The attack came just before dawn. Fero and Thad were on watch. Carthinal had suggested that the watch should be arranged as far as possible with one person with infravision and one without. Fero, he decided with his ranger training, was almost as good as an elf or dwarf. Carthinal watched with Randa, Basalt with Kimi and Davrael with Asphodel, leaving Fero to watch with Thad.
The night was just beginning to grow lighter when Fero thought he heard a sound in the bushes to his right. He stood, drew his sword, and looked over towards them, signalling to Thad to be prepared. Then, before he had time to take a step, the bushes parted and a wolf rushed him. He shouted to wake the others, and at the same time, swung his sword to injure the animal. He only managed to catch a glancing blow, and then his sword slid off, but he had managed to slow the wolf down. He heard rather than saw the others coming to their feet. The wolf, far from being afraid, as Fero had expected, was coming again. Again he slashed and again made contact. This time the animal fell at his feet, its lifeblood seeping into the ground from the severed jugular. Fero heard the sound of Carthinal chanting and knew that there were other wolves.
Basalt’s battle cry was heard over the sounds of fighting. Then he heard a sound from in front of him. Another wolf appeared. This was an enormous animal. Much bigger than a normal wolf. This was going to take some killing. The huge animal looked at Fero with an evil intelligence in its yellow eyes. Sounds of the battle were raging around him, but he scarcely heard them any more, giving himself over to his own task. He swung his sword again, but the wolf seemed to anticipate him and moved off to the side. They circled each other like two fencers. Fero feinted to his left and the wolf moved away. Fero then changed his thrust to the right and caught the wolf, cutting it on the side of its head.
The animal then backed away, but it suddenly changed tactics and sprung for Fero’s throat. He put up his sword to protect himself, but the huge beast dropped, a bolt sticking out from its ribs and a throwing dagger from its eye. Fero turned, sword still raised until he saw that there were no more of the beasts alive. The others were all standing panting and leaning on weapons. Asphodel was tending a bite on Davrael’s arm and Kimi was trying to calm the terrified horses.
‘There was eight of the bleeders,’ Thad told him. The young thief was shaking visibly now that the action was over. ‘There were another like that bloody gynormous one you was fightin’. What remains of it’s over there. Carthinal killed it with ’is magic. Two silvery bolts of energy from ’is fingers, like. It were real cool.’ He looked at Carthinal with admiration.
‘Those big ones were dire wolves,’ Fero told them later when they had cleaned the blood from themselves as best they could, and while Asphodel was tending the wounds of those who had been injured. ‘They don’t often come this far south, especially at this time of the year. There was something else too. Dire wolves are more intelligent than normal wolves, but these seemed even more intelligent than the average dire wolf. The one I was fighting seemed to have more knowledge of sword fighting than it should, and the fire didn’t seem to put them off either. There’s something strange going on here.’
‘Let’s move on before breakfast. I don’t think I could eat with these bodies around.’ shuddered Asphodel, and the others agreed.
So they broke camp. The horses calmed down once away from the smell of the wolves and blood, and the little band trudged on down the road.
‘You fought well,’ Carthinal said coming up beside Randa where she rode a little distance from the others.
‘I told you I could use my weapons, half-elf,’ came the reply.
Carthinal turned to Thad. ‘You too, lad,’ he said.
The boy seemed pleased with the praise. ‘I did good with th’ throwin’ dagger didn’t I?’ he replied. ‘I got him right in th’ bleedin’ eye. ’Ave I earned me place in your company, Carthinal?
‘Yes, you did well with the dagger, and with your sword before that,’ Carthinal told him. ‘It took some courage to get up close enough to those wolves so you could use it. As to earning your place, I will think about it and discuss it with the others.’
Thad smiled and then looked away almost shyly.
Eventually, they found themselves in a clearing where there was a small pool of water surrounded by bushes. A stream fed it from the north and left from the western end of the pool. They decided not only to break their fast here, but also to bathe and rest for the remainder of the day after their ordeal.
‘I suspect it’s not our last fight though,’ Carthinal warned them.
Davrael took the horses to the pool first to allow them to drink, and Asphodel filled the water bottles that were empty. They decided that the girls should bathe first, and the men would prepare a fire. It would be cold in the water, and they would need a fire to get warm since there was little warmth in the sun as yet. Asphodel, Kimi and Randa set off and soon sounds of splashing and squeals could be heard from behind the bushes. Soon the three reappeared, dressed in their armour, but with hair dripping wet and hanging loose. Fero stared at Randa with open mouth. She had not had her hair down since she had arrived, it having been in her helmet or bound around her head. Basalt heard a slight intake of breath. He looked at Fero and noticed the expression on the tall man’s face. Fero saw the dwarf looking at him.
‘Such hair!’ he breathed. ‘It’s like moonlight rippling over the sea. Never have I seen such beautiful hair.’
‘Yeah!’ replied the dwarf. ‘A pity she’s not as beautiful in character as her hair.’
Fero sighed and drew his eyes away from the girl. ‘Yes. A beautiful exterior, but inside she is ugly. Maybe an adventure such as this would change her. However, Carthinal seems determined to send her home.’
‘I wouldn’t bet on her going, my friend. That young lady is used to getting her own way and can be as stubborn as we mountain dwarfs,’ was the reply as Basalt remembered their tussle of wills in the library over who was to go down to the secret room first.
Carthinal, Fero, Basalt and Davrael then moved to the pool. Davrael noticed that Thad was sitting by the fire and making no move to go with them.
‘Come on then,’ he called to the boy.
‘I don’t need a damn bath. I’ve got the flippin’ blood off,’ the boy replied in a rather surly manner.
‘Oh yes you do. You owe it to us. We don’t want to be smelling you for the rest of the journey,’ Basalt told him.
‘Nor tempting any more wild animals. They will be able to smell you for ten leagues at least.’ Fero told him, smiling.
‘No!’ There was almost panic in the boy’s voice.
‘We’ll have to strip him and throw him in then,’ Fero and Bas advanced menacingly towards the thief.
‘Stop! I can’t bathe with you.’ Thad was nearly in tears.
‘What’s the problem, Thad?’ asked Asphodel gently, signalling to the others to stop teasing.
‘Promise you won’t tell anyone?’ he looked at them all. ‘All of you! Promise! Swear by Kassilla?’
They all looked puzzled, but then, one by one they all agreed not to tell whatever Thad was about to reveal.
‘I can’t bathe with you guys because I’m not a boy, I’m a girl!’
The silence that this announcement met was thunderous.
Then Asphodel said, ‘All right. You men go off and bathe and Thad can come after on his, er… her own. Go on then.’ This last as no one had moved.
After they had all bathed, they sat around the fire to get warm and Thad said, ‘I think I’d better tell you the real truth. I didn’t leave ’Ambara because o’ my bleedin’ fence. ’E still, like, don’t know as I stole the damn horse thingy back. I’d better begin at the beginning.’
‘A good place to begin,’ remarked Basalt, gaining himself a glare from Carthinal.
She were one of Madame Dopari's girls, right? From what she told me, she was bloody good at ’er job. She ’ad a number of regular clients, right, and was makin’ damn good money. Mother were gettin’ large tips from some bloody rich clients, see? Then she made a mistake. She forgot to, like, take the ’erbs to prevent a soddin’ pregnancy.
If the girls become pregnant, they either have to, like, get rid of the baby or leave, right? Mother decided to leave and ’ave me. OK? She ’ad money, and could live well. So she thought. The money didn’t last long, o’ course, and so we ’ad to go to live in the bleedin’ Warren. Mother ’ad to return to whorin’ to keep us alive. She don’t know no other way to make money, see. But the whores in th’ Warren don’t earn much of a livin’, no matter ’ow good they are. Rich clients go to places like Madame Soddin’ Dopari’s, and th’ poor can’t pay much. Some clients was a bit rough too.
‘One day, when I were about nine or ten, I over’eard a conversation in which Mother’s like: “When Thadda’s a woman, I’ll take ’er ter Madame Dopari. She c’n then earn enough money fer us t’ live better and’ I c’n stop being a ’ore.”
‘I knew what me mother did for a livin’; there were only a thin wall between ’er room ’n’ mine, right? I c’d ’ear everythin’, like. I couldn’t bear ter think o’ that ’appenin’ ter me. Not for soddin’ money, like. Takin’ any man who bleedin’ well comes? No! That’s not so cool.
‘Then one day, just after me twelfth birthday it ’appened. I had me first bleedin’, an’ so I packed up a few things an’ left, right? I called meself Thad, cut me ’air to look more like a damn boy, wore boy’s clothes, an’ disappeared into th’ Warren. OK? (That’s quite easy y’ know.) For a while I begged.
There’s good pickings near th’ temples for beggars. People feel so guilty and all that. Want ter salve their consciences or summat. Then I were found by a man, whose name don’t matter, an’ ’e taught me ter be a thief, see?
‘Just afore you left ’Ambara, I learnt that Mother ’ad found out that I were posin’ as a boy, like, an’ that I were now a bleedin’ good thief, right? It wouldn’t be long afore she found me, see, an’ so I went to th’ inn ter look for you, but you’d already left. I followed and ’ere I am.’
‘Carthinal,’ said Asphodel, turning to the half-elf, ‘You can’t send her back! Not if her mother is going to find her and send her to that...that place!’
‘No. No, I can’t, you’re right, Asphodel.’ He turned to the frightened, young girl. ‘Thad, I will not be responsible for you being forced into prostitution. I’m not happy about the dangers you’ll face with us, but I will not send you back against your will.’
‘Also,’ said the girl shyly, ‘Me name’s Thadora. Me mother called me Thadda sometimes when I were little. You c’n call me either, but I would like to leave Thad be’ind now. He don’t exist no more.’