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Copyright 2015 by billwstories
Chapter 25 - A New Sense of Purpose.
Now that Kieren and the others were ready to start out again, it took the dwarfs about forty minutes before they located a promising formation they thought would take them into the Devil’s Horseshoe. After Sedain and Quintain conferred briefly to discuss the situation amongst themselves, they eventually agreed on how they were going to test this span. They were going to do it carefully and take all of the proper precautions first, until they were able to determine if it was actually what they were looking for. They cautiously approached the structure, which from all outward appearances didn’t seem any different than the span Romaric had ventured out on. This time, however, they were determined to do everything within their power to prevent another accident from happening that might cost another of them to lose his life.
They began by tying the ropes they carried into two longer lengths, which they secured around Quintain’s waist. The dwarfs then asked the others to hold on to these lines, which would serve as a safety measure for the one doing the testing and crossing the span. Sedain divided his companions into two fairly even groups to do this, since this would offer a greater level of security, just in case one of the ropes broke or was yanked from the grasp of those securing it. One of the groups moved several steps to the right of the span and the other several steps to the left, so they could also help to stabilized Quintain as he journeyed out onto the expanse. They would then gradually give him more slack as he made his way from one side to the other.
Once this precaution had been taken, Quintain started moving out onto the structure. After going about a quarter of the way across, Quintain stopped and used Hadwin’s pike to probe beneath the surface. He plunged the weapon forcefully into the outer covering and chipped away at the frosty layer, in an effort to discover what made up the core. When he could probe no farther, he widened the hole slightly, so he could determine if there was rock at the center or if the span was merely composed of ice and snow. Throughout the entire process, he kept the others informed of his progress.
“Once I discover what lies beneath this snowy covering,” the dwarf advised them, “we can decide if it will suit our purposes or if we will have to look for another span.”
Carefully, Quintain continued his investigation, while the others waited to see how long it would take until he was able to determine the answer to this question. It only took a few more minutes before he announced his findings.
“It is rock,” he advised them, “but next we must determine if it will support our weight. I shall perform the first tests, and if it holds up under the various things I do, then we shall proceed to the next phase.”
He cautiously moved to the center of the expanse, stopped and then began stomping his foot against the surface, to determine how sturdy it was or if it was going to give way. When nothing happened, he increased the force of the blows, before he began jumping up and down on the formation. He did this to ascertain how much weight the structure would support, so he could determine if it would also support the larger members of the group. When he was satisfied it was solid enough to hold up under the largest warrior’s weight and permit him to cross safely, the dwarf continued on to the other side. When he reached the far slope, he untied the ropes from around his waist and let the others drag them back, so they could use them to secure the next person crossing.
Rhys immediately volunteered to go next, but quickly gave way to Turquinine’s demands. The giant of a man suggested his body weight would be the truest test to see if it would support everyone else and no one could argue with his logic. However, all of the others silently prayed they would not be tested to see if they could keep the Mitikuan’s immense weight from tumbling down the mountainside if this didn’t work. With this thought still in mind, they each seemed to hold their breath as they watched their companion start out.
The large knight moved purposefully across the structure, without being reckless, until he reached the midpoint of the span. Once there, he did a couple of little hops, to see if the arch would hold up under the pressure, before continuing his journey to the other side. After what seemed to be an eternity to those securing the opposite end of the ropes, the giant knight finally reached the opposite slope. He then untied the ropes and allowed those on the other side to drag them back, so another member of the party could follow.
Alairic was the next to go, followed by Sedain, and then they decided to switch the side anchoring the crossing member. The warriors felt they now had sufficient strength on the far slope to do this, so this time they did not let the others drag the ropes back. Instead, they kept their ends and had the others use the end they still had to secure the next person to make the trip. It didn’t take long for them to decide that Kieren should be the one to make this attempt. They now had four warriors on the far side of the slope to defend him should anything happen, but they would continue to bring the others across too, thus improving the odds.
Once Kieren had the ropes securely fastened around his waist, he stepped out onto the exposed structure. He was extremely uneasy about crossing the expanse and picked his steps with great care. He knew even the slightest misstep could prove fatal and certainly didn’t want to test his companion’s reactions or strength just to save him. He was determined not to risk taking one or more of them with him if he should happen to stumble and fall, so he proceeded very cautiously.
Although he was nervous, Kieren stopped momentarily at one point so he could take a quick look around. He did this because he was hoping to find some indication that Romaric had survived, but quickly dismissed the notion when he saw how unlikely it would have been. It was just too great of a drop for someone to have lived through.
Just as he started to take his next steps and resume his journey, another thought occurred to him - the condor. What if it showed up now? How could he possibly keep from being spotted? His heart began to race, as he hurriedly scanned the sky to see if there was any indication the beast might be in the area. He even thought about using his traveling robe to become invisible, but feared doing so might panic the others and cause them to do something inappropriate.
Even if he was able to keep from being seen, the others couldn’t, at least not unless they were willing to release the safety lines and risk that he would be all right on his own. Besides, wouldn’t the condor be able to tell the ropes were attached to something and then swoop down to investigate what was there? Then again, if his companions released the ropes so they could hide, the other end of his lifeline might fall into the chasm, which would leave him to proceed the rest of the way with no safety harness, even after the condor had departed.
After thinking this over briefly, Kieren decided to scan the entire horizon more carefully; to see if he could discern if anything was there. After doing a fairly thorough search, he let out a sigh of relief, once he realized the condor was nowhere in sight. He still worried, however, that the aerial threat might suddenly appear and this thought caused him to move a little more swiftly from that point on, until he finally reached the other side.
After untying the ropes from around his waist, those greeting Kieren suddenly realized they now had a new problem – one they had failed to anticipate. Both ends of the rope were now with those who had already passed over the expanse, which meant they would have to come up with a way to get one end of each rope back across the gap to those waiting on the other slope.
As they wondered how they were going to correct this situation, Alairic suddenly came up with a solution. Without hesitation, the elf extracted a spool of heavy string from his pack and tied one end of the twine around the ends of the two ropes. He then unwound the remainder of the spool and tied the other end of the string around the shaft of one of his arrows, just past its midpoint. After this had been done, Alairic notched the arrow on his bowstring, took careful aim and fired it at a safe location on the opposite side.
Those in the other range quickly retrieved the arrow and used the string to pull the ropes to where they stood. Once they had both ends again, they tied them around the next person to cross. That adventurer then made his journey carrying the arrow and string with him, so it could be used to repeat the process. This was the procedure they would continue to follow until each remaining member of the group had been brought safely across.
Garreth was the next to go and then Hadwin followed him. The Nardinian was just starting to move across the expanse when he decided to take a moment to look around as well, so he could see if the condor might be approaching. After failing to locate the aerial threat, he began his trek again, but as he did so he stubbed his toe in the hole Quintain had dug to determine if this expanse was a land bridge. This caused the Nardinian to lose his balance and stumble forward, which prompted the others to hold their breath, as Hadwin took a couple of very erratic and wobbly steps. When he suddenly dropped down on one knee, the others released a collective gasp, because they feared he was about to slip off of the structure. He teetered precariously for a few moments, as his body continued to sway awkwardly from side to side, while the others continued to do all they could to help him as well.
Those anchoring the ropes immediately realized what was happening and hurriedly took up the slack, in an effort to keep Hadwin from falling. Everyone also kept his eyes peeled on the northern warrior and prayed he didn’t test their ability to support his weight, as they did their best to help him remain upright. After a few worrisome seconds, Hadwin finally regained his balance, but it took a few more moments for him to regain his composure and continue on. Once he felt ready, he stood up, took a deep breath and then finished crossing the expanse. Upon reaching his destination, Hadwin thanked the others profusely for helping him recover from that near fatal mistake and vowed he would find someway to make this up to them before the mission ended.
This now left only Qaim and Rhys on the far slope, which led to the discovery of yet another problem. It seemed that each of them had once again failed to remember that Qaim would not use the ropes, since he claimed they burned his skin. For that reason, Qaim frantically shied away from Rhys when he attempted to fasten the ropes around his body and adamantly refused to use them.
“Qaim no use vines. They hurt Qaim. Qaim go over to other side without vines,” the aignx protested. As he said this, he also kept his distance from the Akiktite, so Rhys wouldn’t try to force him to use them.
“Damn, it seems we forgot about this minor fact again,” Rhys responded, speaking his thoughts aloud.
Quickly, he tried to come up with another way he could take their guide safely across the expanse without using the ropes. After a minute or two of concentration, Rhys eventually came up with an idea. He knew doing this would be risky, but he couldn’t think of another option, because allowing Qaim to cross without the ropes or possibly trying to carry him would be even riskier.
While Qaim observed what the Akiktite was up to, Rhys tied the ropes around his own waist and then took Qaim by the hand. Ever so carefully, Rhys started to cross the bridge, while keeping one arm extended behind his back so he could hold onto the aignx. He kept a firm grip on Qaim’s smaller hand as the aignx followed behind him. Rhys merely hoped their guide wouldn’t make any sudden move that might cause either of them to lose his balance.
The others watched with great concern, since this was such a risky way to bring the two of them across. They realized that since Rhys didn’t have both arms to use to help him keep his balance, he could easily stumble and fall or even release his grip on the aignx’s hand at any moment. As they watched the pair’s progress, the others made certain they had a good hold on the ropes, just in case something like that were to happen.
Even though they were busy holding onto the ropes, the teens also watched in fascination as Rhys helped their guide across the expanse. They immediately began to think that Rhys looked like a parent holding his child’s hand, as he took the youngster out for a walk. Their actions in this instance were much more cautious than if they had been enjoying a leisurely stroll, but it still gave the teens the same overall impression.
The boys were totally amazed by Rhys’ paternal instincts concerning the aignx and it made Kieren think about all of the other instances when the Akiktite had taken up a similar, caring role with him. At this moment, Kieren began to see Rhys, along with each of his other protectors, in an entirely different light. He now understood that in their own way and at different times each of them had done what he could to protect him too.
This pair’s crossing was slow, but steady, and once they reached the other slope everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. The companions, however, only gave them a couple of minutes to enjoy being reunited before they decided it would be best if they set out again. There were only a couple of hours left before it would get dark and everyone desperately wanted to avoid spending another night in the elements, if possible. The dwarfs hurriedly looked around to get their bearings and then quickly determined what heading they should take. They were now one giant step closer to their goal.
From this moment forward, each of the companions seemed to move with an even greater purpose and there was a bit more urgency to their pace. Although the accumulation of snow still made the traveling difficult, they no longer seemed bothered by it. They continued to move forward and didn’t appear to mind having to lift their legs so high in order to get through the drifts, at least not as much as they had in the past.
Things were actually going quite well, until they began to realize that the sun was about to dip behind the mountaintops and the darkness would envelope them far sooner than they’d originally anticipated. Acknowledging this fact, the warriors began to debate whether it would be wiser to stop for the evening or to continue moving on. Even though they didn’t wish to spend another night out in the open, they also didn’t wish to take any foolish chances and risk an accident due to the waning light. After further consideration, the group finally concluded it would be best to make camp and spend another night in the mountains.
Hastily, they began to look for a suitable place to set up and Hadwin was the first to spot one. He discovered a fairly flat area next to a rocky wall, which they could use as a base for another campsite. Once again, they had to use the shelter he had put together previously, so they were thankful they hadn’t taken it apart. After putting it up as quickly as they could, they added the flap they had used to cover the entrance into Turquinine’s snow fortress. When the structure was up, they went inside, got comfortable and grabbed something to eat, before they decided who would take the first watch.
Each member of the party was totally exhausted as a result of the day’s activities, along with the emotional drain of losing Romaric. Since they were all extremely fatigued, they agreed it would be best if they turned in early. Once they’d settled in, it didn’t take long before their gentle snores and the sound of even breathing filled the air, except for the one on watch. It didn’t mean, however, that their slumber was entirely restful.
Kieren and Garreth’s dreams were plagued by images of losing their friend, as visions of Romaric’s final moments flooded their overactive minds. The pair recounted every painful step either of them had taken during that entire time and the scenes played over and over again throughout the evening. Unfortunately, this also helped to rekindle their sense of loss and reignited the feeling that they were somehow responsible for what had taken place.
Their dreams weren’t entirely disturbing, however, since their slumber was also interspersed with memories of other, more enjoyable, times they had shared with Romaric. Remembering those moments helped to ease their restless torment temporarily and gave them a fleeting sense of peace. Unfortunately, those few respites weren’t enough to offset the other, extremely painful, recollections they were forced to deal with. That’s why they were so grateful when they awoke the following morning and their trip down memory lane had finally come to an end.
Fortunately, the activities of the new day also helped to distract them from thinking about their nighttime visions, so they no longer had to deal with those painful memories. Once they began performing their morning rituals, the boys remained focused on what they were required to do and didn’t let their thoughts drift to other matters, at least until something else came up.
Unexpectedly, there was another change in circumstances that took precedence and commanded their attention. The moment the group was ready to resume their journey; Qaim stepped in front of the others, without uttering a word or asking permission, and assumed the lead. Of course, not everyone was pleased by this sudden turn of events.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Sedain barked out, upset by this apparent affront.
“Qaim lead you to bad wizard’s home now,” the aignx stated, without showing any emotion.
In fact, Qaim acted very surprised when the dwarfs questioned his actions. He felt he was merely doing the job the wizard had assigned to him. Wasn’t it precisely what Beraut had instructed him to do? The problem was, the aignx failed to realize that he had unintentionally ruffled the dwarfs' feathers and caused some hurt feelings by the way he'd just stepped to the forefront. He not only failed to announce his intentions, but he also hadn't taken time to ask Sedain and Quintain's permission before doing this first.
“You were supposed to have been leading us since Beraut left,” Sedain snapped, “but until now you have totally abdicated that responsibility. You’ve been no help in showing us the way and have left the job up to my brother and me to carry out. What makes you think you can suddenly lead us now?”
“Qaim not supposed to lead in other mountains,” the small creature replied. “Wizard only tell Qaim to lead you when we get here. Qaim do that now and take you to where bad wizard lives.”
Qaim obviously figured that since they were now officially in the Devil’s Horseshoe and no longer in the Citadel Mountain range that it was now his responsibility to lead them the rest of the way. Qaim also seemed to feel this explanation should be sufficient to overcome the dwarfs’ objections, so he looked around to see if the others were ready to follow him.
“I seeth thy problem with Qaim suddenly taking charge, but doth thou knoweth the way from here?” Turquinine asked Sedain, in an effort to clarify the problem and rectify the situation.
“No, not exactly,” the dwarf began, “but I’m sure Quintain and I can figure it out. We’ve done pretty well up until now.”
“None of us would disagree with that,” Alairic offered, with the intent of easing the tension as well. “If Qaim knows where to go from here though, then I think we should let him do the job Beraut enlisted him for.”
Sedain looked hurt by this pronouncement and steadfastly refused to step aside. It was apparent his ego had been bruised by the elf’s suggestion, even though Alairic had tried to avoid doing so. It was also quite obvious that the dwarf wasn’t going to relinquish his position willingly.
“Beraut did tell us to trust and follow Qaim,” Kieren added, hoping to convince Sedain without offending him further. “Even though he hasn’t been much help in the past, he does seem to know where to go now, so I think we should let him show us the way.”
Sedain folded his arms across his chest and heaved a mighty, ‘hmmmph’. This let the others know he still wasn’t convinced, but at the same time he felt the odds were becoming stacked against him. Unfortunately, it seemed Quintain held the same opinion as his brother.
“If they want Qaim to take the lead,” Quintain offered to his brother, “then let him do so. I just don’t want them to come running to us when they discover Qaim has managed to get them hopelessly lost.”
The others were stunned by Quintain’s strong stance and obvious challenge. Although they were concerned about the way this was taking place, they never thought the dwarfs would refuse to remain participating members of the group.
“Even though I generally tend to agree with the two of you on most matters,” Hadwin chimed in, “I am inclined to go along with the others this time. We each have our duties to perform, so in this instance I have to conclude the job of leading us the rest of the way belongs to Qaim. Since you aren’t sure how to get to where we need to go and Qaim seems to feel he does, I think we should give him a chance to prove his worth. I would also hope that if we somehow managed to get lost then you would be man enough, or dwarf enough, to help us out of such a predicament.”
The Nardinian’s words seemed to surprise and sting the two dwarfs even more than any of the other comments, because during many of the earlier disagreements he had sided with them. Fortunately, Sedain and Quintain were able to judge that Hadwin didn’t seem to be mocking them or making light of what they’d accomplished up to this point, so they didn’t immediately dismiss his plea. Since the Nardinian had not stated his position in a disparaging way, the dwarfs, or at least Quintain, seemed to be considering his words.
“We’re wasting time standing here debating the point,” Rhys prodded, in an attempt to get them moving again. “Let’s just find a solution concerning who should lead us and do it quickly, so we can get underway.”
There were some continued rumblings as various members started to discuss the situation with those they felt the most comfortable dealing with, but Quintain soon put an end to their deliberations.
“Let Qaim lead us then,” the dwarf announced. “My brother and I will help, as needed, but Hadwin and Rhys are correct. We each have specific tasks to perform and can’t afford to stand idly by and question this further. We have a very important mission to complete, so let’s get moving.”
The others nodded their agreement and thanked Quintain for ending the stalemate. Now that this issue had been decided, everyone urged the aignx to lead the way. The dwarfs furtively monitored Qaim’s movements though, as they silently judged his performance. They were pleasantly surprised, and even pleased, by what they observed. Grudgingly, they had to admit they were impressed with Qaim’s apparent confidence and innate ability to know which way to go.
Kieren also watched the aignx closely, but as he did so his thoughts were upon what the wizard had said about this enigmatic creature. He recalled how Beraut had first advised him about Qaim’s qualifications and then insisted he trust in the aignx’s abilities. Kieren remembered how the wizard had emphasized that Qaim would be the one who would locate the hidden entrance into Treblanc and take them safely through the passages that led up to the fortress. After thinking about the wizard’s advice, Kieren now focused almost exclusively on this mystical little figure and carefully studied every movement he made.
This was one of the few times since they had first discovered Qaim in Briarwood that the young man had intentionally paid attention to the aignx’s movements for any prolonged period of time. Before now, Kieren wasn’t entirely interested in what Qaim was up to and would only occasionally glance around to see what he was doing. He had merely come to accept the fact that the aignx was now part of the group, but he didn’t pay him any specific attention until this issue came up. After observing Qaim perform his duties these past few minutes, Kieren was suddenly beginning to think about him differently.
Kieren was increasingly fascinated as he observed their guide’s effortless movements, while also noting his uncanny sense of direction, primitive cunning and unerring instincts. Even though the teen had sometimes doubted Qaim’s potential, he now believed only the wizard could have equaled the aignx’s current display of extraordinary abilities. In fact, before much more time had elapsed, Kieren began to have nearly as much confidence in Qaim’s ability as he would have had in Beraut. At long last, Kieren finally understood why the wizard had so easily placed such great faith in this unknown commodity.
To everyone’s surprise, they were able to travel quite quickly as well, because the day was unusually uneventful and the farther down the slope they traveled the less snow they had to deal with. Even though they had been expecting the condor to turn up at any moment and stayed alert for it to suddenly appear, this never happened. Nor did they encounter any threats from the other dangers the mountains harbored. Not only that, but the weather had also improved and made their situation even more bearable. Due to the combination of these factors, they had been able to cover much more ground than they had during similar time spans on previous days. For this reason, their spirits soared higher than ever and they began looking forward to reaching the end of this long journey.
The small entourage moved enthusiastically along the slopes, because each of them understood they were now close to arriving at their destination. As they walked along, they also began to discuss whether they should stop to eat or merely continue on. They were still debating this point when Qaim unexpectedly stopped dead in his tracks, which caused some confusion. Many of the companions quickly suspected the aignx was dramatically announcing his desire to stop and eat, but that idea was dismissed when the aignx spoke.
“Qaim bring you here safely,” he announced, seemingly pleased with himself.
Everyone looked around, puzzled by his statement. All they could see was the same snow-covered landscape they had been traveling over for the past few days, although there was considerably less snow at this location.
“Brought us where, you blasted ninny?” Sedain bellowed, while appearing very agitated. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing here. I warned you he didn’t know what he was doing.”
“Qaim bring you to nasty wizard’s secret door,” the aignx responded, unfazed by the ridicule.
After Qaim said this, the others began looking around again, to see if they had missed something. Unfortunately, nothing stood out to them.
“I don’t see any door, you witless fool,” chided Sedain. “I believe you must be going daft.”
“The door is here,” their guide insisted. “Qaim know where door is. Qaim check to see if nasty wizard has set a trap on it.”
With lightning speed, the aignx’s hands darted in and out of the snow, while moving about so quickly that the others were not sure what he was up to. He continued this flurry of activity for several minutes and then just as quickly stopped. At that moment, Qaim turned toward the others and made an announcement.
“It safe. Qaim take you inside now.”
Once more, the aignx thrust his hairy hands into the pile of snow, but this time the others heard a very audible click, just before his hands stopped moving again. Qaim then began to struggle with something and was using both of his arms to pull on some unseen object. None of the others knew for sure what they should do to help, until it seemed as if a small piece of the slope began to move toward them.
Once they saw what was happening, Turquinine and Rhys reacted first. The pair immediately jumped forward and began to pull on the part of the rocky surface that seemed to be breaking away from the rest of the mountainside. The difficulty of this task was considerably greater than either of the warriors first suspected and it was due in part to the amount of snow that both rested upon this portal and also surrounded it. As they pulled on the hillside, the snow quickly packed into a pile at the base of the opening and acted like a doorstop, which made it nearly impossible to pull the door open farther.
Kieren, Garreth and the two dwarfs quickly realized what was happening and took it upon themselves to remove this hindrance out of the way. They used their hands and feet to scoop, brush and kick the accumulation of snow out of the way so the door could be opened. While they were doing this, the others positioned themselves so they could assist in pulling or pushing on the door, to widen the opening and allow them access. After a great deal of effort on everyone’s part, an archway began to appear and exposed a long abandoned tunnel hidden behind it. As they examined the opening, they noticed it was covered in a thick coating of sticky webs, which proved it had not been used recently. It also made the entrance appear very uninviting.
“This is way to bad wizard’s home,” the aignx announced. “You follow Qaim. Qaim take you inside now.”
Suddenly, their guide bolted through the opening without being bothered by the fact that the cobwebs were sticking to his furry coat as he passed through. The others hesitated before following his lead, because they weren’t sure if Qaim wanted them following him now or expected them to wait until after he’d had time to investigate the area more fully. This question was soon answered for them when their guide peered back through the opening.
“You come inside now, so Qaim can close door,” the aignx told them. “No go far. You wait for Qaim.”
The others heeded his suggestion and moved through the opening, but only far enough to actually claim they were inside. They had concluded Qaim’s warning about not going very far was made because he feared there might be booby traps situated inside, so none of them ventured any farther into the tunnel than was absolutely necessary.
Patiently, they stood and waited for their furry little leader to tell them what to do next, while they watched Turquinine and Qaim slowly pull the door shut behind them. Suddenly, they were swallowed up in total darkness, which was so consuming that they couldn’t even see the person standing next to them. This unsettled everyone, except for the dwarfs and Qaim.
This also caused them to remain immobile, like statues, hardly daring to even breathe. Eventually, their eyes began to adjust to the darkness, but they continued to remain silent, while waiting for the aignx to give them further directions. At least they had reached the tunnels that would take them into Treblanc.
The End of Book 2
Book 3, Sword of Kings: Tempered By Fate, will follow.
* * * * * * * *
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