Castle Roland

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W


Chapter 23

Posted: 11 Aug 16

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories

Coping With Loss

"He can't be gone!" Kieren screamed, before collapsing in the snow.

Although he didn't want to accept what had happened to Romaric, there was no way for him to deny it was so. Even Garreth had confided in him while they were standing with their backs against the rocky cliff that he couldn't see how Romaric could have possibly survived what happened.

"It's all my fault," Garreth uttered, dejectedly, while looking at the ground.

"No, it's no one's fault," Quintain shot back quickly, in an effort to defuse Garreth's guilt and reassure both boys that neither of them was to blame.

"It is too," Garreth shot back, angrily. "I was the one who caused all that snow to slide down over Romaric."

"No, that wasn't your doing," Quintain insisted forcefully. "That snow shelf would have given way no matter who went down or how careful he was. It was just an accident waiting to happen and there was no way any of us could have known about the situation in advance or avoided it."

"But there had to be some way to keep it from happening," Garreth sobbed, as he choked out the words. "There had to be something I could have done to save him."

This time the elf didn't lift his head up while speaking, because he wasn't prepared to look anyone else in the eye – especially Kieren. Garreth was willing to bet that even if no one else was blaming him for what happened, Kieren probably was. Besides, no matter what anyone said or thought, Garreth couldn't shake the feeling that he had indeed been responsible for Romaric's fate, so he continued to relive those final moments over and over again.

He remembered seeing Romaric's body being swept away, since he had glanced in his friend's direction when the snow first started to move, even though he was also fighting to prevent the same fate from claiming him. As Garreth pictured what had taken place, his body involuntarily went rigid and his muscles began to twitch in response. Subconsciously, he was reliving his effort to keep from being sucked down the mountainside along with his friend. That's when another thought suddenly struck him.

'I let Romaric die just so I could save myself,' Garreth agonized, without voicing his thought aloud.

This revelation was just too much for the teen to bear and became the additional passenger that caused his emotional boat to sink. Garreth knew this was true and couldn't justify the fact that he had given up trying to rescue his friend in order to save himself. Without warning, his eyes rolled back in their sockets, his head tilted to one side, his legs buckled and his body went limp as he dropped toward the ground. Fortunately, Alairic saw what was happening and reacted quickly enough to catch Garreth before he hit the ice covered trail.

"Someone give me a hand here," the elf shouted, as he cradled Garreth's unconscious form.

Sedain immediately grabbed his pack and went to assist Alairic, but he glanced over to see how Kieren was doing first. That's when the dwarf noticed that Rhys had him wrapped comfortingly in his powerful arms. Satisfied that Kieren was being taken care of, Sedain kept going to see what he could do to help Garreth.

While the other pair tended to the young elf, Rhys did his best to console Kieren, but he soon discovered there was little he could do to help him. As he fought to lift the young man's spirits and pull him out of his depression, the warrior noticed Qaim was moving closer to them. Rhys quickly concluded the aignx's intention was most likely to help Kieren, but at the same time the Akiktite was determined it would probably be best if their guide didn't get involved in this current situation.

The primary reason for this decision was that Rhys was afraid Qaim might confuse the issue for Kieren and make it even more difficult for him to work his way through his grief. After all, the aignx tended to have a slightly different outlook concerning most matters and Rhys was worried Qaim might inadvertently blurt out something inappropriate and aggravate the situation further. That could, in turn, cause Kieren to react negatively and thus worsen the problem, instead of making it better. These thoughts prompted the warrior to take preventative action and not allow something like that to take place. Therefore, when he saw Qaim moving closer, he signaled their hairy guide to stay back and not get involved.

Rhys was still watching Qaim's dejected reaction at not being allowed to join them, so he wasn't prepared when Kieren unexpectedly pulled away from him. The teen turned abruptly, so that he was now facing the Akiktite, and then Kieren began to pound his fists into the warrior's chest.

"Why didn't you save him?" Kieren screamed. "Why did all of you just let that happen?"

Rhys grabbed Kieren by the arms and drew the trembling youth securely against his chest, thus ending the physical aspect of Kieren's outburst. Now that the young man had been restrained, the northerner slowly moved his right hand up Kieren's arm, until it was resting against the teen's face. Just as a parent might affectionately dote on a child, he began to stroke the lad's face and hair, in an effort to comfort him as he spoke.

"Kieren, we didn't let it happen to him," Rhys tried to explain. "Romaric…"

"Yes, you did," Kieren yelled back, cutting the Akiktite off and pulling as far as away from Rhys as the warrior would allow. "None of you were eager to try to save him and you wouldn't let me do it either. Everyone is to blame for what happened, especially me. Romaric never hesitated when he risked his life to save mine in Briarwood, so I should have done more to save him. Instead, I just sat back and let him die."

"Kieren, you didn't do anything wrong," Rhys insisted, even though he could tell the youngster still wasn't convinced of this fact.

"I did too! I should have insisted that you let me try to rescue him," Kieren snapped back. "I might have been able to get to Romaric and then carried him back."

Appalled by Kieren's stubborn refusal to see the truth, Rhys came to the conclusion that the only way he was going to convince him about what really happened was by shocking him back to reality. It was cruel, he conceded, but he knew it had to be done.

"Kieren, none of us are to blame for what happened," the northerner stated. "Romaric is the only one at fault here. He didn't heed the warnings we had all been given and failed to take the appropriate precautions first, so he ended up doing this to himself."

Kieren's body stiffened and he immediately tried to break away from the Akiktite's grip. When he couldn't, he looked directly into Rhys' face and the warrior could easily see the lad's eyes were ablaze with fury. Not only that, but Kieren's expression clearly reflected his shock and anger over what Rhys had just said to him.

"How can you say such a thing? Romaric was only trying to help and never did anything so bad that it would deserve what happened to him," Kieren shouted back, defiantly. "He didn't deserve to die!"

"His intentions may have been honorable, but he ignored the dwarfs' warnings and took unnecessary risks," Rhys explained, as calmly as he could. "He went out on the snow bridge alone, without taking the proper precautions first, and that's what allowed the accident to happen."

This definitely wasn't what Kieren wanted to hear and his body started to tense up again. He desperately wanted to come up with a reason why his friend wasn't responsible for what had just happened so he could explain it to the Akiktite.

"He was only trying to save us time by finding a way to get into the Devil's Horseshoe. He just wanted to help," the teen offered, in an attempt to justify his friend's actions.

"That may be true," Rhys acknowledged, "but he didn't go about it the right way and failed to listen to what he'd been told. I'm sorry it happened, but it was no one's fault except his own. We did all we could to try to rescue him after he fell too, but the choice of what we could do to save him was limited at that point. Unfortunately, it was nature that ended our efforts and nearly claimed Garreth's life as well."

"Maybe if I hadn't agreed to follow this route and had gone along with your suggestion earlier to get the dwarfs to move lower, out of the snow, then Romaric would still be with us," Kieren offered. "Maybe if we weren't up here at this level then this wouldn't have happened."

"Possibly, but we would still have needed to find a way into the Devil's Horseshoe," Rhys offered, "so who knows what else may have happened instead, especially if Romaric had acted as recklessly there as well."

Upon hearing Rhys' comments, Kieren first glared at the warrior, but then his chin dropped against his chest, as he reluctantly thought about what the warrior had just said. Even though he began to understand that Rhys might be correct, it still didn't eliminate his feelings of loss or guilt. Now, he was struggling to deal with a new problem, which was the reality that he was never going to see Romaric again. Within seconds tears began to well up in his eyes and stream down his cheeks, as he started to mourn his lost mate.

Seeing how grief stricken Kieren was, it affected Qaim much more deeply than any of the others. Even though the aignx had been made to observe what was taking place from a distance, he wasn't happy about being forced to stay away from his young protector. No matter what Rhys said, Qaim desperately wanted to console the one who had previously been so kind to him. Seeing how badly the young man was hurting was much more than the furry little guide could endure, so he opted to blatantly disregard the Akiktite's warning. Before anyone could stop him, Qaim slithered across the intervening gap until he made his way to Kieren's side and spoke.

"Please, nice master, no be sad," he said soothingly. "Qaim help. Tell Qaim what to do and Qaim do it."

Kieren was so overwhelmed by his grief that this heartfelt gesture didn't immediately register with him. However, the others in the party were quite moved by this simple and sincere overture of friendship and support.

"I'm afraid there is nothing you can do to help him," Quintain told the aignx soothingly. "Just give him some time and he'll work his way through it."

The dwarf had said this because he felt someone should at least acknowledge Qaim's offer, since Kieren obviously wasn't able to do so at the moment. Disappointed that he couldn't seem to make Kieren feel better, Qaim slouched against his friend's leg. After a few minutes of inactivity, Qaim began to press his body against the young man's outer thigh, in much the same way as he had done on previous occasions, when he had sought Kieren's protection. This time, however, his intent was to reassure his 'young master' that he was not alone and someone else shared his pain.

The others watched as their enigmatic little guide clung as tightly to the boy's leg as he could and nuzzled his cheek against Kieren's thigh. They knew the aignx was making a sincere effort to pass his support along by means of this simple action and were amazed by how deeply Qaim seemed to care about Kieren's present condition. Qaim continued this ritual until Kieren reached down and stroked his head. This simple gesture let Qaim know that Kieren realized he was there and appreciated his support.

While most of the others were focused on Kieren, Alairic had remained by Garreth's side. He held the boy and called out to him soothingly, while hoping it would be enough to draw him out of his stupor. After several minutes of this effort, Alairic noticed the younger elf's eyes flutter open. However, they were still glazed over and appeared unfocused, so the older elf spoke a little louder to him, hoping it would be sufficient to get his attention.

"Garreth, look at me," Alairic stated, although he received no immediate response in return. "Garreth, this wasn't your fault."

Even though Alairic continued his attempt to convince Garreth that he hadn't done anything wrong, the younger elf merely rolled his head away from the river elf. Frustrated, Alairic reached down and cradled Garreth's chin with his hand, in an attempt to force the boy to look at him, but the teen resisted his efforts.

"You did all you could," Alairic whispered, only to feel Garreth's body go rigid in protest.

This reaction let Alairic know that Garreth understood what he was saying, but he couldn't get the lad to talk about what he was feeling. Rather than verbalize his grief and act out as Kieren was doing, Garreth continued to withdraw more deeply into himself. With surprising efficiency, he was shutting everyone out and ignoring everything around him.

"We've got to snap him out of this," Sedain told Alairic, after witnessing the elf's failed effort. "If you can't pull him out of this melancholy soon, then we won't be going anywhere. I'd prefer not to spend an additional night in the mountains, so it would behoove us to get moving soon."

"Will one more night make that much difference?" Alairic countered, realizing he had to give Garreth whatever time he needed to work through this on his own.

"Well I was hoping it wouldn't take too long to find a land bridge that would take us directly into the Devil's Horseshoe," the dwarf explained, "Since we've been able to travel along basically unhindered today, except for the depth of the snow, I was fairly confident we could reach our destination before nightfall. If we were able to continue on at our current pace, then we might actually be able to spend tonight in the tunnels leading into Treblanc, where we wouldn't be subjected to the elements.

"If we are able to get started again fairly soon, then I think we may be close enough for that to still possibly happen," Sedain continued. "That's why this situation is becoming a potential problem. In the condition Garreth is in now, it looks as if he isn't going to be able to walk on his own and that would mean one of us will have to carry him. I think you know how difficult that will be under these conditions, especially if we have to carry him over the land bridge as well."

"I understand," Alairic replied, "but I think he'll be all right if we just give him a little more time. I'll keep talking to him until he starts to come around, because I don't think that will take too much longer."

Alairic, however, was not actually as confident as he had tried to sound.

"I hope not," Hadwin interjected, which caused the other pair to spin around in his direction. Unbeknownst to them, the Nardinian had been eavesdropping on their conversation and felt compelled to add his own take on the matter. "We don't have the time to spare, so you've got to snap him out of this now."

Even though they all agreed that time was an issue, they weren't sure what more they could do. In desperation, Alairic moved his face in front of Garreth's, until he was almost nose-to-nose with the boy.

"Garreth, I need you to pay attention to me," Alairic told him calmly. "You were in no way responsible for what happened to Romaric."

"No, you weren't," Sedain agreed. "In fact, you did everything you could to save Romaric. You were very brave and made a valiant attempt to rescue him, which almost cost you your life in the process. It's just that some things happened which were beyond our control. None of us could have anticipated or prevented what took place, no matter how much we wished it to be so."

The mention of Romaric's name appeared to elicit a slight reaction from Garreth, but not exactly the type the others were hoping for. Instead of bringing him out of his trance-like state, it seemed to push him even deeper into this catatonic condition. The teen immediately closed his eyes again and then went limp in Alairic's arms, similar to a wet rag.

"This is taking far too long," Hadwin stated, looking frustrated. "We need to bring him out of this quickly so we can get away from here or we'll be stuck spending the night without any shelter."

While Alairic and Sedain were considering how to respond to his insensitive comment, Hadwin had another thought.

"Has anyone been keeping an eye out for the condor?"

At the mention of the beast, a look of terror flashed across Alairic's face. Suddenly, his head shot up and he scanned the sky in all directions, but fortunately he found nothing to concern him.

"I'm afraid I have been so focused on Garreth and about losing Romaric that I forgot all about the other threat," the elf admitted. "Fortunately, it appears as if the gods have been watching over us and prevented that from happening."

"I'm not sure how much the gods had to do with it, but we can't ignore that threat any longer," the Nardinian confirmed. "Nor can we forget there are only so many hours of daylight left and we must take advantage of every one of them. For that reason, we've got to get moving again, so why don't you let me see what I can do with the boy."

Before anyone could stop him, Hadwin reached out and slapped Garreth across the face. It wasn't a gentle slap either and even made a rather loud sound when he did it.

"What do you think you're doing?" Alairic screamed when he saw what the Nardinian had done.

The river elf was ready to attack the northerner for his actions and was totally shocked that Hadwin had even considered such a drastic response.

"I'm just trying to yank him back to the present," Hadwin rationalized. "I wanted him to focus on us, instead of on what happened to Romaric."

"By knocking him senseless?" Alairic countered, hoping this would be enough to get Hadwin to see the absurdity of his approach. "Just get away from him and I'll deal with this."

The elfin warrior was livid and pushed the Nardinian backward, to emphasize what he'd just said. Insulted by this harsh rebuke, Hadwin was ready to shove the elf back, but thought better of it once he saw Turquinine and Sedain moving toward him and neither of them had a smile on his face. Instead of retaliating, Hadwin turned around and walked away in a huff, while Alairic resumed his attempt to try to talk Garreth back to reality.

After witnessing what Hadwin had done to Garreth, Qaim clung even more tightly to Kieren's leg. He did this because he feared someone might try to do the same thing to his young friend.

Surprisingly, Kieren had also heard the sound of the slap and the comments that were made afterward, but it took a few moments longer before it registered in his brain. When he finally realized what Hadwin had done to Garreth, his body tensed and he jerked away from Rhys' relaxed grip. He also pushed Qaim away, as he moved toward his childhood friend.

"Leave him alone," the teen yelled, and this caused everyone to turn in his direction and then, momentarily, freeze in place. "I might not have been able to save Romaric, but I won't let anyone hurt Garreth," he announced, quite dramatically.

"Kieren, no one was trying to hurt Garreth," Rhys offered, in a soft, calm voice, as he caught up with the young man. "They were just trying to bring him around, so we can get moving again."

Kieren looked bewildered for a couple of seconds, almost as if he didn't understand what Rhys was telling him. After a few more seconds, however, he collected his thoughts and spoke again.

"Let me take care of Garreth," he offered, "and the rest of you can see what you can do to help Romaric."

This comment caused the warriors to exchange concerned looks with each other, when they realized Kieren still didn't seem to fathom the true nature of the situation. Most of them were unsure if they should say anything about this, until one of the dwarfs addressed the problem.

"Kieren, I'm sorry, but there is nothing more we can do for Romaric," Quintain tried to explain. "He is currently beyond our assistance."

"But he might not be dead! He may only be injured and in pain," Kieren protested. "He could be lying down there on that slope in agony and waiting for us to come to his rescue. We've got to find him and see how he's doing."

Kieren attempted to leap up and race off at this point, but Rhys was prepared for such a move and had a firm grasp of the teen's arm so he couldn't get away.

"I'm sorry, Kieren," the powerful warrior began, with his deep voice sounding like the distant rumble of thunder, "but we've already done all we can."

"No! There must be something more we can try," the teen challenged.

It was quite obvious he still wasn't ready to give up on his friend and his loud outburst caused the others, with the exception of Alairic, to forget about Garreth temporarily. The remaining companions were now totally focused upon Kieren and desperately trying to determine how they were going to handle the situation.

"I'm afraid we don't have the means to do anything more for him," the Akiktite explained, as gently as he could. "You're just going to have to accept that fact. The best thing you can do for him now is to honor Romaric by completing your mission."

"Why?" Kieren screamed back, totally frustrated. "What good will that do? How can I save Tarolia when I couldn't even save my friend?"

Rhys was shocked by the intensity of Kieren's outburst and the others stood transfixed as they watched the two interact.

"Kieren, you did all you could," Rhys tried to convince him. "We all did. There was nothing more any of us could have done. His fate was beyond our control, but you can't let what happened to him lessen your resolve or stop you from trying to complete your task. There is too much riding on the outcome of this mission, because if you fail then more lives than just Romaric's will be lost and his death will lack meaning."

"But I don't think I can go through with this now," Kieren replied, as he began sobbing again, completely defeated. "Last night Romaric had me convinced I could do this with his support, but now that he's gone, I don't see how I can be successful."

"Kieren, you've come too far and have done too much for you to give up now," Rhys told him, while hoping he could reason his way through this. "If you don't at least try to fulfill the prophecy, then Romaric's sacrifice will have been for naught. You must go on to give some measure of justification for his death and provide a reason to explain why this tragedy happened."

Kieren did not immediately respond to Rhys' comments and merely stared at the warrior, even though he wasn't able to see much of anything through his tears. Almost imperceptibly, every muscle in Kieren's body began to grow taut, as his emotions, which had already run the gamut from disbelief, to remorse and then to guilt, had now reached the next stage, anger.

"I'm not sure this mission ever had a chance of succeeding," Kieren protested, as he bolted upright. "I'm beginning to think Beraut sent us out here knowing we could never do what was required and we'd probably all meet our end trying. That's why he only stayed with us through the Valley of the Dead."

"Kieren, you must know Beraut would never do anything like that," Rhys challenged.

"Yes, he would have and he did," Kieren protested. "We have been confronted by so many obstacles, unnatural opponents and dangerous situations since we started out that there was no way we could possibly overcome them all."

"Kieren, I think you're being unfair…" Rhys began, only to be cut off.

"No, I'm not!" the teen shouted, as he finally broke free of Rhys' grasp and continued his tantrum. "We must give up this foolishness and go home while we still can. We should just allow fate to run its course. It is the gods who will determine who is going to rule Tarolia and there is nothing we can do to alter their decision."

Kieren was trembling as he finished his outburst and the warriors were dumbstruck by the forcefulness of his tirade. It took a minute before anyone was able to respond, but it was Turquinine who regained his senses first.

"Nay, my Lord, thou art mistaken about this," boomed the voice of the Mitikuan giant. "Master Beraut hath not condemned us to death and he truly believeth in our quest. Prithee, tell me why thou hath turned against the one who hath been like a father to thee?"

"A father wouldn't have deserted his son when he was facing such dangers," Kieren shot back, vehemently. The teen even balled up his fists, as if he were ready to fight them all to prove his point.

"Beraut didst not desert thee," Turquinine reasoned back, as he stepped closer to the teen. "He made certain thou hath others to protect thee and thou doeth the mage a grave disservice if thou sayeth otherwise."

"But he left us just when we needed his magic and guidance the most," Kieren insisted, while pounding his fists into the Mitikuan's chest for emphasis.

No matter how much Kieren wanted to believe otherwise, Turquinine's words were beginning to ring true. Slowly, the young man was forced to admit to himself that Beraut had nothing to do with what had happened to Romaric. Even if he felt he needed someone else to bear the responsibility for his friend's fate, he began to realize it wasn't the wizard.

"If you have to blame someone," Quintain roared back, startling everyone, "then blame the one who is truly responsible. Blame Madumda. Romaric even pointed that fact out to us and told us it was Madumda's fault that Doenilio died."

"He did? When did he say that?" Kieren challenged.

"The night you were upset with Beraut and stormed off," Sedain replied, adding another voice to the chorus. "He told us that Garreth and he knew it was Madumda who was the cause for what had happened to Doenilio and it wasn't Beraut's or anyone else's fault. He said you'd figure it out eventually as well."

"He really said that?" Kieren replied, although it was more to himself than to anyone else.

"He truly did," Alairic confirmed. "That's why you must hold Madumda accountable. It's because of him we are here, not Beraut."

"For that reason," Rhys added, "you must focus your hatred on Madumda and use it to your advantage when you finally meet him. When the time comes, use your anger to make the Dark Lord pay for the harm he has caused. Let Romaric stand with you in spirit and then use that additional strength to destroy Madumda once and for all."

Kieren thought carefully about what the others had just told him and eventually agreed they were right. His anger and frustration now had a new focus, as it gradually shifted away from Beraut and settled on Madumda. Once again, Kieren had a renewed sense of purpose and was emotionally committed to completing his mission. A sudden urgency to see this task through swept over him and he was determined to make the Dark Lord pay for what had happened to his friends. He also vowed he would make it happen soon, before he lost his newfound strength and resolve.

One by one, he looked at each of his companions and made eye contact with them. This time though, he was radiating his newly acquired self-confidence, while silently thanking them for their support. He was ready to set out again, but just at that moment his gaze fell upon the still distraught form of Garreth. His heart ached when he realized how badly his other lifelong friend was still suffering, so he made his way over to him. He knew exactly what Garreth was going through, so he felt he had the best chance of consoling him. With a newfound optimism, Kieren placed his arm around Garreth's shoulder and offered him a few words of comfort.

"No one can appreciate your suffering more than I," he said softly, while looking into Garreth's eyes," but I swear to you we shall give some meaning to Romaric's death. I will complete this mission and destroy Madumda, if only to pay him back for all of the harm he has caused us."

For the first time in many minutes, Garreth began to show signs of responding. He turned his head slightly, until he was looking directly at Kieren, and a glimmer of recognition danced in his eyes. Encouraged by this change, Kieren took both of Garreth's hands into his own and continued.

"I'm not really sure how it happened," Kieren explained, in an excited, yet reassuring voice, "but somehow I feel as if I have acquired Romaric's strength and courage. Maybe I was able to absorb it, kind of the same way that the Dark Lord absorbed the powers of the wizards he destroyed, but for the first time I truly feel like I will be able to defeat Madumda. We shall find time to grieve for Romaric when all of this is over, but for now we must set aside our sorrow and continue on to Treblanc. We need to find the sword, so I can use it against Madumda and make him pay for what he's done."

Kieren embraced his friend comfortingly, before gently releasing him again. He then held Garreth at arm's length and locked his determined gaze directly upon him, as if he were trying to will his own strength into the elf. He was now totally focused upon Garreth and attempted to see if he could observe a sign that he was getting through to him. After a few minutes of this effort, Garreth's expression began to change and Kieren knew his mate was slowly emerging from his emotional shell.

Kieren could still read the pain and sadness expressed through Garreth's eyes and this gave him a truer appreciation for the old expression that 'the eyes reflect what the heart feels'. There was no need to ask any more questions and there were no emotional outbursts or histrionics this time. Each youth understood and felt the other's grief and pain. They embraced once more and actually began to draw strength out of the connection, as well as feeling comfort from each other's touch. Once he realized it was time to continue on, Kieren turned toward the dwarfs and spoke.

"Sedain and Quintain, since you understand the dangers of this area better than the rest of us," he stated, quite confidently, "would you please be so kind as to lead us out of here and get us to where we need to go?"

The dwarfs nodded and mumbled various words of agreement, before getting underway again. At long last, they were ready to seek out a natural land bridge that would lead them across the chasm and into the adjoining mountain range.

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