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Copyright 2015 by billwstories
Chapter 18 – Another Way.
Like a bolt from heaven, a bright blue beam leapt from the face of the lavaliere Kieren was holding and radiated toward the rear of the cave. Thinking he had heard Kieren say something, Romaric turned around and looked in his friend’s direction, in order to see if Kieren was speaking to him. The elf was shocked to find Kieren standing motionless with the thin, sapphire ray projecting from the medallion he held between his palms.
“Look at Kieren,” Romaric blurted out, in a voice just slightly above a whisper. “What is he doing?”
The others turned in unison, only to discover what the young elf had already seen. Rhys sprang from where he was kneeling and raced to the youngster’s side, fearing his charge was in danger. When the Akiktite was able to scrutinize the situation further, he began to comprehend the significance of what the teen was doing.
“I believe Kieren has discovered another course of action,” the warrior stated, very matter-of-factly. “An option we had not considered.”
Rhys then let his eyes follow the path of the luminous thread, as he carefully examined its route. Realizing the beam extended beyond his line of vision, he turned to the dwarf standing next to him and spoke.
“Sedain, would you please follow the light and see where it leads?”
Sedain nodded his compliance, before making a torch out of a piece of firewood that remained from their little campfire. This caused one end of the log to ignite into a flame, so he could use it to see where the beam went. Gradually, he moved toward the rear of the cave, using its illumination to guide him. Cautiously, he followed the thin ray of light as it turned the corner and moved out of sight of the others. In a short time he returned, very excited.
“The cave bends around and leads into what appears to be a dead end. Upon closer examination, however, I discovered a rift in the rock floor. After extending my head and shoulders through this opening, I found an underground passage. I did a quick check and it appears the beam from Kieren’s medallion continues along that tunnel, until it fades from sight.”
“I’m not sure we should blindly follow this light,” Hadwin stated, although his apparent negativity didn’t seem to surprise the others. “We have no reason to believe it shows the way out or if it is even to our advantage.”
“The beam comes from the medallion Beraut gave to Kieren,” Romaric added. “Kieren told Garreth and me about it and I think it’s probably the reason the wizard presented it to him in the first place.”
“And I believe it’s as safe, or safer, than what awaits us here,” responded Sedain, while pointing toward the opening of the cave. “I think Kieren has provided us with our best option for escape.”
“But how can you be sure it will lead us to safety?” Hadwin pressed, still not convinced.
“My instincts tell me there is more at work here than meets the eye,” Alairic offered curtly, before explaining his reasoning. “I am able to sense a strong magic at work and have a suspicion that Beraut is somehow involved. If that is the case, then I conclude we have little to fear and should trust our two benefactors.”
“Aye,” the big Mitikuan added. “Methinks Master Beraut hath bestowed Kieren with special abilities for such times as this. It is best we remembereth the magic that pointeth the way was produced by the Council of Wizards. If our liege found it necessary to summon that power, we wouldst be foolhardy not to take advantage of such good fortune.”
“I agree,” Doenilio added. “We have obviously not been privy to certain information, but I doubt Beraut would have bestowed this ability upon Kieren if it were not for us to profit from it.”
“I’m certain you’re correct,” Rhys added, “and I think the dwarfs are the best to evaluate the risk of following this route. For that reason, I say we do whatever they recommend.”
After some further discussion, the others eventually concurred.
“Then it’s settled,” announced Quintain. “Please allow us to lead you the rest of the way. We are at home in the bowels of the mountains, even though we are not familiar with this particular area. After listening to my brother’s description, I believe we have uncovered an underground riverbed. If this is so, then it will lead us to the spot where it deposits its watery contents. The three of us will volunteer to go first, to see where this supernatural pointer goes. I say we have a much better chance of escaping unnoticed if we take this path and I doubt the enemy patrol would be able to follow us without the benefit of similar magical assistance.”
“The rest of you pack up your belongings quickly and then make yourself a torch,” Sedain instructed them. “We will need them once we have passed through the crevice and descended into the passage below. Even though they won’t give off a great deal of light, I trust you will feel much more at ease with the illumination the devices provide.”
Everyone hurriedly rustled together their belongings and packed everything away, before grabbing a piece of firewood to make into a torch. Unfortunately, there was not enough wood left for everyone to get a piece, so they ended up sharing in pairs. After completing these tasks, they moved to the rear of the cavern and left only Alairic to watch the mouth of the cave for signs of approaching danger. They were now ready to drop down into this new space and make their escape.
Kieren had not moved throughout this entire time and remained transfixed, as he focused all of his energy on maintaining the link to their lifeline. Rhys quickly moved to the teen’s side and made it his duty to assist him, as they made their way out of the grotto. Gently, he took the boy by the arm and led him to the back of the chamber, before nudging him around the bend. Cautiously, the pair moved forward, following the dwarfs and the faint glow from their guiding lights. Now, they were at the point where they would have to lower themselves downward, into the tunnel below.
It wasn’t a long drop to reach the bottom of this new chamber, maybe three meters or so in all, but it did present a slight problem. To make this endeavor easier, Turquinine and Hadwin volunteered to help the others down and everyone agreed that was a good idea. The northerners would grasp the hands of the one descending and lower him as far as they could, to shorten the final drop.
The dwarfs went first, followed by the two young elves, but when it came to Kieren’s turn, they realized this was going to be a problem. The teen was still locked in his trance and unable to break contact with the medallion, so they would not be able to hold his hands and lower him using the same method. It was imperative they come up with another solution.
Eventually, it was the Akiktite who figured out how to handle the situation. Without saying a word, Rhys grabbed a blanket from his pack and worked it around Kieren, as he made it into a large sling. He then led the teen to the opening, where he and the others could grasp the corners of the blanket and help to lower him to those waiting below. When Kieren was safely down, the Akiktite went next, since he was anxious to get back to Kieren’s side. There was no doubt Rhys intended to take responsibility for helping the youngster the rest of the way and no one was ready to argue the point with him.
It was now Alairic’s turn to go next, but before leaving his post, the elf gave one final check outside. He wanted to be certain there was no immediate threat, before he abandoned his post at the entrance to the cave. Once he was satisfied everything was in order, the elf moved to the back of the chamber and allowed himself to be helped down. That left only the knight and Hadwin above.
Without a second thought, Turquinine volunteered to go last and held on to both of the Nardinian’s arms, as he helped him make his way below. Now that he was the last one remaining, the Mitikuan sat on the edge of the crevice and began to cautiously wiggle his frame through the opening. It was a tight squeeze for his massive body, but that allowed him to shorten the drop, because he was able to dangle his frame part of the way first, before he had to let go. He ended up landing with a thud, but uninjured, and then the group quickly reassembled and discussed their next move.
“Quintain was correct,” Doenilio advised them. “This tunnel appears to have been created and broadened by the flow of an underground river. It probably meandered through this dark abyss for several centuries, but now it appears to be only a shadow of its former self. The three of us have judged that it seems to be heading in a northwesterly direction, which is precisely the way we need to go.”
The others smiled at this news and began to walk around a bit, so they could inspect the immediate area for themselves. They soon discovered a ledge running along what remained of the river, over which they could travel. This flat surface had been created by the eroding effect of the flowing water before it dried into the trickle it was now. As the years passed by, the river carved deeper and deeper into the center of its bed, leaving this flat walkway along the outer edge.
After several minutes of looking around, the contingent began to move cautiously forward. This was not only because they were unsure as to what lay ahead, but it was also due to the pathway being slippery, which made their footing slightly treacherous. There was some sort of slimy growth covering the rocky ledge, which forced them to go at a fairly slow pace as they followed the stream’s current.
As they made their way along this route, both young elves felt a sudden tightness in their chest and found it difficult to breathe. The dwarfs noticed this happening and quickly realized the boys were suffering from a mild claustrophobic reaction. They had seen this happen to others that were making their initial trip underground and it was obvious Garreth and Romaric had never journeyed beneath the surface before. The elves had always lived in the woods, with plenty of fresh air to inhale and sunlight to see by. However, being suddenly thrust into nearly total darkness and having to breathe the stagnant air, it didn’t take long before it began to exact a toll.
Alairic and Turquinine experienced similar sensations, but to a much lesser degree. They, however, were able to slough those feelings off, while the elfin teenagers struggled on.
The group continued to trudge along this path, which seemed to stretch endlessly forward. After many minutes, Rhys, Alairic and Turquinine became a bit apprehensive about not knowing exactly where this tributary was leading them. They began to make comments to this effect, so the dwarfs decided to address those concerns and keep their hopes alive.
“This is not the first time we’ve done this,” Quintain advised them. “Whenever we have found ourselves lost or in an unfamiliar situation underground, we would find it best to follow the current of any river or stream we came across. On each of those occasions, the waterway eventually led us unerringly out of our predicament and to a spot from which we could find our way home. Every underground river must empty somewhere,” the dwarf concluded, while intentionally omitting the scary fact that some of these underground rivers would end up emptying into subterranean lakes.
This information seemed to be enough to lighten the other’s concerns and encouraged them to keep going. Even though they were creeping along at a snail’s pace, because of the slippery trail, they all silently prayed they would soon find their way back to the surface. After hours of plodding forward, they began to hear a sound. At first, it was only barely noticeable, but it slowly grew into a muffled roar, which became more distinct with each passing footstep. It didn’t take very long before the dwarfs recognized the sound as rushing water plummeting over a short drop.
“What is that noise?” Alairic asked, concerned.
“It could be one of two possibilities,” Doenilio responded. “It is either the sound of the river emerging from its dark hiding place and spilling into the open or we have reached an underground waterfall. If it is the latter, it could plunge us deeper into the depths of the mountains.”
“Well I for one hope it’s leading us into the open,” the elf quipped back. “I do not relish the thought of descending even further below the world I am used to living in.”
“I hope it is emerging, too,” the dwarf responded, “but even if it isn’t, we are no worse off than we were before.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Alairic retorted. “I’m used to fresh air and daylight, not these musty old corridors in which we now roam.”
Realizing he had probably already said too much, the elfin warrior let the conversation end, before he needlessly spooked the youths.
Despite his bravado, Doenilio was bothered by another very real possibility. He was troubled by the inconsistency between the volume of noise he was hearing and the small amount of water that seemed to be flowing down what was left of this nameless river. The fact was, there wasn’t enough water in this little ditch and it wasn’t flowing with sufficient force to account for the rumblings that were vibrating through the tunnel. Nonetheless, he kept his suspicions to himself, so he didn’t alarm the others.
The three dwarfs continued to lead the way, while they tried to determine which fate awaited them. The rest of the party followed blindly behind, not knowing what else to do, but all the while praying for the best. As they drew nearer to the source of the roaring water, the air also seemed to be getting fresher, at least compared to the stagnant air they had been breathing since they had first entered the tunnel. This burst of clean air seemed to renew their hopes and brought them back to life.
Alairic, who was always on the lookout for things out of the ordinary, was the first to notice it was getting lighter ahead and immediately brought this to the attention of the others. Without hesitation, he suggested they should be wary approaching this area, until they had a chance to discover if the light source was natural or artificial. If its origin was artificial, such as from the illumination generated by torches, lamps or even magic, it would mean there were others that also knew about this grotto. Secretly, he feared they might find warriors stationed there guarding the entrance and preventing it from being used.
Sedain and Quintain quickly volunteered to investigate the tunnel ahead and cautiously moved forward to see what awaited them. Slowly, they left the others behind and crept closer to the source of the brightness. As they drew nearer, they realized the light was not flickering, as it would have if it came from a torch or lamp, but that didn’t rule out a magical origin.
Soon, the dwarfs discovered a breach in the mountainside, which was allowing both air and light into the shaft. However, they instantly realized this was not an ordinary opening. It was obvious that a great torrent of water was cascading over it and most likely coming from a spillway that originated somewhere higher up in the mountains. It was also the barrier that shielded this opening and kept it from casual view. Throughout the years, the waterfall had helped to ensure this tunnel remained hidden from the unsuspecting world.
Using great stealth, the dwarfs continued forward, while looking for signs of danger and listening for voices or other sounds that might not be natural. Once they were able to check out the entire area, both inside the tunnel and outside the opening, they returned and inform the others about their discoveries.
“The route is clear,” Sedain informed his fellow travelers, “and there appears to be no hidden dangers awaiting us. Kieren’s magic has led us safely away from the problems we were facing, but there are still other obstacles we will have to overcome.”
“What do you mean by that?” Romaric asked him.
“The opening is still some distance above ground level, so we’ll have to determine a method to get down from here.”
“But that won’t be a problem, will it?” Alairic wanted to know.
“No, but we do have to find a way that those of you with less experience can handle,” Quintain told them.
The dwarf then went on to explain what he meant by his cryptic comment. Quintain understood this wasn’t going to be easy to accomplish, since Hadwin was the only non-dwarf with any kind of background navigating mountainous terrain, so the method would have to be chosen carefully.
Encouraged by the news that they would soon be free of this underground chamber, the companions were tempted to run for joy toward the obvious exit. In fact, they would have done that, if the mist from the waterfall hadn’t made the footing even more treacherous. Instead, they continued on at a less than brisk walk, while taking comfort in the knowledge that they would reach their destination eventually. As they drew within twenty meters of this radiant opening, their hearts were lifted even further with excitement. They had now begun to distinguish daylight and the hues of the world that existed beyond the mouth of the passageway.
The dwarfs moved forward more quickly than the others, so they could examine the opening more carefully. They still needed to determine how they were going to get down from this lofty perch. Peering through the hole in the mountainside, they watched as the water tumbled effortlessly into a large pool below. The resulting oasis was located about ten meters below the mouth of the tunnel, but there was no obvious way to get from one place to the other. It had been the result of this combination of factors that explained the reason this natural phenomenon had been previously undetected and given the companions a route to escape a less than comfortable predicament.
While the dwarfs had been inspecting the opening, Garreth and Romaric attempted to bring Kieren out of his trance-like stupor. They felt it was safe to do this now, since they had reached the end of the tunnel and no longer needed the magical beam to guide them. They began by calling out Kieren's name, but he didn’t immediately respond to sound of their voices. When that didn’t work, the elves began to shake him gently and poked him in the arm. The boys were unsure how rough they might need to be when doing this, in order to bring him out of the truly deep state of concentration he’d maintained to summon the beam. When Kieren failed to respond to their current efforts as well, the duo began to shake him more vigorously, as if they were trying to awaken him from a very sound sleep.
Slowly, Kieren began to shake the aftereffects of using the medallion. While doing this, his body suddenly went limp and both elves were forced to jump into action to keep him from falling. Once they were supporting him on either side, they patiently waited for their friend to regain control of his body. During this time, Kieren also struggled to clear his mind from the lingering effects of maintaining contact with the device for so long.
“What happened? Where are we?” Kieren wanted to know, as he looked around at his unfamiliar surroundings.
He then stared blankly at his two companions and awaited their reply. Even though he managed to ask these questions, his expression told them there were many other queries still trapped inside his mind. Responding to those unspoken questions, the elves calmly explained what had transpired.
“You saved us,” Romaric told him. “You did something that caused a blue light to appear from the medallion you have on the chain around your neck. We followed it and it showed us another way out.”
“Yes,” Garreth added. “We are in an underground tunnel and the dwarfs are checking to see what we should do next. You got us out of the cave without having to fight with the warriors Alairic saw.”
At this point, their conversation came to a halt, when they heard Sedain begin to speak. The entire party now listened attentively as the dwarf gave instructions as to how they would get down from this lofty perch.
“You must all watch me closely as I descend from here,” the dwarf began. “I will do my best to point out where all the foot and hand holds are located, because you will need to make use of each of them in order to climb down. Be sure to take note of everything I do, because if you miss even the smallest detail, it could result in a disastrous fall.”
Each member of the party nodded his understanding and concentrated on every move Sedain made, as he began his descent down the slippery rock face. Each of them focused on the way he used his fingers to locate each handhold and noted how cautious he was about having a good grip on it first, before he lifted one of his feet to search for a foothold. Once he was on solid ground, the dwarf checked out the area quickly, to make sure there were no immediate threats nearby. After the dwarf deemed the area safe, he then looked up and signaled the others to join him.
Everyone was prepared to heed Sedain's earlier advice, as they desperately recalled every move he had made. However, before Doenilio would allow them to begin their descent, the dwarf went a step further. Since he didn’t wish to take risks with anyone else’s welfare, he wisely suggested they should take an extra precaution first, before they began this task. After saying this, he and Quintain pulled ropes out of the packs they carried and carefully tied them together. Once this had been accomplished, the dwarfs secured the ropes under the next climber’s arms, to serve as a safety harness. Those remaining above would anchor the rope on the upper end, as their friends worked their way to the bottom.
One by one, the companions began to inch their way down the same route Sedain had taken, while trying to duplicate his every successful move. Alairic was the next to go and deliberately made his way along the rocky face. It was not an easy task for him, because he was considerably taller than the dwarf and that forced him to locate new hand and footholds to make the descent. It was a fact he adamantly impressed upon the others. There were also a couple of moments when everyone held his breath, when Alairic lost his grip or a piece of the cliff seemed to give way under his fingers or toes. However, each time this happened he managed to hold on until he was able to correct for the situation. After a few harrowing minutes and a couple of close calls, he safely made his way to the bottom.
Once the elf had finished his climb down, he unfastened the rope and allowed the others to pull it back up for the next one to go. Turquinine followed the elf and he also had a difficult time climbing down. Even though he didn’t come as close to falling as Alairic had, the effort wasn't much easier. After the knight joined the others on the ground, it was decided the three youths would go next.
This trio enjoyed fairly uneventful efforts, since they were young and agile. Once they had joined those already standing beside the pool, then Rhys and Hadwin climbed down next. This left only the other two dwarfs to take their turn, but Quintain and Doenilio felt their skills were adequate to make the climb without the safety line. For that reason, they hurriedly unfastened the ropes and slipped them back into their packs, before each one began his journey downward.
Once everyone had regrouped at the base of the slope, they did a quick scan of the area. Then, Alairic and Hadwin went off in opposite directions to do a more substantial investigation. Once they returned and reported that they had found nothing of a threatening nature nearby, the companions decided to rest for a while. They sat along the edge of the pool and used the time to catch their breath and recover from their recent physical exertion.
As they rested beside this watery haven, they couldn’t help but notice how cool, refreshing and inviting the water seemed. Mentally, they longed to enjoy its pleasures and their bodies pleaded with them to partake of its refreshing and soothing potential.
“Oh, it would be so nice to be able to spend some time in the pool,” Kieren mumbled to himself. However, he unintentionally said it loud enough for some of the others to hear, as he gazed longingly at the clear water.
“I agree,” Rhys concurred, picking up on the teen's comment. “It would be nice to wash off some of the filth from our travels and give our tired muscles some relief.”
“That wouldst be true,” the giant knight added, “but I fear it might not be wise.”
“Hadwin and I have conducted a fairly thorough investigation of the surrounding area and have ascertained we are alone,” Alairic acknowledged, with Hadwin nodding his agreement. “Since that is the case, I don’t see why we shouldn’t partake of such an inviting treat.”
“In support of that idea, I’m not sure the sunlight will last long enough for us to make our way past the next obstacle, so it might be wiser for us to remain here,” Sedain replied, somewhat stoically. “I don’t wish to repeat the error we made previously, when we tried to cross the Murky Marshes without sufficient sunlight. Since it is probably best to wait until morning before continuing our journey, I see no reason why we shouldn’t take advantage of this opportunity.”
For several more minutes, the warriors discussed this idea and weighed the pros and cons. It was evident that each member of the party yearned to enjoy this simple pleasure, so they finally agreed they would take one more look around for any signs of danger first. If it was determined it would be safe enough to do as they wished, they would indulge themselves in this simple pleasure.
This time they assigned different warriors to move out in various directions to scout the vicinity and look for possible signs of trouble. Once they returned and reported their findings, it was agreed that the area appeared to be secure and there was nothing nearby that could even be remotely construed as a threat. For that reason, it was determined they could allow themselves the opportunity to enjoy a brief respite and relax in the beckoning water.
Overjoyed by the news, it was the youthful trio that was the first to disrobe and dive into the crystal blue, miniature lake. After seeing the boys enjoying themselves, the others enthusiastically undressed and followed them into the pool. From that point on, the various companions leisurely enjoyed the warm, relaxing embrace of the watery retreat. They either waded, swam or lazily floated about on the surface, totally enthralled by this simple pleasure. They also rejoiced in absorbing the warming touch of the gentle rays of the setting sun, as they removed the layers of dirt and grime their travels had produced thus far.
This simple hiatus turned out to be the best medicine they could have received at this juncture. It completely drained the soreness and weariness from their overworked muscles, but it also provided a spiritual boost to their sagging morale. This brief hiatus gave them the best diversion they could have hoped for, other than possibly reaching Thorold. It was the type of opportunity they had all been secretly praying for.
As Kieren relaxed in his watery bed, he looked over at his two friends and realized how truly fortunate he was to have them around. Not just now, but since they had first come together. He wasn’t sure if he would have been able to endure the teasing and loneliness he had suffered before they came into his life, so he definitely appreciated everything they had done for him. This also made him wonder if he would have been able to even last this long on the mission, if the two of them hadn’t come along for support.
Memories began to flood into Kieren’s brain, as little reminders of other times he’d spent with two best friends began to surface. For a brief time, he allowed himself the luxury of reliving some of those precious moments and began by thinking about the day their unbreakable bond of brotherhood had first been made. Then, he recalled how both of his friends had defended him, on numerous occasions, against the taunts of others. Not only that, but he also remembered how they had spent much of their free time and summers together, which had led to their taking a blood oath to always be there for one another. These precious recollections made the teen immensely grateful for the many wonderful times he’d shared with the other pair, as well as being truly thankful for their friendship.
Slowly, Kieren began to let go of these thoughts and his mind began to focus on the present again. As he remembered where he was and what they had been doing, he looked around and sought out his soulmates, because he needed to reassure himself they were all right and everything was as it should be. Once he was confident that nothing was amiss, he swam over to the two elves and swiftly dunked them below the surface of the water, which caused a lengthy free-for-all to ensue.
As the boys continued to enjoy this watery workout, the adults slowly finished their bathing and began to emerge from the pool. Once on shore, they dried themselves as best they could with some of the extra garments they carried in their packs. When this had been accomplished, they slipped on some clean clothes and then covered them with their protective gear and traveling robes. Once all of this had been accomplished, they moved a short distance away from the pool and found a place where they could talk.
The warriors sat in a circle and began their discussion in very low tones. They were worried some of the subjects they might cover would be things that might cause the boys some minor apprehension, if they were to overhear. Therefore, they let the teens continue to frolic in the pool, while they talked.
The dwarfs started things off by enlightening the others as to their exact whereabouts. They had just swum in the pool below Majestic Falls, which lies at the headwaters of the Clearwater River. Doenilio added that their current position was not very far from the dwarf homeland, so they were finally back on course. They were near where they should have been, although slightly behind schedule, had they not been forced to take so many detours along the way. They were now ready to begin the final stretch before reaching Thorold.
* * * * * * * *
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