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Copyright 2015 by billwstories
Chapter 1 – A Sigh of Relief.
The rear entrance into Thorold loomed up in front of Kieren and his protectors, now that they had finally completed the lengthy first leg of their journey. Each of them was exhausted from everything they had endured thus far, including the few days they had been trapped inside Briarwood. Now, they were looking forward to a decent meal, a warm bath and a chance to sleep in a comfortable bed again. Before that could happen though, they would have to signal the guard on duty and seek admittance, since the gates were already closed and barred for the night.
As was customary, the entrances into the dwarven kingdom had been shut and secured at sundown, so the companions would now have to request to be allowed inside. With that goal in mind, the three dwarfs took their battleaxes and banged the butt end of the handles against the sturdy wooden doors to announce their arrival. The noise this created echoed off the mountainside and obviously must have done the same on the other side of the gate as well.
After waiting a few seconds, a small observation window in the large wooden door was flung open. This peephole was located on the right panel and at eye level for a dwarf, but each of the companions was able to see the bushy eyebrows and squinting eyes of the dwarf gatekeeper glaring at them.
“Who seeks to enter Thorold at this hour?” came a stout voice. “State your business here.”
Although they couldn’t be positive, each of them suspected the gatekeeper’s gruffness and irritated demeanor indicated he had been startled by the unexpected and loud disturbance.
“It is Doenilio, Sedain and Quintain, three dwarfs of this fair kingdom and a party of friends,” Quintain announced. “Our arrival is expected by King Brolin, so we beseech you to let us enter.”
The custodian peered through the opening at the companions again and studied them carefully. After a few seconds, his eyes twinkled, as he recognized at least one of his countrymen. Almost at the same moment, the small observation window closed and those outside were left standing quietly in the torchlight. Shortly thereafter, they heard some scraping noises, as the bars used to secure the doors were removed. Once the gate was unlocked, the excitement level of those waiting outside steadily began to rise.
Slowly, one of the huge doors began to arch outward, toward the companions, and its movement was accompanied by a creaking groan. Once the portal had opened a little farther, it exposed the watch commander, with whom they had just spoken. The three dwarfs did not wait for any further invitation and hurriedly began to pass through the opening that led into their homeland. A party of soldiers stood just inside the entrance, in case this was some sort of ruse used by outsiders in order to gain admittance.
The dwarfs then urged the others to join them, so they hurried through the gate just as soon as there was enough room to allow their passage. The guards on the other side began to relax, once they recognized their countrymen and realized this was not some sort of a deception. Once this happened, Sedain, Quintain and Doenilio began to greet those they knew, since each of them was thrilled to finally be in the dwarf kingdom again.
“Is he going to be joining you too?” the watch commander asked, while pointing toward something on the other side of the doorway. “I do not wish to leave the gate open any longer than is necessary at this late hour.”
The others were confused by his comment and turned around to see what he was referring to. That’s when they noticed Qaim was still waiting on the other side of the gate. For some reason, he hadn’t followed them inside.
“Qaim, come along and join us,” Sedain coaxed him. “We’re going to take you into my homeland now.”
Qaim remained frozen in place and seemed unwilling to move. The others continued their attempt to convince him that he needed to come inside as well, but for some reason Qaim was unwilling to cooperate. He did, however, finally respond.
“Qaim no want to go in there. Qaim no want to go down in hole in the ground.”
None of the others seemed to understand Qaim’s reluctance, but Kieren was able to empathize with the trepidations his new companion was dealing with. For this reason, the young man stepped back through the gate, so he could speak with Qaim, face-to-face.
“Qaim, everything will be fine,” Kieren told him, as soothingly as he could. He also continued to move closer to Qaim, until he was standing beside their furry little guide. “This is a very safe place and you will not be harmed.”
“Qaim no want to go in there. Qaim no like other little people. They want to hurt Qaim. Qaim no want to go inside,” was their timid guide’s immediate response. The teen could tell Qaim was truly frightened.
“I know this is not easy for you to do, but I guarantee no one is going to harm you,” Kieren replied, using as gentle a voice as he could manage while trying to reassure his new friend. “I know this is not something you are used to doing and you’ve had some bad experiences with a few dwarfs in the past, but you don't have to worry. If you stay with me, I will make certain you will be safe. I promise no harm will come to you.”
“Young master take care of Qaim,” the frightened creature asked.
When their timid little guide said this, his request sounded similar to that of a small child turning to a parent for support and comfort. Kieren was immediately and deeply touched by the trust this creature was willing to give to him, so this made him decide to take personal responsibility for watching over their new friend.
“Yes, Qaim, I will,” Kieren promised.
After he told their guide this, the young man wrapped an arm around the frightened creature’s back and gently urged him to start moving forward. The teen also realized the physical contact would help convince Qaim of his sincerity, while also allowing him to discretely nudge the creature through the gate.
“Come on,” Kieren urged. “We’re going in there now to get something to eat. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? I’m sure you must be hungry.”
“Oh yes. Qaim very hungry,” the creature admitted after he remembered about the promise of food. Suddenly, his reluctance to do as he was asked began to disappear. “Qaim go inside for munchies, but Qaim only stay with young master.”
“That will be fine,” Kieren told him, while also giving him another gentle push to keep him moving forward.
Before long, the entire party was on the other side of the opening and the gate was closed behind them. They now turned toward the watch commander, to see what was expected of them next.
“You are much later than anyone thought you would be,” the dwarf began, “and the King has been deeply concerned about your safety. He feared some misfortune had befallen you along the way, so he left word that you are to be escorted to his chambers immediately upon arrival. If you will kindly follow me, I will take you there.”
“My friend,” Doenilio addressed the gatekeeper, before he had a chance to move, “there are other needs we must all attend to first. We do not wish to be disrespectful to King Brolin, but we have been traveling for quite a long time. We are both ravenous and extremely dirty, so it would be best if we had a chance to refresh first, before we went to see our liege. Please send a messenger to inform His Majesty of our arrival and let him know we will present ourselves to him, just as soon as we have bathed, changed into fresh garments and grabbed a bite to eat.”
“Of course! You are right,” the watch commander replied. “Please forgive my lack of etiquette and hospitality, as I seem to have forgotten about your needs. I shall dispatch a messenger to advise the king of your arrival and the circumstances of the delay. I will then show you to the guest quarters and have some food prepared while you refresh yourselves. Is there anything else you desire?”
“Not at the moment. Just make certain our friends are treated well and there are no delays,” Doenilio told him. “Sedain, Quintain and I will see to our own needs and will leave you all shortly, so we can return to our homes for that purpose.”
“I shall see that everything is taken care of,” the soldier responded, while giving Doenilio a sharp nod.
The gatekeeper then turned toward one of his subordinates and barked out a short command. The guard saluted and then did a quick about-face, before he sped off down the corridor and disappeared from sight. The dwarf then turned back to the recent arrivals and bowed, as a sign of respect.
“If you would be so kind as to follow me,” the watch commander stated, “I will see to it that you are all provided with a warm bath, clean clothes and a hot meal.”
The companions nodded their approval and eagerly followed the dwarf down a corridor, eventually passing through a massive archway. When they emerged on the other side, they found themselves looking over a balcony, which was located at the head of a large, well-lit staircase. Kieren immediately began to scrutinize this new marvel from top to bottom. He soon noticed the delicate details that were carved into every inch of the banister and balusters, which kept unsuspecting travelers from falling over the edge. Kieren had almost lost sight of the intricate artistry and detailed work carved into each section, because he was completely overwhelmed by the enormity of the entire structure.
After this brief inspection, Kieren, Garreth and Romaric hurriedly glided forward and moved to the front of the group. They were determined not to let their companions’ large, bulky bodies block their line of vision. The boys wanted the best view they could possibly get of this magnificent structure and didn’t wish to take the chance that they would miss even one tiny detail, just because someone else stood in their way. The trio didn’t even wait to find out where they were going next, before they began to descend the multitude of stairs, although it was their only way forward.
Qaim followed along beside Kieren, since he didn’t wish to be parted from his young protector. In fact, it almost appeared as if he was glued to Kieren’s side. Once the three dwarfs started to move in the same direction, the others in the group simply smiled and followed along behind them.
The stairway led down into a vast opening, which seemed to serve as a large public forum. There were several streets branching from it in various directions, so it was obviously also a hub of activity. Each of these new passages was fairly well lit and meandered past rows of structures, which appeared to be either shops or a myriad of simple dwellings.
Once the teens reached this point, they came to an abrupt halt and waited for someone else to take the lead. They had no idea which passage they were to follow next and waited for one of the others to direct them. At this point, the watch commander moved from the rear of the group and took a spot in front of them. While he was doing that, Doenilio, Sedain and Quintain were bidding their fellow travelers a fond farewell.
“We beg your indulgence,” Sedain announced, “but the three of us will be going to our own homes now. We prefer to clean up there and eat with our families, but we will rejoin you once we have finished. When we do, we will then go to meet with the king.”
The others readily understood the dwarfs’ desire to see their families again, since each of them would have liked to have a similar opportunity, especially if they happened to be in their own homeland. Therefore, they enthusiastically sent the dwarfs on their way, knowing Doenilio was off to see his wife and children, while Sedain and Quintain were going to spend time with their parents and siblings. The dwarfs paused, turned and waved at the others again, before they veered down another alleyway and drifted out of sight.
The watch commander then summoned those who remained to follow him, as he led them down one of the other streets. Along the way, the group passed rows of what appeared to be a series of shops, but they also sauntered by a number of the other inhabitants of the city. Many of the residents openly stopped and gawked at the strangers, but the dwarfs weren’t being rude, merely startled. It was just that in recent years visitors were hardly ever seen in Thorold, but in this case it wasn’t only the appearance of the men and elves that had caught everyone’s attention. Qaim’s presence was even more of a curiosity than the others, since his kind had never been seen by any of them before, either inside or outside of these hallowed corridors.
This immediately created a minor problem. Qaim was already greatly unsettled just by being in the tunnels and in such close proximity to so many dwarfs whom he didn’t trust. Now, the stares of the numerous occupants only seemed to magnify his discomfort and concerns. Therefore, he began to panic and instinctively tried to hide behind Kieren. From that point on, Qaim clung to the teen for protection, like a small child taking shelter behind an adult for the same reason.
Doing this seemed to lessen Qaim's uneasiness, although it didn’t eliminate the creature's concerns completely. Qaim did, however, continue moving along with the others, since he didn’t want to lose contact with the one person he trusted the most. Qaim had spent years fearing dwarfs, and even though he had formed a sort of truce with Sedain, Quintain and Doenilio, he was still leery of those he had no previous experience with.
Although the others were coming under similar intense scrutiny, it did not bother them as much and they didn’t falter in following the watch commander. They continued to make their way down the various passageways and continued on until they came to a stop in front of a large structure. It appeared to be the dwarf equivalent of a luxurious temporary residence for dignitaries. As they passed through the doorway, they were greeted by a host of servants and before long one had been assigned to each specific traveler.
The servants immediately whisked the various guests off to separate plush suites, where they were to be taken care of. When this happened, Qaim started to protest vehemently about being separated from Kieren. This was especially true, since he was being asked to go off with a member of a race of people he did not yet know or implicitly trust. In an attempt to alleviate his friend’s fear, Kieren stroked Qaim’s fur, as he whispered soothingly in his ear.
“Qaim, they will not harm you. I promise,” the young man told him. “They will just take you to get cleaned up and then they will bring you back here to join up with me again. Would you please do this for me?”
“Qaim want to go with young master,” the creature protested, as he clung to Kieren’s arm.
“We’ll be back together shortly and nothing bad will happen to you while we are apart,” Kieren assured him. “Please go with this dwarf and let him take care of you. If you don’t do this, then we won’t get a chance to eat. The faster you cooperate and do this, the sooner we will get to where they will give us food.”
Hearing the mention of food again, Qaim immediately reacted to this news. Suddenly, the creature began thinking about the upcoming meal.
“If Qaim do this, Qaim get munchies?” he asked, temporarily forgetting about his other concerns.
“Yes, Qaim. If you go with the dwarf and get cleaned up, then we’ll be able to eat. You'll be able to have as much food as you want,” Kieren advised him. “Will you please do this for me?”
“Qaim go with little person then,” he said stoically. “You no worry about Qaim.”
The small creature then allowed himself to be led away by one of the servants and Kieren smiled as his furry shadow left his side. As he watched Qaim move off, Kieren considered what a strong incentive food seemed to be for his newest friend.
Now that Qaim was being taken care of, Kieren was led off in a different direction. He followed behind another servant and was taken to his own room. The teen took a moment to glance over his shoulder first, before he entered the chamber, to make sure Garreth and Romaric had not been left behind. He was relieved when he observed them following their own guides.
Once each of the travelers entered the room to which he had been assigned, each one immediately noticed a bath was being prepared as they entered. An array of garments was also displayed for their use on the bed, so they would have fresh clothes to wear, once they had finished bathing. Other servants were also milling about, so they could help to unpack their gear and take away their soiled garments to be laundered and mended.
When Garreth reached his suite, he immediately began to undress and didn’t realize there were female dwarfs in the mix. However, as soon as he heard the first feminine voice ask him for his dirty garments, he panicked and raced to the other side of the bed, so he could hide behind it. Slowly, and with great diligence and stealth, Garreth stripped out of his clothing, while using the bed for cover. After removing each item, he would then toss the soiled article across the bed to the waiting servant. Once she had all of his filthy garments, she left the room, much to Garreth’s relief. When he felt the coast was clear, he moved away from the bed and was finally able to make his way over to the waiting bath.
Romaric had also immediately begun to undress, just as soon as he entered his room. However, once he took note of the fact there were female dwarfs in the room with him, he suddenly grew embarrassed. He attempted to jump under the covers on his bed for some privacy, but this only earned him a harsh reprimand from one of the females trying to assist him.
“Don’t you dare get into that bed with those dirty clothes on,” she scolded, while also giving him a harsh glare.
This caused Romaric to freeze where he was, since he was not yet completely under the blankets. After making another quick decision, he grabbed a hold of the quilt and yanked it off of the bed, so he could pull it over his head. Once he had done that, he began to undress beneath its protective folds. This way, he didn’t have to worry about who else was in the room with him.
Romaric tried to remain oblivious to the protests about what he was doing, since all of the women were now scolding him, but he continued on. As soon as he removed each piece of clothing, he would toss it out from under the quilt, until he was standing completely naked beneath it. Needing a little more security, Romaric pulled the coverlet tightly around his body and allowed only his head to peek through the opening at the top. He stayed this way until the others, which meant the females, exited the room. Just as soon as they were gone, he finally felt it was safe to take his bath.
Finding himself in a similar situation, Kieren had his own dilemma to deal with. He wanted to quickly undress and hop into the bath, because he longed to enjoy its soothing embrace. However, he was too self-conscious to do it with females constantly roaming in and out of the area. Instinctively, the teen moved off to one side of the room and tried to discretely blend in with his surroundings, so he wouldn’t be noticed. He hoped this would be enough to get the dwarfs to just leave him in peace, but it did not happen as he wished. Instead, one of the females began to prod him to give her his dirty clothing. Frustrated, but also understanding she wasn’t about to leave until he did as she asked, Kieren exploded.
“I’m not getting undressed with you in my room!” he screamed at her.
The dwarf woman looked startled, but remained motionless. This caused Kieren to wonder if dwarf youngsters, and maybe even the adults, didn’t value their modesty in front of members of the opposite sex as much as the other races did.
“If you want my clothes, then wait outside in the hallway and I’ll send them out to you. I’ll have one of the boys filling the bath bring them out, once I’ve taken them off,” he indicated, while motioning toward the two youngsters hard at work carrying in buckets of water.
Reluctantly, she finally agreed and left the room, thus giving Kieren some space and a little peace of mind. Once he was sure there were no other females around, Kieren began to remove his clothing. Since his desire to soak in the bath was growing stronger with each passing second, he hurriedly shed the rest of his garments and handed them to one of the young dwarfs. He then directed the lad to take them out to the female that was waiting in the hallway.
Having shed his inhibitions, along with his clothing, Kieren went over to investigate the temperature of his bath. After swirling his hand in the water for a moment and finding it acceptable, he began to finger the sweet smelling bar of soap that lay on the small table near the tub. He lifted it to his nose and took a whiff, only to discover that its smell reminded him of the scent of the evergreen trees in the forest. This instantly brought back memories of his home in Wildoness, which temporarily distracted him. His mind, however, soon snapped out of this momentary stupor and returned to the present again.
It was the combination of the enticing fragrance of the soap and the inviting temperature of the water that eventually beckoned Kieren to slip into its warm, soothing embrace. Slowly, he stepped into the tub and gently lowered his torso downward. Once his body was submerged, Kieren let the relaxing touch of the warm water drain the weariness from his body, as well as from his mind.
He was thoroughly enjoying this leisurely activity and wished he could stay and partake of these comforting and soothing effects for a considerably longer period of time when he heard his stomach growl. This reminded him about his other needs and that Qaim would be anxiously awaiting his return. Giving in to his hunger and the desire to keep from disappointing his new friend, Kieren quickly finished his bathing and washing his hair. As he emerged from the tub, he quickly dried his body off and then moved over to look at the garments that had been laid out for him.
As he examined the clothing, Kieren noticed their style was different than the attire he was accustomed to, yet it was also atypical of the garments worn by the dwarfs. Suddenly, he realized these items appeared to be very similar to the apparel worn by the Steward of Leander, when they had met the first time. This made the young man wonder if Beraut had ordered these garments for them while they were at the castle and then had them shipped here in advance of their arrival. Kieren did not have long to ponder this thought, however, because just as he finished putting on his stockings and breeches, there was a knock at the door.
“Who’s there?” he asked, thinking it was one of the servants returning.
“It’s Beraut, Kieren. May I come in?” came the answer.
Kieren was excited to hear his mentor’s voice. In fact he was so thrilled that he raced over to the door and flung it open. He then looked up at the wizard and studied his face, as the door swung backward and slammed into the wall. He then flashed the wizard a huge grin.
“I was hoping I’d see you soon!” Kieren exclaimed, looking relieved.
“Well, it’s nice to see you too, my boy,” the wizard responded, while also sporting a broad smile. He was greatly heartened by this warm welcome. “How was your journey?”
“Most of it was awful,” Kieren admitted, as his expression quickly changed and he now looked very sad.
To the wizard’s surprise, his ward’s mood had done a complete reversal and Kieren suddenly became very quiet and withdrawn. It happened the moment Kieren thought back upon all of the things that had taken place over the past few days. This change was so drastic and unprovoked that it would have been difficult for Beraut NOT to notice. The wizard instinctively wondered what could have transpired during the journey to cause such a reaction. He sensed that something must have gone terribly wrong along the way to upset the boy this badly. Deeply concerned and remembering the visions he’d seen while trying to check in on Kieren, Beraut felt he had better get to the bottom of this and fast.
“Kieren, what is wrong?” he asked, sympathetically. "What awful things are you talking about?"
Beraut had responded this way in an effort to show Kieren how deeply worried he was, but the teen didn’t respond in quite the same fashion the wizard had expected. Instead of looking at Beraut’s face, Kieren stared downward, at his feet, and didn’t immediately give any type of response. Although troubled by this, Beraut decided not to press the issue and gave his charge time to work through his feelings. Finally, the young man looked up again, but this time he made eye contact with the wizard.
“Selvaggio was killed on the way here,” he informed Beraut, almost in a whisper.
Within seconds, Kieren began to choke up and tears started forming in his eyes. Eventually, one of those droplets broke free and streaked down his cheek, showing he was obviously very distraught about what had happened.
The wizard was stunned by this revelation; especially since the dwarf guards had reported the correct number of travelers had arrived earlier.
‘How could that be?’ Beraut wondered. ‘Was it possible someone could have miscounted such a small number?’ The wizard couldn’t understand how anyone would have made such an error.
“Please, tell me what happened,” Beraut finally stated, aloud.
Even though he wanted an answer, the wizard could see that Kieren was too overwhelmed with emotion to tell him anything more at this time. Therefore, he figured he could get the rest of the information he desired from one of the warriors later, after they all met up again. In an effort to console Kieren, Beraut put his arm around the lad’s shoulder and hoped this would help to lessen the teen’s grief, at least in some small way. The problem was, it had just the opposite effect. Kieren unexpectedly pulled away from the contact.
While Beraut was trying to figure out why the boy was behaving this way, Kieren was already well aware of the answer. He had jerked away from his mentor because he didn’t feel he deserved the wizard’s sympathy. Kieren was convinced Selvaggio would still be alive, if the knight hadn’t volunteered to protect him on this mission. Not only that, but if he had only thought about using the medallion Beraut had given him sooner, he might have been able to save his protector. He never even thought about the device until much later, when they were looking for a way to get out of the cave and escape the enemy patrol. If he had remembered it sooner, he might have been able to use it to save Selvaggio. For that reason, he felt he should be left to suffer for allowing the knight’s death to happen.
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