“What were you so afraid of?” demanded Kieren, once they were all on the other side of the barrier. “What would have happened if that covering had remained open?”
“Big, ugly beastie live on this side of bushes. If beastie feel air going through the hole, it run and try to get to other side. It hurt Qaim, if Qaim not hurry, but we safe now.”
“All right, Qaim, you’ve done well so far.” Kieren praised the creature. “Now, you must show us how to get out of these woods and to the mountains beyond. It’s time we get moving again.”
After he said this, Kieren gave Qaim a little nudge, which was his way of urging their new guide to undertake the next phase of his bargain.
“Qaim can no go now, young master.”
“Why not?” Kieren demanded, flustered by his guide’s sudden reluctance. “You promised me you would. Why are you changing your mind now?”
“I warned you not to trust him,” interjected Hadwin. “He did do more than I thought he would though. At least he led us through the barrier, which is more than we could have done on our own. Shall we run him through now?”
“No! No! Qaim still take young master. It just Qaim no take you yet. Soon there be no light to see by. We stay here for the night.”
At that moment, the entire party looked skyward, almost in unison, as if some unseen puppeteer had pulled the strings that lifted their heads. They soon agreed Qaim was probably correct in his assessment and they would be forced to spend another night in this eerie woodland.
Immediately, they set about preparing to bed down for the evening, when Turquinine inquired if any of them had any food left. He was promptly told there was nothing to eat, not even any crumbs. Hearing this, Qaim let out a very audible groan, and this simple gesture expressed the feelings of the entire contingent. None of them was happy about the prospect of facing the night, and possibly the entire next day, without anything to eat.
“How you give Qaim munchies when you got no munchies?” their guide asked.
“Once you show us out of these woods, we will be able to get plenty of food for you,” Kieren advised him.
This seemed to be enough to satisfy Qaim, at least for the time being. The other members of the party were still thoroughly disheartened though, as they began to split into groups to commiserate. The three dwarfs tended to gather together, while Alairic and Turquinine sat next to one another so they could talk. Hadwin and Rhys hovered near Qaim, to make sure he didn’t try to slip away.
The three boys formed their own group and started discussing their situation again, but their conversation only seemed to raise more questions than it provided answers. Eventually, the teens decided they needed more information from the other warriors first, before they could make a determination about what their next move should be. Quietly, the trio made their way over to where Hadwin and Rhys were sitting beside Qaim. Both men looked up as the three youngsters approached, because they wondered what the boys were up to. They didn’t have to wait very long, however, before they discovered the answer to their question.
“Hadwin, have you ever been in the Faerie Forest, Mystic Forest or Arden-Woods before?” Kieren asked.
“Not in person,” he replied, while looking slightly bewildered, “but I have heard stories from others about those places. Why do you ask?”
“We thought if you had, then maybe that information would help us find a way to get out of this place,” Romaric responded. He hoped the Nardinian would be eager to share his understanding of the situation.
“It might, if I actually knew anything,” Hadwin admitted. “I have little knowledge of those places though, so I don’t see how I can help you. I am but a common soldier and have been one most of my life. I am not an educated man, nor widely traveled.”
“But you must know SOMETHING that would help,” Garreth insisted.
“I have heard others say some of the woods in Tarolia are enchanted and can do strange things,” Hadwin told him, “but I have no personal knowledge of such things.”
“If you don’t know anything,” Garreth countered, “then why did your people send you to be with Kieren, instead of someone else.”
“I was chosen for my previous exploits against the gnomes and Merropites, not for my woodland experiences or knowledge,” Hadwin responded, with a definite defensive and sarcastic tinge to his voice. “You see, I was recommended because I have been involved in many of the various conflicts my people have had with those other two groups throughout the years, so I know a little about their way of thinking. Since they are now our major enemies and Madumda’s confederates, the leaders of my city and my military superiors thought my knowledge about them may help on this mission.
“You must remember,” Hadwin continued, “we were not told the details of what we were going to be doing in advance. Without such knowledge, those in charge of running Nardin, as well as those responsible for defending the city thought my experience against those that are considered our enemies might be useful. I’m sorry if I am not well spoken, nor of superior intelligence, but my biggest strength is that I have learned the ways of those devils and I am not afraid to stand against any foe. I was hoping that would be enough to be of value on this assignment.”
“It has been so far and most likely will be in the future,” Kieren assured him, as a way of apologizing for Garreth’s unintentional criticism of his ability. “I thank you anyway for what you have told us.”
The boys and Rhys could all tell Hadwin was slightly troubled and disheartened about the lack of relevant information he could provide, even through his bluster. The boys were also mildly disappointed, but not thoroughly discouraged by the Nardinian’s inability to aid them. For that reason, the youths now turned toward the Akiktite for assistance.
“How about you, Rhys?” Kieren began. “You have traveled a lot, so have you heard anything about such places?”
“I am not as well traveled as you obviously suspect, my young friend,” the Akiktite responded, humbly.
“Didn’t I hear you say before that your father was a merchant?” Garreth wondered. “Didn’t you go places with him?”
“My adoptive father was a merchant,” Rhys agreed, “but I did not do a lot of traveling with him. You see, I was abandoned as a baby and merely taken in by him and his wife. They were quite generous to me, but I did not wish to take away from the rightful inheritance of their natural children, so I did not get involved in the family business.”
“They wouldn’t let you?” a shocked Romaric immediately wanted to know.
“I did not say that,” Rhys explained. The Akiktite was mildly surprised that the elf had immediately jumped to this conclusion after hearing his statement.
“My adoptive parents treated me as one of their own,” Rhys continued, “and even encouraged me to participate in the family trade. However, I felt that I had no legitimate claim to be part of their affairs, nor had any claim to the family’s fortune, so I left home to seek my own way. It was shortly thereafter that I decided to become a soldier.”
“How did your parents feel about that?” Kieren inquired, as he thought about how his own parents might have reacted, if he had done something similar.
“Unfortunately, they were hurt by my choice and felt I was misreading the situation,” Rhys confessed. “They tried to assure me there was more than enough money to provide for all of us, but by that time I was already determined to pursue my own future. So here I am.”
“Wow,” responded Romaric, “I can’t believe anyone would turn his back on a chance to be rich.”
“I wouldn’t say that is what I did,” Rhys told him. “If I had stayed, I would not have been rich, no matter which race’s standards you might care to use to evaluate the circumstance. I probably would have lived comfortably, but you must believe me when I say there is more to life than just the objects you can buy or possess.”
“But what about the woods?” Kieren pressed, since he was anxious to get back to their original topic. “Do you know of any information that might help?”
“I’m afraid I can add nothing that hasn’t already been discussed before,” he told them, although he looked as if he was sad about letting them down concerning this topic.
It was at that moment that Alairic came over and suggested it was time for them all to get some sleep. Grudgingly, the boys acknowledged the fact that they needed to renew their strength for the next day’s endeavors, so they went to their bedding to lie down.
None of the companions slept very well that evening, which was about the same as what they experienced the previous evening, considering their current location. Adding to their uneasiness was a combination of factors, which included the discomfort caused by hunger pangs and the uneasy feelings they had about their surroundings.
Qaim proved to be the lone exception to this rule, since he appeared to sleep very soundly. In fact, he was the only one that wasn’t drowsy or still half asleep when they prepared to get going that morning. This strange creature was energetic and upbeat from the moment he awoke, which made the others immediately begin to despise his enthusiasm and cheerful mood.
Sedain was particularly groggy and grumpy, since he had slept very lightly, so he’d be able to keep one eye on Qaim. He had done this because he still did not fully trust the creature and felt their new guide might yet betray them. For that reason, Qaim’s enthusiastic coaxing into greater haste only heightened the dwarf’s awareness that he had probably lost sleep for no reason at all. He would now suffer throughout the day for his continued mistrust of their latest companion.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” the dwarf barked back, in response to one of Qaim’s requests to hurry up and get moving.
“Little man nasty,” Qaim told Kieren. “He not nice like young master.”
“It doesn’t look as if Sedain slept very well last night,” Kieren offered, in an attempt to explain the situation to their guide.
“Why not? It very quiet last night,” Qaim responded, still confused.
“Yes, it was,” Kieren replied, “but this is YOUR home, not his. I think Sedain was still worried about other things that live here.”
“Like beasties?” Qaim asked, while jumping up excitedly, because he thought he had just answered his own question. “Little man, beasties no go around at night,” he told Sedain directly, hoping to reassure the dwarf. “You no need to watch for beasties when it dark. When you sleep, they sleep too.”
Since Sedain wasn’t quite sure why the creature was telling him this information, he became even more annoyed. This merely put him in an even worse mood.
“Yeah, yeah. I shall try to remember that, but do you have to be so dang cheery this morning?” the dwarf snarled back at Qaim.
“Cheery? What is cheery?” Qaim wondered aloud, so Kieren slowly moved closer to him.
“Cheery means happy, but it might be best if you left Sedain alone for the rest of the day,” Kieren warned. “He seems to be a bit out of sorts today, but he’ll probably be better tomorrow. In fact, I’m sure of it.”
“He unhappy, but we need to hurry,” Qaim countered.
The creature then grabbed Sedain by the arm, in a very animated fashion, and pulled the dwarf forward. This caused the others to laugh at the sight, which only caused Sedain to snort something else about the creature’s upbeat and energetic mood. The dwarf continued to halfheartedly struggle against Qaim's efforts and sought to break free of Qaim’s grasp. Then he gave up his mild resistance and grudgingly followed Qaim forward.
Again, the going was slow, but Qaim seemed to know all of the tricks necessary to solve the various perplexities of this eerie labyrinth. Unerringly, the creature led them forward, into and around the dense undergrowth. Time after time, he would guide them past barriers that, if they had been on their own, the companions would have found difficult, if not totally impossible, to navigate beyond. Qaim, however, led them forward, with hardly a minute of wasted time, and never lost focus on where they were going. The small group had just encountered and negotiated another of these obstacles when Qaim stopped, frozen with fear.
“Beastie, young master. Beastie want to hurt Qaim,” he cried, while raising his arm and pointing at something. “Please, help Qaim.”
Hearing this, the companions looked up and saw a rather large wild boar coming in their direction, moving at a trot. It was a good-sized animal and its two pearly white tusks shone out, even in this dim light, like two glimmering stars in the evening sky. Without warning, the boar’s pace suddenly quickened, as it drew nearer, and it was now close enough for them to recognize the enormous hatred in the beast’s eyes.
The animal increased its pace even more and exploded into a full charge. It had its sight set on the three dwarfs, who stood clustered together. Seeing the beast aiming for them, the dwarfs readied their battleaxes in preparation for the assault and waited to fight off the attacker. As the boar drew closer to the trio, it was able to distinguish the light gleaming off of their weapons and suddenly veered away from them. Now, it was heading directly toward Kieren.
Seeing the boar change its course, the youth braced for the expected encounter. Rigidly, he held his short sword in front of his body in both hands, when he was unexpectedly knocked sideways and unceremoniously dumped on the ground.
Although Kieren didn’t realize it at the time, Garreth had just shoved him out of harm’s way, in an attempt to protect his friend from this new threat. As Kieren struggled to regain his balance, which he did as quickly as he could, he endeavored to ready himself again for the expected impact of the charging beast. However, he rose just in time to see Garreth meet the onrush of the rampaging animal in his stead.
The elf stood with his spear held directly in front of his body, yet slightly off to one side. The pointed tip of the weapon was aimed at the boar’s fleshy chest, as Garreth prepared for the worst. The force of the blow drove him backward and he fell to the ground. As this was happening, the tip of his spear became embedded in the boar’s flesh, slightly below its neck. As the elf landed with a thud on his backside, the shaft of his spear was slammed backward and driven between his chest and his right arm. As he landed on his butt, the base of the spear lodged in the dirt beside him.
The wooden handle held fast under the force of the collision and didn’t break. It also caused the metal head to sink deeper into the assailant, until it had penetrated far enough to pierce some of the maddened beast’s vital organs. This didn’t seem to stop the creature totally, however, and it still attempted to crawl forward, in a final effort to gore the elf. At this point, the other warriors jumped into the fray and began to stab the beast with their own weapons. After piercing the struggling creature several more times, the animal shuddered briefly, before it finally collapsed on top of the prone form of the stunned elf.
As quickly as they could, the others gathered around Garreth and hoisted the lifeless beast off of the unlikely victor. Once freed from the weight of his opponent, the young elf quickly rolled as far away from the boar as he could get. Alairic followed Garreth as he spun from the beast, and once the boy’s body came to a stop, the larger elf bent down to check the teen over. He wanted to make sure the lad was unharmed. When no serious injuries were discovered, Alairic helped the teen to his feet and Kieren instantly approached his liberated mate. Enthusiastically, he squeezed his friend with all the love and gratitude he could muster.
“Not only did you step up to protect me when Romaric first discovered Qaim, but now you most likely just saved my life,” Kieren blurted out. “First Romaric and now you. Beraut was right! He told us the closeness we felt for one another might be beneficial on this trip and now both of you have proven him correct. My love for each of you is indeed great and I doubt I shall ever be able to repay the bravery you have displayed on my behalf.”
Kieren took this opportunity to pull Romaric to him as well, so he could embrace both of them in the same tremendous hug of affection. The young elves blushed noticeably at this public display of gratitude and did not readily or enthusiastically return their friend’s emotional outburst. It was possible they were only reacting this way because they felt Kieren was according them too much attention for what they had done. It was the only explanation Kieren could think of, seeing they had never been overly sensitive about displaying their fondness for one another in public prior to this.
When things were back to normal, the others concurred with the statements Kieren had made about Beraut’s being right about Garreth and Romaric’s importance on this venture. They even went as far as to add their own words of admiration for what the two young elves had done. They did not, however, choose to engage themselves in the jubilant physical outburst that Kieren had initiated and remained aloof of this unscripted celebration. Instead, they gave the trio time to work through their emotional release and simply waited until the chaos was forgotten and order had been restored.
Qaim, who had been trembling with fear throughout much of what had just taken place, now paused long enough to thank all of the others for protecting him from one of the wild boars he had lived in constant fear of.
“Thank you for helping Qaim. Beastie try to hurt Qaim, but you no let it.”
“You’re welcome,” Kieren informed him, “and it will threaten you no more.”
“Not that beastie, but we must go,” Qaim informed them. “Other beasties may be close by. We go now, before more come.”
Everyone could see the panic in the creature’s eyes and could also detect a tremor in his voice. It was obvious he was still in fear of his life and wished to depart this frightful place as quickly as possible. The soldiers knew they should probably heed his warning, but they also didn’t want to waste this opportunity.
“Qaim, aren’t you hungry?” Rhys asked, which drew a quizzical response from their guide.
“Yes, Qaim hungry and want munchies,” the creature quickly and eagerly responded. The thing was, Qaim did not thoroughly understand why he was being asked this question.
“Well, if we agree to protect you from the other ‘beasties’, do you think it would be all right for us to prepare something to eat?” Rhys continued.
As he said this, Rhys was pointing at the carcass of the dead boar. Qaim had to take a few seconds to think about this before responding, but then he finally replied.
“If you keep sharp, pointy sticks out to keep Qaim safe, we can eat. Qaim hungry. Qaim could eat whole dragon by himself.”
The others laughed after hearing his comment, but they also understood Qaim's conflicting emotions. Hurriedly, some of the warriors scrounged up enough wood to build a fire, while Turquinine gutted the boar and began to slice chunks of meat from its carcass. The slices of meat would cook faster than trying to roast the entire boar at once, which would have been the typical way to prepare it. Therefore, once the fire was built, the pieces of meat were skewered on long, freshly cut branches. These were then placed between two forked limbs, which the warriors had forced into the ground on either side of the fire. While their feast was being prepared, Garreth turned toward Qaim, inquisitively.
“Qaim, why were you so afraid of that animal? Has it tried to hurt you before?”
“Yes! Beastie want to hurt Qaim. Beastie want to stab Qaim with pointy white sticks on its face,” Qaim answered, while shuddering at the thought of this happening.
“But why?” Romaric wanted to know. “Why did it want to harm you? There must have been a reason.”
“It no like Qaim living in its home. It also no like Qaim going in and out of bushes. Beastie want to hurt Qaim, because he no let beastie go through bushes too.”
“We could see that,” Kieren told him, “but soon you won’t have to worry about that any more.”
It wasn’t clear if Qaim fully understood the implications of what was meant by this last statement, but they all allowed the conversation to end there. It was apparent to each of them that Qaim was more interested in when the food would be ready to eat, but then again, so were the boys.
Once the meat had been cooked, the members of the party greedily enjoyed this sacrificial fare, although they wished there had been other delicacies to go along with it. Jubilantly, they cut pieces of meat from the hunk they had been given and stuffed it into their mouths, although some of the others merely preferred to use their teeth to rip a piece off of the larger slab. In the middle of their meal, Qaim surprised them with another comment.
“Qaim eat beastie. Beastie no eat Qaim,” he told them. This caused some of the others to choke on the food they had in their mouths at the time, as they tried keep from laughing at his observation.
Once they had squelched the hunger pangs that had been gnawing at them since the previous day, the party set out again. This time they covered much more ground than they had the previous day. Being full and more upbeat about escaping the forest, the distance seemed to fly by. Eagerly, they kept going, as they moved closer and closer to their goal. As they traveled, they were becoming increasingly energized by the thought of breaking free of this dark, dreary place and reaching the dwarven kingdom. The companions only took a couple of short rest breaks during the day. They understood that by continuing on for as long as they could, it would help to extricate them from this unwholesome situation even faster.
Doggedly, they continued to tramp forward and it was late afternoon when they finally cleared the outer edge of the maze of trees and bushes. They now stood at the northeastern corner of Briarwood, free of its ensnaring grasp, but they were still not certain if they were out of danger.
“Wait here,” Alairic told them, “while I scout around and look to see if anyone or anything else is out there.”
He immediately moved off, slinking along the edge of the woods, while using his superior sight and hearing to scan the area for trouble. The elf moved stealthily along, until the companions eventually lost sight of him. While the elf was checking out the area for signs of trouble, the dwarfs hurriedly scanned their surroundings and looked for landmarks they might recognize. Before long, they had spotted enough familiar objects that they could calculate their present location.
“We are very close to where we need to be,” Doenilio informed them. “There is a path not far from here, which will lead us up to the rear gate into Thorold. We should be able to get there by the time the sun sets completely.”
Hearing this news, it was as if a great weight had been lifted off of them and all they could think about now were the hot baths, plentiful food and soft beds that awaited them there. Within a few minutes, Alairic also returned.
“I neither see nor hear anything that alarms me,” the elf told them, indicating he felt it was safe for them to move on.
Before they were ready to renew their journey, Sedain realized there was something else he needed to do first. Slowly, he began to move toward Qaim, although he stopped and started several times before he finally reached him. He did this because he was unsure about what he was going to do next.
When Sedain was eventually standing next to their fury guide, everyone else held his breath and watched, as they waited to see what was going to happen. They could tell how nervous and uncertain Sedain was, so they felt he wasn’t about to do anything rash and weren’t overly concerned. Hesitantly, the dwarf reached out his arm and placed his hand upon Qaim’s shoulder, as he began to speak.
“I’m not sure words will suffice,” he told Qaim, while swallowing multiple times in between, “but I have sorely misjudged you. I hope you will accept my apology, my new friend, for I have much to do to make amends for my rude and distrustful behavior earlier. Will you please forgive me?”
“Qaim not know what you mean,” the creature replied, once again showing his naiveté.
“What I mean is that I’m sorry for misjudging you,” the dwarf replied. “I thank you for your help and I’m glad you no longer have to worry about the beasties. You may now go and live somewhere far away from them.”
“What you mean? Where Qaim go now? What Qaim do?” the creature asked, totally confused about the dwarf’s meaning.
At that instant, everyone realized Qaim was leaving his entire world behind and, therefore, had no idea what to expect now that he'd left Briarwood. Suddenly, a wave of compassion swept over Kieren, so he knew he had to do something to ease Qaim’s fears.
“Don’t worry,” Kieren told him, “because I'll make sure you have a safe new home to live in. As a reward for helping us escape this maze, you can live with me, if you wish.”
“And you give Qaim munchies too?” the creature eagerly wanted to know.
This caused everyone else to chuckle again, once they heard Qaim’s innocent response. However, before Kieren could respond, Sedain jumped in and answered for him.
“You will have all you can eat when we get to my home, my new friend and fine fellow. You will have that and much, much more,” the dwarf advised him. “Just follow me and I shall lead you to your reward.”
Qaim was so anxious to accept Sedain’s offer that he almost tore the dwarf’s arm from its socket, as he tried to drag the dwarf forward.
“Easy, Qaim. Easy,” Sedain warned. “We will get there soon enough, but we must keep together until we arrive at our destination.”
This time Sedain led Qaim forward, until they found the seldom-used path that Doenilio had mentioned earlier. The others strained to maintain the same pace and before long they were standing in front of the rear entrance to Thorold, having at last reached their destination.
The gate was already closed and locked for the night, so they would have to knock to gain admittance. That, however, was a minor inconvenience after all they had been through. They were now ready and eager to proceed, because they were all looking forward to the delights that awaited them inside.
The End of Book 1.
Book 2, Sword of Kings: Tested By Adversity, will follow.
I'd love to hear your comments concerning this first book of this series. Please let me know what you think.