Castle Roland

Sword of Kings: Forged Out of Necessity

by Bill W


Chapter 21

Published: 18 Feb 16

Sword of Kings: Forged Out of Necessity

by Bill W
Copyright © 2014 by billwstories

An Unexpected Find

After quickly setting up their impromptu camp in Briarwood for the evening, the various companions tried to get comfortable, as the final rays of light began to fade. Oblivious to what the others were doing, Alairic was deep in thought. Something was still gnawing at the back of his mind and it was the same feeling that had been troubling him earlier in the day. He had kept quiet and didn't say anything to the others at the time, because he didn't know if he would be able to adequately explain his concerns to them, but his uneasiness continued to grow. After analyzing everything that had happened throughout the day, he now thought he might be able to verbalize his uneasiness, so he turned to the dwarfs and gave it a try.

"All day long I've had the feeling that something isn't quite right about this place," he began. The dwarfs looked at him slightly concerned. They didn't utter a word though and allowed the elf to continue. "I'm not exactly sure what it is that makes me feel this way, but it seems as if something is amiss."

"This place is fairly spooky and can cause uneasy feelings, but other than that I'm not sure what you mean?" Quintain responded, while looking at him quizzically.

"It's a feeling I have about this place," the elf explained. "I'm not exactly sure what it is, but things just don't seem to mesh. It's as if I were listening to a song, but some of the lyrics are either missing or written in another tongue."

"I'm sure it's just the dreariness of this place," Doenilio replied, in an attempt to assuage the elf's concerns. "This wood has a very unnatural quality about it."

"I think it's more than just that," Alairic countered, but the dwarfs had no reply.

Seeing none of them could offer anything to ease his concerns, Alairic realized these thoughts were beginning to consume him. After pursuing this problem for many minutes more, he became frustrated and decided it might be best if he tried to keep from thinking about it any longer. Accordingly, he attempted to distract himself by getting something to eat, but there was a problem doing that too. Unfortunately, he discovered they had already devoured nearly everything they had brought with them, which made him upset that he hadn't suggested they do some hunting while there was still sufficient light to see by.

That's when it struck him and everything began to fall into place. That was the missing piece to his puzzle. During the entire time they had been in Briarwood, Alairic had not seen any signs of wildlife – none whatsoever. Not only that, but he also hadn't heard any sounds from birds or other creatures, and that's what had struck him as being so odd. Abruptly, he turned toward the dwarfs again and announced his epiphany.

"I've finally figured out what has been bothering me," he began. "It's the lack of wildlife in the forest. Didn't you say there were creatures that lived here?"

"Our people believe that animal life does flourish in this place," Quintain told him, "even though we are not exactly sure what particular species they might be."

"Then why haven't we seen or heard anything so far?" the elf countered.

"Possibly because of all the commotion we made as we entered," Doenilio countered. "We weren't exactly quiet as we stormed our way in here."

"That may explain the problem at first," Alairic responded, "but since that time we've been more than quiet. We've only been using hand signals and moving one or two people about at a time. I would think we should have chanced upon something by now. I haven't seen or heard anything at all, not even a bird."

None of the dwarfs had a response for this, and now the four of them sat pondering the situation. For the next few minutes, each one, in his own way, paused to consider whether the lack of wildlife had any real significance.

Kieren had overheard some of this conversation as well, so now it made him wonder what implications it might have for them. As he considered the ramifications of the discussion, he looked around and noticed the depressed and bewildered expressions on the faces of those around him. Mentally assessing their emotional state, he knew something needed to be done to lift their spirits and distract them from their concerns. Wondering what he could do to accomplish this, Kieren soon settled on a plan of action.

"Some of us have already told the rest of you a little bit about ourselves," he announced loudly, "and I'm sure we have all enjoyed and benefited from those insights. However, seeing we will soon be visiting the dwarf homeland, I think it's time for Sedain, Quintain and Doenilio to inform us about themselves. Would the three of you please be so kind as to fill us in about your lives and maybe even reveal what we can expect to see when we reach Thorold?"

At first, the dwarfs didn't seem to want to comply with his request, nor did the others appear overly enthused about listening to what they might have to offer. However, Kieren was persistent.

"Come on. I hear there are many marvelous things about Thorold and I want to know about them. I also want to know why you were selected to represent your people."

This seemed to be enough to grab Garreth and Romaric's attention. With great enthusiasm, they began to add their own words of encouragement to get the dwarfs to comply.

"Are the streets of Thorold really made of gold?" Garreth asked.

"And are any of you related to the king?" Romaric immediately followed.

The boys' queries soon helped to pique the interest of the others, so they began asking questions of their own. Being barraged by this intense interrogation, the dwarfs realized there was no way they were going to be able to avoid giving their companions the information they were seeking. Therefore, Sedain volunteered to tell his story first. Suddenly, everyone forgot about all of their other concerns and focused on what the dwarf had to say.

"As you already know, Quintain and I are brothers," Sedain began, "but you probably do not know we were raised in a very strict military home. You see, our father was a highly decorated career soldier, so he always planned that we would follow in his footsteps. Our father built his reputation fighting the horde of human thieves that had organized themselves and hid out in various regions of the Amber Mountains. They constantly raided our homeland and ambushed our citizens when they were out and about, while taking whatever they could find.

"These groups primarily wanted to steal the treasure they thought we possessed. They truly believed the old fables about our race having vast accumulations of gold, jewels and other valuables hidden deep in the interior of the mountains. It was a long and brutal campaign that claimed many lives on both sides. Our father earned his reputation by leading some of the most important skirmishes, which ultimately changed the course of battle forever in our favor.

"Quintain and I have always been very proud of our father's accomplishments and enjoyed basking in the limelight of his fame. With our father's encouragement, we eventually enlisted in the Royal Guard, because we hoped to repeat some of his heroics, but the world had changed during the time in between. Our years of service have been mostly peaceful and marred only by an occasional confrontation with some of the wild beasts that wander into our realm. Of course the threat Madumda posed has always been there, but until he convinced the gnomes and Merropites to join with him in his efforts, the threat was minimal. Until they aligned with Madumda, he could never raise enough warriors to be considered a menace to the rest of the kingdom.

"We aren't complaining about the lack of conflict though," Quintain added, "but we always dreamed of glorious exploits and being victorious in battle. That was why we were so eager to volunteer for this mission when it was first announced, although we didn't know any of the details until we arrived at Leander. Before we came, we were just told that volunteers would be needed for a special assignment and we were very proud to have been the ones selected to represent our people. That is our story, although it is not much, but you will have to ask Doenilio to share his own background."

At this point, everyone turned toward the other dwarf, while expecting him to add to his countryman's tale. Doenilio merely looked exasperated and put off by this imposition. After a slight delay, however, he finally gave in and obliged their request.

"I'm more than a few years older than the other two, as you might have been able to tell, but I did not come from a military home. I started out studying to be an engineer, one of the most highly respected professions for our people. I worked hard at my job until I felt the patriotic need to do my duty and defend my homeland during the war against the thieves. Accordingly, I enlisted in our army.

"Although I didn't serve with Sedain and Quintain's father, I still knew a great deal about him and his accomplishments. It was also during this time that my life changed forever. When the war ended, I realized I loved being a soldier and decided to remain in the army as warrior-engineer."

Doenilio paused briefly and looked around, to see if anyone was actually listening to what he had to say. When he discovered they were, he continued.

"Another difference between my two compatriots and myself is that I'm married. My wife and I have six children and they are all waiting for me to arrive back at Thorold. It probably explains why I am more anxious than the other pair to finally reach our homeland."

"Tell us about Thorold," Romaric interrupted. "What is it like? What will we see there?"

Doenilio had become momentarily depressed, when he thought about how much he missed his family, but that didn't last for very long. Romaric's request managed to cause a smile to break across his weathered face and reinvigorated him. This happened when Doenilio realized he would soon be in his homeland again and reunited with his wife and children. Although Romaric was bewildered by his delay in responding, he waited patiently for the dwarf's reply.

"You will see many marvelous things when you get there, my boy, but I don't wish to spoil the surprise. I will let you judge all of the wonderful distractions for yourself," the fatherly dwarf told him. "Besides, I'm not sure that my feeble tongue would be able to do any of those incredible sights justice."

Disappointed, but accepting the fact that Doenilio wasn't about to say anything more, Romaric leaned back against the trunk of one of the gnarly trees and tried to get comfortable. Slowly, he let his thoughts drift to his own home and family, while many of the others were doing the same. Soon, everyone was searching through his memories for a glimpse of the place he most longed to be. Each of them actually went to bed thinking those same thoughts an hour or two later. Unfortunately, concerns about their safety and untold threats surrounding their current location also plagued their dreams. The guards remained very attentive throughout the night and were doubly observant for anything that seemed out of place.

The following morning Rhys, who had been responsible for the final watch, awakened each of the companions. The party again scrounged through their packs looking for the food that they forgot was no longer there. After finding nothing, they prepared to continue their trek through Briarwood.

Kieren asked Rhys and Hadwin to stand in front of where the final markers had been placed the previous evening and then carefully aligned himself with the two warriors. Once he was in proper position, the teen picked out a distant point and began to guide one of his other companions toward that spot. The going was slow and tedious, but they continued moving through the incredible tangle of undergrowth on the forest floor. They had been plodding along like this for nearly five hours when Kieren tried to direct Alairic to the next location. No matter what he tried, however, the elf was unable to discover a way to get past the current obstacle, which completely blocked his path.

After waiting a short time for him to maneuver around it, some of the others marked their current positions and then walked over to see if they could help Alairic. They hoped they might be able to assist him in finding a way to overcome this new problem, but after many minutes of trying, no progress had been made. Out of frustration, Kieren finally called out to them.

"What's wrong? Why is this taking so long?"

"I'm sorry," Alairic responded, "but there seems to be no way around or through this barrier."

Kieren looked surprised by this announcement. How could this obstacle be so massive that they couldn't find a way around it?

"What do you mean?" Kieren wanted to know. "There has to be a way to keep going. It's just more of the same undergrowth we've been working our way through."

"No, I'm afraid this is much different," Alairic advised him. "This is some type of hedgerow, but it's so thick and its branches are so intertwined that there appears to be no opening in it. We've already searched several meters in either direction and have found no weakness anywhere."

There was a stunned silence for a few seconds, before one of the dwarfs spoke up.

"Then we shall chop our way through it," Quintain stated defiantly, as he urged the other two dwarfs to advance with him toward the barrier.

Enthusiastically, they began to wield their mighty battle axes in an attempt to hack away at the entwined collection of vines, briers and branches. Their example soon encouraged the others to follow suit, so it wasn't long before each of them had drawn a weapon and was giving it his best effort to chop an opening through the barrier. However, after twenty-five minutes of this vigorous labor, Turquinine finally spoke up.

"Our efforts be fruitless," he stated, dryly. "Methinks this obstacle is bewitched."

A few of the others immediately nodded in agreement, but the rest weren't sure what to believe. Never before had they found a hedgerow that couldn't be breeched.

"Regardless of its origin, we need to find a way around it, if we cannot open a way through it," Rhys stated succinctly. "I suggest we send a small party in each direction, to see if they can discover how far it extends."

"I can see no better alternative, so I concur," Hadwin added, while trying to move things along.

"I will go in this direction," Alairic volunteered, indicating the left flank of this wall of greenery.

"And I wilst assist thee," Turquinine offered.

"Then we shall go in the other direction," Sedain volunteered, while encouraging Quintain to join him on this venture. Soon, both groups were heading out of sight.

"The rest of us should make ourselves comfortable and await their return," Rhys advised those that remained behind. "I suggest you sit and rest, but keep your eyes open and DON'T wander off."

After adding the final statement, he looked directly at the three teens. The trio immediately got the message and had no intention of defying him.

Heeding the Akiktite's advice, those who were left behind sat down and took it easy. Kieren sat with his back to the barrier, so he could face those who remained with him. He did this so he could assess how each of the others was coping with this new situation. First, he focused his attention on his two childhood friends and wondered if they had yet reached the point where they regretted having volunteered to join him on this venture. He understood this wasn't exactly what they had expected or signed on for, so he was curious to know if they were totally frustrated yet or had enough of these daunting situations.

After observing the elves for several minutes, Kieren then directed his gaze toward Doenilio, Rhys and Hadwin. Silently he acknowledged that if they ever completed this mission, he would owe each of these valiant warriors a huge debt of gratitude. He also wondered if he would ever be able to sufficiently repay them for all they had done and gone through to assist him. Although they had started off as total strangers, over time they had become so much more to him, and he admired each one tremendously. Yes, even Hadwin. No matter how grumpy he sometimes got, Kieren still knew the Nardinian would never let him down. They still had much more to face before this would be over and Kieren's only wish was that he would be able to get to know them even better.

Romaric, who had taken a seat off to Kieren's left, but facing him, spent his time watching his friend. He was deep in thought and wondering if Kieren would be able to get them out of this mess, when he noticed movement off to Kieren's other side. Even though he was unsure what had caused this disturbance, he felt he had to act quickly. He didn't even feel he dared to take the time to alert the others.

Reflexively, Romaric darted past Kieren and leaped on a distant mound. He was determined that he would not let whatever was lurking beneath the rotting mat of vegetation have a chance to harm his friend. Soon, Romaric was thrashing around on the pile of dried leaves and twigs, as he struggled against whatever was concealed beneath it.

Kieren had been so engrossed in his own thoughts that he was startled when he caught sight of Romaric rushing past him. He couldn't imagine what the elf was up to and merely sat and watched his actions. He remained transfixed and confused, as Romaric thrashed about on the ground beside him.

Kieren was even more astonished when Doenilio, Rhys and Hadwin raced past him as well, in an effort to assist Romaric. Kieren hadn't yet totally understood something was amiss. He merely thought his companions were starting to show the adverse effects of having spent too much time in this strange, and possibly bewitched, place.

Garreth had also reacted to Romaric's lunge, but instead of rushing forward to assist Romaric, Garreth drew his sword and hurried to stand between Kieren and the spot where the others were now gathered. He stood ready to defend his friend from not only that threat, should it manage to slip by the warriors, but he was also prepared to do battle with any other foe that might suddenly appear. Garreth's head was swiveling back and forth on his shoulders, as he scanned the area for other signs of danger, but nothing else appeared out of the ordinary.

Watching Romaric and the warriors, Kieren suddenly came to the realization that there was something under the mound that his friend had hurled himself on. Even though the struggle was brief and no one was injured, Kieren understood Romaric had no way of knowing how dangerous the threat might have been. As Kieren marveled at his friend's bravery, the elf forced whatever he had been wrestling with to stand, so they could see what it was.

The figure that emerged was roughly a meter in height, slender in build, and appeared to be covered in fur. The fur, in turn, was matted with the same materials that were scattered about on the ground. To any casual observer moving through the forest, it would have appeared to be nothing more than a pile of rubbish. Even now, the only hint that it was some sort of living being was the occasional jerking motions of its limbs, along with the more frequent movements of its head and eyes. As it rose to its feet, the warriors relaxed their vigilance briefly, which gave the creature an opportunity to attempt to bolt from their midst. It would have escaped too, if Romaric hadn't maintained his grip on the thing's arm. He managed to hold onto the creature long enough for the others to close ranks around it.

"It's trying to flee so it can warn others of its kind," Hadwin shouted.

Romaric immediately tightened his grip on the anomaly even more, as the warriors held their weapons out in the unknown being's direction. They had the creature surrounded and at a severe disadvantage, as they let it know they were ready to run it through if it should make another move. Scared and terribly outnumbered, the creature began to wail. It emitted a very high-pitched whimper, as it pleaded for its life.

"Please, no hurt Qaim. Please, gentle sirs. I no hurt you. Me just resting here in my home. I no bother you. Please, no hurt Qaim."

"What are you doing lurking here?" demanded the infuriated young elf. "Are you a servant of Madumda? Where are your weapons?"

"Qaim know no Madooma. Qaim no lurk. Qaim live here. Qaim no carry sharp, pointy sticks. Qaim no want to hurt anyone. Please, no hurt Qaim."

"Master Kieren," Doenilio interrupted, "please allow me to deal with this vermin and I'll see if I can find out what it was up to."

"No! No!" squealed the disgusting little heap, as it looked up at Kieren. "No let nasty little man hurt Qaim. Please, kind young sir, no let him poke Qaim with his pointy stick."

"Tell us what we want to know then," shouted Doenilio, "or I shall indeed stick you with the tip of my blade."

After making this pronouncement, the dwarf held out his miniature sword and jabbed it toward his captive, although without actually touching it in any way. This made their prisoner let out a hair-raising wail and then it began to plead once more.

"Qaim tell you anything, but please no hurt Qaim."

The creature's voice sounded as if it was nearly in tears while it gasped out this last sentence. It was obvious it was terrified. The little fur ball squirmed violently in the hands of its captors, as it struggled to remain out of reach of Doenilio's sharp blade. Seeing this, Kieren was overcome with a wave of compassion for this small being, so he walked over to the pathetic creature and spoke.

"No one is going to harm you, my scruffy little fellow, as long as you cooperate and tell us what we want to know."

"Qaim tell you, nice sir. Just ask and Qaim tell."

"All right," Kieren agreed. "Then what are you doing in these woods?"

"Doing? Qaim not doing anything. This Qaim's home. Qaim live here in woods. Qaim do nothing to you or your friends. This is where Qaim belong." The creature paused briefly and looked them over for a few seconds, before it spoke again. "Why you here?"

"For now, I will ask the questions," came Kieren's terse reply. "How long have you lived here?"

"Qaim live here long time. Qaim live here since Qaim little."

"Then you know your way around this place?" Kieren asked, and the creature nodded its head, or at least that's how it appeared to the teen. "Could you show us the way out then?"

"Way out to where? Qaim no understand."

Kieren thought carefully about how he should rephrase his question before he spoke again.

"Could you lead us out of these woods," Kieren continued, "and take us to the place where the trees meet the edge of the mountains."

"Qaim know the way, but Qaim no go there. Qaim afraid of nasty little men who want to hurt him. Qaim no leave his home."

"My dear Kieren," came Hadwin's voice, "you can't be serious about trusting this thing, whatever it is? We have absolutely no way of knowing if it will do as it says or if it will lead us into a trap. It may even hand us over to the war party that chased us into this confounded place. I, for one, suggest that we wait until our scouts return, to see if they have discovered another option. In the meantime, let's put a guard on this hairy little beast, so it won't think of trying anything foolish."

It was quickly agreed that they would follow the Nardinian's advice and wait for the others to return. Doenilio and Hadwin took the unknown being a short distance away from the rest of the party, but remained on either side of it, while holding its arms. They did this to make sure it wouldn't escape and could do nothing to cause them any harm.

While they were watching the captive, the remainder of the group sat together and discussed what had just happened. They also attempted to determine what they should do next. In the middle of this meeting, Kieren turned toward Romaric and hugged his friend energetically.

"You risked your life for me back there!" he said, with great appreciation.

Romaric was momentarily baffled and didn't immediately understand what Kieren was talking about. However, it didn't take him long to figure it out.

"I only did what any of the others would have done," the elf informed him, feeling undeserving of any additional attention.

"Maybe so," Kieren shot back, "but I'm not sure I would have been so quick to do the same thing, if our roles had been reversed."

"You are making too much of this," Romaric told him, while looking embarrassed.

"Well, thank you anyway," Kieren replied, somewhat befuddled by his friend's attitude. "Even if you do not seek nor want my gratitude, you still have it."

Kieren stared at Romaric for a few more seconds, which only added to the elf's discomfort. After doing this for a little while longer, Kieren ended this awkward lull when he settled in between his two friends again. As he did so, his face gradually broke into a huge smile, which was as broad as his facial muscles would allow. The elves didn't immediately notice this, so the three sat speechless for several more minutes, while each of them let the significance of what had happened sink in. It was Romaric who ultimately made it his duty to break the long and uncomfortable silence.

"Shouldn't we get back to the matter at hand," he chided. "What are we going to do about this thing we just captured and how far are we willing to trust it?"

"Kieren, if I may be so bold," commented Rhys. "I believe Hadwin has given you good counsel. We know nothing about what this creature is, who might control it or have influence over it. It could easily be a spy for the Dark Lord or it might be in league with other beings that have made this awful place their home. I suggest we dare not place our faith in whatever it is, for it could lead us straight into a trap. I think we should exhaust all of our other options first, before we put our fate in its hands."

Kieren was mulling over the Akiktite's proposal, when Sedain and Quintain returned from their explorations.

"It's no use going in that direction," panted Quintain. "It seemed as though we walked far enough to extricate ourselves from this dreadful place and still we could find no break in this barrier."

No one was happy with the news, but they hoped the other duo would fare better. However, once Alairic and Turquinine returned with similar news, their hopes began to fade. After filling in the returnees about how they had discovered Qaim, Kieren suggested they should consider the things the creature had previously told them. The teen also suggested that they trust Qaim to show them the way out, but his proposal was not readily accepted.

"What other options do we have?" Alairic wondered aloud.

"I'm not sure, but I don't think we can trust this being," Sedain announced. "It is a creature I am totally unfamiliar with, so I also have no idea why it's here. It may even be another creation of the Dark Lord that he uses to keep trespassers in this place."

"Even though I agree with most of what you say, I see it this way," Rhys responded. "We can try to find our way through this place by ourselves, which seems to have only a slight chance of being successful, or we can trust the creature that dwells here and seems to know its way around."

"How can we do that?" Quintain asked. "We know that others have entered this wood and are never seen again, but we don't know why. It might be due to creatures such as these that are killing them or have ways of keeping them trapped here. Since we've seen no other living things, possibly it even uses those who wander in here as food."

Everyone shuddered, almost in unison, at the implications of this last statement.

"This creature doesn't seem ferocious enough to do anything like that," Rhys countered, quickly rebuking the last claim.

"But if it knows the way out, then why shouldn't we let it show us how to get free of this place?" Garreth asked. He obviously wasn't as hesitant as the others about allowing this furry being to help them.

"We could always threaten it," Sedain added, "to make it do what we want. I'll stay by its side and run it through if it appears it is going to betray us."

"But we have no idea if there might be others of its kind in this wood," Doenilio reminded them. "It may just lead us further into this accursed place to a spot where they wait for trespassers to be brought."

"If there be others of its kind," Turquinine interjected, "then we shalt battle them. If they be like this one, however, they appeareth not to be ferocious, nor do they seem to possess weapons."

"That may be true," Alairic advised the others, "but it does not solve this conundrum. If this is some sort of a trap, then surely we may have to fight, but if there is a chance to escape, should we not take it?"

It now appeared as if Alairic was agreeing with Rhys' assessment and slowly trying to persuade the others to his side. Annoyed by all of the bickering, Kieren got up and walked over to where Qaim was being guarded. He was hoping he might be able to convince the creature to lead them out of Briarwood.

"Qaim, you said before that you know how to get to the place where the forest meets the mountains. Would you be willing to take us there?"

"Qaim know this place, but Qaim no want to go there. Bad men there. They want to hurt Qaim."

"What if I promised that we will protect you and not let anyone harm you?" Kieren pressed. "If we did this, would you be willing to take us there?"

"Maybe. What you give Qaim if he do this?"

"What do you want?" Kieren asked, while wondering if he was being set up for something.

"Qaim want you to give him munchies. Qaim hungry. You give Qaim lots of munchies. Yes?"

Kieren and some of the others immediately grinned or even began to chuckle at the innocence of his request. The creature even imitated eating motions with its hands and mouth, in order to make sure they understood what it wanted.

"Yes, Qaim," Kieren replied, as his grin spread into a huge smile. "If you get us out of this woodland, then we will indeed see to it that plenty of food is provided for you, as much as you can eat."

Kieren was intrigued and amused by the childlike quality and naiveté of the creature. Surely, he thought, such a simple being could never prove to be dangerous to them.

"Yes! Yes! Qaim will take you then. Just follow Qaim."

With that being said, the little bundle of twigs and leaves started to move, but his two guards quickly subdued him.

"Easy, my odious fellow," snarled Hadwin. "We must first devise some restraints to keep you secure and make sure you don't try anything foolish."

Hadwin then reached for the rope Sedain had just pulled from his pack and the timid animal watched the others' every move. As soon as it figured out what they were planning to do, it began to squirm and whine.

"Qaim show you way out. Qaim no do anything bad. You no need vines."

When Qaim saw Hadwin reach toward him with the rope, his eyes bulged from their sockets and he began to scream.

"No wrap vines around Qaim! Vines burn Qaim! Hurt very much. Please, no hurt Qaim."

Seeing Qaim's reaction, Kieren immediately felt pity for the creature and decided he had to convince Hadwin that his concerns were unnecessary.

"Noble Nardinian, your point is well taken, but I think if treachery is involved, the rope shall not be of much help. Let Qaim walk free to lead us, as he says he will do, but we shall also let him know that he will be the first to die if he betrays us!"

"Oh, no, kind master. Qaim no hurt you. Qaim take you where you want to go."

Reluctantly, and after much debate, the warriors gave in to Kieren's request. Just to be safe though, Hadwin made sure the little hairball knew he would be the one to kill it, if it tried to betray them.

"It seems I have no choice but to trust you," Hadwin told Qaim, "but if you do anything that looks remotely like a double-cross, then…"

Hadwin stopped speaking and waved his sword menacingly in front of Qaim, before doing something similar with his crossbow. This was to dramatize what Qaim's fate would be, if the furry enigma tried to trick them. Trembling with fright, the small being responded.

"Qaim show you to where you want to go. Just follow Qaim," the creature told them.

Qaim started to move off, but stopped and looked back; in order to make sure the others were following his lead. This caused the rest of the group to hurriedly pick up their gear and strap it into place, before quickly falling in behind their new guide. Once they were ready to continue, the living compost pile headed in the direction the two dwarfs had gone previously.

"I'm telling you there is no way through the obstacle in this direction," argued Sedain. "I know, because my brother and I searched every inch of it. I say this only proves this creature is not to be trusted. I'm sure that if we follow it, we shall come to regret our decision."

The dwarf then griped the hilt of his small sword as firmly as he could, before he continued. He was determined to be ready to run Qaim through if this was a ruse.

"We are like a herd of cattle being led to the slaughter," Quintain muttered, adding support to his brother's concern.

Sedain then moved a couple of steps closer to Qaim. This made it even more obvious that he wished to be the one to do away with this enigma at the first sign something was wrong.

The members of the party now walked behind their new guide, who stood nearly the same height as the dwarfs. They had traveled only a short distance when Qaim turned into the undergrowth, for no apparent reason. His unkempt appearance made it difficult for them to tell what he was up to, but Qaim seemed to be busy performing some unknown task. Other than observing that Qaim was working his hands in and out of the tangled hedge, no one had any idea what purpose his actions were supposed to serve. In a matter of seconds, however, Qaim's intent became evident, when an opening began to appear in the wall of vegetation before them. It was as if Qaim had opened some hidden door in the midst of the thicket.

"Quick! Quick! Qaim must get to other side before the beastie sees him open bushes. Hurry! Hurry!"

"What beastie?" Hadwin wanted to know.

"No time. We must hurry," Qaim responded.

Cautiously, Turquinine approached the opening and peered through it, in order to see what awaited them on the other side. Once he determined there was no danger lurking behind this dense hedge, he pulled Qaim through the opening with him and then signaled the others to follow.

"Hurry! Please, hurry!" urged Qaim. "This should not be open long. Oh, please hurry!"

Within a few seconds, everyone had scurried through to the other side and Qaim redid the unseen latches that had permitted them to cross through the obstacle. Once the opening had been resealed, everyone seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief. They now appeared to be safely assembled on the other side of the barrier that had previously befuddled them.

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