Sword of Kings: Forged Out of Necessity
by Bill W
Copyright © 2014 by billwstories
Copyright © 2014 by billwstories
Setting Out On a Mission
The small band that had been selected to complete this mission began its journey with a very secretive and unceremonious departure from Leander. There was no pomp or celebration to launch this expedition, as would be fitting a person of Kieren's rank. Instead, everything was carried out to mask their true intentions and avoid arousing suspicion about their travels. In fact, the wizard had taken every precaution possible to avoid bringing undue attention to any of the members of the party as they departed.
Beraut had determined that it would be best if those who had arrived at the capital using the guise of being merchants and tradesmen left in the same manner. By doing it in this fashion, it would prevent questions from being asked concerning their whereabouts later, should anyone be keeping track of their movements. The wizard reasoned that if anyone saw them leaving the fortress, they would assume these individuals were merely moving on to another location to conduct their business.
Once preparations had been finalized, the stage was set for them to begin their journey. Although it was not a common practice for the men of the three northern cities to travel in the same group, it was not altogether unheard of either. Even though they had arrived separately, observers would not question their banding together for protection as they headed toward a common destination, especially during these troubled times. Therefore, the men, wearing the attire of common merchants, readied the supply wagons. The drivers that would take charge of these wagons had been carefully recruited and their backgrounds scrutinized before being chosen for this purpose. Now, they were busy selecting and preparing the teams of horses to pull the wagons.
The dwarfs were also busy making their arrangements to exit Leander, but they would leave alone and not in the company of the men of the north, a necessary deception. These hearty residents of the Amber Mountains planned a later departure from the castle and would initially head north, as if traveling toward the dwarf stronghold of Thorold. As soon as they deemed it prudent, they would then veer their course to the west and head toward the rendezvous point with the others. The men would be traveling due west the entire time and giving the impression they were making their way toward the coastal city of Reza. From there, most people would assume they would take a ship north to reach their homes.
The men wouldn't travel all the way to Reza though, because the two groups were planning to meet up at the southern tip of the mountain chain that formed the dwarfs' homeland. From there, the combined group would continue the journey together and make their way along the western edge of this great mountain range. They would proceed as a single group until they reached the rear entrance of the dwarven kingdom, where they expected to meet up with the wizard.
Kieren was awakened one hour before sunrise on the morning of their departure. After dressing quickly in some sturdy traveling clothes, Beraut led him to the castle's kitchen. While he was there, his two childhood friends and Alairic came in to join him. After some initial chatter, the four sat down and proceeded to consume a very large, hot breakfast. Since none of them was sure when their next meal might be offered, they greedily stuffed themselves to capacity.
From there, they were led to the rear of a large storeroom and only stopped when they reached a spot in front of an enormous pair of double doors. Normally, it was through this massive opening that supplies entered and exited the building, so no one found it unusual to see several large, open crates scattered randomly about. As the group continued to look around, Beraut informed them about their means of departure.
"I'm sorry to inform you that your accommodations for the first leg of the journey will be highly unusual and a bit cramped. The three of you and Alairic will have to leave the castle in these," the wizard announced, while pointing at the assortment of crates.
"What?" Romaric yelled out, before thinking. It was evident he wasn't happy about the news.
"You mean we're going to be sealed in those wooden boxes?" Garreth followed, as he let his displeasure show too.
"Yes, but they have been adapted slightly, to make this part of the journey easier on you," the wizard explained. It was the best Beraut could come up with to placate their concerns. "These crates have been padded in various places, such as where you will lie, to make them more comfortable for your body. It should also help to prevent you from getting bruised, since the road you will be traveling over will be quite rugged and have of a very uneven surface. In addition to that minor adjustment, numerous air holes have also been provided, so you'll have plenty of fresh air."
"Isn't that lovely! A coffin with padding and air holes!" Garreth exclaimed, which caused the wizard to note his sarcasm and then glare in his direction.
"We can't ride in those!" Romaric added, continuing the protest, despite the wizard's stern look.
"I don't hear Alairic complaining about what I'm asking him to do," Beraut noted, accusingly.
This caused the three teens to look toward the larger elf, to see if he was going to say anything. After a few seconds of awkward silence, he finally spoke.
"We do what we have to do," he informed them, without showing much emotion. "So I, for one, am ready to do whatever Beraut asks of me."
After hearing Alairic's offer to endure this willingly, Garreth and Romaric turned away from both Alairic and the wizard, red-faced from embarrassment. Even though his friends might not agree with his analysis, Kieren now realized they seemed to be acting like small children that were basically throwing a temper tantrum over what they had been asked to do. Since he wished to be treated like an adult, he slowly began to realize he needed to start acting like an adult too, so he wasn't about to complain. He was even going to announce this fact, but before he could say anything, Beraut continued.
"Look, I'm not asking you to do this without good reason," he went on to explain. "Since you boys arrived in a large party, chances are no one will miss you if you don't leave with the same group. However, those who do notice will probably think you just stayed here with friends or relatives, or possibly that you were accepted into one of the local craft guilds, as an apprentice. The problem is, if you were seen leaving with the men or with the dwarfs, it would certainly raise more than just a few eyebrows. It would be highly unusual for elves to travel with either group, let alone elves as young as yourselves. I certainly didn't want to have anyone asking questions about why such a thing would be taking place, because it would definitely rouse suspicions.
"Alairic presented a different problem though," the wizard continued, "since he arrived aboard one of the elfin merchant ships. For that reason, it is highly unlikely anyone would notice one missing crewmember, but it would be an entirely different matter if a mature elf were seen traveling with men, or worse yet with the dwarfs. That would immediately raise a red flag, even to the most casual observer. It is also why it was decided that he would have to endure the same means of transportation as the three of you. I hope you are all mature enough to accept it, as he is doing."
Reluctantly, the boys resigned themselves to the inevitable and stepped into the crates in front of them. As they tried to get as comfortable as possible, Romaric voiced his next concern.
"How long will we have to stay in these?" he wanted to know.
"Just until you reach the rendezvous point," Beraut offered, cryptically.
"But how long will that take?" Garreth asked, determined to get a more precise response.
"A few hours, at most," Beraut advised him.
"Will you at least let us lift the lids, so were not completely closed in once we get away from the castle?" Garreth quickly followed.
"I'm afraid that won't be possible," the wizard informed him. "The lids will be nailed into place before they are moved from this area. It's to prevent them from coming off accidentally while the crates are being loaded and stored in the wagons. I'm sorry, but it's for everyone's protection."
Garreth and Romaric were less than excited when they heard this news and began to protest again.
"Is that really necessary?" Romaric wanted to know. His expression was pleading with the wizard to change his mind.
"We believe it is," Beraut answered, simply.
"Can't you just nail down one side to keep the lid on?" Garreth pressed, unwilling to relent. "That way we'd be able to push it off later, so we could move about."
"But we can't allow the wagon drivers to know about you either," the wizard replied. "Those performing that task, as well as those that are closing the crates for transport, cannot discover you are inside. For that reason, it would be best if we allow them to carry out their duties as they normally would, so we don't make them curious about what we're up to."
"What if they lift the lids before nailing them shut, to check out what's inside the crates first," Kieren wondered, as he thought about the mercenaries and the spies.
"I will also be here, so I can watch over the preparations," the wizard countered. "My presence shouldn't be necessary though, because the men doing this job understand they would lose their positions if they did anything like that. Since they are paid well for their services and none of them want to risk being unable to support their families, it is highly unlikely anything like that will happen."
Seeing it was fairly obvious this was how it was going to be, the boys gave in to the inevitable. After stepping into the crate that had been assigned to them, they settled into their new homes. A couple of minutes later, after Beraut had placed the lids over them, they waited for the others to arrive.
Garreth and Romaric were still far from happy about having to be confined in this unusual manner, but realized they had no other choice. Their dissatisfaction was also causing them to experience more than a little trepidation about what might possibly happen before they were released. It was also evident that they were beginning to experience a slight claustrophobic reaction to their current predicament. No matter how bad it got, they did their best to endure the discomfort in silence.
Instead of complaining or being depressed, Kieren decided to check out the air holes in his crate, to determine where each one was located and see how big they were. He did this hoping to discover if these openings could also be used as tiny windows, so he could peer out of them and see what was going on. Once he determined this was possible, even though it gave him only a very limited view, he began to settle in. Satisfied this wasn't going to be as bad as he first suspected, Kieren started to concern himself with how many hours he was going to be imprisoned in this fashion.
Before long, each of the crated travelers began to think of other things to occupy their minds. Kieren used his time to make emergency plans for various situations he thought might occur along the way. Garreth, on the other hand, merely settled back and began to daydream about his life in Wildoness and recall the many wondrous things he had seen during his travels so far. Romaric spent his time considering the potential new sights he might witness or what other discoveries he may make along the trail ahead.
Even though the crates had been provided with numerous inconspicuous openings though which the air could pass, it didn't exactly work out as hoped. Kieren, in particular, suddenly began to feel hot, uncomfortable and barely able to breathe. He was growing very uneasy about waiting in his temporary prison, at least that's the way he began to see his confinement, but that didn't last for very long.
A few minutes later, the big doors opened so the men from the north, their drivers and a few others could enter the area. One group of men quickly set about nailing the crates shut, while the northern warriors and the drivers waited to move the crates out to the wagons. The northerners were planning to ride up front, next to the drivers during the journey, but they were the only ones in the group that would know what was contained within these crates. The wizard was there so he could scrutinize everyone's movement, to ensure secrecy was maintained and to watch for any signs that these men might be spies.
As soon as the doors to the storeroom had been opened, a gust of wind blew into the storeroom and began to filter through the various openings in the crates. Kieren's spirits were suddenly lifted when this happened and he uttered a barely audible sigh of relief. This change grew even more noticeable when his crate was lifted and carried outside, which helped to ease Kieren's discomfort even more. Before long, the container he was in was loaded onto one of the supply wagons, along with the others that contained his comrades. The boxes were handled gently and placed nonchalantly within the various wagons, thus giving the impression of loading common, but fragile goods.
Kieren's wooden box just happened to be loaded with one of the air vents next to a gap in the wagon's covering. This fortuitous happenstance allowed him to be able to witness the progress of the journey personally, once it began. Even though what he could see would be limited, it was the most he could have hoped for, as he traveled in this less than dignified manner.
Beraut had warned every member of the group, in advance, about this leg of their journey, even before Alairic and the boys had been sealed into the containers. The wizard informed them that this would be one of the most vulnerable and dangerous times during their entire mission. First, by having to split into two groups, since the men and dwarfs had to travel separately, there would be too few to adequately defend themselves if they should be attacked. Then, with Kieren and the elves being virtually helpless in their current confined state, it would only increase their vulnerability. One swift blow from Madumda or his followers could effectively destroy their plan before it even had a chance to be set into motion, but it was a risk they had to take.
A sudden jerk forward alerted Kieren to the fact the procession was now underway. It was already getting light outside, which allowed the teen to see there were many people milling about within the confines of the castle's walls. He had his face pressed against the air hole that looked through the gap in the wagon's covering and was busy absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of early morning city life. A short time later, he became aware of the fact that the wagon was approaching the main gate of the castle. The crowd grew thinner here, but there were still a few people moving in and out of the fortress. It was also when Kieren suddenly recognized the face of the mercenary that had been following him shortly after he first arrived at the castle.
Instinctively, Kieren jerked his head away from the opening, fearful that somehow he might have been seen and recognized. His heart was racing, as he wondered if he had indeed been spotted, while his mind frantically sped over everything that had happened since he first arrived at the castle. That's when it crossed his mind again that he should have told the wizard about his encounter with the mercenaries at the armorer's shop. He shouldn't have worried about how upset Beraut might have become over him withholding this tidbit from him previously. He now believed that information could be vital to their success.
In an effort to relieve himself of this guilt, Kieren thought he'd sneak another peek, so he could see what else he might find out. When he did, he discovered the mercenary and his friends were still watching others as they passed by, so they obviously hadn't noticed him. Even though this ended his fears about having been seen, it only renewed his anxiety over his failure to tell the wizard about the earlier encounter.
Kieren continued to struggle with these thoughts, as he settled back and continued to discretely observe his surroundings. Actually, he hoped that by observing as much of the travels as he could, it might occupy his mind and make him forget about the things he couldn't change.
The party was now well away from the ancient fortress and it didn't take long before they reached the banks of the Silver River. Here, in the same manner they had traversed its sister, the Shadow River, the contingent ferried toward the opposite shore. Although Kieren wasn't able to see the movements of the men who helped guide this craft from one shore to the other, he could imagine how they toiled. He visualized them struggling with the ropes they used to get their passengers safely across this mighty torrent of water, as he had seen the others do previously.
Eagerly, Kieren continued to look through the openings in his traveling quarters and was content to observe as much as he could. As he strained to see the current, he noticed how much clearer and fresher the waters of the Silver River looked, than the water in the Shadow River, which they had crossed to get to Leander. After pursuing this situation further, Kieren was convinced the waters in the Silver River were nearly as pure and refreshing as the water that flowed down the Sparkling River, in the Woods of Wildoness.
Thinking of the woodlands he had grown up in, a wave of homesickness swelled within his soul. It threatened to swamp him with longing for the people and places he had left behind. Although he had been gone for only a short time, it seemed almost beyond memory since he had last been there.
As he thought about his home, his parents and Garreth and Romaric's families, he wondered when he would see any of them again. How much would they and everything else have changed by the time he got back? He had often heard the young elves of Aurelia make comments such as, "it's like visiting an unknown city, once you come back after being gone for very long." This meant that once you'd been away for an extended period of time, everything would appear to have changed so much that it was no longer what you expected when you returned. That's why some others claimed, "Once you leave, it's best if you never return, unless you don't mind things being vastly different."
This thought saddened Kieren, but he had already accepted the importance of the errand he was embarking on. He also understood there wasn't much he could do to change the end results of his involvement in this situation. There was no doubt he had plenty of regrets about what he was giving up, but he was also aware the success of this mission would determine whether the things he loved and held dear would survive in the kingdom. If Madumda was successful in overthrowing the combined races, many of the people Kieren loved would die and the things that meant the most to him would be gone forever. It seemed as though fate was playing a cruel joke on him, because no matter how things turned out, he would lose to some extent, one way or the other.
Just as he was completing these thoughts, the rocking of the ferry ceased with a jolt, as the craft hit the far shore. Kieren was briefly befuddled about what had just happened and his first thought was that they'd had an accident or been attacked. After a few moments of worrying about it, he felt the wagons begin to roll forward again, as they moved onto the firm banks of the western shore.
From here, the wagons traveled over rough dirt roads and the simple wagons they were using shook those locked inside to the bone. However, since there was nothing that could be done about it, Kieren simply tried to make the best of a bad situation. Although the ride was far from ideal, the caravan plodded steadily toward their predetermined meeting place.
During this portion of the trip, there was very little for Kieren to see as he peered from his hiding place, so he hunkered down and let his thoughts drift to memories of his life in the elfin kingdom. Eventually, these thoughts brought on another bout of despair, so he stopped to consider what the situation might be like for him, once this mission was finally over. He even considered how his life might change and what types of things he might do, if he were king.
After hours of this tooth-jarring travel and a multitude of both pleasant and unpleasant thoughts, the wagons slowed and came to rest in the shadow of the Amber Mountains. There they would wait until the remaining members of their retinue arrived.
The dwarfs gave their companions a few hours head start before they launched out to start their journey. Being very sturdy individuals, dwarfs were able to cover great distances on foot without becoming tired. They could also move faster than the men, because they were not encumbered by the bulky wagons their counterparts used as cover. Considering these factors, the dwarfs were able to plan their rendezvous quite precisely.
These diminutive warriors had relied on the deception of being goldsmiths and gem dealers, the likes of which often traveled from Thorold and throughout much of Tarolia. This basically allowed them to move about freely and unnoticed within the castle's walls. Eventually, this guise also aided them as they departed and permitted them to pass through the enormous main gate unchallenged. They then made their way to the Silver River, just as the men had done.
Once there, they hired the same ferry the northerners had used earlier and crossed over to the far shore. They then headed north, in the direction of their homeland. After traveling several leagues in that direction, the band suddenly veered sharply to the west. They were now moving toward the southern base of the mountain range in which their ancestral home was located.
Their journey was uneventful and they encountered no other travelers along the way. The particular route they'd chosen had always been a desolate, barely-frequented trail to their mountain stronghold. This fact, along with the location of their eventual destination, became the primary reasons they decided to use it on this mission.
The normal route taken to Thorold was along the eastern bank of the Silver River, until the road reached Udele. There, the wayfarer would ferry over the River Sterling, which flowed into the Silver River. They would then continue to follow the latter river, until the traveler had passed completely by Crystal Lake. The route they had chosen was much more scenic and less cumbersome, which meant they were able to travel quite swiftly. In fact, they came upon their fellow conspirators just as the men were preparing to uncrate the shaken teens and Alairic.
After removing several crates from the wagons, the men sent the drivers on their way to their final destination. They explained to the drivers that they were being met by another group that was planning to purchase these items from them. Although this was highly unusual, the drivers accepted their explanation and set off again, toward Reza.
Once the drivers and the wagons had disappeared, the four northerners began to pry the lids off the crates. Once they released the captives from their temporary cells, each of the incarcerated travelers stood to stretch his limbs. Slowly, the four elves worked to unknot all of the kinks that had formed during their confinement. Once this had been accomplished, the party gathered for a quick meal before retiring for the evening.
It was a hasty, fireless meal of dried meats and fruits, which was filling, but not quite satisfying. Kieren and his friends weren't about to complain, however, since they were rejoicing at being free of the boxes fit only for supplies. They were also enjoying being out in the open air again. Upon consuming this unexciting fare, Kieren quickly took Garreth and Romaric aside, so they could share their versions of the day's adventure.
Kieren soon discovered his two friends had not been nearly as fortunate as he had. They had only been able to see the other cargo and the inside of the wagon through the openings in their crates. The pair even claimed they had been so bored during their dreary confinement that they had even considered trying to pry the lids off, so they could ride unencumbered inside the canvas-covered wagon. Romaric had even gone as far as to actually attempt this daring escape, only to find his coffin-like container too tightly sealed to permit his release.
As the boys rambled on and on with stories about their day, Rhys moved next to them and interrupted their conversation.
"I beg your pardon, Kieren, but I wish to speak with you," he began, while showing Kieren a great deal of respect as he addressed him. "While the rest of us were talking, we realized we knew very little about you. All we are aware of is the tiny morsel of information Beraut shared with us at the council meeting. We were wondering, well if you were willing, if you would please share a little more, um, details about yourself?"
Kieren looked up and saw the other warriors had also come over to join them. They obviously must have felt it would be safe to air these details at their present location, since the drivers had departed and they had encountered no one else along the way. Mildly embarrassed by this sudden interest in him, Kieren hesitated briefly before he spoke.
"There isn't much to tell," he began. "Besides, I'm not sure what you want to know."
"Anything. Everything," Rhys responded, enthusiastically. "I guess what I mean is that literally overnight we've gone from not knowing about your existence to realizing our lives and future may depend entirely upon your courage and good fortune."
"Aye, my Lord," interjected Turquinine, in the stiff, archaic speech of Mitiku. "I entreat thee to share tales of thy youth."
There was another short pause, as Kieren took time to search for something to say. Then, he hesitantly began to speak.
"Well I guess I've been raised in much the same way as nearly every other elf that has grown up in Wildoness. The three of us," Kieren stated, as he pointed at his friends, "along with a small group of others, have been tutored by the most exalted scholar of the wood elves. We have taken nearly every subject required for a proper education. Over the years, we have studied reading, writing, logic and reasoning, mathematics, history, astrology, botany, zoology and elfin architecture.
"After those lessons were over, we were then given instruction in basic combat skills by one of the soldiers, as is normal for all male students," he added proudly. "When our studies were done, we would often sneak away to run, swim, play games and do anything else we could dream up. That is basically all there is to know about me."
"Tell us about your parents," Quintain urged. "What are they like?"
"They are very good, yet simple people," the lad explained, while tempering his current feelings about them. "They work hard, but still try to find time to spend with me. My mother tends to the house, makes most of our clothing and is a fabulous cook. My father is a farmer and has a plot of land near the banks of the Sparkling River. He is very good at what he does and his skills help him to produce more food than that small piece of land should be able to yield."
"What had your parents told you of your ancestry before all of this came to light?" Alairic wanted to know. "Did you have any idea about your position in life?"
"Absolutely none!" Kieren exclaimed, as the feelings about his parents shielding him from this knowledge began to resurface. "Of course, I also have vague memories of my grandparents and I've been told about my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. No one, however, ever told me about the family's lineage. I was only aware that I was from a proud line that worked hard and always tried to do what they thought was right. I had no idea that I, in any way, shared royal blood."
"Then all of this must have been a fabulous surprise for you," Doenilio added. "It must be exciting to discover you have such a wondrous future before you."
"It certainly doesn't seem so wondrous right now, especially considering the prospects that lie ahead," the young man mused. "I think I would trade it all in an instant, if I could go back to the uncomplicated life I enjoyed just a few days ago. I had a good life and never had to think about doing anything as dangerous as what we have to do now."
After he said this, the others noticed a sudden change in Kieren's demeanor, as well as a change in the expression on his face. They were conscious of the fact that he seemed to be either lost in his thoughts about another time or was possibly considering what he might be required to do in order to successfully complete this mission. In an attempt to be courteous, the others wandered away from the daydreaming teen and allowed him time to enjoy the solitude of his mental endeavors.
What his fellow travelers didn't realize was that Kieren was doing both of those things. At first he was reliving the good memories of his youth, but then he began to struggle with the reasons behind what his parents had done, by withholding the facts of his birthright from him. He was still upset, but he was no longer as furious as he'd been previously. Eventually, his thoughts turned to the task ahead and he once again wondered how he was possibly going to defeat Madumda.
Finally, after struggling with these considerations for many more minutes, he decided it was time to harness both his anger and the concerns he had about this possible confrontation. Turning his thoughts to more current considerations, he found a fairly flat and isolated spot with his two friends and they prepared to bed down. He then got as comfortable as he could in his makeshift bed under the stars, before his thoughts drifted to his two loyal friends. He was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of contentment knowing they were by his side, which relaxed him completely and allowed him to fall into a very peaceful slumber.