Castle Roland

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W


Chapter 11

Published: 19 May 16

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories

A Long Night

When Rhys went off to follow Kieren, the rest of the company watched in stunned silence as they tried to comprehend what had caused Kieren to react the way he had. A few minutes later, after the warrior and teen had disappeared completely from sight, the others concluded they wouldn't be able to solve this conundrum quickly, so they began to turn their attention to more pressing personal matters. Following Turquinine's lead, Hadwin and Alairic were the next to begin digging through their packs, as they tried to locate something to eat.

Garreth and Romaric were not even aware of what the others were doing, because they were focused entirely upon Kieren. Despite their recent falling out, they were still worried about him and totally engrossed in their attempt to discover what he was doing. In fact, the elves were so concerned about their friend that they were even ignoring their growling stomachs. Instead of taking care of themselves, both boys kept their eyes fixed in the direction Kieren had gone, until he completely disappeared from sight. Once they could no longer see him, they turned toward each other.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, they realized there was nothing they could do or say that would make a difference, so they both instinctively just moved toward their bedrolls. When they reached them, the boys did nothing more than sit down and stare blankly off into the distance, in the direction they had last seen Kieren go. Each of them was extremely perplexed by Kieren's recent erratic behavior, because never in all the years they had known him had they ever seen Kieren react the way he had as of late. It also reinforced the idea that what happened back in Thorold and initiated their recent feud actually had very little, if anything to do with them. It wasn't that the three of them were growing apart; it was just that Kieren had other things on his mind, which didn't involve them at all.

Of course, they were able to empathize with how Kieren felt about the dwarf's death, since it bothered them too, but they also realized his extreme emotional outburst was not normal behavior for him. In fact, nearly everything about their friend seemed to be different now and they realized he had been slowly changing since they had begun this journey. No matter how concerned they were about him, neither elf had any idea about how they might be able to figure out what had brought about this severe metamorphosis. Regardless of what motivated his recent outburst though, they wanted nothing more than to be able to think of a way they could make Kieren feel better.

The warriors, on the other hand, had taken their food and moved to the opposite side of the camp. They did this so they could discuss what had happened amongst themselves and felt they needed to select a spot where the teens couldn't overhear what was being said. They were doing this while hoping they might be able to figure out why the entire mission seemed to be falling apart before their very eyes. Losing Doenilio had been bad enough, but Kieren's recent outburst had them all baffled.

None of the warriors had any prior experience dealing with anyone as young as the three boys, especially not during any of their professional obligations. The only one who'd had children of his own had been Doenilio, but now that he was no longer with them, these brave troopers had no one they could turn to for advice. Although they understood why Doenilio's death had upset the boys, the warriors had no idea what else was going on with them. They also couldn't shake the feeling that there was something more involved here, other than just what they were seeing.

Of course, each of them felt horrible about what had happened to Doenilio, but they couldn't understand why Kieren seemed to be taking it so much harder than the rest of them. Even when they took the boys ages into account and considered the fact that they weren't trained to deal with losing a companion in situations such as this, it didn't help. They still couldn't explain why neither Garreth nor Romaric seemed to be having as much trouble coping with this incident as Kieren. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn't understand why Kieren seemed to be taking the dwarf's death so personally. They also didn't seem to understand why he was intent on blaming Beraut.

Hadwin was having the greatest difficulty dealing with this incongruity. Even though he felt he was doing his best to find some reason that might explain Kieren's recent actions, he had other concerns he wanted answers for as well. Giving up on his ability to think this out alone, he walked toward the one person he thought might be able to give him the information he sought.

"Beraut, Kieren's recent behavior is troubling me," the Nardinian quickly confided, after finally reaching the wizard.

When Beraut glanced at the warrior, he noticed Hadwin's face appeared gaunt and worn. He looked deeply troubled by the events of the day.

"Don't worry about the lad," Beraut told him soothingly, in an attempt to lessen the soldier's anxiety. "Kieren will work his way through this eventually."

Hadwin didn't seem convinced and tried to gain a better understanding by pursuing the situation further. Instead of letting the subject drop, Hadwin continued to grill the wizard about Kieren's erratic behavior.

At the same time, but on the other side of the camp, Romaric had also decided it was time to seek some advice from Beraut. He, like Hadwin, was having trouble finding answers to the myriad of questions that plagued him. However, when he stood and turned in Beraut's direction, he noticed the wizard was already busy with the warrior. Slowly, Romaric moved closer to them, with the intention of turning around and heading back the same way he had come if he got the impression he might be interrupting something important.

Noticing Romaric moving away from him, Garreth stood up and followed his friend. At first he was unsure where Romaric was going, but he still quietly tagged along behind him, thinking he might even be heading off to locate Kieren. It didn't take long before he realized Romaric was moving toward Beraut instead, who seemed to be in an animated discussion with the Nardinian.

Not wishing to disturb their conversation, Romaric decided his inquiry could wait until later and did a quick about-face. When he did this, he slammed directly into Garreth, because the elf was trailing closely behind him.

"What are you doing?" Romaric asked, while looking at his friend.

"I just wanted to see where you were going," Garreth answered, honestly.

"Well, I was just going to talk to Beraut, but he's busy," Romaric advised him.

The two elves looked at each other briefly, while they wondered what the other was going to do next. As they were considering this, Hadwin began to raise his voice, which caused the elves to listen in on what he was saying.

"That's not what I meant," Hadwin explained. "I'm just worried that he isn't able to handle the pressure and won't be able to perform the tasks we need him to do."

Beraut understood what the Nardinian was saying, so he tried to ease his concerns. Calmly, he addressed the warrior.

"Although he is still young, he is also capable of much more than you're giving him credit for. Given time, Kieren will find a way to cope with his mental reservations and will do what needs to be done."

"I'm not so sure about that," Hadwin replied. "You've told him he must fulfill the prophecy and kill a sorcerer more powerful than you, but how can he focus on the task ahead when he is currently dealing with the loss of Doenilio? I'm not certain about the reason he's taking this so hard, but it might have something to do with the fact that he hasn't gotten over Selvaggio's death yet either. Whatever the reason, he just isn't handling this very well. I have no doubt he could work his way through any of these issues given some time, but not all of them at once and I'm not sure we can wait until he's ready."

"He's a strong young man, Hadwin, and will come around quicker than you think," Beraut remarked. "I don't think you are giving him enough credit."

"I'm just not so sure we should be pinning all of our hopes on one so untested," the Nardinian added. "I don't think he has the mettle he needs to carry out this task."

The wizard was shocked by Hadwin's latest comment and felt he must defend his ward.

"Kieren has what it takes to fulfill the prophecy," Beraut stated, emphatically, as his own emotions began to surface. "He can do this, but he's just having some minor doubts at the moment, which were brought about by a personal issue, as well as our recent loss. We not only have to trust in him to do this, but we need to also convince him that we believe he can do it as well. It is up to us to bolster his weakening self-confidence, so it will do no good if he hears you doubting his ability."

Nearly everyone else had heard this exchange, so they were now looking intently at Hadwin and Beraut as well, as they tried to fathom the meaning of their words. However, not all of them were doing this passively. Having heard what had been said about his friend, an infuriated Romaric charged Hadwin.

"You're wrong! You just don't know Kieren like we do," he lashed out, defiantly, as he also motioned toward Garreth.

This startled not only Hadwin, but the others as well. It also caused everyone else to focus his attention totally upon the young elves.

"Beraut is right," Romaric continued. "Kieren may be taking Doenilio and Selvaggio's deaths really hard, but that's only because he cared so deeply for them, as he does for all of us. He feels they only died because they were protecting him. He just hasn't figured out yet that they died because of what Madumda has done or the situation the Dark Lord created, and not due to anything he did. Garreth and I have both figured this out, and eventually Kieren will realize it too, but he just has a lot more on his mind than the rest of us. Kieren's strong and he can do this. I know he can."

The expression on Romaric's face showed a deep anger, as well as a great deal of sincerity and respect for his friend. At the same time, his voice was almost pleading with his fellow traveler to accept this as well. It was obvious how strongly he believed in Kieren and trusted in his ability, even if Hadwin didn't.

"It's obvious you think we're just children," Garreth added, "but we know Kieren a lot better than any of you. He is so much stronger than either Romaric or me and he always finishes what he starts. We believe he'll do that now too."

Romaric nodded his head in agreement, just as soon as Garreth finished speaking. It was his way of adding a silent confirmation to what his friend had just told them.

Hadwin took a deep breath and was just about ready to give a forceful response when Kieren suddenly appeared and walked right past him. Each member of party looked strangely at the teen and it almost seemed as if they thought Kieren was out of place just being there. Seeing none of the companions wanted the youngster to overhear what was being said about him, the discussion ended abruptly and everyone merely stared at each other, without uttering another word. At about that same moment, Rhys also came wandering back into the area and quietly joined their ranks.

Kieren apparently hadn't heard what was being discussed, although Rhys certainly had. In a way, it was a shame that Kieren hadn't heard Romaric and Garreth defend him so passionately, because it would have helped to boost his sagging confidence. It might also have convinced him that the two elves were still very strongly in his corner, even after their recent spat.

The Akiktite, however, had definitely heard the comments, starting with Hadwin's final statement and including Romaric and Garreth's strong support of their friend. That's why he had released his grasp of the teen's shoulder and let him go on alone. Rhys figured as long as Kieren hadn't reacted as if he'd heard any of the discussion, he didn't want to do anything that might bring it to the lad's attention. Besides, this way the warrior was able to hang back and see what was going on, He did it without raising Kieren's suspicions or by causing the teen to stop and then overhear what was being said.

Oblivious to what the rest of his companions were up to, Kieren went directly to his bedding and sat down. His mind was so consumed with the thought that he was solely responsible for Doenilio's death that he blocked everything else out. He hadn't heard the conversation he'd stumbled upon during his return to camp and, therefore, didn't react to it. Kieren did, however, take a moment to delve into his pack and grab some food, but it was only to quiet the rumblings in his stomach.

Garreth and Romaric had thought the cluster of bodies might look suspicious to their friend, if he saw them all together, so they wandered away from the others. Kieren didn't notice any of that though, because he had taken a seat with his back to the group. He was definitely too wrapped up in his own thoughts to pay any attention to them. If he had been more observant, it was likely he could have guessed what they were talking about, but fortunately for the rest of them, he still had other things on his mind.

As Garreth and Romaric moved away from the others, the warriors started to talk in whispers about what the elves had just said. The military men were touched by the pair's steadfast devotion and support of their friend, so it made them question their own doubts about Kieren. If Beraut and the two who knew the youngster best had that much confidence in him, then how could they let what happened earlier lessen their faith in his abilities?

The two elves, on the other hand, were preoccupied with trying to think of a way to keep Kieren from losing faith in himself. Together, Garreth and Romaric moved to a quiet part of the camp, where they wouldn't bother anyone else, be overheard by Kieren or get interrupted. Even though they weren't sure how Kieren currently felt about them, the situation between them had definitely improved and things were starting to become much clearer to the elves. After listening to everything that had just been said, they were gaining a better appreciation of the amount of stress their friend was under and slowly developing a greater empathy for the role he had to fill. Since they had now come to this understanding, it made them start to regret their actions back at Thorold.

As Kieren sat on his bedroll and stared off into the nighttime sky, he continued to deal with the immense guilt he continued to feel in regard to Doenilio's death. On top of that, there was another unexpected consideration he couldn't get out of his mind. Kieren had begun to question whether he even stood the slightest chance of successfully completing this assignment. Even though Beraut still seemed to have faith in his ability, Kieren had decided that if he couldn't give himself a satisfactory response to this query, then maybe he should put an end to this charade here and now. This dilemma drowned Kieren so deeply in his own thoughts that he almost failed to hear Beraut speak. The wizard had risen to address the entire group, which was now scattered across the campsite.

"I suggest each of you try to get a good night's rest," the wizard informed them. "It's been a long and draining day, and you still have a great deal of ground to cover tomorrow. I'll be seeing you off to Treblanc at first light, but then I'll have to hurry and get back to Thorold."

This comment caught everyone off guard, except for Kieren and Qaim, whom Beraut had been grooming to replace him. In fact, it caught the others so completely by surprise that they didn't seem able to move or speak for several seconds. Here they were trying to decide how to deal with the boys and what they could do to improve the situation, only to discover the wizard was going to be leaving them alone with these youngsters.

"You mean you're not staying with us?" Romaric asked, bewildered.

Not only was the elf's mouth hanging slightly open after he said this, which showed his surprise, but nearly everyone else was now reacting in a similar manner. Kieren wanted to shout out and second Romaric's comment, because even though he knew beforehand that this was going to happen, he didn't think it was going to take place so soon. He thought Beraut was going to take them all the way to the back door to Treblanc and couldn't believe his mentor was going to leave them even earlier, so he was deeply troubled. In the end, he decided to remain quiet and see how the others took the news. When the wizard began to answer the elf's question, everyone else began to move slowly in his direction.

"It's something I must do," Beraut replied, almost apologetically. "It was agreed upon at the Second Council of War that I would return, so I could lead our armies into battle. It was the only way I could get all of the different races to agree to fight as a single unit. They will also require my magical protection to fend off Madumda's challenge to their safety."

"But you can't just run off now," Romaric pleaded. "How can you just leave, especially after what just happened? Doesn't that prove we need you with us?"

After the loss of Doenilio, Kieren was hoping Beraut would no longer feel it safe to abandon them like this. How could they possibly continue on now, if the wizard wasn't going to be there to guide and protect them? They might not have even seen the condor coming, if it hadn't been for the wizard.

"I'm afraid I must," Beraut whispered, while looking into elf's eyes. "The warriors will provide all of the support you will need and I have been preparing Qaim to be your guide, so he will be able to lead you on the final leg of this journey."

"Is that what you and Qaim were talking about while we were walking across the valley?" Garreth asked from nearby.

"Yes, it was, but I'm surprised you even noticed what we were doing," the wizard responded, confused by the elf's comment.

Beraut's answer caused Garreth to blush, because he knew he wouldn't have spotted Beraut and Qaim talking along the way if Kieren hadn't pointed it out to Romaric and him. Kieren had brought it to his friends' attention as they were making their way across the Valley of the Dead, once he realized Qaim had left his side.

"And just talking about doing this makes Qaim ready to take your place?" Garreth pressed, finding it hard to believe.

"Yes. I'm convinced Qaim is prepared to take over for me and will do an adequate job," the wizard answered.

"Yes, Qaim lead you from here," the aignx confirmed, quite excitedly. "Qaim good guide. Qaim get you out of home in woods. Now, Qaim lead you to bad wizard's home."

"Master Beraut," Turquinine interjected, forcefully, "I must agree with Romaric and Garreth. Art thou certain this is wise? Is this simple creature capable of performing such a difficult task? How canst he do this job as well as thou? Even though he didst lead us out of Briarwood, this be different. Briarwood was its home, but this creature hath never journeyed in the mountains, much less dwelt there."

Kieren was pleased to hear at least one of the warriors begin to question Beraut's actions too. He secretly hoped an adult's opinion might be enough to get the wizard to change his mind. His feelings of being abandoned and betrayed were growing stronger, which made it even more difficult for him to accept the fact that Beraut was considering leaving them at this crucial juncture.

"I can assure you that Qaim will be able to do the job," the wizard stated, emphatically. "In fact, it's highly probable he will do it even better than I could, even if I were to remain with you. He has special talents that will be more than sufficient to get you into Treblanc safely, but he will also be able to help you navigate any obstacle that might be placed in your path."

Hearing this, Kieren was losing hope that the wizard was going to change his mind and remain with them. He also started to conjecture that Beraut had only entertained this discussion for the sole purpose of making everyone else feel better about his departure. Since he now believed this to be true, continuing the conversation only increased Kieren's frustration.

"What special talents does Qaim have?" Alairic asked, indirectly challenging the wizard to prove his statement.

Although a few of the others agreed with the elf's approach, the rest of them thought he was being too bold. Beraut, on the other hand, did not take this as an affront to his veracity and merely responded to Alairic's question.

"He has magical abilities that will help him show you the way and even protect you from any surprises you might encounter once you get there," the wizard replied.

This information didn't seem to reassure them, as Beraut had hoped. However, it did even less to satisfy Kieren's doubts.

"What kind of magical abilities?" Garreth pressed, which caused Beraut to look at him thoughtfully, while he considered how to respond.

After hearing Garreth's question, Kieren began to lean forward, as he eagerly anticipated what his mentor might have to say. He certainly wanted to be able to understand why the wizard thought he could still leave them with the aignx as their new leader. Kieren still had his doubts, especially after what had happened in the Valley of the Dead.

"You just need to trust that Qaim has the required skills and will be able to do the job for you," the wizard added.

Beraut was trying to cut this discussion off, because he knew it could last for hours. He was also convinced that the others would not be satisfied with his answer, no matter what tidbits of information he shared with them.

"How can we trust Qaim to lead us safely, when you couldn't even protect Doenilio?" Kieren shot back, after finding it impossible to remain silent any longer. "I thought you would change your mind after what happened in the Valley of the Dead. How can you still desert us after that? How can I trust Qaim to do YOUR job, when he doesn't have even a fraction of the powers you do?"

"Kieren, you're not thinking rationally right now and you'll see this differently in the morning," the wizard responded simply.

"I doubt it," Kieren snapped, as he shot the wizard another angry glare.

Before he could continue though, the wizard cut him off with a wave of his hand. It was obvious neither of them was about to change his mind, so why prolong the discussion. Kieren didn't say anything more after that, at least not to his mentor, but he did mutter another comment, as he turned around and walked back toward his bedding with his two friends.

"I didn't like the idea when Beraut told me what he was planning back at Thorold, but now I like it even less," Kieren sputtered.

"You mean you knew he was going to leave us?" Garreth asked, totally astonished.

This comment lessened Kieren's anger slightly, as he took a second to understand how his friends might be feeling about all of this.

"Yes, I did," Kieren admitted. "He told me one time when we were alone and it was part of the reason I wanted to be by myself the night you got mad at me. I always hoped he would change his mind and I was planning on spending that night trying to come up with a way to make that happen. I really felt I could convince him he needed to be with us, but I thought he would feel that way too, especially after what happened to Doenilio."

Kieren glanced over his shoulder to look at Beraut again, while he silently prayed the wizard would finally relent. However, as he studied his mentor, he could tell by the look on Beraut's face that this discussion was definitely finished. Kieren managed to keep from opening his mouth yet again, but he was still not satisfied with what was about to happen.

Garreth and Romaric suddenly began to understand why Kieren had been acting so funny back at Thorold and it obviously had nothing to do with them. He apparently wanted to be alone so he could think about what Beraut had told him about having to leave them before they reached Treblanc. This made the elves feel even worse about the way they had treated him back in the dwarven kingdom.

"I will take the first watch and stay on duty for as long as I can," Beraut announced to the warriors. "I am doing this to give all of you some time to recuperate. I will wake the next person when I begin to grow weary."

Hearing this, the warriors thanked Beraut for his offer before they turned and moved away. The youthful trio walked back to where they were going to sleep, combined their bedding again and then climbed under the blankets.

After Sedain saw the boys settle in, he signaled the others to follow him to a spot on the other side of the campsite. Once the other warriors had joined him, Sedain reached into his pack and pulled something out, but no one else could tell what it was.

"Doenilio slipped this to me while we were at Thorold, so his wife wouldn't see him pack it with his things," he stated, while showing them a medium-sized jug. "It's a very potent drink that he was quite fond of and he thought we should have it so we could toast the completion of our mission. I think now it would be best used to honor him instead."

There was a murmur of agreement as Sedain popped the cork, took a swig and then passed the jug on to Quintain, who stood beside him. As the jug made its way around the circle they had formed, everyone remained quiet, yet each of them took a healthy swallow. It not only helped to warm their insides, but it also made them feel a little more relaxed. When the jug finally got back to Sedain, he replaced the cork and tucked the container under his arm.

"He was a truly remarkable soldier," Quintain told them, finally breaking the long silence. "He was also a very loyal friend and a dedicated family man."

The dwarf was happy he was finally able to say a few words to pay tribute to Doenilio. This, in turn, opened the door for the others.

"My time to knoweth him was brief," Turquinine offered, "but his skills and professionalism were to be honored and respected."

"He was much admired among our people," Sedain chimed in.

"Yes, and it was a tragedy to lose him in such a needless manner," Rhys added.

"Indeed," Alairic agreed. "It reminds me of the time one of my countrymen survived a battle with pirates on the open sea. His ship was badly damaged and many of the other crewmen had been killed, but he managed to survive. When they returned to port and began repairs on the vessel, a yard broke free and fell on him, causing injuries that he later died from."

"What's a yard?" Quintain asked, since he was unfamiliar with nautical terms.

"Ah, excuse me, my dear friend," Alairic apologized. "The yard is the beam that supports the top of the sail and is fastened to the mast." The others now nodded in understanding.

"That was tragic," Hadwin responded. "I recall losing a close friend in a similar unexplainable fashion. We had just finished fighting the gnomes in a most vicious battle and he had handled himself superbly. He killed many gnomes single-handedly and was probably the one most responsible for keeping our forces from losing the battle. Then, on the way home, fatigue overcame him and he slipped off a narrow ledge in the mountains and fell to his death."

"That type of death doth not befit a warrior," Turquinine stated. "To fight so nobly, only to die in a common mishap. Doenilio's death was just as tragic."

The others nodded in agreement. It was a sobering exchange, which not only reminded them about how tenuous their situation was. It also made them realize how likely it was that another of them might suffer a similar fate before this mission was over. Since he was aware of what was going through everyone's mind, Alairic spoke up.

"How about one more toast to the successful completion of this mission," he offered. "We can end it with a prayer that we will lose no other friends along the way."

This statement was not only meant to give some closure to their concerns, but it was also to let the others know that Alairic now considered them all his friends. This was something that rarely happened amongst members of different races. Fortunately, none of the others missed the significance of this poignant remark.

Sedain quickly uncorked the jug and passed it around again, in an effort to acknowledge his complete concurrence with the elf's comments. Everyone downed another healthy swig as the jug retraced the same path it had taken previously. The effects of the strong brew relaxed each of them even more and began to put their situation in a different light. By the time they finished, the warriors were no longer as deeply troubled by the wizard's recent news.

The boys, who had already bedded down and were only a few meters away from the others, were totally unaware of what the warriors were doing. They were currently dealing with their own issues and finding it difficult to sleep. Their inability to doze off was not only their most pressing problem, but it was also the most frustrating.

The situation for Kieren was that whenever he closed his eyes, his mind continually replayed what had happened to Doenilio. No matter how hard he tried to erase those thoughts from his memory, or at least move them to the back of his mind, they always managed to resurface. Seeing Doenilio die over and over again only added to his guilt, because he was convinced what happened had been entirely his fault.

For Garreth and Romaric, it was their concern for Kieren that kept them awake. They not only felt badly about their recent falling out, but they were also greatly troubled that some of the warriors seemed to lack faith in Kieren's ability. They were also upset that they hadn't been able to think of a way to relieve their friend's burden and remove his pain. That's why they felt as if they had failed him.

While the boys were dealing with their own issues, the jug had made a couple more circuits around the small circle of warriors and they had each taken a few more swigs. After the final time, they offered a prayer of protection for the group and prayed they would each be strong enough to complete their assignment. Once they finished doing this, the warriors then acknowledged they needed to get some rest too. Slowly, they made their way back to their designated places around the boys and began to lie down. They did this very quietly, so it wasn't long before the camp was engulfed in total silence.

The wizard kept his promise and took the first watch. It was his way of doing everything within his power to make sure Kieren and his protectors had time to cope with their loss and get enough rest for what lay ahead. As the minutes dragged by, Beraut never let his vigilance slip or his concentration wane. On the contrary, he even went so far as to investigate several areas he felt might possibly harbor threats, while trying to see if anything caught his attention.

"Beraut, are you sure Qaim will be able to take your place?" a familiar, but timid voice asked.

Hearing this startled the wizard and caused him to jerk about abruptly. He was so intent on watching the areas around the perimeter of the campsite that he failed to sense someone coming up to him from behind. He was relieved to see it was merely Romaric standing behind him and not something more threatening. It was apparent the elf had more questions he wanted to ask the wizard, but he had put it off until now. He thought it would be best if he waited to speak with Beraut while everyone else was sleeping. After taking a few seconds to regain his composure, the wizard replied in a calm even voice.

"Yes, of that I am certain," he answered.

"But what makes him so special and able to take your place?" Romaric pressed.

"Because I know Tarolian history," the wizard replied, "and the story about how his ancestors developed. Even though the aignx is not a particularly intelligent race and can easily be taken advantage of, nature has more than helped them compensate for those shortcomings. During their evolutionary development, they have acquired certain skills and abilities that now allow them to be able to sense danger. Once a threat is perceived, their instinct tells them either how to approach the problem or lets them know if it would be best to avoid it instead. They have also developed the ability to escape from nearly any type of trap imaginable, as I believe you saw in Briarwood."

"Those sound like nice skills, but won't we need more than that?" Hadwin wanted to know, shocking both the wizard and the elf. Each of them had thought they were the only ones still awake.

"Yes," Beraut finally answered, honestly, "but he has more potential than I have been able to impart. You see the aignx is not a very fierce race. In fact, they are extremely docile, so for that reason the Council of Wizards was fond of using them as servants. The Council had them handle the domestic chores at their headquarters and paid them with food and shelter. They also provided them with protection from predators."

Both Romaric and Hadwin appeared to be listening very intently to the wizard's explanation. If Qaim was going to be their guide, they both wanted to know his qualifications.

"Over the years," Beraut continued, "the Council noted their vulnerabilities and decided to endow them with certain magical gifts to compensate. These supernatural enhancements allowed their kind to serve the Council even better and made them quite indispensable. For this reason, Qaim will be very valuable to us even now."

The pair gave Beraut a confused look, so the wizard went on to explain what he meant by his last comment.

"You see, the aignx can pick locks, even enchanted ones, and they also have the ability to avoid traps and discover devices that would unleash unseen weapons or open secret hiding places. In addition to those talents, the aignx are also experts at camouflaging techniques. This allowed the Council to use them to perform tasks the wizards might otherwise have to do and this freed my brothers up to attend to other matters instead."

The wizard paused after saying this to give Romaric and Hadwin an opportunity to absorb the information. It also allowed him time to study their expressions. Beraut wanted to be certain they had comprehended his meaning before he continued, but he was interrupted before that happened.

"So because Qaim can pick locks, avoid traps, find secret hiding places and keep from being discovered, that makes him a better choice to lead us than you?" Kieren interjected, sarcastically.

This unexpected statement caused the wizard, the Nardinian and the young elf to wheel about in his direction. They were totally surprised to discover he was awake as well.

"It makes him at least AS capable of being able to lead you to the successful completion of this task," Beraut advised him, while ignoring the tone of his ward's voice.

"But if he's so capable and so good at hiding, then how did we find him in the first place?" Kieren inquired, although even more caustically this time.

"You see, my dear boy," Beraut informed him, while trying to control his own frustration with Kieren's continued outbursts. "Romaric only observed movement and thought something was lurking BENEATH a pile of compost. He did not realize the pile, itself, was the intruder. That was about the only way any of you could have detected the aignx. If Qaim had not been so curious about the sight of rarely seen newcomers, I doubt you would ever have known he even existed."

The wizard paused to give them a few more seconds to think about what he had just told them before he continued.

"In fact," Beraut added, after a minute, "I was surprised not only that you had discovered him, but that you were also able to convince him to help you. The aignx have become very leery of everyone they come into contact with, except others of their kind, so they are not easily convinced to forsake this distrust to assist another race. However, for some reason Qaim seems to be particularly fond of you," the wizard emphasized, indicating Qaim's seeming attachment to Kieren.

For some strange reason, Kieren interpreted Beraut's last comment to mean that Beraut was talking down to him, so he spun around in disgust. The teen was just about to walk away when he heard the others agree that Qaim did seem closer to him than he was to any of them.

"Qaim will serve you well and do what needs to be done," Beraut added, while trying to soften Kieren's response to his previous remark.

"Thy counsel hath always proven to be excellent," Turquinine interjected. The sudden impact of the Mitikuan's booming voice caused everyone's head to snap in his direction, almost as one. "It is why I think it wouldst be best that we heeded thy advice now. I wilt accept thy faith in our newfound companion and support his efforts. I wilt do this, as if his actions were done by thyself."

It was at this moment that each of them began to realize that no one, except for Qaim, had been sleeping this entire time. As they looked around, they noticed that each of the other members of the group had either rolled over on his side, propped himself up on an elbow or sat up on his bedding, so he could hear better too.

"Master Beraut," came a timid comment from the other side of Kieren, which he instantly recognized as Garreth's voice. "Do you have any idea about the types of things we might encounter, once we get to Treblanc?"

"I'm afraid this time I have no idea what new obstacles and threats might lie ahead," the wizard confessed. "I do know one thing, however, and it is that the aignx can get you there, but it's up to the rest of you to make sure nothing goes wrong along the way."

The others were processing exactly what this meant to them individually, when Kieren pushed the issue a step further.

"So, when will you be leaving us?" he demanded to know.

It was apparent to everyone else that Kieren was both frustrated and angry. This was due to the fact that the wizard hadn't changed his mind after hearing the arguments either he or the warriors had made.

"As I said earlier, I will be leaving you at dawn, after I have sent you on your way. If all goes well, we will meet up again in a few days."

Unconvinced, Kieren made his way back to his bedding, but it was fairly obvious he was still deeply troubled. Seeing how his ward was reacting, the wizard wondered if possibly he could have handled the situation better. Beraut now wished he had taken the opportunity to speak with Kieren in private about this matter, since he knew Kieren still had issues concerning his departure. Unfortunately, he realized it was much too late for him to do anything like that, because the damage had already been done.

Realizing this conversation was over, the others moved back to their bedrolls and settled in under the covers as well. Slowly, they began to doze off, so they could get as much rest as possible before it was time to move on.

As Kieren went to lie down between his two friends, he still couldn't stop thinking about the wizard's plan to leave them. However, he was able to sense Garreth and Romaric slowly inching closer to him and realized they were trying to let him know they were there for him, as they would have done in the past. This simple act made Kieren understand not everything was wrong in the world and gave him a little peace of mind. Somewhat contented by this turn of events, he stared up at the stars, only slightly troubled about what tomorrow might bring.

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