Sword of Kings 3: Tempered by Fate

The End is Near

Since they were unable to find the Sword of Kings in Madumda’s private apartments, Kieren and his companions were not only becoming frustrated, but they were also running out of time.  If Kieren was going to use the fabled weapon to destroy the Dark Lord, then they would have to discover its hiding place soon.  They were all having difficulty believing that they hadn’t been able to locate the sword in Madumda’s private chambers, since they'd been positive it had to be hidden somewhere within these three rooms.  Yet after a thorough search, they had nothing to show to confirm this belief.  Since their efforts had proven fruitless, they began to question their original assumption.

“Jana, are you positive there aren’t any other places within the fortress that are guarded?” Alairic asked, in an effort to gain a better insight into the problem.  “Could there be another place where the Dark Lord might be hiding this sword?”

“No, my lord elf,” Jana replied.  “I have heard of no other guards being used, other than at the main gate leading into Treblanc, the entrance to this building and outside of these rooms.”

“Then it has to be here,” Rhys insisted.  “We will just have to search every millimeter of this area again.  We’ll start in this room and then move back through the other two rooms until we are successful.”

“But we’ve searched the entire place already,” Garreth whined, as his concern grew that they were going to be discovered by the Dark Lord if they tarried here much longer. 

“That may be, but we need to do it again,” Rhys told him.  “The sword HAS to be here somewhere.” 

“I definitely agree,” Quintain stated emphatically, in support of the Akiktite’s position.  “We'll have to search these chambers once more.  It must be hidden extremely well, so this time you will have to look beyond the obvious and seek out signs of any potential hiding places.  You must let us know if anything seems out of the ordinary, no matter how trivial it may appear.” 

The others concurred with the dwarf, although Garreth did so reluctantly.  Each of them now moved back to his search area again, ready to start over. 

“Wait,” Alairic announced.  “I think we need to switch places and get fresh eyes at every location.” 

After agreeing to this, they quickly decided who should switch with whom, before they started looking again.  Each individual moved about his ‘new’ assignment, while carefully seeking any indication of the hidden artifact.  Secretly, they all wanted to be the one who discovered the sword and to make such a valuable contribution to their cause. 

At this particular moment, Kieren began to wonder if he should try using the medallion to help in their effort.  Maybe he was supposed to use it to help find the sword's hiding place.  It was a logical assumption, but he immediately saw a problem with his ability to do this.  Since he could only use a one-word command, which word would he use? 

He could command it to ‘find’ or ‘seek’, but how would the medallion know what he was looking for?  He could say ‘sword’, but then it might just direct them to one of the guards’ weapons.  Possibly he should say ‘kings’, but how would the medallion interpret that request?  Confused, Kieren tried to come up with a word that would make the medallion do what he wanted, but he kept coming up empty. 

While the others were busy with his or her investigation, Qaim suddenly stopped what he was doing and stood uneasily in the center of the room.  At first no one seemed to notice this fact, but that all changed when the aignx spoke up.  His voice even distracted Kieren from pondering his current dilemma. 

“Qaim no like this,” the aignx announced, while pointing toward the sphere located in the corner of the room.  “It give Qaim very bad feeling.”

“What do you mean?” Kieren asked, while wondering why that particular object seemed to concern their guide.  “What is there about it that bothers you?  Is it magical?”

“Qaim not sure if it magic.  It kind of feels like when we walk with wizard and he put things in your ears and cloth over your eyes in the dark,” the aignx announced. 

“Do you mean when we traveled across the Valley of the Dead with Beraut?” Garreth asked, looking astonished and confused.

“Yes, like then.  It make Qaim’s skin crawl.  Qaim feel funny all over.”

“Why do you think that object affects Qaim in this manner?” Sedain wondered, aloud.  “And what could it possibly have to do with the haunted valley?”

“Methinks it be another part of Madumda’s evil magic,” replied Turquinine.

“Yes, I think we all agree about that, but how is it connected?” Alairic continued.  “Everything in this room is part of his magic, so why does that orb affect Qaim more than anything else?” 

While this conversation was going on, Jana was busy searching her memory for a tidbit of information she'd heard in the kitchen one day.  She couldn’t quite recall what it was, other than it had something to do with her master’s rooms and this information had sent shivers up her spine when she first heard it.

“Could Qaim's feelings have something to do with the sword?” Garreth wondered, hoping that might be the answer.

“I don’t believe so,” Rhys advised him.  “I think the magic of the sword would give him a positive feeling and be something that would reassure an innocent like Qaim, instead of troubling him.  The sword might have a negative effect on Madumda or others dealing in black magic, but I doubt it would affect the aignx that way.” 

“Could it have anything to do with the condors or that thing that chased us after we killed the troll?” asked Kieren, in an effort to come up with an explanation for its air of foreboding.

“Well, I suppose those might be possibilities,” Rhys responded, while mulling the suggestion over in his mind, “but we won’t be able to discover that for sure.  The only way we could be certain would be to destroy it and then see what, if anything, Madumda suddenly loses control over.  The only problem with such a plan, however, would be that the Dark Lord would immediately know exactly where we were and what we had done.” 

“I’m afraid he knows part of that already,” Kieren announced, while appearing more than a little concerned and embarrassed that he hadn’t disclosed this fact to them earlier.  “I think the Dark Lord realized we were in Treblanc the second I used the medallion.  Beraut warned me that others with magical powers would sense whenever it was used, but I had no choice.  I had to destroy that creature before it hurt more of us.”  Immediately, a wave of horror overtook the others, once they concluded Kieren was most likely correct in his assumption. 

“Could this thing hurt us?” Garreth asked, quickly bringing their attention back to the sphere. 

“I don’t think so,” Alairic told him.  “We’ve already been in here for a considerable amount of time and it hasn’t harmed us in any way yet.  I believe if that were its purpose, something would have already happened”

“A point well taken,” Turquinine concurred. 

“We must not dwell on this distraction any longer,” Quintain suggested.  “We need to get back to the task at hand and focus on finding the sword before Madumda returns to confront us.  If he knows we’re in Treblanc, then it is possible he may show up any moment.” 

The thought of Madumda suddenly appearing and attacking was enough to stop anyone from dallying longer and caused each of them to redouble their efforts to locate the talisman.   Since they were staying in this room, Qaim purposefully moved away from the frosty orb, because he was still uncomfortable being in such close proximity to it.  He now went over to the opposite corner of the room and placed himself as far away from the sphere as he could get, without leaving the chamber entirely. 

Once he had renewed his search, the aignx became extremely interested in a beam that stood in the far corner of the room.  It appeared to be one of the interior trusses that supported the weight of the structure overhead and kept it from crashing down around them.  They had seen many others like it throughout the three rooms, but this one seemed to have garnered the aignx’s curiosity, although it may have merely been his way of getting his mind off of the orb.  As Qaim busied himself studying the beam more intently, his efforts were suddenly disturbed when Jana spoke up.

“Wait!” she said loudly enough to startle the others, “I just remembered what it was that I heard about this place.  One day while working in the kitchen, one of the guards came down to see the cook.  He plied his charm on her, not only to get a little more to eat, but it was also a way to set up a rendezvous with her for later that evening.  When she didn’t seem very interested in his advances, he began to tell her secrets about this place, in order to gain her interest and acceptance.  During this time, he told her about a number of different things that had happened within the fortress' walls, but it was the story he told her about these rooms that bothered me the most.  This place is extremely dangerous and we shouldn’t be here.”

“Why?  What did he tell the cook about this place that made you think this?” Kieren demanded, because this tidbit of information only heightened his concerns.

“He told her he was often required to accompany prisoners to Madumda quarters, so they could be questioned.  He said the fettered men would struggle and fight with them the entire way, since they knew about the Dark Lord’s reputation for using any means necessary to get the information he wanted.  They were all terrified about what awaited them when they got here and fought to get free before anything could happen.”  She paused briefly, so she could catch her breath and then continued. 

“Well after they took the prisoners inside, they would strap them into chairs to await questioning.  When the guards returned to pick up the same prisoners later, he claimed those that had been interrogated were just mindless shells of their former selves and had no spirit or fight left in them.  He said it was as if their minds were dead, but their bodies failed to accept it.  He told the cook how strange it felt to deal with those people from that point on, because they willingly did whatever they were told.”  Jana was looking at everyone’s faces and could see they were hanging on to her every word, as they attempted to figure out what this information might mean for them. 

“He also told the cook that some of the soldiers believed these captives had been hypnotized by the Lord Madumda, while still others claimed he had stolen the minds and souls of those that had been brought there.  They even concluded our Master kept their spirits stored somewhere within these rooms, because very little was ever taken out of here.  I truly believe that story, for I have seen those who fit this description.  They move about like the dead walking.  This is an extremely evil place and the magic here is very powerful and very wicked.  We must leave these rooms before something like that happens to us.” 

Jana was visibly trembling now and convinced that what she had reported was the truth.  Unexpectedly, she also made a sudden move toward the door.  As she went to pass by Alairic, he grabbed her by the arm and prevented her from going further.  He then talked soothingly as he restrained her, hoping it would calm her down.

“If something like that were going to occur, it would have done so by now,” he told her, reassuringly.  “I don’t think things of that nature can occur without Madumda being present to cast his spells or whatever else he might have to do in order to make it happen.  I doubt we have anything to fear, as long as we finish what we’re doing before he arrives.”

“And what if he does return?” Jana demanded, while appearing even more terrified by this prospect.

“Well if he should return it would place us in a great deal of danger, unless we have the sword in our possession by the time he has gotten here,” Rhys informed her.  “Therefore, it would behoove us to continue our search until we find it.  The sword will give us the best possibility of defending ourselves against his powers.” 

The others agreed with his logic and immediately went back to hunting for the fabled sword.  Jana, however, spent most of her time watching the doorway and anticipating Madumda’s arrival, rather than searching for the desired item. 

The companions had been busily checking their assigned areas again, when Qaim spoke up.  This caused each of them to come to a complete halt once more, as they turned in his direction. 

“Qaim find a secret door,” he announced, quite blandly, but the others got very excited about his discovery. 

“Where?” Quintain wanted to know.

“Here in this corner,” Qaim told his diminutive companion.

“Well open it,” Garreth said, almost breathlessly.

“No, not yet,” the aignx warned.  “Too much magic here.  Qaim not feel magic until he really close.  Now magic very strong.  Qaim no hurry.  Qaim be careful and then open door.”

“You can take your time,” Rhys advised him.  “We don’t want you setting off any traps or inadvertently signaling the Dark Lord about how close we are to his prize.”

Qaim nodded and then went about studying the area further.  First, he used both his eyes and nose to uncover anything that might give him an advantage or a clue about what was there.  After that, he used his ears and deft little fingers, although they weren’t quite as dexterous with the bandages wrapped around his palms.  Carefully, he felt around to find the hidden catches, although it was a struggle, and then he listened for them to release.  The others stood holding their breath as they watched him performing these tasks, all the while thinking back upon Beraut’s words when he first advised them about the aignx’s special talents. 

Even though the wizard had explained how valuable their hairy little guide might eventually become, none of them ever truly fathomed how irreplaceable he would prove to be.  Other than when they were in his home in Briarwood, he hadn’t seemed to fulfill those lofty expectations.  In fact, he seemed quite useless at times, before he took over in the mountains and led them to the secret backdoor.  It was from that point on that he began to astound them with what he could do. 

From that moment until now, the aignx had continued to amaze them at nearly every turn.  Each time they encountered a new obstacle, Qaim had somehow instinctively seemed to know what to do.  They were astounded with how he had detected where the backdoor was located, even under the mounds of snow, and how he was able to neutralize every trap they encountered after entering the tunnels leading to the fortress.  They were ever so grateful as he harmlessly set off those deadly contraptions, after noting any one of those devices could have killed most, if not all of them, once activated. 

After that, they watched in awe as he guided them through the maze of intersecting corridors, until they discovered Jana and she led them the rest of the way.  Now, the aignx impressed them once more with his special talents, but it was obvious this task was even more complex and potentially as dangerous as any of his previous challenges.

None of the companions dared to move or speak, as the aignx noiselessly went about his duties.  They nearly jumped out of their skin, though, when a loud click signaled the final latch had been released. 

“Qaim open door now,” he dryly announced. “Qaim do as you ask.”

“Excellent job,” Rhys praised him, even though he couldn’t tell what sort of reaction the aignx made in response to his words.  “You have done well.” 

“I agree Qaim has proved his usefulness,” Sedain suggested, although lacking the same degree of enthusiasm, “but please allow me to check this out further, before we go rushing to conclusions.  I believe a certain amount of caution will still be required, so I request I be allowed to look for other dangers, especially if this is the hiding place of the Sword of Kings.  I humbly volunteer for this duty, so I might contribute something more to this effort.”

“You have proven your worth several times already,” Rhys corrected him, “but I believe your suggestion is a wise one and you’ve earned the right.  If you wish this job, then it is yours.  Do what you think you must, but please don’t be afraid to ask for assistance.  The rest of us will remain alert for signs of danger while you work.”

Hearing Rhys’ response, the dwarf moved over to the door, which Qaim had opened just a crack.  He quickly studied it for traces of other hazards before he went further.  Qaim, who had overheard the conversation between the dwarf and Rhys, was totally puzzled by their continued concern, since he had already assured them it was safe to continue. 

As he watched Sedain’s cautious actions, he wondered why the others didn’t think he would have discovered any other devices that might be present.  Frustrated and annoyed, he now spoke up on his own behalf. 

“No more traps.  Qaim take care of all traps.  You need not look for more.”

“I believe you, Qaim,” the dwarf responded.  “It’s just that I’d rather be safe than regret not checking it out later.”  With that said, Sedain returned to his task and within minutes he was pulling the door completely open. 

Almost as one, the companions moved closer to the hidden compartment and strained to see what was contained within.  As the sunlight glinted off the object inside, there was a collective gasp as they each caught their first glimpse of the object of their search.  It was more beautiful than any of them could have ever imagined, even considering the many decades of neglect and concealment it had endured.  Yet now it shimmered in the bright light of day. 

Sedain turned and scanned the faces of the others, to see if they were experiencing the same feeling of awe that he was, before moving back to the compartment, so he could inspect it more completely.  The dwarf intentionally avoided making any contact with the sword itself, since he didn’t understand the nature of its power.  He wasn’t certain if it might harm anyone who touched it, other than someone of royal blood.  Therefore, after several more seconds of gawking at this magnificent artifact, he turned toward his young companion and spoke.

“Kieren, this moment belongs solely to you and your bloodline,” Sedain announced, with a slight bow.  “I respectfully offer you the honor of completing the task of reclaiming this talisman on their behalf.” 

The dwarf then stepped aside, as the others began to urge Kieren to take the first step in fulfilling his destiny.  He now had an unobstructed pathway to the sword’s hiding place.  Timidly, Kieren moved forward, totally fascinated by the beauty of this meticulously crafted weapon.  Suddenly, it seemed as if some unseen force began to lift his arm and gradually pulled it toward the magnificent blade, until his skin came into contact with the cold metal hilt. 

Slowly, he moved his fingers over the delicate workmanship, although he was not completely certain about what he was expected to do next.  Awkwardly, he let his fingers brush over the majestic grip, until he determined it was time for him to grasp it securely.  His heart almost stopped beating when he started to lift and remove it from its hiding place.  He was also most assuredly amazed by how light it actually was, as opposed to what he expected.  Slowly, he withdrew the sword from the compartment it had been hidden in and then turned toward his friends, while holding the sword aloft for all to see. 

Everyone was beaming with pride at this accomplishment, since each of them had sometimes privately doubted they would ever get this far.  Suddenly, they had to stifle the urge to shout out in jubilation, as Kieren proudly displayed the matchless sword and the warm glow of success swelled within their breasts.

“I hate to spoil this moment,” Alairic interrupted, “but I think it would be best if we get out of this place so we can confront Madumda on our terms, not his.  There are many other dangers we must concern ourselves with first, such as escaping this fortress before we are discovered.  Kieren, cover yourself and the sword with your robe, because you must survive, even if the rest of us do not.  Jana, would you be so kind as to lead us out of here?”

“Yes, I will, but only if you promise to take me with you,” the servant girl answered.  Her body language told them she wasn’t about to compromise on this demand. 

“Of course we will,” Kieren stated, quickly and emphatically, "because without you we might not have been able to find what we were looking for.  We owe you much more than just freeing you from this dreadful servitude, so we'll also make sure you get out of this dreadful place safely and have a chance at a better life.  To help keep you safe along the way, I want you to take my old sword, because I now have the Sword of Kings.  You'll be able use it to protect yourself, just in case we encounter any other dangers along the way.”

Jana nodded slightly before accepting the weapon, but once it was in her possession she unexpectedly threw her other arm around Kieren's neck and energetically hugged him to show her appreciation.  The others merely snickered or smirked at her impromptu display of affection and heartfelt response, while most of them also nodded their heads in agreement concerning Kieren's generous offer.  The problem was, not everyone seemed to be as totally convinced about doing these things for her as Kieren was. 

First of all, some of the companions were concerned about the idea of giving Jana a sword.  It wasn't that they were fearful she might wield it against them, but they weren't convinced she would be able to use the blade effectively to defend herself if the need arose.  There was always the possibility that she might unintentionally wind up endangering or injuring one or more of them in the process, especially if she began to swing the weapon about wildly as she lashed out at whatever threat happened to be near her at the time. 

The second concern was that there was a better than average chance they would be facing additional obstacles and other potentially dangerous situations before they managed to escape the fortress.  For this reason, those questioning this decision were debating whether it would be wise to expose Jana to even more danger.  If they took her along with them, they had no way of knowing how she would handle herself or hold up under such stressful and threatening conditions.  Would she end up proving to be more of a hindrance or an asset as they attempt to escape this foreboding lair?  Would her lack of skill possibly put them all at greater risk or significantly impact their chances in any way?

After thinking about this for a couple more minutes, those still uncertain about including her eventually concluded that she was their best hope of finding a way out of this predicament.  She at least had some awareness of the layout of the fortress, but she also had a better idea about what might be awaiting them from this point on.

“Then follow me and I will show you the way out of here,” Jana announced, interrupting their thoughts and internal debate.  Her face was radiating with appreciation as she whirled about and prepared to leave, but then she stopped and didn't go any further when someone asked another question.

“Will we encounter any more guards before we get out of here?” Garreth wanted to know.

“Yes, I think so,” she conceded, “unless you go back the way you came.  I don’t know that way, so you’d have to show me where to go after I returned you to the place where we first met.”

“No, that is not an option any longer and it would take us too far away from where we need to be,” Kieren stated, very matter-of-factly.  “We must travel to the Plains of Asimae first, so I can get help from Beraut before I confront Madumda.  Is there a way out of this place that’s not as well guarded?”

“No, the only route out that I know of is through the main entrance to the building.  It has always been my understanding that doorway is the only way to enter or exit this place; although I had also heard rumors that the secret path my father had planned to use was still there as well.  I suspect that’s how you got in here.”  Jana scanned their faces and watched their reactions to her comment, before pausing to see what they decided to do next. 

“That’s certainly not encouraging news,” Rhys remarked, “but I guess we don’t have any choice in the matter.  In that case, let’s get moving.”

“Not quite yet,” Kieren announced, as he walked across the room to where the sphere was located.  “There’s still this orb and the feeling Qaim had about it that makes me feel compelled to do something about it before we leave.”  At this point, Kieren reached out and touched the sphere.  Ever so gently, he let his palm slide across its smooth surface.

“What hast thou in mind?” rumbled the big Mitikuan. 

“I’m not quite sure, but I feel we just can’t leave it,” the young man told them, while thinking it over. 

“No, don’t mess with it!” Garreth urged his friend, as a look of panic washed over his face.  “It’s some sort of magical object, so it might have a power that could harm you if you try to do something to it.”

“I appreciate your concern, Garreth,” Kieren replied, “but we have been facing many dangerous situations throughout this entire mission.  I can’t back away from this problem now, just because of what MIGHT happen.  I don’t think this is nearly as risky as some of the other things we’ve been forced to deal with, but I have the feeling it will lessen the Dark Lord’s grip somehow and maybe even make it a bit easier when I face him later.”  Each of them, with the possible exception of Qaim and Jana, got chills from the thought of his eventual showdown with the sorcerer.

“But that’s not a good enough reason to take an extra risk,” Garreth argued, since he didn’t wish to lose another friend. 

“No, but it is also not a reason to ignore it either,” Kieren challenged.  “I think that by destroying this device we will take away some of Madumda’s superiority.  It may severe his control over his pets or neutralize some other magical advantage he now holds.  I have to go with my instincts on this, my dear friend, as well as considering Qaim’s reaction when he first encountered it.  I must take this opportunity to destroy it if there is any chance it might weaken Madumda, even if only slightly.”

Once more Kieren began to investigate the frosty looking ball, as he searched for a clue to tell him what he should do to it.  It appeared to have a solid covering, with no seams or visible openings, and the only other connection was the wooden cross-frame on which it rested.  Walking around the orb several times, Kieren didn’t make any comment or ask for suggestions, but merely continued to examine the oddity.  After searching every inch of it, he finally decided what he must do. 

Stepping back slightly, Kieren lifted the sword above his head, before forcefully slamming the cutting edge of the blade against its surface.  There was a thunderous crack as the sword made contact with the orb, followed by a gust of foul smelling wind, which unexpectedly blew everyone backward. 

Kieren, Garreth, Jana and Qaim were the most severely effected by this event and were thrown completely off balance by the surprisingly forceful blast of air.  Each one was either knocked to the floor or slammed against the wall, but none of them were seriously injured.  The warriors appeared to fare much better, mainly because of their superior size, increased weight or lower center of gravity.  These advantages helped the others to stay upright, although each one was still slightly shaken.

There was also an eerie and unsettling sound that accompanied the escaping wind.  Presumably, it had been caused by the air forcefully rushing through the opening Kieren had just made.

“Kieren, are you all right?” Garreth screamed, as he regained his footing and raced to his friend’s side.  Kieren was slightly dazed by what had happened, but he managed to look up and smile at his friend.

“Yes, I’m fine,” he admitted.  “I have not been harmed, only knocked on my butt, but thank you for your concern.” 

Garreth smiled back and reached out his hand to help his mate stand again.  Kieren grasped onto Garreth’s outstretched palm and started to pull himself off of the floor, but doing this nearly dragged Garreth down with him in the process.

“What was that all about?  What just happened when you smashed that thing?” Garreth followed, as soon as they were both standing.

“I’m not certain, but I think I just let more than the cat out of the bag,” Kieren responded, while giving a wry grin.  “I have the feeling the Dark Lord has been keeping something confined in the orb, although I’m not sure what it might be.  I'm fairly certain, however, that he won’t be happy about what I’ve done to it.”  While the two boys were busy inspecting the shattered sphere, someone else posed another question.

“What was that smell?” Jana inquired, while wrinkling up her nose in disgust.

“I think it was the smell of air that has been stagnant for much too long a time,” Quintain offered.

“I’d say it smelled more like the tanner’s stall back at Leander,” Garreth countered, while sniffing the air tentatively.  However, the overpowering odors they had first encountered had already partially dissipated. 

“I think it was more of a cross between the smell of wet animal fur and a stagnant pond,” Rhys added.  “It was repulsive, to say the least.” 

“Enough!” boomed Turquinine.  “Thou hast no time for such prattle.  By now Madumda will knoweth of our deeds and cometh to confront us.  Mistress Jana, wilst thou please lead us from this place?”  The servant girl nodded, although she was slightly unnerved by the large knight’s domineering attitude.

“Our big friend is correct,” Rhys added.  “This last act probably alerted the Dark Lord of our treachery in his quarters, even though he more than likely knew we were already in Treblanc.  Kieren, it is time for you to secure yourself and the sword in your robe, just to be safe. 

“Turquinine and Alairic,” Rhys continued, “I would like you to be responsible for guarding Kieren as we attempt to get out of this place.  Garreth and Qaim, you stay with them.  I will walk beside Jana as she leads the way and the dwarfs shall bring up the rear, while protecting our backsides.  Now, let’s go back to the other room.”

Slowly, they opened the door between the two chambers and checked to make certain no one else had entered while they had been doing their search.  Once they felt it was safe to do so, they exited the laboratory and stood inside the main room again, with each one tightly clutching his weapon of choice.  Alairic then walked over to the door that led into the hallway and placed an ear against it, as he listened for any sounds coming from the other side.  Since he didn't hear anything that alarmed him, he carefully opened the wooden portal a tiny bit, so he could peer into the open expanse that lay beyond. 

Qaim shied away from the bodies of the two guards as he passed by them and was anxious to get away from this place once and for all.  Before long, Alairic pulled the door completely open and glided out into the corridor, closely followed by the others.

“Where to now?” Rhys asked Jana.

“We need to go this way,” she responded, while pointing toward the passageway to their left. 

The companions then moved stealthily in that direction, but they hadn’t gone very far before discovering they were at the top of a long, wide, elaborate stairway.  From what they could see from the balcony, it led to a large foyer below.

“We must go down these stairs and through that doorway over there,” Jana urged, while indicating the entranceway on the far wall of the foyer.  “The doorway that leads outside is at the other end of the corridor that lies beyond this opening, but it will be the most dangerous part.”

“Why?” asked Alairic.  “How many guards are stationed there?”

“I’m not sure, but possibly six to eight,” she told him.

“You’re not sure?” Garreth asked, amazed and concerned. 

“Well I’ve never had a chance to count them,” she admitted, somewhat offended by his question.  “You forget that I am not allowed to go to places like this.  I have only been able to lead you due to the stories I have heard and because the levels are laid out similar to the ones below.  However, when it comes to how many soldiers you will find there, I can only guess at their number.  I am only able to do this because I can recall some the comments the guards have made while eating.”

“I’m very sorry about what I said.  I forgot how badly you’ve been treated here,” Garreth responded shyly.  “I truly regret if what I said sounded harsh.”

“Don’t worry.  I’ve been treated far worse,” she responded, while trying to hide a tear that had been forming in the corner of her eye. 

Silently, they resumed their escape and began to painstakingly make their way down the staircase.   As they did so, each one constantly scanned the surrounding area and searched for any threats to their safety.  They were gradually inching their way down the staircase and slowly moving in the direction of the exit to the fortress.  Those in the lead had just passed the midpoint of the stairway when the giant doors leading into the foyer burst open. 

Immediately the companions focused on the opening and then recoiled slightly, as a very agitated Madumda came storming into the foyer.  Instinctively, he slammed the door shut behind him again, even before he realized the others were there. 

Kieren and his protectors froze in place, but the warriors still clung fiercely to their weapons, as they prepared to defend the heir.  Each of their minds raced wildly, as they tried to determine what they should do next, but one thing was very clear.  The long awaited showdown was about to take place.