Castle Roland

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W


Chapter 22

Posted: 4 Aug 16

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories

A Winter of Despair

As Kieren and his protectors stood around pondering how they were going to solve their immediate need of finding shelter, it was Turquinine who quite ingeniously and unexpectedly found a solution to their dilemma. He got his inspiration as they were passing an area where a significant quantity of snow had cascaded down the slope and accumulated in a fairly sizeable pile. Since Turquinine came from a northern region of the kingdom where it frequently snowed during the winter months, he instantly recognized the opportunity and went into action.

It was apparent this most recent snowfall was wet and packed fairly easily, similar to the snow the boys had used when they had the snowball fight shortly after they had been forced to enter the mountains. Turquinine noticed this fact as well and surmised the mound would be quite dense. Using this as the basis for his solution, the knight seized upon the potential this frosty mound of precipitation offered and asked Sedain if he could borrow his battleaxe. This came as a bit of a shock to the dwarf, but even though he was baffled by the request, Sedain hesitantly parted with his weapon. He handed it to the powerful knight and then watched to see what Turquinine was going to do with it.

Immediately upon receiving the battleaxe, the giant of a man got down on his knees and started to hack away at the leeward side of the mound. Slowly, he began to hollow out the huge pile of snow and the dwarfs quickly recognized Turquinine's intentions. Now that they understood what he planned to do, they urged the Mitikuan to allow them take over the task. Sedain and Quintain eagerly explained they were more experienced doing this type of work and therefore better suited to carry out the excavation. It also meant they could complete the task much quicker, which would be to their advantage, since the sun was going down. Since Turquinine realized this was true, he graciously acceded to their request.

The dwarfs dove into the task with pure abandon and attacked it with more vigor than they had displayed since their unfortunate verbal altercation with some of the others earlier. Although no one else could see into the chamber they were hewing out of the pile of snow, the rest of the group watched intently as the pair emerged every few minutes dragging blankets covered with the snow they had just removed from the interior. The dwarfs then encouraged the others to take the pile of snow and pack it into the outside of the mound to increase its size. Doing this would allow them to make the compartment even larger than it would otherwise afford. Working like this also helped to keep everyone active and prevented their body temperatures from dropping to levels where they'd have to worry about dealing with the effects of hypothermia.

Sedain and Quintain were beaming with pride when they finally announced to their companions that their sanctuary had been completed and invited everyone inside to check it out. When the others entered, they discovered the interior was surprisingly large, meaning it spread out in every direction except for the height of the chamber. The boys soon discovered they could walk about on their knees, but they couldn't stand unless they bent sharply at the waist. The larger warriors, however, were forced to move around on all fours, while the dwarfs could actually walk about almost normally. No one was bothered by the situation though, seeing it meant they had a fairly safe place to stay out of the weather for the night. Once everyone had seen the interior, Kieren quickly made a proposal.

"Seeing we don't need Hadwin's shelter this evening, I am going to make a suggestion," he began, with all eyes focused on him. "I think we should undo the blanket we used as the flap and use it to cover the opening to this shelter. Then, because Turquinine still doesn't wish to disassemble the rest of it, since we might need it again later, I think we should spread it out on the ground so all of us can lie on it. Seeing that piece of cloth will be longer than this shelter is wide, I also suggest we double it over near one of the outer walls and then allow Turquinine and Rhys sleep in that location. If they are able to use it to lie upon, then they can then use their other blankets to cover themselves, so maybe they won't suffer so badly from the cold this time."

Everyone thought this was a marvelous idea, so each of them exited the structure again, to allow the dwarfs the opportunity to arrange their former shelter as Kieren had suggested. Once that had been done, they all went back inside and selected where they were going to bed down for the night. The boys chose the area farthest away from the opening, for both protection and privacy, since they had some things the wanted to discuss and preferred the others not overhear.

Once they were all inside, Quintain plunged the blades of two knives his brother and he had donated for the purpose into the icy walls. Then he tied the upper corners of the blanket they were going to use to cover the opening and hold it in place. Then, he placed their packs against the unsecured bottom of the flap, to prevent it from blowing open during the night. By doing this, they would also be able to move the packs out of the way when required, so they could get in and out of the structure when the need arose.

It didn't take long for each of them to get settled in and become comfortable. As they had done the previous night, the boys quickly spread their excess clothing out first, but this time the others did the same. They placed these items over the blanket that had already been spread out, before they arranged one of their own blankets over those items. Rhys and Turquinine placed their garments in between the section of their former shelter that had been folded over, so they also had a buffer from the cold rising out of the ground. Once all of this had been taken care of, they eagerly dug into their packs for something to eat.

"Does anyone know how far we've come?" Kieren asked.

He was curious about how much farther they might have left to travel and thought someone else might have the answer to that question. The others quickly began to look around, as they scanned one face after another to see if anyone had a clue about this. After several seconds, Quintain finally broke the silence.

"Although I have only been in this mountain range a couple times before, although never on this side, I would guess we are only about halfway to where we need to go. I can't be certain, but I would suspect it will take us two more days before we are in the general vicinity of the hidden entrance into Treblanc."

"Two more days!" Romaric exclaimed, looking crestfallen. "You mean we still have to spend two more days traveling through this snow and wind?"

"That would be my best guess," the dwarf told him. "I know it's not a pleasant prospect, but I'd say the worst is nearly over. We shouldn't have to climb any higher, so as soon as the weather begins to break, it will make it a little easier to continue."

The others quickly accepted what he'd told them and then went on about their business and finished eating in silence, because none of them could think of anything else to discuss. Before long, they also began to feel the effects of their grueling hike and the strenuous activity of preparing the shelter. Not only were they growing weary, but their muscles were also aching and they were experiencing burning sensations radiating outward from their legs. Due to this, most of them decided it would be best to get some rest and give their bodies time to recuperate.

"I'll take first watch," Hadwin volunteered.

"That won't be necessary," Sedain quickly advised him. "Nothing will be moving about on a night like this. Even the animals will have taken shelter until daybreak."

"Are you certain of that?" Rhys asked, not totally convinced.

"Positive," Sedain replied, and Quintain quickly concurred.

This seemed to be enough for the others, with the possible exception of the Mitikuan. He had his own idea about how to handle this situation.

"Methinks to be safe," Turquinine advised them, "I wilst sleep with my head near the entranceway. I be close enough to do that, so I will knoweth if anything tryeth to enter."

No one had any problems with his suggestion, so they all settled in for a good night's sleep. Even though they had most of their blankets, the boys still shared their remaining bedding so they could also share body heat. They felt that since they had slept so well that way in the first shelter, they would probably do the same tonight. Kieren was placed in the center again and this time he hoped he would be able to sleep as well as his friends had the previous evening.

The dwarfs decided to sleep together as well, which prompted Hadwin and Alairic to announce they also agreed to share their bedding again this evening. Qaim, however, stayed off by himself, as was his custom, and took a spot somewhat near the boys. Seeing everyone was set and comfortable, it wasn't long before all that could be heard was the low hum of the warriors' gentle snoring. Surprisingly, each of them was amazingly snug in this temporary abode.

The boys did not go to sleep right away, however, because they had things they wanted to discuss with each other first. Since they didn't want the warriors to overhear what they were saying, they waited until they thought the others had all fallen asleep. When they felt it safe to begin, Romaric rose slightly and turned his head, so he could whisper into Kieren's ear.

"Do you think it's safe for us to talk now?" he wondered.

"Yes, I think we'll be fine," Kieren replied, "but we must keep our voices low. I don't want to disturb the others."

"Of course," Romaric responded, but then he hesitated for a few seconds before speaking again. "Kieren, there are some things I want to tell you, but it's not going to be easy for me to do."

Romaric stopped before continuing, but Kieren chose not to say a word. He thought it would be best if he remained silent and gave his friend time to decide how he wanted to proceed. Kieren knew Romaric had something on his mind, since he'd told him earlier he wanted to talk to him. Kieren was also afraid that if he spoke now he might either interfere with what his friend was trying to say or possibly cause him to lose his courage. After a couple minutes of uneasy silence, Romaric finally continued.

"What do you think is still ahead of us?" the elf wanted to know, but his expression had changed from one of confusion to one filled with concern.

"I'm not sure," Kieren answered, "but I hope it doesn't get any tougher than it has been so far."

"I know. It's been pretty bad, especially lately," the elf agreed, before hesitating momentarily. "Do you think Qaim is going to be able to get us into Treblanc and find what you're looking for? What I mean is, he hasn't exactly seemed to be much help so far and spends most of his time hiding behind you or one of the warriors. I'm beginning to wonder if he'll be able to do what we need from him."

Kieren and Romaric were silent for a second or two, while Kieren thought about how he was going to answer his friend's question. Finally, he spoke up.

"I'm sure you know I wasn't very happy that Beraut didn't come with us," Kieren admitted, "but I'm positive he knows more than we do. If he says Qaim will be able to get us safely into Treblanc and can help me find what we're after, then I have to believe it's precisely what he will do. Even though he's not exactly the most courageous being I've ever met, he seems to have very strong survival instincts and some uncanny skills, as we saw when he led us out of Briarwood. I hope that's what Beraut was talking about and it will be enough for him to do what is necessary."

Romaric thought about this for a few seconds, while determining how he should respond. At first he was planning on continuing this debate, but then he decided he didn't want to make Kieren question the situation further. If Kieren believed Qaim would be able to help them, then Romaric didn't want to discourage him and cause him to doubt his beliefs. Instead, he changed topics.

"Are you ready to face Madumda?" Romaric followed.

The elf's deep concern for Kieren was very evident in everything he did, but at this particular moment it was clearly etched upon his face, as well as noted in his voice.

"I guess I'm as ready as I can be," Kieren answered. "I have been having dreams about my upcoming duel with Madumda, but so far I have never won any of those confrontations. Even though that bothers me a little, Beraut told me before he left that I should never give in to my doubts and I should have faith that I will succeed, so I am still hopeful."

"Do you think we can pull this off in time?" Romaric pressed, as he was beginning to have his own doubts.

"I certainly hope so," Kieren replied. "Beraut told me we had less than a week to find what we needed, but he also indicated we should reach Treblanc while he and Madumda were leading the armies into battle, so the Dark Lord won't be there when we are."

Romaric nodded and swallowed hard. He wanted to ask another question, but was afraid he might be prying too deeply and it would upset Kieren. His curiosity, however, was stronger than his inhibition.

"Are you scared about having to do this?" the elf pressed.

"Scared? I'm terrified!" Kieren exclaimed, looking his friend squarely in the eyes.

Kieren's immediate and emphatic response made Romaric feel as if he had to offer Kieren some consolation in return. He quickly searched his mind for something to say, but wasn't able to come up with anything profound, so he did the best he could.

"I'll bet, because I'm scared too and I don't have to do even half of what you need to accomplish," the elf stated, but then he took a moment to look into Kieren's eyes before he spoke again. "I just want you to know that Garreth and I will always be here for you and we'll do whatever we can to help you be successful. I'm really sorry about what happened between us earlier, back at Thorold."

"I am too and I will also do whatever I can to help," another voice confirmed, startling both Kieren and Romaric.

They had been so wrapped up in what they were saying to each other that they had completely forgotten about Garreth. Not only was he still awake, but he had also been listening in on their discussion.

"Thank you," Kieren responded. "You don't know how much that means to me. I also want you to know that I'm sorry too. I guess maybe I had been treating you differently."

"No, you just had other things on your mind," Garreth offered. "It was stuff we didn't know about, but we should have realized you had a lot of other things to worry about."

After this brief exchange, Kieren suddenly felt a new sense of strength surge through his body, because of their verbal and emotional support. His mind immediately flashed back in time, as he recalled some of the other instances when these two had been there for him. No matter what the problem or how great the risk, neither Garreth nor Romaric had ever failed to be by his side when he needed them the most. How could he have ever doubted their intentions and treated them so badly at Thorold? After he had sufficient time to think about what their friendship meant to him, he decided to speak.

"I still owe each of you an apology for how I acted back at Thorold, so I'm going to give both of you a little relief tonight," Kieren advised them.

After saying this, he ducked under the blankets, unfastened Romaric's britches and began to take care of him orally. Once Garreth saw the activity going on under the covers, he understood what was happening and merely laid back and waited for his turn. It actually only took a few minutes for Romaric to explode, so Kieren immediately turned to the other side and did the same thing to Garreth. It was his way of trying to make amends for hurting their feelings back at Thorold.

Once Garreth had also enjoyed his release, the elf decided to do the same thing for Kieren. When Romaric realized what was happening, he didn't want to feel left out, so he decided to nibble on Kieren's nipples while Garreth was servicing him lower down. Once Kieren had enjoyed his own release, the trio settled in and prepared to get some sleep.

During the night, Kieren dreamed of his eventual encounter with Madumda again, but this time it didn't happen quite the same way as it had in his previous dreams. In fact, this confrontation was very different. In his other nightmares, Madumda had always been able to dispose of him in just a few seconds or a matter of minutes at most. One way or another, the Dark Lord always managed to kill him, and fairly effortlessly too. To his surprise, this did not happen tonight.

In this current dream, Kieren was able to defend himself against the Dark Lord's onslaught and was even able to mount a brief offensive in return. Just as he was about to learn the outcome of the current contest, he was gently shaken awake. As he slowly opened his eyes, he saw Garreth hovering over him with a reassuring grin on his face.

"Good morning, sleepyhead. You better get up and grab some food so we can be on our way," the elf advised him.

Kieren stretched, dressed and then grabbed a quick bite to eat, while his friends were stowing their gear. By the time the others were ready to leave, the trio emerged from the snowy fortress and the group was ready to get underway again.

"Thank you, Turquinine, for coming up with the idea for this shelter, because it was really great," Kieren offered. "And thank you, Sedain and Quintain, for helping to dig it out."

The others quickly concurred with Kieren's comments and also thanked the trio, before they began their march. It was actually snowing harder as they started out than it had been the previous day, but it didn't seem to bother Kieren or the others as badly. They were suddenly feeling much better about things than they had in a long time. Doggedly, they plodded forward through the snow that nearly came up to the top of their boots, so everyone had to lift his legs high just to extract his feet from the snow that had accumulated around them. The travel was very difficult and quite exhausting, but they continued to move forward, if only at a snail's pace.

About an hour later, the snowfall began to let up and then ceased completely. Slowly, the clouds began to drift away and the sun filtered down around them, which made everyone feel a little better about the day. Some of them had to squint or use their hands to shield their eyes as much as possible, because the sunlight reflecting off of the snow was temporarily blinding them. However, they gradually adjusted to dealing with this sudden brightness and were able to continue on.

Despite the inescapable fact of what they still had to do, their spirits soared as they plodded forward and moved ever closer to the sorcerer's den. It was at this point that Kieren noticed the line of peaks rising above them and stretching into the distance. He pointed this fact out to his youthful companions and they all eyed the mountaintops suspiciously.

"Sedain, we aren't going to have to climb those, are we?" a timid and concerned Garreth wanted to know, while looking to his right.

"No," the dwarf replied. "We have climbed as high as we need to go."

The boys were instantly relieved by this assurance, since they couldn't imagine having to struggle up those slopes. At the same time, they were also slightly disappointed, because they would have liked to enjoy the spectacular view they would have experienced there. As they continued to move on, the trio spotted another set of peaks rising up through the cloud cover and this immediately roused their curiosity.

"What are those mountains over there?" Romaric asked, while pointing toward the distant spires in front of them.

"Those are the tops of the Devil's Horseshoe," Quintain quickly advised them. "It will be somewhere in that mountain range where we will find the opening to the secret tunnel that leads into Treblanc."

Hearing this news was uplifting and gave them a renewed sense of hope, because now they could almost visualize the end of their journey. Feeling rejuvenated, the companions picked up their pace and seemed to be in an even greater haste to cover the distance in between. It was just a few hours later when they reached the junction where the Citadel Mountains merged with the Devil's Horseshoe. The problem was, there was a fairly significant gap between the two mountain chains.

"Wow, that's a long way down!" Romaric exclaimed, as he looked over the side of the slope they were on and then across at the slopes that rose up on the opposite side. "How are we going to get over there?"

"I hope you're not going to say we have to climb down and then climb back up the other side," Garreth observed, sounding hopeful, yet dismayed it might be exactly what they would have to do.

"That is not our plan," Sedain assured him. "What we need to do is locate one of the natural land bridges that will lead over the chasm that divides these two ranges."

"But what if we can't find one?" Garreth nearly whined.

"We will," Quintain assured him. "I don't know why, but they always seem to occur and have been very useful on our past adventures."

After making that comment, Quintain leaned to one side and said something to his brother. The others weren't aware of what he was saying, but once he finished speaking the two of them immediately rummaged through their packs and began to pull out the various items they felt they would need next. While everyone else was busy watching the dwarfs, Romaric managed to wander away from the group without anyone else noticing. A few minutes later, they heard Romaric shout out to them in delight.

"Hey, look! I've found one of those land bridges," he announced gleefully.

By the time the others looked up, Romaric had already begun to walk out onto the span and seemed immensely pleased with himself. He apparently felt proud that he had been the one who made this discovery and he'd done it so quickly.

"Wait, Romaric!" Sedain cried out. "Stay where you are and do not go any farther. We need to take some precautions first and take time to check it out."

Both dwarfs were deeply concerned about whether this was truly a land bridge or merely a false span. All they could see was that it was a fairly thick collection of snow and ice, but outward appearances meant little, since both spans would look very similar.

The rest of the party was waving frantically at Romaric and calling out for him to stop. The elf, however, either didn't hear what they were saying or opted to ignore their advice, because he continued to make his way farther out onto the expanse. When he looked back at the others, he couldn't understand why everyone seemed to be so worried. In order to let them know he was doing fine, he stopped and waved back at them, but they kept yelling for him to stay were he was. Quintain was frantically tying the ropes together so he could toss one end to the teen.

"Don't move! Stand perfectly still and let us throw you the rope," Quintain advised the elf, as he raced toward him.

Suddenly, a dejected look spread across Romaric's face. He thought he had saved everyone a lot of time and effort, yet no one seemed happy with what he had done. Disheartened, he started to walk back to rejoin the others when something happened. Everyone heard a slight cracking sound and then the entire span suddenly gave way.

"Rooooo-maaaaar-iiiiic," Kieren screamed, as his friend disappeared from view.

Kieren and Garreth immediately began to sprint to his aid, only to be tackled by Rhys and Alairic before they could get more than a few steps away. Even as the teens continued to struggle with the warriors so they could reach their friend, Rhys and Alairic maintained their grip and kept them from getting up and taking off again.

"Get off of me!" Kieren bellowed, since he was angry about being held back. "I have to go help Romaric."

"We're not going to do anything until we take the proper safety precautions this time," Quintain sternly advised him, as he stood over the pair. "We might have lost one of you, but we're not about to lose all three. We'll secure someone with a rope and have him crawl forward to see if he can tell what happened to Romaric."

"Then I'll do it," Kieren volunteered forcefully and without hesitation, as he attempted to get up.

"I want to do it," Garreth announced a little more meekly than his friend, although he seemed just as determined.

"We only need one person to do this, and since he's probably the smallest and lightest one here, we'll let Garreth do it," Quintain replied.

This announcement surprised both boys, because they felt certain the warriors were going to argue that one of them would have to perform this task. Kieren was just about to object about not having been chosen when the dwarf cut him off.

"I'm sorry, Kieren, but we just can't risk your safety, so this task will have to fall to your other friend."

Reluctantly, Kieren gave in and let Garreth have the honor, since he didn't want to waste time arguing the point while Romaric lay injured somewhere on the mountainside below. In fact, both boys were still thinking about this sudden turn of events when the dwarfs started to fasten ropes about Garreth's body. After a minute or so, Kieren began to fidget, because he thought this was taking far too long to accomplish. Before Kieren could say anything, however, Sedain finally told Garreth that he could start crawling forward to see if he could spot Romaric.

The elf did so cautiously, so he wouldn't disturb anything and create even more problems. The warriors kept giving the rope a little more slack, although not too much at one time, so they still had some control over Garreth's actions. As Garreth reached the brink of the precipice, he cautiously looked over the edge to see if he could spot his friend.

"I see him," Garreth yelled back. "Down there, but he's not moving. Is he all right?"

"We'll soon find out," Quintain told him. "How far down the slope is he?"

"I'd say about fifty or sixty meters," Garreth replied.

"I doubt the boy survived then," Quintain whispered to those nearest him, while at the same time making sure Kieren couldn't hear what he was saying. "I've seen climbers fatally injured as a result of much lesser falls, so I think there is probably little hope for him."

"Come on back," Sedain yelled to Garreth.

Looking bewildered, Garreth slowly crawled backward until he reached the others. He felt they were just going to advise him about how they were going to attempt the rescue and possibly give him some other gear to use.

"What do we do next?" Kieren asked, since he was eager to help his friend.

"I'm afraid nothing," Sedain informed him, after a hasty discussion with his brother. "A rescue of this nature will take far too long and we don't have the necessary equipment to do it properly."

"I don't care," Kieren stated, quite bluntly. "We have to try."

"Kieren, be reasonable," Sedain told him. "You have to realize, there's no guarantee he's not already too far gone. He might even be dead, since Garreth said he wasn't moving. If not, he probably will be by the time we reach him, because that was a nasty fall. The chances are the injuries he sustained from it are more than he is able to survive, but if that isn't enough, the hypothermia he'll suffer before we are able to reach him will most likely claim him instead."

"We can't just give up though. We have to rescue him," Kieren insisted, unwilling to budge from this stance. "I'm not going to take another step until we do everything we can to save him."

"But my liege," Turquinine began, "that wouldst jeopardize thy mission. Art thou certain thou can afford such gallantry?"

"Wouldn't you have wanted to save him, if it were Selvaggio lying down there instead?" Kieren asked defiantly, as his outrage was clearly becoming evident. "He's not just a friend, he's my brother and I couldn't go on if I didn't give it my best effort to save him. Please, we've just got to do this."

After quite a considerable hesitation and numerous private conversations between the various warriors, Quintain finally responded.

"We will attempt to get down to him, so we can determine how badly he is injured, but in return we need you to make us a promise," he stated, while eyeing the teens. "You must agree that if we reach Romaric and find he is already gone or beyond our help, then we will leave him where he lies. Are you willing to agree to this stipulation?"

Kieren paused for a few seconds before he replied. He didn't want to go along with this proposal, but he knew the others probably wouldn't allow such an attempt unless he did. As a way to get around it, Kieren quickly offered a compromise.

"I will agree, but only if he is already gone. I will not leave him if there is any chance he might survive."

After looking back and forth at each other for a brief time, the warriors eventually nodded their assent to Quintain. After each of the others had signified they consented, he told Kieren they would agree to his proposal.

"How will we do it then?" Kieren immediately wanted to know.

"Well we'll have to lower someone down on a rope until he can reach Romaric," Quintain informed him. "That person will then tie a rope around Romaric, which will also be connected to the person going down, so the rest of us can pull both of them back to the top."

"Then I volunteer to go," Kieren announced. "He saved my life and now I want to help save his. Besides, I'm about the lightest one here."

"NO!" Hadwin objected, quite emphatically. "You are the one this mission revolves around, so we cannot put you in such a dangerous position. It will have to be someone else."

"Then use me," Garreth answered, before Kieren had time to protest the decision. "I don't weigh much either and Romaric is like my brother too."

"This will be very dangerous," Quintain advised him, "because we may possibly end up losing whomever we send down there, as well as Romaric."

"Then it has to be me," Garreth insisted, "because I am also the least valuable member of this group."

The elf had always felt this way, but now he finally found the opportunity to admit it aloud. He realized even Romaric offered more to this mission than he did, because Garreth understood he wasn't as bright, athletic or as capable a fighter as either Kieren or Romaric. He also acknowledged that he was far shier and less likely to offer a usable suggestion like the others were, so this was his chance to do something worthwhile.

"Don't talk like that," Kieren told him. "You are just as important as anyone here. You will go down and get Romaric, and then we'll pull both of you safely back to rejoin the rest of us. I wouldn't have the heart to continue if I should lose either of you, let alone both at the same time."

"Very well. We shall lower Garreth down to rescue Romaric then," Sedain informed them, before he turned to face Garreth, so he could speak directly to him. "We'll fasten a second rope around your waist as well, so once you reach Romaric you will have to loop the other end over his head and secure it under his arms and around his chest. That way, we can drag both of you back up at the same time."

After Garreth was adequately prepared, he cautiously crawled back out to the edge of the slope, but this time he did not stop there. Very carefully, he turned around and began to work his way down the side of the mountain, but he did it backward. As he made his way along the slope, seconds seemed like minutes, and minutes were more like hours as he inched his way closer to the motionless form of his friend. Even though Garreth still wasn't close enough to touch him yet, he was in position to observe Romaric. Was it just his imagination or could he actually see Romaric's chest almost imperceptibly rising and falling? Was it merely wishful thinking or was his friend still alive and breathing?

"I think he's alive!" Garreth yelled up to the others, to let them know Romaric wasn't dead.

Garreth was just starting to move even closer to his friend, when he heard a sharp cracking sound. This was followed by a low growling rumble, which continued to grow louder by the second. Suddenly, the side of the mountain seemed to begin moving beneath him and he started to slide down the incline with the cascading sheet of snow.

"Avalanche!" Sedain sang out. "Pull the boy up quickly or he'll be ripped from our grasp."

Everyone reacted immediately and began to tug on the taut line, while straining to compensate for what seemed like a drastic increase in Garreth's weight. The companions' muscles were burning from the exertion and their hands seemed to be on fire, after they had momentarily lost their grip on the rope and it tore across their palms. Regardless of how much pain they were in they weren't about to give up, because no one was willing to lose another of their companions.

The tidal wave of snow continued to make its way down the mountainside and tried to suck Garreth with it, but eventually the others were able to drag him to the crest of the slope safely. Garreth was as white as a ghost as he came into view, but no one was sure if it was the result of the lingering effects of being scared about what had just happened or his exhaustion from fighting to keep from being swept away too. He had done his best to help with his own rescue and everyone else knew and appreciated this fact, as they collectively took a second to catch their breath. Sedain, however, knew they didn't have time for this and excitedly shouted to them about what they needed to do next.

"Quick! Move over there, near that rocky wall," he screamed, obviously concerned as he pointed to where he wanted them to go.

Seeing the panic on Sedain's face and hearing the desperation in his voice, they did what he told them without question. Once they were all together where the dwarf wanted them, Garreth decided he needed some clarification.

"What just happened?" the shaken and bewildered elf managed to squeak out.

"It appears a snow shelf gave way under your weight and started an avalanche. For that reason, we must all stay here with our backs against these rocks," Quintain replied, while also glaring at Kieren and Garreth, to make sure they understood and would do as they were told. "We must remain like this until we're sure the noise and vibrations from that avalanche won't cause the snow above us to do the same thing."

"Are we going to be all right?" Kieren wanted to know, while looking extremely concerned.

"We will be safe here, since most of the snow should pass over us if it breaks loose, so the damage will take place below," the dwarf explained.

Kieren thought briefly about what he had been told and then blurted out his next question. "What about Romaric?"

"I'm afraid the avalanche probably swept him away," Quintain told him, as sympathetically as he could.

"No, he's got to be all right," Kieren screamed back.

As soon as he said that, Kieren made an attempt to bolt forward again, since he was determined to save his friend. Instead, he found himself fettered by Rhys' firm grasp. The Akiktite had anticipated the young man's move and latched on to his arm the minute he suspected the teen was about to do something foolish. When Kieren began to race away, Rhys yanked him back and then quickly wrapped his powerful arms around the boy's chest, so he couldn't get loose. Kieren struggled briefly to break free, but it didn't take very long for him to realize this attempt was futile, so he went limp and began to weep.

At the same time, Garreth was dealing with his own issues. He was convinced he had caused the avalanche in the first place and was, therefore, responsible for whatever additional harm had befallen Romaric. He wondered how he could have been clumsy enough to make the snow shelf break free, but his thoughts were unexpectedly interrupted. This happened when a small avalanche started to slide down the slope above them and was now cascading over their current position. Everyone hugged the rocky face as the snow sailed overhead and then continued down the same slope Romaric had been on when they attempted to rescue him.

As the snow rushed over their heads, some of the warriors instinctively reached an arm out and placed it against the chest of one of the two remaining boys, to help prevent them from being sucked away as well. Luckily, that effort wasn't really necessary, since both Kieren and Garreth were already taking the necessary precautions to keep that from happening.

When the situation settled down and the time came to check on Romaric's situation again, Sedain suggested he should be the one to perform the task this time. Not everyone was ready to agree with his offer, which he had obviously expected.

"Please, let one of us do it," Kieren pleaded, almost in tears. "He's our friend."

"He's my friend too," Sedain reminded him and it was evident he was being totally sincere. "The thing we must consider is that the last avalanche makes such an attempt even more dangerous than before. The additional snow that now covers the area will be loose and easily dislodged. Since I have the most experience with situations of this nature, it would be best if I were the one to perform this task."

Although Kieren and Garreth were still hoping to do something to help Romaric, the warriors quickly sided with the dwarf, so Sedain began to prepare for this task. After the ropes had been securely fastened around his chest and waist, he crawled toward the brink of the precipice. Cautiously, he peered over the edge and looked for any sign of the young elf. The others held their breath, as well the rope that was securing Sedain, until he had finished surveying the area. Then, he slowly crawled back to where the others were waiting.

"I'm sorry, but there is absolutely no sign of Romaric," the dwarf advised them, as gently as he could. "I'm afraid there is nothing more we can do for him. Even if he had survived the initial fall, it appears the avalanche has made any further rescue attempts impossible. It looks as if he has been swept all the way to the bottom of the mountain and is most likely buried beneath a great mound of snow."

"But we have to find out for sure," Kieren pleaded.

His eyes were red and puffy and his body was trembling as he said this, which made everyone else's heart begin to ache, due to the intensity of his loss. Garreth looked just as grief stricken as his friend and the others could empathize with him as well, but recent developments had ended any possibility of rescuing their friend.

"I'm very sorry, but there is just nothing more we can do for him now," Sedain said, softly. "I'm afraid he's gone."

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