The Separation of Fred and Astra

The Never Ending Quest - Episode 4836

More questions occurred to Fred, as he and his three escorts began their journey away from the dragon's lair. Had Rift really left for Walants? It seemed unlikely that he would willingly leave all that gold behind, not to mention the Crystallic. Perhaps he too was travelling under dwarven escort? Or was his dead body lying in some dark corner of the lair?

Then there was the fate of the Crystallic. Was it really lost? Fred had heard that dwarves mistrusted magic, but Tarin was shrewd enough that surely he would mount a search for something of such power? Even if Tarin would not use it himself, a mage would probably pay a king's ransom for it.

He wondered if the dwarves intended to accompany him for the whole of the six week journey. It seemed more likely that they would only stay with him until they were well away from the Goth. Tarin had given him a handful of gold pieces, saying mockingly: "Your expenses." Fred had been tempted to throw the coins back in his face, but had thought bettter of it. Thus, when and if the dwarves left him, he could buy a horse and perhaps cut his journey time from that point on by half.

Tarin was supervising the carrying of the sacks of gold and jewels from the lair, through the passage (skirting the large hole in the floor that the orcs had made) and into the open air. That some of the sacks were covered in coagulating blood seemed to bother the dwarves not at all. The sacks were then loaded onto the mule-drawn wagons that had been brought out from their former hiding place. (Tarin had wanted to ensure that the dwarves could plunder as much of the hoard as possible; hence the wagons. Mules had been used partly because some of the terrain in the foot-hills of the Goth was too rugged for horses, but mainly because horses were too large for dwarves to feel comfortable with them.) Two dwarves used an improvised stretcher to carry Astra to one of the wagons.

Tarin had the Crystallic in his pouch. It had truly been lost at the time he had spoken to Fred, but he had naturally searched for it as soon as he had had the opportunity. Once he had ensured that the area where Rift had been was well-lit by torches, it hadn't been too hard to find. Whilst he wasn't very comfortable with the idea of using magic - few dwarves had ever done so, and those rash enough to try had generally come to bad ends - he was willing to put his reluctance to one side if it proved necessary to ensure that Astra would not be out of action for too long. She would not be the asset that he hoped for if she was left with a long-term major disability. Using the Crystallic would be very much a last resort, though; he suspected that Astra's black skin had been an accident, which was an indication that using the Crystallic, or at least controlling it, might not be easy for someone who was untrained.

The one thing that Tarin did know for sure about Astra's condition was that she had miscarried; the three very premature infants had died immediately. He might have had a better idea of her state of health now, but the most skilled healer in the party had been a victim of the orcs. He would just have to wait until she came round to see how she was. He didn't want her to regain consciousness until they had reached their destination, though. He would have the salve reapplied as frequently as was necessary to ensure that. It would also keep her wounds from becoming infected, and to a limited extent would promote their healing. He wondered whether having imbibed some of the essence of the Crystallic would help her to recover faster. It obviously hadn't conferred anything approaching invulnerability; the extent of her wounds showed that.

Meanwhile Astra was having a bad dream. As she had been when Fred first found her, she was naked and chained to a rock wall. Now she had her current black skin, though, and was pregnant. In front of her stood the big orc she had killed, seemingly not at all inconvenienced by the lack of its head. In its hand was a whip. Somehow, it spoke to her: "I have been sent by Artemis to chastise you until you are purged of your sin." Astra was tempted to argue, but she knew that one does not argue with the will of a deity. And if Artemis had decreed her punishment, then she knew it must be deserved. So she waited stoically for the first lash.

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10/11/1999 11:56:39 AM

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