Once the condor disappeared from sight, no one needed any encouragement to get up and fall into formation again. Although they were still deeply disturbed by Doenilio’s death and the threat the condor posed, they knew their own safety depended upon how quickly they could escape this haunted vale.
The boys looked around at the others, in an attempt to see if the warriors were as distraught as they were over what had just happened. Not only were Kieren and the two young elves suffering the lingering effects of mild shock, but they were also finding it difficult to maintain their composure. A few tears were already streaking down their cheeks, but it was taking every ounce of self-control they possessed to keep from breaking down and bawling hysterically.
Although the warriors were doing much better at maintaining their stoic fronts, the three youngsters could still clearly read the pain and anguish the others felt by reading each of their faces. None of the boys, however, could maintain eye contact with any of their companions for very long. They feared they would lose what little control they still had left and their emotions would get the best of them.
No matter how much they were suffering, each member of the party realized he could not become lax in his vigilance. In fact, maybe just the opposite began to happen, as everyone did his best to search the entire area for signs of danger. They were not, however, just scanning the air. They were also looking for threats that might come at them from the land as well, just so they wouldn’t be caught by surprise. They still had the feeling Madumda might have conjured up another indescribable horror that could come at them from that direction as well.
Beraut was in the midst of scanning the sky for signs of the condor again when Alairic interrupted what he was doing. The elf anxiously signaled his feeling that they needed to get going and leave this place as soon as possible. The wizard nodded his agreement and hastily got everyone’s attention. Before long, they were once again moving forward and following the wizard away from this dreadful location. Judging by their actions, there were no doubts that they all wanted to escape from this place as rapidly as their legs would safely carry them.
The entourage continued to trudge on for the remainder of the day, but the visions of what had happened to Doenilio never faded from their memories. Even though the warriors were able to focus on the task at hand and temporarily put the incident behind them more easily than the boys, it didn’t mean they remained unaffected. No matter how often they had seen death or lost someone they knew, it didn’t eliminate their need to cope with the situation when confronted by such a loss. Each one understood that if he didn’t do this now, he would have to deal with it later. Either way, he had to do it without neglecting the task at hand.
The three teens, however, found themselves in a totally different situation. They were still reacting very emotionally to Doenilio’s death and their minds were continually bombarded with visions of what they had witnessed. Even though they had been trying to fight back the tears welling up in their eyes, their efforts were mostly unsuccessful. Since they couldn’t stop the tears from cascading down their cheeks, which was happening at an ever increasing rate, the trio tried to be discreet about how they dealt with the situation.
Since they didn’t want to bring undue attention to their current condition and have the warriors think less of them, they tried desperately to disguise the fact that they were crying. That’s why whenever they dried their eyes and faces on their sleeves or with the back of their hand; they did their best to make it appear as if they were merely wiping away some excess perspiration. As a further measure to disguise their grief, the youngsters also kept their faces held slightly lower than they normally would have, so they wouldn’t come into direct eye contact with any of their protectors. They also hoped the adults had too many other concerns to notice the emotional turmoil they were currently going through.
The group was still on the move when they became aware of the fact that the sun was just about to make its final descent from the sky. Although it would be another hour or more before it would become totally dark, the waning daylight did have some benefits. The most important of these was that they soon would no longer have to worry about the condor sneaking up on them again. However, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the fading light was also making it much more difficult to pick their footing and avoid whatever obstacles lay in their path. Occasionally, the same type of thorny plants that had caused Doenilio to fall earlier would snag their clothing and cause them to stumble as well. Just as they were beginning to think they could not keep doing this impossible task for much longer, they noticed they were reaching the end of the valley.
As the party grew closer to the opening between the mountain ranges, the weeds and briars became thicker and even more cumbersome. Although the travel was increasingly difficult, the companions fought to keep moving forward and remained focused on what lay beyond these obstacles. Even in the dimming light, they could see the outline of the gap that would guide them out of this desolate dell and understood it meant they would soon be free of the dangers it harbored.
The growing darkness also helped to make the area they were heading toward appear even more threatening, at least to Garreth and Romaric. This meant the duo was beginning to see signs of danger lurking on both sides of the opening. Even though the gap was extremely wide, they were convinced there was an enemy warrior behind every boulder and each shadow hid another foe. Every turn of their head would also cause them to discern the movement of what they suspected was a new opponent, so the elves approached the opening with grave trepidation.
Once they actually entered this expansive area, they discovered nothing amiss and gradually began to relax. The companions also found that the farther they traveled into the opening, the vegetation began to change. It was gradually morph from the dead, thorny types of plant life that grabbed at their clothing and boots to the more typical types of grasses and other plants that grew in Tarolia. The vegetation was also becoming less dense, besides not being as cumbersome to deal with, which was making it much easier for them to continue on.
Over time, they were able to gradually pick up their pace, even though at various points along the way the ground seemed to suddenly rise upward and then abruptly slope downward again. These changes, however, didn’t dampen their spirits or slow them down. Sometimes they also found their path pocked with holes or covered with some minor debris, but it didn't slow then down noticeably. They continued to move along at a fairly good clip, as they made their way between the two mountain chains. Although the members of the group continued to remain vigilant and scanned the area for threats, they discovered nothing out of the ordinary waiting for them there.
Once the companions realized the opening was free of danger, they were greatly relieved and quickened their pace even more. This meant they were able to make it through the opening and safely reach the other side in about twenty minutes. Their hearts soared when they finally reached the expansive, fertile plain on the other side, since it meant they were now free of the Valley of the Dead. They no longer had to worry about the threat it had posed.
Beraut quickly signaled them to set up camp next, so they could utilize the final, dying rays of light to see by. As they were doing this, Rhys and Sedain each attempted to get the wizard’s attention, because they wanted permission to remove their headgear and earplugs. However, once Beraut acknowledged their actions, the warriors were surprised he shook his head vigorously in response to their request. They weren’t certain as to why he was doing this, but he was clearly letting them know it was not yet time to remove the protective devices.
Although disappointed by this delay, each one put the matter behind him and set about his duties. The companions were eagerly digging through their gear and retrieving the items they needed to establish the campsite at breakneck speed. Beraut arranged them as he had the previous evening, with the fighting men placed around the teens, but this time Beraut situated his own bedding closer to the three youths. Once they were all comfortable, the wizard finally indicated they could now remove their bindings and earplugs. This announcement brought smiles to nearly everyone's face and was pleasantly received by each of them.
Although they didn’t understand it at the time, the wizard had made them wait until now to do this, because he knew it would take time for them to adjust to hearing sounds again. After being deprived of this sense for such an extended period of time, Beraut realized their hearing would be acutely sensitive, once it was restored. Dealing with this would have slowed down their efforts significantly as they went about their business, so Beraut thought it best to take things one-step at a time. He wanted to make sure the campsite was established first, before they had to deal with this other issue.
Now that they finally had Beraut’s permission, it was with immense relief that the companions rid themselves of the bothersome gear. Some even threw the various items on the ground and stomped them underfoot, almost as if they were vanquishing a foe. No matter how satisfying that may have seemed, it wasn’t perfect. For many minutes afterward, each individual found he was extremely sensitive to every little sound of nature and even a cricket’s chirp seemed as if it were a deafening roar. However, no matter how much these minor sounds bothered them, it also emphasized the fact that they were now free of the Valley of the Dead. Everything had finally returned to normal and this, momentarily, made their spirits soar.
This euphoria didn’t last for very long, however, and soon began to fade. When it did, everyone refocused his attention upon the wizard, because each of them had a plethora of questions they wished to have answered. Since none of them was sure which question to begin with or how he should proceed, each one opted to remain silent. Beraut, on the other hand, didn’t have a problem sensing what the others were thinking, so he decided to expedite the process and address the situation for them. While only speaking in a whisper, the wizard began.
“I imagine you are all wondering about the bird,” he stated.
Without realizing they were doing so, Garreth and Romaric nodded their heads in response.
“It is one of the Dark Lord’s pets,” Beraut continued, “and part of a line of similar creatures he has been breeding to do his bidding. If you think back upon my rendering of the tale about the death of King Orthilue and his family, you’ll remember I mentioned the king was killed by such a creature.”
“You mean that was the giant condor that killed King Orthilue?” Romaric asked, slightly concerned.
Even though he was puzzled by Beraut explanation, the elf had still managed to state his question in a hushed tone. This was most likely the result of the way Beraut had been addressing them, but it was a good thing he had.
“No,” the wizard responded simply. “The condor that killed King Orthilue was a much smaller predecessor of the creature we encountered today.”
“Do you think it was sent to find us?” Garreth followed. The elf’s eyes were wide, as he considered what this might mean to them.
“Again, my answer is no,” the wizard said soothingly. “I believe it has been mainly focusing its attention upon the mountain ranges, on both sides of the valley in search of food. It would have also noticed if intruders were there, but I believe it only flew over the valley to get from one chain to the other.”
“Qaim no like big bird,” their hairy little companion blurted out. “Bird hurt little man and want to hurt Qaim too.”
Even though Qaim’s comment had been offered innocently, his words made everyone in the party fall silent again. The aignx’s innocuous statement had caused each of them to momentarily suffer through flashbacks of Doenilio’s final moments alive, as they relived those terrifying events once more. While they were doing this, each individual began to furtively glance around at the others, to see how they were reacting to what Qaim had said. At the same time, they were also struggling to control their own emotions, which were plainly displayed on their faces.
Before Qaim had spoken out, Kieren had only been partially listening to the wizard’s comments. He was already deeply lost in his own thoughts about what had happened to Doenilio and busily rehashing every second of what had taken place. In fact, the more he thought about those events, the more they tended to trouble him. Finally, he found he could hold his tongue no longer.
“Why didn’t you save Doenilio?” he suddenly screamed at his mentor. “Why did you just let him die?”
Not only did Kieren’s outburst startle the others, but the volume with which he made his accusation had also hurt their ears and made them flinch. Reacting to the outburst, they all turned to look at the youngster, just as Kieren continued his tirade.
“Why didn’t you do something to save him?” the teen continued, although this time he lowered the volume of his voice. “You should have prevented that bird from killing him like it did!”
The reason Kieren hadn’t spoken quite as loudly this time was because his previous outburst had affected his own ears as well. However, his face still showed a mixture of anger and sadness as he confronted the wizard, which indicated how truly upset he was. Although the others had also been affected by losing Doenilio, they didn’t quite understand why Kieren was blaming Beraut for letting it happen. It had obviously just been the result of an unfortunate accident.
“You should have done everything you could have to save him,” Kieren continued.
The wizard merely studied his ward and didn’t immediately respond. Beraut realized Kieren was clearly upset by what happened earlier, so he took the teen’s accusations in stride and then merely attempted to calm him down.
“Kieren, I wish I could have saved him,” Beraut answered. “I did consider several different options at the time, but then quickly dismissed them. I concluded utilizing any of those options would have done little good for Doenilio, but those same actions could have doomed the rest of us.”
The wizard had spoken to Kieren in a soothing manner, in hope that it would lessen the teen’s anger.
“Oh, I bet,” Kieren spat back venomously, while appearing unmoved by his mentor’s answer. “What could have happened that would have been worse than what we saw?”
“My boy,” Beraut almost pleaded in response, “please realize that I was unable to use my magic to subdue Doenilio in that situation. You see, the condor is a semi-magical creature and the use of any supernatural power in its vicinity would have drawn its attention, about the same as a loud noise in a quiet room. It would have also exposed our presence and endangered all of us, not merely Doenilio. In addition to alerting the condor to our presence, the use of magic might have also alerted Madumda about our presence in the valley and possibly given him an indication of what we were up to.”
“You could have done SOMETHING!” Kieren challenged, since he was unwilling to accept the situation had been hopeless from the start.
“I did toy with the idea of stunning Doenilio and knocking him unconscious, at least until the threat had passed,” Beraut conceded. “Unfortunately, that choice wasn’t feasible, because it would still have required the use of my magical ability and placed us in jeopardy. The damage to Doenilio had already been done, so I was more concerned that any action on my part would have posed an even greater threat to our safety than that bird did to Doenilio.”
“But you let him die,” Kieren whined. “That just wasn’t right.”
“Kieren, what you fail to realize is that Doenilio was lost the minute his earplug came loose,” the wizard stated calmly. “The madness had already destroyed the Doenilio we knew and there wasn’t anything we could do to change that fact. At best, we would have only been able to care for his body until death finally relieved him of his affliction, since his brain had already been destroyed. No matter what we had done, he would never again be the Doenilio we all knew and admired.”
Once the realization of what the wizard had said sank in, Kieren sat speechless for a few minutes. His mind was now consumed with something else the wizard had just told him.
‘Was it really possible that the use of magic had attracted the condor?’ Kieren wondered. ‘Does it mean that when I used the medallion to check out the opening between the mountains that I actually drew the bird to our location?’
The young man was totally panicked now, as he toyed with this idea and considered the implications it brought to mind. Had his concern about a possible ambush actually proved to be the stimulus that had inadvertently attracted the condor and brought about Doenilio’s death? Hoping he had misinterpreted what the wizard had said, the youngster replayed Beraut’s words over and over again in his head. He repeatedly thought about the wizard’s explanation about how magic would attract the condor, ‘about the same as a loud noise in a quiet room’.
As Kieren continued to consider this disclosure, he could no longer deny the fact that his decision to use the medallion had most likely cost one of his protectors his life. It had been his fault, not Beraut’s or anyone else’s that had determined the dwarf’s fate.
After he reached this conclusion, Kieren began to feel an immense sense of guilt, due to his rash and hasty decision to use the medallion. Suddenly, a tidal wave of rage and regret began to swell within him, as he started to second-guess why he had done something so foolish. Kieren wanted to scream out or roll up into a ball and cry, but realized he couldn’t allow himself the luxury of doing either. He now finally understood that he was solely responsible for what had happened to Doenilio.
No matter how effectively his conscience and emotions had tried to blur this realization and place the blame on someone else, the burden for what happened fell squarely upon his shoulders. The problem was, he wasn’t psychologically ready to accept total responsibility for his actions quite yet. Instead, he chose to keep lashing out at the most convenient target at hand.
“Why didn’t you just kill it then?” the teen screamed at Beraut, in an attempt to transfer the blame somewhere other than upon what he had done. “You have all kinds of powers, so why didn’t you just use them?”
“I did consider attacking the bird and using my magical ability to destroy it,” the wizard admitted. “After weighing all of the factors involved, and considering it might alert Madumda about what was going on, I dismissed that option too.”
“Why? You could have saved Doenilio and we could have dealt with Madumda later,” Kieren responded, still bewildered by Beraut’s reluctance to use his powers.
“Kieren, as I said before, I might possibly have been able to save Doenilio's body, but his mind was already gone” the wizard conceded. “If I had attempted to destroy the condor, it would have required my most powerful magic to do it and that would have weakened me considerably, as well as alerting Madumda to our presence in the valley. The consequences of doing that was something I dearly wished to avoid. If my evil brother sensed me here, he would have investigated the reason for my presence in the valley. That, in turn, would have led him to discover that all of you were with me. Such a revelation would have definitely jeopardized this entire mission, as well as all of our lives and the future of Tarolia.”
“But we should have been able to prevent Doenilio’s death!” Kieren reiterated. “Isn’t that what we’re here for, to protect each other?”
“Not exactly,” Beraut responded, momentarily confusing Kieren. “The rest of us are primarily here to protect you and help you complete your mission. Doing this sometimes involves making difficult choices. In the short time I had to consider my options, I concluded the madness had already destroyed Doenilio's brain and it would be best to allow his body to be sacrificed for the greater good.”
Kieren’s eyes locked on to Beraut’s, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say that would make him feel better about the situation. The wizard merely let his gaze meet with Kieren’s, as he tried to give the lad time to deal with everything on his own, but to the others this appeared to be a standoff.
Finally, Kieren couldn’t take it any longer and felt he had to get away from everyone else. He couldn’t stand being around the rest of them now, because the guilt he felt was just too much for him to bear. Quietly, and without saying another word, Kieren got up and hurriedly moved away from the temporary campsite.
“Kieren, where are you going?” Garreth gasped, since he was distressed by his friend’s actions.
The elf hurriedly got up to follow Kieren, but as he passed by the wizard, Beraut put his arm out and rested his hand against the teen’s chest. Garreth knew this meant Beraut didn’t feel he should get involved in what was happening, so he looked at the wizard confused.
“Let him go,” Beraut stated simply, while the others stared at him, perplexed. “He and I both realize he needs time to deal with some issues on his own. Rhys, would you merely follow Kieren and keep an eye on him, to make sure he’s safe. Don’t try to bring him back or interfere with his actions, just make certain he doesn’t get into any trouble or run into any unexpected threats to his safety. I suspect he’ll return just as soon as he has worked things out for himself.”
Acknowledging his duty, Rhys gave the wizard a nod of understanding before getting up and moving off in pursuit of the upset lad. Fortunately, there was enough moonlight to make this task fairly easy, so he followed Kieren farther onto the plain on which they had made their camp. He attempted to do this discretely, but there wasn’t much around to help him disguise his movements.
Kieren eventually spotted the warrior stalking him, so he began to walk ever faster, in a vain attempt to shake his shadow. Even though the moonlight was sufficient to allow them to see each other, it wasn’t bright enough to make everything clearly visible. Their ability to see well enough to get around was still slightly hampered and this caused Kieren to stumble a few times, but it wasn’t enough to make him stop.
Although Rhys wanted to race forward and drag the teen back to where the others were waiting, he fought the urge to do so. The Akiktite merely kept his distance and allowed Kieren to do as he pleased, as he carried out Beraut’s instructions. Kieren, on the other hand, continued on like this for several more minutes before he realized he wasn’t going to be able to get away from Rhys. Frustrated, he turned around and confronted him instead.
“Leave me alone! I need some time by myself and you’re not taking me back!” Kieren screamed, as his face turned red and the muscles in his neck stood out visibly.
“I didn’t come out here to take you back,” the warrior told him, reassuringly. “I’m just here to make sure nothing happens to you.”
Surprised by this response, Kieren began to soften his stance slightly, especially since he now realized the Akiktite was just looking out for his welfare. Accepting this, his expression relaxed and his shoulders drooped, which helped Rhys realize how befuddled the boy truly was. Seeing this, the Akiktite took a few more steps toward the teen. As Rhys moved closer, Kieren let his chin drop against his chest, in an effort to avoid eye contact with the warrior. Rhys hesitated going further or doing anything more once he noticed the boy’s demeanor, so they both remained like this for several more minutes.
“I don’t know if I can go on,” Kieren finally stated, appearing completely broken now. “I’m not strong enough to do this. I don’t think I can handle it if something happens to anyone else.”
Rhys could see the anguish etched upon the boy’s face, even from this distance.
“Kieren, I understand how you feel,” the dark-skinned soldier told him. “Doenilio is not the only friend we’ve lost on this mission, nor the only time I’ve had to go through something like this. I still remember how difficult it was for me to deal with it the first time it happened to someone I knew, when I was younger. I think I understand how you’re feeling.”
“But why did it have to happen at all, especially to him?” Kieren mused. “He was married and had children, but now he won’t be going home to be with them again. His children no longer have a father and I feel badly for them. Why did his helmet come off so easily?”
Kieren had asked this aloud, because he was still seeking clarification for this tragedy. He wasn’t sure if anyone could actually answer his questions, but he needed to verbalize them nonetheless.
“I can’t say for sure, but I noticed Doenilio had taken his helmet off during one of our earlier stops,” Rhys informed him.
“I saw that too,” Kieren agreed, “and then he showed Sedain where the skin on his neck had been rubbed raw. Sedain gave him some salve to put on it, so was that what caused his helmet to slip off his head?”
“I’m not sure if it was the salve,” Rhys acknowledged, “or if he forgot to refasten his chinstrap. He might have even tied it more loosely than he should have, hoping it would be less painful that way.”
Even though the Akiktite thought this news would make Kieren understand the situation better, he could see the young man was still deeply troubled by what had happened. What Rhys couldn’t possibly realize was that no matter what had been said or done, Kieren couldn’t shake those nagging doubts that he was solely responsible for what had taken place. Kieren was more convinced than ever that Doenilio's death was due to him using of the medallion. This lack of understanding only helped to perplex Rhys more, since he couldn’t understand why the boy continued to take the dwarf’s death so hard. After all, it wasn’t the first time they had lost someone on this mission.
“Kieren, you can’t keep brooding over what happened,” the Akiktite announced. “Doenilio understood the risks and was willing to accept them, just as the rest of us have done. His death was the result of a freak and tragic accident, but no one is to blame.”
“What about what you did?” the teen asked as he glared at Rhys, since his blood was beginning to boil again. “Why did you prevent me from going out to stop Doenilio?”
The warrior blanched when he realized Kieren was now turning on him this way. He felt the young man should have been able to answer that question for himself, but now he felt obliged to defend his actions.
“Do you really need for me to answer that question?” the warrior inquired, hoping it would make Kieren work the solution out for himself. However, when he saw that Kieren hadn’t calmed down and thought things through yet, Rhys decided it would be best to explain what happened.
“Kieren, my job is to protect you and that’s what I did. No matter how I felt about what had happened to Doenilio, I still couldn’t let you risk your safety by rushing out in that fashion.”
“Then why didn’t YOU go after him?” the teen fired back.
“Because I was certain such an action would have drawn the attention of that damned bird to the rest of us, including you,” the Akiktite offered. “I was hoping it wouldn’t notice one person running about, but if more of us were darting around in the open, I knew it would definitely cause the condor to spot us. It might have also prompted it to investigate the area in greater detail, to see if there were others lurking about as well.”
“Well maybe I could have stopped Doenilio and brought him back without getting spotted,” Kieren responded.
“I highly doubt that,” Rhys informed him. “If Turquinine couldn’t handle Doenilio at that point, then I don’t think ANY of us could.”
After hearing this comment, Kieren’s mouth dropped open. It was something he wasn’t aware of before.
“You mean Turquinine tried to stop him but couldn’t do it?” the teen asked.
“Yes, he did,” Rhys confirmed, hoping Kieren could finally appreciate all that had happened. “I saw him throw his body over Doenilio’s as he tried to pin him down, but somehow the dwarf managed to break free. That’s when Doenilio bolted out of the trench and started running about. From that point on, there wasn’t any doubt the condor had spotted him. The thing that’s important about it is that if Turquinine couldn’t contain him, then how could you have expected to do it?”
As Kieren stared into Rhys’ eyes, he finally understood there was nothing any of them could have done to save Doenilio. He realized the warrior’s fate had been sealed the moment he had decided to use the medallion. The overwhelming guilt he now felt because of this caused him to totally lose control of his fragile emotions. The young man broke eye contact with Rhys, put his head in his hands and began to weep, slightly at first, but within seconds he was sobbing. The lingering shame that he was the one responsible for Doenilio’s death was just too much for him to bear.
Seeing the boy fall apart like this, Rhys didn’t know what to say or do, so he hung back and gave Kieren a few minutes to purge his grief. When he felt Kieren had sufficient time to do this, Rhys decided to address their current situation.
“Kieren we shouldn’t stay here like this much longer,” the Akiktite informed him. “This area is very open and I’m not sure how safe it is, so we must get back with the others.”
“Go ahead and go back then,” the teen advised him.
“Kieren, you know I can’t leave you out here alone,” Rhys confirmed. “If it’s dangerous for both of us to be out here, then I can’t possibly go back and leave you without protection.”
“Don’t worry; none of Madumda’s troops are anywhere nearby. I know, because I did a scan of the area,” he added, sarcastically, almost as if he wanted the Akiktite to realize this entire mess was his doing.
“It isn’t the troops that concern me,” Rhys responded. “It’s the animals that live in and around these mountains. Don’t you remember the warnings we were given on the way to Thorold? The dwarfs told us the animals can be extremely ferocious and we’d be hard pressed to fend them off together, but neither one of us would stand much of a chance alone, even with our weapons.”
As he digested the Akiktite’s words, Kieren just stared at his protector, without responding.
“Kieren come back with me,” Rhys pleaded. “Please! Besides, you must be nearly as hungry as I am and there’s certainly nothing to eat out here.”
Kieren was exasperated by having to listen to this, yet he knew the warrior was correct. Worse than that, he also understood Rhys wasn’t going to leave without him. Since he didn’t wish to argue the point all evening, Kieren finally decided to do as the Akiktite requested and suddenly began to retrace his steps back toward camp. This unexpected action totally caught Rhys off guard and left him momentarily standing there alone, totally bewildered.
By the time his bodyguard figured out what he was up to, Kieren had moved several paces away, so the warrior had to hurry to catch up to him. When the Akiktite was finally striding alongside of the teen again, he slipped an arm around Kieren’s shoulder and gave him a slight squeeze, just before they reached the camp.