Apologies to all who are following the serialisation of The Wolf Pack. I've been rather busy recently. I did NaNoWriMo and WON! YEAH! (for the uninitiated it's National Novel Writing Month. Write a 50,000 word novel in November.) Then I've had Christmas cards to make. I always make all my cards so 50+ cards to make.
Anyway, here's Chapter 19.
Carthinal had been celebrating with the other newly appointed mages after the presentations and the celebratory feast, and also drinking a farewell to Laurre. They found they missed the lanky apprentice, even though they had only known him for a few days.
‘He would want us to have a drink for him, I’m sure,’ commented Grimmaldo. ‘To you, Laurre, wherever you are now.’ And he raised his glass. The others did the same.
They were all still feeling rather tired after the practical tests, and so they bid one another farewell by mid afternoon and Carthinal returned to the Inn.
As he began to climb the steps of the inn, a figure detached itself from the crowds and grabbed his arm. ‘Carthinal! At last! Where’ve you been? It were a woman, weren’t it? I hope she were worth it, ’cos I’ve been waitin’ ’ere all night and all day for you.’
‘Yes, she…’ Carthinal began, then checked himself, annoyed at being caught off his guard. He looked down at the figure holding the sleeve of his robe.
It was Thad, grinning all over his face. ‘I knew it! Don’t worry, I’ll not tell anyone, especially that elf cleric you had with you when I robbed you,’ he said with a knowing look at Carthinal. ‘But, hey, it’s best you’ve forgotten her as she’s now out of bounds.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked the mage.
‘She’s gone an’ joined the bloody Daughters of Sylissa, ain’t she? They’re an enclosed order and only meet the public in the infirmary,’ Thad responded. ‘They’re not allowed speech even to each other except only those times they are healing. Didn’t you know?’
Carthinal thought for a moment. This did not seem like Asphodel. He could not imagine her in such an order.
‘How can you possibly know that?’ he retorted.
‘There’s this man, an assassin, see. (I can’t tell you his name for professional reasons. Right?) Anyway, he was bleedin’ stupid enough to get injured rather badly, a botched job I think, and ’e went to th’ infirmary for some ’ealin’ yesterday. Well, it seems that a young curate called Asphodel ’ealed him partially, but against orders. Br… th’ assassin I mean, thinks she may be in trouble over it.’
‘I hope not,’ worried Carthinal. ‘Anyway, I’m sure you didn’t just come here to gossip.’
‘No. Got your damn horse statue thingy, ain’t I,’ replied Thad, handing it over. ‘Told you I’d get it back.’
‘I hope you didn’t have to do anything drastic to get it,’ said Carthinal.
‘No. Just more promises to my fence, that’s all.’
Carthinal sighed. He was sure Thad could manage the man who “liked boys”, streetwise as he was, having been brought up in the Warren and survived to reach his mid-teens, but he could not help being a little anxious for him all the same. He thanked the young thief and turned to go into the inn.
As he was ascending the first stair, Thad called after him, ‘A pity you passed your tests, you know.’
Carthinal stopped, and turned, a puzzled look on his face.
‘That colour, scarlet don’t you call it? It looks bloody awful wi’ your,’air. You’d best hurry up and get past the probation so’s you can change it!’ With that, the boy melted into the crowds and was gone.
Carthinal hefted the figurine in his hand as he continued into the inn. He examined it and there was no doubt in his mind that this was indeed the one that Danu had given to Mabryl as surety of his validity. It seemed like months since that had happened. So much had passed in a few short weeks. He sighed, opened the door and entered. He was immediately rushed by a delighted dwarf, and nearly knocked off his feet.
‘Whoa there, Basalt,’ he exclaimed, ‘Don’t kill me please.’
Basalt then launched into a tirade of abuse at Carthinal for staying out without telling him.
‘Hang on, Bas,’ Carthinal said when the dwarf paused for a breath. ‘It was something that came up on the spur of the moment. I’m sorry if you were anxious, but you and Fero seem to be able to have a good time on your own. Where is he anyway? I thought he’d still be here.’ Carthinal looked round the room.
‘That’s just it. He never came, even though he said he would,’ Basalt replied, sinking into his seat again. ‘Carthinal, I’m worried. I know we’ve not known Fero long, but I didn’t have him down as someone who would break a promise.’
‘No, nor did I,’ frowned Carthinal, sitting down by the flustered dwarf. ‘In that case, I’m sorry that you had to worry about me as well.’
‘Well, you know the rumours about those practical tests; that they can sometimes injure or kill. I was thinking the worst about both of you,’ grumbled Basalt.
Carthinal remembered Laurre again. ‘Yes. The rumours are true. One of our number never made it.’ He rubbed his hand over his face. ‘He was a good man too.’
‘Well, you did,’ responded the dwarf brightening somewhat. ‘Although the colour of those scarlet robes clashes somewhat with your hair! Better hurry up and get through your probation so you can get out of them!’
Carthinal glared at him, but said nothing. He was proud of his new robes even if they did not go with his auburn hair, and so far, all he had had was comments about dress-sense.
Carthinal told Basalt about his test, (but not about his night) and also showed him the figurine. The other took it and looked at it carefully with the practised eye of one who knows jewellery.
‘Yes, I’d say it’s the genuine thing. A bit late now to take it to the Duke, but I suggest we go first thing tomorrow and then begin asking around about Fero.’
Carthinal agreed and Basalt then told him about his doings and the mysterious way that his new employer, Nitormon, had been removed without any explanation. He was in the middle of this tale when the door opened and a figure in a white cloak with the hood over its head, appeared in the doorway.
Carthinal recognised the figure immediately.
‘Asphodel!’ he exclaimed, moving a chair to their table so that she could sit down with them.
She came into the room, but made no move to remove her cloak, keeping the hood firmly in place.
Sitting down in the chair, which Carthinal had drawn up, she said, ‘I’ve come to tell you that I’m leaving Hambara tomorrow morning. I’m going on the road as a wandering cleric.’
‘Then you didn’t join the Daughters of Sylissa!’ exclaimed Carthinal surprising himself at the relief he felt at that. ‘I was told this morning that you had joined their ranks.’
‘No. They tried to make me, so I decided to leave instead. I told them what they could do with their “Daughters”.’ That was all Asphodel told them of her ordeal at the temple. ‘I thought I owed it to you to tell you what I was doing.’
‘As it happens, I’m at a loose end myself,’ continued Carthinal. ‘With Mabryl dead and his other apprentices coming to the tower to be apprenticed with a new master there, I have little to keep me here, or anywhere come to that. I may leave and come with you. If you have no objections that is.’
Asphodel looked relieved at this, and said that she would be pleased for his company. Bas also said he would like to leave the town since there seemed to be no work for him there since his employer seemed to have disappeared and so the three of them decided to leave after seeing the Duke the following morning. They all hoped to find Fero on their travels. Basalt and Carthinal told of what had happened to them in the few days that had passed since Asphodel left them, and then Asphodel called to Keloriff to see if there was any chance that her room was still available.
‘I’m sorry, Sister, but we let it to a young couple just this morning. Horselords if I am not mistaken, from beyond the Western Mountains,’ replied the innkeeper. ‘However, we have a single room up in the attic. It’s not usually let out to guests, as it is not quite up to the standards that we have set ourselves, but you are welcome to have it if you wish. There would be a considerable reduction in our usual prices, of course,’ he added. ‘If you don’t wish to take up the offer, however, I can recommend you try at the Jolly Gnome in Bull Street. Their accommodation is not as good as ours is, but it’s clean and friendly. Alternatively, there’s the Blue Boar, a very high-class place near the Palace, but with prices to match. I would not recommend many of the other inns in the town to a member of the clergy though.’
‘No, the attic will be fine for tonight. We’re planning to leave tomorrow,’ replied Asphodel.
‘Are you not going to stay for the Equinox celebrations then?’ queried Keloriff. ‘They’re really something here in Hambara. This square is quite spectacular, and I hear there’s a specialist coming to show us some new thing he calls “fireworks”. They are lights and fire in the sky, so I believe. It sounds like magic to me, but I’m assured it’s not.’
On being told that it was unlikely they would be there for that spectacular event, Keloriff went away to get his wife to prepare the attic room.
Asphodel was still wearing her cloak and hood, and Basalt asked her why she had not removed it in the warmth of the inn. She told the pair of the cutting of her long black hair, and that she did not want anyone to see her as she felt she looked ugly.
‘Come on now, lass,’ soothed Bas. ‘We’re your friends. We would never think you looked ugly. In fact, I don’t think there is a mortal alive on Vimar who could find it in themselves to proclaim you to be ugly, even if you were bald.’
With much more coaxing, Asphodel finally removed her cloak. She certainly looked different. Carthinal privately mourned the loss of her beautiful hair, but to his eyes she was still a beautiful and delicate elf, and he told her as much.
‘Thank you for saying that, Carthinal,’ replied the elf. ‘It’s kind of you, but I don’t feel beautiful, and probably won’t until my hair grows again.’
She then looked at him with a half smile on her face. ‘By the way, I never congratulated you on your success in your tests. I see from your robes that you managed to pass. However, the colour doesn’t suit you, you know so you’d better hurry up and get through your probation.’
Carthinal sighed at this third comment on the colour of his robes, but refrained from saying anything.
Soon after, the three decided to go to bed Asphodel after a nice, long soak in the bath.
‘To the Ninth Hell with eschewing luxury,’ thought Asphodel as she soaked in the warm water. ‘If this is a sin, then I am guilty as charged.’
The next morning, just as the trio were finishing their breakfast in preparation to visiting the Duke, a boy came rushing into the Inn. He looked round until he saw them and then, slowing his pace, walked around the tables to the group. They recognised him as Jondo, the old gatekeeper’s grandson from the Palace. The boy stopped and looked at Carthinal, breathing deeply as thought he had been running. (Which indeed he had.)
‘Ye be the mage, Carthinal?’ he panted.
When Carthinal replied in the affirmative, he handed him a letter, sealed with the Duke’s seal. He then walked out of the inn, and they could see him running through the crowd after he left, jinking this way and that to avoid collisions.
Carthinal opened the letter, and read the neat handwriting within:
‘To Carthinal and Company
Please come to the Palace as soon as possible this morning. I have something to discuss with you. It relates to the letter that you brought to me the other day. I have now come to a decision and want to put a proposition to you.
Rollo. Duke of Hambara’
‘Well, what do you think of that!’ exclaimed Basalt. ‘Just a little longer and we’d be there anyway. Wonder what it’s all about?’
‘Well, we won’t find out by lingering here over our breakfast, Bas,’ replied Carthinal, drinking the last of his coffee and standing up.
Since the three had finished eating, they decided to go immediately to see the Duke. As they left the inn, Asphodel once more donned her cloak. It happened to have started to rain and so it did not seem at all unusual for her to have her hood up. The other two also donned cloaks and they walked through the town, heads down against the rain, trying to avoid the inevitable muddy puddles, and saying very little.
Their reception at the gate was very different this time. The gatekeeper and his grandson welcomed them almost like old friends, and it was with a seeming reluctance that the old warrior asked for them to leave any weapons at the gatehouse. Basalt was still reluctant to do so, but complied with few grumbles. Carthinal handed over his dagger, but Asphodel had no weapons.
The walk through the park was not as pleasant this time, owing both to the rain and their continuing anxiety about Fero’s whereabouts. When they got to the inner gates, they were open as well, and the three were waved through. They hurried through the formal gardens and past the fountain with its wonderful golden fish with barely a glance, and through the door that was being held open for them by the elf, Daramissillo.
Daramissillo took their cloaks, and if he noticed Asphodel’s hair, he was too well bred for it to show on his face. He took them to the study and showed them in, saying that they were to make themselves comfortable until the Duke could be with them. He would only be a few minutes.
The three sat down by the fire and got warm and dry. They had waited for about fifteen minutes when the Duke finally arrived, apologising for keeping them waiting. After shaking the hands of each of them in turn, he sat down beside them.
‘Firstly, may I apologise for bringing you out in this weather and also, to you, Basalt, for hindering your job-hunting. However, I wanted to ensure that you were free of any commitments if I needed you.’
‘You were behind all that difficulty?’ Basalt was amazed.
The Duke smiled ruefully at the dwarf and said, ‘Yes, I’m afraid so. I think, also that you, Asphodel, were subject to some—how shall I put it—inconvenience? I hope to explain myself shortly.’
He then stood and went to the door of the study. He opened it, and beckoned. Through the door came a tall man in black, dirty and unkempt, with his hair hanging down in untidy locks. A guard gave him a push into the room, at which action, Duke Rollo reprimanded him. The man had his head bowed so his hair was obscuring his face, but even so, the three companions recognised Fero.
‘You may go,’ the Duke commanded to the guard.
‘But, my Lord, suppose the prisoner decides to attack you?’ The guard was reluctant to leave.
The Duke spoke in a voice, which although quiet, brooked no argument. ‘I told you to leave. Do not cause me to have you disciplined.’
The man left and the Duke led Fero to the remaining chair. ‘I must also offer my most sincere and humble apologies to you, Fero. You have been most badly treated.’
Fero looked up at this, but his black eyes seemed dull and lifeless.
‘It is true that I gave orders that you, none of you, were to leave the city as I thought I may need you,’ went on Duke Rollo, ‘But someone went too far here. It was never my intention that you be treated so badly. The lieutenant concerned has been punished; demoted to the ranks. I was always a little concerned about him anyway. A bit too enthusiastic in his duties, if you know what I mean.’
Asphodel had gone over to Fero during this speech. She laid a gentle hand on his arm tentatively as though expecting a rebuff.
Fero, however smiled slightly at her through his hair and said in a quiet voice, ‘I’ll be all right now, Asphodel. Now that I’m out of that place.’
Asphodel looked up from Fero as the Duke had begun speaking again.
‘I want you all to listen carefully to what I have to say. Firstly, I’ve come to the conclusion that you are what you told me, just a group of people travelling to Hambara, who met on the road. Quite why I believe that I don’t know. There seem to be blanks around you all and I’ve been unable to find out much about any of you.’
‘The figurine!’ Carthinal had forgotten all about it. ‘You said you wanted the figurine. I’ve managed to get it back.’ He fumbled in his pockets. ‘Here it is,’ and he passed it to the Duke who went over to the window and examined it carefully.
‘Yes. This is my old friend Danu’s horse figurine all right. I have it's twin right here on my desk. How did you manage to get it back? No matter, there is business to discuss.’
The Duke came back to his seat and sat down. ‘Danu’s letter held some disquieting information. At the moment I don’t want to disclose everything that it said. It’s not absolutely certain as yet, but if Danu’s suspicions are correct, we are all in grave danger. His words were, “Danger lurks on all sides if my suspicions are true.” I believe that his suspicions are true. This is where you come in. If, and as I said, I believe him, if Danu is correct, I want you to take on a quest for me. I want you to find Sauvern’s Sword.’
With those words, the Duke sat back in his chair and, steepling his fingers, looked from face to face of those before him to gauge their reactions.
Carthinal sat in stunned silence, staring at the Duke as if he had just asked them to fly up to Heaven and speak with the gods themselves. Then Basalt broke the silence.
‘Begging your pardon, Your Grace, but what is this Sword, and who is Sauvern?’
‘Of course, you are not from Grosmer, and neither are Asphodel and Fero, so I’d better explain. Please bear with me, Carthinal.’
‘Once, Grosmer did not exist. There were six separate kingdoms, roughly corresponding to the six dukedoms of the present day. These kingdoms were constantly warring with each other, so when the raiders came from across the ocean, and sailed up the Three Seas to get slaves and plunder the kingdoms were easy pickings for them.
‘This happened numerous times over the centuries until Sauvern came along. Sauvern was the king of what eventually became Hambara, my own dukedom. His origins are somewhat mysterious. Some said he was the trueborn son of the king, hidden to prevent some mysterious prophecy from coming true. Others said that he was a bastard son of the king, raised by a peasant woman, and yet others claim he was a bastard of the queen. Whatever the truth, he eventually came to the throne and it is said, ruled wisely and well.
‘One day an old woman came to the palace begging. Sauvern called her in and feasted her at his own table. After the meal, she threw off her cloak and revealed herself to be a beautiful elven priestess. She took a magnificent sword from her side and presented it to Sauvern.
‘“This Sword is called Equilibrium,” she said. “And it will protect the Balance in the lands and help you against the evils that come from over the sea.”
‘With that, she withdrew leaving all gasping at the beauty of the Sword.
‘Then the raiders came again. Sauvern saw them decimate Bluehaven and Sendolina and begin their march up towards Hambara. He realised that Hambara could not stand alone, and so he made alliances with all the other kings and together they drove the raiders back to their lands over the sea. Then the kings realised that it was much more sensible to co-operate than to fight and they elected Sauvern as High King. He built Asperilla as his capital rather than rule from one of the kingdoms. Of course, as you realise by now, that this eventually led to the old kings becoming dukes, and Grosmer becoming one kingdom. As to the Sword—well, it is said that it was buried with Sauvern, but the whereabouts of his tomb is lost, if it were ever known, but legends say that it will be found again when the land of Grosmer is in dire need. The letter you brought from my old friend Danu of Bluehaven suggests that that time is now.’
Fero spoke up. ‘So you expect us to search for a sword that may or may not exist?’
‘Yes,’ replied the other. ‘As to its existence, that much is true. The Sword existed all right. Danu agrees with me on this. I have no real proof, but just call it intuition if you wish. Don’t make a decision right away. You must have the chance to discuss it. If you agree to go on this quest, I suggest that you begin by doing some research in Hambara. You have, between you, access to a number of sources that any one individual can’t see. Even the Duke! You, Carthinal, can look in the libraries of the Mage Tower. You, Asphodel, have access to the libraries of the temples, and I give you the run of my library here in the Palace. It’s quite extensive, you know. Some of my ancestors were avid readers it seems, and no one here has ever catalogued all the books and scrolls, so we don’t know exactly what we have; though my daughter likes spending time in the library.’
Here he smiled. ‘It’s nearing lunchtime, so I’ll allow you to discuss the matter in private. Through the door there’ he indicated a door next to the fireplace, ‘You’ll find a small room. I use it to sleep in sometimes when I’m busy late into the night. Daramissillo will bring you some food. Please don’t hurry with your decision. This evening will do. I’ll be in here when you want to speak to me, and you can go out through the doors onto the terrace and walk in the grounds if you wish, although in this weather I prefer to remain indoors. By the way, if you agree to go on the quest, I will pay all your expenses here in Hambara, and any treasure you may find, except the Sword, that is, you may keep.’
He opened a door at the far side of the fireplace and the four of them entered the room.
Asphodel sat down in a chair next to a fire that had been lit in the room’s fireplace. She reached over and put another log on the blaze. The rain had made the day feel cooler than many they had had recently, and the warmth of the fire was welcome. Carthinal perched on the narrow bed, which was along one wall, while Basalt sat down in another chair. Fero strode over to the fireplace and leaned on the mantelpiece.
‘Is this some elaborate practical joke?’ he growled. ‘First I’m put in prison for something I didn’t do, then I’m asked to go on some, what do you call it in Grosmerian? Wild Wyvern Chase? Is that right?’
‘I think that Duke Rollo is serious about this,’ replied Asphodel. ‘Very serious. So serious that he was prepared to prevent you from getting work and leaving the city. That has to be a massive job to tell everyone not to employ us.’
‘He didn’t! He missed Nitormon,’ grinned Basalt, pleased that the Duke’s men had failed in something. ‘I hope he’s all right now. I must ask the Duke later.’
‘I agree that he’s serious about it,’ responded Carthinal, ‘But we are to decide if we are to join in with him and his impossible ideas.’
The discussion continued until the door opened and, true to his word, the Duke had sent Daramissillo with lunch. There was a steaming tureen of soup and fresh rolls, with pastries and fruit to complete the meal. A pot of tea was also included. The companions stopped discussing their options while partaking of this meal.
After they had eaten, a little, mousy girl who looked frightened to death of the strangers cleared the meal away. Fero then stood up and told them that he could no longer remain cooped up and he was going to go for a walk in the grounds, rain or no rain. He crossed the room to the doors onto the terrace, and as he opened them, the rain seemed to cease. The smell of freshly washed vegetation came through the window, and they could all here the drip, drip of water dripping from the eaves and branches of trees. Suddenly, they all had a desire to walk in the gardens and feel some grass beneath their feet. Picking up their cloaks, they all, with one accord, passed through the doors onto the terrace just as the sun’s rays found a way through the banks of cloud overhead.
Later that day, after much further discussion, they had formulated a plan to lay before the Duke, and so they re-entered his office.
‘You have decided then?’ the Duke asked them, getting up from his desk and indicating they once more take seats near the fire. ‘I hope you decided in my favour.’
‘Not exactly,’ replied Carthinal. ‘But we haven’t rejected your offer though. In fact, we have a proposition to make to you,’
The Duke raised his eyebrows questioningly.
Carthinal resumed speaking. ‘We suggest that we postpone agreeing to this quest immediately.’ He raised his hand, as the Duke was about to protest the urgency of the pursuit, and continued, ‘What we suggest is that we spend time in research, trying to find something out about this mythical Sword. If we find the whereabouts, or sufficient clues as to where the thing is, we will reconsider going on this quest of yours. We will, however, gratefully accept your offer to pay our expenses while we are searching as we are running short of cash.’
The Duke thought deeply for a few minutes and then said, ‘I suppose that’s fair. I shouldn’t have expected you to commit yourselves to such an open-ended task. However, I’ll give you a note to show at your inn and any shops that you use to further your research. Oh, and Basalt,’ he went on. ‘Your former, brief employer has been recompensed for his inconvenience. I have given him new premises in a much more accessible area, and he has my permission to use my personal recommendation. He has my arms to hang above his shop. He is a remarkable craftsman. Should go far.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ replied the dwarf, relieved. ‘I was worried about him.’
Having given the quartet the promissory note, the Duke bid them farewell, after assuring them that the library at the Palace would be available to them at any time. Daramissillo led them to the door, and bowed his own farewell and they walked slowly back to the Golden Dragon, wondering how they had managed to get themselves into such an impossible seeming task.