Castle Roland

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W


Chapter 17

Posted: 30 Jun 16

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories

Challenging Times

Although Kieren and his two friends had slept well, the same wasn't true for the remainder of Kieren's protectors. They had suffered through a far less pleasant night's sleep, although each of the warriors had been affected to varying degrees. This was due to two factors. The first was that throughout the night a frigid breeze sneaked through the tiny gaps that ran around the flap at the front of their makeshift lodging. This meant chilling blasts of air struck those closest to the opening with repeated frosty blows.

The second factor was due to the icy fingers that reached out of the frozen ground and gripped the warriors as they lay upon it. This eventually made them sorry they hadn't followed the boys' example of using their extra clothing to insulate themselves against the cold grasping at them from below. It was due to the shivering that resulted from these two experiences that made it impossible for the warriors to fall into a deep, relaxing slumber. They were able to drift off from time to time and managed to get some shut eye, but it wasn't exactly restful.

Among the warriors, Turquinine and Rhys slept the poorest. This was primarily the result of their being too large to double up with anyone else, so they weren't able to share body heat with another person. They tried to adjust for this by using their two blankets as one and then wrapping the combined bedding around them, but they quickly discovered the blankets weren't nearly large enough to cover their frame properly. In the end, this unsatisfactory arrangement left various parts of their bodies exposed to the cold and contributed to the miserable evening they endured. The two warriors readily confessed to the others later that this was one of the few times when their size was a disadvantage.

The two young elves had actually slept the best, because of the extra precautions they had taken and having chosen to sleep at the back of the shelter. Those decisions had protected them from both the cold seeping out of the ground and the draft blowing into the tent. This, when combined with their youthful resilience, higher metabolism rate and the sexual release they'd enjoyed earlier had allowed them to fall into a deeper and more restful slumber than the others.

Although Kieren had slept as well as his mates, the later part of his slumber had been plagued by a series of unsettling dreams. A couple of them dealt with reliving the loss of both Doenilio and Selvaggio again, but most of these nighttime visions focused upon his upcoming encounter with Madumda. In each of those dreams the Dark Lord had no trouble killing Kieren in individual combat. Sometimes it happened within mere seconds of their meeting, but at other times it took up to several minutes before Kieren was eliminated. On some of those occasions, Madumda used magic to dispose of Kieren, while in other cases he used an ordinary weapon to do the job. Regardless of the method he employed, the outcome was always the same – Kieren died.

When Kieren finally awoke in the morning, he was unwilling to tell anyone else about his dreams, because he was worried what the others might think. He already felt some of the warriors were losing confidence in him, primarily due to his outburst over Beraut's departure and how badly he had reacted to the loss of Doenilio, because he felt responsible for the dwarf's death. There was also the spat he had with Garreth and Romaric before they left Thorold, although most of the others hadn't actually been aware of that situation. Regardless, Kieren didn't want to add more fuel to the fire or fan the flames of uncertainty about his ability to complete the task.

Even though he felt being secretive would solve the problem, it created another. By keeping this to himself, the visions were deteriorating his already shaky self-confidence even further. It also made him realize that he was going to need the warriors' unwavering support if he hoped to succeed, which was another reason he didn't want to confide in them. This, in turn, led to Kieren's biggest dilemma. How were the others going to help and give him the support he needed if they were unaware of what was troubling him? It was something he would have to think about a little longer.

Once the warriors were awake, none of them complained about the inadequate slumber. Then again, none of them were exactly perky either. It was evident to anyone who really looked closely that each one was suffering to some degree. It could be seen in their actions, because they spent the first few minutes after waking just trying to get warm. Some chose to energetically stretch and rub their limbs, to get the blood circulating again. Others jumped about and did exercises, as a way of driving the chill from their bodies, but the amount of success they enjoyed varied significantly. Once they began to feel a little better, each of them carried out his duties in typical fashion, before they collectively decided it was time to move on.

Upon leaving the protection of their temporary shelter, the group immediately discovered the tent had been completely cloaked by an accumulation of snow that had fallen during the night. Even the tracks their boots had left in the snow the previous day were now nearly obscured by the additional falling and drifting flakes.

"It's a good thing we had Hadwin's shelter to protect us from this," Kieren thought aloud, which caused the others to readily agree with his observation.

"Even though the evening was far from ideal," Quintain added, while looking appreciatively at the Nardinian, "we'd definitely have been much worse off without your makeshift tent."

At that moment, each of the others also took a few seconds to acknowledge Hadwin's contribution personally. They did this with a quick comment, a positive gesture, or a thoughtful look and a nod in his direction, before they set about disassembling the structure.

Turquinine took down the entire covering almost by himself and then packed it with his own gear. He did this so they wouldn't have to take it apart and reassemble it again later, if it turned out they should need it again. The Mitikuan also felt he would be able to carry the additional weight of these items far more easily than any of the others.

Even though the four blankets didn't weigh that much alone, when combined with the amount of moisture they had absorbed from the snow, it made them much heavier. This fact, however, didn't deter the knight from graciously accepting the burden of lugging the additional load and no one was willing, or inclined, to argue with his generous offer. As the powerful soldier slung his pack on his back and prepared to leave the area, the others eagerly followed suit. They were all more than willing to get moving again, if only to get the blood flowing through their veins to generate body heat.

It was still snowing when they resumed their march, although the current snowfall was lighter than it had been on the previous day. In fact for the most part, the companions didn't even seem to mind it as much now as they had the day before, especially after their bodies began to grow warmer due to the exertion. The dwarfs even located a new path that they were currently following away from the campsite, because it seemed to be heading in the appropriate direction. It was also relatively flat and would make the hike slightly less difficult, so they trudged on through the gently falling flakes.

While they marched along, Alairic maintained a watchful eye on the horizon and soon discerned the movement of the giant condor in the distance. With utmost urgency, he signaled the others to stop and take cover, so each one found whatever hiding place he could. They did this by either moving into the shadows of nearby boulders or trying to blend in with the jagged cliffs, and then they remained motionless until the threat had disappeared.

Once Alairic gave the 'all clear' signal, they quickly got back into formation and continued on their way. As they marched along, Kieren took the opportunity to study the others, as he tried to determine how they were holding up. He could easily tell that Garreth and Romaric weren't thrilled with the situation, but they seemed to be toughing it out. The warriors, on the other hand, appeared to be sloughing off the hardships as commonplace, but when Kieren finally located Qaim, the teen nearly burst out laughing. The aignx's shaggy fur coat was almost completely covered with snow, which made Qaim look like a giant snowman on a pair of spindly legs. Despite his appearance, Qaim seemed to be the least affected by this run of bad weather and continued on with a little spring still left in his gait.

The companions continued on like this for about another forty minutes before the flat pathway they had been traveling over suddenly began to dip downward and led into a narrow gully. Some of the warriors briefly considered whether it was wise to continue on this new trail, but after quickly looking around, they failed to see another option. Once this became clear, the others reluctantly followed the dwarfs forward, but they remained alert for signs of danger. They were leery of what might be hiding on the steep, rocky slopes on either side of the path and watched for anything out of the ordinary.

After the companions traveled along this trail for several more minutes, they came to an abrupt and unexpected halt. Without warning, they discovered their path blocked by huge slabs of rock that jutted skyward and formed a barrier. It completely cut off the way forward.

"What doeth we now?" Turquinine asked.

The dwarfs were busy studying this new situation and didn't immediately respond to the giant knight's question. After a few minutes of investigation, they finally turned toward the others and began to speak.

"The way my brother and I see it," Sedain offered, "we have only two options. We can either climb up and over this impediment or we can double back and follow our original path."

"We can't climb over that," Alairic shot back, without hesitation. "Maybe you and your brother can do it, but the rest of us do not have the skills or the experience required. The climb we made just to get to this level yesterday was almost more than most of us could cope with, yet this appears to be twice as far and even more difficult."

"If we climb up this side, won't we have to either repel or climb down the other side?" Rhys asked, while studying the dwarfs' faces. "And isn't there a chance that the far side will be just as steep. It might even turn out to be a sheer drop, without any chance of going on. If we start and then discover we can't go on, then all the time and effort we spent doing it would be wasted. I'm sorry, but I don't believe we should be putting the safety of the group in danger by taking such reckless chances."

Rhys was hoping some of the others would speak up and agree with him, but it didn't happen. The Akiktite was disappointed when no one else readily jumped in to support his position, but then another thought came to mind. He figured the others might merely be silent because they were mulling over his suggestion, so it didn't automatically mean they disagreed with his stance. Since he didn't know for certain which was the case, he decided to push the discussion a little harder.

"I suggest we turn around and go back. We'd be better off using the other path we were following," he stated, but this time with more emphasis than before. He was making his point as sharply as he dared.

"Qaim no want to go up and over," the aignx interrupted. "Qaim no like. Feel bad to Qaim."

"Great! That's really helpful," Hadwin commented. "Now we're reduced to listening to our guide, who has proved he's scared of his own shadow. He's so brave that he hides behind one of us every time anything out of the ordinary happens, so why should this be any different?"

"We might do well to listen to Qaim," Alairic challenged, as his body tensed up and he moved in front of the Nardinian to show he wasn't intimidated. "Remember, Beraut advised us that Qaim was able to sense things the rest of us couldn't. Maybe this is one of those times."

"And maybe it isn't," Hadwin forcefully countered, "but if we act upon HIS feelings then we will lose valuable time backtracking."

"Will we?" Alairic challenged. "It might take us nearly as long or possibly even longer to scale this obstacle and then climb down the other side. It might also place us in greater danger if we do so. For that reason, I agree with Rhys and suggest we go back."

"I say we should just continue moving forward and make the best of this situation," Quintain reiterated. "Who knows what we may find along the other route? We could go back and then find something just as daunting blocking our way along that path and we will have ended up wasting precious time retracing our steps."

While the warriors had been discussing this situation, Kieren, Garreth and Romaric spent their time whispering excitedly amongst themselves. They were hurriedly trying to reach their own consensus, and after a few minutes the three of them reached an understanding. The elves also urged Kieren to be their spokesman, so he could present their wishes to the others.

"I have something to say about this," Kieren interjected, once he accepted the proposal.

Unfortunately, no one seemed to hear or acknowledge what he'd said. They were far too busy arguing with one another to even notice he had spoken.

"Excuse me," Kieren nearly shouted this time, while trying to get the warriors' attention.

The volume of his current outburst temporarily caused the others to cease their bickering and focus on him instead. A couple of the warriors even seemed a bit annoyed that he had disturbed their discussion. The rest of his protectors, however,

seemed eager to hear why he had brought their conversation to such an abrupt end. Whichever the reason, they now turned and looked at Kieren, while waiting for him to explain his actions.

"Even though none of you have asked for our opinion," Kieren finally continued, "Garreth, Romaric and I are still part of this group and don't like being ignored. It may not matter to you, but the three of us aren't convinced we would be able to make the climb over this obstacle, let alone be able to get down the other side, especially if it's just as steep. We're not used to this type of activity or accustomed to the weather. The cold and snow made it very difficult for us to climb up here and we almost lost our grip at times. This new climb would be much longer, and most likely harder, but then we'd also have to also make our way down the other side. For that reason, the three of us believe it might be best if we went back the way we came and used the other trail."

"I believe it's time the three of you grew up and got it into your heads that there are going to be situations when things will not be as easy as you might wish," Hadwin stated, rather forcefully.

The Nardinian's jaw was set defiantly, as he glared at the teens. If it had been physically possible and he had such power, his eyes would have burned holes into the trio. The intensity of the northerner's outburst and gaze caused Kieren and the two young elves to cringe, but Hadwin's words also shocked some of the other warriors as well. However, before any of them could react, Hadwin continued.

"Sometimes we have to force ourselves to do difficult things and do what we HAVE to, not just what we WANT to do. As far as I'm concerned, you two should have never been allowed to come on this mission in the first place," he added, while still glaring at Garreth and Romaric. His comment stung them deeply, but he didn't give them time to recover from this criticism. He still had even more to say.

"I never understood Beraut's reasoning for letting you join this group in the first place," he added, once again directing his comment at the two elves. "If this is too tough for you, then maybe you should just run home now."

Not only were the boys shocked by his harsh rebuke, but some of the warriors were equally surprised and appalled. It's why the Akiktite felt he had to speak up.

"That was completely uncalled for and definitely untrue," Rhys responded, after moving between Hadwin and the young elves. "Each of them has proven his worth on this journey and you have no right to challenge their place here or to use their age against them when it suits your purpose. They are risking just as much as the rest of us and, therefore, should have a voice in whatever is decided."

"I agreeth with Rhys," Turquinine added, "Methinks that even though the elves be small and young, they hath proven their fealty to Master Kieren and their deeds hath earned mine respect. I strongly suggest thou apologize to them NOW!"

This unexpected challenge caused Hadwin to back up slightly and relax his gaze from Garreth and Romaric, so he could focus on the Mitikuan. He was concerned the large knight might decide to force the issue.

"Besides, our most important consideration should be about not risking Kieren's safety and possibly jeopardizing his ability to complete this mission," Rhys interjected, in an effort to relieve some of the tension. "Therefore, we need to consider all ideas about how difficult and dangerous our choice might prove to be."

"Fine, coddle the children then," Hadwin fumed, as he glared at both Turquinine and Rhys. "Seeing my opinion counts for naught, I can tell I'm no longer needed here," he added, before spinning about and walking away from the group.

At first, the two elves had been deeply hurt by Hadwin's harsh rebuke, but those feelings began to disappear just as soon Rhys and Turquinine jumped to their defense. The pair understood they probably weren't as valuable as the warriors, but they didn't think they deserved to be treated like children either. They had each kept Kieren from being harmed at least once during this mission and, therefore, didn't feel that anyone could say they lacked value.

"We have to resolve this issue quickly," Sedain prodded, since he knew they were spending far too much time doing nothing. "My brother or I could climb this barrier to see how difficult it would be for the rest of you, while also learning what awaits us on the other side. That would be better than just standing here and wasting valuable daylight arguing about it. We have to agree about how we're going to proceed and we need to do it quickly."

"You and your brother could check it out," Alairic agreed, "but it still wouldn't change the fact that such a venture would still prove to be extremely challenging for the rest of us. Doing what you've suggested would also take up additional time, which you have just pointed out is precious and shouldn't be wasted."

"If this were a military operation," Rhys responded, "the ranking officer would make the decision. The problem is, we have no single person in charge."

"Beraut left Qaim to lead us," Garreth immediately blurted out, before realizing what he was doing.

As the others began to look in his direction, while considering what he'd just said, Garreth began to feel it might have been better if he had remained quiet instead. However, since he'd already begun this thought, he now felt it would be best to finish what he'd started. He certainly didn't want the others to think he was too scared to continue, since he felt doing so might be interpreted to mean that Hadwin's comments about him had been correct.

"If Qaim was put in charge to lead us," the elf added meekly, "then maybe he should be the one to choose which way we go."

"He's been nearly worthless as a guide since Beraut left us," Sedain objected, "so I don't see how he's going to help now. My brother and I are the ones that have been leading you since we entered the mountains, so I think you should continue to heed our advice."

"Yes, and it was following YOUR advice to move out of the valley and into the mountains," Rhys challenged, gritting his teeth as he said it, "that has forced us to deal with all of these hardships in the first place. If we follow any more of your suggestions, such as we did when we proceeded into the Murky Marshes, then we may NEVER complete this mission."

After finishing his outburst, Rhys immediately regretted his choice of words, but he realized it was too late to do anything about it now. Therefore, he waited to see how the others responded.

This time it was the dwarfs who felt offended and this caused Sedain to grasp the handle of his battleaxe, as if he were ready to challenge Rhys to fight, in order to defend his honor. Alairic recognized this and attempted to keep the provocations from escalating further.

"I think we need to take a minute and think about this calmly," Alairic suggested, while discretely positioning himself between Sedain and Rhys. "We will never accomplish anything by trading insults."

Slowly, Sedain started to back off and gradually ended up relaxing his grip on the handle of his battleaxe. Since the situation had been defused, at least for the moment, each of the warriors began to mill about, while suspiciously eyeing each other. No one else wanted to be the next to offer a suggestion, until Turquinine finally spoke up.

"Methinks Master Kieren shouldst decide," the Mitikuan knight volunteered, knowing someone had to say something or they might end up staying there forever. "This assignment is his to complete, so therefore the decision belongeth to him."

Kieren didn't feel comfortable being thrust back into the center of this dilemma once again. The last time he got involved and spoke up, Hadwin turned on him, so he didn't want the attention to suddenly be focused in his direction again. The one thing he wished to avoid was the possibility of offending any of his protectors, since he would need their support and skill later. With this thought in mind, he decided to deflect the attention in another direction by offering an alternative suggestion.

"I think each of us should have a chance to state what he thinks is best," he countered. "I feel everyone should have a say in this matter and then we will do whatever most of us think is the correct solution."

This made everyone begin to look around at each other, as they mulled over Kieren's proposal in their minds. Hadwin and the dwarfs weren't eager to agree with this idea, because they had a suspicion which suggestion everyone else would choose. The problem was, they also knew they weren't going to be able to convince any of the others to go along with what they thought best. For that reason, they concluded it would be a waste of time to try to stop this from going forward.

"Okay, let's get it over with then," Hadwin stated dryly. "All in favor of continuing moving forward and finding a way over this obstacle raise your hand."

The Nardinian wasn't surprised when only the two dwarfs joined him in thrusting their arms into the air. Undaunted by the lack of support, he continued.

"All in favor of going back and taking the other route please do the same."

The boys were hesitant to be the first to signal their choice, because they didn't wish to seem too eager to go against the dwarfs and Hadwin. They still wanted their votes to count, but they waited until some of the others began to raise their hands first, before they also lifted their arms. Hadwin wasn't surprised to see this option had the most support, but now that it had been officially decided, each of them prepared to retrace his steps.

Unfortunately, they ended up spending several more minutes just standing around. This was due to the fact that no one seemed willing to take charge or eager to move into the lead after this latest disagreement. Eventually, Rhys decided it was up to him to break the current stalemate, seeing it was his words that had put them in this predicament in the first place.

"Sedain and Quintain," he began, "I deeply regret what I said earlier and sincerely apologize for doing so. We still need your experience, so if you would please take the lead," he added, as he attempted to placate his diminutive companions.

The two fuming dwarfs didn't seem overly impressed by his words and gave the Akiktite cold stares to let him know this. Their icy glares not only communicated their disdain, but it also indicated they weren't completely convinced about the sincerity of his apology. The dwarfs still felt hurt that their suggestion, as well as their experience with such matters, had been so easily dismissed. Yet now, the others were eager to benefit from their expertise to guide them out of this mess. Eventually, the pair realized they were still obliged to see the mission through to its completion, since they had volunteered to participate and do whatever needed to be done. Grudgingly, they moved to the front of the formation and took their place leading the others back the same way they had come earlier.

After the companions were on the move again, it became fairly obvious that most of them were still dwelling upon the various comments that had been uttered during the recent standoff. At this point, hardly any of them was speaking to anyone else and there were more than a few indignant and hateful stares being exchanged between the various members of the group. This indicated that not everyone was willing to forgive and forget about how some of the others had slandered them. As they approached the place where they had camped the previous evening, they heard Alairic call out.

"I see the condor in the distance. Everyone take cover," he frantically warned. Fortunately, he hadn't been so upset that he forgot to perform this very important task.

"Where?" Hadwin challenged, while sounding a bit panicked. "This area is extremely open and there's no place to hide except in the snow. If we do that, our dark clothing will stand out and make us obvious targets."

They were all looking at each other and hurriedly considering their options when one of the dwarfs spoke up.

"We need to get back to the spot where we put up the shelter last night," Sedain suggested. "Those boulders can be used to conceal our presence until the threat has passed."

The others were wondering how they were going to make it there without being observed, because they would have to move in full view of the condor to reach that spot, but before anything had been decided Alairic made another comment.

"We actually have time to do that now," he pointed out "since the condor no longer appears to be in a hurry to make its way here. When I first saw it, the bird was flying from one side of the peaks to the other, so it could scan both sides of the slope as it made its way directly toward us. Now, it has unexpectedly veered out over the valley, possibly in search of the snow apes it attacked previously."

This fact not only allowed the others a chance to relax slightly, but it also gave them time to find a suitable refuge. Eagerly, they prepared to use this opportunity to make their way to the spot Sedain had suggested.

"This works to our advantage," Rhys added, "but I suggest we proceed one at a time. If we all try to move at once, I feel it will increase the odds that the condor might still notice movement, no matter how far away it is."

Everyone agreed and then Quintain volunteered to go first, seeing he was already at the front of the formation. He was extremely cautious and did everything he could to make certain the bird wouldn't spot him. At the same time, he didn't seem too concerned it would happen either, since the condor appeared to be so far away. Undaunted, he made his way across the open ground and got to their previous campsite without incident.

Sedain, Qaim and Hadwin went next and followed the same technique Quintain had used. Just as the last of that group had safely reached his destination, Alairic informed them that the condor had returned and was now gliding over the mountain range again. He indicated it was circling a spot some distance away from their present location, so they could keep moving, as long as they were careful. The others had to take the elf's word for this, seeing the condor looked no larger than a fly hovering over a garbage pit at the moment, but they were grateful for the breathing room. Feeling a little more confident, they sent Kieren next.

Kieren was quite nervous about moving across the exposed area, even though he had his robe to cloak his progress. He was still concerned that if the condor weren't sufficiently distracted, it would be able to use its magical ability to see through his disguise. For that reason, he moved slowly and cautiously over the expanse, while continually glancing up at the heavens and searching for their nemesis to return. He was greatly relieved when he finally reached the others, but he knew he couldn't completely relax until they were all safely together again.

Romaric and Garreth went next, one after the other, and their apprehension was quite visible as they slinked across the open ground. Each of them was certain the bird was going to spot him and then come swooping down before he was able to reach the location where he would join up with the others. With a great deal of caution, each one crept across the open expanse until he reached their previous campsite. Fortunately, they both made it without incident and were now safely hiding in the shadows with those that had preceded them.

Once the young elves were safely across, Rhys, Turquinine and Alairic took turns covering the same ground, although they did it a little more boldly than the teens had done. Once the entire party was together again, they leaned against the leeward side of the boulders and waited patiently, while Alairic checked to see what the condor was up to.

"What's happening?" Rhys asked, since he was curious to learn what was going on.

"The condor had begun to move toward us again, but then it stopped and began circling another area," Alairic informed them, while keeping his eye on their adversary. "It has been doing that for quite a while now. I'm not sure what it's up to, but it doesn't seem to be in any hurry to go anywhere else."

After saying this, Alairic continued to visually follow the aerial threat, since he knew they would be trapped where they were until it decided to move on. Several minutes later, the elf watched as the condor once again began to move toward the spot where they were all hiding. Alairic inhaled deeply when he saw this, as he got ready to warn those closest to him about the bird's approach, but then the creature made a sudden and unexpected dive. Baffled by what the condor was doing, Alairic failed to let the others know what was going on and chose to remain focused on the area where the condor appeared to have landed instead. Although he couldn't see what the bird was up to, he knew it would eventually take flight again and that's when he would alert everyone else about what he had seen.

The rest of the group waited patiently, but they were still curious about what was going on. After it seemed as if they had been waiting forever for something more to happen, they started to grow bored and anxious. They also realized they were losing valuable minutes having to wait around like this and it was time that would be better spent traveling. Some of the warriors were beginning to wonder if they should just go ahead and take the chance to continue on, despite the bird's presence. In fact, Rhys was even prepared to vocalize this particular idea when Alairic finally spoke up.

"The condor is airborne again and appears to be heading away from us now," the elf advised them.

The others immediately began to wonder what he meant when he said it was 'airborne again', but another voice distracted them before they could say anything.

"Then we can't waste another second. We must get going!" Quintain urged.

Alairic made one more scan of the area, just to make certain the condor was indeed still heading in the other direction. Once he was certain this was still the case, the elf signaled it was time to get moving again. With the rest of the companions following closely behind, the dwarfs once again took the lead.

About twenty minutes later, Sedain and Quintain noticed something that caught their attention on the path ahead and signaled the others to come to a halt.

"Stay here, while Sedain and I move forward to look around a bit," Quintain advised them.

"Why, what's wrong?" Kieren wanted to know.

"It might be nothing, but we've noticed a disturbance on the path ahead," the dwarf advised him. "We think it would be best if we checked it out first, before continuing. It is probably nothing to be concerned about, but we feel it would be best to make certain."

Everyone watched as the dwarfs left, but Hadwin made sure those that remained behind found whatever cover they could and kept out of sight. Before long the duo returned and they were highly agitated.

"It appears the condor landed in this area earlier," Sedain gasped out.

"That would coincide with what I saw," Alairic told them. "I watched it dive and then it remained out of sight for a time, so I figured it must have landed."

"But what difference does that make?" Romaric wanted to know, since he was confused about why this seemed to be causing the others to panic.

"From what we could determine," Quintain responded, "the bird appears to have been following the last visible traces of our earlier passing." The dwarf paused after saying this, so he could scan the faces of those in front of him and gauge their reaction first, before continuing. "Although our trail was partly covered over, the condor still seemed to be following it. I'm not sure if this was just a coincidence or not, but it almost appears as if it was tracking our footsteps."

"Do you really think it could have actually been looking for us?" Garreth gasped, since he was terrified by the thought that the condor might know they were in the mountains.

"Not necessarily us," Quintain advised him, "but I do think it knew something had left those tracks and might still be about. My guess would be that it was just looking for its next meal and figured our trail would lead it to a tasty morsel. The gods were kind when they allowed that damned bird to find some other poor critter in our place. I think it must have been one of the other animals that dwell in the mountains, although I'm not sure what it was doing out where it could be spotted. It must have been spooked by how close the condor was to it and tried to run. I know this because there were splotches of blood in the snow, which proves the animal didn't escape."

Everyone seemed to shudder at the thought the condor might have been following the trail they had left behind. If that were the case, then they had to consider the possibility that the blood the dwarfs had seen in the snow might have come from one of them instead, if that other creature hadn't been out at the time.

"Do you think it will come back?" Kieren wanted to know, visibly shaken by the news.

"It will eventually," Alairic replied, "but it appears to have flown off for now, possibly to consume its meal.

"I would agree with that analysis," Sedain added, "since there is no evidence it devoured whatever it caught here. It would be best if we get away from this area as quickly as possible."

Without questioning his suggestion this time, everyone followed Quintain and Sedain as they moved along the trail, going as quickly as they deemed safe. As they traveled along that narrow pathway, the snow started falling again. At first it came down only as a light flurry, but as they continued on the white flakes increased in intensity and made the situation even more difficult. When they finally came to the spot where they would begin their descent to the lower ledge, the dwarfs brought them to a complete stop.

"This is where we climbed up to this level," Quintain advised the others, "so it is also the best place to begin our climb down. My brother and I will try to make this a little easier by using our ropes to help you."

After making this announcement, the dwarf withdrew ropes from their packs, fastened them together and then tied a rather large, adjustable loop in one end. Once that had been done, he held it up to show the others.

"This will allow you to slip the rope around the upper half of your body and secure it under you arms," Quintain advised them. "It should protect you if you happen to slip and then start to fall, plus it will give you a little more stability as you make your way back to the lower trail."

This idea sounded reasonable to everyone, with the possible exception of Qaim. The aignx seemed to shy away from the group, once he saw the dwarf bring out the ropes and then heard them mention how they were going to use them.

Turquinine and Rhys were the first to climb down, because they were the largest and it would take more bodies to anchor the rope on the upper end while they descended. They would also be best able to defend the others as they made their way down to join them, just in case something showed up and attacked. After they had safely reached the lower pathway, Hadwin went next, followed closely behind by Garreth, Romaric and then Kieren. Alairic followed them and quickly made his way to the bottom. As the dwarfs pulled the rope back up, they turned to loop it over Qaim. The problem was, the aignx wasn't about to allow this to happen.

"No! Vines hurt Qaim," he wailed, although not loudly. "Qaim no use. Qaim climb down, but no use vines."

The dwarfs didn't think this prudent, but they also didn't wish to waste more time arguing with the aignx. Therefore, they allowed him to do as he wished. As Qaim slowly clambered down the slope, Quintain and Sedain packed up the ropes and prepared to climb down as well. About halfway down, Qaim lost his grip and tumbled backward. As he started to fall, Turquinine rushed forward in time to catch the aignx before he hit the ground.

"Thank you for saving Qaim," the aignx offered, sincerely appreciative for the Mitikuan's quick reaction, but the knight merely grunted in reply.

Now that the others were all safely down, the dwarfs began their descent behind him. As soon as they reached the trail, the Akiktite quickly spoke up.

"I strongly urge that we consider moving even farther down the mountainside. I believe it would greatly benefit us to get below the areas most affected by the snow."

"I agree," Alairic added, quite rapidly.

"Let's not start this again," Hadwin responded. "We've wasted enough time debating about how we should continue when we decided to retrace our route. I say we should just get going and move away from here before Madumda's guardian returns."

"If we move lower," Quintain added, "we may just run into other dangers, which could prove equally troublesome. There is no guarantee that doing so would make our journey any easier or safer."

"What do you think might happen if we move lower," Alairic wanted to know.

"To start with, there would be a greater risk of running into the types of animals we spoke about earlier," the dwarf responded, while looking very serious. "Not only that, but there would also be the possibility of encountering washouts and mudslides that have occurred as a result of the vast amount of precipitation this area has endured. There might also be an increased chance of running into an enemy patrol, which could be in the mountains for various reasons. Those additional threats would easily negate any advantage we might otherwise gain by moving lower."

"I agree with Sedain and Quintain this time," Kieren interjected, after seeing the logic in his argument. "I think having to deal with any of those problems would be much more dangerous than putting up with the snow. Besides, the condor will be a threat no matter what level we are at, so I think we should just do as the dwarfs say this time."

"Yes," Romaric agreed, while looking around. "I'd prefer we just get away from here as quickly as we can. I'm starting to get a really bad feeling about this place."

"Yes, before something else happens," Alairic calmly conceded, "we should get moving."

Grudgingly, Rhys also gave in and they struck out once more. As they resumed the journey, the snowfall continued to increase in intensity until they were soon facing near blizzard conditions. The heavy snow was making it nearly impossible to see even a short distance in front of them. It definitely also increased the chance of having a mishap.

Noting this, Sedain had the party stop briefly, so he could grab the ropes he had used earlier, along with the rope Hadwin was also carrying. He then tied the first rope around the waist of one person, before securing it around the waist of the person in front of him. He kept doing this, using all three ropes, until they were secured together. Everyone, with the exception of Qaim, were now fastened together to make sure they wouldn't accidentally get separated in the blinding storm. It would also help if one of them were to stumble or slip, because being tied together made it less likely the person would plummet down the mountainside before the rest of them could save him.

After these precautions had been completed, the small group continued to trudge forward, spurred on by the dwarfs. These sturdy mountain-folk not only wanted to make as much progress as possible, but they also knew it would be unwise to stop or slow down for very long in this storm. If that were to happen, then their body temperatures would begin to drop rapidly and put them in jeopardy of suffering from hypothermia in these extreme conditions.

Regardless of their intentions, their pace slowed even more as the snow continued to increase. It also caused their spirits to slip even lower, after concluding they would have to stop and spend another night in a makeshift shelter. Unfortunately, they understood they couldn't use the tent from the night before, because the snow that was falling now was wetter and heavier than before, as well as falling much more profusely. It didn't take very long for them to realize it wouldn't take any time at all before the tent would totally collapse. If that were to happen, it would leave them exposed to the elements again.

Once more, the dwarfs began to wonder if they might be able to find a cave or a hollow in the rocky face of the mountain to protect them. After thinking about this idea for a short time, they concluded it was snowing far too hard for them to see the trail, much less a cave, even if one happened to be close by. Some of those who had given in to the dwarfs' last suggestion about continuing on at this level now began to mentally question whether they had done the right thing. However, they soon realized it was too late to think about such things at this point and began to focus on coming up with a solution to this dilemma instead. They needed to do something and it wouldn't be too much longer before it would be completely dark.

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