Castle Roland

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W


Chapter 12

Posted: 26 May 16

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories

Each Must Go His Separate Way

When Kieren opened his eyes the next morning, he noticed most of the others were already up and going about their business. For some reason, they had let him sleep much later than anyone else.

Realizing how late it was, Kieren jumped up and went off to search for Beraut. He was determined to confront the wizard and make him understand his point of view this time. The teen also hoped that when he finished stating his case the wizard would come to the same conclusion, change his mind and remain with them. The problem was, his mentor was nowhere to be seen. Panicked, Kieren began to ask the warriors where Beraut was, but no one had any answers for him. That was until he came to Alairic.

"I was planning to come find you before we started out again," the elf explained, "but I was trying to finish my packing first. Beraut came up to me while I was standing the last watch and informed me about his intentions. I'd say he left shortly before…"

"He left?" Kieren gasped, cutting Alairic off. "Without saying goodbye?"

The teen couldn't believe the wizard had departed without saying anything to him, such as a final fare-thee-well. Moisture was already beginning to form in the corners of his eyes, as the staggering feeling of abandonment began to overtake him again.

"Kieren," Alairic began, with as much sympathy in his voice as he could manage, "Beraut knew you were upset with him and thought it might be best to avoid another heated disagreement about him leaving. It's not that he didn't wish to say farewell to you, but he decided it would be best if his parting didn't turn into another confrontation. He felt leaving before you got up would be easier and better for you."

This comment caused Kieren's mood to suddenly change again and Alairic saw him immediately tense up.

"Easier and better for me?" the youngster snapped, surprising the elf. "Everyone is constantly telling me that what they are doing is for my benefit and what's best for me, but no one ever asks ME what I think would be best. They never ask for my opinion about what I might want to happen! Don't you think I should be consulted about such things first, since it directly concerns me?"

Kieren's body was completely rigid as he made this comment and his eyes bulged from their sockets. It seemed to Alairic as if Kieren was issuing some sort of a challenge, although he had played no part in what had happened, other than passing along the message. The elf, however, continued to remain calm and didn't overreact, because he understood what Kieren was saying and could empathize with how he was feeling. At the same time, he also realized the others, including the wizard, were only doing what they thought best at that particular moment.

"Kieren, we may not always go about it the best way," Alairic explained, in an effort to defuse the situation, "but we care about you deeply and try to do what we think is best. You have given us more hope than we have had in years and we've grown very fond of you, so your welfare is of the utmost concern to us. The thing is, even though we're not currently parents, our parental instincts still kick in where you and your friends are concerned and it guides our actions. Please don't judge us too harshly if you don't always approve of our methods. Just rest assured that we would never knowingly put you in danger or do anything that we thought might harm you in any way."

"Oh?" Kieren commented, sarcastically. "Does that mean you'd do the same thing and just take off without saying a word to me too?"

The venom in his tone and the look on Kieren's face cut Alairic to the quick. He certainly hadn't expected Kieren to react in quite this fashion.

"Kieren," the elf said, soothingly, "Beraut was just afraid it would be harder on you if he waited to leave until after you awoke. It won't be long before this is over and we're all back together again."

"Yeah, if we happen to live that long!" Kieren added defiantly, and this remark caused the elf to flinch.

"Kieren don't even think that," Alairic chided him. "It is very important that you believe we will get through this and then meet up with Beraut once more."

The elf could tell his comment had not caused Kieren to soften his stance though. In fact, when he noticed Kieren's rigid body posture, it merely accentuated the teen's continued defiance. Alairic was bewildered and uncertain as to how he should respond.

"What makes you think any of us will fare better than Selvaggio or Doenilio?" Kieren shot back, challenging the elfin warrior's assessment of the situation.

"Because I'm confident you will be successful," Alairic offered, encouragingly.

The elf knew he couldn't argue this point forever, so he felt he had to find a way to end this discussion quickly, so he could get everyone moving again. Alairic understood it would probably be best to continue this conversation at another time, once Kieren was able to think more clearly, so he slyly sought to change the topic.

"Come on. Let's get you something to eat and then you can pack up your bedding…"

"Why? What's the purpose? Why shouldn't I just give up to?" Kieren cut him off. "If Beraut can just walk away, then why can't I?"

This announcement came as a total surprise to Alairic and caused his mouth to drop open. Even though he didn't want to believe his ears and hoped Kieren was merely releasing his frustration, the elf was beginning to believe this wasn't the case. Considering everything that had gone on before, he suspected the teen was totally serious.

"Kieren, you can't mean this!" Alairic countered, while hoping this might get the lad to reconsider his words and possibly change his mind.

"Why not? Why should I keep going, if Beraut didn't feel it was important enough for him to stay with us?" Kieren countered.

After saying this, the youngster assumed another very defiant pose, which was possibly meant to emphasize his point. This caused the elf to momentarily stand transfixed and speechless, as he thought about what Kieren had just said. He was totally bewildered and unsure as to how he should confront this new problem. How was he going to be able to convince Kieren that he could be making an unwise and hasty choice? Suddenly, he remembered something else and decided maybe it would help to soften Kieren's mood.

"Kieren, I'm sorry, but I almost forgot I have something for you. Beraut gave it to me just before he left and asked me to pass it along to you," the elf stated, as he reached into his pack and pulled something out.

Without letting Kieren see what it was, the elf held out his closed hand toward the boy, as he offered him the object he had just retrieved. Slightly bewildered by this sudden shift in their conversation, Kieren stared at Alairic skeptically, but he finally reached out and accepted the object the warrior was offering him. Cautiously, Kieren looked at it, but this only baffled him more. Alairic had merely given him a stone that was slightly smaller than his fist, so the teen stared at it, as he held it snuggly in the center of his palm.

"What's this supposed to be?" Kieren snapped. It was obvious the lad was perplexed about having been given an ordinary rock.

"Beraut said he placed a spell upon the stone, so it would relay a message to you," the elf explained. "He told me that all you need to do is look at it and tell it to 'animate'. Once you've done that, it will give you the information he wanted you to know, or so he said."

Kieren looked at Alairic in stunned silence for a moment and acted as if he didn't believe anything of that nature would occur. Not knowing what else to do, Alairic merely stood there and waited to see what Kieren was going to do next.

After staring at the stone for a few seconds, Kieren eventually decided to give it a try. He was still uncertain if anything was going to happen or if this would work, but he held the rock in his palm, just below eye level, and spoke.

"Animate," he said softly, almost in a whisper.

It appeared as if Kieren was afraid the others might think he looked like an idiot talking to a rock, but he did it anyway. To his surprise and amazement, the plain, gray stone began to grow transparent and continued to change until Kieren could almost see through it. Studying this transformation closely, Kieren concluded it must work in a similar fashion as the crystal side of his medallion. Fascinated, he did not take his eyes off of it for even an instant.

Kieren was beginning to think nothing more was going to take place and was about to set the stone down when Beraut's face suddenly formed inside the now transparent surface. Once the wizard's head had completely materialized, his eyes locked onto Kieren's and he started to speak.

"Kieren, I hope you will eventually forgive me for having to leave you like this, but I know you will do fine without me," the wizard assured him. "Just remember, my dear boy, that I sincerely believe you are the one who will fulfill the prophecy. Good will eventually triumph and in your own fashion you will do what needs to be done. Kieren, it is obvious to me that you are a very competent individual and I have the utmost faith in your ability. If I didn't believe it was so important for me to be with the army, then I wouldn't have considered leaving you at this juncture, but this is something I must do. Just like you, I have a mission to complete as well, and even though there are other things I may wish to do instead, I must fulfill my duty first and foremost."

Beraut suddenly stopped speaking and seemed to be staring directly at his ward from out of the rock. It appeared to Kieren as if the wizard was gazing directly into his very soul.

"Kieren, you must come to grips with whatever concerns you still harbor and discover a way to resolve those issues before you face Madumda," Beraut warned. "If you don't, he will use your fears and doubts against you when you finally meet up. Please believe in our cause and in your ability to complete this task, no matter how impossible it may seem from time to time. Above all else, believe in yourself."

"Yeah, yeah," Kieren instinctively replied, talking back to the rock. "I've heard it all before, but I'm not so sure I believe it any longer."

After saying this to himself, Kieren suddenly turned toward the elf and added another comment.

"I think he says things like that just so I'll keep going. It doesn't mean he really believes what he is saying," he added, while making a face.

Alairic was shocked when he heard Kieren's response, so felt he had to speak up and let him know what he thought.

"Kieren, if you don't believe anything else," the elf stated, "then be certain of one thing. Beraut, just like the rest of us, has no doubt that you will be successful. Garreth and Romaric have expressed those sentiments to you repeatedly, as well as telling it to the rest of us. None of us would say something like this just to make you go on."

The elf was looking quite stern and very serious, because he hoped his demeanor would help to convince Kieren of his sincerity. However, that wasn't necessary, since Kieren had already begun to feel the honesty of his comments from the tone in his voice and the expressions on his face. For quite a few seconds after that, Kieren merely reflected upon what Beraut and Alairic had told him. He could tell they both had more faith in his ability than he had in himself, so this only added to his guilt.

"Alairic, I'm just so confused," Kieren admitted, sheepishly. "I really don't know what to do."

"Then just do the job you were destined for and start having as much faith in yourself as we have in you," the elf advised him. "Will you promise me you'll do that?"

Kieren thought about Alairic's comments for a few seconds before he responded.

"I promise I'll try to do whatever I can to complete this mission and defeat the Dark Lord," he tentatively agreed. "I'm just not sure if my efforts will be good enough," he added, to show he still wasn't thoroughly convinced.

"I have no doubts it will prove more than adequate and you will be successful," Alairic countered, as he reassuringly put his arm around the lad's shoulders. "Come on. We'd better get moving, so we can take advantage of every hour of daylight that is left."

The elf quickly guided Kieren back to where he had bedded down the previous evening. Alairic then helped Kieren roll up his bedding and put it in his pack. Once they had done that, Alairic spoke to him once again.

"We're running late, so I hope you don't mind eating on the move," the elf suggested, before whispering something else in his ear.

"Kieren, even though Beraut is not here with you in body, I'm sure he'll always be with you in spirit. No matter what you might think, I can assure you that you will never be far from his heart and thoughts while you are separated."

Even if he wasn't willing to admit it, those words touched Kieren deeply. It also forced him to think about everything he had just been told. He finally concluded that he had to go on; although he still wasn't convinced he would be able to find the strength to do so. Putting his doubts aside, Kieren picked up his gear and went to stand by his companions, as he silently let them know he was ready to continue.

Without saying a word, Qaim started on his way and led them along the base of the Citadel Mountains. As they began to tromp forward, Kieren thought he heard his aged guardian utter one final warning to him.

"Be on the lookout for giant condor and always remember to use all the resources at your disposal."

Startled, and suddenly thinking the wizard had returned, Kieren paused and began to look around, but Beraut wasn't anywhere to be seen. This sent a chill up the youngster's spine, because it had seemed so real, but he quickly understood it couldn't have been. Uncertain as to how to react to this, Kieren eventually chose to whisper a very simple reply.

"I will," he said, before continuing on his way.

Beraut had left the encampment before the first light of dawn began to split the darkness. He was retracing his steps back toward Thorold when he began to encounter a very light drizzle. This caused his gaze to turn skyward, as he tried to determine what the weather gods had in store for him. The wizard quickly recognized the storm clouds that were moving into the area and hovering low overhead. He read this as a sure sign he would have to endure much more than a light mist before the day was over.

From that point on, however, most of Beraut's attention was focused on what he was doing. Even though he was following the same path they had taken to get there, he still had to very carefully select his footing. Occasionally, the thorns would snag at his robe or his feet would become ensnared by a tangle of weeds, such as happened to Doenilio. However, most of the time he was busy searching the sky for the condor.

Beraut kept his focus on the mountain range to the south while doing this, because that was where he would occasionally catch a glimpse of the airborne scout as it looked for intruders and food. As soon as he spotted the bothersome bird facing in his direction, the wizard would immediately crouch down, lay his staff at his side and pull his robe securely around his body, in an effort to blend in with his surroundings. He did this to make certain that he became invisible to the monstrous bird, because he didn't wish to provoke a confrontation with it before he was ready.

Even with all of these slight delays, Beraut was still able to travel much more quickly than he had on his way from Thorold. This time there weren't any others to slow him down and he always traveled at a much brisker pace when he was alone. In addition to that, he also had a path to follow this time, one which had already been well trampled down.

Beraut had decided to use this route and stay on the northern edge of the valley for a couple of reasons. First, traveling over this path would make the journey slightly easier. Second, he didn't wish to wear down another trail that the condor might be able to spot from the air. Finally, he wanted to stay as far away from that blasted bird as he could, and since the condor seemed most interested in the southern mountain range at the moment, Beraut would stay to the north. It also allowed him to cover about twice as much ground in the same amount of time it had taken on his previous journey in the opposite direction.

As he traveled along, it seemed as if he could see Thorley rising up in the distance even sooner than he'd anticipated. He knew this meant he was making good time and would quickly be changing course. Once he was directly across from Death's Door, he would change direction and angle across the valley floor. He would use that gap in the mountains to reach the plains on the other side. It was basically his only option though, since the door he and the others had used to enter the valley was now closed and sealed.

When he reached that spot a few minutes later, he suddenly veered due south and continued his journey. Unfortunately, this also made his travels more difficult, since he was now forced to make a new path. Undeterred, the wizard started along this final stretch, as he sought to escape the haunted valley.

Once again, he had to watch his step and battle the untrampled undergrowth, but his passing was mostly uneventful. However, the closer Beraut got to the break in the mountain chain, the more cautious he became. He did this for a number of reasons, but the chief among them was the fact that he was extremely worried about what he might find there.

As he neared the opening, the wizard stopped and scanned the area thoroughly first, before going any farther. He certainly wasn't about to just blindly rush in and then possibly encounter an unwanted surprise at this juncture. When he eventually began to take his first steps into the pass, he looked up and spied Madumda's pet circling overhead once again. This forced him to duck out of sight and wait until it had passed from view before he was able to continue.

While waiting for the condor to leave, Beraut had a troubling thought. He wondered if the damned bird had taken Doenilio's body to its master, as a cat might take a mouse or a bird home to show off its accomplishments. If it had, then Madumda might know something was amiss and would already be scanning the area. It was also possible that he could have assigned scouting parties to investigate the problem further and be on the lookout for intruders.

Considering what these possibilities might mean, for both the army and himself, Beraut was extremely concerned. Although he was deeply troubled, the wizard resumed his journey as soon as the condor faded into the distance. Beraut knew he had to make the utmost haste in returning to Thorold, because the threat the condor posed meant he would now have to slightly alter his previous plans concerning the dwarf troops. This, in turn, would force him to revise his strategies and devise new procedures, although he would have very little time to do any of these things.

Beraut couldn't travel as quickly as he would have liked through the pass, because he discovered it was littered with a great deal of debris. Much of the rubble had cascaded down the slopes of the mountains, either loosened by the weather or dislodged by the animals that roamed the upper slopes. Due to the uneven footing this created, Beraut had to be careful where he stepped. The last thing he needed was to twist an ankle or inadvertently fall and injure himself.

As he continued to weave his way through this veritable maze of pebbles, rocks and clumps of dirt, Beraut began to see other things cluttering the path as well. He spotted a number of bones from various animal species interspersed among the other debris and he paused briefly to consider their source. He finally concluded these skeletons, which were more or less intact, were most likely the remains of animals that had wandered into the valley and were then driven mad. Once that happened, they inadvertently made their way to this location, where they later died.

From the looks of things, it was abundantly clear this route was seldom, if ever, used in recent times. In fact, Beraut may have been the first person to traverse it in many decades. As he continued his journey, the wizard discovered even more skeletal remains scattered about. Suddenly, he began to get an uneasy feeling about these new sets of bones.

The wizard noticed that some of the skeletons still had fresh bits of meat attached to the bones and this didn't make any sense to him. If the animal had merely wandered into the gap and died there, then the few pieces meat that remained wouldn't appear to be as recent. Instead, they would be dried up and rotting. If the animal had truly died as recently as these scraps indicated, then there would have been much more meat still left behind, not just a few scattered remnants.

On the other hand, if the animal had been killed somewhere else and then brought here to be feasted on, then it would make more sense. But what type of creature would do that, especially this close to the haunted valley beyond? Regrettably, the wizard also couldn't understand why whatever had killed these animals would have left before all of the meat had been consumed. If it wasn't concerned about the threats the valley posed, then why else would it have left so prematurely?

As he continued on, Beraut also began to notice what appeared to be huge gashes dug into the leftover patches of meat on the carrion, as well as etched into their bones. This made it seem as if a knife or a sword had been used to either kill the creature or to remove the meat. This also didn't make a great deal of sense. In fact, the thought of something like this taking place began to trouble the wizard greatly. Even though many of the bones showed similar damage, as if a blade had in deed been used, this evidence didn't seem to fit in with what the wizard would have expected. He couldn't imagine any of the races willingly wandering this close to the Valley of the Dead and tempting fate in this manner.

The problem was, nothing else made sense either. If animals had devoured the meat from these bones, then why would there be signs of blade marks? On the other hand, Beraut was fairly certain that men and dwarfs no longer used this route. Even if they did, he doubted any of them would ever think of venturing this far into the pass. The wizard was fairly certain that even the bravest trespasser would be leery of lingering here, especially to use that time to cut up or consume his kill. It would be more likely that he'd opt to take the entire carcass out of this location, as quickly as he could.

Beraut conjectured that most of those who'd be adventurous enough to wander into this place would also be respectful. If they didn't fear being in this location and possibly exposing themselves to the maddening wails from the valley beyond, they would at least be more cautious than doing something like this. If this were true, then there had to be some other explanation for the marks, but the wizard couldn't seem to come up with another possibility that would fit the scenario and still make sense.

Putting this matter out of his mind for the time being, the wizard kept moving on until he came upon the carcass of a fairly large animal. Beraut judged that it must have been killed somewhat recently, since the remaining tissue was still fairly fresh. The wizard also figured this was most likely all that was left of a snow ape, which he was able to surmise due to the patches of white fur that were still attached and visible. Even so, the wizard couldn't find any signs of the animal's head and a large portion of its hide and much of its meat were also missing.

The fact that it had been mostly consumed was to be expected, but the missing skull and large section of the pelt gave Beraut one more clue he needed to begin to solve this problem. Using this information, the wizard was able to conclude the animal hadn't merely wandered into the pass and then died here, only to later be eaten by scavengers. If it had, then those scrounging for food from dead carcasses wouldn't have carried off the head or hide afterward. They would have only been interested in the bones with the meat still attached, but some of those had been left behind. There were also very few signs of fresh blood in this area, which there should have been if this animal had been killed there. Therefore, Beraut quickly deduced this animal must have been slain, decapitated and partially skinned elsewhere, before what was left of the creature was brought to this location to be devoured.

The wizard also surmised there must have been a reason it was carried here, except he had no idea what it might be. It didn't dawn on him until he came upon his next unpleasant discovery, because there in the middle of the path were pieces of dwarfish armor. Beraut knew they looked familiar and instantly realized what it meant. The condor had not taken this particular victim back to its master. Instead, the giant bird treated this recent acquisition as a mere snack and brought the morsel to this place, where it often brought its catch to dine.

As the wizard moved a few steps farther along this byway, he began to see bones that had most likely belonged to this latest victim. He became certain of this gruesome fact when he came across what was left of the dwarf's head. Beraut then paused briefly next to what remained of Doenilio's body, so he could say a final prayer in honor of the dwarf's ultimate sacrifice.

The discovery of Doenilio's remains gave the wizard the final piece of the puzzle and confirmed his worst suspicions. He immediately looked skyward, to see if he could detect any signs of the beast, but saw nothing. Not wishing to risk an encounter that would jeopardize his other plans, Beraut set out again. He continued to move as quickly as he dared, while constantly scanning the horizon for Madumda's scout. A confrontation at this point would not only cost him valuable time and potential injury, but it would drain him of much needed strength and possibly alert the Dark Lord to his presence there. The wizard had far too much to lose and very little to gain from such an engagement.

Beraut almost sprinted forward now, while doing his best to get out of the area before the damn bird reappeared. As he traveled on, he passed more and more bones, most of which had been stripped completely clean of meat and bleached by the sun. This meant they must have been there for quite a long time. Others had the telltale traces of flesh still clinging to them, meaning they were more recent kills. Putting all of these facts together, the wizard concluded this place was frequently used as a dining area for the beast and had served this purpose for quite some time.

As the wizard continued his travels, he discovered what was left of a second dwarf. It was obvious this scattered skeleton was not part of Doenilio's remains, because there was a second skull. Not only that, but the wizard could tell these bones had been there much longer, because they were slightly weathered. In addition to that, most of the tiny fragments of flesh that might have been left behind had already rotted away. This was most likely the remains of a hunter who had ventured too far to the east in search of game. To his misfortune, this inadvertent foray into the region patrolled by the condor had cost him dearly.

Beraut knew condors were generally scavengers, but he also understood this one was different. It was so large, powerful and possessed such a voracious appetite that it went against its natural instincts. Instead of merely scavenging the carcasses of deceased or dying animals, this one actually went out of its way to attack its victims, so it could eat as much as it desired. This discovery reaffirmed Beraut's resolve to get out of the pass before the creature returned, since he didn't wish to do battle or become a midday snack for the insatiable feathered fiend.

These thoughts sent Beraut scurrying down the pathway once more. His feet were barely touching the ground as he sped along the rubble-strewn trail, going as quickly as he dared. He had barely started on his way again when his keen sense of hearing picked up the sound made by giant wings beating in the air off to his left. Instinctively, Beraut knelt beside a large boulder and placed his staff at his feet. Then, he pulled his head into the folds of the hood and withdrew his hands into the sleeves.

As he melted into his surroundings, the beating sound steadily intensified and the wind began to stir around him. The gentle rain that had been falling throughout the day was now being blown forcefully into the openings of his garments and were painfully stinging his body. The increased force with which this was happening made it feel as if tiny needles were suddenly pricking his skin.

The wizard became extremely nervous and silently prayed the gusting wind generated by the creature's wings wouldn't blow the hood from his head and inadvertently expose him to his enemy. Instinctively, Beraut pressed his body against the huge boulder, so he could use it to help keep his robe securely in position. The prodigious animal landed awkwardly, not even fifty meters away from Beraut's current hiding place.

The wizard wondered why this fiend had chosen this moment to return and questioned if it had sensed his presence and come to challenge him. Once the wind died down and the bird had settled in, Beraut was able to move his head slightly, so he could observe what was going on. He quickly recognized the behemoth didn't appear to be looking for him and was merely carrying another lifeless creature in its talons.

Almost as soon as it touch the ground, the condor began to tear the meat apart, which sent droplets of blood flying everywhere. Once it had ripped a chunk of meat free, using either its beak or talons, it began to feast upon the flesh. Regardless of how repulsive this spectacle appeared, Beraut continued to witness it in anonymity.

The wizard spent most of his time looking for any weakness or potential flaws in the behemoth massive frame. Beraut thought such information might come in handy for later use, when he would be called upon to face the condor in battle. The wizard was busily scrutinizing the animal's wings, when the condor unexpectedly lifted its head and peered around the hillside. It was almost as if it had detected some sort of disturbance.

'It is not yet time for us to do battle, my feathered friend,' Beraut thought to himself. 'Soon, however, we will be forced to test each other's strength and ability. For now, eat quickly and be on your way, so that I may reach my destination and prepare for our eventual encounter.'

After scrutinizing the area for several agonizing minutes, the mighty bird became satisfied there wasn't any evidence of an intruder and went back to its feast. Greedily, it used its talons to slice off another chunk of meat. Seeing this happen, Beraut calculated it was this particular activity that had accounted for the gashes he had mistaken for blade marks earlier. Now that he had figured this out, the wizard refocused on the condor as it greedily gulped down another piece of its recent kill, before repeating the process and extracting the next morsel. It didn't take long before the bird had devoured the vast majority of its prey and temporarily sated its appetite.

Now that it had finished this snack, the condor lunged skyward again and used its powerful wings to beat the air, as it lifted its massive frame toward the heavens. Beraut studied its every move as it rose up into the sky, then nearly as soon as the vulture was out of sight; the wizard seized the opportunity to make his escape from Death's Door. He certainly did not wish to stick around this area any longer and tempt fate further.

It was nearing twilight when Beraut emerged from the southern opening of the pass and he was extremely grateful to finally be free of the confining slopes that had surrounded him. Realizing he still had some distance to go before he could partake of King Brolin's hospitality again, he hurried forward. He wished to reach the dwarf stronghold as quickly as he could. He not only wished to fill the dwarf monarch in about his journey, but he now had other preparations he would need to attend to.

The wizard was currently drenched from the rain, since he'd been exposed to it for such a long time. The combination of the added weight of the water that had soaked into his clothing and the long, difficult journey left him quite exhausted. Luckily, however, not everything was quite so bleak. For one thing, his new path was unencumbered of any other obstacles or hazards, but the rain was also beginning to ease up as well. Carefully, he struck out on the final leg of his travels to the dwarf capital, but this time his way was clear and the current threat behind him. For those reasons, the wizard was able to cover a great deal of ground and was rapidly approaching the junction where the two mountain chains merged.

Surprisingly, Beraut had been able to make this trip in just about half the time it had taken him and the others to cross the Valley of the Dead. For this reason, it wasn't long before he was climbing the roadway that led to the front gate of the dwarf kingdom. Having at last reached his destination, the wizard's thoughts now turned to enjoying a relaxing evening with his host.

It was well after dark when Beraut knocked at the main entrance, as he sought admittance through the secured portal. As he banged the iron shod tip of his staff against the massive gate, it created a thunderous boom, the volume of which was quite shocking to those on the other side. Hearing it, the guard immediately jumped up and opened the small observation window, so he could issue his challenge.

"Who seeks admittance to Thorold after the gates have been closed for the evening?"

"Master Gatekeeper, it is I, Beraut, on a mission of business with your king," the wizard stated. "Would you please be so kind as to open the portal, so I may attend to urgent matters with your liege."

"Master Beraut, would you please move into the light so I can verify your identity," came the reply.

Beraut complied and took a step to his left and then bent down slightly, so the light from the torch was now above his head and illuminated his features. Once the sentry recognized the wizard, the smaller opening closed and the main gate began to swing open. The weary wizard slipped through the entrance just as soon as the crack was wide enough to accommodate his larger frame. Then, he waited patiently for a few moments, until the door had been secured again. Once this had happened, the gatekeeper turned and addressed him.

"My apologies for my gruffness and the delay, Master Beraut. Your arrival startled me."

"I understand and it was not a problem," Beraut assured him. "Would you be so kind as to have someone take me to a place where I might clean up and change my clothing before I meet with King Brolin?"

Even though the wizard was a fairly frequent visitor to the dwarf kingdom and could have done this on his own, he didn't wish to appear rude and bypass the normal courtesies.

"Everything has been prearranged," the gatekeeper informed him. "The King has planned an evening meal and now awaits your return."

The guard then turned and barked out an order to the other soldiers with him. Within a few seconds, another trooper came to join them.

"If you will please follow my subordinate," the gatekeeper stated, "he will lead you to your room. While you are seeing to your needs, I will send another messenger to advise the king about your arrival."

"Please have your messenger tell the king that he should begin dining without me and I shall join him shortly." Beraut advised the dwarf, while also giving a weak smile as he did so. This evoked a return grin from the doughty gatekeeper before he responded.

"Very well," he added, before dispatching another messenger to relay this tidbit of information.

Once this had been taken care of, Beraut left with his guide and was led to a suitable room. After arriving, a procession of servants entered his quarters lugging buckets of water to prepare his bath and taking care of other matters. Before long, Beraut was completely immersed in the soothing tub of warm water, but he could hear others still entering and exiting his room. Presumably they were there to take his dirty clothing and leave fresh, clean ones in their place.

After he finished bathing, the wizard dried his body and then dressed in the garments that had been left behind for this purpose. As soon as he felt he was presentable, he strode into the corridor where a young dwarf was patiently waiting for him and ready to lead him to the Royal Dining Hall. Even though Beraut had been here many times before and a guide wasn't necessary, the wizard followed him nevertheless. After all, they were only showing him the respect he had earned during his many years of service to the various races.

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