Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity
by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
Beraut's dwarf guide knocked on the door of King Brolin's private dining hall and a servant opened it a few seconds later. As the wizard stepped inside, he could see the king and a couple of his military leaders had been merely sitting and chatting with each other before he arrived. Noting this, he concluded they had either not received his message or chosen to ignore his suggestion to begin the meal without him.
"Good evening, Beraut," the king greeted him, just as soon as the wizard passed through the doorway. "Come in and make yourself comfortable. I hope you don't mind that I've invited Commander Elgin and Captain Baith to join us?"
"Not at all, Your Majesty," the wizard responded. "I would need to brief them on these matters anyway, so this will save us all some time."
The king nodded his understanding, as Beraut moved to the table and took a seat.
"We're all starving, so I suggest we begin eating first, before we conduct any business," the king indicated.
"I thought a messenger had been sent to advise you to go ahead and begin the meal without me, since I was so late returning," Beraut offered apologetically. "I didn't wish to hold you up any longer and would have been satisfied to merely join in after I arrived."
"The guard did relay your message," King Brolin agreed, "but we preferred to wait for you to join us. Dig in and we can chat while we eat, if that will make you feel better."
The wizard nodded in agreement and the four of them began dining. Eagerly, each of them filled his plate and then a few minutes later the king spoke again.
"Please tell us things went as anticipated with the others," the dwarf ruler stated, after they each had the opportunity to take a few mouthfuls. "I pray that everything went as planned, your journey was uneventful and Kieren and the others are all well."
"No harm has befallen Kieren, but not all of the other members of the group were quite as fortunate. I'm sorry to advise you that Doenilio is no longer among the living," Beraut stated, as he studied each of their reactions.
A collective gasp could be heard when the dwarfs received this news and then each of them sat in total shock for a few seconds, as they assimilated the implication. Once the news had finally sunk in, King Brolin broke the silence.
"What happened?" the ruler finally choked out. "Was it the result of an accident or did something else occur?"
Beraut could not only read the sadness in the king's eyes, but it was also clearly reflected in his expression. After all, he was the one who had volunteered Doenilio and the other pair for this hazardous duty, so Beraut could understand how the king might feel responsible for what had occurred.
"It was an accident," the wizard explained. "He tripped and fell, which caused him to lose his helmet. This, in turn, loosened his protective gear and exposed him to the madness of the valley. Unfortunately, it also led to his death."
The wizard took a deep breath and looked around the room again, as he studied the faces before him. He was trying to gauge if the others had caught his implication that the two events were separate.
"I'm afraid this is not the only news I bring that may not be welcome to your ears," the wizard continued. "This information will also affect the plans we laid out previously, especially those concerning Commander Elgin and his troops."
At the mention of his name, Commander Elgin leaned forward and peeked around King Brolin, so he could hear every word the wizard was about to utter. He was eager to learn what Beraut was referring to.
"Have any unexplained disappearances from this wondrous realm been reported lately?" Beraut asked next.
This question not only surprised them, but they were also trying to figure out what it had to do with the other things Beraut had been telling them about. As they were contemplating this minor conundrum, the wizard was studying their faces as well, as he glanced around the table. The dwarfs were busy looking from one to the other, while silently deciding who should speak and answer the wizard's query.
"Only one," replied the Commander, once he felt it was up to him to do so. "A messenger was dispatched several weeks ago and never reached his destination. Unfortunately, there have been no explanations or indications as to what might have happened to him."
Beraut looked at each of them again, while trying to think of the best way to break the news. Even though he suspected the dwarfs assumed something tragic had befallen the messenger, it still wasn't going to be easy to advise them about another death. Therefore, he felt it would probably be best to just get right to the point.
"I regret to inform you that your messenger has also suffered a similar fate as the one that befell Doenilio. As I traveled through Death's Door, I discovered his remains in amongst the other debris."
The wizard was about to give them a few more details, but someone else spoke up first, before he could continue.
"In Death's Door? No, it can't be," Captain Baith blurted out. "It's impossible. His destination was nowhere near that accursed place!"
"I'm afraid he was attacked first," the wizard responded, "and his body was then carried to the spot where I discovered his remains."
Beraut could see the agitation building within the young military leader and understood there was more involved than what he'd previously been told.
"But how?" the Captain of the Guard asked, probably more forcefully than was wise. "Why would anyone ambush him and then carry his body to that god forsaken place?"
"At the moment, the reasons are unimportant," Beraut replied, simply.
The wizard didn't want to waste valuable time explaining this right now, but it was readily apparent that Captain Baith wasn't happy with his answer. The dwarf did, however, ask another question to see if he could get to the bottom of this mystery.
"Do you know perchance who was responsible?" the captain asked, while looking very concerned.
"I do," the wizard admitted skeptically, since he was concerned as to where this question might be leading.
"Then I must know who the culprit is!" Captain Baith announced defiantly.
"It is not a foe that you or your troops have ever seen before," the wizard informed him. "It is also not one you would be able to deal with on your own,"
"I will do what I must, regardless of the foe," Baith continued, as the volume of his voice increased with every syllable he uttered. "It is my duty to avenge his death and I will not rest until the guilty party has paid for his crime!"
As the captain finished his comment, he glanced around the room. As he did so, he noticed everyone's eyes were locked upon him. Seeing the others' expressions made him realize he had concluded his statement with such volume and forcefulness that it still hung in the room as an uncomfortable silence. No one seemed to quite know how to respond to him after his forceful outburst.
"He was my cousin," Captain Baith offered softly, while hoping this tidbit of information would serve as both an apology and explanation. "It is my familial duty to avenge his death, so I will do whatever it takes," he added, almost as an afterthought.
"Your courage speaks for itself, sir, and your passion for your family is indeed great," the wizard replied. "I only pray that you learn to control your temper and hasty impulses, no matter how well intentioned you think they are."
The wizard paused briefly after saying this, to give his message time to sink in. Once he felt he saw a response in the captain's face, Beraut continued.
"King Brolin and Commander Elgin have both told me about your potential as a leader," the wizard admitted. "They have also expressed concerns about your frequent inability to govern your emotions. If you continue to react in such a rash fashion, I can only assume your days as a valued military leader may be numbered."
Captain Baith immediately turned a deep crimson after this mild rebuke. Since he had just been chastised for his statements, he felt he needed to offer an explanation.
"But it is my duty as his kin," the Captain offered, although it appeared to convince no one in the room. "My family will expect that of me, if I am able to learn what happened to him."
"I'm sure your intentions are honorable and you feel they are justified," Beraut told him in a less harsh tone, "but an attempt of this nature will only lead to your own demise. The one that killed your cousin was not a man, elf, dwarf, gnome, troll or any other race you know of."
"Then what was it?" the Captain asked, confused.
The dwarf was totally unable to comprehend how an assassin wouldn't belong to one of those races, since he knew of no others. He was also impatient and didn't think the wizard answered him quickly enough, so he prodded Beraut further.
"Then who or what could have done this?" Baith continued. "I believe you have covered everything except a wild animal, but I don't see any reason for one of those creatures to kill my cousin and then drag his body all the way to Death's Door."
"What killed your cousin is something you have only heard about in legend," the wizard stated, cryptically. "Until recently, it was also something most of Tarolia had thought died out long ago. I will agree it is an animal, but it is not one that will be dealt with easily. Even I am not convinced I would be able to destroy it on my own."
"I certainly do not wish to question your powers or abilities, Master Beraut," Captain Baith responded, "but there is no creature that I would run from. I would stand and fight whatever it was, especially if it was the one that killed my kinsman."
Beraut merely stared at the captain and shook his head. He was totally astounded that his words were not getting through to the thickheaded dwarf.
"From what you have told us, Beraut," King Brolin interjected, in an attempt to clarify and defuse the situation, "It is quite clear that you are not referring to the Dark Lord. However, I can not think of anything else that would tax your skills."
"It is a much greater threat than even I had anticipated," the wizard replied. "No, it is not Madumda's powers to which I allude, Your Majesty, but the brute of which I speak is one of the Dark Lord's creations. It is enormous in both size and physical strength, and a creature that might be able to withstand even the most powerful blow I could deliver against it. In fact, one of its ancestors helped to put us in this predicament in the first place."
"You don't mean? No, that can't be," the king thought aloud, as an expression of horrified unease became etched upon his face.
"Yes, it could be and it is," the wizard confirmed. "It's one of Madumda's condors, which he has obviously continued to breed to serve him. The one I encountered was considerably larger than the one that was reportedly used to kill King Orthilue, so I suspect it is also more powerful than its ancestor."
After saying this, he turned toward Captain Baith. Beraut now looked the young officer directly in the eye and held his gaze, before filling him in concerning the monstrous bird. The wizard carefully emphasized the enormity of this beast and the extent of its appetite, before he announced that it was also magically endowed. He did this to impress upon the dwarf what a truly formidable adversary the condor would be. Once he was certain the captain understood and appreciated its devastating potential, he continued.
"That's what killed Doenilio and your cousin," Beraut advised him and then he turned toward the king. "I humbly request that you extend my deepest condolences to both of their families."
"I shall see it is done," King Brolin responded, which caused the wizard to nod his head once, as a silent thank you. "My only question is, how can a creature of such enormous stature still exist, yet we were unaware of this fact until now?"
"It is my belief that Madumda must have kept them secured at a location we were totally unaware of," the wizard explained. "It is possible this was done in or around the Iron Hills, which is home to the Merropites, or in the area around the Dragon's Head Mountains, where the gnomes reside. I also suspect the Dark Lord has been feeding his pets livestock and not allowing them to fly around and hunt freely, in a conscientious effort to keep us from prematurely learning of their existence.
"I believe this arrangement must have changed fairly recently though, because it appears that for the past several months Madumda has been allowing his pets out to hunt. I assume at first he merely allowed them do this on the slopes closest to where they were being kept and controlled how far they ranged by using his magic. I think he later moved them to a spot closer to Treblanc and began to let them hunt the southern edge of the Amber Mountains, as well as the northern slopes of the Citadel Mountain range. This gave them the chance to hunt the slopes surrounding the Valley of the Dead. I think Madumda felt safe doing this, since they were in an area where few others would be prone to see them."
"This is dire news indeed," the king added. "I suppose it is also the reason you stated that you will need to alter your previous plans for our troops."
"It most certainly is. This creature now poses a substantial threat to the group heading to Tunstan," Beraut continued, after a brief pause. "From what I noticed during my journey through the valley on my return trip here, it now appears as if its master is allowing it to venture across both sides of the mountain ranges. This might be due to two reasons.
"First," the wizard continued, after taking a sip of wine, "is the fact that it has exhausted the food supply in the other areas, I also have a feeling Madumda is using it to prevent our troops from freely moving about. It appears he might be concerned about a group attacking Treblanc using a mountainous route, so he is using the condor to keep that from happening. He may have also figured out that we were planning to reinforce the Tunstanese army with additional troops by sneaking them along the base of the mountains. For those reasons, we will now have to factor the condor into our planning."
"I certainly hope you have some suggestions about what those under my command will be able to do to protect themselves against this threat?" Commander Elgin followed.
"I do have some ideas about how we might camouflage your troops and prevent them from being spotted. Hopefully, this will be sufficient to keep your warriors from having an encounter with that monster." Beraut advised him, which caused the commander to nod in understanding.
"To pull this off," the wizard continued, "I will require each of your soldiers to bring a large rectangular wicker basket lid and a large piece of burlap with them when I prepare your troops for the journey. They will also need a moderate supply of other items that would typically be found on the lower reaches of the mountain slopes, as well as the surrounding grasslands. This would include twigs, small stones and various small plants, which should be collected in such a manner that the dirt is still clinging to the roots."
"I believe I understand what you are up to," Commander Elgin replied.
"I'm sure you do," the wizard agreed, while cracking a wry and understanding smile.
After saying this, Beraut turned toward Captain Baith and addressed him next.
"Would you mind if I accompanied you and your troops to Veleda?" he followed, while eyeing the dwarf apprehensively.
Beraut was convinced the young dwarf would agree to his request, although he wanted to gauge his reaction when asked. The wizard was doing this to see how he handled himself after the mild scolding Beraut had given him earlier.
"No, not at all," the Captain of the Guard responded without any hesitation or showing any noticeable reaction at all. "My troops and I will be greatly honored by your presence. You shall join me at the front of our ranks, as befitting your exalted position, along with King Brolin."
At this pronouncement, the wizard furrowed his brow and gave a puzzling glance in the direction of the monarch.
"Captain Baith, would you please make certain your warriors are ready to form up on the plains below the front entrance, just as soon as I have finished assisting Commander Elgin's troops," the wizard continued, after turning his attention back to the military leader. "It would not only be greatly appreciated, but it will make things go much quicker and smoother if your troops are standing ready at the front gates an hour before midday."
The Captain nodded his agreement and started to get up, since he also thought Beraut had finished with him. However, when he stood up to leave, the wizard had even more to tell him.
"If you would be so kind, I'd also appreciate it if you would order a couple units of your most trusted and accomplished soldiers, as well as yourself, to carry the large, rectangular repelling shields with them," the wizard added. "Also ask them to bring enough burlap along to completely wrap around the shield, because I have another idea about how I want to use them. This plan, however, has nothing to do with the condor."
The captain was shocked by this request and quickly challenged the wizard about it.
"I'm not sure what you have planned, but what you are asking doesn't make any sense to me," he argued. "We will need all of our troops during the fighting and they will be far more likely to be involved in hand-to-hand combat, rather than repelling an artillery assault. Our smaller battle shields would be a far wiser choice for what we will be facing?"
Even though this would only involve a small portion of his fighting force, the captain was obviously convinced the wizard's decision was misguided. However, his response to the situation raised some eyebrows among the other three in the room.
"That would be true, if I were only concerned about using your troops in the battle itself," the wizard agreed. "On the other hand, your battle shields would be highly inappropriate for the task I have in mind for that portion of your command. When the time comes, those troops may either engage the enemy using their repelling shields or simply discard them and grab a battle shield from one of the fallen soldiers."
Captain Baith thought about this suggestion briefly, before responding.
"That could be a potentially fatal option for them," he countered, "even if the tide of battle allows us to make such an exchange, it will be very awkward and difficult for them to bend down and exchange shields while they are trying to keep from being killed."
This comment caused Beraut to flash a look of exasperation at the young dwarf captain. It also caused Commander Elgin and King Brolin to flinch slightly. Captain Baith was apparently not only challenging the wizard's authority, but this was also a very uncharacteristic and highly unusual questioning of orders.
"Once again," Beraut begin, as he began to chastise Baith one more time, "your rashness causes you to misgauge the overall situation. You tend to speak before you have all of the facts or have taken the appropriate time to think things through."
The wizard then stared at Baith and studied his reaction to what he had just said. Beraut noted the dwarf's discomfort and paused for a few more seconds before saying anything more. He was waiting to see if the dwarf was going to say anything else, but that never happened. Therefore, the wizard spoke again.
"I didn't mean for you and your warriors to procure the shields DURING the battle, but possibly after a skirmish ended or before the next one began. I am convinced each of you would be able to survive at least one brief encounter using the repelling shield, at least until you are able to retrieve something you deem more appropriate."
By this time, Captain Baith was quite red faced, since this rebuke stung just as sharply as the last. He was about to confront Beraut again, when Commander Elgin cut him off.
"Captain Baith," the commander barked out quite loudly, to make sure he had his subordinate's attention. "If Beraut has nothing more for us, then I think you and I need to go prepare our troops."
The Commander now turned toward the wizard and the king, while Captain Baith was still looking at him.
"Your Highness and Master Beraut, if we may have your leave?" the commander continued.
"You may," the king offered simply, while Beraut nodded in agreement.
Beraut definitely understood what Elgin was trying to do and that he was planning to deal with his subordinate in his own way. As the dwarfs were leaving the room, the wizard offered one more comment.
"I shall see you both in the morning."
As the two military leaders closed the door behind them, the dwarf king turned toward the wizard and acted as if he expected Beraut to leave as well. He apparently assumed the wizard had other matters he might wish to attend to, but the enchanter didn't move. Instead, he looked toward the sovereign and began to speak.
"He may have the potential to turn out to be a fine leader some day," Beraut began, "but he has some major personal issues to overcome first. For one thing, he needs to learn to control his emotional impulses and outbursts."
"I agree," the king stated, "but we've discovered he has many other remarkable attributes that seem to offset those flaws for now. In due time, and after a few more learning experiences, such as the lessons you taught him tonight, I believe he will begin to think things through and not act solely upon his feelings."
"Speaking about acting upon one's feelings, I think there is another issue we might need to discuss," the wizard announced, while scrutinizing the king. "Brolin, my dear friend, I was mildly surprised when Captain Baith welcomed me to join the two of you in the front ranks during the journey to Veleda. It appears you have changed your mind again, but I still don't think going on this mission is a wise move on your part. Even though we have discussed this before in private and you have admitted to me that you are no longer young enough for the rigors of battle, it seems you still plan to go. I am confused as to why you are reversing your decision like this at such a late date."
"Because I feel I must," King Brolin replied, quite adamantly, while scowling at the wizard. "I only agreed to that previously in order to get you off my back. No matter what you say, you are not going to keep me out of this fray, even though I am well aware of the fact that I am no longer the warrior I once was."
Beraut continued to study the dwarf leader, but he could clearly tell he was not going to change his mind. As Beraut started to open his mouth, the dwarf king immediately cut him off.
"Save your breath, my old friend," the defiant dwarf continued, "because you are not going to convince me to stay behind. I will fight beside my countrymen against this scourge, for good or for ill."
"Be reasonable about this," the wizard countered, while trying to persuade the monarch to use logic. "How will you be able to stand against a barrage of foes that are but a mere fraction of your age?"
"My age?" the dwarf shouted back, his face reddened and his muscles tensed. "You are considerably older than I am, but that is not keeping YOU out of the action!"
"You know that is not a fair comparison," Beraut responded in a very soothing tone that he hoped would be enough to cool his impassioned response. "You must realize my magical potential gives me abilities and strength that even the years cannot dim, but that is not the case for you. You will be exhausted long before the battle is over, which will place your life in grave jeopardy."
"That may be true," the king conceded, "but I have concluded that if this effort does not turn out as we want, then I wish not to be around. I do not desire to witness the consequences of our failure or watch the things Madumda does in triumph."
"And have you also considered that you might not be around to enjoy your contributions either, should we be victorious?" Beraut persisted.
"That thought has crossed my mind," the dwarf confessed, "but I am willing to take that chance."
"How about your people?" Beraut countered. "Are they willing to take the chance that you won't be around to lead them if we are successful?"
"We will worry about that when the time comes," the king responded, although it sounded more like a ploy to get the wizard to quit questioning his decision again. "We must deal with first-things-first and that happens to be finding a way to defeat our enemy."
"And you don't think we can do that without you?" Beraut asked, unconvinced.
"I'm sure I will make little difference in the outcome," King Brolin admitted, while using a less harsh tone. "Even though I may not be needed, I still wish to do my part. If it is the gods' will that I lead my people after this conflict is over, then it is up to those same supreme beings to see to it that I survive."
Hearing this comment, Beraut began to realize this decision was based more on pride and the need to feel useful, rather than anything else.
"You are clearly more obstinate than I remember," Beraut announced, when it appeared he wasn't going to be able to change his friend's mind. "Maybe I can offer you an alternative that you will find acceptable instead. Would you be willing to serve as one of my battlefield advisors, instead of as an actual combatant? That way, you would stay in the rear and help me direct the battle without having to get physically involved in the fighting."
"That would not be my first choice," King Brolin admitted, "but it is better than staying behind with the women and children. If that will keep you from badgering me like a nagging dwarf wife, then I will accept your offer."
"Fine. Then I shall mention your stubbornness no more," the wizard replied, as he slipped in a parting shot. "I must reluctantly admit, however, that your experience in battle could be a major asset to us along the way."
The dwarf quickly feigned an expression of surprise, as his way of getting back at the wizard.
"So you think I might actually still prove to be useful in this venture?" he responded, with a touch of sarcasm in his voice. "Or am I merely misreading your implication?"
"No, you are misreading nothing. I have never doubted your ability and only occasionally have I questioned your judgment," Beraut countered, with a broad smile on his face and more than a touch of cynicism in his tone. "The problem is, this happens to be one of those instances when your judgment comes into play. However, I welcome your company and assistance in this new role."
"Thank you, my wise friend," King Brolin responded, and he was smiling as well, "but I also welcome the chance to sleep. The hour is growing late, and as you have so sweetly pointed out, I am not a spring chicken any longer."
"I would certainly not impede an old man's slumber," the wizard offered, quite matter-of-factly, although he was unable to conceal the wry grin crossing his lips. "I shall see you in the morning then. Sweet dreams, my irascible friend."
King Brolin nodded, before reciprocating with an equally pleasant parting wish for the wizard to have a decent night's slumber. The wizard then left the room and hurriedly made his way back to his own bedchamber, so he could complete a few tasks he had not yet had time to finish. He was only partially done with these preparations when he realized he was receiving a communication. Reaching beneath his robes, he extracted a medallion similar to the one he had given Kieren, although this one had only a crystalline side. As he peered into it, he wondered if Kieren was summoning him.
To his surprise, he discovered it was not his ward, but appeared to be Daimon instead. Wondering what the musician wanted, Beraut responded and spent the next several minutes listening to the young man's report. He was in Udele and had overheard a conversation that he thought the wizard should be made aware of. After hearing what the minstrel had to report, Beraut concurred and thanked him for his vigilance.
After saying his farewell, the wizard continued with what he had been doing before the interruption, but not for very much longer. After twenty minutes or so, he began to grow drowsy and his head kept drooping downward, severely impairing his effort. Even though his extreme weariness was beginning to overcome him, he concluded he couldn't afford to stop now and forced himself to labor on.
Desperately, the wizard struggled to remain awake long enough to complete this activity. Once the task he had been working on was finally completed, the wizard dragged himself over to the bed and simply fell on top of the covers. He didn't even take time to put on his nightclothes and simply passed out from exhaustion the moment his body hit the soft embrace of the mattress.