Castle Roland

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W


Chapter 15

Published: 16 Jun 16

Sword of Kings: Tested by Adversity

by Bill W
Copyright © 2015 by billwstories

A Route Through the Mountains

Kieren and the others continued to angle across the mountain slope for quite some time, but the going was slow and arduous. For this reason, they hadn't put a great deal of distance between themselves and their attackers. Alairic was beginning to worry the snow apes might be following and possibly catching up to them, so he looked over his shoulder to see what the creatures were doing. He was relieved when he spotted their furry, white coats still lingering on the valley floor below, but it wasn't long before his exhilaration began to fade.

Suddenly, he remembered the other danger and cautiously lifted his head toward the heavens. It was a good thing he did this too, because out of the corner of his eye he caught a hint of movement. Without hesitating, Alairic understood what was happening and reacted accordingly.

"Stop and press close to the boulders!" he cried out as loudly as he dared to alert the others.

Those closest to Alairic heeded his advice immediately, but not everyone heard what the elf had said. Rhys, Turquinine and the three boys all responded quickly and sought cover, but Qaim, Hadwin and the two dwarfs kept moving forward. They were at the front of the group, and since Alairic didn't feel he could shout any louder without drawing the condor's attention, they weren't aware of the dangerous situation and continued on.

When Garreth saw what was happening, he opened his mouth to scream out a warning to the others, but immediately found Alairic's hand clamped over his lips. At first, he was confused why the older elf had done this, because he felt someone should give Hadwin, Qaim and the dwarfs a heads-up. Then, he thought about it a little longer, until the reason for Alairic's action began to sink in. Even though he was still worried about the others' safety, he belatedly realized that doing what he had intended might have put them all at risk.

Since he was still wrapped up in Alairic's powerful grasp, the larger elf gently pulled him into the shadows, so they would blend in with their surroundings. Once they were safe. Garreth glanced toward the heavens to see if he could spot the condor. When he wasn't able to locate the bird right away, he returned his gaze to the slopes, as he tried to see if those in the lead had found cover.

He was extremely concerned about the grave danger they were unintentionally placing themselves in and hoped one of them had also spotted the condor. If not, he prayed they at least noticed the rest of them were no longer following and then reacted accordingly. When he saw this was not the case and the others were still moving higher, he wanted to do something more. Unfortunately, he couldn't think of an appropriate way to alert them about the danger without putting everyone in peril. Feeling powerless, his body went limp in Alairic's arms and he remained silent.

Kieren was also desperately concerned about Qaim, Hadwin, Sedain and Quintain, while his mind was consumed by a variety of other frightening thoughts. Visions of what had happened to Doenilio were suddenly flashing before his eyes and making him relive that terrible moment all over again. He knew he had been responsible for the dwarf's fate and didn't want anything like that to happen again, but what could he do?

Kieren thought about yelling out a warning to those in front of him, to keep them from being harmed, but then, he remembered the stern advice the warriors had given him after the condor had snatched up Doenilio. Regrettably, he now understood he could not vocalize his concern and raise an alarm, for that might alert the condor about their presence and put them all at risk. As much as it pained him not to act, he remained silent and still.

Kieren's attention now focused on the warriors nearest him. He hoped they might be able to think of a way to gain the others' attention, but that didn't happen either. Disheartened, the young man turned his gaze toward the four who were still moving up the mountainside, as he telepathically tried to warn them about the aerial threat. He was still bewildered about why they hadn't noticed that no one was behind him or failed to look up and spot the condor nearby. Why hadn't Qaim sensed the danger? If the condor was semi-magical, shouldn't Qaim have been able to feel its presence as well?

Frantically, Kieren continued his clairvoyant attempt to alert his four companions, while praying for a miracle. No matter how hard he tried though, nothing he did seemed to help and Qaim, Hadwin and the two dwarfs continued to trudge up the rocky slope. They were still completely unaware that no one else was behind them and continued on their way, totally oblivious that something was amiss.

That all changed when the area around them suddenly began to grow dark, which immediately caught their attention. The others quickly recognized what it meant and began to panic, as they looked for the nearest place to hide. Frantically, they ended up seeking refuge in the shadow of a large boulder. As they moved against the huge slab of rock, Sedain entertained the idea that the condor might have already spotted them before they were able to take cover.

Kieren's heart leapt for joy when he saw that group duck out of sight and wondered if one of them had heard his unspoken warning and then alerted the others. However, he soon realized the possibility of something like that happening was highly unlikely, so he put it completely out of his mind. Regardless of the reason his companions had suddenly figured it out, Kieren was extremely thankful they'd discovered the threat and reacted in time.

Even though the four in the lead had moved into the shadows, it didn't mean they were completely out of danger. As soon as Qaim realized the condor was back, he was terrified and his overly hysterical reaction to the situation was soon creating problems for those with him. Once the warriors took cover in the shadows, their furry guide was still so frightened that he tried to force his way behind Quintain, in an attempt to seek additional protection from the aerial threat. Seeing the dwarf already had his backside pressed firmly against the stony outcropping, the aignx was unable to find a safe haven there. Undaunted, Qaim sought out another location to hide and instinctively moved over to the next warrior.

Unfortunately, the aignx's fear was growing, since he hadn't been able to find an alternative hiding-place, and that's when things began to spiral out of control. When Qaim attempted to wedge his body between Sedain and the rocky surface, he knocked the diminutive soldier off balance and caused him to fall. For a split second, Sedain's body toppled out of the shadows and into the sunlight again, thus possibly exposing his presence. Alarmed, the dwarf hurriedly scrambled back to his feet, but he had no idea whether the condor had already noticed what had happened. Involuntarily, Sedain shuddered at the thought of what it might mean for them all.

Seeing Sedain was no longer in a position to protect him, Qaim moved on to the next person and tried to force his body between Hadwin and the boulder. The Nardinian had seen what the aignx had done to the dwarf and was prepared for their guide's next move. In an attempt to avoid another accident, Hadwin allowed Qaim to go where he desired. Once the aignx was in position, the Nardinian pressed his body against Qaim and trapped him against the rocky surface. Hadwin did this to ensure their furry guide would feel safe and remain still, which would increase all of their chances of surviving this encounter.

Now that everyone was out of sight and the situation was under control, Sedain suddenly thought about the rest of the party. Frantically, he scanned the mountainside and quickly concluded they were safe as well, since he couldn't discern any movement lower down on the slope. He assumed each of the others had also taken cover and were just waiting for the threat to pass. Now that he was satisfied everyone was taking the necessary precautions, the dwarf slowly turned his face skyward, as he searched the air for their nemesis.

The dwarf quickly spotted the condor gliding effortlessly above them and it appeared to be scanning the ground below. Sedain couldn't comprehend how it could have possibly missed seeing them before they had moved out of the open or not seen him when he fell. Therefore, he was convinced the bird was about to swoop down for him at any second. He watched the aerial threat carefully and wasn't surprised when it suddenly began to plunge toward the ground.

Instinctively, he closed his eyes and began to make peace with his gods, conceding his time was up. Realizing there was little he could do to prevent the inevitable; he figured it would be best if he met his fate with dignity and serenity. Reaching within his soul to gather as much courage as he could muster, he prepared for the bird's sharp talons to pierce his body. As he waited to be plucked from his hiding place, something distracted him. It was the sound of a pitiful wail that emanated from somewhere below his current position.

In an attempt to discover who had made that blood-curdling cry, Sedain's eyes snapped open and he immediately began to scan the area to see what had just happened. He was amazed that the condor hadn't attacked him, but he couldn't piece together what had occurred. Within seconds, however, he concluded the beast must have grabbed one of the others from the group instead. His heart sank and his body tensed, as he wondered who might have been plucked from their midst. He didn't have long to pursue this thought though, because he was distracted yet again. This time it was the result of the terrified sounds of commotion arising from the valley floor below.

Looking in that direction, Sedain started to piece together what was going on. The snow apes were causing the ruckus and he watched as the frightened creatures ran frantically to and fro, in an attempt to avoid their attacker. The animals were screeching loudly and their terror was clearly evident, as they made a futile effort to hide. They were running aimlessly back and forth, so it was obvious they had no idea about where they should go or how to conceal themselves out on the plains.

Their biggest problem was that their white fur coats made them highly visible from nearly every vantage point and there was little they could do to negate this disadvantage. Fortunately for most of them, it no longer mattered, because the condor had already seized one from their midst. It took the surviving snow apes several more minutes, though, before they became aware the threat had passed and those remaining were safe for the moment.

When Alairic gave the all-clear signal several minutes later, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and slowly emerged from his hiding place. Kieren hurriedly began to count noses, to make sure each of them was present. He quickly located the four who had been in the most danger and then watched them briefly, as they made their way back down the slope to join them. After that, he began to look around for the others.

Kieren had always been aware of Turquinine's presence, since the giant knight had remained by his side throughout the entire ordeal. Kieren was also able to quickly spot Romaric and Rhys, who were also together; because the Akiktite had stayed close to Romaric and helped keep him safe. Kieren continued to look around and spied Alairic next, but that wasn't enough to placate him, because he knew not everyone had been accounted for. The teen rapidly scanned the area again, knowing one person was still missing, and when he realized who it was, he totally panicked.

"Where's Garreth?" Kieren screamed, hysterical.

Kieren's face had almost completely drained of blood and an immense look of horror radiated from his eyes, as he continued to look for his friend. The others began to turn and scan the area as well, as they wondered what could have happened to the elf, when a meek voice broke the silence.

"I'm here," Garreth responded, as he emerged from behind Alairic.

He had remained in the shadow of the boulder and only came out when he heard Kieren ask about him. When Kieren saw his friend emerge into the daylight, he rushed toward him and gave him a tremendous hug. He was grateful and thrilled that Garreth was all right.

"I was worried when I couldn't find you," Kieren explained, once he broke his embrace.

"I'm fine," Garreth advised him, although he was experiencing some slight discomfort from all of the unwanted attention. However, now that they were sure everyone was accounted for; they let their attention turn to other concerns.

"I think it would be best if we didn't stay here," Hadwin stated. "We need to get moving again, before the snow apes let their hunger overcome their fear or that miserable bird returns."

"Hadwin is quite correct," added Sedain.

After saying this, the dwarf spun around and started up the slope again. The others quickly fell into position behind him and began to move away from their exposed location. Since the dwarfs believed they would be less likely to encounter more threats at a slightly higher altitude, they pushed the others to begin the arduous climb. At the same time, they continued to angle in the direction of Treblanc.

As they traveled higher up the slope, Kieren was the first to notice the air was becoming cooler, so he pulled the hood over his head for warmth. When Garreth noticed him doing this, he brought it to Romaric's attention too, so it wasn't long before both of them were also following suit. The others eventually seemed to notice the increased chill in the air as well, but thought nothing more about it – until they began to encounter snow.

"Isn't it a bit early for this?" Rhys asked, while directing his question to the dwarfs.

"Yes, it is," Quintain answered, "but it's not unheard of. It probably won't last very long at this level, because it is so premature. These occurrences are generally brief and the snow usually melts away a day or two later."

The three boys had not been listening to what was being said. Instead, they were focusing their complete attention upon the white flakes that were gently cascading around them. At first, they hadn't really been aware of them and only noticed a cool dampness, as the precipitation landed on their exposed flesh. However, that quickly changed and it wasn't long before the teens found themselves totally engrossed with the delicate winter wonders that were gently drifting around them.

Having grown up in the Woods of Wildoness and its moderate climate, the boys had never seen snow before, so they were instantly intrigued by its beauty and apparent delicate structure. The trio was in awe as they watched the flakes melt in their palms when they tried to catch them, because they didn't realize the snow would do that. They became even more fascinated after a sufficient quantity had accumulated on the rocks in the area and made it possible for them to scoop some of it up, so they could explore it further. Expecting it to melt quickly, they were amazed to discover they could pack it together and mold it into different shapes.

"Qaim no like," the aignx commented, while watching what the boys were doing. He also wasn't hesitant to indicate his lack of appreciation for their new plaything. "Too cold."

The boys didn't pay any attention to what the aignx was saying though. Instead, they found they could make round balls of snow in their palms and began using them to pelt each other. Soon, each of the boys was either ducking or trying to take cover to keep from being struck by the various projectiles thrown by their mates. Some of these snowy orbs inadvertently hit the others members of the party as well, instead of their intended targets, and those mistakes were ill received.

Qaim was the first to be struck by one of these errant snowballs and his objection to the offense was quite comical. The aignx wailed loudly as soon as he was hit and then he grabbed the spot on his body where the impact had occurred, while acting as if he had been mortally wounded. This sudden disturbance stopped the warriors dead in their tracks, as they turned to see what all of the commotion was about.

"We do not have time for this and the noise could lead to our being discovered," Quintain scolded the boys, at least as loudly as he dared. It didn't do any good though, because the trio continued to run from one accumulation point to the next, as they gathered up what snow was there.

"You must not wander away from us," Hadwin warned the trio even more sternly. "We don't know what other threats are out here and there is still the condor."

Even though he had issued this warning, the Nardinian was not trying to end their fun. Watching their playful exploits had brought back fond memories of similar activities from his youth. He was actually jealous of their ability to enjoy themselves, even if it was merely a temporary distraction. However, he had to make sure they didn't place themselves in any more danger, so he watched them closely. The boys continued to throw the icy projectiles at one another, or occasionally at one of the adult members of the party, as the warriors looked on.

Alairic was not offended by the teen's playfulness either. He was even tempted to join in and throw snowballs back at them, since this activity was almost as new to him as it was to them. The dwarfs, however, were disgusted by the boys' childish antics and thought this entire fiasco inappropriate.

Turquinine was also not amused by the boys' folly. Even though he hardly felt the impact from the snowballs when they slammed into his massive frame, he wasn't amused. He didn't have a sense of humor for such things and was rapidly losing his patience with the trio. Upon being hit by yet another barrage of snowballs, the giant knight finally reached his breaking point.

"Enough," Turquinine bellowed out, which caused everyone to stop in his tracks.

Even though the teens wanted to continue their games, they were stunned by the sternness of the Mitikuan's response. They were also surprised by the harshness of his follow-up glare, so they reluctantly obeyed. This might have been partially due to the fact that they were also a little winded from running around and slightly sore from where they had been hit by the various projectiles.

In addition to those concerns, the teens were acknowledging, at least to each other and themselves, that their fingers were beginning to ache as well. Their hands had become extremely cold from playing in the snow and even partially numb from packing so many snowballs, so they were hurriedly trying to find a way to warm them. The boys did this in various ways, such as placing the palms of their hands in their armpits, blowing warm air from their lungs into their fists or by wrapping their hands into the folds of their garments as they got underway again.

While they attempted to get the feeling back in their fingers, the group continued to climb farther up the slope and gradually moved into the upper reaches of the mountains. They kept going until they discovered a narrow ridge, which ran almost parallel with the valley floor, and quickly decided to use it as their route forward. This discovery had unexpectedly offered them a somewhat flat walkway over which they could travel fairly easily. The dwarfs even thought it looked as if it might also lead them close to their intended destination, so there was little discussion about what they would do. As the party set off along this narrow shelf, they began to feel a little more confident about their chances of getting out of this situation.

As they trudged forward, the snow continued to accumulate on the ground, but it also began to adhere to the soles of their boots. This made it more difficult for them to walk and their footing continued to grow even more treacherous, which slowed their pace down to not much more than a crawl. The dwarfs knew they would have to find a place to camp soon, since the travel was becoming even more difficult as the snow continued to fall. Besides that problem, everyone was also beginning to tire from the exertion.

Taking the responsibility upon themselves, Sedain and Quintain began to check out each of the different areas they passed, hoping to find someplace suitable to spend the night. After many minutes of continuing on in this fashion, they still hadn't come across anything appropriate, but the dwarfs understood they needed to locate a suitable area soon. They also realized their friends couldn't continue on like this for much longer, so the pair decided to bring the group to a halt.

"We're going to take a few minutes to rest," Quintain advised the others, as soon as they had gathered around him. "Even though this area is large enough to pause safely for now, there is not sufficient room to make camp for the night. Therefore, I'm going to scout ahead for a place to spend the evening, but I want the rest of you to stay here with Sedain. Please be very careful, so we avoid any accidents, and remain observant. Don't wander off either," he interjected, while directing his comments at the boys. "The mountains are filled with many other dangers and I don't want you taking chances."

Moments later, Quintain disappeared from sight, as he began to scout the surrounding area for an appropriate campsite. The dwarf continued to follow the ridge for quite a ways, but found no spot suitable for a shelter. Discouraged, he started climbing the slope to see if he could find someplace more appropriate higher up. He was hoping to discover a cave or even an overhang to protect them while they slept, but found neither.

Frustrated, he began to search for any spot they could bed down comfortably and hopefully it would also be a place that was somewhat sheltered from the elements. Quintain was growing anxious and concerned, because he wouldn't have much longer to do this before the light began to disappear. When that happened, it would make finding a campsite even more difficult.

"Do you think something has happened to Quintain?" Kieren asked, after sensing the dwarf had been gone for far too long. In actuality, he was just verbalizing what many of the others were also thinking.

"I'm sure he's fine," Sedain responded, trying to sound positive, even though he was also harboring some doubts of his own. "Sometimes it just takes a little longer than expected to locate the proper place."

"Maybe we shouldn't have let him go off alone," Romaic followed. "I think we should have had someone else go with him, in case he ran into trouble."

"I believe you're making too much of this," Sedain stated, while still trying to reassure everyone.

The others continued to press him and Sedain was just about to say something more, when Quintain unexpectedly reappeared. The dwarf was somewhat amazed by the enthusiastic response with which he was welcomed back, but he brushed it off quickly, because he knew they had to get moving.

"I have found a place that is large enough to accommodate us, and it is fairly wide and flat," Quintain explained, as the others began to accept their fears for his safety had been unfounded. "You will have to do some climbing to reach it though, because it's a little higher up the mountainside. It's not going to be easy to get there, but it is the only spot I could find that was suitable for this purpose. It will provide us with a little protection from the elements too."

"I really don't think it wise to be head farther up the mountain," Alairic warned. "As you yourself stated earlier, it snows more at the higher levels, so I think we should move down the slope instead."

"First of all, we don't have time to find a suitable location farther down the slope and we don't know what other threats we might find closer to the base of the mountains," Quintain responded. "Actually, it is probably raining there and the rain might prove to be even more difficult to deal with than the snow?"

"Why doth thou sayeth that?" Turquinine wondered.

"Because the rainwater will flow down the slopes and possibly puddle where we want to bed down," the dwarf explained. "It will also soak through everything much faster and make everyone miserable. A large infusion of water, such as from heavy rains or rapidly melting snow, could also cause mudslides that could bury us as we sleep."

"But won't we be more exposed in the snow?" Rhys wanted to know. "I would think the dark colors of our clothing would stand out against the white background and make us easier to spot. It would betray us in a similar fashion as the snow apes' white fur gave them away on the grasslands below."

"As you may have noticed, a fine dusting of snow has already accumulated on our outer garments," Sedain explained, "which helps us to blend in. Given a little more time, the snow will help to hide our shelter and cover our tracks too. Besides, since the snow apes appear to have fled the mountains, we'll be less likely to encounter other threats the higher we go. Most of the more dangerous animals don't normally choose to dwell in these areas either, because of the threat the snow apes pose to them."

"But we are ill-equipped for such conditions," Alairic declared. "Not only do we lack appropriate heavy clothing and footwear, but most of us have never had to deal with things of this nature before. We are ill prepared for what you are suggesting."

"We'll just have to cope and do the best we can," Quintain informed him. "It won't be easy, but it's something we must do."

"Why doth thou say this?" Turquinine challenged. "I still seeth no compelling reason for venturing higher. I understandth there wilt be unknowns facing us regardless of which direction we go, but methinks it best we stay our present course or move lower."

"True, there will be unknowns no matter what," Quintain agreed, "but there will be fewer of these to deal with if we continue to move into the upper levels. You'll just have to trust my brother's and my knowledge concerning such matters."

Although Alairic, Rhys and Turquinine were still not convinced about this, they acknowledged the dwarfs had the advantage of experience on their side. It was also growing late and they were running out of sunlight. Since they could find no other reason to object to this plan, they bowed to the dwarfs' judgment.

"I must also warn you to keep on the lookout for wildlife as we move on," Quintain warned them. "While I was scouting, I did see signs of animals moving about at this level. Although they might not be as large as the snow apes, it doesn't mean we can assume they will be less dangerous, at least not until we know precisely what they are."

The others acknowledged Quintain's advice, before they began to follow him. It only took them a few minutes to reach the spot where they would begin their climb. As they started up the slope, each of them realized the dwarf had not underestimated the difficulty in getting there. As their guide led the way, he pointed out where there were hand and foot holds in the rocky slopes. He hoped this would help the others find it slightly easier to make the ascent, which fortunately wasn't that far. The rest of them followed the dwarf willingly and quickly discovered it was indeed a tough place to reach, so they hoped it was worth the effort.

Sedain brought up the rear of the group, to help the stragglers and protect their backsides, in case other dangers should suddenly appear. He was more experienced in this terrain and in dealing with the creatures that lived in the area, so he felt obligated to stay at the back of the formation. As they made the climb, it didn't take long before their fingers and toes started to grow numb from the cold, since they were constantly encased in snow. Slowly, they climbed higher, eagerly looking forward to reaching this safe haven.

Nearly everyone seemed to be at least slightly disappointed when they finally got to the spot and had a chance to inspect it. The area certainly didn't appear to be anything special. It was flat and wide, that much was true, but it was also out in the open. There wasn't really any protection from the elements, except that it was on the leeward side of a wall of boulders. That did help to deflect some of the icy chill generated by the gusts of wind and blowing snow, but it didn't stop all of it. The ground was also covered with a moderate collection of snow and it was just solid rock underneath. Since it was getting late though, it would have to do, but it was far from ideal.

Hadwin, however, did not seem as disheartened about this place as the others. Uncharacteristically, he quickly appraised the positive aspects of the site and determined how to best put them to use. He rapidly surmised the boulders could be used as one side of a shelter and the base from which they could secure a makeshift tent. The Nardinian then went on to assess how they might construct a temporary refuge and hurriedly explained his suggestion to the others. He told them that if they were willing to donate some of their blankets to use for this endeavor, he would be able to rig a suitable haven from the weather.

The boys quickly offered two of their blankets, because they agreed they could huddle together using their remaining bedding. The two dwarfs, along with Hadwin and Alairic, agreed to double-up, so they could donate one of their blankets for this purpose as well. They then quickly agreed that Turquinine and Rhys were both too large to share bedding with anyone else, so they would keep both of their blankets and sleep alone.

Qaim, on the other hand, already had his fur coat to keep him warm and always shied away from the others when sleeping anyway. Everyone just assumed he would choose to curl up alone this time as well. They had all come to expect the aignx to rely on his own instincts and wits during the evening hours, because that's what he always did.

As Hadwin explained how to make the shelter, the others listened intently. He had them connect three of the blankets together in such a way as to make one very large piece of cloth, which was then used as the main part of the tent. They then used the dwarfs' ropes to secure the rear of the shelter to the boulders. Once that was done, they packed the tips of their thrusting weapons into piles of snow they'd collected from the sleeping area, so the shafts would remain upright and help to support other sections of the cloth. Once the tent was partially completed, Hadwin had some of the others help him weigh down the outer edges of the shelter with more snow, so the wind wouldn't blow through gaps at the bottom.

When he was satisfied with his work, the Nardinian used the remaining blanket to make a flap to cover the front of the shelter and completely enclosed it. Once everyone was inside, they discovered it was rather cozy and offered welcomed relief from the gusting wind and falling snow. When the front flap was closed though, it also grew very dark inside, so Hadwin braced open a corner of the covering to let in what little light still remained.

The others complimented Hadwin on his makeshift shelter and thanked him for giving them a place to get out of the storm. Now that they felt somewhat comfortable, each of them took the opportunity to change into fresh clothing, as they hurriedly shed the wet items and dried their bodies as best they could. They moved rather quickly, because they became quite chilled while disrobing, but they all felt much better once they were dressed in dry garments again.

"Do you think the condor will discover us here?" Romaric asked, as they sat down and tried to settle in.

"No," responded Sedain. "First of all, it's getting dark and I believe the weather is too bad for the condor to fly. Second, I'm sure the snow is accumulating quickly enough on the exterior of this sanctuary that it will soon blend in with the surrounding area. The snow will also cover any signs of our passing. We should be able to rest here safely until morning, although we should still post a guard, just to make certain other threats don't pop up."

Convinced by his answer and able to put their worries aside for the moment, they all began to focus on how hungry they were. This motivated them to rummage through their packs and select something suitable to silence their grumbling bellies. While they were going about this task, one of the boys posed another question.

"Can't we build a fire to help keep us warm?" Garreth asked.

"That would not be prudent," Rhys commented. "The glow from the light of a fire would disclose our present location to anyone who happened to be nearby, including those on the valley floor."

"Make fire inside shelter," Qaim suggested, naively.

"We can't do that, because the sparks could set the blankets ablaze," Hadwin quickly offered. "Even if that didn't happen, there would be no place for the smoke to go, so we'd probably all suffocate."

"The point is moot anyway," Quintain added. "I doubt we could find a sufficient amount of material dry enough to burn in the first place."

Suddenly, everyone knew this to be true, so the discussion ended. No matter how uncomfortable it would be, they would have to do without a fire.

Now, they were engulfed in nearly total darkness, except for a limited amount of moonlight, and it was the youthful trio who first decided it was time to sleep. They had previously picked out a spot near the boulders at the rear of the shelter and began to set out their bedding. They started by spreading some of their clothing on top of the remaining snow and rocky floor, to insulate their bodies from the cold seeping out of the ground and provide a little padding. Then, they placed a blanket over that, but they would use the remaining blankets to cover themselves. Once they laid down, they used their packs as pillows and settled in for the night.

They were nearly asleep when the others finally began to follow their lead. Eventually, the warriors crawled into their bedding, but they hadn't set it up as the boys had done. Hadwin, Alairic and the dwarfs merely spread their blankets out on the surface, without forming a protective barrier with their extra clothing first. Turquinine and Rhys, who were sleeping alone, merely opted to use their two blankets as one thick blanket. They kept part of it folded under them and then pulled the rest around their larger frames. Once they were set, it didn't take any of them long before they were all asleep and the only one still awake was the guard on duty.

Sometime during the night, Kieren felt something jostling him slightly. Cautiously, he opened his eyes, to see what it was. That's when he discovered Romaric masturbating and trying to take care of his sexual needs.

"Would you like some help with that?" Kieren whispered in Romaric's ear.

He said this as quietly as he could, since he didn't wake the others or draw the sentry's attention. Even in the dim light of the moon, he could see Hadwin was the one on duty, but the Nardinian was looking in the other direction.

"Sure, if you want to do that," Romaric replied. He was pleased to consider the suggestion that he might not have to satisfy himself.

Kieren responded swiftly and reached across Romaric's body, as he eagerly wrapped his hand around the elf's already engorged member. Kieren began to stroke it, but seeing he was on the wrong side of Romaric to use his dominant hand, he opted to do something else instead. Slowly, he slid his head under the blanket and moved toward Romaric's groin, so he could slip the elf's penis into his mouth. Romaric let out a groan when he felt the warm, moist lining of Kieren's oral cavity envelop his turgid tool.

"Keep it down," Kieren whispered, hurriedly pulling off again. "We don't want to draw Hadwin's attention back here."

Romaric nodded in response, even though Kieren couldn't see that's what he was doing from his current position. Without hesitation though, Kieren went back to work on Romaric and slowly ran his tongue around the exposed head, but he also made sure to run it underneath the ridge as well. After a minute or so of doing this, he began to bob up and down on his friend's erection, while simultaneously sucking on it.

Romaric must have been pleasuring himself for quite some time before Kieren awoke, because he was already quite aroused. Therefore, it didn't take long before he reached the point of no return and spewed his load down Kieren's willing throat. Kieren never minded when this happened, and in fact had come to enjoy the taste of his friend's love nectar, so he swallowed it greedily. Once Romaric was completely drained, Kieren slid back up to his proper position, so he could lie down again.

Within a minute or so, Romaric had recovered and was slipping under the covers to return the favor. He eagerly followed the same process, although he spent a little more time sucking on Kieren's testicles and running his tongue up, down and around his shaft. When he finally closed his mouth over Kieren's organ, Kieren began to buck his hips up and down, to match Romaric's motions, when he heard another voice.

"Hey, what about me?" Garreth whispered in his friend's other ear. Kieren turned his head in that direction, until he was looking into Garreth's eyes. Kieren gave him a reassuring smile before he spoke.

"When Romaric is done, then I'll take care of you," he whispered back. This caused Garreth to grin and nod, satisfied with his response.

While Romaric's head jerked up and down on Kieren's penis, Garreth leaned in and began to kiss Kieren. He wanted to show his friend how much he cared about him and that he was also thankful he wasn't going to get left out. Lustfully, Kieren eagerly returned the kiss, as they gently dueled with their tongues, as they explored each other's oral cavity. The pair held nothing back.

This dual attention caused Kieren to quickly overheat and he began to feel the pressure building in his loins. It wasn't much longer before his hot lava began to churn in his gut and rise up his scepter. He tapped Romaric lightly, to let him know it was on the way, but that really wasn't necessary. Romaric knew what was coming. The elf never let up and continued to energetically apply suction, until he felt the warm blasts filling his mouth. Romaric never slowed his pace either, until he felt Kieren's penis begin to wilt, which signified his friend was completely satisfied.

Kieren was exhausted and remained motionless for a couple of minutes, but he knew he didn't want to disappoint Garreth. He quickly determined what he was going to do next and spit generously in his hand, before reaching over and grasping the elf's semi-aroused muscle. Garreth was a little surprised by this, since he was expecting Kieren's mouth instead, but he was even more amazed when Kieren rolled onto his side and faced away from him.

At first, Garreth's disappointment clearly registered on his face, even though no one could see it, but that didn't last for very long. It ended when he felt Kieren's hand, which was still wrapped around his penis, pull the muscle in his direction. After a moment of confusion, Garreth pieced the clues together and knew what he was being offered. Slowly, he rolled onto his side and slid in behind Kieren, who had pulled down his britches.

Kieren had decided to do this for a couple of reasons. One was he was a little exhausted and the other was Garreth's penis was on the slender side and easy to take. Purposefully, Kieren guided his friend's steely rod toward his back entrance and placed the head against his opening. Firmly, but tenderly, Garreth added his own pressure, until the crown forced its way in, with the shaft rapidly following.

Once he was completely seated in Kieren's love canal, Garreth began to buck his hips, eagerly sliding in and out of his friend's chute. Kieren tried to match Garreth's efforts as much as he could, without causing so much movement that it would attract Hadwin's attention. Garreth was already slightly keyed up from having watched Romaric give oral pleasure to Kieren and from his long abstinence from gratification. Add that to the kissing he and Kieren had done and the wonderful feeling of being completely sheathed in Kieren's sweltering tunnel, it was almost more than he could bear. That is why Garreth was soon filling his friend with his own love juices. Garreth was now completely sated and totally satisfied.

When Kieren felt Garreth go flaccid and the elf's penis slipped out of his rear entrance, he rolled over, kissed Garreth again. He then pulled up his britches and cuddled against Garreth, before falling back to sleep. That night, the three boys slept as well as they had on any night during the journey, no matter their present location and circumstance.

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