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Copyright 2015 by billwstories
Chapter 4 - An Accident in the Dark.
“Do you really think it's safe for us to sleep here?” Garreth wondered aloud.
“I imagine spending the night here is safer than anywhere else within these tunnels,” Quintain responded, while eyeing Garreth’s reaction.
Even though Quintain's comment should have answered the teen’s question, Garreth wasn't completely satisfied with the dwarf's answer.
“How safe can it be to spend the night here?” Garreth added. “Aren’t we in the Dark Lord’s dungeons?”
“We’re not in the dungeons and merely in the corridors leading to his residence,” Alairic responded. “Since we're not actually in the Dark Lord's fortress, this location is probably as safe or safer than anyplace else we might find. I suggest you look at it this way and think about what we already know. We are certain there’s nothing behind us, because we didn't run into anyone or see anything else as we traveled here. We also saw that none of the traps had been sprung, there were no side passages leading from this corridor and there was no place for anyone to hide. If by chance there are others in front of us, then they will have just as much trouble getting to our location, as we'd have getting to them. Even if someone tries to bridge the chasm to reach us, we would most likely hear them making the attempt and then have plenty of time to react.”
The others readily concurred with the elf's logic, even though they still insisted posting a guard, just to be safe. They also agreed to an additional condition, which was that they move about thirty meters back from the gaping hole. This was to reduce the risk that someone might accidentally stumble or roll into the void in the dark. It would also give the companions an additional buffer, just in case something else were to happen.
As quickly as they could, each of the companions unpacked his bedroll and prepared to settle in. Everyone was looking forward to finally getting some rest, even if it was going to be on a hard, rocky surface. Once they had arranged their sleeping gear and agreed upon a rotation for guard duty, they grabbed a quick bite to eat next before lying down.
While they were eating, Kieren sensed that Garreth was still apprehensive about spending the night in the tunnel. Even though the warriors had tried to reassure his friend, it obviously hadn't helped. Noting this, Kieren wanted to do something more to distract Garreth from his concerns and thought it might help if he came up with a diversion. Kieren just needed to think of something to keep Garreth’s mind from focusing on even darker thoughts. It didn’t take long for him to formulate a crude plan, which he then put into action.
“Did you realize that we’re nearly done with this mission and it will soon be over?” he began. “It shouldn't take much longer before we reach Treblanc and then all we'll have left to do is find the sword. Once we have it, I can use it to confront Madumda and then this will all be behind us. That means in a few days we will be on our way home to be with our families again.”
This comment brought a slight grin to Garreth’s face, so Kieren decided to continue.
“It’s been a very long time since I have seen my parents, so I’m looking forward to being with them again. I have so much I want to say to my mother and father, especially since I was so upset with them when I left. There are many other things I want to do when I get back as well, so I can hardly wait until we no longer have to worry about all of this.”
“It’s not going to be the same without Romaric,” Garreth replied, as his face suddenly cloaked in sadness again. “What are we going to tell his parents?”
This discussion had definitely taken an unexpected turn and Kieren didn’t like where it was heading. He quickly thought about how he was going to respond to Garreth and decided it might be best to sidestep the issue, rather than confront it.
“We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” he told Garreth, “but we’ll still enjoy each other’s company.”
“Will we?” Garreth asked, but now he was almost in tears. “Or will we think of Romaric every time we see each other?”
Kieren suddenly felt as if he had been backed into a corner by Garreth’s current statement, so he hurriedly formulated how he was going to respond.
“We might for a while,” he confessed, “but eventually we’ll be able to put it behind us…”
Kieren wasn’t even able to finish his comment, because Garreth jumped to his feet and stood menacingly in front of him, as he began to shout.
“I won’t ever forget him!” he screamed. “Not ever. I don’t care if it’s a hundred years from now, because I will never forget about Romaric!”
Although Kieren was somewhat dumbfounded by his friend’s reaction, he hurriedly tried to think of the best way to respond. While he was doing this, the others turned around to see what Garreth’s outburst had been about. The warriors were all staring in their direction, but some were also using hand signals to let the pair know they had to keep the noise down. A couple of their companions even got up and moved toward them, so they could ask the boys to lower their voices. As they did this, the warriors explained that they were concerned there might be guards stationed somewhere farther down the tunnel. If there were, they certainly didn’t want to alert the sentries about their presence here.
Kieren nodded in response to the warning, to let the warriors know he understood. Garreth, however, merely stood there, stone-faced, and didn’t make any acknowledgement that he was willing to comply. After the warriors moved away, Kieren started to speak to Garreth again, but he did it in a very hushed tone.
“I don’t want you to ever forget about Romaric, because I know I never will,” Kieren agreed. As he said this, he also stood up, so he could place an arm around Garreth’s shoulder, as a way to console him. “That’s not what I was trying to say. I just meant the pain of losing him wouldn’t hurt quite as badly as the years pass. I will always remember and love Romaric until the day I die and I know you will too.”
At this point, Kieren wrapped his other arm around Garreth too, so he could pull his friend tightly against his own body. This placed the shorter boy’s head pressed against Kieren's chest. Garreth was sobbing freely now, since he had once again been forced to deal with the pain of Romaric’s loss.
The others continued to watch the teens closely and hadn’t let their attention drift away from them after Garreth’s outburst. Now that the boys had lowered their voices, however, the warriors decided it might be best to let the pair continue to work this out on their own. As an added precaution though, their protectors did make another quick scan of the section of the tunnel on the other side of the gap. They did it just in case Garreth’s forceful reaction had attracted any unwanted attention. As soon as they determined nothing had resulted due to this recent flare-up, the warriors began to relax again.
After Garreth had sufficiently calmed down, Kieren guided him over to his sleeping area and helped him get under the blankets. Just as soon as his friend had settled in, Kieren laid beside him and remained there until he was sure Garreth had fallen asleep. This took quite a few minutes before it happened, so Kieren spent the time reflecting upon how poorly his diversionary tactic had worked out. None of it had gone as he’d hoped, except for the fact that he'd been able to distract Garreth from worrying about where they currently were.
After he was convinced his friend was deep in slumber, Kieren looked around to see how the rest of the group was holding up. As he was doing this, Kieren became aware of another potential problem. When he spotted Qaim, Kieren could tell by the aignx's body posture that something was troubling him as well. Kieren had no idea what it might be, but felt he should try to find out what was going on in Qaim’s mind. After thinking about how he should do this, Kieren concluded it would be best to confront the aignx directly.
“What’s wrong, Qaim? You look sad,” Kieren began. The sound of Kieren's voice caused their guide to turn in his direction.
Even with Qaim looking at him, it didn’t help Kieren very much, because he couldn’t read the aignx’s facial expression. He still didn’t have a clue about what their guide was thinking, although Qaim’s posture indicated something wasn’t quite right. After many seconds of silence, Qaim finally responded.
“What happen to Qaim after?” their furry guide asked directly.
“You mean after we find the sword and get rid of Madumda?” Kieren countered, while trying to make certain he understood what the aignx meant.
“Yes,” Qaim answered, simply.
“You’ll be able to do whatever you want and go wherever you please,” Kieren answered.
The young man thought this would bring some sense of comfort to Qaim, so he was surprised to see the aignx’s body stiffen, as he prepared to reply.
“Qaim have no place to go,” the aignx responded, in a very sorrowful voice. "Qaim only know the woods where beasties live."
Immediately, Kieren wondered how he could have been so dumb to not realize this. He should have been able to see this coming, because they went through a similar discussion when they first left Briarwood. Why hadn’t he sensed this and understood what was causing the aignx’s uneasiness? Even though Kieren had previously offered to take care of Qaim, it seemed as if the aignx had either forgotten or misunderstood what was discussed back then. Maybe Qaim thought his promise only had to do with their time at Thorold.
Kieren also realized that Qaim’s reaction was most likely in response to overhearing his conversation with Garreth about returning home. What they'd talked about had apparently caused the aignx to think about his own situation and question what he was going to do when this mission was completed. Although Kieren had offered to let the aignx live with him, he now doubted that Qaim either remembered his promise or truly understood what it meant. Thinking about this, Kieren could hardly imagine what it must be like to have no place to go or no one to return to, so it was little wonder Qaim was depressed.
“Don’t worry, my friend,” Kieren assured him. “Like I told you after you led us out of Briarwood, I will make sure you have a safe place to live after this is over. You can live with me, so you will never have to be alone ever again, unless that’s what you want. You have done so much for us that I would be happy to take you home with me, so you won’t have to go back to live with the beasties in Briarwood. I will make sure that all your needs are provided for.”
“You will take care of Qaim?” the aignx asked, with a touch of wonder in his voice.
“Yes, for as long as you live. I promise,” Kieren confirmed, while reinforcing his answer by sporting a huge grin.
“Young master very kind. Qaim like young master. Qaim thank you. Qaim not forget.”
“I’m happy to do it. It will be my way of repaying you for all you have done for us,” Kieren responded, while still smiling broadly. “You don’t have to worry any longer, for I shall take care of everything when the time comes, but now we should get some rest. Why don’t you sleep over here, next to me? You can share my blankets, if you’d like.”
Kieren couldn’t tell if his guide smiled or made any facial acknowledgement concerning his offer, although he followed Kieren over to his bedding. Once Kieren slipped under the blankets, Qaim curled up on top of the excess portion and got comfortable. For the remainder of the evening, the aignx stayed on one side of Kieren, while Garreth slept on the other.
The night proved uneventful and ended when the final guard went around and roused every member of the party from their slumber. Not everyone rose rapidly though and some even tried to catch a few extra z’s before they had to get up, but eventually each one shook himself back to life and began the new day.
At this point, Kieren wondered what time it was, since there was no way to tell the hour where they were. The guards had merely relied on their senses to judge the passage of time, in an attempt to figure out when their duty ended. This was also true when it came to the last person on watch calculating when it was time to wake everyone else up. This led to Kieren to his next series of questions, as he wondered how long they had been within the tunnels already, how much farther they had to go to get to the main part of the fortress and how long that would take. Those queries went unasked, however, at least for now.
The dwarfs, unlike the others, seemed suddenly energized by being underground again. They appeared to be filled with a renewed sense of purpose, as well as experiencing a newfound urgency to solve their current dilemma. Once they were done eating and packing, they went to see if they could find a way to solve their current problem.
After the others hurried through their morning preparations, they quickly packed up their belongings and then watched the dwarfs in awe. They were totally amazed by both the dwarf's enthusiasm and the speed with which the miniature warriors were currently moving about. They stayed back out of the way, as Sedain and Quintain examined the gaping hole once again.
The dwarfs held their torches out over the void, in an effort to see if they might spot something they had missed the previous evening. To their surprise, they discovered a seemingly minor oversight that might prove useful and quickly put their heads together, so they could discuss the possibilities it might afford them. Once they'd talked it over, the dwarfs came up with a plan of action and then went back to explain the idea to their friends.
“Although we can’t believe we overlooked this detail earlier, we have discovered there is a very narrow ledge that extends along the outer edge of both sides of the chasm,” Quintain explained. “It juts out from the wall and begins where the floor fell away, and although it isn't wide enough for us to use as a walkway, my brother and I believe it will still prove useful. It should provide enough of a foothold that we can use it to help make our way to the other side. I will go first and chisel handholds into the wall, so the rest of you will have something to grab onto when you follow. The areas will help you steady yourself and assist you in maintaining your balance as you cross the expanse, which we'll do one at a time. We will also take as many precautions as we can to protect each other while we complete this process.”
When Quintain finished speaking, he then secured two different ropes around his waist. These were the same ropes they'd used to cross the land bridge and during their failed attempt to rescue Romaric. Once he had fastened them about his body, he told the others to grab a hold of the opposite ends. He wanted them to be ready to keep him from falling to the bottom of the pit, in the event he should lose his balance as he attempted to chisel the handholds into the rocky wall. Slowly, he moved out along the ledge and felt his way as he went, while the others gave him just enough slack to keep going.
Every couple of feet, Quintain would stop and chip out another place they could use as they moved across the gap. Then he'd use it to steady himself, as he reached out to hollow out the next area. Although he was making a considerable disturbance while doing this, it couldn't be avoided. They just had to hope there was no one close enough to their position to overhear the racket.
After many minutes of this arduous labor, as well as a few frightening moments when the dwarf nearly fell, Quintain finally made it to the other side. Once he was on the rocky pathway again, he quickly untied the ropes from around his waist and let the others pull them back, so they could secure the lifelines to the next traveler.
Sedain went after his brother and was then followed by Hadwin. Everyone felt those two had the most experience with this type of activity and it would give the rest of them a chance to study their movements first, before they had to cross. The remainder of the group felt observing this pair would give them a better idea about what they would be expected to do when their turn came.
Hadwin found the task more difficult than either dwarf, but it had nothing to do with his ability. The Nardinian's problem was primarily due to his larger size, which placed him at a severe disadvantage for a couple of reasons. First, only his toes and part of the balls of his feet would fit on the narrow ledge, which didn’t give him much support for his bulky frame. Second, he also found the handholds to be spaced too closely together and not nearly high enough for his tastes, which only added to his problems. The combination of those two factors meant his crossing was somewhat awkward and a bit uncomfortable, but it didn't prevent him from making it to the other side.
Now that he was standing beside Sedain and Quintain, Hadwin expressed his concern that Turquinine and Rhys would most likely find the task even more difficult than he had. Hadwin even asked the dwarfs directly if they thought the two northerners would be able to make it safely across, due to those problems. In response, Sedain and Quintain advised him that Turquinine and Rhys would have to give it their best effort, since there was no alternative way to get from one side of the chasm to the other.
Once Hadwin unfastened the two ropes from about his waist, the dwarfs decided to make another change, as a partial remedy in light of Hadwin's concerns. Seeing they now had three warriors on their side of the gap, they kept the end of one of the ropes, while the others pulled the second rope back. This way, the next person to cross would be anchored from both sides, for added stability.
After thinking about who should be the next to go, they decided it should be Kieren. He actually made the crossing quite easily, which was primarily due to his youth, agility, smaller size and lighter weight - all major advantages. Once he reached the other side, the warriors discovered an additional problem. Somehow, they had to get the end of the rope they’d been holding back to those still waiting to cross.
They thought about using the arrow and string again, but it wasn’t exactly an option, since Alairic had the string and hadn’t crossed yet. Besides, they didn’t feel that would be a practical alternative here, since there was no place the arrow could anchor itself and keep the weight of the rope from dragging it into the chasm. Not only that, but they certainly didn’t want anyone chasing after the arrow as it was being dragged toward the void and then possibly lose their balance and tumble into the pit while trying to retrieve it.
After studying this problem for a while, Hadwin stated the gap was narrow enough for him to throw the rope back to the others, as long as he had something to weigh the end down. He felt the additional weight would be necessary to carry the rope across the expanse or else it would merely tumble into the void.
The dwarf's first suggestion was to find a large rock to use, but that wasn’t practical. They hadn’t seen any loose rocks during their travels thus far, unless they wanted to take the time to chip one out of the rocky wall. The dwarfs were just about ready to agree to do this, seeing they couldn't think of any other way this idea would work, when Kieren came up with another alternative.
After suddenly remembering he still carried something with him, Kieren reached into his pack and offered the others the use of his old boots. He explained they could tie the end of the rope around them and the boots should be heavy enough to carry the rope across the gap safely. Kieren felt those items would be heavy enough so they wouldn’t be dragged into the gap by the rope quite as quickly, but they could also be thrown directly at one of those on the other side to catch. The warriors found this idea acceptable, so that’s what they did. The person crossing would then carry the boots back in his pack, so they could be used again.
As soon as this had been agreed to, Hadwin hurriedly tied the rope around the footwear and then tossed it across the gap. He was successful on his first attempt, and once the others had the rope, they chose the big Mitikuan to go next. Just as Hadwin predicted, Turquinine found the crossing very difficult and there were more than a few very nervous moments as he made his way from one side to the other. At several points along the way, one foot or the other slipped off the narrow shelf, because the ledge was only wide enough for his toes to fit on it. Whenever this happened, everyone immediately gasped and held his breath, as well as tightening his grip on the rope and leaning against the wall to help steady the knight. They did this until the warrior was able to get that foot back where it was supposed to be and continued on.
When the Mitikuan's difficulties first happened, it caused the others to question if they had made a mistake by having him anchored from both sides of the breach. If he should fall, they wondered if they would be able to save him. The only option they could think of would be to lower him safely to the bottom of the pit, if the ropes were long enough to permit it. Then, he could climb up the ropes later, once they had everyone else on the same side to help. If it wasn't possible to lower him without endangering anyone else, then they would just have to let him go. If they were forced to release him, however, then they would lose both Turquinine AND the ropes they needed, which would most likely strand the others where they were too.
For this reason, everyone watched the Mitikuan as he inched his way across the expanse, while they did whatever they could to keep him from falling. When Turquinine finally made it to the other side, everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. Now, it left only Garreth, Rhys, Qaim and Alairic to follow.
Everyone decided Garreth should go next, and just like Kieren, he didn’t have any problems. They were going to have Qaim go after the elf and then Rhys, but once again Qaim’s problems with the ropes made them alter their plans.
“Damn! You’d think we’d remember about this situation by now,” Rhys cursed aloud.
Once again, Rhys wondered why none of them had foreseen this dilemma. Suddenly, he and Alairic were forced to come up with another way to get the aignx across, since they weren’t about to let him try it with no safety harness. Qaim was just too valuable for them to allow him to take such a chance.
"It wouldn't really have made a difference when we remembered about this problem," Alairic pointed out. "We might have had more here to help us figure out what to do, but we would still have had to deal with this problem."
Rhys realized Alairic was right, so he concentrated on finding a solution. After several minutes, he suddenly turned toward the elf.
“I’ve got it!” Rhys suddenly announced, since he was confident he had found the answer to their problem. “I’ll take Qaim across on my back, so he won’t have to use the ropes.”
“No! That is too risky,” Alairic responded. “You might drop him on the way over or we could end up losing both of you, if you should lose your balance.”
Rhys merely shook his head and waved his hand back and forth in front of his body, to silence the elf.
“I’ve figured out a way to protect him, but you will just have to trust that I can do this,” Rhys quickly responded. “I’ll tie the ropes around my waist and then you can help me use one of my blankets to secure Qaim to my back. That way, we can both cross and still maintain an adequate safety factor.”
Alairic thought about this proposition momentarily and weighed the pros and cons, before answering.
“It's risky, but I suppose it might work,” the elf grudgingly agreed. "I'm just wondering if it's worth the risk, because we might just end up losing both of you."
“I'll try not to let that happen, but it’s less of a risk than letting Qaim cross with no help at all,” Rhys reasoned.
“All right, we’ll do it your way then,” Alairic relented. “I’ll help you get ready.”
Qaim was about to object to their plan, since no one had asked him if he was willing to do it this way, but Rhys held up his hand to keep the aignx from speaking. By doing this, he immediately let Qaim know they weren’t about to listen to any more of his protests.
“My friend,” Rhys began, as he faced Qaim, “we have sorely misjudged you in the past, yet you have continued to prove your worth. I'm afraid we don’t have any other option, because we can’t risk you crossing without using the ropes. Please let me do this, as a way to make amends for my earlier doubts about your ability.”
The aignx thought about the Akiktite’s words for a few seconds, before he replied.
“Qaim let you carry him then,” he relented, which surprised both Rhys and Alairic. They hadn't expected the aignx to give in quite so easily, but they weren't about to complain about it either.
Since Rhys didn’t wish to give Qaim time to change his mind, he quickly bound his waist with the two ropes, before hoisting Qaim onto his back. While Qaim held himself in position, with his arms wrapped securely around the Akiktite’s neck, Alairic pulled out a blanket and used it to secure Qaim into place. The elf fastened the blanket around the aignx’s back and butt, before bringing the ends of the blanket up and pulling them under the warrior’s arms. The elf then drew the tips of the blanket behind Rhys’ neck, before tying them securely together. The pair was now ready to make their attempt.
Cautiously, Rhys stretched out one of his feet, to locate and test the ledge, before he reached out an arm and felt around for the first handhold. Once he located it, he was on his way. At one point, it looked as if the additional weight of having Qaim on his back might cause Rhys to lose his balance and topple backward into the chasm, but that didn't happen. Thanks to Alairic’s quick thinking and speedy reaction, he was able to help Rhys maintain his balance. As soon as the elf saw the Akiktite was having difficulty, Alairic pulled the rope tight and held it firmly against the wall, which steadied the warrior long enough for him to get a better hold. Although slightly shaken, Rhys kept going until both he and Qaim arrived safely on the other side.
After Hadwin tossed the rope back one final time, Alairic quickly tied both ends around his body and began his trip across. The elf was only anchored on the far side this time, seeing he was the last one to go, but it wasn't a problem. Alairic was moving along the narrow ledge quite nicely and was more than halfway across when he reached out to grasp the next handhold. After he slid his fingers into the opening and began to shift his weight in that direction, the outcropping unexpectedly broke loose. It happened because Alairic had failed to notice that this handhold was slightly different from the other ones he had used. It wasn’t one of the places Quintain had chiseled out of the rock.
This sudden loss of support, when the rocky piece broke lose, threw Alairic off balance and caused him to teeter precariously on the edge of the gaping hole. Since he was only anchored on the one side, the others couldn't steady him as they had been able to do with Turquinine and Rhys. As Alairic struggled to keep his balance and remain upright, he reached out and tried to locate something else to grab ahold of. He wasn’t successful in doing this, because he didn't have much time to find anything to grip.
As Alairic struggled to keep from falling, his free arm began to flap about in the air, so it almost appeared as if he were trying to fly back into position. The problem was, it did nothing to help his current situation. In fact, his efforts only helped to worsen his plight, because the jerking motions of his arm eventually caused his foot to slip off the ledge too. Since he had now lost the support of one arm and one leg, it propelled him backward and sent his body tumbling into the dark abyss.
Although the others were somewhat startled by this turn of events, they reacted quickly and braced themselves for what they knew was to follow. They realized they would soon have to deal with the sudden jerk that would result when the rope’s slack had been used up and Alairic's body came to a stop. In preparation, they tightened their grip on his lifeline and prepared for this to happen.
Everyone understood Alairic’s body mass and rate of descent would dictate how strong this jolt would be, and they knew it would be formidable. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that they would have to struggle to maintain their own balance and keep a hold of the rope when this happened. No matter what it took on their part though, there was one overriding thought that consumed them. It was that they were going to do their best to keep from losing Alairic too.
When the elf literally reached the end of his rope, the force of the resulting jerk nearly ripped the rope out of his friends’ hands. As they fought to maintain their grip, the friction of the rope sliding through their palms and fingers tore the skin away and made their hands feel as if they were on fire. It was far worse than what they had experienced when trying to keep from losing Garreth in the avalanche, so they wondered if they were going to be able to hold on.
The lighter members of the group also had to deal with their feet either sliding forward or slipping out from under them. This was due to the force of the elf’s weight coming to a sudden stop, but it was exacerbated by the slickness of the tunnel floor. No matter how hard they tried, it was nearly impossible for any of them to get enough traction to prevent this from happening, so their bodies continued to be dragged forward. Unfortunately, it was bringing those in the front perilously close to the brink of the gaping hole and suddenly endangering them as well.
As they desperately struggled to stop their forward momentum, while at the same time retaining their grip on the rope, one at a time they started to acknowledge that this wasn’t looking good. Some of the warriors were nearly ready to scream out an order for everyone to let go of the rope, thinking it would be better to lose one of them, rather than risk endangering more, but that never happened. Before anyone was forced to make that choice, a miracle happened.
Qaim, who up to this point hadn’t been holding onto the rope, due to his constant claims that it burned his skin, immediately recognized their frantic efforts to keep from losing Alairic. With lightning speed, the aignx pounced upon the line and wrapped his hands around it. Without any concern for his personal welfare, Qaim jerked back on the rope and provided what turned out to be the deciding effort to save their comrade.
Once the rope was finally still and the worst of the experience was over, Quintain maintained his grip on the lifeline, while inching his way closer to the edge of the chasm. He wanted to evaluate how bad the situation was. Slowly, the dwarf reached out and picked up a torch one of them had set down when he first grabbed the rope and held it out over the gap. Quintain was doing this to see if he could ascertain the elf’s condition. When he realized the torch wasn’t generating a sufficient amount of light to make this possible, he called out in a hushed voice, hoping to get a reply.
“Alairic, are you all right?” he asked, but there was no response. Concerned, he tried again, only slightly louder this time.
“Alairic, can you hear me?”
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