Castle Roland

Sword of Kings: Forged Out of Necessity

by Bill W


Chapter 16

Published: 18 Jan 16

Sword of Kings: Forged Out of Necessity

by Bill W
Copyright © 2014 by billwstories

Narrow Escapes

Back in the enemy encampment, the sound made by the rocks cascading down the hillside was first discerned by one of the Merropites. Recognizing the implications such a disturbance could portend, he immediately asked one of the Gnomes to go with him to investigate. Cautiously, the two troopers slipped away from their campsite and crept down the path toward the source of the noise.

As they rounded a bend in the trail, they spotted the spread-eagled, motionless body of Quintain lying before them. Warily, they drew their weapons and approached the dwarf, so they could inspect his still form. Eventually, they moved past his head, which was pointed in the direction of their camp, and stood at his feet. They were now able to see his face, but this also put them with their backs to the boulder where the two northern warriors were hiding.

Getting their signal from Alairic, Hadwin and Rhys noiselessly sprang into action. Gliding effortlessly from around the boulder, they attacked the unsuspecting duo. The allies used the small cords they held in their hands and slipped them over the heads and around the necks of their victims. After a brief and barely audible struggle, the troopers let the lifeless forms of their opponents drop from their hold. No sooner had the limp bodies hit the ground than the companions regrouped and busily set about stripping the clothing from the dead warriors. As the garments were being removed, they were handed to Rhys and Doenilio, who were hurriedly shedding their own attire.

Quintain had wanted to be the one to rescue his brother, but it was decided that Doenilio looked more like the fallen enemy, so it would be easier for him to carry out the deception. As soon as the duo was completely outfitted in their counterparts' garb, they moved toward the enemy campsite. If they were lucky, they would be able to pass themselves off as the dead warriors long enough to fool the others, so they could eventually free Sedain. As the duo rounded the bend in the path and came into view of their foes, one of the Merropites hailed Rhys. It was obvious he bought into the masquerade and truly believed the Akiktite was his returning countryman.

"Ho, Aglak, did you discover what made that noise?" he shouted out.

Rhys, trying hard to deceive the questioner, merely lifted his arm and signaled for him to remain silent. Continuing this deception and without uttering a word, Rhys also motioned for the others to join him, so they could return down the pathway together. This also let the others know that a certain amount of stealth was required to accomplish whatever he had in mind. Rhys and Doenilio waited nervously, as the three soldiers discussed which of them would remain to guard the prisoner. Once that was determined, the group moved down the roadway, with the two Merropite soldiers following the ones they believed to be their compatriots.

As they cautiously slinked back along the path, Rhys and Doenilio were curious about what the two behind them were doing, but they didn't dare glance back to find out. For the next couple of minutes, the Akiktite and the dwarf were in an extremely vulnerable position, especially if their deception were discovered. If anything about their demeanor seemed different from the actions of the pair they had just killed, or if they unwittingly showed their faces, then they would be in serious trouble. Those walking behind them could run them through before they ever had an opportunity to defend themselves and put the rescue plan in jeopardy. Nervously, Rhys and Doenilio continued moving along the path, with the two unsuspecting enemies willingly following them into the trap.

As they rounded the bend, Rhys lifted his arm and pointed toward the spot where Quintain's body still remained sprawled along the path. Without further urging, the two Merropites passed them by, as they went to investigate the motionless form of the intruder.

The unsuspecting enemy troopers were busily trying to figure out where this being came from and what he was doing there. While they were doing that, the remaining companions sprung the trap. With no prior warning, Hadwin pounced from behind the boulder to attack the unprepared duo. The Nardinian completely startled the pair and stabbed the first soldier through the heart with his blade, before the warrior had a chance to respond. As he was removing his weapon from the body of his now deceased foe, Rhys ran the other fighting man through from behind. This rapid elimination of their two opponents made certain the victims didn't have time to make more than a startled gurgle before they fell. This meant there was only one foe left and he was back guarding Sedain.

Within seconds, the rescue group put the final phase of their plan into motion. Doenilio, still in disguise, returned once again to the enemy encampment. As he neared the final guard, Alairic notched an arrow on his bowstring, took aim and let the shaft fly. The arrow hit the unsuspecting gnome in the neck, just above the coverage his mail coat provided. With little more than a few wheezing and gurgling sounds escaping his lips, the guard fell harmlessly to the ground.

Doenilio, who had been sent there in case the arrow missed its target or merely wounded Sedain's captor, checked to see if the gnome was indeed dead. If the plan had gone badly, he was ready to finish off this last warrior with his battleaxe, before the guard could harm the bound Sedain. However, that precaution was unnecessary, because Alairic's aim had been true and deadly. This left Doenilio nothing to do, except to free his countryman.

The bound dwarf was ecstatic to see his rescuer and relieved his ordeal was now over. After Doenilio cut the straps that fettered him, Sedain jubilantly leaped up and grasped his liberator in a frenzied embrace. This aggressive action caused Doenilio to fear his excited countryman might fracture his ribs with this bear hug of happiness. Sedain lifted Doenilio's body completely off the ground, so his feet were swinging helplessly in the air. As Sedain continued to squeeze his rescuer's chest, Doenilio struggled to break Sedain's grip. When the others arrived and witnessed this spectacle, they were unable to contain their mirth and laughed heartily at the sight.

After much effort, Doenilio finally escaped Sedain's grasp and gasped to fill his lungs with air. The others excitedly exchanged greetings with Sedain and then listened attentively as he began to recount the tale about how he had been captured.

"After I left Quintain to finish my duty, I crept to a spot at the edge of their campsite and lurked in the shadows. I was just out of range of the light from their fire and felt safe, as I tried to determine their intent. As I sat straining to catch bits and pieces of their conversation, my presence was discovered. A sentry, who had been silently walking the outer perimeter of the camp, slipped up behind me. I was caught totally unaware and, therefore, had no chance to defend myself, so I was easily taken captive and led back to their camp. I could kick myself for the stupidity I displayed in not being more attentive during my surveillance."

Having said this, he sighed and a look of exasperation crossed his face. It was obvious he was embarrassed by the blunder that led to his capture.

"As I sat there, bound like a hog being taken to market, I listened to their discussion about what they were planning to do with me. I then added this to what I had learned from the bits and pieces of conversation I had gleaned before I became their prisoner. It soon became obvious that this was a scouting party and they had been sent here to watch the High Pass for any movement of unusually large groups of people, especially military troops. I also learned they had been given orders to immediately report any significant findings to Treblanc.

"From their conversation, I calculated they had been here for several weeks and were uncertain about how much longer they were expected to remain. Anyway, they had asked me only a few simple questions before you showed up. I was anticipating their next move, although not eagerly, since they had not yet begun their more serious forms of interrogation."

Once again Sedain paused, but this time it was to reflect upon the various types of torture they might have used in an attempt to loosen his tongue. This caused him to involuntarily shudder at the thought.

"I told them I had been out hunting for food and must have traveled farther out of the way than I first imagined. Then I explained that after realizing my error in judgment, I decided to return to my home in Thorold and was making my way there when I spotted the light from their fire. They obviously didn't believe me and immediately began to argue that dwarfs do not hunt this far south, especially alone. They also hinted that I was dressed more for war than for hunting.

"They were deciding whether to continue my questioning here or if a couple of them would escort me back to Treblanc, so they could allow their master the chance to interrogate me in person. This started a disagreement as to what they should do and they began haggling back and forth. They were weighing the pros and cons of each option, when one of them heard a noise. I now suspect it was you that caused the disturbance and most likely it was done intentionally. From that point on, you already know more than I."

Now that the dwarf had finished his story, Rhys quickly filled Sedain in about what they had done and the plight of his other captors. The dwarf seemed pleased by what he heard, but then wondered how they should best dispose of the evidence from this encounter. Quintain suggested they should first remove the arrow from the one gnome and put the uniforms back on their first two victims. They could then leave the corpses as an offering to the animal scavengers that roamed the mountainside.

If they did this, then those creatures would effectively cover up any signs of the attack, as they devoured the flesh. Anyone that found the bodies later would think the spies had either seriously misjudged the ferociousness of the local predators or possibly, and even better, contracted some sort of fatal illness while on duty. That would account for what eventually led to the scavengers to be feasting upon their corpses.

Following some discussion surrounding the proposal, the warriors agreed upon the plan and were preparing to place the bodies randomly about the area. The companions were convinced that in a relatively short period of time this ploy would allow their deeds to go virtually undiscovered. The activities of the scavengers should effectively mislead any enemy patrol that might be sent later to retrieve messages or relieve the murdered warriors of their duty. Thus, such a discovery would not raise any alarms.

After taking a few moments to dress the first two warriors in their uniforms again, the companions then performed a few other necessary precautions to make it appear as if this happened as part of a random act. As soon as these steps had been taken, the warriors hurriedly set off to rejoin Turquinine and his charges. They would then collect their belongings and resume their journey, because they didn't wish to stay in this area longer than necessary.

When the rescuers returned to the spot where they had camped the previous evening, they quickly filled the others in on the events they had missed. They did it while they were packing up their gear, so they wouldn't waste any more time. When that task had been completed, they ate a hurried meal of bread and cheese, before breaking camp and setting out for Thorold.

It wasn't long before the companions were disturbing the scavengers that had been attracted to the scent of death and were already picking at the remains of the deceased troopers. The small band didn't even slow down as they passed by the area, for they now seemed to have a renewed sense of urgency to get to Thorold. That was until they came to the High Pass.

Kieren, Garreth and Romaric froze in their tracks when they saw what lay ahead of them. The gap between the mountain peaks was very wide and open. It was also fairly evident they would have to cross this obstacle in order to get to the dwarf kingdom. Sedain, Quintain and Doenilio had been secretly dreading this part of their travels from the inception of the mission. It was the one spot along this trail where they would be the most exposed and, therefore, open to discovery and attack.

"How are we going to cross it without being seen?" Kieren inadvertently asked aloud.

"Well if there is anyone around who might see us," Quintain responded, "then we already have a bigger problem than we need. However, we will do the best we can."

"Then how doth thou propose we traverse this impediment?" the Mitikuan knight wanted to know.

"There is only one way to do it," Doenilio began. "We'll have to cross it a couple at a time and move as inconspicuously as we can. Sudden movements or large groups going at once would be more likely to attract attention, so we must avoid doing those things, if at all possible. I recommend each of you stay as low as you are able, while moving slowly and steadily across it."

"Shouldn't we wait until dark?" Garreth asked, rather innocently.

"We could, and that would definitely help to conceal our movements, but since evening is a long way off, it would also cost us valuable time," Doenilio responded. "I believe that if we do this as I've suggested, then we should be all right."

After discussing their options briefly, they agreed to go ahead and traverse the opening now. Doenilio then gave them detailed instructions about what they needed to do. Once the others indicated they understood and would do as the dwarf had suggested, the various individuals began to make their way across the gap.

Using the utmost caution and cunning, the first pair crept past the expansive opening and then quickly scrambled up the bank on the far side. They were followed closely behind by a second group, which repeated the stealthy process. Once they were safely on the other side, the next group was ready to proceed.

The companions were going to send Garreth and Romaric next, but the three teens wanted to cross the opening together. The dwarfs, however, insisted no more than two individuals should go at one time. In order to convince them it would be all right, Garreth whispered something to his two friends. As soon as he did this, Kieren pulled his hood up over his head, withdrew his arms into the sleeves of the garment and vanished from sight.

"What the…" Hadwin bellowed, only to stop short when Kieren suddenly reappeared.

The boys then hurriedly filled the others in about Kieren's robe and used it to convince them it would be safe for them to go as a group. Reluctantly, the dwarfs and Hadwin agreed, but they were still somewhat bewildered by what they had just witnessed.

This crossing did not go without incident, however, and at one point it even caused a slight scare. Although the military men had been hiding their fears that there might be enemy soldiers posted nearby, yet hidden from view, they allowed the three to set out together. They watched the trio intently as they crossed the gap and were ready to jump to their aid, if the need arose.

The warriors' concerns were immediately amplified a few seconds later, when Garreth stumbled on his way across the opening and fell, face down, in the dirt. At first, the warriors began to wonder if an unseen arrow or quarrel had brought the lad down, as they waited to see what happened next. Before long, however, they discovered the mishap was merely the result of the teenager's nerves and a slight case of clumsiness. They all breathed a sigh of relief when they saw him scramble back to his feet and continue on.

Once the youths and the remaining members were all safely across the pass, the dwarfs happily informed them they were now in the central section of the Amber Mountains. They would continue to hike along the base of this range until they finally reached the path leading to Thorold.

The dwarf contingent was becoming very light-hearted now, because they realized they were only a dozen leagues from their homeland. Over time, their joy became contagious and spread throughout the entire company. Even Kieren, Garreth and Romaric found it difficult to contain the excitement they were feeling and became desperately anxious to reach the dwarf kingdom. They were eager to witness, for themselves, an entire city built underground and couldn't even begin to imagine what marvels awaited them there. The boys were now even more invigorated than they would have been on the eve of any of the major festivals that were celebrated in Aurelia.

The retinue continued moving along the mountain path for a few more hours, before the sun began to fade. When this happened, the warriors decided it would be prudent to find an out of the way spot to make camp for the night. They also agreed that while a few of them went looking around for a suitable place to bed down, some of the other members of the party should go off in search of game. Those not involved in looking for a campsite or hunting could use the opportunity to gather up a supply of firewood, in preparation that the hunters would be successful.

The duty of collecting the firewood fell to Rhys, Doenilio and the three boys. They carried out their duties without complaint, but remained cautious and alert, because they were still leery that other dangers might be present. For this reason, they kept their weapons close at hand and their eyes continually scanned the area around them while they performed this task. They were determined that they would be ready if another unwanted visitor suddenly appeared and attacked.

Since the teens were trying to remain optimistic, they talked positively about the hunters returning with some fresh meat for their evening meal. They knew any fire they started for this purpose would have to be kept very small, but it would be worth the risk, especially if it meant they would be able to enjoy some wild game. Carefully, the boys stacked the firewood they had been collecting, so it would be readily available to prepare their meal. They would dig the pit and start the fire while the warriors were busy cleaning the game, so now all they had to do was wait and see if the hunters had been successful.

The others had been gone for quite a long time before Alairic returned to camp with some important news.

"I didn't see anything to hunt, but I discovered a cave not far from here. It's not tremendously large, but I think we can all fit in it for the night. I think the dwarfs should check it out first though, to determine if it's suitable, since I don't possess the expertise to make such a decision. I would also prefer that they verify it is safe before we go there."

"I think that would be a wise precaution," Doenilio confirmed.

He felt it would be wonderful to have the protection a cave would offer for the evening, but agreed it would be best if he or one of his countrymen checked it out first. Since no one was certain how long it would be before the others returned, Doenilio changed his mind and suggested it might be best if he just went with Alairic now. The others could inform the rest of the warriors what they were up to later, once they came back from what they were doing.

"I'm surprised none of my kinsmen had located this cave before now, but it will definitely be a welcome change," Doenilio stated, as he considered this find. "It will also help to hide the light from a fire, even if that fire isn't used for the purpose we'd hoped. I'm disappointed that you didn't have any luck on the hunt, but maybe the others will fare better."

Just as Alairic and Doenilio were about to leave, Hadwin and Turquinine reappeared. Unfortunately, they'd had no more luck hunting than Alairic had. The others were quickly filling them in about the cave and Doenilio was beginning to grow impatient.

"Alairic, why don't you take me to this cave now, so I can inspect it?" Doenilio announced, in an attempt to get things moving. Alairic merely nodded in reply.

"May I join you?" Hadwin asked, rather unexpectedly. "I also have considerable experience with such things and I'd like to be able to help, if I might."

"Certainly, as long as we can leave now," Doenilio responded, eager to get going. "I'm sure your input will be quite valuable."

After the three of them departed, the others sat down to wait. Sedain and Quintain arrived several minutes later. They had also been unsuccessful on the hunt, but they were even more disappointed they hadn't gotten back in time to go with Hadwin, Alairic and Doenilio.

Checking out the cave seemed to take more time to accomplish than the others anticipated, so they were gradually becoming uneasy about the long wait. The more time that passed, the more concerned and worried the others became. They even began to fear something terrible had happened to their companions when they finally saw the trio approaching.

"What took so long?" Garreth wondered.

"Alairic had a little difficulty locating the cave again," Hadwin offered. "We also took our time inspecting it, once he found it again. We wanted to make sure there were no hidden dangers first, before we came back to get the rest of you."

"Will it suffice?" Sedain asked, hopefully.

"Yes, it will do quite nicely," Doenilio responded. "It's dry and large enough to accommodate the entire group. We could find no signs of any other inhabitants either. As far as we could tell, there is only a small cranny in the rear, although we couldn't see any passages leading from it. This means we will only have to guard the main entrance, so the cave will be easy to defend. It should allow each of us the opportunity to enjoy some much needed rest."

The others were now eager to be on their way, so they scurried about picking up their gear and collecting the firewood, as they got ready to leave. Alairic guided them to the shelter, but this time Doenilio helped him keep his bearings, so it didn't take quite as long to find.

Once they reached the cave, everyone was quite impressed with what he saw. After they finished their own cursory inspection, a small fire was lit off to one side of the entranceway. After they had a chance to settle in and make themselves as comfortable as they could, they attempted to scrounge something suitable from their packs to fill their empty bellies. Although the entire party was quite disheartened about this unappetizing fare, it didn't totally dampen their euphoria. They still had a safe location to spend the night.

Once the meal had stopped the rumblings in their stomachs, they each found a spot to bed down. The only one who would remain awake was Doenilio, since it was his turn to stand the first watch.

The boys moved their bedding to the back corner of the cave, deep in the shadows, and Kieren was placed in the center position, as an added measure of protection. In the cooler confines of the cave, they decided to sleep together. They would share their bedding and allow their combined body heat to accumulate under the blankets. They felt by doing this, it would help to keep them warm and cozy all night long. They were also hoping they could get a little extra relief and help each other get rid of some of the tension that had been building up over the past few days.

Until now, they couldn't even take care of their own needs in private. The warriors monitored their movements very closely whenever they were out in the open, because they were fearful of a surprise attack. Tonight, however, the boys were given slightly more leeway, since the cave provided enough protection that the others didn't feel they had to watch over the trio quite as intensely. The boys were also concerned this might be their last chance to enjoy some time together until they reached Thorold, or possibly even longer. They quickly talked the situation over amongst themselves and came up with a plan they felt could be attempted just as soon as the others had settled in and dozed off. It took a while for that to happen, but eventually they heard the gentle breathing and light snoring of their protectors.

Hurriedly, Garreth reached under the blankets and undid Kieren's britches, so he could release his penis. He then began to stroke his friend's limp member and immediately began to feel it stiffen. Within seconds, it was completely hard and ready for some action. At this point, he pushed the blankets aside and started to pump his buddy's organ with great vigor. Kieren had to bite his lip to restrain the moans of pleasure he wanted to release. He was able, however, to allow himself to get swept away with the wonderful feelings that Garreth's soft, smooth hand was providing him.

Garreth was using long strokes and completely pulling Kieren's foreskin behind the flange of his mushroom head. He would then push it back up, until it engulfed the sensitive glans again. Kieren was starting to pant now, as he inched closer and closer to his release. Garreth sensed this and continued his steady pace, as he attempted to allow Kieren a chance to enjoy this for as long as he could. When Garreth felt Kieren's penis begin to swell and grow even thicker in his hand, his fist flew even quicker, as he squeezed Kieren's erection tighter.

It only took a few seconds more before Kieren's penis exploded and sent ropes of his boy seed flying all over. The liquid hit his body from his nose to his navel, with some landing on both Garreth and Romaric as well. Some also landed on the blanket they were lying on, while the remainder coated Garreth's hand. The elf continued administering a few additional strokes, before he realized Kieren had finished, so he let his friend's penis fall limply on his thigh. Both elves let Kieren recover at his own pace, as they cleaned his semen up from all the places it had landed.

When they had finished wiping up everything around them, Romaric cautiously moved next to Garreth. He also pushed the blankets over Kieren, so he could do the same thing to his other friend. Garreth eagerly helped Romaric get access to his penis and gave Romaric complete control of his equipment. Romaric then made certain the blanket was completely out of the way, because he wanted to prevent it from getting sprayed again. Within seconds, Romaric had Garreth's penis standing tall and proud, totally ready for action.

Romaric eagerly wrapped his fingers and thumb around his friend's granite pole and began to manipulate it with long steady strokes. Garreth's skin slid easily back and forth, as Romaric's hand caressed and stimulated his pride and joy. Garreth was already beginning to feel light-headed and giddy, as those wonderful feelings rose from his depths and radiated throughout his body. Little beads of perspiration formed on his brow and his breathing became rapid and shallow. Romaric's hand moved faster now, as Garreth approached the 'promised land.'

Romaric quickly placed his free hand over Garreth's mouth to muffle the little noises that were escaping his companion's lips. Kieren was just coming out of his post-orgasmic bliss when he looked over and saw Garreth's body stiffen and several volleys of teen lava erupt from his boyhood. Romaric kept pumping for another minute or so, until the waves of pleasure subsided and the last of Garreth's juices flowed out of the tiny slit in his love muscle. Kieren and Romaric then quickly teamed up to clean their friend off, before Romaric jumped back over to his original position and waited for his journey through sexual bliss.

As soon as they placed the blankets over Garreth's body, Romaric settled in next to Kieren, who then reached over and began to undo Romaric's britches. As soon as he had access, he began to play with his mate's semi-floppy phallus. It didn't take much teasing for it to become totally rigid and Kieren attacked it like a playful puppy. He fondled and squeezed the foreskin on that little toy until the elf's boyhood became firm and the skin too tight to do anything more with it. At that moment, he began to let his fist slide gracefully up and down its length, as he stimulated every nerve endings that existed just under the surface.

Kieren loved both of his friends so much that these special times together were as important to him as anything else they did together. He would do anything for these two elves and being able to give them this small pleasure made him feel good inside. He loved to watch their expressions every time they had a sexual encounter, since he knew their faces wouldn't lie when it came to either pain or pleasure. This was one of those times and Kieren could read the rapture on Romaric's face, so he felt the satisfaction from knowing he was the cause of his friend's enjoyment.

With a few more strokes Romaric's body arched skyward, so only his shoulders and feet were touching the blanket beneath him. At that moment, ribbons of his alabaster milk came spewing out from the tiny mouth at the tip. After a handful of spurts left his erection, Romaric's body relaxed and fell back upon the floor of the cave. Kieren then gave his friend's penis a couple more quick jerks before he released his grip, just to make sure he was completely drained. Romaric was now temporarily lost in the afterglow of this encounter and still swooning, as Kieren and Garreth proceeded to clean up the viscous liquid from the puddles that dotted his body.

Now that each of the boys had a chance to release some of his pent-up sexual tension, the three of them cuddled together under the blankets and fell asleep. Kieren, being in the center position, had his arms wrapped under and around the shoulders of the two elves. They had their heads on his chest, while their upper legs were thrown over Kieren's leg that was closest to them. Their combined body heat collected under the blankets and kept them comfortable all night long.

The evening passed by quietly and peacefully, which allowed each of the members of the group to enjoy the most relaxing night's sleep they'd had since leaving Leander. The guard had already changed several times as dawn approached and Hadwin was currently taking his turn standing watch. As his tour slowly came to an end, he went over to awaken Alairic to replace him.

The Nardinian gently shook the elf's shoulder until he opened his eyes and then patiently waited a little longer, to give the elf a chance to shake the fog of sleep from his mind. While Alairic continued to stretch and yawn, Hadwin walked over to his bedroll to resume his rest. Eventually, the elf was prepared to take his turn as sentry, but decided he had to relieve himself of the prior evening's drink first. As Alairic emerged from the stony chamber, he noted it would only be a little while longer before the first pale strands of light began to pierce the gloom and it would be time to wake the others.

Even though he was still a little groggy from his disturbed slumber, the elf thought he heard a noise in the distance. Even though he wasn't sure what it was or exactly where it was coming from, he felt it could indicate trouble. Immediately, he finished what he was doing and crouched down, while straining to hear or see more.

Alairic waited in that position for several minutes before he heard something more, but these new sounds made him decide to investigate the situation further. Cautiously, he began to crawl in the direction he thought the disturbance originated, because he wanted to be able to determine if there was any cause for alarm. Slithering over the ground, he soon discovered the source of the noise, which instantly caused him grave concern. As quickly as he could manage to do so, he reversed course and crept back to warn the others.

As soon as Alairic slipped into the rocky shelter, he began to gently wake his comrades. He did this one at a time, so as not to startle them or cause anyone to shout out in alarm. Just as soon as each person opened his eyes and Alairic had his full attention, the elf motioned for him to remain quiet until he had finished rousing the others.

When he first shook them, a couple of the warriors thought Alairic was waking them for their turn to stand watch. The others quickly figured out that wasn't the case, since they had already taken their turn. The boys, however, merely felt it must be time to get up to leave, but quickly changed their minds when Alairic signaled them not to make any noise. Once everyone was alert, he advised them to get dressed and arm themselves first, before he explained.

Once they were ready, they looked at Alairic and waited quietly for him to tell them what was the matter. They knew something must be terribly wrong, otherwise he wouldn't have awakened them in this manner or made certain they remained absolutely quiet.

"There is an enemy patrol not far from here and they are slowly moving in this direction," Alairic began, in a whispered voice and with a grave look of concern on his face. "I have counted at least a dozen of them in the party, but there may be others I did not see."

Suddenly, everyone else was fully alert and listening to the elf's every word.

"Even though they seem to be headed this way," he continued, "I do not know if they are aware of our presence yet. Even though they are using torches to light their way in the dark, I could not determine if they were looking specifically for signs of our passing or if they were merely checking the area out in general."

"Do you think they have already discovered the enemy patrol you eliminated?" inquired Romaric.

"If they did," Hadwin responded, "then they would definitely be searching for the ones who carried out that foul deed."

"It would be hard to say whether or not they discovered the bodies," Alairic added, "but they do seem to be acting as if there is an urgency to their efforts."

"Do you think we should try to hold them off from in here," Quintain wondered, "or would it be better if we left the cave and faced them out in the open?"

"For now, we are probably safer here," Alairic admitted, "but we are putting ourselves at risk if we are discovered. If they find us holed up in this cavern, they could send one of their number back for reinforcements, while the others keep us pinned down. There is an equally good chance this hollow space in the mountain could serve as either our fortress or our tomb."

"We must think of Kieren first and foremost," Rhys suggested, "for we must protect him above all else. Whatever plan we devise, we must make sure it does not endanger him further."

"Aye," added Turquinine. "I cast mine vote to remain steadfast. This alcove is easily defensible and methinks we couldst best protect our liege from this position."

"But can we afford to stay here and risk that we will be able to escape later, if we are discovered?" Doenilio wanted to know. "They could keep us trapped in here until they starve us out or we die."

"Maybe a few of us could go out and distract the patrol while the others escape," offered Sedain.

"No! We are already too few and too small a group as it is," Alairic countered. "We must stay together."

"Couldn't we just hide in here until they leave?" Romaric asked next.

"We could try," countered Quintain, "but they would have to be very poor trackers to miss our trail, if they are truly searching for us. We weren't exactly careful in covering our tracks when it started to get dark, because we needed to get to this cave quickly, so we could build a fire to see by."

"Wait," interrupted Rhys. "Listen to me carefully and see what you think of this suggestion."

Everyone drew closer to the Akiktite, as he began to detail a plan he had hastily formulated in his head.

"I propose three of us should go out there and move to a place about twenty meters from the entrance of this shelter. Those three can wait at that location to see if the enemy finds the cave. If they do, we can catch them in a crossfire. We should be able to kill many of them off before they have time to think of a way out of the trap or are able to send someone to get help."

"No, we canst not divide into smaller groups," boomed the voice of Turquinine. "That wouldst be folly and endanger us all."

"But it would give us a chance to force them to split their attention as well," Hadwin added. "That would also afford us an opportunity to dispense with their threat before they understand what's happening."

"If they don't already know what we did and aren't actually searching for us, it might also allow them the chance to spot those who are out in the open. It would then alert them to our presence, when they may not even know we're here," Alairic protested. "Turquinine is correct. We are already too few to be splitting up and forming into smaller groups could put Kieren's welfare at risk."

"There are advantages and disadvantages to splitting up or staying together," Quintain chimed in. "If there were more of us, then I'd eagerly go along with Rhys' plan."

As Kieren listened to the warriors discuss the benefits and risks of these strategies, he began to consider the situation on his own. Mentally, he calculated their strength as a group and tried to understand how each suggestion might play out. He was concerned about losing more of his new friends, because he had already promised himself he would not allow another of these brave soldiers to sacrifice his life just to protect him. Kieren had been devastated by the loss of Selvaggio and that death still weighed heavily upon his soul.

Kieren continued to consider each scenario, one after the other, and quickly dismissed each of them as either unlikely to succeed or too risky to try. When all seemed hopeless, he felt the medallion move against his chest, as he was shifting his position. How could he have forgotten about it?

"There is also much you should know about the emblem of your rank," he now remembered the wizard telling him, once they were alone at Leander. "There are only a handful of people still living who know the history and the purpose behind it. This relic was created for King Ethelbert by the dwarf smiths of old, very early in his reign. It was a talisman to help him rule the land and to protect him from anything he might encounter. To do this, the medallion was infused with special powers by the Council of Wizards."

"This side," Beraut began, pointing to the back of the medallion, which was made from a transparent crystal, "will allow the user to utilize its two unique capabilities. First, the person may behold scenes that are taking place at other locations by merely concentrating upon an individual, object or a specific location. Second, it may be used to communicate directly with me, no matter the distance."

The enchanter then flipped the medallion over, so the other side was in view. This side bore Ethelbert's royal crest on it.

"This surface can be used as a powerful weapon," Beraut added. "You accomplish this by extending the thumbs and fingers of both hands so they are joined to form a triangle, with the medallion held firmly between the palms. Using this technique, the device will magnify the will of the bearer and focus his command into action. It is to be used sparingly and only in times of dire distress, since its use will drastically drain the user's strength. You must also keep the command very simple and use only a single word, so you won't elicit results you do not intend."

Kieren remembered gasping when the wizard told him this, because he realized not only the medallion's awesome potential, but also the possible danger such a weapon could create. How could he have forgotten about it until now? Could it be the key to escaping the predicament they were currently in? Before he was able to decide what to do, he also remembered the other warnings the wizard had given him at the same time.

"There are drawbacks to its use, however," Beraut had advised him. "For that reason, I must offer a word of caution concerning taking advantage of either side of this medallion. You must be extremely careful where and when you use these powers. If you should use the medallion in the vicinity of or focus upon another creature with magical powers, then you will be discovered and your location pinpointed immediately. I'm sure that I need not elaborate on the ramifications this might suggest. Therefore, use the Golden Medallion with all due caution and only as a final resort. It may on occasion be able to save your life, but it might also inadvertently lead to your destruction."

Kieren sat with his mouth agape, as he recalled his mentor's warning and considered the impact of the decision he now had to make. Suddenly, he felt as if the fate of these warriors had been placed squarely upon his shoulders, so he carefully considered all of the variables that might affect their success. Immediately, an array of questions began to flash through his mind, which he had to deal with first, before he could determine which option to follow.

He quickly dismissed the fact that any of the soldiers in the search party might have magical abilities, but it took him slightly longer to relieve his other concerns. Kieren was still worried that Madumda might be able to pinpoint their location if he were to use the medallion, but he saw no other way out of this mess. It was the only option that wouldn't entail the possibility of more loss of life.

Cautiously, he pulled the chain out from under his armor and nervously fingered its two surfaces, as he quietly began to scan the interior of the cave. He was uncertain as to whether he should go ahead and do what he was considering. After a little more soul-searching, he finally decided he had no alternative other than to use his medallion to rescue them all.

There was still some reticence on his part, as he lifted the pendant between his palms and once again remembered the wizard's words of caution. Reluctantly, he formed the triangle with his fingers and thumbs, as he placed them around the circular pendant. After a moment more of hesitation, he whispered his one word request.


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