Castle Roland

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W


Chapter 4

Posted: 31 Mar 16

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories

Dwarfish Hospitality

Qaim awoke long before Kieren the following morning, but he continued to lie quietly on the rug and waited for his young master to awaken. Before long, the teenager began to stir and slowly rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Then, Kieren began to stretch every muscle in his body, in an unconscious attempt to get the blood circulating again. Kieren hadn't quite finished his morning ritual when there was a knock on the door. Responding to it, he slid out of bed so he could see who was there. Qaim stood up too and moved over beside Kieren, as the teen opened the door.

Kieren soon discovered there was a servant on the other side of the portal. The dwarf had been sent to assist him. Kieren instantly eyed the individual and decided he looked to be quite young for such a position, at least much younger than Kieren would have expected. Kieren didn't have long to ponder this point though, because the young dwarf advised him that another attendant was waiting to help Qaim. That dwarf, however, was in the room the aignx had been assigned. The problem was, Qaim wasn't eager to go there. After a little coaxing from Kieren, along with the promise of food if he did what he was asked, Qaim reluctantly returned to his own chamber.

Once he was alone with the young valet, Kieren quickly looked him over. Kieren thought he appeared to be about twelve, possibly thirteen-years old, but he couldn't tell for certain. At the same time, the young dwarf stood eyeing Kieren too, before he eventually spoke,

"I was told to advise you that you are requested to dine with King Brolin in an hour. Would you like me to prepare a bath for you first?"

"Yes, please. That would be very nice and I would greatly appreciate it," Kieren responded, so the lad turned around and left the room.

A little while later, the young dwarf came back lugging buckets of water to fill Kieren's tub. As he observed the young dwarf going back and forth carrying the freshly filled buckets to the room and then taking the empty ones out again, Kieren started thinking the boy appeared to be far too young to be doing such hard physical labor. Kieren couldn't understand why such a young dwarf would have to perform a job such as this and felt the lad should be out playing somewhere instead. In fact, Kieren felt that if he had known the boy would be doing such arduous labor when he first asked if he wanted a bath, Kieren might have refused. He thought the boy was going to have others fill the tub, or else Kieren would have chosen to bypass this luxury, just so the boy wouldn't have to struggle carrying out such a demanding task.

Regardless of what Kieren thought about his abilities or age, the young dwarf pressed on with his duties. He continually moved in and out of the room as he fetched the many buckets of water, both hot and cold, that were needed to fill the tub. Even though just watching how hard this boy labored troubled him, Kieren was still guiltily looking forward to enjoying this small treat. It was due, at least in part, to the fact that he realized it might be quite some time before he would be able to enjoy this simple pleasure again.

Kieren began to undress when the young dwarf was bringing in the final buckets of hot water to warm the bath to the correct temperature. As the boy emptied the last container into the tub, Kieren stepped in and gradually lowered himself downward, into its relaxing embrace. The young dwarf stood by the head of the tub and waited to see what Kieren wanted him to do next, but Kieren never said a word. After standing patiently like this for a few minutes, the boy finally spoke up.

"Would you like me to do anything else for you, sir?"

Kieren was somewhat surprised and uncomfortable with the boy calling him 'sir'.

"My name is Kieren," he told the young dwarf. "I'd prefer it if you would please use my name and stop calling me sir. When you do that, it makes me feel like an old person."

The youngster looked totally shocked that Kieren had even suggested this. It totally went against his training.

"I can't, sir. That wouldn't be right!" the dwarf answered.

While speaking to Kieren, the young dwarf was also careful to keep his eyes averted from Kieren's intense gaze. Seeing this, Kieren sensed the dwarf had been instructed to avoid eye contact with those he was serving. The young dwarf had apparently been trained that it would be impolite to look those higher in the social order directly in the eye. Although Kieren didn't feel this was the case between them, he concluded the lad was thinking that such liberties should only be taken with one's peers. With that in mind, Kieren decided to address the problem before it grew worse.

"What's your name?" Kieren asked next.

This caused the boy to immediately look up. When he did, Kieren could see the startled expression showing on his face. After a brief hesitation, he thought about the request and finally responded.

"My name is Hoby, sir," he answered, "although most visitors just call me boy."

"Hoby, let's just pretend we're friends. Would that be all right with you?" Kieren suggested.

"But that is not allowed, sir. I have to remember my place. I've been told that many times," he stated, rather sheepishly.

The young dwarf was trembling slightly and looked terrified, as if he was expecting a reprisal of some sort for even having this conversation. Noticing this, it bothered Kieren that the lad was reacting in this manner, so he felt he should take the opportunity to reassure him.

"Well, you can do that when you take care of others who visit here, but I would prefer it if we could just be friends," Kieren replied. "I also promise I won't tell anyone, so you won't get into any trouble."

Hoby thought briefly about what Kieren had just said and then released a weak smile. This let Kieren know he was about to give in.

"You are much nicer than most of the visitors I have to help sir, I mean Kieren," Hoby answered, while flashing a slight grin.

Hoby's smile was becoming more natural and more pronounced as each second passed. Kieren appreciated this change in his demeanor and took it as a compliment. He also noted the sincerity with which Hoby's simple comment and gesture had been offered.

"Thank you. I'm very glad you feel this way," Kieren responded, appreciatively.

"Would you like for me to wash your back now, si… Kieren?" Hoby followed.

"Is it part of your job?" Kieren asked his new friend. "Are you expected to wash my back?"

"Yes, Kieren. It is part of my job. Would you like me to do that for you now?" Hoby wondered.

"No one offered to do anything like that for me last night when we first arrived here," Kieren stated, mildly bewildered by this minor difference.

"I believe it was because the boys assigned to you then where chosen at the last minute," Hoby explained. "You had arrived much later than anyone expected, so those they were able to get to serve you on such short notice had not yet been instructed on how to carry out all of the duties of their position. I am fully trained though and would be more than happy to do this for you."

Kieren was still a little uncomfortable about allowing Hoby to perform this minor task, but it wasn't because he had a problem with the young dwarf helping him. What troubled Kieren was that he felt it would be demeaning for the boy to have to do this, even though it seemed to be something Hoby was eager to do.

"Ahhh, well I think I'll, uh, be able to manage on my own," Kieren replied, while trying to think of a way to change the topic, so the dwarf's feelings wouldn't be hurt.

"How old are you, Hoby?" Kieren asked, immediately afterward.

"I am in my eleventh summer, Kieren," the dwarf announced.

Hoby's answer bothered Kieren even more. He had assumed the boy looked older than this, so it merely added to the sympathy Kieren was feeling for him. It also increased Kieren's sense of remorse that the young dwarf was forced to endure such a hard life.

"Hoby, how long have you been doing this?" Kieren asked next.

"For over a year now, Kieren," the youngster told him, which caused a new wave of compassion to sweep over Kieren.

"Why do you have to work?" Kieren pressed. "You should be out playing and having fun, not taking care of the desires of others."

"My family needs the extra money, so I had to find a job," the young dwarf explained. "I have to help pay for some of the things my brothers, sisters and I require."

Kieren wondered what types of things he meant, but decided not to pry further into Hoby's personal business. Kieren certainly didn't want to possibly embarrass the lad by asking more about the reasons he had to work. Instead, he changed the subject.

"How many brothers and sisters do you have, Hoby?" Kieren wondered.

"I have five older and seven younger than myself," Hoby replied.

This response amazed Kieren even more. Since he was an only child and none of the elfin families he knew had more than five or six children in total, he couldn't imagine anyone having such a large family. Yet, here was a dwarf who claimed his parents had more than a dozen offspring.

"Wow! That's quite a lot of siblings," Kieren observed.

"Yes, it is," Hoby agreed. "People say my mother is lucky to be so fertile. Two of my mother's friends have not been able to have any babies, so they come over and help her take care of the younger ones. They say it helps them cope with being unable to bear their own children."

Kieren immediately thought it was nice that Hoby's mother had friends who would help her take care of her large brood.

"Do your other brothers and sisters have to work too?" Kieren asked, hoping the lad wouldn't take offense.

"Yes, si… Kieren, they do," Hoby confirmed, after he'd almost slipped and called Kieren sir again. "I have three older brothers and two older sisters who work as well, and my next younger brother will be starting his job soon."

"So, all of your brothers and sisters have to work?" Kieren attempted to clarify.

"Just those of us that are old enough, Kieren," Hoby explained. "We've all taken jobs because it would be best if we did. Otherwise, our mother and father would have to struggle and work very hard to make enough money so we'd all have food, clothes and other things we need. Since my mother is with child so often, she isn't able to work the harder jobs that pay more."

"Well, Hoby, maybe it won't always be this way," the teen offered, hopefully.

"How will it change, Kieren? There are just too many of us for my parents to provide for."

Hoby looked down at the floor after saying this, almost as if he was embarrassed about being part of such a large brood.

"Well, maybe your father will come into some money," Kieren suggested.

"I'm afraid there is no way something like that could happen for us," the dwarf responded, sounding dejected.

"Maybe a benefactor will come to your rescue," Kieren hinted, in an attempt to give the boy some hope. "He might provide enough money so you and your siblings will not have to work any longer."

"I doubt that, sir, but it would be a nice dream," Hoby agreed.

Hoby seemed to be momentarily lost in his thoughts as he considered this possibility, but then his expression suddenly changed again. In the interim, he had concluded that it was silly to even think about something like that happening, because there was no one who would want to help them in such a way.

About this time, Kieren finished bathing, because the water was beginning to cool down. Cautiously, he rose up and stepped out of the tub. When he did this, Hoby took a towel and started to dry him off. Kieren started to pull away, but Hoby flashed him a very hurt look. Seeing this, Kieren opted to let the lad continue. It seemed performing this task didn't bother the young dwarf, but he was obviously troubled when he thought Kieren wasn't going to let him continue.

"I have laid out your garments on the bed for you," Hoby advised him, while continuing his job and changing the subject. "I was told it is what you should wear today," he added, while pointing at the pile of garments.

"Thank you for your help," Kieren told him, while looking over what he was to wear.

To Kieren's surprise, it was the sturdy traveling clothes he had worn previously that were lying on the bed, rather than the light, silky attire of the previous evening. They had been cleaned and any rips mended before they had been returned to him.

"You're welcome, Kieren," the young dwarf responded.

Hoby's comment broke Kieren's train of thought about the clothing, so he quickly refocused on the young dwarf.

"And don't worry," Kieren offered. "I won't tell anyone about our little secret."

Hearing this caused Hoby to grin.

"You are very nice and I'm glad I met you," Hoby stated, as he started to leave the room. However, before he made it out the door, he turned to face Kieren again.

"I almost forgot to tell you something," Hoby apologized. "I was advised to inform you that you are to wait here and one of the king's staff will arrive for you shortly. Fare-thee-well, Kieren, and have a safe journey."

Hoby smiled, waved shyly and then started out the door again.

"May the gods watch over you too, Hoby, my new friend," Kieren bid him in return.

Hearing this, Hoby turned back and smiled once more, before he disappeared from sight.

Kieren smiled and quickly got dressed as soon as the door closed.

Within a short time there was another knock on his door and Kieren opened it to find a well-dressed, middle-aged dwarf. This person asked the young man to follow him, which Kieren did without question. Kieren was right on the dwarf's heels as they started out the door, but he gave a little ground when they stopped to collect Qaim. The aignx was happy to see his protector again and quickly moved to stand beside Kieren.

"Young master come back for Qaim," he announced, looking pleased. "Qaim get munchies now?"

"Yes, Qaim," Kieren answered, "I told you I would come for you and we are going to eat."

This caused the aignx to rub his head against Kieren's arm, the way a kitten might do to show its affection.

"Come on, Qaim, we have to get going," Kieren advised him, as he and the guide started down the hallway again.

Next, they stopped outside the doorway of the rooms the two younger elves had used. Even though they had spent the evening in the same room, they returned to their own bedchamber this morning in order to get ready. The dwarf knocked on each of the doors and told them why he was there, so they came out into the hallway to join the others and follow him. Kieren was happy to see his friends again, but they didn't seem very thrilled that he was there. Once they saw him, they both shot icy-cold stares in his direction, before turning away and whispering to each other.

Kieren had never felt uncomfortable being around this pair before, but the circumstances had suddenly changed. The way Garreth and Romaric looked at him now, as well as their body language, oozed their sudden contempt and dislike. They also continued to talk to each other in hushed tones and Kieren could only guess about what they were saying. He was fairly certain that whatever they were discussing wasn't good and didn't paint him in a favorable light.

Kieren was not alone in eliciting this reaction either, because the elves glanced at Qaim occasionally as well. They seemed to be dragging him into this baseless feud as well. Kieren didn't understand why his friends were doing this, so for a brief time he even considered he might be reading too much into their reactions. That ended, however, when they turned away from him and gave him the cold shoulder, without ever saying a word. Kieren thought maybe if he spoke to them, then possibly they would begin to get over this problem, so he tried to think of something innocuous to begin a conversation with.

"Did you sleep well?" Kieren asked his two friends.

Although he had heard Kieren's comment, Romaric stayed quiet and remained facing away from him, but Garreth offered a brief response.

"We slept fine," Garreth stated, with a tinge of sarcasm in his voice, "although I'm not sure why you care."

Kieren merely stared at his friends for a moment, before he continued.

"What is wrong with you?" he wanted to know, confused by their attitude.

"Oh, nothing," Garreth answered, although not convincingly. "We're doing fine."

Kieren continued to study the pair until it finally dawned on him why they were reacting this way.

"Aren't you being a bit childish about this?" Kieren stated, as he confronted the elves. "I just needed to be alone last night. It was just for the one night and wasn't a big deal."

Even though he hadn't meant it to sound as if their concerns were unimportant, it was obvious his response was taken that way. It riled the elves even more.

"Maybe it wasn't a big deal to you, because we don't mean as much to you any longer," Romaric spat back, only to be interrupted by someone else.

"Young sirs," the dwarf stated, in an effort to get their attention, "we need to get going now. If you will, please follow me."

The problem was, the teens paid no attention to the guide or even acknowledged having heard him. They merely continued on with their own conversation.

"Oh, that's right. You just needed to be alone," Romaric added, caustically. "Except you let Qaim stay with you."

The tone of his friend's voice caused Kieren to recoil, so he automatically responded to this perceived affront.

"It was just that I had promised Qaim he wouldn't have to be alone, since he doesn't trust all of the dwarfs yet," he replied, in an equally harsh tone. "Maybe you two should just grow up and not be so sensitive."

Even though he was merely trying to point out how childish they were acting, he hadn't intended to offend them, although it was exactly what he had just done. Now, the two elves were so livid that they could barely speak. During this momentary pause, Garreth and Romaric focused on how they wanted to respond to Kieren's comment, while continuing to glare at him.

"Maybe YOU'RE the one who needs to grow up. Maybe you just don't understand how we feel, because you're not a real elf," Garreth eventually countered. He also drew a nod of agreement from Romaric when he did so.

Kieren was deeply stung by his comment, but fought to hold back the tears he felt welling up in his eyes. Their attitude reminded him about all of the teasing he had endured from the other children, before these two had come into his life. That is probably why it hurt him even more to know they were turning on him like this too. His heart was beating faster, and possibly even louder, yet the world around him seemed to be frozen in time. Nothing seemed to be moving. He was hurt and wanted to hurt them back. He had never demanded they spend all of their time with him and didn't feel he'd done anything wrong.

"Gentlemen, the others are waiting for us, since they already left following another of my countrymen," their guide stated. He had taken the temporary silence as his opportunity to try to urge the boys to follow him. "The king and the others are waiting for you, so we must be on our way."

Once again, no one paid any attention to the dwarf, who was becoming very frustrated with the teens lack of cooperation.

"Look, I didn't mean to offend you last night, but there will be times when we each need to be alone," Kieren stated, hoping this would calm them down.

"And maybe we should have left you alone in Briarwood too," Romaric challenged, defiantly. "I guess you didn't need us then either."

"Look, I appreciate what you did for me back there," Kieren offered, "but you don't need to watch over me and we don't always have to stay together. We can still be close, but you don't need to follow me around and be by my side every minute."

Once again, Kieren hadn't meant this as a criticism or complaint, but it was obviously how it was taken. The effect was immediate and devastating, as judged by the looks he saw on Garreth and Romaric's faces. He instantly knew the elves had been offended by what he'd just said, but he couldn't take it back. They each needed their own space once in a while, so he wasn't about to apologize for pointing it out. Kieren wanted things to get back to normal, but only after they had apologized for treating him so unfairly and for so rudely commenting that he wasn't even a full-blooded elf.

Garreth and Romaric merely stared at Kieren for a few moments, as they fought to deal with his callousness about their feelings. They continued to glare in his direction, until Garreth decided to turn his back on Kieren again. He was so mad that he didn't even want to look at his former friend any longer. However, Romaric wasn't about to give up and surrender so easily.

"Yes, it's quite obvious that you think we no longer need to be together so much. I guess our blood oath didn't mean as much to you as it did to us," the elf challenged, venomously, as he choked out his words.

This comment also hurt Kieren deeply, but he wasn't about to let his friends see how badly it had wounded him. Fortunately, their dwarf guide spoke again and this time his comment temporarily broke their focus on one another.

"Excuse me, young sirs," the dwarf began, although more forcefully this time. "We must get moving. I'm sure the others have already arrived at the hall and are waiting for you to join them."

Kieren decided to bite his tongue for now, at least where Garreth and Romaric were concerned, but he knew this disagreement was far from over.

"Fine," he barked at the dwarf instead. "Then let's get going."

He and the others then followed the dwarf down the corridor, but Kieren waited and let the others go first and took up the final position in this procession. Each of them had to scurry, in order to catch up to their rapidly moving guide, so they were nearly jogging at this point, as they made their way down a series of corridors. They kept this up until they reached a small, yet formal dining hall and went inside. As they entered, Kieren quickly discovered the warriors were already there, along with the dwarf king, queen and the wizard. The boys bowed toward Their Majesties and Beraut, before joining the others at the long table they were seated at. There were four seats left open for them, so they rapidly moved toward them and sat down.

Garreth and Romaric took the two seats on the far side of the table, leaving Kieren and Qaim the two open seats on the near side. They continued to avoid looking at their friend and merely talked to each other in between bites. This was fine with Kieren, so he decided to ignore them as well, at least for the time being. The three of them were focused entirely on the meal instead, as an unbearable tension suddenly hung over the table. Their feud continued to distract them and made it somewhat difficult for any of the boys to enjoy his food. They were only about halfway through their breakfast when Beraut rose to his feet to speak.

"I know you are probably all curious about what is going to happen next," the wizard began. "Therefore, I will give you a little information concerning this while you are eating and before we depart this hall. It is imperative we leave Thorold as quickly as we can, if there is any hope of you reaching Treblanc before our forces engage the enemy in battle. However, I think it is important that you are first made aware of some of the obstacles you will be facing along the way."

There was a collective groan from the teens after the wizard said this, because they thought about how much they had already gone through. Then, they began to contemplate about how much more they might have to endure on the next leg of their mission. As they glanced at each other after releasing this audible reaction, they immediately began to refocus on their growing rift instead. This distracted them from everything else that was going on, including what the wizard was saying. They were only partially hearing Beraut's comments, as Garreth and Romaric glared at Kieren. At the same time, Kieren was keeping track of what they were up to and coyly watching them out of the corner of his eye.

"Thorold has long been the home of the dwarves and its ruling family, but it has not always been the only community of the dwarven people," Beraut stated. "There was once a fairly large agricultural settlement called Thorley, which was located in a bountiful meadowland called Peaceful Vale. The dwarfs that lived there, as well as in the farming areas that surrounded it, produced harvests that met not only the needs of their own people, but it also supplied enough for other purposes as well. The dwarfs would use some of the excess to barter for goods made by the men and elves."

The wizard was scanning the faces before him, so he could judge how they were reacting to this information. When he looked at the three youths, he was shocked to see they weren't giving him their full attention and listening to everything he was saying. After he scowled at their behavior, he admonished them for their current actions.

"Kieren, Garreth and Romaric," he bellowed, which caused the trio to respond in unison to the mention of their names. They were also reacting to the volume in which they had been uttered. "I think you three would be well advised to pay attention to what I have to say, rather than sitting there daydreaming."

The boys were upset by this public rebuke, but it proved to be quite effective. Reluctantly, they turned their attention to the wizard and temporarily forgot about each other.

"As I was saying, this was a time of great prosperity for the dwarfs," Beraut continued. "It was also when Madumda first gained his immense powers and was establishing himself at Treblanc. While the Dark Lord was becoming comfortable in his new position, the dwarfs of Thorley were preparing for their Festival of Thanksgiving. This event was held every year after the fields had been gleaned, on the night of the Harvest Moon. On this festive occasion, the village was, as always at this time of the year, filled to overflowing with visitors from all over Tarolia and beyond. Men, elves, dwarfs and even gnomes came to enjoy this festival. It was considered one of the best celebrations of the year."

"I remember hearing tales about this event from my elders and some others. The people that attended spoke very highly of the festivities," Doenilio interjected.

He failed to realize that Beraut wanted to finish giving this information as quickly as he could and not be interrupted. Once Beraut casually cleared his throat though, Doenilio quickly acknowledged his faux pas and sat quietly, so Beraut could continue.

"This particular year was to be no exception," the wizard went on. "During the three days prior to when the festival was scheduled to begin, strangers began pouring into Thorley. They immediately sought lodgings and started partaking in a little pre-festival merrymaking. However, they were just getting warmed up for what was yet to come.

"When the first night of the celebration arrived, the activities officially got under way. There were booths and bazaars set up on both sides of the main thoroughfare, as well as along many of the side streets. They featured games, activities and every kind of entertainment imaginable. There were also stalls that sold all varieties of food, drink and crafts, as well as those where the merchants could barter for the other's goods. It was on this night, one of the most joyous days of the year, when Madumda struck a devastating and horrific blow.

"From his stronghold, Madumda conjured up a spell that summoned the Specter of Death. Then, he ordered that deadly and remorseless apparition to perform a task of such enormity that it would forever live in the annals of Tarolian history. That evening, the Dark Lord sent this grim reaper from Treblanc and into Peaceful Vale. Once there, it slid over the land, at the height of the merriment, and slaughtered everyone and everything in its path. By the following morning, every living plant and animal that had been in that lush, emerald valley was dead. From the plentiful vegetation and animals, which included the insects and every other creature up to and including the large hordes of people, all of it had been destroyed."

"I recall hearing stories about that," Rhys admitted. "It affected my people as well."

"I'm sure it did," the wizard acknowledged, before proceeding again. "Bodies were strewn over the entire area and lay exactly where they had fallen. However, their souls were now bound to the land and condemned to haunt the area until justice could be exacted against Madumda and their deaths avenged. This, and only this, will allow their spirits to be released from their current torment and sent to their eternal rest."

Beraut paused momentarily and scanned the faces of his audience, to see if they were beginning to understand and anticipate what was coming next. When the wizard focused on Kieren, he could see the tension that had built up in the youth's slender body. The lad's muscles had tensed in response to what he had heard and Kieren's face was now quite red. This was due to the excessive amount of blood his racing heart was pumping throughout his body. This was a direct result of the information he'd just heard and little beads of perspiration were collecting on his forehead. He was also visibly grinding his teeth together, as an unconscious expression of his fury. Fortunately, this was directed at Madumda because of what he'd done and not at his two friends.

Beraut was concerned his ward was taking this information too personally, but he also understood how strongly Kieren could identify with certain situations. During the time he had known the lad, he had seen this for himself. For that reason, the wizard merely assumed this was another of those times and opted not to embarrass the youngster by saying anything to him about it in front of the others. Instead, Beraut chose to ignore how the teen was responding for now, unless his actions grew worse. The wizard might have reacted differently though, if he had also known about what was going on between Kieren and his mates.

At this point, the silence in the hall was deafening and the tension so thick it could be cut with a knife. Everyone was deeply troubled by this tale, but Beraut knew he must continue telling it.

"It has been many, many years since this foul deed took place and throughout that time those restless souls have continued to drift across Peaceful Vale, while emitting their cries of anguish. Those restless spirits wail in despair, as they seek revenge for what was done to them. This place has now been appropriately renamed the Valley of the Dead. Anyone who tries to cross this accursed place is soon driven insane by the wails of those souls begging for justice.

"You may wonder why I am telling you this tale of horror," the wizard continued, "and rightfully so. I am trying to prepare you for something no man has the right to request of another. I am asking you to travel with me through this haunted place, as we make our way to your final destination."

Without exception, expressions of concern, disbelief and even fright were now registering on the faces of the companions. They were shocked by this pronouncement and unable to accept the magnitude of what the wizard had just told them. How could Beraut possibly ask them to journey through this haunted realm, especially after he had just told them that doing so would drive them insane?

"I feel we must pass through this area and I will explain why," Beraut offered, before anyone could object. It was his attempt to answer their unspoken questions and convince them this was necessary.

"The reason I chose this route is because it is the last one the Dark Lord would expect us to take and, therefore, the one that will be least watched. It is therefore the path that will most likely help us gain admittance into Treblanc without being detected."

As the wizard scanned the faces of those before him, he quickly noted the expressions of uncertainty he saw staring back at him. For this reason, he decided he must assuage their fears.

"Of course, I will help to protect you from the effects of the maddening wails as we do this, for I would not allow any of you to be harmed needlessly. Our goal is far too important to risk through foolishness."

The companions began to glance furtively from one face to another, while trying to gage each other's reaction. Beraut had paused briefly, to give this information time to sink in, but before he thought they'd had sufficient time to do so, Kieren broke the silence.

"So we HAVE to do this?" he choked out, voicing everyone's concern.

"I believe it is our best option," his mentor responded in a soothing voice. "It is, therefore, something I feel we must do."

"But what about Qaim?" Kieren asked next. "Are we taking him with us? If not, what's going to happen to him now?"

"Actually, I think he may be the answer to the dilemma I spoke to you about earlier, shortly after you first arrived," the wizard advised him. "If Qaim is willing to go with you, then I think it would be to your advantage. I believe his skills might come in handy and would serve you well."

Although Kieren wasn't certain what the wizard was referring to, he was relieved to know that Qaim wasn't going to be left to fend for himself. Now, Beraut studied the aignx for a few seconds before continuing.

"What say you, Qaim? Do you wish to join the others on this task?"

Qaim didn't even have to stop to think about this. He didn't want to go back to living alone in Briarwood with the beasties and the teen had been nice to him, so why wouldn't he want to go with Kieren? He didn't even take time to consider this endeavor might be dangerous.

"Yes, Qaim wish to go with young master," the aignx replied.

Hearing the aignx's response brought a smile to the aged wizard's face. Having received this confirmation, he continued.

"Then it is agreed. It is now time for us to begin our journey, so if you will all follow me, we shall depart from the dwarfs' realm and their generous hospitality. You will be able to pick up your other belongings along the way."

Everyone rose from his seat and bid the dwarf king and queen an appropriate farewell at the door, before leaving the hall. However, they were still uncertain about what they were expected to do next.

As the others began to move toward the doorway leading out of the dining hall, Romaric held back and remained in his seat at the table. Garreth didn't notice this at first and got up to leave, but once he was near the doorway, he turned around and saw that Romaric hadn't followed him. When he realized this, he went back to see why his friend had stayed behind.

"What are you doing?" Garreth asked.

"I've decided I don't want to go the rest of the way," Romaric told him, quite bluntly. "Kieren doesn't seem to need us any longer, and since he has pointed out that we don't need to constantly be together, I've decided to remain here."

Garreth hadn't considered this before, so he looked at Romaric, to see if he could sense if his friend was being sincere. As their eyes met, Garreth could tell Romaric was deadly serious. It then only took him a few seconds more to decide what he was going to do. Quietly, he took a seat next to Romaric.

"Well, if you're not going, then neither am I," he stated, as a way to console his mate.

When Beraut noticed the two younger elves weren't with them, he went back into the chamber to find out what was wrong. The wizard was somewhat surprised and miffed when he discovered the pair were still seated at the table, so he walked over and confronted them.

"We have to get going now, so you two had better hurry up," he advised them.

"Would you mind if we just decided to stay here?" Romaric asked in response, which profoundly baffled the wizard.

"You mean you don't plan to continue on with Kieren?" he wondered, since he wasn't able to comprehend why they were doing this.

"No!" Romaric answered resolutely, while Garreth merely sat next to him looking utterly dejected. "We'll just stay here, if it's not a problem."

Beraut knew there was more going on here than what met the eye and suspected it had something to do with what he noticed the previous evening, when he checked in on Kieren. The thing was, he didn't know if he had time to unravel the problem before they had to leave.

"Are you sure this is what you want to do?" the wizard asked once again, but this time Garreth and Romaric merely looked up and nodded in reply.

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