Healing a Princess...21

Healing a Princess...21


(Darkness and Radec )


By Tim Knight



As he approached the Royal carriage, Captain  Kalhoun spotted the grizzled Sergeant at Arms laughing with the Half-elf.  Puzzled by the sight, Rikki rode up along the carriage and knocked lightly on one of the shutters.  The shutter flipped open to reveal the Princess’s curious expression.  “Yes, Captain?”

 “Just wanted you to know that I have someone working on a way for you to observe the Under-Kingdom better.”

 “Thank you, Captain, that is much appreciated.” She smiled.  “How much farther until we reach the entrance?”

 Rikki looked at the foothills ahead, slowly turning more and more mountainous.  “It should be sometime this afternoon, Highness.”

 “Thank you, Captain.  I believe I will attempt to take a nap before we arrive so that I might be more alert when we get there.”

 “I’ll wake you when we stop for lunch, Highness.” Rikki smiled.

 “We are stopping for lunch?” Tonya’s face suddenly turned to one of annoyance.

 “The cooks are already ahead of up preparing the meal.  We won’t have to stop long.” Rikki promised. 

 Tonya sighed heavily as she closed the shutter.

 “Would you like me to leave so that you might sleep, your Highness?” Annyka suggested.

 “I would actually feel more comfortable with your presence, Annyka.” Tonya started to move pillows around to slide the seat down into the bed configuration.  “With Monyka gone more and more, I will need to rely upon your assistance.”

 “Okay, Tonya.” She maneuvered to assist.  “May I look at your books while you sleep?”

 “Sure, Just be careful of this one.” She pointed to the large book of Dwarven science resting in one of the many pockets.  “It’s the only one I know of in existence.”

 “How are you going to be able to sleep with this carriage being so bumpy?”

 “I’m not sure. I just need to try so that I can be alert for when we enter the Under-kingdom.” Tonya nestled herself among the pillows.  “Please make sure I’m awake before we reach the entrance.”

 “Of course your Highness.  I thought the Captain was going to wake you.”

 “Captains have so many things that they need to worry about that they sometimes forget simple details.”  Tonya closed her eyes.

 Rikki pulled Sefu away from the carriage and stopped Sefu allowing the soldiers following the carriage pass.  He tightened his legs around Sefu as the Ambassador’s carriage caught up with him.

 “Ambassador Kalgar?” The Captain greeted the carriage.

 “Yes, Captain.” Kalgar leaned out of the open window.

 “Have you noticed the Princess’s fascination with your Under-Kingdom?”

 Kalgar grinned, “It is quite marvelous.”

 “I am arranging for a special wagon for her to ride in that will allow her to view your home.  I was wondering if before we enter, you could join her so that you might explain things.”  Rikki looked to his short friend with askance.

 “Inform the Princess that I would be honored to do so, Captain.” Kalgar’s eyes twinkled at the thought of home.

 “By the way, the cooks have been sent ahead and are preparing a lunch for us,” Rikki paused with a smile as Ambassador Zereb leaned forward with interest.  “I hear we are having trout that was caught yesterday.”

 Rikki gave Sefu his reign, allowing him into a canter passing the carriage and riding towards the front.  The Half-elf was still talking with Takoda.  Takoda laughed and smiled at the short blonde woman.  Taelah, seeing the Captain approach, quickly finished what she was saying and veered off from the road and galloped past Rikki and Sefu towards the servant’s wagons.

 “What was that all about?” Rikki asked of the Sergeant.

 “Just some small talk.”  Takoda grinned.

 “Be careful with that one.” Rikki cautioned.  “I don’t completely trust her.”

 “I know, Captain.” The Sergeant’s face sobered.  “She knows it as well.”

 “Is she traveling with us to Blaire?” Rikki pulled Sefu’s head away from nipping at Takoda’s mount.

 “She says that the Duke destroyed everything she had in Roberton.  Malden allows Elves and Half-elves to live and work in their city.  She is hoping to start anew there.  How much safer can someone be, than in the procession of Royalty?”

 “Judging the last few days?” Rikki grimaced. “It might be safer, not traveling with a Royal procession.”

 The cooks set up the luncheon encampment in a large clearing in the majestic pine trees that covered the surrounding hills.  Knee high, grass, green in it’s spring re-birth had been well trampled in high traffic areas.  Several great fires were set up at intervals, each had stakes thrust into the ground around it.  At the top of each stake was a gutted and splayed trout.  The aroma of herbs mixed with the smells of cooking trout had announced their arrival, even before they could see the clearing.  A shade pavilion had been erected towards the center of the clearing.  Under it’s protection, a long table, benches and a couple of chairs.  The table was set and contained baskets of bread, fresh fruit and wedges of cheese. Riponian banners fluttered from the top of the pavilion in the mid-day wind.

 Grymm met the Captain, joined by Sergeant Takoda and Lieutenant Kollyns.  “The forward guard has already eaten and has secured a perimeter around the area, Captain.” He smiled ruefully.  “Too bad our cavalry can’t set up a field kitchen like this while on maneuvers.”

 “And invite our enemy to dine with us?” Kadyr chuckled with him.

 “Who knows it may save us from un wanted wars and loosing young lives.” Rikki grimaced and gently rubbed his sore arm.  He looked to the young cavalryman.  “Good work, Grymm.  Have you eaten yet?”

 “Aye, Sir.  The cooks fed us all well.” Grymm smiled. “Wait till you that trout melts in your mouth.”

 “Have the scouts been sent ahead?”

 “Yes, Captain.  Yeoman Bailey went with them.  He said something about getting one last chance at hunting before going underground.”

 Rikki looked West at the foreboding wall of gray clouds, slowly making their way towards them.  “Lieutenant, After they have eaten, find Galyway and have his men start polishing their armor.  I want to enter the under-kingdom looking polished and sharp, not like we’ve been drug through the battlefield.” Rikki looked to the young Lieutenant.  “They have an hour to do so after they have eaten.”

 “Yes, Captain.” Kadyr turned to find the Sergeant.

 Rikki turned back to the pavilion to see Monyka and Annyka guiding the Princess to a chair at the head of the table.  The two Ambassadors were taking seats along the table as well, while the field cooks and assistants dodged in and around one another busily at their duties.  Rikki nodded to his soldiers and smiled as he made his way through the various fires to the pavilion and bowed to the Princess before taking a seat across from the Ambassadors.

 “How much further up the road until we reach the gate to your world?” Rikki asked Kalgar.

 “Twenty minutes walk or so. I would estimate, Captain.”

 “We are so close, and we stopped?” Tonya didn’t even attempt to keep annoyance from her voice.

 “Unlike you, Your Highness.” Takoda joined them in the pavilion. “Many men find the very idea of the Under-kingdom, frightening.  This short interlude will give them the chance to breathe fresh mountain air, feel the warmth of the sun and smell the trees and flowers, before entering the…… please excuse me Ambassador.”  Takoda smiled to the Dwarf, who nodded and smiled back.  “before entering the dungeon like depths of the underworld.  You can be patient for another hour or so while they relax before penetrating the darkness under the earth.”

 Tonya sniffed with disapproval, but said nothing.  Instead she broke off a piece of bread and stuffed it into her mouth.  A servant placed a plate in front of the princess, holding a steaming trout, it’s white flesh sprinkled with herbs cast of an aroma that made the Captain’s mouth water.  He was about to reach for a piece of bread when another servant placed a plate containing two of the trout in front of him.

 Grymm’s description was accurate, the trout’s flaky texture did seem to melt in his mouth.  Little was said around the table.  The people present were intent on the incredible food set before them.  As they were pushing their plates away, a server came forth with a plate of flat bread that had been fried and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar followed by a small bowl of vanilla custard for each.

 “I think I need to travel with you more often.” The dwarf groaned from an over stuffed belly.

 “Captain,” a voice approached from behind.  Rikki turned to see Nevyre smiling like a Cheshire cat.  “I’m just putting the finishing touches on, if you would care to approve.”

 “I’ll be right there, Nevyre.”  Rikki pushed back from the table and bowed to the Princess before following the rogue towards the road.

 “What was that about?” Tonya asked.

 “I believe, your Highness,” Kalgar suppressed a burp. “That the lad has seen to the accommodations that you had asked for.”

    *  * *

 After a few turns through the pine covered hills, the road led up to and entered a large ominous hole in the side of the mountain.  Something in the darkness moved, bringing Rikki to full alert.  A moment later, a wagon laden with goods rolled lazily out into the quickly darkening sky.  The Dwarven driver squinted in the light as if he had come out into a bright glacial sun.  His wagon was followed by three more all laden with goods to be traded.  The lead driver, steered the wagon off to the side of the road where it widened enough to park six wagons abreast and jumped down to soothe the animals.  The other wagons followed his example.

 “Kalgar, why are they stopping there?” The princess asked from her new seat.

 “The animals have been away from the light for so long that even this little light blinds them.  They will rest there for an hour or so to get used to the light before continuing down to Bolton.”

 Nevyre had somehow procured one of the smaller wagons and spread it’s contents among the others.  He then asked one of the ferriers to anchor a camp chair to the bed of the wagon which he covered with a dozen different layers of tent flooring.  A few pillows from the Royal carriage helped to make the chair a bit more comfortable.  The Princess could either sit in the chair, lounge on the padded buckboard or sit up beside the driver.  Nevyre had picked this wagon not only for it’s smaller size but because it had sideboards that were hinged to the sides and could be swung up and locked in a moment’s notice to add protection for the Princess, should she need it.  It was simple, it was quick and it allowed the Princess an almost unobstructed view of her surroundings. 

 Under the Princess’s protests, the Captain doubled the mounted guard around the wagon.  He promised the disappointed princess that they would be reduced once they were in the Under-kingdom.
   * * *


Rikki reined in and looked at the massive tunnel ahead of them and shuddered.  The thought of going underground was rattling his nerves.  He took a deep breath, followed by another.  How could anyone just ride in under a whole mountain and not be nervous, let alone live underground like these dwarves.  Rikki just sat and stared at the menacing opening, while the rest of the entourage slowly rode by.

“Come on Lieutenant,  or you’ll be left out here to freeze to death in the coming storm..”  Kalgar motioned as he passed.

“Easy for you to say.” Rikki mumbled under his breath. “You don’t have that much for a mountain to squash.”

“Rikki, are you all right?” Monika asked from a horse just behind the Princess’s wagon.  “You look flushed.”

Monika might understand a little better than most.  Rikki guided his mount up next to the Lady in waiting.  “I just don’t do so well in……. lets say, tight places.”

“Your afraid of caves and tunnels?” Monika asked somewhat surprised.

“Why do you think I joined the Cavalry?  So I don’t have to invade castle corridors and dungeons, shoulder to shoulder, with people on all sides of you..  It just isn’t natural.”

“Kalgar says that it isn’t that tight once you are in there.” Monika pointed out.

“Not tight for a dwarf maybe.” Rikki rebutted.  “How is Tonya?”

“As you know, her Highness is quite excited about this leg of the trip.  She has studied as much as she can about dwarven architecture and is eager to see if all of the stories about the dwarves are true.”

“What stories, you mean the ones about how dwarves eat through rock with their teeth and crap diamonds?”  Rikki asked.

“I heard that, Captain.” Kalgar chuckled.

Monika giggled too.  “No, that they power machines with steam and that they heat their kingdom with lava, that they have sacred rooms filled with emeralds and water so hot that is shoots upwards hundreds of feet.  You know those kinds of stories.”

“Ho there!”  Kalgar called out as he reached the mouth of the cavern.

“Who goes there, and what business do you have in Thame a sentry called from above the tunnel entrance.

Rikki looked up and realized that there were about a dozen dwarves in battlements that looked so much like the mountain that you could hardly tell what was natural and what wasn’t.  Half a dozen of the Dwarves had stout crossbows aiming at the unusual party.

“I am Kalgar, Ambassador to the Emperor Ramah, Lord over and under Thame.” Kalgar called up.  “I am bringing a Royal guest to meet with our liege Ramah.”

“Kalgar is that really you?  I thought you dropped off into the sea.”  The guard called back.

“I see you have been bumped back down to Kama, Fraug.”  Kalgar called back.

Kalgar turned to the princess’s wagon and beckoned them forth as he entered the dark opening.  Kalgar was quickly lost from sight, though the sounds from his mount’s hooves echoed through what sounded like a vast chamber.

 Monika urged her horse to join Tonya’s carriage.  She slid out of the saddle and jumped up into the wagon, taking a seat on the side board and holding on to the back of the driver’s seat.  Monika could see Tonya’s eyes sparkle as they were swallowed by the black void.  The echo of hooves seemed to be everywhere, overwhelming at first.

 “Kalgar says not to light candles or a torch.  That the sooner that one’s eyes becomes used to the dark the more wonders they will be able to see.”  Tonya  instructed.

 Monika couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, but trusted that the dwarves wouldn’t let them come to harm.

 “Whoa, who is there?”  Monika heard Rikki call

 “I’m just going to lead your horse so that it doesn’t get spooked, while it adjusts to minimal light.” A gruff voice called back.

 “Just warn me first, next time.” Rikki said, trying to keep his voice calm.

 “Just to let you know, Tonya, Rikki is claustrophobic.”

 “He’s what?” Tonya whispered back.

 “He doesn’t like tight, closed in, dark places,  kind of like you not liking to fall.”

 “He volunteered for the wrong mission didn’t he.” Monika heard the Princess snicker.  “That explains a lot.” The princess mumbled to herself.

 Slowly their eyes became used to the darkness of the cavern.  The echoes of the horses hooves became a friend rather than a fiend.  Tonya thought she could see the wall of the cavern as it passed by.  She looked up, but couldn’t see the ceiling.

 “Ambassador?” She called.

 “Yes, Your Highness.” Kalgar whispered from just behind her.

 Tonya jumped not expecting him to be so close.

 “Ambassador, how tall is the ceiling here? I can’t seem to see it.”

 “It is about forty feet above us here, your Highness.  As we get closer to the second gate, it will come down as the walls come in.  This outer entrance acts kind of like a funnel, just in case we are attacked.”

 “Second gate, did we pass a first gate?” Rikki asked.

 “Those dwarves up on the battlements outside were guarding the outer gate, Lieutenant.”

 “I didn’t see any trace of a gate.” Rikki rubbed at his sore arm.

 “The outer side of the mountain is rigged to avalanche and bury the opening in thousands of tons of rock.” The dwarf explained.  “Funny enough, we don’t close that gate until whoever is crazy enough to attack us is upon this inner gate.”

 Monika thought she caught sight of Rikki shiver.

 “But that would mean that you trap them in here.” Tonya whispered to herself.

 “An invading enemy that is immobile is harmless.” Kalgar instructed.  “After about twenty days, we open the gates up and offer to except surrender to those who are still alive and wish it, we dispose of the rest of the bodies.”

 “Another reason I joined the Calvary.” Rikki muttered to himself.

 “Ah, here we are, your Highness.  We are approaching the second gate.”

 Tonya strained to see what lay ahead, but couldn’t see that far in the dark.

 The gates soon came into view.  Two gigantic stone doors were opened outward.  A dwarf stood guard next to each one.

 “Only two gate guards?” Rikki inquired.

 “Those doors are so balanced, two are all we need to close and lock them.” Kalgar boasted proudly.

The large stone slabs were almost as tall as the ceiling and each was a little wider than a wagon.  Tonya strained in the darkness and marvelled at the three feet of thickness of each door.

 A chilly breeze blew constantly, In Rikki’s mind, trying to flee the dark underground as he wished to do.  It chilled his skin causing a shiver to run down his spine.  He buttoned the top button of his uniform and snuggled deeper into its recesses

 “Captain, you can call some of her guards away.” Kalgar reined next to Rikki.  “She has no enemies in the Under-kingdom.”

 “Okay, Grymm you and the extra guard can fall back.” The Captain called out, then cringed as his voice echoed off the walls.

 Either his vision was adjusting, or the walls were closing in on them.  His heart began to pound a little harder, a little faster.  He tried to calm himself down, breathing deeply and slowly.

 “Doing alright there, Captain.” The dwarf guiding Sefu whispered up to him.  He could barely make out the dwarf.  He was wearing what seemed a short skirt.  Powerful muscular arms extend beyond a vest that swung as if it was open.

 “Fine.  Just fine.” His heart continued to race. “How is my horse doing?  How much longer until he can find his own way?”

 “He will be alright in a few more minutes.  It usually takes humans a bit of time to adjust.  Once they do, they seem to like our kingdom.”

 “How often do humans enter?”

 “Every once in a while we allow them to enter.  You met Battleaxe Belvadir in Bolton, didn’t you?”

 “Yes.  He seems like a good commander.”

 “Well his wife, the good Cleric is allowed to enter.  She was kind of jumpy the first time she came in.” The dwarf chuckled.

 “Are the walls closing in or is it my nerves?” Rikki confided quietly to the dwarven guide.

 “Aye they are getting narrower.” The dwarf looked up at the Captain.  “There is another gate just ahead there.  Just another line in our outer defenses.”  If you could see better, you’d notice murder holes in the roof and walls. 

 Rikki shuddered again.  This time it wasn’t from the chill wind.

 “Lets pause here for just a few minutes.” Kalgar called out.

 “Hold!” Sergeant Takoda called.  His voice echoed back down the tunnel.  The sound of the wagon’s wheels and the lessoning of horses hooves reverberated.  A moment later, all could be heard was the breathing of those around him.

 Kalgar approached the Captain.  “Once we enter through this gate there will be a large open area and then the road will begin it’s long spiral down.  There is a fresh watering fountain for the mounts and your people.  I would suggest that we pause to water the animals before begin our decent.” The Ambassador explained.  “And a warning….. the inside edge of the road is open and falls a good two thousands feet to the bottom.  If anyone is afraid of heights, they should stay close to the walls.  And for the first half hour or so everyone should keep a tight reign on their mounts.  Our guides will be leaving us after they help water the animals.”

 “Thanks for the warning, Ambassador.” Rikki turned around in his saddle. “Grymm.” He called.

 “Yes, Captain, the Cavalryman answered from just behind him.

 “You heard what the Ambassador just said?”

 “Yes, Sir.”

 “Spread it down the line.  Make sure that the servants understand the warning about the drop off.  I don’t want to explain any mishaps to Emperor Ramah or to King Tobias.”

 Grymm wheeled his mount around and made his way back stopping every so often to relate the information.  As the Captain watched him go, he noticed that he wasn’t the only one to have a Dwarf guiding his animal.  The other dwarves however guided two horses.

 The Ambassador re-positioned himself next to Tonya’s wagon and nodded to the forward guides to start their progress again. 

 The inner gates although smaller than the last set, were just as massively built.  As told, once they were through, the walls and ceiling disappeared.  Stairs cut into the sides of walls led up on each side of the gates and into tunnels that the Captain assumed  accessed the murder holes.  The Dwarves guided the procession to left side of the expansive open area. 

A large trough was carved out solid stone.  Three streams of water sprouted from the wall and plummeted a few feet into the trough.  The ornately carved wall and water founts were illuminated by a white glow which emanated from the water in the trough.  A number of buckets were stacked on either side of the trough.  Once the horses were parked, the guides filled the buckets from the glowing trough and started to water the horses.  Curiously the water in the buckets didn’t glow. 

Rikki dismounted, biting back a curse at his still sore arm, and approached the glow.  The Princess and Ladies were also dismounting to explore the source of the light.  Rikki momentarily forgot about the tons of rock pressing in around him as he peeked over the edge of the fountain’s lip.  Glowing objects moved around in the water as if they were swimming.  Upon closer inspection, he realized that in fact they were swimming.

“Bio-luminescent fish.” Kalgar explained from behind him.

 “What?” Tonya looked to the Ambassador.

 “These fish are found in pools of water, very deep underground.  They have no eyes and are in all purposes, blind.  They feed upon an algae, that makes their bodies glow.  We use them through out the kingdom as a source of light.”

 “Amazing.” Tonya shook her head in wonder at he new discovery.

 “Now if you will return to your horses, they have been watered and we need to be leaving so that the rest of your animals can get their share.” Kalgar gestured towards the wagons.

 Rikki took another good look at the glowing fish before retrieving Sefu from the guide.  Sefu reached back and nibbled at his leg, reassuring himself that it was his master, on his back.

 “Here you are, your Highness.” A dwarf approached her makeshift wagon.  He handed her a small glass bowl containing one of the radiant fish.  “You can keep this one.”

 “Thank you.” Tonya practically squealed with glee. “Thank you very much.”  She held the glass bowl up so that she could study the fish in closer detail.

 Rikki followed the Princess’s wagon as it started down the long sloping decent.

 “Ambassador?” Rikki called out.

 “Yes, Captain.”

 “I noticed that this road is only large enough for one wagon.  What should happen if we are to meet a wagon making it’s way up?”

 “There is another spiraling road opposite of us.  They use that one to climb.  This one to descend.” The dwarf tried hard not to chuckle.

 It was a few minutes after they had left the fountain before Rikki discovered that his eyes had adjusted to the darkness.  He could see the edge of the road, but couldn’t make out how large the open expanse was, between them and the other side of the mountain.  The horses hooves and turn of the wagon’s wheels seemed to meld, to blur into a undecipherable moan.

 “How long will it take to reach the bottom?” Tonya raised.

 “It normally takes a wagon about two hours to descend, and twice that to climb this entrance.” Kalgar explained proudly showing off his homeland.  “We however, will not be going to the bottom.  The Highway entrance is two thirds of the way down.”

 “I can’t tell time in here.” Monyka fingered her necklace.  “How long have we been traveling down?”

 “Almost an hour, my Lady.” Kalgar stated after a moment’s thought.  “With a procession this large it may take a little longer to reach the access tunnel.

 What seemed like hours later, Kalgar pointed to a large flattened off area, similar to the one at the top of the long winding ramp.  This one too had a watering trough which glowed.  The forward guards had already dismounted and were watering their mounts by the time the Princess’s touring wagon reached the interesting watering hole.  A pair of gigantic columns flanked either side of a large tunnel veering off from the continuing downward spiral.  After their horses were finished the forward guard reformed  inside the tunnel and waited for the Princess’s wagon and the Ambassador’s queue to continue. 

After watering Sefu, as much as he would take, Rikki wandered over to the giant columns and studied their architecture.  Each was a good five paces across and disappeared into the darkness above.  Carved smooth by caring hands, the stone seemed to radiate in the minimal light.

 Just inside the tunnel from the columns two flickering flames jutted out from the wall.  Each orange and yellow flame was protected by an open metal cage. They couldn’t be called torches, for there didn’t seem to be any oil or fuel that they were feeding off of.

“Ambassador, how are these flames being produced?” the Captain asked.

“Natural gas, Captain.”

The Cavalry captain looked confused.

“It’s kind of like vapors………. Similar to swamp vapors.” Kalgar tried to come up with something comparable.  “A long time ago, stone shapers created small tubes in the stone that allowed these vapors to come up to the surface.  You can see the holes there in the wall?”

Rikki nodded.

“That is where the gasses come out.  All you have to do is put a flame to it and it will burn as long as the gas is escaping through those holes.”

 “How often do you have to replenish the vapors?” Tonya was as intrigued as the Captain.

 “They never have to be replenished.” Kalgar was almost confused by the question.  “Through out the ground there are large chambers that are filled with these natural gasses. If diverted and regulated properly, it would be centuries before the gasses in a chamber would be depleted.”

 Once Tonya was loaded back into her wagon, they started off down the highway access tunnel.  The tunnel was just wide enough for a large wagon to move through comfortably. 

Tonya let out a breath of wonder as the smooth carved tunnel walls, suddenly opened up revealing a natural cavern chamber.  Large stalactites hung like large chandeliers.  Even in the dim light, they sparkled and shimmered almost as if they had an inner light of their own.

“Amazing.” Escaped her lips.  She wasn’t the only one awed by the sight, other oohs and ahs were heard as each traveler came within sight of the cavern.

“That’s just a tiny cavern, Highness, wait until you see some of the caverns we keep pristine as monuments.” Kalgar’s low voice rumbled with pride.

A hundred yards further, the tunnel they were traveling down merged into a much larger tunnel.  “The Underground highway.” Kalgar announced. “Lets hold up here for just a few moments.  I would like to scout down West of here to see if our joining the main thoroughfare will cause anyone trouble.”  The Dwarf rode forward and disappeared quickly in the darkness.

“I am going to just go ahead a bit into the larger area.” Rikki spoke softly to Takoda.

“A little tight in here for you, Captain?” Takoda smiled.

“Yeah.”  Rikki tried to smile back, but it didn’t feel genuine.  In truth, the walls were beginning to feel like they were pressing in on him.  The air felt too hot and stuffy, as if the air in the tunnel was being ignited.

Rikki eased Sefu up into the larger tunnel and halted next to one of the walls.  The Underground highway was very large.  Three wagons and two mounted riders could ride abreast in it’s width.  The roadway itself looked to have been carved from the ground as was the case of the tunnels he had seen so far.  The Captain took a deep breath.  The air seemed a bit fresher, a bit sweeter, here versus the tunnel the rest of the procession was parked in.  He squinted and strained his eyes and thought that he could make out an arched ceiling forty feet above him. 

The sound of hooves and the squeaking of wagon wheels approached from just ahead in the tunnel.  A few moments later, Rikki could make out a wagon being pulled by four mules.  The dwarven driver seemed to be staring at him.  Rikki watched as the dwarf snapped the reigns to pick up speed to pass him.   Three more wagons followed the first.  They too picked up speed trying to put distance between themselves and the tall human mounted on the large warhorse.  A younger dwarf, whose beard was still filling in, stared at him.  Rikki was beginning to think that he might be the first human the boy had ever seen.  He could just imagine how he must look to the boy, towering giant riding a giant, black horse. 

The sounds of hooves and armor echoed down the tunnel as the procession caught up with him.  He waited until the Princess’s wagon came abreast of him before urging Sefu to fall in to the rhythm of the long line of mounts.

“What time of day is it?” Tonya asked Kalgar.

“It’s early evening, Highness.”  Kalgar stoked his beard.  “There is a small community up the road a bit, Cavern Radec.  We will stop there for the night.  They have a good Inn with good food.”  He thought for a moment. “It’s rooms however, may not be up to the standards of what you have been staying in.”

“As long as it is better than the cabin on the riverboat, I’ll be happy.” Tonya beamed back.

“I’m afraid there isn’t much to see until we get to the Inn, Princess.” Kalgar apologized for the unending dark road.

“Oh, I’m enjoying myself, Ambassador.” Tonya grinned as she tried to capture every detail of the carved tunnel.

“At least someone is.” Rikki muttered just low enough that no one could hear him among the echoes of horses and armor moving through the underground.  Rikki strained his eyes looking as to what lay ahead.  For as far as he could see and as far as they have traveled, the cavernous road seemed to head on and on in a straight line, no hills, no turns, just endless dark foreboding rock pushing in.

  * * *

The first sign of a community was the flickering of torches, along the wall.  The torches, were more of the burning vapor kind, the gas torches.  Metal cages clamped into solid rock guarded the flames. 

“We are coming into Cavern Radec, Princess.  It is not much more than a place for the merchants to rest while moving their goods from one end to the other of the Under-kingdom.” Kalgar waved his hand dismissively. 

The tunnel suddenly opened up into a large cavern.  The procession came to a halt to allow a small train of heavy wagons exit the cavern.  Stone buildings lined the cavern walls, their windows glowed inviting the tired group.  Stone stairs climbed up the outside walls of each block of buildings, each set of stairs led to a large walkway which rested upon part of the roof of the building below it, thus creating a stepping structure that rose five stories from the cavern floor. 

The ceiling of the cavern towered hundreds of feet over their heads.  Large stalactites hung elegantly from the ceiling like giant icicles sparkling in the soft light from the homes.  Some of the larger stalactites were as big around as a wagon.  The floor of the cavern had been cleared of most of the natural phenomenon.  Only a few of the larger stalagmites had been left, giving Tonya the impression of tree trunks scattered amongst the buildings.

Dwaves appeared from every door window and watched the curious sight of so many surface dwellers approaching their town.  They leaned against a wall, or stalagmite, some sat on the walkways, their short legs dangling off, while others positioned themselves on various steps of the staircases, hoping for a better view.

On a more careful examination of the dwarves Tonya spotted her first female dwarf.  She was so excited, she had to remind herself to breathe.  One of the women stepped forward.  She was slightly taller than the male dwarves, or was it the fact that the woman wore her hair in a topknot that spilled down around her shoulders.  Large pretty eyes looked at her invitingly from above a filmy veil that hid the lower half of the woman’s face.

“Greetings, Princess.” The woman greeted with a smile seen through the veil.  “I am Kagami.  Welcome to our cavern Radec.”

“Thank you, Kagami.”  Tonya smiled back.

Lieutenant Kollyns and Cavalryman Grymm had dismounted and stood beside the wagon to help the Princess down.  Rikki dismounted Sefu and handed the reins to Cavalryman Johnak and took up a guard position near Kalgar and the Princess.  Takoda was at his side.  Tonya accepted the help of Kadyr and Grymm.  Monyka and Annyka came up and stood behind her. 

“Stick?” Monyka asked very quietly, just loud enough for the Princess and her two aides.  Tonya barely shook her head.  Monyka sighed to herself and kept the walking stick at a ready just in case the Princess were to change her mind.

Kagami turned to the crowd and waved her arms.” Go on clear a way for the Princess, she has had a long hard trip to get here.  Go on.”  The dwarves cleared a large path to the door of one of the buildings.  “Let’s get you settled, Princess. I’m sure a hot bath and some food will make you more comfortable.  We don’t have much in the way of fancy royal things but what we have is yours.”

Tonya looked to Kalgar and Rikki in askance.  The dwarf gestured with a hand and a smile, while Rikki just nodded.  Tonya leaned heavily on the Lieutenant as he guided her to the door.

“One moment, your Highness.” Kadyr cautioned as the reached the door.  Tonya looked up at the Lieutenant as he crouched down to enter the low door frame.  Tonya stifled a giggle as she entered the building with out even ducking.

The room they entered was a common room of an Inn.  Long tables and benches covered most of the room.  A fireplace dominated  the outside wall of the building.  A low counter ran along half of the back of the room.  A dwarf with a long dark beard smiled up at her as he dried an ale mug.  The rest of the back wall was taken up by a staircase.

“I’m sorry, Princess, but all of our rooms are located on the upper floors.” Kagami apologized.

“I’m pretty used to that, by now, Kagami.” Tonya smiled. “That is why I have these strong young men.”

As if on cue, Takoda closed the door to the common room while Rikki stood in front of the window.  Tonya wrapped her arms around the Lieutenant’s neck as he picked her up and followed Kagami and Grymm up the stairs with Monyka and Annyka following close behind.  Once they had reached the second floor, Takoda opened the door and allowed to of Galyway’s heavy soldiers to duck in carrying one of the Princess’s trunks.  Ambassadors Kalgar and Zereb followed the soldiers. The Riponian Ambassador had to bend over to enter the room.

“I have spoken with the Cavern’s leader.” Kalgar looked up at the Cavalry Captain.  “They have cleared out most of the rooms of both inns but there still won’t be enough places for your men, Captain.”

“Is there a place where they can roll out their blankets in the cavern to get some sleep?” Rikki scrubbed a hand through his hair.

“Of course, Captain.” Kalgar thought for a moment.  I’ll let the Cavern leader know, they can set up a bit of a camp towards the back, it will be quieter there.  They just can’t be lighting any campfires.”

“How about the cooks?  Is there a place that they can set up a kitchen to cook up some grub for them?”

“I’ll look into that as well, Captain.”

“I appreciate the help, Ambassador.”  Rikki looked around the room then followed Takoda and Ambassador Zereb up the stairs. 

Kagami had already settled the Princess in one of the front rooms, which had a window looking out on the walkway.  Rikki made a mental note to station guards out there as a precaution.  Not that he expected anyone to attack the Princess, but so that he could get some sleep himself knowing that he provided some additional security for her.

“Captain, your room is across the hall there.” Kagami dismissed the Captain and the rest of the men.

“Lieutenant.” Captain Kalhoun called his attention out in the hall.  “Put two guards out on that walkway, one here at the door.”

“Yes, Sir.” Kadyr headed down the hall.

“Lieutenant, lets get as many of the servants in to the Inns tonight.  The rest of the guard are going to have to sleep on their bedrolls in the back of the cavern.”  Captain Kalhoun added.  Rikki entered his room and groaned.  The bed in the room was almost half the length that a human bed would be.  He would have to either sleep curled up in a fetal position, or sleep with his legs from the knees down, hanging over the end of the bed.  He sat down on the dwarf sized bed and scrubbed his good hand through his hair perplexed.

  * * *

 The room that Kagami led them into was small compared to what the Princess was used to.  It was however, larger and more comfortable than the Riverboat cabin that she had shared with Monyka.  Two human length beds occupied two of the walls of the room.  A small desk and a wardrobe flanked either side of the door, while a small table sat under the window between the two beds.  Every available flat surface in the room contained a glass bowl of water.  Swimming in the bowls of water were several of the bio-luminescent fish, lighting the room an interesting white glow.
“You’ll have to excuse the Dwarves of this Cavern, Princess.” Kagami closed the curtains over the windows.  “They have rarely seen a human before and of those, I don’t think any of us have seen a human Princess.” The woman looked up at Tonya with a smile.

 Tonya chuckled. “Kagami, that is all right.  I’m in the same situation.  I have never met or even seen a Dwarven woman before.” 

Tonya eased herself onto the bed. And studied the short statured woman in front of her.  Kagami stood about four and a half feet tall, just a few inches taller than Ambassador Kalgar.  She like the others that Tonya got glimpses of, had very wide hips, giving her a pears shaped silhouette.  Her blonde hair was swept back away from her face to a top knot on top of her head and then allowed to cascade around her shoulders in small braids woven with gems, gold charms and silver.  A light tinkling could be heard as she moved her head or even walked.  The blue veil that she wore was more ornamental than a device to cover her face.  It’s very delicate weave was almost completely see through.  It barely fluttered with Kagami’s breathing.  In a strange way the veil seemed very attractive.  It seemed to draw attention to the Dwarf’s large blue eyes.

 “Are you getting hungry, Princess?”  Kagami raised an eyebrow as she opened the door.  “I’ll have a tray brought up to you.”

 “Would it be too much to ask you bring a tray for each of my Ladies as well?” Tonya smiled.

 “Not at all, Princess.” Kagami gave a slight bow, before exiting the room.

 “Thank you, Highness.” Annyka approached Tonya.  “I am famished.”

 “Why didn’t you say so before?” Tonya asked.  “Annyka, you can’t be afraid to ask for things like food when you are hungry, or to use the pot.”

 “But, I don’t want to bother you, Highness.” Annyka protested.

 Tonya looked around the room. “Annyka, do you see anyone else around here?”

 Annyka, puzzled by the question, quickly glanced around the room.  She paused for a moment.  “No.”

 “Then call me Tonya.” The Princess almost rolled her eyes.  “Monyka?”

 “Yes, Tonya?” Monyka looked up from un packing some of Tonya’s items.

 “Could you please talk with Annyka about asking to have her needs met?”
Tonya rubbed at her aching leg.  She picked up her leather-bound book and settled herself into a more comfortable position.

 “I was a lot like you when I began serving, Tonya.” Monyka began.  She handed the young girl a dress to hang and began her tale.

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