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Copyright 2015 by billwstories
Chapter 9 - Troubling News .
The elf was no longer looking at Commander Elgin, possibly due to his embarrassment over being partially recognized. While struggling with this situation, the elf finally found his tongue and the courage to answer the dwarf's question.
“Romaric,” he said simply, almost in a whisper.
Since the commander wasn’t expecting the elf to respond, it took a few seconds before he reacted to the answer. Slowly, Elgin began to recall the significance of this particular name, although at first he was temporarily unable to remember where he’d heard it or why it might be important. Eventually, it all began to come together, so he now looked at the elf with a new respect and a greater understanding.
“Yes, that’s right. Your name is Romaric,” Elgin repeated. “I first saw you at Leander with Beraut, Kieren and another young elf, although I can’t remember his name at the moment. How could I have forgotten that? You, Kieren and your other friend were very close, like three peas from the same pod. You all arrived at Thorold later, so please tell me what happened to you after you left there. How did you come to be in the mountains and then get captured by the group we found you with? I need you to explain what happened to the others?”
Romaric didn’t immediately answer the commander’s questions. Instead, he looked down at the ground and tears began to flow from the corners of his eyes, because he was still too consumed by guilt to respond to the dwarf’s queries. It took a few minutes of internal struggle and debate before he was finally able to reply.
“I betrayed Kieren,” he choked out. “He trusted me and I let him down. He’s probably dead now, because I wasn’t strong enough to take the pain. I told the soldiers what I knew and sacrificed my friends just to save myself.”
“I don’t understand,” Elgin told him. “How did you betray Kieren and how did you end up with these men? You were supposed to be on the other side of this mountain range, not in it?”
Elgin waited patently for Romaric to respond to his question, but the commander was rapidly growing frustrated that the boy wasn’t giving him the answers he desired. The dwarf was contemplating what he could do to speed up this process, when the elf’s body suddenly went limp. The dwarf tried to catch him, as Romaric slumped forward and ended up as a quivering mass on the ground. It appeared that recalling this information was just too much for the poor lad to deal with and he'd chosen to just give up instead.
The commander quickly knelt down beside the elf and cradled him in his arms. Elgin knew he had to help Romaric shake this feeling and continue to remember what had happened. He needed to convince Romaric that getting the answers to these questions was paramount, because Kieren and the others might not be dead, as he feared.
“Please, Romaric, this is vital!” the commander told him, while lifting the elf back into a sitting position. “Think! You have to remember! This information may be all that we have to use in order to make certain nothing happens to Kieren and the others. There's a chance they aren't dead, so you must tell me how you ended up in the mountains and then wound up here.”
After the commander’s words started to sink in, Romaric lifted his head slightly and studied the dwarf’s face. Once he was convinced that Elgin was being sincere and truly believed they might still be able to save his friends, Romaric replied.
“I don't really remember very much, because it's all kinda a blur. I think the dwarfs urged us to go into the mountains and then kept telling us to go higher to get away from something. Then, it started snowing and got really cold, but we kept going, because we wanted to get to the secret door that led to where Madumda lived."
"So you don't recall anything else?" Commander Elgin wanted to know. "Do you remember how you were going to get to the Devil's Horseshoe?"
"Just that we were following the dwarfs, because they felt they could lead us there," the elf answered.
“Think, Romaric. Sedain and Quintain must have mentioned something about how they were going to do this,” Elgin pleaded. "It is very important that you remember. I also need to know how you got separated from the others and then what you did to betray them.”
Romaric felt badly that he was unable to recall this information, because he really didn’t want to disappoint Commander Elgin. He had come to like the military leader, since the dwarf hadn't yelled at him about what he'd done and tried to convince him Kieren and the others might be alive. For that reason, Romaric tried very hard to think about what had happened and struggled to regain those lost memories. The elf continued to concentrate on being in the mountains and even tried to remember what had happened before then, but it refused to come to him. This really upset Romaric and caused his emotions to overpower him, yet again.
Commander Elgin was able to read the pain and sadness in Romaric’s eyes, but the dwarf didn’t know what caused it. Was it because the elf couldn’t remember what had happened or that he did remember and those memories upset him? Even though the commander wished to spare Romaric from experiencing so much anguish, he also realized his army couldn’t afford more lengthy delays. Elgin needed to understand what happened to Kieren and his protectors – and he needed this information quickly.
The dwarf commander felt the best way to accomplish this was to show the elf some empathy. With this in mind, Elgin did his best to comfort the lad and was prepared to use every gimmick he could think of to get Romaric to recall the details about why they had gone into the mountains and what had happened there. Commander Elgin was positive this information would be vital in determining the course of action he would pursue next.
Even though the commander knew the sands in the hourglass were slowly slipping away, he also understood that putting more pressure on the boy would only end up making matters worse. Therefore, he felt it would be best if he attempted to talk the elf through this crisis and emphasize the point that Romaric had done nothing wrong.
“Let’s back up a little, Romaric,” Elgin told him. “First of all, I don't believe you actually betrayed Kieren. Even if you told your captors some information about him, I think we still have an opportunity to prevent something terrible from occurring. You just need to take your time and go back to what you were doing in the mountains in the first place. I don’t remember that being part of your plans.”
"Do you really think we can still stop them from hurting Kieren?" Romaric asked, his eyes suddenly opening wide as he stared at the dwarf.
"I truly do," Commander Elgin responded.
Romaric sat quietly for a few seconds, as he reflected upon what they were doing on the mountains and what caused him to get separated from the others. He remembered coming out of the Valley of the Dead with everyone and even had a vague memory of Beraut telling them he wouldn’t be remaining with the group, because he needed to go back so he could lead the army into battle. Romaric could even see them all following Qaim after the wizard left and then watching as the warriors studied the clues they found in the grasses that indicated something else was nearby too.
“Wait! I remember more of it now. We were chased into the mountains by snow apes,” Romaric exclaimed.
As soon as he remembered this, the elf suddenly became very animated, as he continued to recount this part of his tale. While the commander listened to what Romaric had to say, it suddenly became apparent, at least to Elgin, that this had truly been a very harrowing encounter for the lad.
“After we fought off the snow apes, Sedain and Quintain said it would be best if we stayed in the mountains,” the elf continued, “They said it was the only place they knew how to fight off the snow apes by using the boulders for protection, but the snow apes didn’t follow us and stayed in the valley instead. The warriors then agreed we shouldn’t go back down to where the snow apes were, because there was a chance they might attack again and even kill some of us this time.”
“I see how you ended up in the mountains now, Romaric,” the dwarf commented. “So what happened next? How did you get separated from the others?”
“We kept going higher until we found a ledge to follow, but while we were doing that it started snowing really hard and we got trapped by a blizzard,” the elf continued. “I remember it was really cold and slippery and we even had to make camp in the mountains a few times. Eventually, we came to the place where the two mountain ranges met and I think we were looking for some kind of a bridge."
"Do you mean a natural land bridge?" Elgin followed, to clarify the issue.
"Yes, that was it," Romaric animatedly agreed. "The dwarfs had been telling us about them, but I thought it was taking too long to find one. That's when I moved off on my own to look for a way we could get to the other side. I'm a little hazy about this part, but I think I finally found one of those bridges, so I yelled for the others to follow me.
"When they began moving in my direction, I started going out on the bridge," Romaric continued. "I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but I don't think I got very far before I slipped or something.”
"So you don't remember what happened next or how you got separated from the others?" Commander Elgin pressed.
"I think I must have fallen," Romaric responded, while still trying to think back and recall exactly what had happened. "Wait, I know what happened now. After I moved away from the others, I spotted one of those bridges we'd been told about, so I raced over and started to cross it. I hadn't gone very far when I heard a cracking sound and realized the bridge was beginning to break apart. I tried to turn around get off of it, but I guess I wasn't fast enough, because it crumbled and I fell...” Romaric's voice trailed off after saying this.
Commander Elgin had to struggle to keep from asking Romaric why he hadn't taken time to use appropriate precautions first, before trying to cross the span, but he didn't say anything. He felt doing that might provoke the elf into mentally withdrawing again. Instead, the dwarf decided to give the lad a few minutes more to recall what happened after that. It seemed as if they had been sitting in silence for quite a few minutes and this caused the commander to start getting antsy again, so he attempted to prod the elf a little.
"So you remember falling and ending up farther down on the slope?" Elgin wondered, as he tried to coax Romaric to recall even more. "Do you remember what happened after that?"
Romaric didn't immediately respond, so Commander Elgin was just about to ask the elf another question when the lad suddenly started speaking again.
“I think I heard Kieren scream my name when it happened. I bet he must have been worried about me,” Romaric stated, as his face appeared to light up slightly. “I must have landed in a pile of snow and that's probably what saved me. I bet I would have died if there hadn’t been a lot of snow there to cushion my fall, because I would have landed on the rocks and hard ground instead.” Romaric paused briefly as he thought about this.
“I also sorta remember seeing Garreth looking down at me from above," Romaric continued a few seconds later. “I think he was probably trying to climb down to help me, just before it felt like the ground started moving and everything began to spin. I’m not sure what happened after that, but I kinda remember feeling like I was falling again and then everything went blank. That must have been what happened, but I can't remember anything after that. I guess I probably either passed out or was knocked unconscious at that point.”
“So it was Kieren screaming your name that alerted the patrol to go looking for you,” Elgin mumbled, as he let his attention drift away from the elf. When he turned back a few seconds later, he noted the confused expression on Romaric's face, so he decided to explain. “The prisoner I interrogated said they had heard a scream and went out to investigate. I now take it that they must have heard Kieren calling out your name and it was most likely what saved your life.
“You obviously survived the initial fall,” Commander Elgin continued, “but then you got swept away in the avalanche that followed and I suspect you were knocked out as you tumbled down the slope. You probably would have died of exposure or even suffocated if that scouting party hadn’t found you. The prisoner said you were unconscious, nearly frozen and partially buried in the snow when they found you, so they dug you out and wrapped you in blankets. He told me they thawed you out and gradually brought you back to life after that, although they still didn't expect you to survive. None of this would have happened though, if they hadn’t heard Kieren scream out your name.”
“Oh great!” Romaric exclaimed, suddenly understanding the implication of the commander’s last statement. “You’re telling me that Kieren saved my life by yelling my name, just so I could tell them what I knew and end up costing him his life? No, that’s not right! He cared about me and tried to help, but then I went and told the soldiers what Kieren and the others were doing, just to keep them from hurting me more. I should have died while trying to protect him. I shouldn’t have betrayed the others as easily as I did. If I were stronger, they’d still be alive.”
At this point Romaric broke down completely and began to cry hysterically. He continually repeated phrases like, "It’s all my fault" and "I killed them," as he tried to cope with what he’d done. Commander Elgin let him have a few minutes to purge these emotions, and then he started speaking to Romaric again.
“I told you there's a chance they might not be dead, so why do you keep insisting you killed them?” Elgin inquired.
“I… I just… know that's what happened,” Romaric sobbed.
“How do you know this?” the commander pressed. “Is there something you haven't told me?” Romaric looked up at the commander, with tears still streaming down his cheeks and his chest heaving.
“There is,” he whispered, in between sobs. “When I first came to after they rescued me, I… I found myself with those soldiers. At first they seemed really nice and just asked me questions about who I was and how I was feeling. I told them a little about what happened, but then they kept pressing me for more details. They wanted to know what I was doing in that area and if there were others. That’s when I realized they weren’t just worried about me and were more concerned about who else was with me.” Romaric paused briefly at this point, as he tried to remember more about what happened next.
“I guess that’s when I started to understand they were probably working for Madumda,” Romaric confessed. “They kept asking what we were doing in the mountains and where the others might be now. Once I realized what they were really after, I didn’t tell them anything else and just ignored their questions. No matter what they did to get me to talk, I wouldn’t tell them anything else.” Commander Elgin then gave the elf a nod of understanding.
“I could see they weren’t very happy that I was keeping quiet, but they didn’t do much about it at first,” Romaric continued. “They just kept saying they were going to start doing stuff to me if I didn't tell them what they wanted to know, but I didn't really believe them. When they realized I wasn’t going to cooperate, they began to threaten me again, but this time they told me some of the things they were planning to do. They said I could either tell them on my own or they'd do those really awful things to me until I gave them the information, but I still didn’t give in. I really thought they were only bluffing, but I soon learned I was wrong about that.” After saying this, a shudder swept through Romaric’s torso, as he recalled what happened next.
“The soldier that rescued me became furious when I wouldn’t tell him anything else, so they started doing all kinds of horrible things to me. At first I thought they were just going to fake doing what they had threatened and just make me think they were planning to hurt me, but…” Romaric’s voice trailed off again.
When Commander Elgin saw how those recollections were affecting the youngster, he put his arm around Romaric to comfort him. Although the dwarf could only guess about what the mercenaries had done to this poor lad, he knew none of it was good. After a couple of minutes of sitting like this, the elf eventually started speaking again.
“At first, it wasn’t too bad, because they only punched and kicked me,” he confirmed. “When that didn’t work and I still wouldn’t answer more of their questions, then they started twisting my arms and legs. Even though it hurt, I still didn’t tell them what they wanted to know and that’s when they began to get really angry.” Another tremor coursed through the elf’s frame, as he started to recall what happened next.
“Even though they had threatened to do more if I still didn’t tell them what they wanted to know,” Romaric stated, “I really didn’t think they’d go through with their threats and still thought they were only bluffing. I guess I must be really dumb, because I didn’t believe people could do such awful and cruel things to another person. Boy was I wrong, because that was when they started to hurt me really bad. The things they did next caused more pain than I ever thought possible.” Romaric’s body was not only trembling at this point, but the tears were streaming down his face like two miniature waterfalls.
“What did they do to you?” Elgin gasped.
Romaric took a few seconds to control his emotions and reflect upon everything he had gone through before he answered. As those memories cascaded through his mind, his tears started to flow even harder and he involuntarily flinched each time a new recollection came to mind. After a minute or two of these painful reflections, he finally continued his tale.
“The leader of the group had four of the others hold on to my arms and legs, while he and another soldier did all kinds of horrible things to my body. The other soldier was on my left side and he started using his knife to pry my fingernails off.” Romaric held up his left hand, so the commander could see he was telling the truth.
“The pain was awful,” the elf stated next. “I didn’t know anything could ever hurt that much, but I still didn’t tell them anything. I did my best to keep from thinking about what they were doing to me and struggled really hard to block out the pain. I did my best to think only of Kieren and the others, because I knew it was really important for them to complete their mission. I didn’t want to say anything that would prevent them from doing that, so I did my best not to give in.” The tears were gradually starting to flow down Romaric’s cheeks more slowly, as he once again picked up where he’d left off.
“The problem was, the longer I refused to cooperate, the more it seemed to upset their leader. It was also when he began to get even meaner, because he started to do things to me too. He had stayed on my right side and kept asking me questions, as the other guy worked on my hand. When I still wouldn’t answer his questions and only told him I didn’t know anything else, he took out his knife and started using it on me too. After he had the others remove my shirts, he slowly began to cut a long, thin strip of skin from my chest. As he was doing this, he kept telling me he’d stop if I told him what he wanted to know.”
As he said this, Romaric shed his blankets and pulled up the shirt the dwarf had given him, along with the ones he had been wearing when he first arrived. Once he had finished doing this, he revealed not only one fairly fresh scar, but there were also two others identical to it. They were each about a foot long and it was also quite apparent those cuts had received no treatment afterward. Romaric must have hidden their existence from the soldier that had been taking care of him or the trooper would have had his injuries tended to.
Seeing this, Elgin immediately called out for someone to fetch medical assistance for the lad. He wanted the wounds cleaned and covered, even though he feared an infection might have already set in. Commander Elgin now looked at the elf with a newfound respect and admiration. This youngster had suffered greatly at the hands of the Dark Lord’s brigands, which only proved how hard he had tried to resist their efforts.
“The pain must have been unbearable,” Elgin commiserated. “I’ve seen seasoned warriors crumble under far less torture than that,” he added, reassuringly.
“But that’s just it,” Romaric responded. “I didn’t handle it and I crumbled too. I gave in and told them everything they wanted to know.”
At this point the young elf broke down again and another dam burst, as the tears began streaming down his cheeks once more. Romaric’s chest rose and fell spasmodically, due to his heavy sobbing, as the tears cascaded down his cheeks. Instinctively, the commander pulled Romaric against his chest and held him there, in an effort to comfort the distraught young elf.
“When they finished doing that stuff to me, I was in so much pain that I would have done almost anything to get them to stop,” the lad confessed in between sobs. It was also quite apparent that he was embarrassed by his actions. “I told them everything, just so they wouldn’t do anything more to me. I told them who I was and what I was doing there. I also let them know I was part of a group that was trying to enter Treblanc through a secret rear door, so we could find the Sword of Kings.
“As soon as their leader heard this,” Romaric choked out, while looking extremely guilty about what he'd done, “the leader immediately sent a messenger to Treblanc to warn Madumda about this threat. It meant the Dark Lord had time to set a trap for them before they entered the tunnels. I betrayed my friends and they’re probably all dead now just because of me. It’s all my fault. I killed them just as surely as if I'd plunged a sword into each of their hearts.”
Romaric began to sob again, so Elgin gave him a few minutes to purge his emotions and release some of his guilt first. When the dwarf thought the youngster had sufficient time to regain his composure, he spoke to him again.
“Maybe that didn’t happen, my young friend,” the commander told the distraught young elf. “Perchance my soldiers killed the messenger they sent to Treblanc when they killed the others from this group. It is possible he was never able to get that message to his master.”
“Do you really think so?” Romaric asked, hopefully. “I mean it was before noon yesterday when the messenger left. Do you really think your soldiers might have killed him?”
Commander Elgin immediately picked up on the significance of the elf’s comment, which caused him to question his own optimism. The commander suddenly found it difficult to look directly into Romaric’s eyes, because he didn’t want to share his latest revelation with the elf. It was because he understood how this information would probably affect Romaric that Elgin let his gaze drop, just before he prepared to respond.
“If the messenger left before today,” he conceded, “then I doubt my troopers would have run across him. We didn’t get to this area until a few hours ago, so he was probably already far away from here by the time we arrived. Just don’t despair. There are many other dangers between here and Treblanc, especially for a man traveling alone. There’s still a chance the messenger might have befallen some other fate and the knowledge you struggled so bravely to keep might not have made it to Treblanc at all.”
“But if Kieren is dead,” Romaric countered in a shaky voice, “then… then I’m the one who… who’s responsible. If that’s what happened, then I… I will never be able to forgive myself for betraying him.”
“Romaric, you can’t think like that,” Elgin chided him. “You have to remain hopeful. The prophecy says Kieren will succeed and everyone I know or have spoken with truly believes that, so I’m positive Kieren is fine and will do what needs to be done. If I didn’t sincerely trust that to be so, then there would be no point for any of us to continue what we are doing. One of the primary goals of this war is to give Kieren time to complete his mission, so that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Did you tell them about Kieren’s ancestry?”
“No!” Romaric nearly screamed. “I didn’t tell them Kieren was the heir to Ethelbert and I didn’t tell them how many were with him either. I just told them that I was with a couple of my friends and we were planning to sneak into Treblanc so we could steal the Sword of Kings.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” the commander confirmed. “It’s very important and will definitely work in our favor if no one knows about Kieren’s ancestry. Not only that, but if they believe there's only a handful of people involved, especially if they think it's only you and a few of your friends who are attempting to do this, then the Dark Lord might not even take it as a serious threat. After hearing how young you are, he may just attribute it as a childish fantasy about saving the kingdom and then not be too alarmed about it. Do you happen to have any idea where Kieren might be now?”
“I have no way of knowing that,” Romaric confirmed. “I don’t even know how close we were to finding the door, be-before my accident.”
“Well you did all you could to protect Kieren,” the commander confirmed. “You did better than many others would have done under the circumstances and you held out much longer than anyone could have hoped. You did a great job keeping your captors from learning the most important information, so I’m certain that by doing this you have kept the situation from becoming as dire as it otherwise might have been.”
At that moment, the medic arrived, so Elgin quickly instructed him what needed to be done. The healer immediately went to work and began examining each of the elf’s wounds, so he could determine how to best treat them. The commander quickly decided this was an ideal time to say his goodbye to Romaric, so he could give the field medic the space he needed to do his job.
“I’ll leave you for the time being, while this miracle worker tends to your wounds,” he told Romaric. “You can tell me whatever else you might recall when I rejoin you a little later. For now, however, it is far more important that your wounds get cleaned and treated, while I tend to other duties.” Commander Elgin was going to leave at this point, but then he quickly decided to say something else.
“Romaric, you mustn’t allow yourself to feel badly about what happened back there. What you endured proves to me that you are very brave and did the best you could under unbearable circumstances. I'd be willing to bet that most of my troopers would have cracked long before you did and possibly even told their captors the rest of the information as well. I’m positive no one is going to blame you for whatever happens and I doubt this will turn out as badly as your fear.” Hearing the commander say this actually made Romaric start to feel a little better.
“Once the healer has finished with you,” Elgin continued, “I want you to get some rest, so you'll start to regain your strength. If you should discover you need something else, just tell the guard and he’ll take care of it for you. I shall see you again in due time. Until then, be at peace with yourself.”
The young elf looked up shyly at his benefactor, while the final few tears crept down his cheeks. Romaric was silently praying the commander’s assessment was correct, but he was also grateful for Elgin’s low key and sympathetic approach to his dilemma. Although he wasn’t totally free of his feelings of guilt, Romaric sincerely appreciated the officer’s soothing demeanor, because it had helped him gain a slightly more optimistic perspective about everything that had transpired. He no longer believed Kieren and the others might already be dead and even began to think they were still alive. However, his thoughts were interrupted when the dwarf practitioner advised him to lie down and brace for a little discomfort.
When he heard this, Romaric immediately tried to focus on more pleasant thoughts, so he could block out the sting he imagined was going to follow. The corpsman then took a bottle of a popular dwarf alcoholic beverage and slowly poured it over the long open wounds on his chest, as a way of treating them for infection. The searing pain caused when the alcohol in the beverage hit the wounds was intense and made it impossible for Romaric to ignore it for very long. Involuntarily, he began to writhe and scream out from the over-stimulation of his nerve endings. After everything else that he had previously endured, this new overload of sensations caused him to reach his limit. Mercifully, he passed out and was no longer aware of the throbbing and burning sensations coursing through his chest.
The dwarf-healer had been prepared, just in case this happened and waited until the lad was no longer conscious before he continued. Once the elf had passed out, the healer finished tending and dressing the youngster’s injuries, including his hand. Once he had completed this task, the medic asked the guard to help him move the boy nearer to the fire, where he would be able to rest more comfortably. After moving the lad on the blanket he'd been lying on, they covered his body with a couple more of those items, before the healer left. Then, the guard watched over the elf as he slept.
* * * * * * * *
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