Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity
by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
The Dark Lord
Madumda had not aged as well as Beraut and his appearance made him look considerably older than the actual number of years separating him from the only other surviving member of the Council of Wizards. Even though his vast magical potential should have compensated for or even overcome the difference in their ages, it was obvious other factors had come into play. What they were, however, no one alive could say.
The physical differences and lack of personal attentiveness to grooming were unmistakable. Whereas Beraut's hair was white and flowing, giving him a very commanding aura, Madumda's locks had a very unappealing yellowish tint. His tresses were also an unkempt mass of tangles and snarls, unlike the neat and well-brushed strands of ivory hair that covered Beraut's head.
Madumda's face also seemed to be more haggard than that of his younger peer and the creases on his forehead and cheeks were not only more plentiful, but also more deeply furrowed. His appearance, however, greatly belied the threat he posed, as he sat hunched over his worktable. He was busily absorbing new information, while going over his plans one more time, in preparation for the upcoming battle.
Madumda had not only failed to take very good care of himself, but his residence had fared poorly under his tenure as well. Over the years, the citadel of Treblanc had increasingly slipped into a state of decay and disrepair, which only started after the Dark Lord claimed the residence as his own. Even though the building had not yet deteriorated so badly that its former magnificence could not be identified, it obviously lacked the caring touch it needed to remain the impressive structure it once was. The fortress was currently dank, musty and in desperate need of a cleaning, yet it still appeared to be quite impressive, even to the casual onlooker.
The thickness of the imposing blocks of stone that comprised its walls, as well as their alignment, was extraordinary. The various slabs were set so tightly together that they formed seals so perfect that a knife blade could not be forced between them. The walls were also impressively smooth, both on the interior and exterior of the building, so that they formed a nearly seamless surface. Only the Castle of Leander could rival the preciseness with which this citadel had been constructed, which helped to set the fortress of Treblanc apart from any other similar structures.
The elaborately carved beams that supported the vaulted ceiling in the public areas were equally impressive. However, those wonderfully decorated timbers lost some of their luster once the observer noticed the plastered ceiling that extended between them. It was in desperate need of patching and could also use a fresh coat of whitewash.
The intricately carved furnishings in the various rooms, which once added to the aura of the stately chambers, were in a similar state of disarray. Those pieces, which were once some of the most finely wrought and highly prized furniture in the kingdom, were now strewn about in a helter-skelter fashion throughout the premises. It was almost as if they were pieces of trash waiting to be discarded.
In addition to the furnishings being ill kept, the library was also in a state of disorder. The numerous volumes that were stored there were quite carelessly strewn about on the shelves, tables and chairs. It appeared as if they had been left that way for quite some time. A few of the tomes were open, while others were closed, but none of them were being taken care of with any degree of attention or respect. This fact did not seem to bother Madumda though, as he sat at one of the tables perusing his notes. He was also listening to a briefing being given by some of his military officers responsible for gathering the intelligence from their operatives.
"My Lord," one spymaster addressed Madumda, "I am greatly concerned about Tunstan. I believe the city is becoming an increasing threat to the success of our assignment. There are many of Beraut's associates and sympathizers in the city. They are working to do everything they can to glean information about our plans, as well as spying on our movements. I think we should put a stop to this immediately."
"That won't be necessary," Madumda informed him, although he didn't even bother to look up from the documents spread out in front of him. "I wouldn't worry about them. We have even more spies scattered throughout Tarolia collecting information on them and I believe we have a definite advantage when it comes to intelligence gathering."
After saying this, the sorcerer finally looked up and studied the naysayer, so he could gauge his reaction.
"So their operation does not concern you then?" the man countered, somewhat surprised by the sorcerer's nonchalant treatment of his warning.
"No! Why should it?" the Dark Lord asked, rhetorically. "We've known all along that the other side has been collecting snippets of information and would try to use it against us at some point. I have even willingly allowed them to do so. Even under these ideal conditions, it has done them little good and it will not benefit them in the future either."
"But aren't you worried they might eventually discover something that will give them a slight advantage over us?" the man continued. "They have been noting our troop sizes and movements, as well as gathering data about our weaponry and the racial makeup of our forces. We know this because we've intercepted a few of their communiqués and I'm worried this might compromise our battle strategy," he added, while glancing at the others in the room, looking for support. "Don't any of you agree with me?"
Only the Dark Lord responded to his query.
"Whatever details they may have collected will be woefully inadequate to keep us from winning the battle," Madumda scoffed. "In the end, I will finally gain the recognition and homage I deserve."
As the sorcerer said this, he exuded his typical cocky air of confidence. Noticing this haughty attitude made at least one of his informants think about the old saying, 'pride goeth before the fall'.
"Aren't you even concerned about the meeting Beraut held at Leander?" another of his other agents wondered. "We believe he was receiving intelligence from the Magistrate of Tunstan and will be using it to form his own battle strategy."
This man was finding it difficult to slough off the ramifications of what might have transpired at that conference just as much now as when he had first learned about it. He believed there were going to be serious implications for them because of what had taken place at those meetings and it would somehow impact the plans Madumda was currently formulating.
"None of that bothers me in the least," Madumda snarled, while also appearing quite bored at their persistence. "They're going to have meetings as they attempt to figure out a way to stop us, but they can hold as many of those worthless meetings as they want. I have a few surprises for them that they know nothing about, so no matter what they do, they still won't be successful in preventing me from gaining control of the kingdom."
"But you must be at least a little worried that they may try to form a rather substantial force at Tunstan," another spymaster pressed. "If they are able to do that, then they will be able to use the city as a base from which they can attack Treblanc or flank our forces during battle."
"And where would they get this substantial force from?" the Dark Lord challenged. "Tunstan has only a very small army and it is certainly not large enough to be considered a threat."
"They could always combine some of the other forces with the Tunstanese guard," the man challenged. "I'm not sure which other groups they would use, but I'm certain Beraut would try to convince some of the other military leaders, possibly those from Udele and Veleda, to use Tunstan as a staging area and possible launching point."
Madumda absentmindedly stroked his beard as he considered these possibilities, while also eyeing the person who had mentioned it.
"Those are indeed interesting points," he mused, "and ones I hadn't given much thought to. I shall take your suggestion under advisement. I am pleased to see that at least one of you is considering more than just nuisance threats."
Hearing his master utter those few words of praise, which Madumda was not in the habit of doing, pleased the military advisor. He now looked smugly at the others, as he sat in his seat, patiently waiting for the meeting to continue.
Madumda was still pondering this thought when the door to the library burst open and his chief advisor scurried in. The sorcerer glared at the intruder and his body stiffened, which were both dramatic indications that he was not happy with what had just happened.
"I thought I told you I didn't want to be disturbed!" the sorcerer bellowed at the small man, irritated by the interruption.
"Excuse me, my Lord Madumda," his aide panted as he entered the room. He was also bowing apologetically, as he did so. "A messenger has just arrived and is adamant that he needs to speak with you. He claims it is urgent."
This pronouncement did not seem to lessen the Dark Lord's ire. Instead, it seemed to upset him even more.
"What does he want?" Madumda snapped. "Did you think what he had to say was important enough to interrupt me, especially after I told you I didn't wish to be disturbed?"
"I'm not sure, because he wouldn't tell me what it is about," the hunched over man explained. "He says he had been ordered to give only YOU the message."
Upon hearing this, Madumda's eyebrows arched intriguingly upon his forehead, as he wondered what information the messenger might possibly have that would be for his ears only. It must be important, if it was worth disturbing his deliberations to receive it. For that reason, the Dark Lord quickly determined it might be wise to see what this was about.
"As long as you've already interrupted our session," Madumda responded, "then I might as well speak with this person. I will make my way to the private sitting room and then you may bring the messenger there in about ten minutes. Do you understand my instructions this time?"
"Yes, master," his subordinate replied, while bowing and scraping yet again. "I will wait ten minutes before I present him to you."
The Dark Lord nodded and then his underling backed out of the room, bowing continually as he went.
"I will return shortly," Madumda advised those he had been conferring with, "so remain here."
The tone in his voice and the look on his face told them there would be dire consequences if they did not do as they had been commanded. Therefore, each person there acknowledged the sorcerer's instruction either by giving a slight nod of his head or responding verbally, and then Madumda spun around and sped from the room.
The Dark Lord quickly scurried down an adjoining corridor, but about halfway down the hallway he slowed abruptly, before turning sharply to his left. He then followed this adjoining corridor a few paces, before coming to a complete stop. This time, he opened a concealed door and disappeared into a connecting chamber.
Madumda quickly moved over to the largest chair in the room and took his seat. The chair he was in was placed strategically between two smaller chairs, and all three were located at the far end of the hall, opposite the main doorway. The furniture had been deliberately arranged in this fashion as an intimidation technique. By using the largest chair in the room, the impression was to magnify Madumda's stature, especially when compared to the two smaller chairs on either side of him. Not only that, but by being located at the far end of the gallery, everyone had to focus on his position as they made their way forward to speak with him.
Madumda hoped by using this type of distraction and subtle coercion technique, he could get more out of those he met with. If they were concentrating on the physical aspects of the room and his overpowering presence, rather than on what they were saying, then they might give away additional information. In fact, many previous visitors to this chamber had accidentally done that. Over the years, the sorcerer had found this approach to be highly effective.
As the messenger was led into the room, his attention was immediately drawn toward the large piece of furniture and the sole occupant of the room, as was expected. When the man saw the sorcerer staring directly at him, he didn't dare to look away or glance anywhere else. His attention was focused totally on Madumda and he was becoming more rattled with every step he took in the sorcerer's direction. Slowly and nervously, the messenger made his way forward and began to bow when he drew near his master.
"What is so urgent that it requires you to interrupt my meeting with my military advisers?" Madumda asked him, in a very harsh tone.
"Errr, excuse me, my Lord Madumda," the courier apologized. He was stooping even lower now, so it appeared as if he were groveling on the cold stone floor. "I was ordered to, ummm, come here and speak only with you. Those in charge, I mean my um, superiors felt you would want to hear about this information personally." The messenger hesitated after saying this, while he shifted his weight back and forth. "They felt this news might affect your planning."
"Well, what is this important news?" the Dark Lord demanded, now that his interest was piqued. He still appeared annoyed by this interruption, however, so the courier gulped to clear the lump in his throat first, before he spoke again.
"The soldiers on, uhhh, one of your patrols have, ahhh, been murdered," the messenger informed him.
After saying this, the messenger quickly dropped his gaze toward the floor. This was due to the fact that he was now afraid to witness the sorcerer's reaction to such a revelation.
"Murdered?" Madumda repeated, in a rising tone.
The sorcerer was visibly troubled by what he had just heard, but the information held his attention and made him want to find out more. It also caused him to thoroughly scrutinize the timid man before he spoke again.
"Tell me more," Madumda finally commented.
"Yes, My Lord," the man responded, encouraged by the Dark Lord's apparent interest in hearing what he had to say. "We were on an assignment and sent to replace those watching the High Pass. When we found the group we were sent to relieve, we discovered they had all been killed."
"And how do you know they were not just the victims of something less sinister?" the sorcerer pressed, trying to piece the facts together.
"Well, I believe whoever did this," the man continued, while struggling to determine exactly how he wanted to say this, "uh, we suspect they hoped we would think our comrades had died naturally or due to an, ah, accident, but there were definite signs they had been murdered."
"What sort of signs?" the sorcerer persisted, perplexed and mildly annoyed that the man had not told him the details already.
"We found evidence of puncture wounds on three of the five victims," the messenger responded, as he spoke three times faster than he normally would have. He was also sweating profusely. "The types of wounds only, uh, a soldier's weapons might make."
"So you actually saw these wounds?" the Dark Lord asked, while flashing a quizzical look.
"Yes, I saw the wounds, um, I mean I saw the traces that hadn't been destroyed," the messenger advised him, meekly.
His body was now shaking so badly that it looked as if he had just come in from spending hours in a blizzard.
"I think they hoped we wouldn't find them so quickly," the man continued, "because they didn't want us to see the evidence of what they had done, but we must have arrived at the scene sooner than they expected."
"What did you mean when you said, the traces that hadn't been destroyed? Destroyed by whom?" the Dark Lord demanded.
Madumda was beginning to lose patience with the courier's ineptitude and was greatly annoyed by the fact that he was being so cryptic. His inadequate responses were also making it difficult for Madumda to comprehend the full impact of this incident. He was trying to determine what he might do to speed things along, when the man started speaking again.
"The animals," the messenger blurted out, when he realized he should probably give a better response. "I mean, various scavengers had partially devoured the scouts' bodies and eliminated some of the evidence. Our arrival had obviously disturbed their feasting."
"Was there any indication of who might have done this?" the sorcerer asked, once he'd assimilated the previous information.
"Yes, I think we know precisely who did it," the warrior told him, while relaxing slightly. The man assumed the Dark Lord would be pleased they had discovered the culprits and he could tell him who they were. "We flushed out a band of ten or twelve warriors a little later and believe they were the ones that were responsible for this deed."
"And who were these assassins?" the Dark Lord hissed, since he was curious as to who would be so bold as to chance such a provocation.
"A very odd collection of warriors," the man responded. "The group was comprised of men, dwarfs and elves."
The sorcerer raised his eyebrows after hearing this news, but then he closed his eyes into tiny slits. It was an odd collection of warriors indeed. He briefly considered if this might have any deeper significance or what other implications it might suggest.
"Is that all?" Madumda pressed, unsettling the messenger again.
"Yes, well. Um, this group might have also contained children, I mean boys," he stammered, as his chin pressed tightly into his chest.
"Boys?" Madumda asked rhetorically, before he began to mumble to himself.
"Fathers with their sons? Where have I heard about boys before?" Madumda wondered, aloud. "Ah, yes, from Beraut's meetings at Leander. There were reports there had been boys there too. Elves, I believe they said. I think they figured by having children with them it would mislead me as to their true intent."
Madumda continued to think about this for a few more seconds, before he snapped out of this temporary reverie.
The messenger had been perplexed by the Dark Lord's sudden shift from addressing him to talking to himself, so he stopped speaking. Instead, he began to wonder if the sorcerer might be losing touch with reality or even going mad.
"So what happened to them?" the Dark Lord pressed, but he received no immediate response to his query.
The reason for this was because the messenger had been so bewildered by what the Madumda had been doing, especially when he appeared to be talking to himself. For that reason, he didn't realize the Dark Lord was speaking to him again. He thought Madumda was still carrying on the private conversation with himself. Then, when the sorcerer suddenly shifted his attention back to him again, the messenger didn't realize the question was for him and remained silent. That's when he noticed Madumda's gaze was growing even more intense.
"Did you capture or kill any of these warriors?" Madumda rephrased, as he jumped to his feet, completely annoyed.
The Dark Lord was now towering menacingly over the man, in order to motivate him into responding. Surprised by Madumda's demonstrative actions, the courier slinked even lower and shook noticeably.
"Unfortunately, ummm, no," the messenger stammered, since the way the question had been asked had managed to unsettle him terribly. "When we attempted to, ummm, to confront them," he continued, as he searched for the correct word, "they, well, they fled into Briarwood."
Madumda snorted after he'd heard this, since he was amused by the response.
"You mean they willingly entered Briarwood?" the Dark Lord asked, unable to believe anyone would be foolish enough go into that legendary forest of their own accord.
"Sort of," the trooper told him, although he was unsure as to how he should respond to this query.
"Spit it out man," the Dark Lord commanded, once again losing his patience with the bungling courier. "I don't have all day to discover what you have to report."
"Well, after we found the bodies," the trembling messenger continued, "we began tracking those responsible. We followed the signs of their passing until we came upon a small cave."
After saying this, the messenger paused to consider exactly what he wanted to tell Madumda next, but the sorcerer proved to be impatient.
"And what happened after you found this cave?" the Dark Lord pressed, as his voice rose in volume, as well as cracking noticeably.
"Well, um, inside, we found indications they had been there," the messenger replied, with the quivering in his voice growing more pronounced. "There were signs they had lit a fire, but they had already left before we got there. We figured they must have fled shortly before we arrived, but the problem was, we…" the messenger added, before he paused momentarily, because he was terrified about what he had to say next. "Ummm, we could find nothing outside of the cave that indicated which way they had gone."
"So you thought they had merely vanished into thin air?" the sorcerer scoffed, while eyeing the dolt before him. Madumda's sarcasm dripped heavily from his words.
"Nay, My Lord," the soldier responded quickly, after realizing he was being mocked, "but we, um, didn't understand how so many warriors could leave the area without, well you know, without leaving at least some small sign of their passing."
"Then how did you discover them?" Madumda persisted, while leaning over the frightened man.
"When we couldn't locate them," the courier continued, not daring to look up, "we tried to deduce what they might have done next. Seeing the cave was north of the High Pass, we concluded the culprits were probably heading either to Tiago or Thorold. Seeing Thorold was closer, we decided to pursue that option first."
"That seems reasonable," Madumda replied. "So…" Madumda prodded, as he waited, impatiently, for the fool before him to continue.
"We traveled nearly all the way to Thorold," the messenger continued, "but not close enough to alert the dwarfs of our presence. We felt if the others had already gone farther than that, they were, well they most likely would already be safely inside the dwarf homeland. However, we found neither the warriors nor any clues they had passed that way either. That's when we started to backtrack, but this time we decided to stay in the mountains, uh, you know, um, looking for signs they might have taken the high ground to avoid detection. We weren't having much success finding anything useful, when one of our troopers spotted the group approaching, as they traveled along the foot of…"
"Wait just one second," the sorcerer interrupted, confused. "If they had a head start and you were tracking them, then how did they get behind you?"
"We didn't understand that ourselves," the courier replied, "but we, well, we assumed they must have discovered some sort of hiding place and waited, you know, hoping we'd give up."
"Or you were totally incompetent and missed discovering their trail in the first place," Madumda responded, as he began to pace back and forth, baffled by this incongruity. "So why weren't you able to capture or kill any of them, if they were being so obvious?" he pressed, thinking his troops should have been able to set a trap and then let their prey walk into it?
"Unfortunately, they spotted us before we could get organized," the soldier replied, embarrassed by his squad's inability and fearful Madumda would punish him for their failure. "That's when we decided it would be best to just attack, but that's when they fled into Briarwood."
"You fools!" the sorcerer bellowed, before grabbing one of the smaller chairs and knocking it backward. "So, what did you do then?"
Madumda's irate reaction to this news compounded the messenger's fear about what the sorcerer might do next. It certainly wouldn't be the first time Madumda had killed a messenger for giving him bad news.
"We, ummm, chased them into the forest," the man replied.
"So you pursued them?" Madumda scoffed.
"Yes, and some of our men got carried away and went all the way into Briarwood after them," the messenger answered. "They, ummm, they ended up going um, too far and uhhh, got lost as well. We never saw or heard from them again either."
"Wonderful," Madumda sneered. "Not only didn't you kill or capture the ones who murdered the others, but you also lost more of your own men through incompetence."
The messenger suddenly began to worry the Dark Lord was going to do something drastic at this point, since it appeared the sorcerer was holding him personally responsible for what had happened. For this reason, the messenger trembled with fear thinking he was going to be held accountable for what had taken place. Suddenly, he began speaking again, because he thought he might be able to convince Madumda it wasn't just his fault. He also thought he might possibly even distract the Dark Lord long enough that he would forget about what he was thinking of doing to him.
"We didn't give up though. We spread out along the edge of Briarwood and watched to make sure they didn't come back out, but that was the last we saw any of them. They didn't reappear or, uh, get past us again."
Madumda waited a few more seconds after hearing this, before he said anything else. Not only was he hoping the man would divulge more information, but he was also assimilating this news with the other information he had previously received.
'Was it just a coincidence that this group was heading to Thorold and Beraut was reported to be traveling there with the dwarf king as well?' the Dark Lord wondered. 'Maybe there's a connection.'
Madumda would ponder this idea again later, when he had more time to think about what it might mean. For now, however, he needed to see if there were any more details that he should know about first.
"How long did you wait!" Madumda screamed, when the man didn't continue.
"Nearly two days, my Lord," the trooper mumbled.
After hearing this, Madumda placed his hand on his chin and slowly stroked his beard, as he analyzed this information. 'What is Beraut up to?' he wondered.
The messenger was now petrified about what Madumda was going to do to him. It was obvious from the Dark Lord's tone and actions that he was frustrated this group had killed one of his patrols and then escaped, so the messenger was trying not to make matters worse. Therefore, when he noticed the Dark Lord seemed to be preoccupied by something else, he didn't want to speak and interrupt his thoughts, which he felt would only agitate Madumda further. Instead, he remained quiet, but when he noticed the sorcerer giving him another harsh glare, he realized this had been a major mistake. Visibly shaken and trembling even more noticeably now, the messenger tried to correct his error.
"That's when the soldier in charge, errr, my superior ordered me to come here and tell, errr, inform you about what had happened. That is all the information that I have to report."
When it became apparent this was the end of his story, the Dark Lord nodded and addressed the man one final time.
"I want you to wait here and I'll send someone back for you," Madumda ordered, as he made his way from the hall.
The man merely bowed his head in understanding, even though it was hard to tell he done so. This was due to the fact that his body was shaking almost convulsively now, so it made it difficult to determine if what he had done was a courteous bow or just some sort of spasm.
As Madumda opened the door leading out of the chamber, he spotted his advisor waiting in the hallway beyond. Immediately, he summoned the man over.
"I want you to explain to that miscreant how to give a proper report," he informed him, rather sharply, "and then have him flogged to within an inch of his life. Advise him afterward that the beating was for wasting so much of my time and for allowing the assailants to escape. See to it that those serving with him on the patrol receive a similar beating for their ineptitude as well."
The underling nodded his understanding, so Madumda whirled about to leave. He still had unfinished business to attend to with his military advisors in the library.