Early the next morning, Rackerby and everyone heading back to the capital with him, piled into his carriage. His footmen loaded up the baggage with ease, singing in a low tone to make their work flow more efficiently. Hilde and Oskar said their goodbyes to the family, all of whom had spilled out of the house to see them off. Belynda had packed away a goodly chunk of cheese from the manor’s pantry for Cinder, and the rat was anxious to get at it every bit as much as the rest of the carriage passengers were anxious to be on the road. Waving as energetically as they could, the denizens of the manor shouted their farewells, and the luxurious coach made its way up the road, to the guards and their makeshift shelter. There the carriage was forced to stop, and everyone inside had to be accounted for, to make sure none of them were Grundoon von Vorkel. Satisfied that the old orc wasn’t being smuggled out of the valley, the guards allowed the carriage to lumber up the slope.
The ride back to the capital was much slower than it had been getting to Vorkelvale. There was more conversation, and more frequent stops for refreshment and stretching. Oskar had read his letter from his father the night before they left, and Hilde asked him about while in the carriage. He hadn’t said much, but the next day, after having thought it over, he gave Hilde the letter to read.
It became readily obvious why Oskar hadn’t shared it before, and Hilde was surprised that he had shared it at all. There was a fair amount of personal material in the letter, similar to what Hilde had gotten in hers, but it was more disturbing to Hilde. It raised questions about her brother that she had never had prior to reading the letter and might never have had otherwise. But she knew Oskar, and the measure of the man was vastly greater than what any single letter, regardless of who it was from, could ever estimate or diminish. After reading it, she handed it back to Oskar. She didn’t say anything for a long while; neither of them did. Finally, she broke the silence between them with a simple statement.
“I love you, Oskar.” She said with a smile.
He smiled back, and said, “I love you too, Hilde.”
Belynda wasn’t privy to anything said in either letter, but she knew Hilde, and had gotten to know Oskar. With a grin on her face, the little xvart said, “Go team Black Sheep!”
The three of them laughed heartily, and even Dellila and Rackerby had to laugh as well.
Great progress was made the first day, and the group stayed overnight in Borostat. The next day, they journeyed on to Kernschloss, and when they got there, Oskar took the axe his father had given him, and requested an audience with Archduke Hothror of the city. Oskar asked Hilde to go with him, and together, with Belynda trailing along behind them, they went to return the axe to the dwarves.
Hothror was surprised by the visit, and downright puzzled when he saw that Oskar was carrying the axe, first borne by Rogold, Hothror’s brother, and gifted to Grundoon upon Rogold’s death when he helped Grundoon assault Vorkelburg over twenty years earlier. The Archduke sat on a relatively small, unassuming throne on a very slightly raised platform, and he leaned forward a little as his unexpected guests approached. Oskar carried the axe reverently, with both hands, and presented it to Hothror. Hilde stood silently next to her brother.
The dwarf wasn’t sure what to make of this display, and with a quizzical look on his face, he asked, “What is all this?”
Oskar stood proudly, holding the axe, and said in the most dignified tone he could muster, “I am Oskar von Vorkel, son of Grundoon von Vorkel, who views you and your house as family to himself. My father is old, and his days draw short. He wishes to return this axe to you, noble Archduke, so that it may remain in your family forever.”
Hothror stood from his throne and stepped off of the little platform. “This axe was your father’s, was there no one in your family to take it up in his place?”
“My father’s wishes were most explicit.” Replied Oskar. “This axe was formed in dwarven fire and tested by dwarven strength. It is only right that it be returned to you and your kin.”
Hothror took the axe from Oskar, and held it lovingly, running his gaze up and down the weapon. “What about this fair maiden here?” the dwarf asked, looking at Hilde. “Why do you not take up this weapon?”
Hilde did her best curtsy, and said in an unexpectedly quiet voice, “I already possess the finest gift that dwarves can bestow, my lord.”
Noting the ring on her finger, the Archduke asked, “That ring, I presume?”
Hilde shook her head. “No, sir. Far more valuable than that.” She replied.
“What can be more valuable that such a ring as that, or an axe as magnificent as this?” the dwarf asked, a bemused smile on his lips.
Hilde blushed a bit as she answered softly, “The love of a dwarven friend.”
Hothror returned to his throne, and sat down, the axe across his lap. “Your family has been a staunch ally of this city, and its people. We thank you for this generous gesture and wish you god speed.”
Before Oskar and Hilde had a chance to leave, though, the Archduke said, “Just one more question, please. How is your father doing?”
Hilde and Oskar exchanged glances, and Oskar said to the dwarf, “He is dying, slowly. His pain is at an end, but ours is just beginning.” Oskar bowed to the Archduke, and Hilde curtsied again, then the siblings left the Archduke to ponder this strange transaction. Belynda followed her mistress back to the inn they were staying at, a knowing smile on her wee face.