Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Wolf Pack CHAPTER 10


The next morning Carthinal woke to the sounds of the inn preparing for the day. At first, he could not remember where he was, and then he realised that he was in a warm, soft bed in a warm and cosy room. He stretched, and lay back to savour the comfort, but then a voice broke his dreaming.
‘About time you woke up. There are things to do today, or have you forgotten, with this comfortable living?’
Carthinal threw a pillow at Basalt, for it was indeed he who was speaking.
‘Allow me a few moments grace to wake up properly,’ he scolded the dwarf, good-naturedly. ‘Where is Fero?’
‘Up and about long ago,’ replied the grinning dwarf, returning the pillow with an accuracy that hit Carthinal right on the nose. ‘We’re meeting Asphodel downstairs for breakfast in about ten minutes. Think you’ll manage to make it?’
Carthinal nodded, and rose out of bed. He washed quickly in the water in the jug, which was now cold, but had been hot when Fero brought it up from the bathhouse, and pulled a comb through his shoulder-length auburn hair. Then he dressed in his clean robes and made for the door.
‘Hey, wait for me!’ called Bas.
‘I thought you were the one waiting for me! Come on then.’ With that, Carthinal left the room.
Downstairs, he found Fero and Asphodel sitting at a table near the fire. They waved and beckoned the others to the table which was laden with warm rolls, butter, preserves and from a pot on the table came the delicious aroma of fresh coffee.
‘We can have something cooked if you wish. Mabrella offered it, but Asphodel and I prefer to break our fast lightly,’ Fero said as they approached the table.
‘This is just fine by me,’ replied Carthinal. ‘What about you, Bas?’
‘It looks and smells delicious. Pour some of that coffee, will you, Asphodel. It seems forever since I had a drink of such a delicious smelling beverage.’
As Asphodel poured coffee for them all, and they tucked into the homemade rolls and preserves, they discussed the plans for the day.
‘We shouldn’t go too early to see Duke Rollo,’ Asphodel opined. ‘We don’t know how early he rises or what his plans are for the mornings. Maybe we’ll have to make an appointment if he’s very busy today.’
‘We can first have a look at the town. Find our bearings, and also get directions to the Duke’s residence. We, Asphodel, also need to find out how to get to our own destinations, and Fero and Basalt to theirs.’ Carthinal pointed out.
So after a good breakfast, and feeling rested and full, the four set off to explore the town. The Market Square was beginning to come alive with the stallholders setting up their stalls in readiness for the day’s trade. There were already people in the square hoping to get the best of the goods on sale before everyone else came.
The four wandered around until they came to the street by which they had entered the previous evening. They walked slowly along, looking at the wares now on display in the windows of the various shops. This street seemed to be mainly hardware, with the shops selling pots and pans, cutlery, buckets, farming implements etc. There were many dwarves among the shopkeepers, as dwarven metalwork was always of the highest quality and greatly in demand. One shop drew their attention in particular. It was selling metal goods of an ornamental design. Some things were purely decorative, while others were functional, but with such beautiful workmanship and with embossed parts that they all thought it would be a pity to use them. There were drinking vessels that were engraved with intricate designs, knives with delicately etched designs in their blades, forks with elaborate handles and many, many more.
Other streets seemed also to be dedicated to particular types of shop. There was a street full of butchers’ shops, one of bakers, another, from the smell, was the street dedicate to fishmongers. There were jewellers, grocers, haberdashers, milliners, shoe shops and clothes shops. There were shops dedicated to hunting, others to spices and herbs. One road was filled with shops selling armour and another dedicated to weapons of various kinds. It seemed that every type of goods could be bought here in Hambara.
‘Of course, we are in the merchant area,’ Basalt reminded them. 
There were many people around and Fero in particular was feeling rather uncomfortable, being much happier in the wilderness. They felt the crowds were jostling them rather a lot.
Suddenly, Carthinal cried out, ‘That boy! He’s just taken my pouch,’ pointing to a quickly disappearing youth with a mop of curly red hair.
‘You won’t catch him now,’ pointed out a man who was walking past. ‘He’s no doubt passed your pouch onto his companions by now, and they will be long gone.’
‘Did you have much in it?’ asked Asphodel, concerned.
‘Not much of my money, but it did have the figurine we were taking to Duke Rollo,’ replied Carthinal. ‘Damn! That should not have happened. How did I let that happen?’
‘These things happen in cities,’ Fero laid a hand on Carthinal’s arm. ‘One reason that I don’t like to be in them for too long.’ ‘I know! I know! Of all people, I know!’ Carthinal was angry with himself it was obvious.
‘What’s done is done, lad,’ comforted Basalt. ‘It’s no use trying to undo it.’ ‘You’re right of course, but how did I allow myself to slip like that?’
‘Come on Carthinal. At least you didn’t have all your money in it. You were sensible enough to put it some elsewhere,’ said Asphodel. ‘We’ll just have to explain to Duke Rollo that you haven’t got the figurine any more, and how you lost it.’
‘But he may not believe us if we don’t have it for identification,’ argued Carthinal.
‘Maybe, but we still have the letter. It is signed, and it has a seal,' went on Asphodel, unsure as to why Carthinal was so very angry with himself over what must be a common occurrence, especially as little of his money had gone.
‘I suppose you’re right but I’m still angry that I let my guard down so I could be robbed. Also, the Duke may think we are planning on keeping the figurine ourselves, and have made up the story of the thief,’ he replied. 'It is made of gold after all.'
The others eventually managed to placate Carthinal, and they set about trying to find the way to Duke Rollo’s house. As it happened, it was not difficult to get directions. The first person that they asked directed them to the centre of the town, to the green parkland that they had noticed from the hill. They walked along towards the town’s centre. Basalt’s observation from the hill outside town was obviously correct, that the house in the centre of the park was the Duke’s residence.
‘I hope he’s there and not out of town,’ said Asphodel. ‘These important people sometimes have business to attend to in other places, as well as other homes in the country.’
‘I don’t think he’ll be at his country residence at this time of the year,’ replied Fero. ‘It’ll be a bit chilly. Anyway, he wouldn’t be likely to be away from his main residence for the Equinox would he?’
‘Well if he is away, we’ll leave the letter and tell someone where we can be found if he needs us,’ suggested Carthinal. ‘Come on. Let’s go. Asphodel needs to get to her temple and I need to go and report to the Tower today as well.’
So the four of them came to the gates in the centre of the town. They were at the northern end of a large square. The gates were closed, and a small building was situated just inside. They saw that there was a bell on the gates, and Carthinal rang it. A man came out of the building. He was a large man with greying hair and beard and he had obviously been in the army at one time for he carried a two-handed sword as though he knew how to use it and was willing to do so on any visitors.
‘State yer business,’ he said in a gruff voice.
‘We wish to see Duke Rollo,’ Asphodel told him, giving him her sweetest smile. Her charm did not work on this rough warrior though.
‘Yeah! They all do. I need to know why you want ter see ’im afore I open these ’ere gates,’ he growled.
‘We have a letter for him,’ said Carthinal. ‘It's from Duke Danu of Bluehaven.'
‘Gi’ me th’ letter an’ I’ll send it up to th’ House,’ the other replied. ‘Jondo! There’s a letter fer ’is Lordship ’ere. Tak’ it up ter th’ House.’ The capital letter was obvious in his voice.
A boy came out of the building at the big man’s call. He was about nine years old, and bore enough of a resemblance to the old warrior that it was obvious that he was a close relative; probably his grandson.
The boy looked at the man and said, ‘I’ll run all th’ way. See how quick I c’n be this time. I bet I c’n beat me record.’
‘OK! But be sure an’ be quick. These ’ere people haven’t too much time to waste, I’m sure.’
At this, the boy set off at a run along the tree-lined drive.
‘Yer’ll have ter wait ’ere till ’e comes back if yer want a reply. May’ap th’ Duke’ll see yer, may’ap ’e won’t. Depends on what’s in yon letter,’ The old warrior said. ‘P’raps I can let yer through th’ gate so’s the young lady can sit down, but no messin’. I knows how to use me sword, an’ I’m pretty ’andy with a cross bow too.’
‘We’ll put all our weapons down if that will ease your mind,’ said Carthinal. He was rewarded by a scowl from Basalt.
‘If th’ Duke’s gonna see yer, yer’ll have ter leave yer weapons ’ere anyways,’ replied the man. ‘Don’t let no one in wi’ weapons, don’t the Duke. Afraid someone’ll harm Lady Randa, ’e is.’
‘Who’s Lady Randa?’ asked Asphodel. ‘His wife?’
‘Naw. Yer new in town ain’t yer or ye’d know. Lady Randa’s ’is daughter. Eighteen years old and spoiled rotten she is. Anyway, mustn’t talk out o’ turn. It’s the duke’s business ’ow ’e treats ’is daughter. ’E’s allus been good ter me though. Give me this job when I retired from ’is guard.’
The boy returned quickly, and was somewhat out of breath.
‘Granda,’ he panted. ‘The Duke asked they be sent up to th’ House straight away.’
‘Well, well. That is a mighty important letter,’ the old guard said. ‘Go on then. Straight along th’ drive. Can’t miss th’ House. Yer can collect yer weapons when yer returns.’
‘I feel naked,’ grumbled Basalt as they walked along the drive towards the house.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Asphodel. 
‘Without my weapons. I go everywhere with them. We could be set upon from out of these trees and have no means of defending ourselves.’
‘Don’t be silly, Bas. I’d like to see anyone get past that old guard, and we needn’t fear the Duke, I’m sure,’ Asphodel reassured him, but the dwarf was still uncomfortable and rather jumpy when they reached the end of the avenue of trees and saw another set of gates before them. As they approached, a guard in a scarlet jacket and black trousers opened the gates. He carried a sword sheathed at his hip.
As they passed through the gate, he saluted them and said, ‘Go straight to the main doors, Sirs and Sister. You are expected.’
 ‘A slightly different reception,’ whispered Asphodel to Carthinal.
‘Yes, but here they know we’re coming and what it’s all about. Out there we could be anyone,’ he pointed out.
They passed through formal gardens on the way to the main doors. On either side of the path were gardens with winter flowering plants whose perfume hung on the air giving a promise of the spring to come. After about thirty yards, the path divided to go around a fountain in the centre of a pool. Golden fish swam in the pool, the like of which none of the four companions had ever seen before. The fountain was in the shape of a water nymph, and she was pouring water from a large shell into the pool, the surface of which was covered with large water lily leaves.
Beyond the pool, and after some more formal garden edged with small neatly trimmed box hedges, steps climbed up to a terrace which ran along the entire front elevation of the building. There was a low wall along the garden side of the terrace and at the top of the steps were two large urns, one on each side planted with small conifers and more of the winter flowering plants. Large double doors stood in the centre of the House with gilding in an intricate pattern all around the edge. There were large windows to each side of the door, two on either side, and columns, holding up a stone porch to keep anyone standing at the door dry in inclement weather, flanked the door. Although they could not see it from where they stood, the Ducal Palace was built in the shape of a square with a central courtyard, with more gardens and fountains.
As they approached the door, it opened, and an elf in red and black livery stood aside to allow them to enter. He was dark-haired with the natural good looks and elegance of all elves. He looked at them with some suspicion in his blue eyes, but bowed politely as they entered the House. They passed under the porch and found themselves in a large and elegant entrance hall. The floor was of marble and at the far end of the room was an imposing staircase, also of marble. The staircase began in the centre of the far wall and divided half way up, each side sweeping up to the first floor. There were doors off the hall on either side, three on the left and two on the right. The third door on the left was almost hidden under the staircase. On each side of the hall was a small table. One had a bust of a young man and on the other side was an urn filled with dried grasses and seed heads, making a very elegant arrangement.
On the floor was a long golden coloured carpet, running the length of the hall and up the centre of the stairs, and on the walls were beautiful paintings, all in a colour scheme to match the room. The floor itself was a cream marble and the banisters of the stairs were gilded.
The walls were of a creamy colour that perfectly matched the marble floor, if a little deeper in tone. The impression that was given was one of understated wealth and excellent taste.
‘The Duke will see you in his study,’ the elf told them. ‘Follow me.’ He began to walk towards the third door on the left.
When he reached it, he knocked twice and then entered and announced them. ‘Your guests, sir,’ he said. ‘Should I send them in?’
A deep and musical voice replied, ‘Yes of course, and bring some wine, please, Daramissillo.’
    They entered a room with two windows, making it appear very light and airy. The first window was in the wall opposite the door, and the second was on the wall to their right, opening on the garden in the central quadrangle. To their left was a fireplace with a fire burning in it and a second door at the far side of it.
Immediately opposite the door was a large wooden desk inlaid with tooled leather, but at the moment covered with books and papers. A man was seated behind the desk. He was in his late forties or early fifties, so Carthinal estimated, and had obviously been a warrior in his youth. He looked as though he still kept himself fit, however, his physique being that of a younger man, but his age was given away by the grey in his once fair hair. He wore his hair in a fashionable style, just touching his collar at the back. His blue eyes held an intelligence that indicated that he was not easily taken in by falsehoods.
‘He must have been a very handsome man in his youth,’ thought Asphodel to herself. 
‘Come in and seat yourselves by the fire. It’s rather cold today and I’m sure you want to get warm,’ the deep voice said. ‘I’m Duke Rollo although you have probably guessed that. I’ll be with you in a minute. I’ve just got to sign these last couple of papers. Always papers to read and sign running a dukedom, you know.’
There was another knock on the door, and Daramissillo returned with the promised wine. He poured out five glasses, gave one to each of them and one to the Duke and quietly withdrew, leaving the tray with the bottle on a small table near the hearth.
While the Duke finished his paperwork, the group sat down in four comfortable chairs that were arranged around the blazing fire in the hearth on the left-hand wall of the study. Over the fireplace was a painting of a beautiful young woman. She had grey eyes and long brunette hair and the sweetest smile on her face. They found that the picture was so riveting that they could hardly tear their eyes from it.
‘Ah I see you’ve been captivated by that painting, as have all who have seen it,’ said the Duke, approaching them soon afterwards. ‘It is the work of the artist Demando, and one of his best works, but it doesn’t do justice to the original. No, nowhere near.’ This last was said in a very quiet voice, almost to himself.
‘Is it your daughter, sir?’ said Fero. ‘We heard you have a daughter.’
‘No, friend,’ the Duke replied sadly. ‘It’s a portrait of my wife, who died just eighteen years ago this month. In fact, the anniversary of her death and the birthday of my daughter were just two days ago.’
Carthinal voiced their sympathy for his loss as seemed proper to do. Then the Duke seemed to pull himself together and asked for introductions to the group. After they had finished giving their names, the duke held up the letter.
‘Where did you get this?’ he asked them. ‘This letter contains some rather disquieting information. I would rather not reveal it at the moment until I’ve thought about it some more, but I wanted to see you to convince myself that you’re not mischief-makers. Tell me the story as to how you came by this letter. The letter also says that you should have something to let me know that you are genuinely from Danu. I would like to see that as well.’
Carthinal told the story of how he had found the paper with the prophecy in the book that Mabryl had bought and how Mabryl had told Duke Danu about it. He went on to relate how they had been caught up in the flood on the Brundella and told of Mabryl's death. Mabryl’s death was still painful for him to relate, and he once again felt the surge of anger, and then guilt that he still felt whenever he thought of his old mentor but he pushed it to one side. He went on to explain how Basalt and Fero had come into their company, and of the kidnap of Asphodel by the orcs. He told of his disquiet that the orcs were raiding so far from their usual areas, and finally he explained how he had lost the identifying figurine.
Duke Rollo listened intently, then said, ‘If you can get the figurine back as proof of your veracity, I would be grateful. It would take away any doubts I may have that this is truly a letter from my old friend and not some trick. Your story has a ring of truth to my ears, but those whom we may be dealing with are masters of deceit. I must be sure. If you can’t find the ring, then I must think long and hard, and pray to the gods that I come to the correct decision. Meanwhile, if you let me know where I may find you if I need to ask you any more questions I would be grateful.’
Carthinal then told him that they were staying at the Golden Dragon Inn but that Asphodel would be going to the temple of Sylissa that afternoon, and some of the time he, himself, would be in the Mage Tower taking his tests.
At the mention of the Golden Dragon, Duke Rollo smiled. ‘I bet Jandi was on duty when you arrived, wasn’t he?’
When they replied in the affirmative, he replied, ‘He always sends travellers to his sister’s inn. Not that it isn’t one of the best in town, and very reasonably priced, I’m told, but she’s often over-crowded and run off her feet. Still, he means well.’
The duke then stood up, and seeing that they had all finished their wine, he rang the bell that called Daramissillo.
‘Please show our guests out,’ he told the elf, then he extended his hand to each of them in turn, and bade them farewell. After they had left, the duke rang the bell on his desk once more, and Daramissillo entered again. The duke spoke to him. ‘I want you to find out as much as you can about those four that have just left. The letter they brought contained worrying news and I must be certain that it is genuine. Find out where they came from, and something about their backgrounds. I want them stopped from leaving the city just at the moment. Nothing too obvious mind. Make sure the dwarf and the ranger can’t get work. The mage will be around for a few days at least as he told me he’s taking his tests and the elf is bound for the temple of Sylissa. Send a message to the Great Father there and ask him to come and see me as soon as he is able. I know he’s a busy man, but he may be able to help with details of the elf, and how to detain her if she plans to go anywhere else. Use whatever methods you can.’
Daramissillo began to leave, after bowing to the duke when the duke said, ‘Oh! And find out if any of the fences in the town have bought a gold figurine in the shape of a horse. That will be all,’ and he dismissed the elf with a wave of his hand.
After Daramissillo had left, the duke sat thinking deeply, a frown on his handsome face. He rubbed a hand over his hair and sighed. Why must there always be problems for him to resolve? He supposed that was what being the Duke was about—responsibility for others’ welfare.
‘What kind of ruler will Randa make when I'm gone,’ he wondered. 'I’m afraid that I’ve indulged her too much. Ah well, too late to worry about that now. I must try to decide what to do about this current problem.’
And with those thoughts he returned to his work.
When the four left the Ducal Palace, they made their way to the gates.
‘I don’t think the duke was too impressed that we didn’t have the figurine,’ observed Fero.
‘No. And that’s all my stupid fault,’ growled Carthinal in reply. ‘I know what cities are like and how thieves operate in them. I should have been more wary. Now Asphodel and I must go, she to the temple of Sylissa, and I to the Mage Tower. I’ll see you both at the inn this evening I trust?’
‘Yes, Carthinal, we’ll be at the inn,’ replied Fero with a smile. ‘I don’t expect we will find work so quickly.’
The four split up, Carthinal and Asphodel heading to the Temple area, and the others back to the inn. As they approached the temple, Carthinal felt a reluctance to say goodbye to Asphodel. He had begun to think of her as a good friend on their journey and was attracted by her delicate beauty. They stopped at the bottom of the steps of a large white temple. A white banner with a blue triskel flew from the flagpole above the large double doors, which were in turn embossed with gold triskels, the symbol of Sylissa, and signifying life. He held out his hand, and she took it. On impulse, he dropped a swift, light kiss on the top of her black hair.
‘This looks like goodbye, then,’ he said ‘I hope all goes well. I know you will be a wonderful healer one day in spite of anything I said in anger after Mabryl’s death. I apologise for my behaviour then. It was inexcusable.’ With that, he turned and strode quickly away before Asphodel could reply. She watched for a few moments and then turned and slowly made her way up the steps to the doors of the temple.
Carthinal, ignoring the feelings of sadness that were threatening to envelop him, continued along to the turning for the Tower. He felt he had lost another important person in his life when he said goodbye to Asphodel, and he wondered at the feeling. He hardly knew her yet he she was beginning to become important to him. He turned right along a road that was dominated by the sight of the Tower at the end and his thoughts turned to that edifice. It was truly an impressive building. It was about ten stories tall, and if the rumours were true, there were many more floors below ground level, where research was carried out. The tower was built of a golden coloured stone, and there were windows around its circumference. The top was roofed over in grey slate, and a walkway surrounded the highest storey, giving the tower an overhang at the top.
He came to a pair of gates set in an iron fence, inside of which were grassy areas and water features, with shady walks and hidden areas where a person could sit quietly and read or just think. The whole feeling was one of calm. Carthinal felt his apprehensions drifting away as he approached the gates. A gatekeeper saw him, and immediately saw that he was an apprentice, and probably here for the tests. He asked Carthinal his name, and then consulted a list that he had in his shelter.
‘You were expected before now, and we expected two of you, but enter,’ he said ‘Go and report to the main entrance.’
There seemed little in the way of security, unlike at the Palace. He was obviously the last, as the gatekeeper began to pack up the papers as he walked through. Carthinal supposed that the awe and fear in which most people held mages would be enough to protect the tower and its occupants from unwelcome intruders, and he assumed that there were magical defences as well.
He entered the doors and found himself in a large round room, which covered the entire ground floor. Stairs wound up the tower from the opposite side of the room, and there was also a staircase that went down, confirming the rumours that there were floors beneath the ground. Suddenly a strange thought struck Carthinal. He was sure that this room was bigger than it should be. It seemed to be bigger than the outside. Carthinal was looking around, to try to sort out the disorientating feeling when he was approached by a man in the scarlet robes of a probationary mage, one in his first year after qualifying.
 ‘You must be Carthinal. My name’s Dabbock,’ he exclaimed. ‘You’re the last of the apprentices for this session. You’re just in time. The tests begin tomorrow, and you must be briefed with the others in about an hour. Where’s your Master? Apprentices rarely come alone, although strangely enough, there is one other without his master this time.’
Carthinal crushed the brief feeling of sorrow, and squeezed back the tears that threatened to come at the mention of Mabryl.
‘He met with an accident on the way here, and unfortunately, in spite of the ministrations of a novice of Sylissa, he died.’
‘I am sorry to hear it,’ Dabbock replied. ‘I heard that Mabryl was a great mage and I was looking forward to meeting him. You must come with me to Tharron. He was my master until I passed the Tests. He was a friend of Mabryl when they were students, and they kept in touch. He asked to see you when you arrived.’
‘Yes, I’ve heard Mabryl speak of him. He regarded him very highly and said that he was one of the greatest teachers of magic alive today.’
 Carthinal did not want to have to repeat the story of Mabryl’s death, but he saw that he had no choice, so he followed the other man up the stairs. They climbed three flights, and then his guide knocked on a door.
A voice called, ‘Enter.’
The pair did so. His guide introduced him to a man seated behind a desk, reading a large book and then withdrew. The man was grey-haired but youthful looking, and was wearing black robes.
He stood and held out his hand. ‘I’m Tharron,’ he said in a light tenor voice. ‘I was hoping that Mabryl would be with you. He usually comes. It must have been something important if he’s not here.’
‘I suppose you could say that.’ Carthinal replied in a gruff voice. ‘I think an appointment with Death is important enough to keep him away.’
Carthinal buried his sorrow beneath a mask of hardness, which he did not feel.
Tharron was obviously taken aback by the news. ‘You’d better tell me about it,’ he stated, not sure he liked this apprentice of Mabryl’s but was prepared to withhold judgement. After all, Mabryl had adopted him, so he must have some good qualities.
Carthinal began to tell him about the events that had transpired on the journey. He was telling the tale for the second time in a day, and he had to stop once during the telling, when he got to the actual death of his master. He was obviously overcome, and Tharron passed him a glass of water.
After he had finished his tale, Tharron re-assessed his initial dislike of Carthinal, realising that he was masking deep pain with his seemingly callous remarks, and said, ‘What a tragedy. You obviously feel his loss deeply. Please pass me the documents that he had regarding your tests.’
This Carthinal did, and Tharron read them with interest. ‘I know he’d adopted you. You’re therefore his heir, since he never married and had children of his own. You’re down on these papers as Carthinal Mabrylson. In this letter he says that he is absolutely certain that you will have no problems, and that he thinks that one day you will become one of the great mages of Vimar.’ Tharron looked up from the papers. ‘That is very high praise from a man like Mabryl, but I mustn’t keep you. My condolences on your loss. I’ll hope to speak with you again, but you must go and join the other apprentices and eat something before the briefing.’
With that, he called Dabbock back into the room and told him to take Carthinal to the dining room where he should be able to find some lunch, and then to the briefing room.
After a light lunch, Carthinal went with Dabbock to the room known as the briefing room. It was on the first floor, and was a relatively small room. Here he met the other apprentices who were thought by their masters to be ready to progress to probationer status. There were five of them. Carthinal realised with a pang that all but one of them had their masters with them. The room seemed crowded with ten people in it, but shortly, after giving last minute instructions, the masters withdrew.
The apprentices looked at each other anxiously, until one of them said,  ‘Look, we’re going to be in each other’s company for a few days, so let us introduce ourselves. My name is Laurre.’
Laurre was a very tall young man with rather untidy, mousy brown hair, and rather prominent teeth. He was very thin and looked as though he needed a good meal.
The others then introduced themselves. 
Olipeca was a human woman, rather small and retiring with brown hair tied in a tight bun away from her face in a style, which emphasised her rather pointed features. She could have been pretty if she made more effort and did her hair in a less severe way, Carthinal thought. Hammevaro seemed to be very fond of himself and said how certain he was of doing well. He was the other apprentice whose master was not with him. He made everyone to understand that he was sure to get the best marks as well as have both the girls fall for him, and he tossed his mane of golden hair to draw everyone’s attention to it. He was undoubtedly very good looking, but his pale blue eyes were cold even when he smiled, which he seemed to do for effect rather than from genuine amusement or friendliness. He was the other apprentice without his master present. Carthinal took an instant dislike to him. Grimmaldo was a friendly young man of medium stature and build, with light brown hair that he wore much shorter than the other men, just barely scraping the collar of his robe. He had a ready smile and a wicked sense of humour that was apparent in the twinkle in his greenish-blue eyes. Not particularly good-looking, he more than made up for this by his personality. Finally Ebrassaria introduced herself. She was an elf with black hair. Superficially she reminded Carthinal of Asphodel, but it was only superficial. Although she had the good looks of all elves, she spoiled it rather haughty expression. Also, her eyes were a rather muddy brown, not the clear grey of Asphodel’s. Carthinal thrust the thoughts of Asphodel to the back of his mind and he concentrated on listening to the others.
He noticed Olipeca looking at him and smiling shyly, and he smiled back. She came over to him, encouraged by his smile.
‘I’m a little nervous about this.’ She spoke quietly, almost apologetically. ‘My mistress says I’m ready, but I’m not too sure. It’s not the written part that worries me but the practical test. I’ve heard that they put you through dreadful things and that sometimes know...die.’
This last in a whisper so quiet that Carthinal had to struggle to hear. He had heard this rumour too, but he tried to reassure her. Then the door opened and in came Tharron.
He spoke briefly to the group, who had sat down on the chairs provided, Carthinal finding himself between Olipeca and Grimmaldo. He told them that they would be taking the tests on History of Magic the next morning, and in the afternoon it would be Astronomy and Astrology. Each test would be a written test of three hours and they were to report to the main hall the following morning at the third hour of the day on the dot for a start half an hour later. The afternoon session would start at the eighth hour of the day with the test beginning at half an hour after. They would be expected to remain in the tower during the day of each test, but could leave in the evenings and sample the joys of the town, or study, whichever they felt best suited them. The second day would be tests of Herbalism and Alchemy in the morning and the Theory of Magic in the afternoon. The same timings would apply. On the third day, the whole day would be taken up with the practical test. They would get the results of each test half a day after and he reminded them that a failure in any of the tests was a failure overall. Any who failed would remain an apprentice, but could retake the tests when their master thought they were ready, but they would not take the remaining tests now.
‘Thank you for listening to me, ladies and gentlemen. Now your time is your own.’ concluded Tharron.
‘Oh! I was hoping to get the Alchemy one over tomorrow. I’m useless at Alchemy. Herbalism’s OK, but I never could understand Alchemy,’ whispered Olipeca almost to herself. Carthinal felt a surge of irritation. The woman must be competent at least, or she would not be here. An apprentice had to pass every part of the tests in order to progress. He squashed an urge to snap at her, and instead smiled and said that he was certain that it would not be as bad as she thought it would be.
He was trying to extricate himself from her when Grimmaldo came up and said, ‘We’re going to go for a drink, are you coming, Carthinal?’
‘Yes, I think I will,’ he replied, glad of an excuse to get away and regretting his first smile at Olipeca which seemed to have made her think he was her best friend.
‘At least I hope it’s only friendship she wants,’ he mused.
He was used to girls flirting with him, and although it was flattering, not all the girls who pursued him were to his taste.
The group set off from the tower, with the exception of Ebrassaria who said that she thought she should study and that they were all rather foolish. Anyway they would be going to places where there were a lot of humans (she made it sound as though she were talking of slugs or worms or some other such revolting creatures) and she did not want to involve herself with them except when there was no alternative.
They left the confines of the tower, and as it was still only mid afternoon, they decided to go and explore the town. As they passed the temple of Sylissa, Carthinal could not help but look to see if he could catch a glimpse of Asphodel. Then he told himself not to be stupid. She was safely inside, probably worshipping her goddess at this very moment. 
The group of apprentices wandered around the town aimlessly, and then suddenly they found themselves in the area known as the Warren. 
‘Hey!’ cried Grimmaldo ‘This is the thieves’ quarter I think.’
Olipeca quietly drew nearer to Carthinal. ‘I wish we hadn’t come here,’ she whispered. ‘Anything could happen. I wish I’d stayed in the tower like Ebrassaria.’
Before Carthinal had time to reply to her, he became aware of a mop of unruly, curly red hair at the end of the street. He recognised the thief who had stolen his pouch with the figurine in it. He must not let him escape. He began to draw the mana into himself preparing to send a mind-influencing spell to the youth that would make him believe he was tired and must sleep. The others were surprised at hearing the spell, and stopped in their tracks. With a wave of his hand, Carthinal released the spell and the redheaded thief yawned and then lay down in the road to sleep.
‘What the...’ stuttered Laurre as Carthinal ran down to where the thief lay sleeping peacefully in the street. Some people had stopped to stare, but most shrugged and moved on. It was not wise to interfere with the business of others in the Warren, especially when that other was a mage. When the others arrived, Carthinal had picked up the thief, a young boy of about fourteen or fifteen.
‘He stole something from me this morning and I intend to get it back,’ he explained. ‘I’m taking him to my lodgings.’
‘You won’t hurt him will you?’ whispered Olipeca.
‘No. I think I can get my goods back without resorting to violence,’ replied Carthinal, smiling, and with that, he strode off towards the Golden Dragon Inn, the thief over his shoulder, leaving the other apprentices standing staring after him in amazement.

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