?”
            “I think not.” Tonya affirmed. “Besides, if anyone needs us, they will know where to find us. I’m sure the giant dwarves outside our door give us away pretty easily.”
            “They’re called Muls.” Annyka corrected.
            “I know what they are called, I just refuse to refer to them by some half-bred animal.” Tonya stated with disdain. She picked up a sweet bread from the tray and savoured it.
                                                *            *            *
            Rikki joined the two Ambassadors in the dinning hall. His plate heaped with potatoes, a thick slice of ham and a helping of eggs. The table in which they sat held baskets of fresh baked bread, platters of cheese and fresh fruit.
            “Good morning, Captain.” Kalgar greeted. “Sleep well?”
            “As much as could be expected, with a mountain hanging over your head.” Rikki muttered.
            “Prince Caldric would like us to join him and his counsellors in their map room.” Zareb directed a hard look at the cavalry Captain.
            Rikki didn’t like the Ambassador any more than the old man liked him, but this was to be a working day for both of them. A day where they would have to trust one another’s lead and expertise.
            “Here, Captain, this will help settle your stomach.” Kalgar handed him a mug.
            Rikki, his mouth full of ham, nodded a thanks and took a draw from it’s contents. He nearly spat it out spraying the two sitting across from him. Kalgar had given him a mug of Dwarven spirits. 
            “I find that hit helps take the edge off from these long meetings.” The Dwarven Ambassador winked.
            Rikki set the mug aside, the last thing he needed was to spend the day in a conference with Royalty and dignitaries feeling all fuzzy from drinking first thing in the morning.
            “When you are finished, I’ll direct you to, his Highness and his Emperor’s Hammers and Maces.” Counsellor Baldorf advised. Rikki nearly jumped, he hadn’t heard a sound from the bald Dwarf as he came up behind him. Rikki watched the dwarf depart to a place across the room and decided it was because unlike the other dwarves of Sherstone, Baldorf wore slippers rather than boots.
            The room that Baldorf led them to was like many other counsel rooms. A large map covered a low table. Other maps hung from the walls or were rolled up and neatly stored. Several chairs had been placed in the room. Most were Dwarven size, but their guests had brought in a few human sized chairs as well.
            “Welcome, Ambassador Zareb, Captain Kalhoun.” Caldric greeted.
            “King Tobias sends his warmest reguards, your Highness.” Zareb bowed.
“Good morning, your Highness.” Rikki bowed to the Dwarf Prince. “This is Lieutenant Kollyns, and Sergeant Takoda.” Rikki introduced.
            Caldric smiled welcome to the soldiers. “You’ve already met my brother Tamon, and this is Hammer Kleng, and Hammer Rohng.”
            The humans and their counterparts sized up one another and smiled.
            “Kalgar tells me that Truno is tired of the elven raids on their borders, that they are tired of sending troops into Hasslemere on endless rescue missions, and would like to gather the kingdoms together to put a stop to the elves.”
            “That sounds about right.” Rikki agreed. He looked to Ambassador Zareb for confirmation.
            “Since sailing through the Ju-ju islands is so hazardous due to the Lycanthropes, and the North West passage is becoming more costly to keep open, causing Riponia to pay more for goods, King Tobias has pledged men, horses and supplies to Truno and her allies to clear the elven scum out of the region.” Zareb summed up.
            “So what do the Human Kings want?” Tamon almost sneered, “Hire Dwarves to do their dirty work?”
            “Not at all.” Rikki wondered why this Dwarf was so hostile against humans. “Ambassador Kalgar had mentioned that Emperor Ramah might have a place for us to stage out troops to mount an surprise attack on the Elves.”
            “So you can send your troops freely into our domain to rise up and take over our empire.” Tamon persisted.
            Rikki closed his eyes to prevent anyone from seeing them roll in frustration and disbelief.
            “What I had alluded to with Truno and Riponia was that Emperor Ramah might allow them access to Lakeview as a staging area to surprise and clear the forests east of here of the elves.” Ambassador Kalgar stated.
            “What would we get in return for this trespass.” Tamon asked.
            “What do you mean, Duke?” Rikki inquired.
            “He means he wants us to compensate them for use of their roads.” Ambassador Zareb instructed Rikki.
            “I’m sure their Majesties can come to terms with that.” Rikki nodded.
            “Where would you want to enter the Underkingdom?” Hammer Keng asked.
            “Well, I believe the quickest way for Truno is to enter through Bolton like we did.” Rikki glanced at the map. “I understand that there are other entries that may be more viable for Riponia though.”
            Hammer Rohng “Why do you have to come into the Under-kingdom at all? Why couldn’t you sail through Truno and stage at Westmere?”
            “The whole idea is to take the elves by surprise.” Rikki firmed his voice. The elves would see the attack coming months ahead of time.”
            “You could sail to this port in Ladamore.” The Hammer pointed then stage just this side of the mountain. The elves wouldn’t see you there.”
            “It’s too far South.” Rikki was beginning to wonder about the Hammer’s intelligence. “We believe the elves will try to take the North West Passage to stop trade between Blaire and the West.”
            “You could fortify Lewiston and Clarkston.” Hammer Kleng pointed out.
            “We’ve been doing that,” Rikki informed them. “The tricky little bastards just send raiding parties out around in the forest causing trouble then ambushing our men when they try to help.” Rikki looked the Hammer in the eye. “I’m a Cavalry Captain. We are used to harassing flanks and chasing things down. We hope to draw the elves into a fight at the Northwest Passage, but then come in behind them in a pincher move trapping them. In order to do that we need a staging area near the Northwest Passage that we can get to quickly.”
            “How about Ferris.” Hammer Rohng pointed to a spot on the map.
            “There aren’t any roads to Lewiston from there and we’d have to cross this river.” Rikki grimaced. “And we would lose any initiative. Again they would see us from the forests, months in advance.”
            Prince Caldric stepped forward and looked at his Hammers. “I think the Captain is correct, I think Lakeview is the best strategy.”
            “Where is this Lakeview?” Rikki inquired of the Prince.
            Prince Caldric pointed to the map. Rikki looked to see him pointing at the mountain just North of Lakemere and within a few leagues of Lewiston.
            “I won’t stand by and watch you give all of our secrets to these long legs.” Duke Tamon stomped over to the door. “Father will here of this.” He slammed the door behind him.
                                                *            *            *
            Tonya floated in bliss in warm waters of the pool. Only the sound of her own breathing and the low roar of the waterfall broke the absolute silence. The murmuring of voices penetrated her solace. Tonya brought herself vertical to find the Empress flanked by two male Dwarves at the top of the steps.
            “I thought I might find you here.” The Empress greeted. “Please don’t mind my servants. They are sterile to waiting on women.” As she said this, she held her arms out and each dwarf took a sleeve and pulled her robe from her naked body. She stepped into the water and breathed a sigh of relief. “I hope you don’t mind me joining you.”
            “Not at all, Majesty.” Tonya stroked closer to the Dwarf. “They are your pools after all.”
            “Are they going to be here the whole time?” Annyka dared to speak up, referring to the servants.
            “Just try to ignore them dear.” Bakana smiled. “They don’t see well enough to see more than a few feet in front of them anyway.”
            “Are they blind?”
            “Almost. They are my personal servants. They really can’t see all that well, so don’t worry.”
            “Are they bred that way?” Monyka asked.
            “What? No.” Bakana shook her head, causing her hair full of gems to tinkle. “Why?”
            “Well the Muls are bred to be what they are.” Monyka glanced over at Lutala standing near the cavern entrance.
            “I found these two as young boys. There vision was extremely poor and they were doomed to be doing some repetitive job that didn’t require them to see much. I brought them into my home and had them trained to see to my needs.”
            The two Dwarfs stood silently staring off into space near the entrance. Their silent watch was interrupted by something just outside the door. They both exited and quickly re-entered. One carrying a strange table with two legs shorter than the others. He stepped down into the water and placed the table on the steps. The second servant entered with a large hooded silver tray and set it upon the table. The first then brought a stout beautifully crafted wooden box over and set it on the edge of the pool.
            “I thought you might be getting a bit hungry.” Bakana gestured over at the set up. “There is chunks of ice in the wood box to keep your drink cold.”
            “That was very thoughtful of you, Bakana.” Tonya did in fact feel a bit thirsty.
            “Would you like a bit of music?” Bakana joined her by the table.
            “Sure.” Tonya agreed. She pulled a silver goblet out of the box and dropped a couple of pieces of ice into it. One of the servants was at her side with a silver pitcher and poured juice into her cup.
            Having the Dwarven servant that near while she was naked, made her a bit uneasy, but the dwarf didn’t seem to notice her. She hadn’t noticed that the second servant ducked out of the pool cavern and entered again with a harp and stool. He set the stool just off to the side of the entry and settled himself on it. He then began plucking at its strings, filling the cavern with the echo of music.
            Tonya took a couple of long draws on the cool juice and reclined on the steps, so that the water covered most of her body.
            “What does Riponia and Truno want with Thame in the up coming conflict?” Bakana sat near Tonya.
            Tonya was a bit taken by surprise with the bluntness of the Empress. She calmed her mind and smiled at the Dwarf. “We believe that the elves are going to try and take the North West Passage.” She began. Ambassador Kalgar said that Emperor Ramah had a secret that could help us surprise the nasty devils.”
            Bakana nodded. “That would be Lakeview. It has a secret gate that empties not too far from the passage.” Bakana was silent for a moment. “So Truno and Riponia want to send troops undetected into Lakeview and ambush the forest fiends.”
            “That was the plan that I heard.”
            “Tamon and his little faction are going to have a fit over that.”
            “I thought the dwarves hated the elves as much as we did.”
            “Oh they do, but one step above elves on Tamon’s list are humans.”
            “What did we do to Tamon to get him so angry with us?” Tonya asked.
            “His mother has always been prejudiced against humans, and raised him that way. He found others, in the counsel and in the court, who favour isolating the Under-Kingdom from the topsiders. That is where he gets his power base.”
            “We have similar people in our court too.” Tonya sympathized. “So do you think that Caldric and the other counsel members will be able to work with us Humans?”
            Bakana’s laugh was light and blended in with the music quite nicely. “Tonya, dear, You have a lot to learn about playing court. “I already informed Caldric and Baldrof of the parameters in which we will be able to assist and help you. The rest are just details.”
            “So you knew about us asking about bringing troops through your Underground highway?”
            “Of course, dear. “ She lifted the hood off from the silver tray. The servant was immediately there to take it from her. “Ambassador Kalgar gave us a preliminary heads up a week or so ago. Last night me met with Caldric and I to hash out the rest.” She took a small bunch of grapes and plucked them off their stems and popped them in her mouth.
            “Then why are my Captain and Ambassador locked up in a room with the Prince and the others?” Tonya asked.
            “To give the Hammers something to feel important about, and to work out the details of the whole thing.” She offered a bunch of grapes to Tonya. “I’m sure that Tamon has either stormed off by now or been removed.” She chuckled. “That boy needs to learn to control his emotions better. But he gets that from his mother too. I never did see what Ramah saw in her.”
            “How many wives does he have?” Monyka joined them.
            “Just the two of us. I guess he got tired of me after a couple of decades and decided to bring in young blood into the palace.” She sighed.
            “Excuse me, Majesty,” Annyka stood nearby and looked up through her eye lashes.
            “What is it, Annyka?” Tonya asked.
            “I need to use the fa- the facilities.” Her eyes darted to Monyka to check if she was using the proper wording. Monyka nodded.
            “For the love of Tanitha, child. Go on ahead. You don’t need our permission for it.” Bakana chuckled.
            “Where is the nearest facilities?” Monyka inquired. “I’ll go with her.”
            “They’re right there.” Bakana pointed over to the cavern wall.
            “All I see is a wall.” Annyka bit her lip.
            “That’s all I see too.” Monyka agreed. “Is there a secret door?”
            “Show the girls the toilets.” Bakana called to one of the servants.
            Monyka and Annyka made their way up the steps and quickly wrapped towels around their bodies. They followed the servant over to the wall. Annyka gasped as the servant seemed to walk right through where the wall looked to be.
            “Its an illusion.” Monyka laughed at herself. “There is a door there, but the wall behind it blends into these front walls so well that it looks to be one solid wall.” Monyka stepped past the servant and turned around the corner disappearing from sight.
            In awe, Annyka followed her into a separate chamber.
                                                *            *            *
Baldorf pulled a map from its shelf and spread it out on top of the table.
            “That was a map of what you see on the surface.” Caldric explained. “This is the same map, but with the Under-Kingdom Highway and main cities marked in.”
            Rikki found Sherstone on the map, then Bolton. His finger traced the underground highway from end to end.
            Sergeant Takoda whistled, “That whole thing is the highway that we were travelling on?”
            Caldric nodded with a big grin on his face. “These markings are gates into and out of the Under-Kingdom.” He pointed to a marking near Bolton. “You can see Lakeview is here and has a gate. All of our gates outside of Thame are kept closed and hidden. You could walk right up to them and not know that there was anything but a mountain of stone in front of you.” He bragged. 
            “What is this here?” Takoda asked tracing a line South from Sherstone.
            “Something that you shouldn’t see.” Hammer Rohng muttered.
            Caldric gave the Hammer a hard look, then smiled up a Takoda and included Rikki and the others. “That is an expansion that we are working on.”
            “You’re going into Ladamore?” Lieutenant Kollyns questioned.
            “Actually we are going under it.” Caldric corrected. “And we aren’t under Ladamore just yet. You can see we are just North of Southmere.”
            “Does the Kumar and Kumara know that you are ‘expanding’ under their Kingdom?”
            “I’m not sure if they do. The treaty was made with the old Kumar many years ago.”
            “You have a gate at Dax.” Lieutenant Kollyns remarked. That is about two day’s ride from Cedar Bay.” He looked up at Rikki and then to Prince Caldric. “If Morpeth would allow it, we could sail our troops to Cedar Bay and enter at Dax. The Elves would never know we were coming.”
            “That is a long way to be travelling the underground Highway.” Hammer Rohng scowled. “I don’t think many dwarves would like to see so many human soldiers marching through their kingdom. What about if you sail around to this gate near Narva.” The Hammer pointed. It is only a short march from there to Lakeview.”
            “But that has us sailing through the North Sea.” Kadyr objected. “We’d have to wait until early summer and break our way through the ice to get there. The war would be over by the time our troops got there.”
            “We need to be staged, rested and ready to go by spring.” Sergeant Takoda agreed.
            A knock at the door was followed by several Dwarves carrying trays of food. They quietly placed the trays on a large table against one wall and departed.
            “Dax looks to be only a four days ride from where we entered at Bolton. Surely the Dwarves wouldn’t mind four more days.” Rikki tried to soothe. It would be a hell of a lot more than that with all of the supplies that would need to be continually sent in to stock, feed and prepare the troops and horses.
            “Think of the commerce that the Dwarves in those parts of the Under-Kingdom will experience. “Our soldiers will need food, lodging, entertainment and will have money to spend on trinkets and ‘what nots’.” Ambassador expanded.
            “We’ll need to put more security forces in the area to keep the peace.” Hammer Rohng countered. “That costs money.”
            Counsellor Baldorf spoke up. “I’m sure that Truno and Riponia could see their way to make it worth our while.”
            “A toll?” Sergeant Takoda grimaced.
            “A toll is too harsh a word.” Baldorf grinned. “Lets call it a gift of friendship.” He looked to Prince Caldric.
            Hammer Kleng grabbed a hard boiled egg and some cheese from the tray and rejoined the group looking at the map while munching.
            “Yes. Please, if you are hungry, help your selves.” Caldric invited.
                                                *            *            *
            Tonya popped another piece of peppered cheese into her mouth. She frowned as she adjusted her hips again on the steps.
            “What’s wrong, dear.” Bakana asked.
            “Just trying to get comfortable. The steps are starting to feel hard.” Tonya waved it off.
            Bakanna looked over her shoulder. “Could you get the Princess a large towel please.”
            The servant quickly conjured up a towel and stepped into the water to hand it to the Princess.
            “It’s alright, I don’t want to get out yet.” Tonya smiled.
            “It’s to put under you, To soften the steps.” Bakana chuckled.
            Tonya felt foolish, but unfolded the towel and pushed it under the water and tucked it into place under her. “Oh, that is much better.”
            “I defiantly need to build one of these in to my palace at Ripon.” Tonya admired the cavern.
            Bakana smiled. “I always feel much fresher and more rejuvenated after spending some time in here. That reminds me, I need to wash and see to my hair. I hope you won’t mind.”
            “Not at all.” Tonya shrugged.
            The Empress moved from the steps and took a seat on the edge of the pool. One of her servants knelt behind her with a compartmented tray. Tonya watched in fascination as the servant deftly pulled the trinkets and gems from the Empress’s hair as he un-braided each tress, and carefully placed each into the specific places in the tray. Once the braid was undone, he brushed it out and began on the next one.
            Tonya was surprised to see how incredibly long the Empress’ silver shot blonde hair was. Once all of the braids were out, the servant again combed through it then tapped her lightly on the shoulder. The empress dove into the water and surfaced to scrub at her scalp. Tonya observed as she swam over to one of the soap pots and used it on her hair. Bakana then stood under the cold waterfall for a few minutes, combing her fingers through her hair before climbing out of the pool. 
            “So, Tonya,” Bakana’s eyes twinkled. “Is there a future Prince in the works?”
            Tonya’s heart skipped a beat as she choked on a bite of fruit. “No.” She managed to say.
            “Come on, a girl as pretty and as powerful as you, and you don’t have someone to cuddle up too?”
            “What about the Captain?” Monyka’s eyes flashed with mischief.
            “The Captain of your body guard?” Bakana questioned with a smile. “He is quite handsome for a human, if I do say so.”
            “You just hold your tongue, Miss in love with the Lieutenant.” Tonya shot Monyka a fierce look.
            “I don’t deny what my heart tells me. Unlike some.” Monyka giggled.
            The Empress sat upon a stool, while her servant combed out her long tresses,
 “So the rumours about the lake in Hobro are true.” Bakana nodded.             “Rumours?!” Tonya sputtered. “What are they saying?”
            “Oh, not much. Just that a Human Princess and a soldier were so enthralled in their passion that they fell over board.” Bakana snickered. “I wonder how much of that is true.”
            Monyka dipped under the water to muffle her laughing as Tonya’s cheeks burned with embarrassment.
            “I jumped out of the boat for a swim. Only after we were in the water did we kiss.” Tonya defended. She could just imagine her mother reading reports of her daughter whoring for all of the Dwarven kingdom to see. The sound of Annyka giggling caught her attention. “Annyka was there, she’ll tell you.”
            Bakana looked to the young blonde girl quizzically with a grin.
            “She pulled the Captain into the lake and then kissed him but good, Majesty.” Annyka continued giggling.
            “I think it was very romantic.” Monyka attempted to defend her friend.
            The Empress’ servant pulled her long hair together at the top of her head and wrapped the base of it with a cord. He then sectioned a small piece of it out and began braiding it, threading the hair through gems as he worked. “So did you and the Captain know each other before this journey?” she enquired.
            “No.” Tonya stated at the same time that Monyka nodded with a ‘Yes’.
            “Which is it?”
            “She knew him as a boy.” Monyka stuck her tongue out at Tonya.
            “Ah, childhood sweethearts.”
            “He was a stable boy at our summer estate. We played together.” She shrugged.
            “She was on the roof of the estate with him when she fell,” Monyka explained, “He tried to catch her, but couldn’t reach her in time.”
            Bakana’s smile slipped to a frown, “The poor lad. He must have felt horrible. I hope he didn’t get punished.”
            “He disappeared.” Tonya stated. “We don’t know where he went. The next time I saw him, I didn’t know who he was.”
            “That was a day before we left on this trip.” Monyka added. 
            “I didn’t realize it was him until we were on the river boat leaving Truno.” Tonya frowned.
            “He didn’t let on that he was the same person, that whole time?” Bakana asked.
            “Wow, you either have a Captain without a conscious or one whose conscious is tortured.”
            “I think it’s the latter.” Monyka fingered her necklace.
                                                *            *            *
            “How is Blaire going to fit into all of this?” Caldric looked to the Humans.
            “We haven’t exactly gotten any details from them as of yet.” Ambassador Zareb said cautiously.
            “So Queen Sakari doesn’t know about any of this, yet.” Baldorf clarified.
            “She knows some of the basics of what we want to accomplish. We will encourage her once we get to Malden,” The Ambassador admitted.
            “So what is the plan once we surround the elves at the North West Passage?” Caldric asked.
            “Once we secure the Pass, we will join with the Blaire army and start clearing the forest North and West of Clarkston.” Rikki pointed on the map. As we push them back we’ll need to re-supply. I’d like your permission to stage reinforcements and supplies at this gate.” Rikki placed his finger on the map. “I will ask Queen Sakari to have supplies and reinforcements waiting for us here, here and here.” He tapped spots on the map.
            “What about Ladamore and Adwana?” Hammer Rohng demanded. “Are they going to help out with this scheme of yours?”
            “We’ll be talking to the Kumar and Horselords as well.” Rikki stated. I’m hoping that they will join forces at this point here and start pushing what elves are in the southern forests South as well as get rid of any Lycanthrops that might be lurking in those swamps.” Rikki slowly swept his hand down the map as he envisioned a frontal assault.
            “The Lads have been fighting off the Lycanthrops for years without success.” Hammer Rohng pointed out.
            “But with the help of the Horselords and Centaurs they could succeed this time.” Hammer Kleng agreed with Rikki. “What if the Elves send in reinforcements here?” He pointed to the stretch of forest South of the Pass.
            “Its our job to not let that happen. I’m going to stage men, probably Trunonian and Hasslemereian at Lakemere and at the base of this Northern ridge of the Calahan Mountains.” Rikki pointed. They can sweep up catching any elven reinforcements off guard.”
            “You are proposing quite a complicated dance, Captain.” Hammer Kleng stroked his beard. “You haven’t mentioned where you would like us to take part in this arrangement of yours.”
            “Mostly, I wish your cooperation in allowing us to stage our men at these gates.” Rikki said honestly. “Once our Cavalry pours out of Lakeview, I’d feel much better with a Hammer or so of your troops marching right behind us. We’d definitely leave a fair share of elves for your dwarves to dispose of.”
            “When did you figure to put this plan into action?” Prince Caldric looked from the map up at Rikki.
            Rikki looked to Zareb who nodded and then back to the Dwarven Prince. “Riponia has already started scripting men and training them for woods battles. King Tobias has already started crating and storing food, and weapons for shipment. We don’t think that the elves will be ready until autumn at the earliest, but we suspect that they will wait until next spring. Riponia and Truno would like to start shipping and staging supplies and men as soon as possible with a strong build up in winter when it will be even harder for the elven spies to see what we are doing.”
            “What makes you think that the pointy eared fiends will take the bait?” Prince Caldric gave Rikki a pointed look.
            “They have been testing our forces for the past two years.” Rikki stated. “They have had almost free reign of the forest between this river North of the Pass here, all the way through Hasslemere. They have even been bold enough to stage raids into this Northern part of Ladamore and in to the borders of Truno.” His hand moved across the map as he explained. “Our forces, Hasslemere’s, Truno’s and Riponian have been pretty much stuck guarding the pass. We haven’t put together enough of a force to defend the pass and clear the forest until now.”
                                                *            *            *
            The servant who had been strumming the harp had tired enough that he took his harp out of the steam of the room and came back to stand near the entrance near Lutala.
            “Who’s idea was it to create a fighting force of Muls.” Tonya asked the Empress.
            “That was one of Ramah’s greatest and worst ideas.” Bakana sighed. “They are incredible fighting machines. They can form a shield wall that is almost impossible to penetrate. Or they can be used as shock troops. They are taller than Dwarves so it is easier for them to use spears or pikes over the shield walls that our foot soldiers create.”
            “I always thought that Dwarves and Humans couldn’t reproduce.” Monyka stated.
            “They aren’t meant to.” Bakana was solemn. She slowly turned her head so that the servant working on her hair wouldn’t miss a beat. “The babies are too big for Dwarven women to carry, and too big for Human women to give birth to.”
            The Princess and her assistant looked confused.
            “Ramah, when he was younger and rash, decided to get two wins out of a bad situation. There were many Human women sitting in Prison for various heinous crimes. Murdering their husbands, killing their children, stealing horses, and so forth. He decided to give these criminals a choice. They could be hung at the gallows by the end of the week, or they could be impregnated by a Dwarf and live in comfort until they died in child birth.”
            Tonya and Monika flinched at the thought.
            “Most chose to die during child birth. Once it was confirmed that they were with child, they were moved to a secure, but nicely furnished crèche where they were able to indulge in comforts and pleasures until it was time for the baby to come. “The Mul babies are too big to fit through the Human birthing canal, and had to be cut out of the mother.” Bakana grimaced, “Any woman surviving that horrible situation was given a pardon and once healed was set free.”
            “Did any survive?” Monyka asked.
            “One.” Bakana sighed. “She was caught a year later after killing a baker for a loaf of bread. She chose to hang the second time.”
            “How can any of that be a wining situation?” Tonya was disgusted.
            “It freed up the prisons and gave Ramah a fighting force that can’t be rivalled.”
            “Why didn’t you do anything about it?” Tonya countered.
            “I was young and ignorant of what went on in counsels.” Bakana excused, “I was also busy raising my own kids.”
            A silence fell over the room as each woman became lost in her own thoughts.
            “I’ve been in here too long.” Tonya broke the silence. “My fingers and toes look like dried fruit.” She slowly got to her feet. Monyka was at her side a moment later. The two girls now used to the male servants, walked up and out of the pool and wrapped up in large bath sheets.
            “Would you like me to show you some of the sights of Sherstone?” Empress Bakana asked. “I’m almost done here.”
            “As long as it doesn’t involve too much walking.” Tonya stated.
            “I can take care of that.” Bakana grinned. “I’ll meet you in a bit at your suite.”
            Annyka hurried out of the pool and quickly rubbed herself dry then assisted Monyka in pulling a fresh chemise over the Princess’s head.
            Tonya found that her leg was hurting less than it had in weeks. 
Once in their makeshift suite, Monyka went to work, combing out the Princess’ blonde hair, while she verbally directed Annyka in which gown the Princess was to wear and why. It was to be formal enough to be worn in front of an Empress, yet comfortable enough that Tonya would be able to sit without feeling like she was stuffed into it.
“Just something simple.” Tonya waved her hand at the blonde hair upon her head. “I’m not in the mood for fancy, and I don’t have to dress to impress.”
The Princess’ hair done, Monyka took her leave and quickly dressed in a dark blue dress. She instructed Annyka to dress as well, as she took over Annyka’s ministrations, getting Tonya ready. She was just finishing combing out Annyka’s hair when there was a knock on the door. Before Tonya could call, the door swung open and Bakana entered.
“Oh good you are ready. Come dear, do you think you can walk as far as the Throne room?” She asked.
“Yes.” Tonya smiled. “The pool has done wonders.”
Waiting in the Throne room was a gold gilded, richly painted litter with veil like fabric shrouding the sides. Eight Dwarves stood, two on each corner, waiting to bear them.
“I’m too heavy for them to be carrying me,” Tonya looked anxious.
“Don’t be absurd,” Bakana looked closely at Tonya, sizing her up. “You may be taller than Ramah, but you are a good many pounds lighter than he is. These servants bear him and myself all over the palace. You’ll be just fine. Go on Tonya, make yourself comfortable.”
Tonya handed her walking staff to Annyka and with the help of Monyka lowered herself to the cushion and pillowed Litter.
“Settled?” Bakana enquired.
Tonya nodded. 
Bakana settled herself down next to the Princess, and lowered the veil. “Alright, up.”
The eight dwarves effortlessly picked up their burden and shouldered it with out seeming to exert themselves. Tonya’s fingers clawed deeply into a pillow as she was lifted up, and the litter began to sway as the Dwarves began to walk. Lutala appeared out of no where and began walking on one side of the litter, Takar the other side.
“How far are we going?” Tonya nervously asked.
“Not far, Tonya. I wanted to take you through the city during the day when you can see it better, then up to a vista.”
“Sherstone is in a cavern, what difference does day or night make?” Tonya asked. She looked around them through the veil, and spotted Monyka and Annyka walking just behind them. Monyka held her walking staff.
“Patience Tonya.” Bakana smiled.
The Dwarves carried them through the front chambers that they had entered the night before. The emerged out onto the large raised platform in front of the palace. 
Dwarves were moving about all over the city. Tonya was reminded of ants moving about an anthill. Everyone was about their own business as if it was the most important thing at the time, but in the larger picture, everything they seemed to be doing was for the better good of the whole Under-Kingdom.
Even through the veil, Tonya noticed that it was brighter out now than it was last evening. The large fire braziers stood black and empty, where last night they roared with large orange flames. Tonya began looking around for the light source, but couldn’t find one. When she looked behind her, she saw Monyka and Annyka staring up at the roof of the cavern.
“Is Sherstone a crater similar to Hobro?” She asked the Empress. “I remember seeing a roof above us last night, and I don’t remember seeing stars.”
Bakana chuckled. “No this is not a crater.” She directed her look outside the litter. “Stop and set us down.” She instructed.
The swaying stopped for a moment, and then Tonya felt the litter being lowered to the platform. Once it was secure, Tonya parted the veil. Monyka came up and held a helping hand out to assist Tonya up. With a quick heave and a slight intake of breath from Tonya wincing at the pain, The two stood holding one another. Tonya stepped back and then looked up.
“What is that?” She asked.
“It is a large crystal.” Bakana answered from beside her. “When Sherstone was first being built, many dwarven generations ago, some dwarves were said to have had magic that could shape stone as if it were clay. It is said that many of these stone shapers came together and worked for their entire life times. The worked, shaped and pulled all of the quartz crystal in the mountain together then pressed it, moulded it, until is was one giant crystal. They laboured and toiled until they pulled any flaws out of it. They then sheathed the crystal in a layer of silver.” Bakana paused. “The sun reflects down the crystal, bouncing off of the silver, which acts like a mirror, and illuminates our fair city of Sherstone.” She said proudly.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Tonya breathed. “It’s incredible.”
“Unfortunately there are only two stone shapers in the whole of the Under-kingdom now. One is very old and frail, the other weak compared to his ancestors. He can only shape a little bit of stone each day.” Bakana sighed. “We keep hoping to find another dwarf with the power, but it looks to be something of the past.”
With a sad heart, Tonya studied the crystal light. Several Dwarven lifetimes was about the same as one thousand years. Her Kingdom of Riponia wasn’t even that old, yet the stones in the palace looked to have grown out of the earth. One thousand years just to make a crystal light. She couldn’t even fathom the process, or the time it took to do it.
“Come dear, I wish to show you something.” Bakana urged Tonya back onto the litter.
The dwarves carried the litter across the town and up a long spiralling ramp. Up and up it went. Tonya had to clear the pressure in her ears a couple of times.
            “It isn’t much farther,” The Empress laid a hand on Tonya’s.
            The air up here was much colder than it had been when they first emerged from the palace. A chill sent a shiver down Tonya’s spine.
            “Here. This should help.” Bakana pulled a fur out from behind one of the pillows and helped to wrap it around Tonya.
            The softness of white fur was insatiable. Tonya burrowed deeper into it, enjoying it’s comfort. “What kind of fur is this?” She enquired.
            “White fox.” Bakana informed her.
            “White fox?” Tonya questioned.
            “Up in the deep North, the Foxes fur turns white in the winter.” Bakana explained. That is when they are trapped.”
            “This feels so good.” Tonya nuzzled the fur. “Is it true that all of the animals turn white in the winter up there?”
            “Most do.” Bakana paused. Excpet grown seals and walrus.”
            “You mean the sea animals that have tusks as long as a man’s arm?”
            Bakana nodded.
            “One of these days I want to see one. Of those.” Tonya admitted.
            “They are quite big, and dangerous.” Bakana warned. She looked up. “Oh we’re here.”
            The dwarves carefully put the litter down and stood next to their posts. Monyka again came up beside the litter and helped Tonya up and handed her, her walking staff.
            “First come over here and see Sherstone from the top.” Bakana boasted. “She is beautiful.”
            “I. . . I. . . uh. . . “
            “Your Majesty,” Monyka interrupted Tonya’s stuttering. “Her Highness can’t handle heights.”
            “Do you get dizzy looking down from heights?” Bakan looked to Tonya.
            Tonya flushed with embarrassment, and nodded assent.
            “I am so sorry, Tonya. If I had known that, I wouldn’t have brought you up here.”
            “It’s okay, Majesty.” Tonya was still red.
            “How about looking out over a view?”
            “It depends.” Tonya admitted.
            “Well, see if you can handle this.” Bakana walked away from the ledge over looking the city and to a door in the other wall. She paused and turned back to Tonya and the others. “There are some furs there, Monyka, Annyka. Grab some and wrap up. It gets quite cold out there this time of year.”
            Tonya pulled her fur closer around her shoulders and followed Bakana. The Mul Takar opened the door and with a nod from the Empress, ducked through first. A bitter cold breeze blew in through the open door.
            “Where does this lead?” Tonya enquired.
            “A view of the border between Thame and Hasslemere.”
            “You can see Hasslemere from here?”
            “Come and I’ll show you.” Bakana beckoned.
            A tunnel of rock led to a bright opening. The rock ended and ice surrounded them. Bakana took Tonya’s hand and assisted her out onto a veranda very much like the ones built into the side of Hobro. The difference was that this looked out on to the world.
            “See that lake down there?” Bakana pointed. “That is Lakemere. If you look closely you can see the island that holds the capital city.
            Tonya could see the lake. It was a huge greyish blue slick on the horizon. She squinted against the sunny haze. She could just make out a bit of darkness on the lake. “I see the island.” She beamed.
            “If you look straight down that way.” Bakana pointed South. “Right along this mountain, but on the horizon, that is the Eastern most tip of Truno. On the other side of the horizon, just out of view is the town of Westmere.”
            “That bit right over there is Truno?” Tonya repeated in wonder.
            “And that mountain due East, that is where you will be going tomorrow. That is Lakeview, where your soldiers will be staging for the upcoming Elven war.”
            “How are you doing, Highness?” Monyka emerged next to the Princess on the veranda.”
            “I’m fine, Monyka, can you see Lakemere down there?” Tonya pointed.
            “Why wouldn’t I be fine?” Tonya asked suddenly.
            “Just don’t look down.” Monyka warned.
            Tonya’s face froze. She turned white, then slowly looked down. Even though the veranda had a thick wall of stone and ice, just on the other side of that wall was a cliff that dropped thousands of feet.
            “I said, ‘don’t look down.’,” Monyka sighed.
            Tonya backed up and bumped right into her assistant, almost knocking them both to the ground.
            “Breathe, Tonya.” Monyka instructed her. “Come on, breathe.”
            Tonya gulped a breath of air.
            “I am so sorry, Tonya,” Bakana apologized, “Shall we get you back inside?”
            Tonya, almost as white as the snow surrounding them, nodded.
            Monyka helped turn Tonya around and took her inside back to the safety of the litter.
                                                            *            *            *
            “Boy that Hammer Rohng sure is a case.” Kadyr commented.
            “Looks like he is in Duke Tamon’s group of isolationists,” Takoda agreed.
            “Lets just hope that he doesn’t come to power anytime soon.” Rikki acknowledged. “Prince Caldric seems to understand what is at stake here.”
            A knock sounded at the chamber door.
            Kadyr opened it to admit Sergeant Galyway, and Yeoman Bailey.
            “So how did the talks go?” Sergeant Galyway raised an eyebrow.
            “Well.” Rikki greeted. “It looks like Thame will be letting us stage our troops inside a mountain a couple of leagues from the North West Passage.”
            “That’s good to hear.” Markys nodded. “The men won’t like being locked up in a cave for any extended period of time, but I think they will stand it if it means getting the jump on those pointy ears for once.”
            “Have you spoken to the Princess?” Rikki asked.
            “She is on her way, Captain.” Yeoman Bailey nodded. “She was a bit difficult to track down at first. Apparently the Empress took her sight seeing.”
            A knock on the door was followed by it being opened. “Her Highness is here, Captain.” Grymm announced.
            Tonya entered the room as the soldiers who were sitting leapt to their feet, then all bowed as she took a seat at padded seat provided. “Don’t make it a habit of having me summoned, Captain.” She greeted coolly. Monyka and Annyka took up places behind her seat.
            “I’m sorry, your Highness.” Rikki bowed. “I thought you would like to know what the dwarves have agreed to.”
            “They will let us use their tunnels and secret staging areas.” Tonya stated. The look on Rikki’s face was one of confusion. “It seems that Empress Bakana is the power behind the throne currently.” The Princess explained. “What details were you and the Dwarven counsel able to work out?”
            “They want to take part in the battle.” Rikki outlined, “And they want us to pay a toll.”
            “They call it a gift of friendship, but it’s the same thing.” Kadyr added.
            “I believe that the toll is more aimed at Truno, your Highness.” Takoda spoke up. “They know Riponia is a relatively new kingdom with little in assets, while Truno’s pockets are deep.”
            “Their Under-Kingdom is quite large,” Rikki inserted. “It stretches under the entire northern mountain range, from up in Morpeth all the way up and through to just short of the north east coast.”
            “And they have begun tunnelling down into Ladamore, through the Calahan mountains.” Kadyr included, “well, they haven’t reached Ladamore yet, but they are only a few leagues from Southmere. They’ll be in Ladamore in just a few short years.”
            “Good thing they can’t tunnel under the ocean.” Tonya snorted.
            “But they have, your Highness.” Takoda cleared his throat. “They’ve tunnelled under the North Sea to a large island. They have a settlement there called Tusk.”
            “They’ve told you all of this, shown you?” Tonya wondered. The nodding of the soldier’s heads told her. “Imagine then, what they aren’t telling us.”
            The occupants of the room stood silent, each lost in his own thoughts.
            “How much of a gift, do they want?” Tonya asked.
            “It hasn’t been decided upon as of yet, Highness.” Takoda answered. “I think they would like some of our marble and probably a percent of our blue salmon catch, maybe some of our wool.”
            “The good news.” Rikki tried to steer the conversation to a more positive one, “Is that they’ll let us enter at Dax which is a day’s ride from Cedar Bay in Morpeth; Providing that Morpeth will allow us to march across their kingdom.” He paused. “Worse case scenario is that we would have to send our troops in the way we came, or wait until spring when the North Sea is open. We could land troops on the island with their city Tusk, or at one of the northern harbours and march inland to a gate. The problem with that last one is that there is a good chance that the elves would see us approach.”
            “Then we had better make sure that my father is on good terms with Morpeth.” Tonya sighed. She looked at the tired faces around the room. “What do you think about Prince Caldric? Will he be a good ally?”
            “He seems honest and friendly.” Rikki nodded.
            “He didn’t seem to hold anything back, and volunteered information that helped us.” Takoda agreed. “What about the Empress?”
            “Much like her son, although she is more shrewd and powerful than we suspected. What about the Duke?”
            “Duke Tamon is bitter and appears to be conniving.” Takoda stated bluntly. “I think it has a lot to do with being born second. If I was Prince Caldric, I’d definitely be watching my back, and having food tasters.”
            “Well, gentlemen, is there any thing else, I need to learn of from your conference?” Tonya stifled a yawn.
            “The two Hammer’s were at odds.” Takoda spoke up. “Hammer Kleng seems competent and eager to assist, but Hammer Rohng seemed to want to stonewall.”
            “He definitely doesn’t care for our presence here.” Rikki permitted.
            “If there is nothing else, I’d really like to enjoy those pools tonight.” Tonya started to rise.
            “There is one more thing, your Highness.” Rikki stalled her. “We,” he gestured to the other officers in the room, “Have decided to give one of the Cavalrymen a field promotion. It would mean a lot to him if you were present to witness and approve it.”
            “Will it take long?”
            “No, your Highness.” Takoda smiled. “Your father witnessed his fair share over the years. It would be nice however, if you would say something to the lad, though.”
            “I’m not sure what I could say.”
            “’Good job’, and ‘I have every confidence in you’, usually works quite well.” Takoda grinned.
            Rikki nodded to Sergeant Galyway. The large fighter, opened the door. “Grymm, we need you in here for a moment.”
            “Sure Sergeant, what is it?” Grymm entered and bowed to his Princess.
            “Cavalryman Grymm.” Rikki stated dutifully. The Cavalryman snapped to attention at the strictness in the Captain’s voice. “It has been brought to my attention that you have been occupying yourself when not on duty.”  The Cavalryman blinked confusion and turned a shade whiter. “The officers here have come to an agreement that this continuous action of yours can not go on un punished.”
            “Sir?” Grymm dared. His eyes darted from one officer to another and swallowed.
            Rikki cut him off with a look and plunged on. “Therefore you are to be stripped of your rank as Cavalryman and be given the rank of Corporal.” Rikki’s face broke into a large smile. “Congratulations, Corporal Grymm.” Rikki pulled a pin from out of his pocket and stepped towards the bewildered man.”
            “Captain, that is quite enough.” Tonya barked. 
            Rikki froze in place and turned to see his Princess, with the help of Monyka stand up and step foreword. “That was a very cruel way to promote this man.” She admonished. She held out her hand. “May I?”
            Rikki dropped the pin into the Princesses hand and made room for her.
            “I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving than you in receiving this promotion.” She smiled.
            Grymm smiled sheepishly and turned a bit red. “You have my every confidence, Corporal.” She pushed the pin through Grymm’s uniform, straightened it, and shuffled back.
            “Thank you, your Highness.” Grymm muttered. “That means a lot coming from you.”
            “Well done, Corporal.” Sergeant Galyway clapped him on the back.
            “You deserve it, Grymm.” Kadyr shook his hand. “You’ve worked hard for it.”
            “Thank you, Corporal Grymm.” Rikki clasped his arm. 
            “Sir?” Grymm questioned.
            “Thank you for helping me out these past few weeks, and thank you for the help you will be giving me over the next few.”
            “Uh, . . . Thank you, Sir.”
            “You’ve done good, Corporal.” Takoda took Rikki’s place. He leaned closer to Grymm. “Now don’t let it go to your head.”
            “I won’t, Sir.”
            “Corporal your first order of business, is to get to your quarters sew these on.” Rikki handed Grymm his new stripes, “ and get a good night’s sleep. We have a lot to do tomorrow.”
            “Yes, Sir.” Corporal Grymm saluted. He turned and walked to the door, he spun around to face the Princess and bowed reverently before exiting the room with his head held high.
            “Not too bad.” Takoda’s eyes sparkled at Tonya.
            “That felt really satisfying.” Tonya admitted. “And you’re right, he did deserve it. But did you have to be so mean about it?”
            “Tradition.” Takoda chuckled. “Tradition.”
            “Well, I’m going to go soak in the pools before tonight’s gala starts.” Tonya announced. “Don’t bother me unless the mountain is caving in.
            Rikki turned as white as a ghost at that comment. He looked up and swallowed hard.
                                                *            *            *
            Tonya didn’t waste anytime, she was unlacing her bodice even as she entered her suite. Monyka had a hard time helping her the rest of the way out of her gown, she was fidgeting so badly.
            “Hold still, Tonya, or its going to take longer to get you there.” Monyka warned.
            Tonya sat still for about ten seconds before she started fidgeting again. “Can’t you hurry? I want to have a good soak before having to spend the night being stuck in uncomfortable conversations and eating Tanek knows what.”
            Tonya almost kept pace with the Muls as they made it down the hall to the bathing pools. Tonya had her chemise pulled up to her waist two steps inside the door and tossed it over her head for Annyka to catch as she stepped into the hot soothing waters.
            “Tanitha loves me.” Tonya sighed as she dipped into the water up to her chin. “Monyka, I wish to retire early tonight and wake up early tomorrow so that I can soak one last time before we leave Sherstone for Lakeview.”
            “Yes, Highness.” Monyka suppressed a groan.
            After a few minutes of soaking, Tonya wormed and climbed over the small wall and into the smaller, hotter pool.
            “Tanek’s balls this is hot!” Tonya exclaimed. 
            “Are you all right?” Annyka asked, she hung to the edge of the small wall.
            “Oh, yes.” Tonya smiled. “It’s a bit of a shock at first, but it feels wonderful.”
            Tonya lay back in the near boiling water and let her body succumb to it’s heat and heavenly feeling. When she got back to Riponia, she was going to have to convince her father that they could not live without a bathing pool in the palace. Once she was Queen, maybe she would add another wing to it and build herself a suite of rooms next door to the pool.


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