Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity
by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
The Valley of the Dead
Once King Brolin had completed the resealing process and had secured the door leading from the Royal Burial Chamber, he decided to share some more information with the others.
"We are now about halfway to our destination," he announced. "I chose this way because it was shorter than taking the other route, which winds its way back and forth along the upper trail. In front of you is the path that will take us directly to the portal leading into the Valley of the Dead."
Once this information had been shared, the group resumed their journey and headed down the tunnel that lay in front of them. The biggest difference with this new area was that this time they were traveling at a much quicker pace. From this point on, there was nothing for them to gawk at or observe, which meant there was also nothing to slow them down. After many minutes of walking through this desolate section of tunnel, however, something new suddenly appeared.
"What are those?" Garreth wanted to know, while pointing off to one side of the passage. Since he was currently walking directly behind King Brolin, he was also the first to discover this new oddity.
When the others looked forward, so they could see what he was referring to, they discovered the elf was pointing at some hollowed out sections of stone that lined the wall. Although he was directing everyone's attention to the area on his right, the same thing could be found on both sides of the walkway. The recesses he was curious about were approximately a meter and a half in length, half a meter high and three-quarters of a meter deep. These niches were arranged in columns that began a few centimeters higher than the path they were traveling over and extended upward, until they were ten cubicles high. There was also about twenty-centimeters of rock separating the various openings in each direction.
"Those were meant to be the grave sites for the Thorley commoners," King Brolin advised him. "The ones for Thorold are along the upper path, which we didn't take. As we travel farther along this route, you will discover more recesses such as these, but they will eventually begin to contain remains. Those will be the mortal shells of the last residents of the peaceful valley that were interred here prior to Madumda perpetrating his foul deed. After we pass by those cubicles, we will continue our travels along this corridor and you will be able to notice that the grave sites continue to go further back in antiquity, until we reach the remains of first of the Thorley citizens to have been placed there."
"But how did they put the bodies in the upper openings?" a timid Garreth wondered. "They are higher than most dwarfs are tall, so how did you reach them?"
"When a funeral is held, a temporary scaffolding is constructed, if the body is to be placed in one of the upper chambers," King Brolin advised him. "The scaffolding is taken down afterward, but can be quickly put up again if a family member desires access to their loved one for some reason."
This apparently answered the elf's question, because he didn't have a follow-up query. From that point on, the group walked on for nearly another hour before they began to encounter the first of these ancient corpses. Although the deceased's body was wrapped in a sturdy piece of cloth, passing so closely beside these lifeless mummies began to impact the various members of the group, although in dramatically different ways.
The warriors, who were more accustomed to dealing with death, remained stone-faced and unmoved. They focused intently upon the route ahead and paid little heed to these burial crypts. They were not bothered by the fact that they were passing the remains of beings that had long since passed from this world. The teens, however, had the least experience being this close to open burial vaults, so it was safe to assume that they were also the most affected. After passing by several of these final resting places, one of the elves finally spoke up.
"Doesn't it bother you to be in the middle of all of these dead bodies?" Garreth blurted out.
"Not really," the king replied. "Each of the bodies was treated after the person passed on and was then wrapped inside a very durable shroud, as you may have noticed. Although you can see the vague form of each individual, it is actually no different than passing by the burial crypts of our former rulers, which we did a short time ago. In this case, however, the body is not encased in a stone burial vault."
Even though Garreth tried to understand King Brolin's analogy, the thought of continuing to travel past these semi-exposed corpses sent shivers up and down his spine. Romaric appeared to be dealing with this activity in about the same way, but Kieren didn't seem to be as bothered by this as his friends were. In fact, the two young elves noticed that Kieren was having quite the opposite reaction. He was eagerly straining to see if he could discern any details concerning the features of the deceased's body, so he could possibly learn more about them. This made Garreth and Romaric very uneasy and they couldn't understand why Kieren was so intent on doing this.
After a while, there was a break in the burial vaults on the right side of the tunnel, where another came down and intersected with it. When they passed this area, King Brolin pointed out another fact.
"This is the opposite end of the path we did not take," he announced, while pointing toward the other trail. "Both lead to the same place and serve much the same purpose, but each was established to serve the different communities."
As the group continued to move down the tunnel, those who were brave enough to look at the shrouded corpses also began to notice the deterioration of the shrouds was growing more pronounced with every stride they took. This indicated, as the king had stated earlier, that the burial sites were progressively going further back in time. It was also quite apparent, from the layers of dust collecting along the passageway and around each burial site that there had been no visitors to this neglected region of the dwarf kingdom in a very long time.
Once they noticed this particular fact, Garreth and Romaric quickly surmised that the last person to set foot along this pathway was probably the one who sealed the other end of the tunnel, which led out to Thorley. This most likely took place immediately after Madumda's treachery, since there was no longer any reason to ever open that hatchway again. In fact, it was very clear that every living creature did everything it could to avoid the valley since that time. If they had wandered in there, even by accident, they feared being driven mad by the spirits doomed to remain there. Therefore, this conclusion seemed to make a lot of sense to them.
Although it was the case right now, the dwarfs were sincerely hoping the situation would some day change. They wanted the valley to once again flourish and for Thorley to be restored as the thriving community it once was. The dwarfs realized that if they were successful on this mission and Madumda was finally destroyed, then those tormented souls would be released from the bonds that tied them to the land. The curse that had prevented the countryside from being fertile would finally be lifted and this area would once again be able to produce crops. When that happened, the valley could regain its prominence as the thriving agricultural center it was before this dreadful event took place. It would take time and a lot of hard work, but it was something the dwarfs looked forward to seeing occur.
When the companions reached the anteroom that separated the tombs from the now desolate valley, they came to a halt. It was here that they would make their final preparations before leaving the safety of the dwarven kingdom. Without any signal being necessary, everyone huddled together and looked toward the dwarf king and the industrious wizard for their next cue.
Unfortunately, Beraut was paying them no heed, because he was busily unpacking a collection of items from one of the satchels he had been carrying. The companions watched carefully, as he spread the objects before him on the floor, but their attention was drawn away from him, when the voice of the dwarf king broke the silence. Hearing it caused them to turn and look in his direction.
"Soon, Beraut will show you how you will set about sealing your ears with the devices he has prepared specifically for each of you. After these protective coverings have been put into its proper place, you will be unable to hear anything further. For this reason, I shall now attempt to tell you some of the things you will need to know.
"You are about to undertake a journey that will be extremely difficult, but could eventually prove to be the deciding factor in this conflict," King Brolin continued. "Once you pass beyond this threshold, you will be facing an even greater peril than you did when you made your way to Thorold. In fact, you will become increasingly more vulnerable the nearer you get to the areas controlled by the Dark Lord and his henchmen. For that reason, you must always remain alert and be vigilant about discerning any and all potential threats.
"I also beg each of you to never lose faith in your own unique abilities or in the attributes of those journeying with you," the dwarf continued. "You have each been selected for your individual talents and these traits will serve you well along the way. You must always trust those whom you are with, because you will come to rely on their devotion to our cause, as well as their skill and experience as warriors. Above all else, you must never doubt the righteousness of what you are attempting to do, as you face whatever ordeals and obstacles you may encounter along the way. It is important that you do not let Madumda bring uncertainty into your minds or put fear into your hearts. Above all else, you must remember that we are destined to prevail.
"I wish you gods' speed and good fortune in completing this assignment," the king said in parting, "and I want you to know that each of you will long be endeared by all dwarfs. This includes those living and others yet to be born, for what you are about to do to deliver us from Madumda's evil clutches. Besides our gratitude, you will forever be welcomed into our homeland as exalted guests."
Everyone stood motionless and did not utter a word as the king concluded his comments, because they were deeply moved by the sincerity and emotion he displayed as he spoke to them. It was because of these strong feelings the king had managed to evoke in Kieren that he felt a special kinship to the dwarf ruler. The youth now had a sudden urge to remain in this realm, so he could get better acquainted with the king and his people. Kieren also understood that each of them had to accept the roles fate had assigned and honor the demands those roles required. Possibly, when this was over, Kieren would be able to return and dwell in Thorold for a while, so he could get to know the dwarfs as well as he did the elves. However, the youth's thoughts were suddenly disturbed, when the voice of the wizard jarred him back to the present.
"We must now attend to making ourselves ready for the journey across the valley," Beraut began. "It is imperative that you listen carefully to everything I tell you and not let your thoughts roam, even for a second. I am about to instruct you concerning what you are going to do next and I will give these directions only once. After we have prepared ourselves for this venture, no further communications will be possible, so if you miss even the smallest detail of what I am about to impart, it may cost you your sanity or your life."
Beraut purposefully hesitated after saying this and scanned the faces before him. His intention was to make sure each of them was doing as he had just been instructed, especially the feuding teens. After Beraut was certain everyone was paying attention, he began anew.
"First, I would like to tell you about what you can expect to see, once we leave the safety of the dwarf kingdom. The trip through the valley cannot be completed in a single day, so we will have to make at least one camp during this time. This, I am sure, is not a pleasant thought for you to entertain and I'd be willing to bet it will not be a soothing night's rest for any of you either. It may be more bearable, though; if you understand what you will be facing."
The wizard paused very briefly and scanned the faces of those before him again, before continuing.
"There will be spirits drifting in the air about you during our entire stay in the valley, but during much of this time you will not be able to recognize they are even there. There may be other times, however, when these apparitions seem to take shape right before your very eyes. Just remember, above all else, that it is not their appearance that is deadly. It is only the sound of their wails that affect mortal beings. For this reason, I will be placing devices in your ears that will protect you from their pitiful cries and the demoniacal sounds that echo between the mountain slopes.
"In this regard, you'll need not worry about what you'll be facing," Beraut continued. "On the other hand, you will have to maintain your composure and not allow yourself to react in ways that could result in these protective pieces becoming dislodged. If you do, then you will relinquish the advantage they provide and I will be powerless to assist or protect you by any other means. For this reason, it will be your responsibility to prevent problems of this nature from happening, so you will not become irreparably harmed."
Beraut paused again, while he allowed his message time to sink in. He also wanted to give the members of this group a chance to envision what it might be like in the valley, without letting them miss what else he had to say. Once he had provided them with a few minutes for this purpose, the wizard continued his instructions.
"During the course of this journey, you will have to follow a series of hand signals, which I shall teach you shortly. These gestures will be used to indicate what it is that I wish you to do at the time. I will not use any elaborate signals, so it should be fairly easy for you to understand the meaning of most of these gestures without any assistance. However, if there should come a time when you don't comprehend what it is that I am trying to tell you, just watch the others to see if they have picked up my suggestion and then follow their lead.
"I will also mouth my commands as I give them," Beraut went on, "so you may also be able to read my lips to comprehend what I am trying to tell you. Whatever happens though, do not be tempted to remove your earplugs and bindings until we have passed out of the valley and moved through the gap that separates the Amber and the Citadel Mountain ranges. Once we are beyond this point and out of the reach of the specters of the valley, you will be able to shed this special gear without fear of being harmed."
Beraut then went on to explain the hand signals he would be using during their journey across the valley and carefully demonstrated each one for them. After he had shown the companions every gesture he was planning to use, he quickly quizzed them about their meanings. When Beraut was finally satisfied they all understood these commands, he continued his briefing.
"I will now give you the earplugs and bindings I referred to earlier. Do not do anything with them until I am able to instruct you on how to properly place them in your ears and secure them for your protection.
"I made these devices from a very thick, tough wax and then cast a magical spell over them, to seal the imperfections," the wizard explained. "The spell I used ensures that each of these devices will be impenetrable to any sounds that might try to evade them, no matter how unnatural their origin.
"Once these items are placed in your ear canals," Beraut continued, "you will take the cloth binding that I shall give you and tie it over your ears and about your head. You will accomplish this by first putting the wide center portion of the cloth over the nape of your neck and then pull the ends upward and over your ears, before securing them tightly over your brow.
"If you wish, you may then place your helmet over this cloth strip to make sure the bindings do not slip out of place," the wizard instructed. "If you choose to do this though, please make sure the strap on your helmet is fastened, to keep it from coming off and dislodging the bindings as it does so. This will insure against any mishaps, should you perchance fall or get jarred along the way."
Beraut paused again and looked about to see if everyone understood. When it appeared they did, he went on.
"Once each of you is prepared in this fashion, King Brolin will open this long sealed passageway, so we can enter the valley beyond. Once we have exited from the safety Thorold has provided us, the king will reseal the doorway and we will then no longer be able to return along this route." Beraut now eyed each of them carefully, before he continued. "Do you have any questions?"
The wizard turned and scanned the face of each member of the party, to see if there were any queries, but no one responded. However, when his gaze fell upon Garreth, he could tell the youth had something he wanted to ask, but was unsure if he should do it in front of the others.
"What is it that troubles you, my young friend?" Beraut asked, as he confronted the elf. "Speak up. I'm certain there are most likely others who wish to know something similar, but are too timid to speak."
"That's ok. It's probably just a stupid question anyway," the elf replied, meekly.
"The only dumb questions are the ones left unasked," the wizard assured him. "Those are also the ones that may come back to cause problems later." Garreth thought about this for a few seconds, before he responded.
"Well, since I have never seen any spirits before, I was just wondering what they would look like?" Beraut gave the teen a reassuring nod and slight grin.
"I am certain some of the others are wondering the same thing, so I'm glad you've asked this question," the wizard responded, which instantly made Garreth feel better about having posed his query. "Although I'm not positive I can give you a satisfactory response to explain this situation, I will do my best to clear this matter up for you.
"First of all, there is no singular description of the forms you might see in the valley, since they will be constantly changing. All I can do is try to draw parallels between how they might appear to you with other things you are more familiar with. During the daylight hours, you will not be able to clearly distinguish any of the forms as being spirits. They will merely appear to you as wisps of smoke or strands of fog that are drifting across your path. They will have no discernable characteristics or features and, for the most part, you probably won't even be aware of them."
"What happens if we walk through one of those things?" Romaric interrupted, with a question of his own. "Is there any way they can hurt us?"
"No. These ghostly forms have no physical properties, other than being somewhat visible and emitting their distressing wails," Beraut explained. "They cannot harm you in any other way. Only their cries of anguish can prove fatal."
Once Romaric appeared to be satisfied with this response, the wizard continued.
"Now, as I was saying, during the daylight hours you will only be slightly aware of their presence, because the brightness of the sunlight will blot out most of their features. However, do not let this lull you into a false sense of security. If you do, you might drop your guard and relax your vigilance, thereby increasing your vulnerability. The daylight hours, however, will be the least part of the problem.
"It will be during the hours of darkness that these forms will be the most difficult for you to bear," Beraut warned. "This will be the time when these phantoms can be most clearly observed and when the impact of the visions can unnerve even the most hardened warrior. I will do everything in my power to assist you during these hours, but you should be spending much of this period sleeping anyway."
Kieren had been listening carefully to Beraut, but even more so to his friends' queries. He was immensely grateful Garreth and Romaric had summoned the courage to ask for these bits of information, because the answers had helped him as well. However, even though he had benefited from their curiosity, Kieren also did his best not to let either of his friends know this. Whenever one of them would glance in his direction, Kieren would look the other way, because he wasn't sure if they might be trying to make fun of him. He was also unwilling to give them the satisfaction of knowing he approved of the question they had just asked.
What Kieren failed to realize was that both elves were merely looking his way to see if he was mocking them for having posed their questions in the first place. When they saw he wasn't doing anything of that nature, they began to relax. They were, however, slightly bothered that he wouldn't look at either of them whenever they turned in his direction, but they didn't let it annoy them further. They were only concerned that he wasn't making fun of them for verbalizing their fears and concerns.
"I will now hand each of you the earplugs I have specifically prepared for you," the wizard continued, "and I will also give you the headbands to bind them into their proper place. I will help Kieren insert his devices, since I wish to make certain he makes no ill-fated mistakes with his equipment, but I will also use him to demonstrate what each of you needs to do. Let me reiterate, one final time, the importance of following these instructions completely, since any mistakes could be fatal to both you and the success of this mission."
Beraut now scurried from individual to individual; as he passed out the items he had withdrawn from his satchel. After reading the name he had etched into each pair of devices, he would then hand the appropriate set of wax plugs to the person he had specifically prepared them for, along with one of the bindings. When the last of this protective gear had been distributed, Beraut continued his instructions.
"If you will look at your earplugs, you will notice that not only is there a piece that fits into the ear canal, but there is another part that has been sculpted to fit into the folds of your outer ear as well. On the exterior of each device you will find a marking to indicate whether it is for your left or right ear. After you have placed this device into the proper position, the magical spell will seal it into place and ensure that it fits tightly into the ear. This will prevent any gaps that might otherwise form and through which the slightest, and potential dangerous, sounds could pass."
The wizard paused and looked at each individual and carefully studied his face. He wanted to make certain that everyone of them understood his directions and didn't look confused. Seeing all of them appeared to understand and there were no other questions, Beraut continued.
"Kieren, will you please come forward, so I may demonstrate the proper installation process."
Reluctantly, Kieren moved in front of the others, knowing this would probably be another source of irritation for Garreth and Romaric. The wizard then positioned him carefully, so the rest of the party could see what he was up to.
"Make certain you watch everything I do when preparing Kieren for this journey," Beraut warned them again. "And please don't start putting your own protective devices into place until after I have finished performing all of the various steps on Kieren. If you start too soon, then you may miss hearing some of the other warnings or instructions I'm about to give you, which could have dreadful consequences in the long run. Therefore, do not begin applying your own protective devices until after I have given you specific instructions to do so."
Once he felt the others would heed his warning, Beraut then used Kieren to demonstrate everything they were expected to do. As soon as his earplugs were in place, Kieren was left in total silence, and then the wizard applied the cloth binding, to hold the earplugs securely in place. Now that Kieren was ready, all he could do was watch, as his companions mimicked the steps the wizard had just performed on him. Kieren observed how they secured their own protective devices into their proper places, so they could depart from the dwarf homeland.
As Kieren impatiently watched the others, he realized Qaim didn't have any earplugs, which was probably due to the fact that he was not part of their original group. The young man reached out and tugged on the sleeve of Beraut's robe to get his attention. When the wizard turned to face him, Kieren asked his question.
"Don't you have something for Qaim to use?" he wanted to know. "He's going out there too."
Kieren was momentarily perplexed, because he was unable to hear his own question as he asked it. This was a new and very strange sensation for him to be unable to rely on his ears, so this caused him to wonder if Beraut had even heard him. His question, however, was answered when the wizard gave him a knowing wink and then mouthed his response slowly, so Kieren could read his lips.
"Our magical abilities make such preparations unnecessary," Beraut explained. "But thank you for being concerned about his welfare."
Kieren wasn't sure he understood exactly what the wizard was trying to tell him or what magical qualities Qaim possessed that would protect him from this threat. However, at least he knew his mentor had heard his question and he trusted Beraut's judgment.
When each person had finished his preparations, the wizard checked that individual's handiwork, to make certain he had done everything correctly. Once the wizard finished doing this and had given him his final approval, he signaled those that wore helmets to put them on next. Once they had done this, the wizard had them form up in front of the archway, as they prepared to leave the dwarfs' homeland.
King Brolin, who had placed protective devices in his ears as well, now walked forward and stood before the solid, rock doorway. Kieren believed the dwarf was chanting some sort of spell, possibly to neutralize a sealing-spell that had been placed on it years before. The young man watched the monarch, while admiring his memory and dedication to his task, when a bunch of symbols surrounding the passageway began to glow in the dim light.
Kieren hadn't noticed any of these markings being present previously, so he quickly concluded they must only appear when summoned. Now that the runes were visible, the king set about touching them in their prescribed sequence, as he deftly moved his hands and arms about. As soon as King Brolin had completed this procedure, the hinged boulder swung outward and allowed the rays of the sun to filter into the tunnel. This momentarily blinded the company, because their time below ground had made them unaccustomed to the brightness they now faced.
Patiently, they waited for their eyes to adjust first, before they continued on. When they were all able to focus and see clearly again, they followed Beraut through the opening and into the land beyond.