Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity
by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories
A Slight Detour
After thinking he had heard Beraut give him a final warning, Kieren fell into formation and began to follow Qaim, as the aignx led them toward Treblanc. Hadwin and the dwarfs walked directly behind their new leader, while the boys took their position in the middle of the formation. This left Alairic, Rhys and Turquinine to bring up the rear of the group.
Although the others could see Kieren still wasn't acting as he normally would have, they didn't become overly concerned or try to engage him in conversation. They understood his current mood had been brought on by the remorse he was feeling over what had happened to Doenilio and his apprehension about being separated from the ancient wizard. Since there was little they could do to ease his troubled mind, they left him alone to work things out for himself.
As Kieren continued to struggle with these issues, his sadness grew. First of all, he realized he was going to miss not having his mentor's magical protection, especially since they were now approaching the point where he thought they would need it the most. Not only that, but he would also desperately miss the wizard's counsel and advice, because he would no longer be able to pose his questions to Beraut as they arose.
Up until now things hadn't been exactly easy, but everything that had happened had been against adversaries that were far less powerful than Madumda. As of yet, they hadn't been called upon to face an opponent with the supernatural acumen of the Dark Lord. Although the Serpent Colossus had been magically created when a sorcerer bewitched the area it lived in and it was a formidable opponent, it was no Madumda. If that monstrosity had taken every ounce of strength and skill his protectors had just to defeat it, their current situation was about to get even worse. Kieren knew it would be even more challenging to face someone with the ability of the Dark Lord, so he realized the only chance he'd have would be if they were able to locate the Sword of Kings first.
That's why they were now preparing to make their way into the Dark Lord's stronghold, in order to locate the talisman. Kieren silently prayed they would be able to find it before Madumda confronted them or else he wouldn't stand much of a chance. Kieren was so concerned about not being able to locate it that he felt he might need the extra guidance and protection only his mentor could provide. Now, he hoped that assumption was wrong.
Even traveling with this group of battle-hardened warriors and loyal friends, each of whom had already proven himself many times over, Kieren was still alarmingly uneasy. He feared the myriad of other undesirable outcomes that might occur now, since he didn't have the wizard's enormous magical prowess around to tap into. He felt he would need it, just in case the strength of mere mortals failed. He couldn't help but wonder how any of them were going to survive.
As he looked up, Kieren noticed Garreth and Romaric walking just a few steps ahead of him. This caused him to think about how the pair had recently let him know they still cared about him and would continue to be there for him. Realizing this, he no longer felt quite so alone. He was glad they had made up and weren't still fighting, because he knew he would need their companionship and support more than ever.
As he considered what his mates currently meant to him, Kieren conceded that he really did act differently toward them whenever Beraut was around. This small acknowledgement caused him to feel badly again. He reluctantly admitted, at least to himself, that when the wizard was around, he really did tend to pull away from his two best friends. He also acknowledged that he unwittingly ignored them during these times, but any apparent slight was unintentional. He wondered if that was what had added fuel to the disagreement they had at Thorold, even though the elves never brought it up. Had he actually been as insensitive and rude to them as he now imagined?
It was at that moment when Kieren decided it was time for him to show his friends that he still wanted to be close and definitely needed them around. Silently, he moved into position behind Garreth and slipped an arm over his shoulder, so he could pull his friend forward. He did this until they were walking beside Romaric. Kieren then lifted his other arm and placed it over Romaric's shoulder as well, before he pulled his two friends a little closer to him.
"I believe this might be a good time for us to sneak off to the confectioner's shop," he quipped. "What do you think?"
This caused the two elves to turn toward their friend, as they gave him a quizzical stare. Kieren merely smiled at one and then the other, to let them know his comment was meant to be a joke. Once this registered and they realized Kieren wasn't losing his grip on reality, the pair burst into laughter.
"It's not a bad idea. I could use something sweet right now," Romaric quipped back, as he played along.
The boys continued to walk like this for a brief time, as one broad, six-legged, three-headed creature. Once again they were enjoying each other's company and reveling in the fact that things between them were finally back to normal. They would have stayed walking in this fashion, if Alairic hadn't approached them from behind and urged them to move back into single file.
"In order to keep the traces of our passing to a minimum," the elf advised them, as they continued their forward progress, "you boys need to walk behind one another and not beside each other."
"Do we have to?" Kieren whined, since he wanted to maintain the closeness he and his friends were once again sharing.
"Yes, you do," the elf responded. "The wider the path we trample down, the easier it will be for the condor to spot and you know what that means. The trail will lead it straight to us."
This comment was enough to scare the boys into heeding Alairic's advice, especially after mentally reliving the scenes of what that beast was capable of. Without further encouragement or delay, they quickly fell back into single file in the middle of the formation and continued moving on. The only difference was that now they were also keeping one eye on the horizon and watching for the vile bird's return.
Their path was fairly easy to travel during this period, as they continued to move through the fields of tall grasses. What made it better for them was that they were no longer encountering any of the same types of problems they had endured while moving across the Valley of the Dead. They stopped several times along the way, but never for very long, although it was enough to make the boys curious about the reason the others continued to make these unexpected pauses.
Even though Kieren tried to piece together what was going on, he was too far away from the discussions to actually hear what the warriors were saying. He figured it had something to do with Qaim, because of the way the aignx's arms flailed wildly about whenever he was speaking with Hadwin and the dwarfs during these times. He didn't think the aignx was lost, since they were told they would follow the base of the mountain range for quite some time before actually entering the mountains. Other than that, Kieren wasn't sure what they might be discussing.
After watching Qaim's actions during these exchanges, Kieren was somewhat surprised when he noticed the extreme change in the aignx's appearance. In all honesty, he hadn't really paid much attention to their new guide after they had escaped the deadly dell and resumed their journey, but Qaim's overall change was hard to miss. Kieren quickly discovered that the aignx's long, dark brown coat of thick fur was once again a tangled mess, completely interlaced with grasses, twigs and dirt. He now looked nearly as disgusting as when they had first encountered him in Briarwood.
Before long, this brief hiatus ended and they started out once again. They hadn't gone very far though, when Alairic suddenly signaled everyone to stop again, but this time he also instructed them to crouch down and remain motionless. After they did this and were all looking in his direction, the elf pointed behind them, toward the mountains along the Valley of the Dead. Then, he put a finger over his lips, as a warning for them to be quiet.
This provided Kieren with a good idea about why they had come to a halt this time, but he wanted to be certain. With that in mind, he moved his head ever so slowly in the direction Alairic had indicated and soon located what he was looking for. There was the familiar dark form of the condor soaring through the air in the distance and it was moving slowly toward them.
The group remained like this until the keen-sighted elf alerted them they could continue on their way, because the threat had abated for the time being. This happened when the condor turned around and headed off in the opposite direction again. Eagerly, they resumed their journey forward, but the boys' heads were constantly pivoting around in all directions, as they continued to search for signs of the unwanted visitor. They were now moving with greater purpose and determination as well, until Hadwin motioned for them to stop one more time.
"What is it?" Kieren blurted out, looking concerned.
The warriors immediately realized Kieren had said this much louder than he probably should have, especially considering they suspected something else was in the area with them. Rhys decided to take it upon himself to address this concern with the boys and immediately approached them from behind.
"You have to remember to keep your voices down," the stern-faced Rhys warned Kieren and his friends as he passed by. However, he decided to add something else, before moving to the front of the formation. "We don't want whatever is also wandering through the high grasses to know we're here as well. You must speak only in whispers, if at all."
Kieren was a bit red-faced because of this mild admonition, even though he hadn't known about this new threat. Embarrassed, he let his chin drop to his chest as a sign of his remorse, as Alairic and Rhys continued to move forward. Once they reached the front of the formation, they immediately huddled with Hadwin, Qaim and the two dwarfs, so they could discuss the situation further.
Turquinine had stayed back to protect the boys, but each of them waited with their hands on their weapons, ready to defend themselves. They also glanced at the other warriors, as they studied the ground and pointed things out to each other. Kieren and those remaining behind waited patiently until the rest of the warriors had completed their investigation. Once they were satisfied, a few of those investigating the situation eventually approached Turquinine and the boys to explain what was going on.
"Qaim has been feeling uneasy for quite some time," Hadwin informed them, and they could tell by the expression on his face that he was deeply troubled by this revelation. "He has told me numerous times that he feels as if something else is traveling in these meadows with us. At first I didn't put any stock in his claims, but now we have encountered an area where the grasses have been trampled down in various directions. Some of the area shows signs of it having been this way for quite some time, while other areas look freshly disturbed."
"Can you tell what did it?" asked Romaric, nervously. He was concerned about what sort of new threat they might now have to deal with.
"From what I can tell, it appears to be a single individual or a small group that has been wandering continuously over this ground. No identifiable impressions have been left in the soil though, so there is no way to tell what sort of creature it is. From the uneven trampling of the vegetation, however, I'd be willing to say that whatever passed through here was either searching for something or running from it. Seeing we're not certain about what we're dealing with or the type of threat it poses, I suggest we all become more vigilant about listening for unexplained noises and observing any movement in the area. We must also remain as quiet as possible, so tread softly and speak only in hushed tones when you need to communicate."
"Oh great!" sighed Garreth. "Not only do we have to watch for that darn bird, but now we have to worry about things moving around on the ground too."
"Unless you wouldn't mind being killed in a surprise attack or becoming the main course for some animal's next meal," Alairic interjected.
"No, thank you," responded Garreth. "It's just that we had enough to worry about without this."
"We understand," chimed in Rhys, "but that doesn't change the situation. We must deal with problems as they arise," he added, for the benefit of the younger trio. "It is better to be aware of a new threat, rather than to absent-mindedly wander into an encounter you're not prepared for."
"I'm sick of surprises," Garreth told him, "especially things like this."
Everyone could see Garreth was being serious, but Alairic thought he might have a little fun at the teen's expense. Alairic felt doing this might also help to lessen the anxiety the boys were feeling, so they would be able to stay alert without being overwhelmed by this new threat. About this time, a wry smile was beginning to form on Alairic's face, which indicated he was about to go ahead with his idea.
"I suggest you draw your weapons," Alairic offered, and then paused for a couple of seconds to give the boys time to react. "You'll need be ready to defend yourself against the bunnies and ground hogs that may jump out at us."
Garreth, Romaric and Kieren had all begun to draw their short swords from their scabbards after hearing the elf's initial comment. However, they now knew they'd been had, once they noticed the evil grin on his face and realized his comment was meant only as a sick joke. Garreth wasn't thrilled about being made fun of this way, although the other two let out nervous little snickers at the thought of being attacked by such harmless creatures.
"All jokes aside," Alairic added, in an effort to ease Garreth's discomfort and prepare all three boys as best he could, "please remain alert. Remember, forewarned is forearmed. I also think it would be prudent for everyone to have his weapons at the ready, just in case it does come down to a fight. We are fairly confident something is out there, although we're unsure what it is, so it would behoove us to use this knowledge to our advantage. We have to be prepared to defend ourselves against whatever is in these grasses with us, in case it proves hostile and decides to attack."
The three boys had started to sheath their swords again after Alairic's little joke, but now quickly retrieved them once again. Each one was now prepared to use their weapons, if necessary. Since the group was ready to continue, the trio fell back into position at the center of the formation.
The teens were still somewhat unsettled by the earlier banter and nervously scanned their surroundings. Their heads began snapping back and forth, as they first searched the sky above the mountain range for their biggest threat, before doing a 360-degree scan of the ground around them. Performing this constant surveillance slowed their progress significantly, but they remained on a high state of alert in order to avoid any more surprises. They hadn't gone very much farther before they were once again signaled to halt, but this time it was Sedain that had stopped them.
Everyone, except Turquinine and the three boys, walked to the front of the formation to see if they could discover anything new. Kieren was curious if he and his friends should follow the others this time, so they could get involved and learn more about this new threat as well.
"Should we come with you?" Kieren asked the warriors as they began to pass by.
"No," Rhys advised him. "I think it would be best if you three and Turquinine remained here and protected our backside. We don't want whatever is out there to be able to slip up on us from behind while we are conferring."
Rhys didn't think the boys would take it well if he merely told them he thought it would be best if they didn't join in on the discussion, but he had some definite concerns about them being involved. First of all, he was afraid the inexperienced teens would inadvertently trample whatever clues might be there, but he also feared they might become unsettled by the possibilities that would be discussed. That's why he tried to make it sound as if he was assigning them an important duty instead, rather than risk them feeling as if they were being left out.
After giving them this explanation, Rhys moved quickly up to the front of the group to join the others. When he got there, Hadwin and the two dwarfs were squatting down, examining the ground.
"Did you find anything new?" Rhys asked Hadwin, immediately upon reaching the others.
"Yes, I found quite a sizeable pool of dried blood this time," Hadwin replied.
"Dried blood?" Rhys asked, astonished. "From what?"
"Of that I cannot be certain," Hadwin informed him. "Either these creatures killed something and then carried the body off with them or something else killed one of them and then made off with the carcass."
"What do you think this means for us?" Rhys wanted to know, his face twisted in concern.
"It means we must keep moving," Hadwin told him, "so we can get away from here as quickly as possible."
"I agree, but I suggest we take a moment to advise the others first," Rhys recommended. "Kieren wanted to join us for this discussion, so I think it would be best if we didn't leave him or his friends in the dark."
"I can take care of that," Sedain responded, as he gave Rhys a nod. This was to let Rhys know he understood the sensitivity of the situation. "I'll inform them about what we suspect."
"I think it best if we keep any mention of the blood to ourselves though," Rhys, suggested, before Sedain left. "The boys are dealing with enough already, so there's no need to burden them with more than they might be able to handle."
"I understand," the dwarf replied, before he spun about and rushed back to where the rest of the party waited. As Sedain approached, the boys looked at the dwarf apprehensively and wondered what was going on.
"Hadwin has discovered another path that crosses our own and is investigating it," the dwarf informed them. "He is now trying to determine if it was created by the same individual or if it is the result of something different."
"Is there any chance we will learn what is out there this time?" Kieren wanted to know. He hoped he might finally get an answer to this question.
"I doubt it," Sedain responded. "The ground is still not yielding any tracks, although Hadwin is searching for other clues. He is looking for anything that will give us some idea what we are dealing with."
Kieren was not satisfied with the answer, but before he could ask any more questions of the dwarf, he saw Hadwin, Quintain, Rhys and Alairic approaching.
"Do you know what it is yet?" Garreth asked no one in particular as the group joined them.
"Not precisely," Quintain admitted.
"Don't you at least have a guess about what it might be?" Romaric asked, perplexed and slightly annoyed. He couldn't understand what might possibly be preventing these warriors from determining what this new threat was.
"No," the dwarf responded. "Even though Beraut had indicated there has been a great deal of precipitation in the mountains, it most assuredly has not been the case is this part of the valley. Unfortunately, the ground in this area is not only very dry, but it is also quite hard and the extensive amount of vegetation is hindering our attempts to discover any footprints. For those reasons, there's nothing available for us to identify what has been wandering around. We're lucky just to be able to tell what direction the creature was traveling."
"So you don't know what it's doing here?" Kieren followed.
"Not exactly," Sedain informed him. "We do not feel this should be a cause for any undue alarm, although we do agree it would be best if we continued to move on. Just keep your eyes open for anything out of the ordinary and remain alert."
Within a few moments, they were on their way again, but this time Alairic stayed at the head of the formation to assist Hadwin. The entire group remained alert for signs of danger, since they were all feeling somewhat uneasy about their current situation. This caused Kieren to suddenly think about the traveling robe he was wearing, the one with magical qualities that Beraut had presented to him before this mission began. Slowly, he reached back to locate his hood, just to make certain he could find it easily should the need arise. Kieren was still toying with this idea when Alairic signaled them to halt, yet again.
This time the elf was pointing toward his ear, to let the others know he had heard something. Then, he moved his finger over his lips, to let them know they should also remain quiet. It was just a few seconds later when Kieren felt something brush against him from behind, which caused him to jump slightly.
Without thinking whether it was wise for him to react at this moment, Kieren wielded about quickly. His sword was already in his hand, as he sought to discover what had just touched him. That's when he discovered a quivering Qaim hiding behind him. The frightened aignx was hoping Kieren would be able to protect him from whatever creatures were also roaming the area.
'Some guide you've turned out to be,' Kieren thought to himself, while directing his attention back to the warriors.
As they waited to see what might happen next, the small contingent tightened up their formation slightly. After standing around like this for several minutes, Alairic indicated to the rest of them that he was going off to investigate. He was determined to discover what was lurking about and see if he could assess how much of a threat it posed.
Immediately, Sedain gestured that he intended to go with him and Alairic nodded his consent. The pair was just about ready to move off, when several large, white, furry creatures wandered into the area where they were standing. These animals seemed more surprised about finding the companions than the armed party was when these creatures suddenly burst in on them. At least the warriors had suspected there were others in the area, but these animals were totally unprepared for this encounter.
"Nasty beasties," Kieren heard Qaim whimper from behind him. "Beasties want to hurt Qaim."
After a momentary hesitation, Kieren's protectors lifted their weapons and positioned the blades between themselves and the group of intruders. Many of the companions were unaware as to what type of creatures these were, since they had never seen anything like them before. They were also unsure about what types of actions they should expect from these animals next, but fortunately a couple of the warriors recognized what they were up against.
The intruders didn't react right away either, but it didn't take long before they became aggressive and began to attack. The warriors responded immediately and used their weapons to defend themselves. Their blades flashed in the sunlight, as they slashed and thrust at these new opponents, and soon there were dark, red stains appearing on the attackers' lily-white fur coats.
The beasts were stunned by the ferociousness of the warrior's defense and withdrew slightly. The animals continued to move backward until they were just out of range of the swords, but it quickly became apparent they had only done this to allow some time for them to consider their next move. Although the three teens had moved behind the warriors and didn't get involved in the initial fighting, they used this time to study their new opponents.
Quintain and Sedain, on the other hand, immediately recognized these creatures and knew exactly what to do next. For that reason, they decided to take advantage of this lull in the action by shouting a command to the rest of the party.
"Quick! Head for the mountains," one of the dwarfs directed the rest of the party. "We must use the boulders along the slopes to protect ourselves from their claws. Take Kieren and make sure he's protected."
Each of the others immediately began to move toward the mountain range behind them, as they had been instructed to do. Sedain and Quintain, however, opted to stay behind, so they could protect their friends' backsides as they moved to take cover. Seeing this, Hadwin quickly decided to assist them and remained to help the brothers. When the others began to stop too, the Nardinian turned to them and spoke.
"Keep going. I will stand and fight with the dwarfs," he offered, while signaling the rest of them to continue moving toward the slopes.
Hearing this, the rest of the group continued on, but no one seemed concerned about whether the dwarfs' assessment of the situation was correct. Instead, they unquestioningly made their way toward the base of the mountains and the protection the dwarfs had indicated the rocky slopes offered them. Kieren glanced over his shoulder every now and then to see how the three were doing against this new foe, since he was unable to control his curiosity and was worried about their safety.
Whenever Kieren did this, he would momentarily watch the dwarfs and Hadwin drive back the attackers temporarily, before they made another hasty retreat. They would then take several more steps toward the mountains, in an attempt to rejoin their companions, before being forced to stop again. These forays only seemed to cause their hairy opponents to back off momentarily, as they distanced themselves from the sting of the sharp blades. Unfortunately, it never stopped or discouraged them completely.
By the time Kieren and his protectors reached the base of the mountain range, they quickly turned around to see how the three guarding their rear were doing. They were trying to determine if the trio needed assistance, but it didn't take long for them to decide that Hadwin and the dwarfs didn't appear to require their help.
The closer the three managed to get to the mountains, the more reluctant their attackers seemed to be about pursuing them. Kieren couldn't understand why the creatures were so afraid of approaching the rocky slopes, but it might be why the dwarfs had urged them to move here. He realized it was going to give them a chance to get away. Therefore, he and the others spun around and started moving up the mountainside and it was only a few minutes more before Hadwin and the dwarfs joined them.
"Move higher," Quintain shouted. "We must move farther up the hillside and find more cover."
The others obeyed, without question or hesitation and stopped only when the dwarf told them it was safe to do so. As soon as they were all together again, the questioning began.
"What the devil were those things?" Alairic wanted to know.
"Those are snow apes," answered Sedain, "creatures of the mountains. For some reason they have left the Citadels to forage for food in the valley, which is something they seldom, if ever do. They must have been desperately hungry or extremely frightened to have attacked an armed party."
"If they live in these mountains then why did we head here?" Hadwin wondered.
"Because it is here, in the mountains, where we can best protect ourselves against them" Sedain explained. "Any techniques my brother and I know of to defend against them are based upon being in this type of terrain. Therefore, I didn't feel we should continue experimenting with new methods as we tried to defend the rest of you against those beasts in an unproven open-ground engagement. We can best protect Kieren by taking advantage of the natural shielding the mountains provide."
"Me no like big beasties," Qaim's timid voice interjected and the boys readily agreed with him, although they did so silently.
"What about the snow apes?" Kieren asked next, since some of the taller warriors were blocking his view of what their attackers were currently doing. "Where are they now?"
"They are still lurking in the grasses, just beyond the lower reaches of the mountains," Quintain responded. "I have no idea why they stopped following us, since they live higher up in these same peaks. Since this is their home, I can see no reason why they wouldn't have continued chasing us as we made our way here. They weren't afraid of our weapons earlier, so what is stopping them now?"
"Perchance they thinketh us foolhardy enough to re-enter the grasslands," Turquinine suggested.
"I don't believe that's the reason," stated Sedain, "because they should also be more than happy to continue their attack on familiar ground. I would venture to guess they are probably more afraid of being here for some reason than they are excited about the possibility of ending their hunger. I have a strong feeling the condor might have something to do with that."
"You're probably right," Quintain concurred. "If that's the case, then I suggest we stay in the mountains until we have safely passed beyond their reach. What do the rest of you think?"
"Thou knowest our foes the best, so I agree," Turquinine quickly answered.
"Since I don't wish to fight them again, I would concur," Hadwin added and the others quickly followed suit.
"In that case, I recommend we set out in a direction that will take us from here and lead us toward the back entrance to Treblanc," Sedain offered. "We should select a route that will keep us from having to re-enter the valley and the dangers those tall grasses conceal. We'll also do our best to avoid going much higher up these slopes, while we look for a trail leading in that direction. The animals that live in these mountains often wear down trails, so we'll try to locate and follow one that is heading the way we need to go. We'll stick together while we're looking around, but once we find a suitable trail, it should make the traveling easier for the rest of you. I hope the process won't be too difficult in the meantime, since you are all unfamiliar with this type of terrain."
The others assured him they would manage, because they felt this sounded like a reasonable suggestion. They were willing to follow the dwarfs and soon set off over the rocky slopes, as they and their diminutive companions looked for a suitable path to follow. Rhys, Alairic and Turquinine hung toward the rear of the formation, just in case the snow apes changed their minds and decided to pursue them. Even though the party was once again on the move, this was not the way any of them had envisioned they would journey to Treblanc. Even so, they knew they had a job to do, no matter how difficult the road ahead or how many unexpected twists and turns they might have to make along the way. Bravely, they continued on.