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Copyright 2015 by billwstories
Chapter 10 - In the Dark Lord’s Lair .
The companions were all searching to discover an explanation for how these bones had come to be in the tunnels. After thinking about it for a few minutes, Rhys was the first to offer a possible solution.
“Well, this would only be a guess on my part,” Rhys responded, “but maybe one of Madumda’s slaves were given the task of disposing of these leftovers from a meal and got lazy. That person could have stashed the bones here, thinking they wouldn’t be in the way and it would be unlikely they'd be discovered.” Everyone was considering this possibility when the Akiktite offered another idea.
“It might also be possible that these are the partial remains of various species, possibly including Qaim’s ancestors, who were killed or perished in these tunnels throughout the ages. After they were dead, a scavenger could have dragged various parts of their skeletons here, so it could nibble upon them in safety.”
“It is possible that might be the case,” Hadwin agreed, “since we cannot tell how long these bones have been here. All we know for certain is that they have not been brought here recently. They are very dry and brittle and there is absolutely no meat on them, which means they’ve most likely been here for quite some time. There are, though, some interesting gashes on them.”
“What doth thou think this means?” Turquinine asked, deeply troubled by the implications.
“Nothing, yet,” Hadwin admitted. “I just don’t have enough information to draw any conclusions, but they are not the types of marks I have seen a blade make. I suggest we keep our eyes open for further evidence about how they might have come to be here though.”
“Agreed,” Quintain confirmed, quickly offering his support. “I think that would be a wise precaution.”
“Qaim no like bones,” the aignx chimed in, since he seemed bothered by their discovery. “Qaim have bad feeling about bones.”
“I think we all do, my nervous friend,” added Sedain, “so let’s move on.”
Qaim didn’t wait for any further encouragement and began scurrying down the corridor again. As they moved forward, they began to find other tunnels jutting off of the one they were currently using, but Qaim didn’t seem to give them more than a cursory perusal. The others were concerned about what might be down these new passageways, since they thought something could possibly be hiding there. However, Qaim didn’t seem to be worried about anything of that nature.
“Qaim, maybe we should stop and investigate some of these other corridors,” Rhys suggested.
“We no want those. Just follow Qaim,” he said, without even slowing down.
“But shouldn’t we see if anyone is down them,” the Akiktite insisted. “We wouldn’t want someone sneaking up from behind later?”
“No, they empty. You follow Qaim. We no go other way,” he told them, which caused the others to reluctantly do as he said.
Following their leader, the companions began to scamper down the corridor again. However, whenever they passed another pile of bones, the others would demand Qaim pause briefly so they could take a couple of minutes to investigate this new find. Even though they hoped to discover a few more details that might assist them in learning how the bones came to be there in the first place, their efforts proved fruitless. The only thing they were able to determine was that some of these remains were obviously more recent, since the bones were still moist and not nearly as brittle as the others they had found. However, after this most recent examination, Qaim suddenly refused to budge.
“Qaim no want to go on,” he announced. “Floor wet. Make it hard for Qaim to walk. Qaim’s feet hurt.”
Almost as one, the others looked toward the ground to see what the aignx was talking about. Some of the warriors quickly knelt down, while others simply bent over, but they all ran their hands over the tunnel floor. By doing so, they were able to discover a slimy coating covering the surface of the walkway. Seeing Qaim was the only one who wasn't wearing boots, he was therefore the only one who could actually feel the muck on the soles of his feet. Dutifully, the warriors began to study the liquid, to see if they could figure out what it was.
“Does anyone have the slightest idea what this stuff is?” Quintain asked, after briefly conferring with his brother. “I have lived and worked in tunnels for many years and have never seen anything like this before.”
The rest of the contingent was unable to offer any specific suggestions either, because none of them had ever had an experience with anything similar. However, they continued to study the substance and made observations about it, while also hoping this might give them some additional insight into where it might have come from.
“It seems to be concentrated entirely in the center of the corridor,” Hadwin noted, after taking the time to check the floor, from wall to wall.
“Is it possible this is something Madumda put here to make sneaking in more difficult?” Kieren asked, in an effort to come up with a possible answer. “Maybe he put it here so intruders would step in it and then leave tracks showing where they came from and where they were going. That way when Madumda’s men saw the tracks, they would be able to follow them and catch whoever snuck in.”
“It is possible, although it doesn’t seem very likely,” Hadwin responded. “If that were the reason for this gook then I think Madumda would have had it spread from wall to wall, not just down the center of the walkway. It doesn’t make sense that he would have left a way to avoid it, if either of those reasons were his intent.”
“I see what you mean. I guess I didn’t stop to think about that,” Kieren said, while agreeing with the Nardinian’s statement and conceding his own idea was not very likely.
“Let’s just move closer to one wall or the other then,” Alairic suggested, “so we don’t lose any more time.”
The others readily agreed with his advice, but Qaim was still uncomfortable with the amount of slime that still adhered to his feet. After a few more paces, the aignx stopped again.
“Qaim’s feet hurt. Qaim want to stop. Qaim no walk more.” He stated, as he sat down and relieved the pressure on his sore soles.
Hearing the aignx’s complaint, Quintain walked over to his hairy little companion, so he could examine his feet. After doing so, he turned toward the others.
“I believe it would be best if we remained here for a while,” the dwarf suggested. “I’ll need to tend to this problem too, before the situation gets any worse. The soles of Qaim’s feet are very red and extremely raw, which I believe is a direct result of coming into contact with the slime on the floor. I would even venture to say that his feet look nearly as bad as his hands now.” The others audibly gasped after the dwarf informed them about how badly Qaim’s feet were injured.
“His soles are greatly affected, so it must be very painful for him. It’s no wonder he is finding it difficult to walk,” Quintain informed the others. “Why don’t we take a meal break, so I’ll have time to tend to the problem?”
Everyone agreed with this idea, if only for Qaim’s sake. Sedain immediately set about ripping more strips from the garment that was used earlier, so they could be applied as bandages to the aignx’s injured feet. Quintain had already dug the salve back out of his pack and was ready to start treating the aignx when Rhys came forward and interrupted what he was doing. He did it so he could hand the dwarf one of his shirts.
“Please use this to wipe the slime from Qaim’s feet first,” he told Quintain. “If that ooze is causing his problem, then you’ll need to remove it before you apply the ointment.”
Quintain thanked the warrior for his donation and then began to carefully wipe the slime from Qaim’s soles. The aignx remained motionless and allowed the dwarf to do what he thought best, much the same as a child would let a parent tend to his needs. Qaim seemed totally content to let the dwarf take care of him. Besides, he was not familiar with the methods Quintain was using to treat him, so he wouldn’t have been able to do it for himself.
“You’re lucky I brought this salve with me,” Quintain told the aignx, “because I almost didn’t pack it for this trip. It should help to relieve most of the soreness and reduce the irritation, so you should be able to continue on after taking a short break.”
“Thank you, master dwarf. Qaim like you. You make Qaim feel much better.”
“You’re welcome, my friend, and I like you too,” Quintain replied, sincerely. “Please let me know when you think you are ready to continue.”
“Qaim will,” the aignx told him. Even through all the fur, Quintain thought he could see the aignx smile.
After Quintain walked away, Garreth made his way down to where Qaim was sitting. After reaching the aignx, Garreth held something out in front of him and was attempting to hand their guide a small bundle.
“Here, these are my old boots,” Garreth told him, “but you can have them now. I put them in my pack when I was given these new ones at Leander. I thought I might need them in the future, but I see you can use them more than me. Please take them and put them on your feet. The boots will help to protect them from further harm.”
“Qaim no wear,” the aignx protested. “Qaim not put those on his feet. Qaim be all right.”
“But…” Garreth started to protest, when Quintain cut him off. The dwarf had turned back and followed the young elf to see what he was up to, so he had overheard the entire conversation between the pair.
“That was a very noble of you and it was an extremely generous offer, Garreth,” Quintain told him, “but I’m afraid the boots might do him more harm than good. You see, Qaim isn’t accustomed to using footwear and your boots would probably be an even greater source of irritation and discomfort for him than the slime. They would most likely give him blisters, as well as irritate his damaged flesh, seeing they probably aren’t his size either. I’m sure he appreciates the intent of your offer, but the balm I applied to his feet should do the trick and he will be able to continue before long.”
“Yes, Qaim thank you. You very nice to Qaim.”
“That’s okay,” Garreth told him, although he looked slightly disappointed that his offer had been rejected. “I just wanted to help.”
“You did,” Quintain advised him, “whether the boots were of use or not. You have shown great compassion and I’m sure that did more to make Qaim feel better than your boots could have ever done.” The dwarf then clasped the elf’s shoulder and winked at him, to emphasize his point.
“You should go back and finish eating now, if you haven’t done so already,” Quintain continued. “Qaim will let us know when he is ready to continue.”
Garreth did as he was told and returned to his place next to Kieren. They talked briefly about Garreth’s offer, but hardly any time had elapsed before they were told to get back on their feet. Qaim had just informed them that he was ready to go on, so they quickly started out again.
As they proceeded down the tunnel, they passed several more corridors that intersected the passageway they were following. The warriors still felt they should stop and investigate these other passages, at least briefly, and considered it might be prudent to make sure there weren’t any threats hidden down them before they went on. Qaim, however, continued to insist it wasn’t necessary. After considering how much he had already done for them and the fact that he seemed to know what he was doing, they didn’t press the issue further and continued to tag along behind him.
From that moment on, the aignx never hesitated nor deviated from his course and he wasn’t even remotely tempted to turn down any of these new passageways. Instead, he continued to lead them steadily forward.
Even though the warriors weren’t questioning the aignx’s decisions any longer, it was still causing Kieren to have some doubts. He wondered if one of those passages might have been a better route to follow than the one they were on or if one of those corridors might even be a shortcut to the fortress. After many minutes of this internal conflict, he remembered Beraut’s words again and his admonition that he should trust the aignx implicitly.
After considering what he had seen Qaim do previously and having remembered Beraut’s advice was enough to convince him that he should not worry about this further. For that reason, he continued to eagerly follow their guide forward. The small group kept moving in this fashion for many more minutes, until the aignx signaled them to stop and gather around him.
“Qaim feels there is something up ahead,” he whispered. “Qaim sense something else in tunnel too.”
“Do you have any idea what it is?” Hadwin asked, while keeping his voice hushed.
“No. Qaim not know what is there, but Qaim feel something else close by.”
“Thou must stayeth here and protect Kieren,” Turquinine announced to the others, “whilst I goeth ahead to investigate what lurketh about. Thou must remain steadfast and vigilant until I return.”
The other warriors began to object to Turquinine’s plan and advised the Mitikuan that they felt a small party should be sent to check out Qaim’s warning. However, the warrior wasn’t about to listen to their suggestion. Instead, he drew his sword and started to creep down the passageway. He was insistent about leaving everyone else behind to defend Kieren, while he went ahead, alone, to see what was lurking about. Reluctantly, the others allowed him to do this on his own, although they did take some other precautions.
The rest of the companions used this opportunity to move Kieren, Garreth and Qaim to the middle of the group, with Alairic and Sedain placed strategically behind them. The elf and dwarf were there to guard against an assault from behind, in case an attack originated from the tunnels they'd passed. Once those two had been deployed, then Rhys, Hadwin and Quintain took up positions at the front of the formation, so they would be ready to race forward and assist Turquinine or be prepared to fight any foe coming from that direction.
Eagerly, each of the companions grasped his favorite weapon in his dominant hand and prepared as if he were going into battle. They were now ready, even the teens, to confront any enemy that might suddenly appear. At this point, Garreth turned to Kieren and made a suggestion.
“You should use your robe, to keep from being seen,” he urged his friend.
“No,” Kieren objected. “I can help fight against anything that’s out there too.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Garreth shot back, less than tactfully. “Even if we are attacked and some of us should fall, you have to do everything you can to keep going. Don’t let your pride put you in danger.”
After giving Garreth a look that told his friend he hated being coddled, the young man grudgingly agreed with his friend’s advice. Cautiously, he pulled his hood over his head, so that all he would need to do to disappear would be to withdrawn his arms into the sleeves. Then, he waited to see what was going to happen next.
After Turquinine left the others, he never hesitated nor slowed his pace, until he observed a faint glow radiating from a location farther down the passageway. After spotting this, the Mitikuan cautiously crept forward until he rounded a slight bend in the tunnel. >From that point on, he slowly inched his way forward as he attempted to see what lay ahead. Using great stealth, he knelt down so his upper body was closer to the floor. Then he eased his head forward, until he could view what was there. Almost immediately, he spied a troll.
The troll was considerably larger than the Mitikuan and posed an immediate threat to their safety. He was sitting alone, in a spot where the tunnel widened out into a small chamber. Turquinine scanned the area more thoroughly, to see if there were any others with the troll, but the Mitikuan soon discovered the behemoth seemed to be alone. The knight continued to look around, while hoping to discover if there was anything else he should be aware of, before he decided on what course of action he thought he should take.
After a thorough visual investigation of the area, Turquinine ascertained the only things there besides the troll were a large club that lay beside the troll and several torches that hung on the walls and lit the area quite nicely. The brightness they generated made it difficult for Turquinine to consider sneaking up on the ogre or for the group to slip past him undetected. Not knowing what else to do at this point, the knight continued to merely observe the behemoth.
Turquinine was immediately confused by something the troll was doing. It appeared the ogre was talking to someone, but the knight couldn't see anyone else there - at least not from his current vantage point. After straining to reinspect the entire area, just in case he had missed something the first time around, the Mitikuan concluded the creature was merely talking to himself. The troll was also tossing pebbles at a small hole, located at the base of the opposite wall. It appeared this was some sort of game the troll had devised, but as he played it, he continued to mutter to himself.
Since the Mitikuan wanted to hear what the troll was saying, Turquinine stretched his body forward until he was lying prone on the tunnel floor. Then, he slowly slid forward on his belly and cautiously moved along the base of the wall. He continued this process until he had finally inched close enough to discern the ogre’s monologue.
“It’s not fair that Bilgy was told to stay down here,” the behemoth rambled. “The master could have made others come down here instead, but no, he send Bilgy. Bilgy don’t want to stay down here. Bilgy want to take Srejan out for a walk. Bilgy like to walk at night and take his pet with him.”
At this point, the troll began to mumble, which made it hard for the Mitikuan to discern what was being said. Turquinine was now only able to catch bits and pieces of what was going on, but he wanted to hear it all. Frustrated by this turn of events, the knight slid a little closer, while still trying to stay concealed in the shadows.
As he did so, the troll suddenly stood up, which caused the giant warrior to freeze in place, because Turquinine feared he had been discovered. Instinctively, he grasped the hilt of his sword tightly and prepared to jump to his feet so he could do battle, but he decided to first see what the lumbering titan’s next move was going to be. While the Mitikuan watched the threat intently, the troll merely walked over to the far wall and collected the pebbles he had thrown there previously. Once he’d picked them all up, he moved back to his seat and started his game over. At that time, he also resumed his soliloquy, without knowing or suspecting he had an unwanted audience.
“Why can’t Bilgy go above and be with the others? Master send Bilgy down here because he think Bilgy too ugly and too dumb to be up there. I not too dumb! Master not like Bilgy to take his pet out to play. We want to have fun too, but nooooo, Master make Bilgy come down here to watch the tunnels. He no care what Bilgy think. He no care how Bilgy feel. Bilgy just have to stay down here and wait.”
The troll paused momentarily in his one-sided conversation, which caused Turquinine to worry the ogre might have heard something and was now listening for verification. The Mitikuan even held his breath, so the behemoth wouldn’t be able to hear him inhale or exhale. Turquinine had just about reached the point where he wouldn’t be able to suspend his breathing any longer, when the troll started speaking again.
“Bilgy supposed to kill anyone who tries to get to his master. That Bilgy’s job,” the giant stated, although not very happily. “Bilgy stuck here, maybe for a long, long time, with only Srejan for company. Bilgy want to play with his pet. We want to play outside. It not fair. Maybe Bilgy just take his pet and go out the backdoor instead, but nooooo, Master say he can’t. They set traps on that door, so others can’t sneak in. Maybe Bilgy go there anyway and make sure. Maybe Bilgy can take pet out that way to play.”
Having made this pronouncement, the troll looked down the hallway that led to the rear door and that was when he spied the whites of the Mitikuan’s eyes. Turquinine froze and squinted, hoping the troll would think he had been mistaken, but it was too late.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” the ogre demanded, as he picked up the large wooden club that Turquinine had previously noted lying on the ground beside him. Menacingly, the troll stood up and stepped toward the knight at the same instant.
Seeing he was out of options, Turquinine leaped to his feet, lifted his sword in a defensive stance and blocked the tunnel opening. He was prepared to stand his ground and do battle with this huge threat, if need be.
* * * * * * * *
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