On the Side of the Road
A little past dawn came when Azariah woke the next day. Despite everything that happened last night, she felt well rested. Despite hating the man, she enjoyed sleeping on one of Theod-Rah’s luxurious beds. The orange sun shone through her window as she dressed in the attire laid out for her by the servants: A leather-studded corset, her cloak, a pair of padded trousers, and knee-high boots with holsters for her to conceal her daggers. Before she left her room, one of the imperial advisors came by to give Azariah a purse of coin. “His imperial majesty wanted to make sure you got this before your departure.” Azariah looked in the purse and noticed just by the weight that it was at least thirty to fifty union coins.
“What is this for?” she asked.
“His imperial majesty wanted to be sure that the expedition was well funded and trusted that you, your highness was most responsible with the coin.” Azariah thanked the advisor and was escorted to the imperial stables where she met with the rest of the party. She and Vylasgarden rode the newly given horse together while Riker and Kruzco road the horse she and Riker came into the city with. As they left the city, Azariah could not help but notice that Riker did not say much of anything the entire morning.
None of the others prompted him to speak and neither did she; though she could not decide if she was angry with Riker. If anything, she felt pity for him. He looked as though he was still traumatized from last night’s events. From the city and the entire ride following Theod-Rah’s lead to the East Coast, it became clear that Azariah assumed leadership of the expedition which created an unspoken new dynamic in the group. Azariah held a level of authority that none of the others objected to. She was like a new person, head strong and captivating. She decided when to rest the horses, when they all should eat, and which roads to take across the countryside. After a while Azariah had decided that they all dismount and settled down next to the road to rest. The horses grazed in the meadow nearby while Kurzco chopped some wood with a new ax given to him by the imperial armory. He prepared a bonfire while Vylasgarden started a session of channeling Azariah’s qi to slowly realign and heal Azariah’s broken hands.
“What happened to Jared last night?” Azariah asked Vylasgarden.
“I do not know. I am suspicious that it has something to do with Riker’s sudden invulnerability to fire,” Vylasgarden replied. “He really did sneak up on us last night and made sure your hands were incapacitated.”
“Will they scar?”
“Yes, but they won’t scar badly. You’re lucky you can still keep all your fingers.” Azariah looked over at Riker who sat before the fire starring and not blinking. Kruzco approached with both arms full of firewood. “What happened last night?” he asked but Riker did not answer. He finally blinked but did not break focus on the fire.
“Something indeed happened to him. He sits so close to the fire, yet does not recoil from the heat of the flames,” Vylasgarden replied then redirected her attention to Azariah’s hands. “I mean, we all saw him emerge from the fire last night. He was unscathed.” None of them replied to the comment, though there was heavy tension in the air like all four of them knew that there are forces greater than themselves at play. “We will need a few more sessions before your hands have completely healed,” Vylasgarden said breaking the silence to Azariah. Azariah nodded then covered her head with her green cloak.
“Whatever happened to him, he will need to get over it. There is much more at stake than his selfish needs,” Azariah said coldly. “It will take another day to get to the coast. It is probably best we ask for directions to the mausoleum once we enter a new settlement.”
“Agreed, I need drink,” Kruzco replied scratching the back of his neck. “That palace wine tasteful. I should taken more before left.”
“The last thing we need is our strongest fighter drunk while battling the Nekodarz,” Riker chimed.
“Ah! He speaks,” Azariah followed mockingly.
Riker ignored her and turned his attention to Vylasgarden. “Have you had a chance to look more into the tome?” he asked her.
“I have not actually. I suppose now would be a good time,” Vylasgarden said as she reached for her pack and pulled out the large book. “I find it strange that I have never heard of this ‘Dark Realm Dwarf’ before,” she followed. “Back at the monastery there were thousands of scrolls and documentation of history from around the world, yet this story never was mentioned once.”
“I agree, I had not heard of this till yesterday. I am beginning to wonder if Theod-Rah had told us the whole truth,” Riker said. Azariah noticed a new expression on his face. It was indignation. He looked like a man that has been crossed in a horrible way and harbored vengeance in his eyes. It was a look that did not suit him. “What about you?” he said meeting Azariah’s eyes. “Have you heard of this before?”
“It is familiar,” Azariah pursed her lips. “I have heard about a powerful monster from the Dark Realm that came and slaughtered thousands with an army. Elven clerics claimed that the monster was destroyed over a millennium ago by an alliance between the elf kingdom, the sarkany clans from the west, and the human forces within the Civil Kingdoms.”
“Why isn’t this public knowledge?” Riker asked.
“I do not know. I never questioned it either. I have only heard it myself in passing. I had always assumed it to be an old wise tale,” Azariah replied defensively.
“It would seem that your wise tale is more than fiction according to this document,” Vylasgarden said. “It says her in a section written in draconic that ’when the Dark Realm Dwarf was defeated the remnants of his armies of dvergar were divided into clans and assigned to the four of the six provinces. Those that swore allegiance to the crowns were granted independence, but those that refused to abandon their traditions were assigned to specific sarkany clans, the Zion Empire, and the Civil Kingdoms for indentured servitude.” The party remained silent for a few moments after that. None of them knew this information previously and the weight of it all fell on them like a toppled tree.
“I believed the dwarven clans original settlements,” Kruzco said softly as he stared into the bonfire.
“I thought the same,” Riker followed. “It was what we were taught, what we were told was true thoughout our lives.”
“I wonder if we were meant to come across this information,” Azariah said.
“How could we not,” Vylasgarden replied. “He gave us this book. He intended for us to make this realization on our own.”
“Something tells me Theod-Rah is keeping a close watch to ensure we comply with his wishes,” Riker said plainly like he had been thinking it all along.
“Come get us y’bastard!” Kruzco screamed into the wilderness. “Belong to no man! Yield to no king! United against your heel!”
“Kruzco, calm down,” Azariah said to him not at all amused.
Kruzco plopped to the ground and held his head in his hands. “Ah! I wish I drunk.”
“He is right to be concerned,” Riker claimed. “Theod-Rah is a manipulative man and he has been that way for a long time. I suspect that when he decides we are no longer useful to him, he will attempt to either imprison us or kill us.”
“I fear you are right,” Vylasgarden followed.
“He will likely imprison the princess, and kill the rest of us since no one will be looking for the rest of us,” he continued.
“If I have anything to say about it, no one here will die anytime soon,” Azariah stated. She felt a new sense of responsibility for at the very least Vylasgarden, and despite Riker betraying her she still found him worth protecting. He may have been a selfish individual, but so had she and hypocrisy was something she despised more than holding a grudge. Not long after a short rest, they all began to pack their belonging and continue east down the road. Before Riker mounted, he took out his lute and looked at it with the same expression Azariah noticed earlier. She watched as he tossed the lute into the still burning fire. Azariah was somewhat stunned seeing Riker watch his lute burn in the kindling. The instrument caved into itself as the beautiful wood was being consumed by the hungry flames. Riker’s face was somber as he buttoned his coat and walked away to join the others.
“What about your magic?” Kruzco asked him as Riker approached the horse.
“The magic is in the strings, not the instrument,” Riker told him. “I took the strings apart from it.” Kruzco said nothing more. He followed the women down the road leaving the dying fire behind, and the lute with it.