Locke could not very well prevent Denom and Rowena from talking to each
other during the journey,
but he made sure that they were never left alone. He wanted anything that
might say to be reported back to him. Inwardly he fumed. Oyael was a
typical White Hander, he
thought: secretive and obstructive.
Then an idea occurred to him. He had been commanded to take Denom to Duke Dred, but the order had not specified a route. Supposing they were to travel to the Duke by way of Caemlyn? Denom had said he would only tell his story to the Duke or to the King. Well then, let him tell it to the King. The King was better protected and thus less likely to come to any harm. And though Locke was a loyal subject of His Majesty's, he did not feel the same degree of personal loyalty to him that he did to the Duke. But then he had an uncomfortable thought: if something bad should happen to the King, what would be the fate of the man responsible for bringing Denom to see him? Quite possibly it would be an early execution. What should he do?
Meanwhile, three weary rangers had just completed their long journey back to the Aquilarian capital of Themyscira.  "We must see the Queen at once," one of them told the captain of the palace guard. "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you," the woman replied. "The Queen is dead." 
A dwarf sat patiently beside the bed of a sleeping coal-black woman. She was naked, for the healers had said that a free flow of air to the burnt skin would help with her recovery. In any case, her own clothes had been largely destroyed by the fire. The applications of the salve to her skin  had recently been discontinued; as a result the woman should be coming round soon after twenty days of unconsciousness.
The dwarf, Darek, read once more through the notes which Tarin had sent him along with the woman. Immediately she awoke, when she was still dozy, she would be most easily manipulated - especially if Darek told her that Lord Frederigo D'Honaire had abandoned her, suggested Tarin. That Fred was only interested in her welfare because of the children of his that she was carrying, and had left her when he found that they had been stillborn, should sound plausible enough, Tarin had thought.
The salve had done a good job of healing Astra's skin. The burn-marks had vanished, and she didn't even have any bedsores from her long period of immobility. Whether she would suffer any permanent physical after-effects from the fire would not be known for sure until she regained consciousness, though. In the last twenty days her muscles had inevitably wasted considerably. Indeed, for the next few days she would probably barely be able to stand unaided. That suited Darek just fine, however; should Astra have enough mental resilience to want to escape (which he doubted), it was likely to be several weeks before she would be fit enough to try to do so - especially if she was deprived of the exercise that would build her muscles up again more quickly.
In the last few days the news had reached him that the Queen of Aquilaria was dead. Princess Astra would have been the obvious choice to succeed her, apparently, but nobody knew where she was. Nobody except the dwarves, he thought with satisfaction. There were also strong rumours that Allaria would soon move against Aquilaria. When Astra learnt this, what would she give for dwarven aid in her own claim to the throne and the subsequent war against Allaria (or maybe the war would happen first)? He thought that a price of one-quarter of Aquilaria's land area would not be unreasonable. Then the ancient kingdom of the dwarves could at long last be revived, and he himself would be the obvious choice as King.
If Astra refused his offer, she was welcome to spend the remainder of her days in this room, or perhaps a less pleasant one, under guard. He knew that a few of his people might object to one who was a brave warrior being treated so, but when all was said and done she was only a human and so that would almost certainly be a minority view.
There was a much more significant problem, of course. With his captive's jet-black skin, could the people of Aquilaria be convinced that she was really the Princess Astra? Tarin's notes said that her coloration was the result of a magical artifact called the Crystallic, but the notes were unclear on what had happened to it, and in any case Darek would be most reluctant to use it even should it be found. But if dwarven help against Allaria was made conditional on Astra being given the throne, he thought that Aquilaria's position would rapidly become desperate enough that they would have no choice but to accept his terms. Whilst the dwarven race might be comparatively few in number, they were renowned for their fighting ability, and their skill in metal-working meant they had the best weapons and the best armour. Thus their support should be sufficient to change the course of the war in Aquilaria's favour.
12/31/2000 8:18:29 AM
The Never Ending Quest Home
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