Castle Roland

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W


Chapter 24

Posted: 18 Aug 16

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories

More Unwelcome Surprises

"Sir, I hate to bother you," the guard advised Commander Elgin as he stirred to life, "but I'm afraid something is terribly wrong."

The dwarf military leader was mildly shocked by the sentry's statement and sought to understand what it meant. Even though the commander hadn't been able to sleep very well in their temporary shelter and had gotten up many times during the evening, he hadn't been aware of any problems. Whenever he left the cave and chatted with the guard on duty, there had never been any mention that something might be amiss, so the dwarf commander wondered what had suddenly caused this to change.

"Why do you think something is wrong?" Elgin inquired, as he followed the guard out of the cave.

"Sir, I have been standing at my post for much longer than is required for this duty," the warrior informed him, "yet no one has come to relieve me."

"There might be a simple explanation for this," the commander told him, "although I'm not sure I would find any excuse to be acceptable for such a breach in protocol."

"I thought it might be a simple oversight at first," the trooper responded. "I assumed the guard below had merely lost track of time and failed to wake our replacements. But now, with the sky beginning to brighten, I no longer believe this to be the case. I can't hear any sounds of others moving around below and I don't see any evidence that there is activity in the camp either, even though they should be up by now. I'm not sure what is wrong, but I think we should investigate the situation further."

"After hearing the additional details you've stated, I agree with your assessment, but I suggest we proceed cautiously," Elgin replied. "If there is a problem then we must move quickly, while at the same time utilizing the utmost vigilance, because the threat may still exist. I think it would best if you wake up the rest of the officers first and give them a quick assessment of what has been going on. When you to do this, just remember to advise them to remain quiet, for if there is a problem in the camp below, whoever is responsible for what is happening may not know there are more of us up here."

"Yes, sir, and I apologize for not informing you about this sooner," the young soldier told Commander Elgin. "It's just that I wasn't convinced there really was a problem… at least until I saw the sun beginning to rise."

"No apologies are necessary and I doubt it would have made a difference even if you had awakened me earlier," his superior responded, in an effort to relieve the guard's guilty conscience. "I probably would have still opted to wait for daybreak before acting anyway, so we would be able to see what was going on, rather than take the chance of blundering into something in the dark. Go wake the others and have them join us in front of the cave, while I check out the situation for myself. I believe whatever the problem; we'll most likely need their assistance before this is over."

"Aye, Sir," the sentry replied, before going back inside the cave to rouse the remaining officers.

Once the guard had disappeared, Commander Elgin attempted to do a little reconnaissance of his own. He was careful not to venture too far away from the cave though, for fear of walking into a trap. For that reason, he didn't learn very much from his efforts. The only thing he could confirm was that his army was certainly being far too quiet, because they should be up, moving about and preparing to break camp. If they were, he should be able to hear his soldiers carrying out their duties, but since this was not the case, it caused him to assume something was definitely not right. He was filled with apprehension when he went back to apprise the others

As soon as his subordinates were gathered around him, Elgin filled them in about what he had done and then explained how he thought they should attack this problem. The others readily agreed with his idea, so after each of them had dressed and armed himself, the group proceeded with great caution as they silently made their way down the slope. By this time, the sun had already risen above the horizon, so there was sufficient light to see through the continuing drizzle and the fate of the others soon became apparent. However, none of the officers was sure if he could trust his eyes and believe what he was currently seeing.

A sudden wave of incredulity swept through their ranks and momentarily overwhelmed them. It took a few more seconds before the gravity of the situation jarred them back to their senses and they were able to digest what they were looking at. Sometime during the night, the soft, leafy bed the dwarfs had been so thankful for just a few hours earlier had now become their worst nightmare. Somehow, each of the dwarf troopers had been encased in an interlacing cocoon of vegetation and rendered totally helpless.

"Use your battleaxes and swords to start freeing everyone," Commander Elgin ordered, once he had studied the situation thoroughly. "I am willing to wager this is the result of some sort of spell Madumda placed on the undergrowth to protect his flanks. You'll have to be careful that the tendrils don't start clutching at your limbs and attempt to encase you like a sausage as well. After you liberate each trooper and he is uninjured, then it would probably be best if you help him locate and free his weapons next, so he can assist us in releasing the others. Move quickly, but work carefully. We certainly don't want to kill or injure any of our own with a misplaced stroke."

Each officer instinctively moved to free the person nearest to him and chopped away at the leafy bonds that held the other in place. Occasionally, one of the liberators would have to stop helping his latest captive, so he could whack at the vegetation as it also tried to entrap him, but this never presented too severe of a threat. However, it was a slow and arduous task, at least until they began to rescue more and more of the others. Once they had liberated one of their comrades, then that person also assisted them with the rescue attempt and the process moved along more rapidly. When the final trooper was released from his temporary bonds, the junior officers were commanded to attend to those needing medical assistance and treat any injuries that were sustained during their bondage.

Now that all of the soldiers had been freed, those physically capable of helping and not currently performing other duties were ordered to retrieve the gear and the rest of the weapons next, since those things would be needed later. Once the plants had been hacked to shreds and every item had been reclaimed, they moved away from the accursed spot and reformed at a safer location. It was there that they took a quick count of the injured and tried to assess what impact this event would have on their mission.

A few hours had passed since the dwarf commander had first been awakened and discovered the predicament his soldiers were in, but there was still more to be done before the army could once again form up and move on. While the injured were being taken care of, the dwarf commander felt he must take the time to learn how this treachery had played out in the first place, so he could prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. In an effort to do this, Commander Elgin approached the nearest enlisted man and began to question him.

"What happened back there, trooper?" the commander asked. "Didn't the guards or anyone else recognize what was going on?"

"I'm afraid not, sir," the embarrassed soldier responded. "That's probably because the plants didn't do anything until after we were asleep."

"But why would the plants wait until then when they attacked us immediately?" the commander shot back, not quite believing what he had just heard.

"I'm not sure," the trooper responded, "but I suspect the plants initially relied upon stealth and the element of surprise to trap us. I believe all of that changed during the rescue though, since you already knew about the threat they posed and were busy attacking and chopping them to bits. In order for the plants to survive, they had no option but to fight back as best they could. I think if we'd discovered the treachery soon enough, we would have been able to fight the vines off as well and could have prevented this from happening."

"You might be right," the commander conceded, since he didn't wish to spend even more time debating the point. "So, what happened next?"

"As I said, we had no warning at all and none of us even realized what was happening until it was too late to do anything about it," he continued. "I only woke up because I was unable to roll over in my bedroll and that's when I discovered I was totally bound."

"Couldn't you have shouted out an alarm or something?" Elgin inquired, confused.

"I tried to yell out to those closest to me, but I quickly found I was unable to do that. At first I wasn't certain why I wasn't able to cry out," the soldier told him, "but then I began to realize not only couldn't I move my body, but I was unable to move my jaw as well."

"You mean you couldn't even shout out or alert those closest to you?" Elgin countered.

"No, Sir, I'm afraid that wasn't possible. A vine had worked its way across my mouth," the soldier told him, "and then wound its way under my chin and around my head, so I was completely gagged. Since the rest of me was bound as well, I was totally helpless."

"But couldn't you have tried something else at that point?" Elgin asked, thinking there must have been another option he could have utilized. "There must have been some small effort you could have made to alert your remaining comrades, but somehow overlooked."

"Not that I can think of, sir," the solder told him. "The best I could do was to make a few grunting noises, which I did, but that was it. I had to use all of the strength I could muster just to turn my head enough to look around a little and that's when I became aware that those around me were caught in a similar predicament."

"What about the guards?" Elgin persisted. "Surely, they must have noticed something."

"I'm not sure what happened to them," the dwarf answered, "but I would imagine they were somehow taken just as unaware as the rest of us. I would even be willing to bet that they were dealt with first, before the plants attacked the rest of us."

"You're probably correct about that point," the commander grunted, dismayed, "but it is very disconcerting to know my command can be overtaken so easily, whether it is done by guile, sorcery or a combination of both. I will have to review this situation thoroughly at a later time, to see if any procedures need to be revamped or if any punishments are called for."

After finishing this conversation, Elgin made his way to another area where he conferred with his officers.

"Although we have survived this encounter, there are several other concerns that need to be addressed. For one, the weather looks as if it will continue to be a challenge that we will be forced to deal with," he indicated, while looking up at the sky. "This area seems to have been hit by heavy rains for the last several days and it doesn't appear as if it is going to let up soon. Another storm seems to be approaching from the west and could make things even more difficult for us. I feel it would be best if we get underway as soon as we can, but that takes me to my next concern. What is the report on the number of injured and the severity of their condition?"

"A dozen of our soldiers died from asphyxiation," one of the junior officers informed him. "We have also been able to learn that four of those killed were the guards on duty during that period. It appears the vines were able to somehow slip up their backs, wrap around their necks and strangle them before they were able to realize what was happening. The remaining troopers are still very weak and some are feeling the lingering effects of oxygen deprivation, but they will survive. A few of them are also suffering from various fractures, abrasions and contusions, which most likely resulted during their struggle to break free. The broken bones have been set, but it will take weeks before they mend completely. The remaining soldiers should recover sufficiently to resume their duties in another hour or two."

"Another hour or two?" Elgin muttered, looking glum. "It is already past midday and we cannot afford any further delays. Don't we have another option, such as leaving some of them behind? They could always catch up with us later, once they have recovered."

"That's a possibility," one of the other officers agreed, "although we'd also have to leave a few additional warriors behind to look after them. Most of those whom are unable to continue on are either injured severely enough that they would be unable to care for themselves or don't possess the strength needed to deal with any other dangers that might arise after we move on. For that reason, we would need to leave several others behind to assist and protect them. Some of the injured may eventually reach the point where they will be able to continue on their own, but their pace will be slow and it will take a very long time for them to catch up to us. They'll still have to avoid the condor as well, but they may be able to reach us before the battle ends."

"I'm not totally pleased with this option," Elgin responded, looking chagrined. "I hate to split my forces unless I absolutely have to, but in this case, it seems to be a better option than delaying us all. Make it so and order the rest of the troops to prepare to march, posthaste. Has anyone seen any signs of that bothersome bird?"

"None, sir," a young officer responded, "much to our good fortune. If it had discovered us during our earlier predicament, I'm afraid it might have been able to kill everyone and had enough food set aside to last it for many days."

"A dire and sobering thought indeed," Elgin agreed. "Possibly Madumda thought his plants would be enough to protect him and decided to use the condor for other duties."

"Whatever the case," one of the senior officers added, "it was fortuitous that the creature chose this time to be lax on its rounds."

"Possibly too fortuitous," the commander countered, while looking chagrined. "I fear Madumda would not pull his guardian away unless it was needed for a more pressing duty. I want you to inform those under your command to remain alert, just in case that foul bird returns. I hope its absence isn't a sign that the battle is about ready to begin or has already begun, because that would magnify the effect of our tardiness. The only thing worse than that would be if the beast had been drawn away because it had discovered the small party trying to sneak into Treblanc."

"I certainly hope that is not the case," his second in command added, "for that would mean our armies are all that is standing between Madumda and his quest for power."

"Believe me," Elgin responded, thoughtfully, "I think we all pray none of those things has happened, but we only have control over our own situation. We must get moving, if we don't want to further impair our chances to be victorious in battle. Tell those staying behind with the wounded to also bury the dead and remove any signs we were here before they move on. Once you have done that, then have everyone else fall into formation, so we may be on our way."

The officers then saluted and dispersed, so they could set about their duties. While the small group that was staying behind set about their tasks, the others formed up and marched away. The small army set out at a less than normal pace, but that was due to the current physical status of many of the warriors. After a brief period of moving at this reduced cadence, they were able to increase their speed to a slightly faster pace. The officers knew they were taking a chance by increasing the speed this quickly, because doing so might further harm those that had sustained lingering injuries, but it was a calculated risk they felt they had to take.

Within the hour, they were proceeding at a grueling and arduous tempo, especially when factoring in the condition of the ground they were traveling over. The dwarfs, however, were happy to be on the move again, so no one complained about how strenuous the march was.

The lookouts also continued to search the sky for signs of the condor's return and each of them wondered how far they would get before the warning 'chirps' began to fill the air once more. Surprisingly, the army traveled for nearly another hour before the bird first appeared on the horizon and the scouts sounded the alarm. The troops performed their deception and carried it off perfectly, so the condor flew over their location totally unaware of their presence and headed in the direction of the pass. Up until that moment, Elgin had worried their camouflage, which had suffered some minor damage during the previous night's fiasco, would no longer be sufficient to conceal their presence. Luckily, the devices still did the trick.

While he was grateful their disguise had still proven effective, the commander was suddenly reminded of another concern, but there was little he could do about it now. Out of desperation, he merely hoped those they'd left behind had continued to remain alert and would spot the condor in time to camouflage their presence. Elgin prayed the others would enjoy the same good fortune the rest of them had just experienced.

After the all-clear signal had been given, the dwarfs were on the move again and quickly resumed their previous brisk pace. This time they did it with even more resolve, since they understood how desperately they needed to make up for lost time.

'What has that blasted beast been up to,' Elgin wondered, as they sped along, 'and why hasn't it been more consistent in its rounds? Is something else occupying its attention or isn't it concerned about the possibility of troop movements along this range? Could the armies already be engaged in battle? If so, then why wouldn't that damned bird be nearer the battlefield, so it could assist its master?'

Unfortunately, the commander didn't have very long to consider any of these questions further, because one of the forward scouts had returned and alerted him about another situation.

"Sir, there's something up ahead that you should be aware of," the soldier offered.

"What is it?" Elgin asked, looking concerned.

"I'm not exactly sure what it is, but from all appearances it will pose a problem for us. Maybe if you were to take a quick look in that direction," the scout explained, while pointing at a spot some distance in front of them, "you might be able to draw your own conclusions."

The commander immediately focused upon the area the trooper was referring to, but he wasn't able to ascertain much about it either. He could only make out what appeared to be some sort of mass extending from the mountain range and continuing out onto the plain. He couldn't tell exactly what it was, but he instantly understood it shouldn't be there.

Elgin quickly commanded the troops to halt, so he could meet with his officers and apprise them of this new situation. He also ordered scouts to be sent out to investigate this anomaly, to see if they could determine what it was. Once those soldiers had been dispatched and the other officers knew what was going on, the army was ordered to begin marching forward again. Elgin didn't want to lose even more precious time with another delay. When the scouts returned later, they made their report.

"Sir, there has been a sizeable mudslide and a great wall of sludge is blocking our path. It doesn't appear to have been there for very long, but it is extremely thick and has a very soupy consistency. This will delay us even further, because it covers a considerable area."

After hearing this, the commander decided it would be best to confer privately with his officers again, in order to get their input. Some of them immediately began to question whether this was another obstacle created by Madumda, but that idea was readily dismissed. Nearly everyone agreed this was most likely just another natural phenomenon that had been caused by the recent wave of heavy precipitation.

After this discussion ended, another officer suggested they might want to consider heading into the mountains, in an attempt to bypass the mudslide in that direction. It didn't take long to reject this idea, however. After looking at the size of the gap that had been created when so much of the slope had given way and slid out onto the valley floor, the senior officers decided it would be more difficult to try to go around this newly formed chasm in that direction. Therefore, they looked for another option.

Elgin considered the information about the consistency of the slide and the fact it was several meters thick at its deepest point, and concluded it would be virtually impossible to go over it as well. Therefore, the only course of action open to them would be to march south and go around it in that direction.

Some of the other officers immediately found fault with this idea as well and quickly pointed out potential problems with such a plan. The most significant of these considerations was the possibility of being spotted by the condor. It was obvious the change in terrain would effectively render their ruse useless if they chose to skirt around the sea of mud. Their camouflage wouldn't blend in with this current background and, therefore, expose them from that point on.

After some give and take on the subject, it was determined the only viable alternative would be to march around the slide after dark. In order to do this, they would need to get as close to it as they could while it was still daylight and then wait for the remaining sunlight to fade first, before continuing on. This would help to alleviate their primary fears about the condor, because as far as they knew, the bird didn't fly once the light began to fade.

Although he had agreed to use this plan, Commander Elgin was still concerned that the heavy cloud-cover would most likely block out the small amount of light the moon might otherwise provide and leave them in nearly total darkness. This, in turn, meant they would have to rely solely upon their night vision to accomplish this task, which would make it even more difficult to do safely. Even though the dwarfs were accustomed to seeing in limited light, a maneuver such as this was going to be tricky, no matter how well they could see. The lack of light would open them up to other dangers, even something as insignificant as stepping in a hole and thereby twisting an ankle or breaking a leg.

After much consideration and discussion on this point, it was decided that no matter how difficult it would be they would just have to give it their best effort. There was no other option available to them.

They had just about reached the mudslide when the condor reappeared and forced them to take cover yet again. Once more the bird passed overhead, but this time it was flying toward Treblanc. It was obviously just now returning after its earlier flight over their position and going back the other way, but no one understood why the bird had taken so long this time. They sincerely hoped it wasn't due to the fact that the bird had been busy attacking those they had left behind. Even though they had no way of knowing if that had happened, the condor flew over their current position without spotting them.

After the winged guardian disappeared from sight, the dwarfs got up and continued on until they reached a location about one hundred meters away from the mudslide. Once there, the dwarfs stopped to wait for the sun to disappear, and although they continued to remain vigilant for the return of the aerial scout, it never reappeared.

As it turned out, however, it was a very brief respite, because Commander Elgin soon ordered them to get underway again, just as twilight began to overtake them. He felt it would be safe for them to use the dying rays of daylight to get underway, since past experience had convinced him that the condor didn't fly in limited light.

As the evening grew darker, the travel became even more difficult, until total blackness eventually engulfed them. This made it difficult for them to see how close they were to the outer edges of the mudslide, because if they got too close then the mud would either slow their progress down or stop them completely. They were now beginning to question the wisdom of their decision to bypass this obstacle at night and wondered whether they'd be able to get around it before the sun came up.

It was at about this same time when a slight change in their circumstance occurred. Unexpectedly, but to their advantage, a partial break opened up in the cloud-cover and allowed enough moonlight to filter through to illuminate their path slightly. Even though it was only a slight improvement, it proved to be enough to brighten their spirits and give them hope, so they continued on at a slightly swifter pace.

Eventually, they rounded the southern edge of the barrier and began to make their way along the lower fringes of the pile of muck. Even though the troops were starting to grow weary, because it had been an extremely long and tiring day, they trudged on. They would soon be able to adjust their course slightly and angle off toward Tunstan, but they knew it was imperative they get to the mountains before daybreak. If they failed to do that, then they would once again face the risk of being spotted by the condor, because their disguise would not work as planned in this area.

Shortly after they turned the corner and began their trek along the southernmost edge of the obstacle, they reached the other side of this obstruction. Fortunately, it was a lot longer than it was wide, which might prove to be the advantage they needed. Instead of turning north again and skirt along the eastern edge of the mudslide, the small army changed direction and veered off at a forty-five degree angle, in a northeasterly direction, as they moved toward the mountains. This would shorten their march slightly, yet still get them to where they needed to be, along the edge of the mountain range before they could be spotted. After all, the shortest distance between two points was a straight line and this would get them even closer to their final destination, although they still needed to be certain they could do this within the time allotted.

Since the dwarfs now understood they were more than halfway around this impediment, it seemed to provide them with a new burst of energy. Even though they also realized a considerable portion of the evening had already passed by, they were eager to make sure the entire night didn't get wasted. They moved on as quickly as they now dared, because they also knew the only sleep they might get would be if they were able to utilize some of the remaining hours of darkness for this purpose. Therefore, they felt it was important to make up for lost time and get to the base of the mountain as rapidly as they could. The longer this took, the less time they would have to sleep before the sun came up.

When they finally reached the foot of the mountain range again, where they would have been if they hadn't been forced to make this detour, they were greatly relieved and quickly prepared a hasty camp. After making certain there were no other hidden dangers in the vicinity, such as any more of the plants from the previous evening, they attempted to get whatever sleep they could. They posted guards and changed them frequently, since there were only a couple of hours left before sunrise. It was the best way they could think of to ensure that everyone would get as much rest as possible.

Just after the guards had been rotated for the second time, one of the new sentries noticed something odd in the distance. Without question, he felt it had to be reported to those in charge and immediately made his way to where Commander Elgin was bedded down. Reluctantly, he woke his superior, since he had concluded the commander would want this situation brought to his attention.

"Sir, I hate to interrupt your sleep," the guard apologized, "but there's something I think you ought to see."

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