He set the bowl of black ink before him and began to chant. The ink began to lighten and then showed him a clear picture. He saw a group of six people passing through the gates of a city. He did not recognise the city. It had changed much since he had last seen it, but he knew it to be Hambara, in the centre of the land of Grosmer for that was where he had directed his search.
‘So they are coming from there. I’m glad I was right. A pity I can’t scry them out personally, but I’ve never met any of them, I just happen to know Hambara. Or at least, I did!’ he muttered to himself, looking at the new buildings outside the gates of the said city.
Then he laughed. ‘They’ll never find the Sword. They don’t fulfil the prophecy.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘However, I’ll send them something to think about anyway. It’s always possible that they could pick up two more.’
He had read every prophecy he could lay his hand on about the Sword, and had deduced that the seekers would come from Hambara at around this time. Therefore he had carefully scried the gates leading in all directions for likely folk, and this motley band seemed to be the most likely to be those searchers. Of course, he could be wrong, but he doubted it. He felt in the marrow of his bones that this group was the one that was destined to search for the Sword of Sauvern, and he had learned over his many years to trust those feelings.
He carefully poured the scrying ink back into its bottle and wiped out the bowl. These he carefully placed in a cupboard, locked it and went to the door. He called down the stairs for his assistant who came running with alacrity. It did not do to displease the Master.
‘What is it you want, magister?’ the young mage asked entering the room somewhat breathlessly from running up the stairs.
‘There is a group of people that I want to see the end of,’ the magister told the other. ‘One of them is your erstwhile fellow companion in your Tests, Carthinal Mabrylson. He has just left Hambara in the company of five others. They are a conspicuous group composed of the half-elf, a female elven cleric of Sylissa, a dwarf, a man from the southern lands and a Horselord couple. I think we should send my new pets out to see what they can do about them. Release a couple and tell them to get there quickly and I suggest they hide themselves with the more normal of their kind. Release a few of those too. They’ll follow the others with no problem. Oh, and speed them on their way by using a Gate. You can do that now, can’t you?’
On receiving a reply in the affirmative, he gave a key to his assistant who nodded and went back down the stairs.
The magister, for he was indeed one of the highest-ranking mages on Vimar, then smiled to himself. ‘We’ll see how they cope with my little pets then,’ he chortled. ‘I hope that youngster gets out of their way quickly enough. I’ve still got things planned for someone like that one.’
With that, the magister sat down to wait.
They all met the next morning and after eating a substantial breakfast, gathered up their things and went to the stables. Here Davrael and Kimi loaded the things onto the mare and led her out of the inn yard. She was a pretty dapple-grey with the elegant bearing of the animals reared by the Horselords. Kimi said her name was Moonbeam. Moonbeam seemed reluctant to leave the warm stable for the cold of the early morning air, and she whickered to the other horses still there. There was a snort or two and some stamping of feet from the other animals, but then they passed through the stable yard gates and the horse sounds were left behind, to be replaced by the sounds of the city.
The little group made its way along Doom Road towards the West Gate with the slums of the Warren on their left and the Merchant area where their inn was situated on their right. Kimi wrinkled her nose at the smells issuing from the Warren.
‘How can people live in places like that?’ she wanted to know.
Carthinal looked at her and replied quietly, ‘Most of them have no choice, Kimi. It’s live there or die.’
They were quiet then until they passed through the arch of the gates as they thought on Carthinal’s words. The guards saluted them as they passed, except for one surly-looking fellow who gave them a black look and then spat on the ground.
‘He’s the one who “found” the stolen necklace in my pack,’ whispered Fero. ‘It seems the Duke has done as he said and demoted him. He’s just an ordinary guardsman now I see.’
‘And with a great deal of resentment it seems,’ responded Basalt. ‘Most of it turned towards us if his look is anything to go by.’
They walked through the outlying districts of the town, which were very similar to the areas they had come through when they entered, until at last they left the last building behind.
Fero took a deep breath. ‘At last I can breathe,’ he said. ‘I was suffocating in that town.’
To a greater or lesser extent they all felt that way. Carthinal, who had grown up in Bluehaven, was less troubled by the atmosphere of Hambara, although it was a much bigger town than Bluehaven. Davrael seemed to be as pleased as Fero to be out in the countryside again, although he had not been in the town for as long. They were passing through farmland, and every so often there was a little farmstead. Carthinal, Basalt and Asphodel were reminded of the farm where they had received so warm a welcome and where Mabryl had died and was buried.
‘We must visit them again, Carthinal,’ she said to him. ‘Maybe we can take them something to thank them for their kindness to us.’
‘Yes, a good idea,’ replied Carthinal. ‘After all, I left them in a not very good frame of mind, didn’t I? I would like to apologise to them for my rudeness. And I would like to visit Mabryl's grave too.’
‘We can go when we come back from this mad quest then,’ Basalt butted in. ‘I’m not very optimistic of us finding this Sword with so little to go on. It’s just guesswork that we’re going this way at all.’
Asphodel smiled at the dwarf. ‘Not exactly pure guesswork, Bas,’ she said. ‘Let’s call it an intelligent estimation based on the information we have managed to gather.’
The dwarf grimaced. ‘Call it all the fancy names you want, Asphodel,’ he said, ‘but it’s still just guesswork.’
As they walked, Fero began to hum. It was a tune in a minor key, but it had a rhythm that seemed to encourage them to walk. Even Moonbeam seemed to prick up her ears and walk with more vigour.
‘Does that song have words, or is it just a tune?’ Asphodel asked him.
‘It has words. It’s a work song of my people,’
‘Could you sing the words for us?’ Kimi enquired, coming alongside the other two.
Fero began to sing. He had a deep bass voice, and the others felt a tingle run through them as he sang. They could imagine the dark sweating bodies toiling under a hot sun.
‘What do the words mean?’ Basalt asked the tall ranger.
Fero translated it into Grosmerian for them.
‘“I rise before the sun each morn
And sometimes wish I’d ne’er been born.
For life is hard here in the heat
But I must toil or I won’t eat.
And soon I will be dead and gone
But still the work goes on and on.
“I plant the grain and sow the seeds.
The sun looks down on all our deeds.
His sister rain falls from above
And nourishes the seeds with love.
The sun himself gives warmth to all
And makes the plants and grain grow tall.
“Now I am glad to have been born
The land is kind, it gave us corn
And grass for all our cows and sheep
And you and I can soundly sleep.
For once again through winter’s chill
We’ll once more live. It will not kill.”’
‘Rather sad, but it does end on a hopeful note,’ Asphodel observed.
‘It’s a very old song,’ Fero explained. ‘It dates back to the time when my people scratched a living from the land. It’s hard to farm on the edge of the Great Desert. Sometimes the rains failed and then people starved. Now it’s better. We’ve learned how to cope and what to grow, and about water conservation and irrigation; and many people live in the cities and towns which are usually near some kind of water, either a river or an underground reservoir. We are, however, very careful. A rich man is one who has his own water supply. We recycle as much water as we can.’
After this speech, which was the longest that Basalt, Carthinal and Asphodel had heard from the ranger, Fero began to sing again, this time quietly.
Then Carthinal had an idea. ‘Teach us your song, Fero,’ he said. ‘It’ll help to pass the time while we’re walking and it’s a good tune to walk to. It has a good rhythm to it.’
Fero agreed, and said that it had been a work song originally, one that helped people to keep a rhythm to their toils.
So for the rest of the morning they sang each line after Fero, and when they stopped for lunch as the sun reached its zenith, they all knew the first two verses in Fero’s language.
Davrael tethered Moonbeam to a tree, loosely so that she could graze, and then removed her pack. The mare shook herself, and would obviously have liked to roll, but Davrael spoke softly to her in his own language and she seemed to content herself with a shake. He patted her and then came to sit with the others.
‘How long it take get Roffley, Carthinal?’ he asked, taking a piece of bread and dried meat, biting it and then looking at it questioningly. He casually draped an arm over Kimi’s shoulder.
‘Over a sixday,’ came the reply. ‘Probably about eight days, assuming we continue to make good progress. We should be there by the Equinox with any luck. Asphodel wants, if possible, to be able to honour Grillon at this time of year.’
‘I thought you were a cleric of Sylissa?’ Kimi asked the elf.
‘Yes, I am, but we are not forbidden from celebrating the festivals of other gods. In fact, we are encouraged to do so. Grillon is the preferred god of the elves and so I like to celebrate the New Year.’
‘Grillon is also my god, as a ranger,’ Fero told them, ‘So I would like to be able to celebrate him too. I also would like to get to Roffley by the Equinox.’
They rested for about an hour after eating, and then Kimi and Davrael re-loaded Moonbeam and they set off again along the road. Again they sang as they walked along, continuing to learn Fero’s song, and they hardly realised how the time was passing until they noticed the sun was beginning to set, and the evening was upon them.
They walked on until they found a place by the road where they could set up camp. They were just beginning to leave the farms behind and enter wilder lands. Soon they would be in the forest. A small stream ran alongside the road here, and they used it to firstly replenish their water supplies, and then to wash. Asphodel found some soapwort growing near to the stream, and they gathered some both to use then and to take with them in case they could not find any later. The herb, when squeezed in water, gave out a soapy substance that was useful for washing. Peasant women had known of the herb for centuries.
Fero went on his usual hunt, but this time he took Asphodel with him so that she could practice with her sling. Whilst they were away, the other four set up camp, Kimi grooming the horse with some dry grass she pulled up while Basalt, Carthinal and Davrael collected wood to build a fire, and dug out the turf, setting it round with stones to form a primitive hearth. By the time Fero and Asphodel returned with some rabbits and a partridge, the fire was burning brightly, and the blankets had been set out around it.
Just as the meal was ending and they were deciding on the order of watches, Fero stood and said, ‘Excuse me a moment, I think I heard something.’
‘Yes,’ replied Asphodel. ‘So did I. I thought it was probably a squirrel. It seemed to be in that tree.’
Fero walked towards the tree in question and peered up into its branches. He could not see anything although the leaves had barely begun to sprout. He walked back to the others, signing them to say nothing. They continued with their discussions, and Fero walked away from the group, but not in the direction of the tree. He made as though he was going amongst the sparse woodland to relieve himself, then doubled back, keeping to the darker shadows and moving slowly and quietly towards the tree where he thought he had heard the noise. He stood in the shadow of a large oak tree and remaining motionless, waited. After a few minutes, the sight of a slight movement in the tree, and the sound of a sigh rewarded him. He continued to wait, and eventually his patience was rewarded. The smell of the cooking partridge and rabbit was wafting his way. Then there was a sound of a stomach rumbling. It came from up the tree, followed by further scrabbling as someone was descending. That someone got lower in the tree until Fero could make out a definitely human shape. Just as they were about to jump from the lowest branches, Fero moved quickly and grabbed a leg. There was a squeak from the person caught.
‘All right. Get down, but don’t try to run. I’m a good shot with my bow.’
The figure jumped down and said, ‘I’ll come quietly.’
Holding onto the arm of a slight figure, encased in a cloak with the hood pulled up, Fero re-entered the camp. The others stood up as he approached, except for Basalt who was, at that moment, turning the spit on which the two rabbits and the partridge were roasting.
He walked into the light of the fire and yanked the hood off saying, ‘Let’s see what we’ve caught, shall we?’
‘Thad!’ exclaimed Carthinal when the hood revealed a crop of curly red hair. It was indeed the young thief from the Warren in Hambara. ‘What are you doing out here?’
‘I followed you,’ replied the boy. ‘Things was getting’ too bloody ’ot for me in town, like. I thought you wouldn’t take me if I asked, so’s I followed, like. I were goin’ t’ come out tomorrer, see, but I were so ’ungry smellin’ yer food. I thought I might be able to “acquire” some if I waited, but Fero bloody well caught me.’
Carthinal then asked the boy why he felt he had had to leave his home, so Thad explained that his fence had found out that he had stolen the figurine back and was out to get him, so an escape was necessary.
‘What about your family?’ asked Asphodel. ‘Won’t they be worried?’
‘Got no family,’ was the sulky reply.
‘Have you ever been out of Hambara before?’ asked Basalt.
‘No! Don’t send me back! Please don’t!’ The anxiety in the boy’s voice and eyes was real enough. ‘I’ll do anything. Anything at all.’
‘Thad,’ said Carthinal gently. ‘We are on a dangerous mission. We are not sure where we are going except over the mountains. Lives will be in danger, of that I am sure. You are only a boy—and one with no experience of living in the wilderness at that. We may have to send you back with a caravan in Roffley.’
The boy dropped to his knees and grabbed Carthinal’s robes. ‘No! No! It can’t be more bloody dangerous ’ere than there! Please, Carthinal.’ Then, regaining his composure, he got to his feet. ‘I’m a damn good thief. You said so yourself, Carthinal, right?’
‘What would we want with a thief?’ asked Kimi. ‘We’re not planning on robbing anyone. Surely a lawbreaker will be more trouble than he is worth.’
‘I c’n ’ide in th' shadows and scout wi’ Fero,’ he replied. ‘I’m real good aren’t I, Fero?’
He noted the ranger’s nod with satisfaction.
‘I c’n use this short sword and a dagger as well if there’s any fightin’. I’m real good with throwing daggers too. I c’n also find any ’idden traps so’s to keep you safe from that danger, right? I promise not to use me skills against any o’ you. There! Now what d’you say?’
‘That you not use skills to take from folk we meet. We get needs honestly.’ Davrael spoke for the first time.
Thad looked over at the Horselord and seemed to shrink back a little.
‘I...I promise,’ he said in a small voice.
Carthinal sighed. ‘You can accompany us at least to Roffley. Once there we will reconsider sending you back, but you must behave yourself and prove yourself until then.’
‘Yeah, Carthinal,’ was the meek reply, rather spoiled by a cheeky look from the corner of his eye.
So they sat down to eat their meal and then, with Davrael and Basalt taking first watch, they rolled themselves in their blankets and slept.
The next morning dawned rather misty. They tidied up the campsite, put out the fire and replaced the turf. When all their gear was loaded onto Moonbeam, they began their journey once more.
Basalt suggested that today he taught them a song of the mountain dwarves to help to pass the journey, and by lunchtime, when the sun had burned off the mist, they were halfway through learning it. They were also entering much thicker woodland, leaving the farms behind. Here were more signs of spring. Catkins were growing on some of the trees and bushes, and there were occasional clumps of early spring flowers like snowdrops and celandines. There were even a few of the small wild daffodils coming out. Birds were marking out their territories in song in preparation for finding a mate and rearing young. There was a smell of growth and renewal in the air. They all felt an elation that had been missing in Hambara, even Thad, to whom all this was new and exciting. He kept exclaiming at all kind of things, from a shy squirrel that they disturbed to the newly growing flowers. The others were forced to see the wildwood with new eyes. At their mid-morning half-hour rest, he barely sat down, but spent the time looking and exclaiming at everything there.
They stopped for lunch as the sun reached its zenith, and rested again for an hour. Just as they were getting up and clearing all their waste away, they heard galloping hooves coming up the road. A rider on a black horse was galloping down the road. The horse was being ridden fast, but just as it drew alongside of them, the rider caught sight of them and quickly reined in. The horse reared up and slid to a halt. The rider jumped from the saddle almost before the animal had stopped and ran over to them.
‘Carthinal. You’ve got further than I thought.’
‘Lady Randa!’ Carthinal was surprised to see her. ‘What are you doing here? Is there a message from your father? He is all right isn’t he?’
He wondered at Lady Randa coming herself with a message. Surely her father would have sent a messenger and not his only, precious daughter.
‘I’ve come to join you. No, there is no message and yes, he’s all right,’ was the reply.
Lady Randa was dressed in chain mail armour. She had a helmet on her head with her long ash blond hair tucked into it, and she was carrying a longbow slung over her shoulder and a quiver of arrows on her back. She had a rather fine long sword in a tooled scabbard at her hip, and she was drawing off a pair of leather gauntlets.
‘I’ve ridden hard to catch you up and my horse needs a rest. We’ll wait here for another half an hour before moving on,’ she ordered turning to Davrael. ‘You! Horseman! See to my animal, but be careful, he can be vicious to people he doesn't know.’
Carthinal saw Davrael bristle and quickly gave him a warning look. Davrael was an intelligent man, and saw what Carthinal was trying to tell him with that look.
‘Don’t say anything, just do as she asks, and I’ll get rid of her as soon as I can,’ was what he read in Carthinal’s eyes.
He walked over to the blowing stallion. Talking all the time in gentle tones, he slowly approached the horse and managed to pick up the trailing reins. The animal put back his ears and pulled back, showing the whites of his eyes, then made as if to bite the man who had so unceremoniously taken the reins that the stallion considered to be the property of his mistress. Davrael, continuing to talk all the time, gradually coming nearer to the animal until he could put up his hand and stroke his nose. The horse made no objection and so Davrael began to walk him in circles to cool off.
Carthinal was talking to Lady Randa. ‘This is no place for you, my Lady. We’re on a mission, as you know, that may be dangerous. As soon as your horse is rested, you’re to go back to your father.’
‘You cannot make me. This is a free highway unless I am much mistaken. I can travel it if I wish. If I happen to be going in the same direction as you, then that’s just too bad.’
Carthinal sighed and looked at Basalt who shrugged, but looked dismayed at the thought of having the Lady Randa in their company.
‘All right. I can’t make you go back now,’ Carthinal conceded. ‘However, once we are in Roffley, you may change your mind. There’s probably a caravan going back to Hambara from there and you can travel with that.’
‘Carthinal, I am not useless. Nor am I unintelligent. I’m aware of the dangers. I’ve travelled the roads before, albeit with my father’s guards, I admit. I can use these weapons that I carry with competence. I’ve trained with some of the best. You will not find me a shrinking violet when it comes to a fight.’
‘All right. Carthinal says you can stay until Roffley, but if that’s the case, we are not going to mess around with “My Lady” this and “My Lady” that.’ Basalt retorted. ‘You will be called Randa. You’ll address us by name as well. In case you’ve forgotten, my name is Basalt, not Dwarf. The elf is Asphodel. She’s a curate of Sylissa…’
‘I can see that. I said I was not stupid, Dw...Basalt.’
‘The ranger is Fero and the two Horselords…’ he emphasised the “lords” part of the word, ‘Are Davrael and Kimi; and they are not grooms to be ordered around. We are all equal here.’
The arrival of Randa seemed to put a blanket over the good humour of the morning. They continued towards Roffley, Randa riding her magnificent black stallion that she said was named Storm. He was pure black except for a star of white hair on his forehead and one white hind foot. He was also very temperamental and highly-strung. It said much for Randa’s riding skills that she could control such an animal.
The others walked, Kimi leading Moonbeam with Davrael at her side. He held the hand that was not holding the reins, and they talked quietly together in their own language. The day progressed in this manner. Fero left them once or twice to scout ahead or behind, and once returned with a hare he had managed to shoot. Asphodel found some mushrooms and other edible herbs and vegetables, and so they progressed towards their destination.
About half an hour before sunset, Carthinal called a halt. There was a small clearing in the forest and they decided to make camp there. As they all busied themselves making camp, Randa sat on a log and waited.
‘Randa,’ called Asphodel. ‘Will you put some of these herbs into the pot and then put the pot over the fire?’
‘Why can’t you do it?’ came the petulant reply.
‘Well. I would, only I’m skinning the hare. Kimi and Davrael are seeing to the horses, Bas and Carthinal are collecting wood and making the fire pit and Fero has gone hunting with Thad. There’s no one else.’
Randa reluctantly went to help Asphodel. It was obvious that she had never cooked before, and Asphodel had to tell her, step by step, what to do. It would have been easier for Asphodel if she had just done it all herself, but she was determined she was not going to let this spoiled and arrogant girl just sit there while everyone else was working, so she persevered. She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. Carthinal, just finishing the job of building the fire pit looked over. He smiled and rolled his eyes to the heavens as he saw her frustration with Randa. She smiled back and shrugged.
They ate well again that evening. Carthinal insisted that Randa take a watch, and for a moment it seemed that she would refuse. Asphodel thought she could foresee a struggle for power between these two. Randa obviously thought she should be in charge by right as the Duke’s daughter, and did not realise that true leadership was earned, and did not merely consist of giving orders. Eventually she agreed to stand the first watch with Carthinal and the others lay down in their blankets to sleep.