Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity
by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
A Brief Reunion
Kieren and the others followed their dwarf guide and traveled down a series of well-lit passages until they stood before another magnificent stairway. This one led even farther into the depths of the mountain, so when Qaim saw it he quickly sidled closer to Kieren. If it weren't for the knowledge that they were going down this stairway to get something to eat, the creature might have refused to continue on.
This new structure was a truly grandiose sight and even more spectacular than the staircase they had traversed when first entering the dwarf kingdom. The railings and steps were constructed from black marble, which had thin veins of gold running through it, and the effect was truly spectacular. The staircase also reflected the glow of the scores of candles that hung in the candelabras on the walls and also filled the huge chandeliers that towered over this magnificent construction. These light sources not only filled the area with a delicate amber glow, but they were also another artistic wonder for both visitors and inhabitants to admire.
The walls running along either side of this marvelous stairway stood only a short distance from each of the intricately carved handrails. This made the elves feel as if they could reach out and touch them, if they were inclined to do so. The walls were covered with beautifully carved stone murals, which had been delicately etched into the rocky surfaces and depicted some of the most important events in the history of the dwarven people.
Kieren, however, was still too preoccupied by the news Beraut had recently shared with him to fully appreciate any of these items. In fact, he had unconsciously come to a complete stop about halfway down the stairway and would have remained there, except for the fact that Romaric gave him a gentle nudge and got him moving again. Slowly, Kieren started to follow the others as they trailed behind their guide and eventually he began to let go of some of the frustration that had been building up inside of him. In its place, Kieren finally started to focus on the other sights around him. As he descended the last few steps of the staircase, he finally started to become aware of the simple elegance of this artistic masterpiece.
Once the group reached the bottom of the lengthy stairway, they followed their guide straight ahead and down the corridor that extended forward from its base. As they continued on toward their final destination, they moved along this hallway and bypassed several intersecting passageways, until they stood before a large set of double-doors. The doors were located on the left side of the hallway and the companions soon discovered they opened into an elaborate hall, which now stood invitingly before them.
Looking into the interior of the room, Kieren quickly judged that this place served a similar function as the Great Hall at Leander. He concluded it was here that the dwarf king entertained each of the visiting dignitaries and other high-ranking officials. Yes, he was certain this was the room in which all of the large, stately gatherings took place, so he attempted to study the area more closely.
To that end, Kieren paused to absorb the sheer elegance of this new chamber and carefully examined the beautiful adornments that filled it. He visually inspected every square centimeter of this wondrous chamber, from the delicately crafted golden fixtures to the fine murals that had been carved into the walls. He even gave the fine hardwood tables a cursory examination too, as well as the wooden chairs with well-cushioned seats.
Kieren was also intensely fascinated by the sparkling crystal chandeliers that hung suspended from the ceiling at regular intervals. Each one contained a seemingly infinite number of candles, which in turn illuminated this spacious area. The oblong crystalline baubles that dangled from the various levels of each chandelier appeared to serve a dual purpose. Not only did they add to the splendor of each device, but the crystals also seemed to magnify the intensity of the candles' glow, which increased the chandelier's ability to brighten the hall.
The young man was thoroughly examining each of these new wonders until his thoughts were abruptly interrupted. This happened when Garreth, who had also been consumed with the sights in the hall as well, made a small blunder. He hadn't noticed when Kieren stopped and ended up crashing into him. This, in turn, caused Kieren to bang his knee against the corner of one of the chairs, which sent a sharp pain radiating down his leg.
"Hey, watch where you're going and try to be a little more careful," Kieren snapped at his friend.
Although it seemed as if he was irritated with Garreth for this accident, Kieren was also inadvertently taking out some of his frustration with Beraut. He was allowing his unhappiness over the wizard's inability to accompany him the entire time to spill over into this situation, which was now impacting his friend.
"Sorry," the elf apologized, embarrassed by the mishap. He was also surprised by the intensity of Kieren's reaction to this minor incident.
"Well pay more attention to what you're doing," Kieren retorted, in a huff.
Kieren's response shocked his boyhood chum. Garreth had never known Kieren to get this upset or snap at anyone over something so trivial. The elf just couldn't understand why Kieren was being so gruff about what had happened, even after he had said he was sorry.
Once Kieren moved on and the situation was apparently forgotten, the boys were directed to a table at the far end of the room. It had been generously set with food of all descriptions and the aroma of the different items silently beckoned each of them forward.
"Munchies," Qaim sighed dreamily, once the scent of the food reached his nostrils.
Knowing he was so close to these delights, Qaim's eyes popped open, so they were now as wide as saucers, as he strained to see what items were awaiting him. He was so hungry and in such a big hurry to get to the food that he enthusiastically grabbed Kieren's hand and dragged him forward. Since the young man wasn't expecting this to happen, the sudden jerking motion caused Kieren to stumble and nearly fall.
"Take it easy," Kieren grumbled, as he regained his balance.
Qaim, on the other hand, hardly took notice of what he'd done. He was totally focused on getting to the food and making it happen as rapidly as he could.
The others eagerly followed their lead and moved toward the dining area. Before they got there, however, Qaim suddenly released Kieren's hand, raced the final few paces and then leaped on top of the table. He immediately began grabbing food and shoving it into his mouth.
"What are you doing?" Romaric screamed. This caused Qaim to turn and look at the elf, as if he were a bit daft.
"Qaim hungry. Qaim eat munchies," he responded innocently, although speaking with a full-mouth.
Qaim was still baffled by this question and couldn't understand why the young elf was asking such an obvious and apparently stupid question.
"WE don't jump on the tables to eat," Romaric advised him. "We sit in chairs and act civilized."
The elf seemed exasperated with Qaim's actions, but Kieren quickly understood that all of this was totally new and unfamiliar to their newest friend. Since Qaim didn't understand what to do, Kieren felt it was up to him to explain things to their guide.
"Qaim, get down from there," Kieren suggested, "and I'll show you what you're supposed to do."
Hearing Kieren say this caused Garreth to look at his friend. He wondered why Kieren was being so understanding and patient with Qaim, when he had nearly ripped his head off over a little bump just a minute before. At the same time, Qaim flashed Kieren a look of confusion, since he didn't fully understand what his young master was telling him. Bewildered, he watched as Kieren patiently pulled out a chair, so he could show Qaim how to sit in it. After that, Kieren also demonstrated how to take portions of food, put it on a plate and then set it in front of where he was sitting, before starting to eat.
"That take too long. That not fill Qaim's tummy," their furry little guide countered.
After saying this, Qaim had a bewildered expression on his face, at least that's how it appeared to everyone. This was due to the fact that he thought the boys were a bit crazy to follow such a strange ritual.
"Why you no want Qaim to eat like he do in his home?" the creature asked, sincerely confused.
"Qaim," Kieren tried to explain, "while we are here, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. I just showed you the right way and that is what you need to do."
The young man then studied Qaim again, to see if his new friend understood it better now. Qaim soon answered that question in his own way.
"Qaim still think it take too long, but Qaim do what young master want," he stated obediently. He then tried very hard to duplicate everything Kieren was showing him.
While Qaim was settling down and learning how to do things properly, the others also seated themselves and then greedily attacked the delicacies set out before them. It had been quite a while since they had last eaten, so their basic requirement for nourishment took control of their actions. When they had consumed enough to satisfy their previously empty stomachs, they pushed their chairs away from the table and began to relax.
Some of the warriors even eagerly accepted the pipes that were being offered to them. They were pleased to enjoy an after dinner smoke, while they allowed their now stuffed bellies a chance to digest the meal. They hadn't been relaxing for very long, however, when the chamberlain arrived and announced he was there to guide them to the next location.
Once again, they were led down a profusion of crisscrossing passageways; although these were much more expansive and elegant than the ones they had traveled over earlier. Eventually, they came to a halt in front of a pair of gigantic golden doors, which had been intricately etched with vines, leaves and some sort of crest. The three dwarfs were already there waiting for them and Kieren couldn't help but notice how much better they appeared.
"I hope you were treated well and had plenty to eat," Doenilio told them, as he interrupted the young man's thoughts.
"Oh, yes," Rhys responded, before Kieren had a chance to. "We were given a chance to bathe, provided with clean clothes to wear and served plenty of good food to eat."
"Yes," Garreth added. "I think even Qaim is full now."
This comment made the others chuckle and their attention now turned toward their furry little friend. Qaim, however, didn't like being the center of attention and, therefore, tried to slide behind Kieren again.
"Do you feel better now?" Romaric asked Qaim, but the creature didn't respond verbally and merely nodded his head.
Most of the others stopped paying him much attention after he did this, other than to acknowledge it was one of the few times he wasn't begging for food. Instead, they were looking around to see what was going to happen next, when the golden doors swung noiselessly inward. These barriers opened up into the Royal Audience Hall, although no one except the dwarfs realized this fact at the time. The refreshed group of travelers then strolled forward, and as they passed through the prodigious archway, they suddenly found themselves standing in another marvelous chamber.
The floor of this splendid room was completely surfaced with more of the black marble slabs with streaks of gold zigzagging through them. They were so highly polished that they reflected the likeness of everything in the room. At the opposite end of the room, across from where the guests had entered, stood two very plain, gray rock seats. Upon them were seated two dwarfs, one male and the other female. Kieren recognized the dwarf king from having seen him at Leander, so he focused upon his queen. Even though it was difficult for him to apprize the beauty of dwarf women, as judged by normal standards, Kieren thought she would be considered quite beautiful among her kind.
While Kieren was thinking about the dwarf queen, he also happened to notice Beraut was there as well. Even though the wizard had been standing slightly to the right of the king and was gazing down at the group as they entered, the teen hadn't really noticed his presence at first.
'Why would Beraut be a part of this official greeting?' he wondered, but only briefly.
Kieren was amazed that the royal pair rose as the party neared and remained standing, even after the companions finally stopped and bowed before them. As Kieren chanced to glance up at them, he scanned all three faces and observed they were each sporting a very broad grin.
"Hail and welcome, my noble friends," King Brolin greeted them. "I am well-pleased to receive you into our kingdom and extend to you the hospitality of the dwarven people. I promised Beraut that I would be brief, so I will say no more. Instead, I will turn this reunion over to my ancient friend."
The wizard then glanced from face to face and took note of everyone who was present.
"Kieren has already apprised me about some aspects of your journey here and I was greatly saddened when he told me about the loss of Selvaggio. He also mentioned you had found a new guide after you were chased into Briarwood, but I did not realize until now the importance of your discovery. Kieren, would you please introduce your new companion to us?"
Kieren was shocked by this request, but knew he should do as the wizard asked. Taking a deep breath, he stepped forward to introduce their enigmatic friend.
"This is Qaim," he stated simply.
No one seemed to notice or care that he didn't follow the customary practice of making a formal announcement of this fact. He should have said, 'Your highnesses and Beraut, I am pleased to introduce Qaim to you.' However, no one corrected his error, so he continued.
"Qaim, this is King Brolin, his queen and Beraut," he added, to his companion.
Beraut paused and stroked his flowing beard as he stared at Qaim. This may not have been a big deal for Beraut, but the small creature was growing exceedingly uneasy under the wizard's astute gaze.
"I am pleased to meet you," Beraut told Qaim, "and I wish to thank you for assisting my friends in finding their way here."
Qaim seemed baffled by this comment and didn't respond, so the wizard continued.
"I shan't go into all of the details now, but your discovery has more significance than you can possibly imagine. You see, this creature is a member of a nearly extinct race called the aignx. For many years they had been under the protection of the Council of Wizards, before Madumda took control of Treblanc, so most of them ended up laboring on behalf of the Dark Lord afterward. I have not seen one of these beings in a good many years."
Kieren was afraid that Beraut thought Qaim might be a threat to them and an ally of Madumda, especially after Beraut mentioned that some of the aignx had once worked for the Dark Lord. For that reason, he felt compelled to set the wizard straight.
"If you are worried about Qaim, he is harmless," he advised his mentor. "He is not working for Madumda or a threat to any of us."
"Indeed, harmless he is," came Beraut's reply, "but we'll discuss that in more detail later."
Over the next several minutes, Beraut quizzed each member of the party about different aspects of their journey. He also asked them detailed questions about the various parties of warriors they had encountered along the way, including what information they had been able to extract from the conversations Sedain had overheard from his captors. Beraut was busily trying to figure out if the effectiveness of their mission had been compromised. After analyzing all of the information he had gleaned from them, the wizard spoke once more.
"I don't believe your contact with those patrols creates any undue alarm or would cause Madumda to suspect something is amiss. Run-ins of this nature are to be expected, so I don't suspect he'll give it any more weight than it is due. However, you did arrive here later than expected and much has happened since we parted company. There are some other things I'd like to share with you, but I think it would be best for you to get some rest for now, before the next stage of our journey gets underway.
"We shall meet again in the morning and you must be prepared to travel at that time," Beraut continued. "We shall set out as soon as I am able to fill you in about the next phase of this venture. King Brolin has advised me that one of his servants will show you back to your rooms and I'm certain you can all use a good night's rest. Pleasant dreams to each of you."
There was some bustle in the room, as the various companions began moving about and talking with each other, as well as asking the wizard questions. Beraut ignored their queries and advised them he would cover all they needed to know when they met again. Then, one of the well-dressed valets approached the group, bowed and explained he would be pleased to lead them back to their lodgings.
Everyone did as they were told, although Kieren hesitated before following their dwarf guide. He still had a great many questions he wished to ask the wizard first, but he eventually concluded this was neither the time nor the place to do so. He knew he'd be rebuked if he challenged Beraut's instructions to go to his room, so he grudgingly went along with the others. Once he stepped inside his bedchamber though, he realized he was not alone. The aignx was standing beside him.
"Didn't they give you your own room?" Kieren asked, while staring at his diminutive shadow.
"Yes, but Qaim no like being alone in home of little people," came the reply.
Kieren immediately understood Qaim's uneasiness and decided it would be best to accommodate him. After all, that was what he had promised Qaim, in order to get him to come inside the dwarf stronghold in the first place.
"All right. I guess you can spend the night in here with me then," he told his nervous companion. "I don't want to be bothered though. I have a lot on my mind and won't be very good company."
"That all right. Qaim not mind," the aignx replied. "Qaim just not want to be by himself."
Those words had barely escaped Qaim's lips before Garreth and Romaric came bursting into the room. Romaric had just turned to close the door behind him, as Garreth explained why they were there.
"We didn't want you to have to be alone tonight," Garreth blurted out, before coming to a halt. "We came over to keep you company."
Kieren merely looked at his two friends and then shook his head slightly in response. Although he probably would have liked to have their company under normal circumstances, he just had too much on his mind at the moment. He needed time alone, so he could think.
"I appreciate the offer, but not tonight," Kieren informed them. "I have a lot on my mind and I already have company that I did not ask for."
Having said this, Kieren stepped aside, so the two elves could see Qaim standing behind him. Turning back toward his two mates, Kieren made a face and rolled his eyes. He hoped this gesture would show them that he hadn't planned on this and wasn't entirely pleased about it either.
"That's fine. We'll be quiet and won't bother you," Garreth countered, hoping that would make the difference. "We don't even mind if Qaim stays here too. We can all sleep together for the night. The room and the bed are certainly big enough."
Kieren didn't really want to have to debate this further, but he felt he must.
"Please understand, I just can't do this tonight. I need some time alone to consider some things Beraut told me earlier and I don't wish to be distracted," Kieren responded. "Even if you don't talk to me, you will most likely talk to each other. As you move around the room and carry on your own conversation, it will still distract me. I'm sorry, but I really have too much on my mind to be bothered by any of that. All right?"
"Oh, so Qaim staying here with you isn't a problem, but you don't want Garreth and me to stay?" Romaric challenged. "I thought WE were supposed to be your best friends, not him."
Romaric then put his hands on his hips and took up a defiant pose, to let Kieren know he was extremely upset over this situation.
"Please don't make such a big deal out of this," Kieren pleaded. "Just give me the time I need to do this. I'm only letting Qaim stay here because that is what I had to promise him earlier, in order to get him to come through the gate with us. I would prefer to be totally alone, but I know he'll keep to himself and not bother me."
"Come on, Garreth. I guess we're just a bother to Kieren and don't count any more," Romaric stated sarcastically. "It looks as if we've been replaced as Kieren's best friends and the oath we took doesn't mean anything to him any longer."
Kieren appeared exasperated after hearing this, so he looked at his two friends and contemplated how he was going to correct the problem.
"You do count, but there is just too much going on right now. I just need some time to sort everything out," he replied, hoping this would convince them. "Qaim will stay out of my way, like he always does, because most of the time I hardly ever notice that he's around. However, I know I won't be able to ignore your presence as easily, because you'll be interacting with each other. You're still my best friends, but it would be better if you spent tonight in your own rooms."
"Oh, that won't be a problem," Romaric snapped back, bitterly. "We just came here to be with you so you wouldn't be alone. We did it because we value our friendship. We didn't do it so you could kick us out like some bothersome pet."
"Yes, we promised to protect you and always be there for you," Garreth offered, "just like we did in Briarwood. I guess this is the thanks we get for protecting you and possibly saving your life."
"Look, it's just for one night, so please don't blow this out of proportion," Kieren pleaded. "It's just that Beraut gave me some news that deeply concerns me, so I need to think about how it is going to change what we do next. You two can stay with each other tonight, so you won't be alone either, and then I'll see you again in the morning. We'll be together every night after this. I promise. All right?"
"Come on, Garreth. If he wants to be alone, then we'll leave him alone," Romaric barked out, obviously still irritated.
In fact, he was already heading for the door by the time Garreth was offering him a weak nod of agreement. They left the room, but neither seemed very happy with the way things had turned out. After they stormed out of Kieren's room and the door was closed, Romaric turned toward Garreth.
"That was pretty rude of him," the elf observed.
"Why doesn't he want us around any more?" Garreth asked, upset and concerned. "He even snapped at me earlier when I accidentally bumped into him. What is his problem?"
"I don't know, but I don't like being brushed aside like that," Romaric countered, summing up his feelings. "I guess how we feel doesn't count for anything any more. It's just about how HIS HIGHNESS feels."
Romaric spat out the last phrase, almost as if it had left a bad taste in his mouth.
"If he wanted to be alone, then why do you think Kieren let Qaim stay with him?" Garreth asked.
"I don't know. I guess we just don't count any longer," Romaric answered. "If that's what he wants though, it's fine with me!"
Garreth could tell this bothered his friend even more than it did him. Even though both elves were upset by this turn of events, they needn't have been, because it wasn't exactly what Kieren wanted either. Back in his room, Kieren was feeling he'd been backed into a corner by having to share his room with the aignx for the night, so he felt he had to set Qaim straight about a few things as well.
"I really didn't want company tonight, but I realize you're not comfortable being in the dwarf homeland and don't wish to be alone. I suppose you can sleep in the bed with me," he informed Qaim, "as long as you stay on your own side."
"No, that too soft," Qaim explained. "Qaim sleep here," he stated, while pointing toward an animal skin rug on the floor.
"Suit yourself," Kieren countered, before getting undressed and hopping under the covers.
The teen did not immediately go to sleep though, because there was still too much on his mind. After many minutes of wrestling with his problems, Kieren's body gave in to the weariness it was feeling and he eventually dosed off.
A short time later, Beraut popped his head into the room to check on his ward. The wizard was quite shocked that he didn't find the two elves in with him, but he was even more puzzled when he saw Qaim curled up on the floor beside Kieren's bed. Shaking his head in disbelief and confusion, he quietly shut the door and went off to his own chamber.