About four days later, at around noon, the little band reached the small town of Roffley. It was situated on the banks of the Brundella near to where it made a southward turn, heading for the Inner Sea. There were signs of the flood that had so tragically taken the lives of Carthinal and Asphodel’s travelling companions, but it had now retreated leaving the ground at the side of the road soggy and wet. The party had stayed at an inn that they had come across about half way between Roffley and Hambara. They had been grateful for the comforts it offered after sleeping rough for some days. Now as they entered Roffley, they were again looking forward to sleeping in proper beds again, and eating food that was not either rabbit or dried rations.
The town was very small. It boasted of little more than a main street and a market square. They entered the town from the West through a gate in the surrounding walls. The walls did not look very strong, and in fact were in poor repair in places. Basalt commented that with a few dwarves, he could make the town a fortress in a week, but was appalled at how the townsfolk had neglected their defences.
‘I suppose it isn’t necessary in times of peace,’ pointed out Randa, ‘And it’s only a very small town. Not one of great strategic importance for it to warrant much input from elsewhere. I expect the townsfolk are too poor to pay for the upkeep of the walls.’
Asphodel was appalled at the seeming callousness of the remark, intimating as it did that the people of Roffley were of no importance, but she bit her tongue and refrained from making the comment that sprung to her lips. After all, Carthinal intended for Randa to return to Hambara from here, so they would no longer have to put up with her arrogance.
They walked along the main street, which was cobbled, between close buildings on either side. They were looking for an inn so they could have somewhere to stay. The people in the road made it difficult for them, to pass, especially as they all seemed to stop to stare at the group. After all, a half-elf mage, an elven curate of Sylissa, a dwarf bristling with weapons, an exceptionally tall dark-skinned stranger, a young red headed girl, two horselords and a tall, aristocratic young lady made strange travelling companions.
Eventually, they arrived in the market square, and all stopped to admire the market hall. It dominated the square to the extent of almost completely filling it. It comprised of a low wall, about three feet high, interspersed with occasional gaps for entry, down the two long sides, which were about fifty yards long. The two short sides were open, with steps leading up to a raised floor. At intervals all around the building were pillars of oak supporting a roof. On the two open sides they were mounted on stone pillars, and on the longer sides were on the low wall. These columns were also inside the building in two rows, holding up the roof. When they looked up, they saw the structure of beams supporting the roof, a strangely beautiful pattern, but very strong.
‘This hall will be here for centuries to come.’ commented Basalt, his dwarven admiration for construction coming to the fore.
‘P’raps so, but we so don’t want ter wait ter see if you’re right,’ Thadora said. ‘Look, isn’t that a damn inn over there?’ and she pointed towards the far end of the square to a building which seemed larger than the shops on either side of the market hall.
They made their way towards the building, which proved indeed to be an inn, called the Black Cat. They entered and were greeted by the proprietor.
‘Ah! Strangers, I see. And what can I be getting for you? Ale, wine, spirits, rooms, maybe?’
‘Yes, we would like rooms first.’ Randa stepped forward and took over just as Carthinal was about to speak. ‘I need a room to myself, of course, and I suppose the horselords would like one for themselves as well. Two others will suffice for the rest.’
While the others stood open-mouthed at her presumption to decide sleeping arrangements for them all, the innkeeper replied, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t accommodate your demands. We’re rather full with the Festival coming up. I could manage to squeeze you into two rooms, but four is out of the question.’
Randa was about to remonstrate with the innkeeper, but Carthinal quickly interrupted her.
‘We’ll take the two rooms, please,’ he said, throwing Randa a glare that made her physically recoil. ‘And also, I’ll have some ale. What about the rest of you?’
When they had ordered, Carthinal once more reminded Randa that she was not travelling with her father, or even as herself. She was, he reminded her, incognito. She was not going to get, or even ask for, any preferential treatment. The alternative to staying in the inn, crowded as it may be, was sleeping out in the woods again.
To her credit, Randa appeared sorry, and said as much to Carthinal.
‘I am so used to having everyone run round and do whatever I wish, that it is very difficult to remember that I’m not Lady Randa here,’ she replied somewhat contritely.
The landlady, a plump good-natured woman in her middle years, was eager to talk to them of the town's celebrations whilst there was a lull in the business of the inn.
‘We have to work so hard here in Roffley and the surroundings,’ she told them, ‘That we really look forward to the festivals. We always dress in our best for the gods.’
She looked pointedly at the group of adventurers in their armour and dusty travelling clothes.
‘We don’t have much in the way of decent clothing with us, I’m afraid,’ apologised Asphodel. ‘We have had to travel light, but we would very much like to celebrate the New Year here. Several of us worship Grillon in particular, and the rest of us revere him. Will it be particularly bad if we are not dressed in our best?’
‘Oh, don’t you worry too much about that,’ smiled the landlady. ‘I have seven daughters, ranging in age from fifteen to thirty. I’m sure we can find you something that fits. If you would be willing to borrow clothes that is,’ she added, looking at Randa.
Randa seemed to visibly swallow her pride, and she replied, to the surprise of the others, ‘That is very kind of you. I think we would be very grateful to take up your offer,’ but she looked as though she had eaten something nasty as she said it.
‘I’ll send Mandreena, my youngest, to you. She’ll help you to choose, and maybe do any alterations that are needed, but we’ll need to see about it fairly quickly. And you young men, she went on, can look through the shirts and trousers belonging to my sons if you have none of your own.’
‘I have a change of clothing in my pack,’ replied Fero, ‘But thanks for your kind offer.’
The other men also thanked Tramora, as she was called, but Basalt noted that she was unlikely to have anything to fit a dwarf. Davrael said that he had a clean shirt, but Carthinal accepted the offer as his change was a clean scarlet robe, and he wished not to wear his robes at an occasion such as this.
The girls spent the rest of the afternoon trying on dresses in the company of Mandreena. She was a lively, talkative girl, and made friends easily. She especially took to Thadora, being almost the same age. Randa was making a special effort not to order anyone around or be too snooty about the dresses, even though they were much inferior to even her oldest clothes. They chose dresses and Mandreena took them away for the small alterations that were needed, saying that she could soon have them ready. The others bathed and got themselves clean and then felt much better.
That evening, the little band of questers decided to have a meal and to go to bed early since the next day promised to be long. They all wished to rise at dawn to worship at the stone circle as well as to take a part in the celebrations later.
The next morning, they all rose before dawn. They wore their travelling clothes as it was not necessary to dress up until later for the feast, but Carthinal decided to wear his clean robes as they were going to worship the god. So leaving their weapons and armour behind in the inn, they walked the short distance to the circle, which was just outside of the town, along with most of the rest of the village and surrounding farms. Many farmers were carrying lambs or kids, or leading calves, the first born of the new season, to be sacrificed to Grillon.
When they reached the circle, they were surprised to be ushered into the centre. It seemed that because of her status as a cleric, Asphodel was being given a place of honour, and her companions were included. They found themselves sitting next to the Baron of Roffley and his family, and although they said that they would be happy with the rest of the crowd, the priestess in charge insisted, and so they were accommodated inside the circle.
Farmers then began to progress towards the altar in the centre of the circle, which had been decked in a green cloth and green branches. Then the farmers brought their young animals forward in a procession towards the altar. Huntsmen with a live catch followed them. To their surprise, Fero stood and joined the huntsmen, pulling a small wriggling rabbit out of his pocket.
‘It’s not much, but some sacrifice from us may persuade the gods to help us in our quest,’ he whispered to the others, who looked amazed, wondering where he had got the animal. Fero said nothing, but just grinned at their expressions.
The priestess spoke words of blessing over the animals, and then selected one lamb for immediate sacrifice. (The rest would be sacrificed later in the morning.) She placed the hapless creature down onto the altar and, with a sharp knife, she quickly killed it by slitting its jugular vein and then allowed the blood to run into a bowl.
When the bowl was full, she held it aloft saying, ‘Lord Grillon, accept the offer of the blood of this lamb, and give fertility to all our beasts that we may prosper in the coming year.’
She then drank some of the blood, and placed the bowl back on the altar with the lamb’s carcass.
Then she raised her hands in the air, saying, ‘All praise to the Lord Grillon.’
The congregation replied, ‘All glory to the Lord Grillon.’
Finally she said, ‘All honour to the Lord Grillon.’
Then, she blessed the farmers and huntsmen who had come with the animals and called down Grillon’s blessing on all the people of Roffley and its neighbouring farmsteads.
After this, she spoke to the assembled people. She had, she told them, studied the moons and the almanacs for this day, and the portends were not good. Tonight, the first of the New Year, it was the dark of the moon, Lyndor, but Ullin would just be seen as a sliver of light as it was waning. This indicated a time of evil and despair to come in the year just dawning. They must trust in the gods of good to help all mortals through this time that was coming.
After some more praise and prayers, the congregation left the circle. It was still only one and a half-hours after the dawning of this first day of Grildar, and so there was time to kill before the feast. Since there would be merrymaking throughout the night, the adventurers decided to go back to the Black Cat to rest until it was time to change for the rest of the day’s festivities. Once there, Mandreena accosted them. She insisted that Thadora go with her to see the Wanderers. These people were travellers who rarely stayed in one spot for long. They were reputed to have the second sight, and to be able to predict the future as well as being excellent entertainers. They would be giving the entertainment during the feast, Mandreena told them, but maybe they would be willing to tell the girls something of their futures. So, glancing at Carthinal as though for permission, Thadora left for the excitement of the Wanderer camp, with a reminder from Asphodel of her promise not to steal from anyone, and also to return in time to get ready for the feast.
The girls exited the inn in great excitement. They passed through the Market Hall, which was being decorated in greenery for the coming feast, and went on through the village. There was a delicious smell of baking bread from the baker’s shop, but all the doors were closed.
‘That’s for the feast,’ Mandreena told her. ‘Everyone gives something today. The Baron lends us his cooks, farmers give meat and we at the inn give the wine and ale. The fish is from the river, courtesy of the fishermen, and there is always game from the huntsmen. I defy you to eat some of everything!’
Eventually, on the north side of the village, was the Wanderer camp. There were brightly coloured wagons everywhere in a seemingly haphazard pattern. Children and dogs were underfoot on every side, and there were adults cooking, changing, washing clothes and themselves, and practising the various skills they were going to show at the feast. It was a noisy, lively place, the like of which Thadora had never seen before. She had considered herself very worldly wise, coming as she did from the Warren in Hambara and surviving on the streets there, but so far on this journey, she was finding out that there were many things she did not know. Far more than she did know in fact, and she was a little nonplussed to find there was so much new in the world. She was also surprised to realise that she would have difficulty surviving in the countryside, just as those from here would have problems where she came from.
Soon they found what Mandreena had been looking for. A wagon with an eye painted on the side was standing near the northern edge of the camp. It had a variety of other signs and symbols painted on it, none of which Thadora recognised. Mandreena approached the wagon and ascended the steps leading up to the door. She knocked loudly, and was rewarded by an answer.
‘Who seeks knowledge of the future?’ a voice replied.
‘It is Mandreena of the Black Cat and Thadora of Hambara,’ Mandreena replied.
‘Enter, then, Mandreena of the Black Cat and Thadora of Hambara. You may come in either singly or together, as you wish. Have you the customary payment?’
‘Yes,’ both girls replied, as they opened the door.
The interior of the wagon was dim, to say the least. There was a smell of oil lamps, but only a single red candle was burning on a table. The girls could make out a thick red cloth covering the table, and plenty cushions scattered about. These were large and comfortable looking, and were largely in red, deep greens and blues, and gold. Seated on the only visible chair behind the table was the figure of an old woman, dressed in the colourful dress of the Wanderers. She beckoned to the girls.
‘Come in, come in. It’s not warm enough for these old bones to be in the draught from the door, although I doubt I’ll be willing enough for it to be open come summer. What have we here then? A girl and her sweetheart maybe? I thought you gave two girl’s names! But wait. Now I see. You are indeed two girls, even though one of you is dressed in boy’s clothing. No doubt it will all be clear after your readings. Well, who wants to be first?’
‘You go first, Thadora,’ whispered Mandreena, seeming to lose her courage a little in the oppressive atmosphere of the wagon.
Thadora stepped forward and offered the customary silver piece to the old fortune-teller, and was waved to a seat.
‘You sit down over there,’ the old woman told Mandreena, and then proceeded to hand a small crystal ball to Thadora. ‘I want you to hold this in your hand while I look at your palm so it can absorb some of your aura. Left hand first please.’
Thadora did as she was bid and the old woman took her hand and pondered it deeply.
‘I see you have had a happy childhood, in spite of great deprivation,’ she whispered. ‘Then something happened, and after that, life was very tough. You are a strong girl, and you overcame this. I think this was why you dress as a boy. You have had little in the way of the love of a man, as yet. There is also something missing in your past. Maybe you never knew your father? Yet you have a sister, I see.’
Thadora looked sharply at the old woman.
‘No. No sister. Nor brother either. There were just Mother and me.’
The old woman continued as though Thadora had not spoken.
‘You seem to have been seeking something or someone.’
Thadora opened her mouth to deny this, but the old woman continued.
‘Let me see your other hand.’
Thadora changed the crystal ball to her left hand and gave her right hand to the clairvoyant.
‘Whatever or whoever it was you were seeking you seem to have given up, but you will find it fairly soon. A change is about to come about in your life. It may have just happened, or it is just about to happen. You have a great destiny, child.’ She looked up into Thadora’s eyes. ‘If you accept this destiny, life will be difficult and dangerous. If you refuse it, life will be easier for you, but the consequences for the world will be dire.’
She reached out and took the ball, at the same time extinguishing the candle. They were plunged into complete darkness. Mandreena gave a little muffled scream, and then was silent.
The old woman’s voice came from the blackness. ‘You have the health and strength of mind for the task ahead of you. That much I can see from your aura, which is very strong in this darkness. There are Guardians watching over you, to protect you, though you are not aware of them.’ She then looked in the crystal. ‘There are images here also of seven companions. Eight are needed for the task ahead, which is but a beginning and all may not see its end. I can see mountains, and snow, and death very near. Help from unexpected sources. Now a valley, beautiful it is with a lake set in a beautiful, magical forest. Yet there is dark magic here. You must beware. I can see no more. The rest is hidden in swirling mists. Choose your path well, young Thadora. The right path is not always the easy one. May the gods go with you.’
There was the sound of flint on steel, and the candle once more fluttered to life. The old woman peered at Thadora through the dimness, but said nothing more. She then turned to Mandreena for her turn.
Mandreena’s fortune was much more mundane, but she seemed happy with the usual predictions of a happy and fulfilled life as the wife of a handsome farmer, and with lots of children to come.
As the girls left the wagon of the fortune-teller, Mandreena could not help but ask Thadora a little about what the fortune-teller had told her. Thadora told the other girl that although she had no sister that she knew about, she did not know her father, and he could have another daughter somewhere. She did not say anything of her mother’s profession however. Mandreena then asked about the quest they were on.
‘I can’t say nothin’ ’bout that,’ replied the young thief, importantly. ‘I’m sorry, Mandreena.’
‘What about your friends?’ went on the other girl. ‘That Carthinal is very fit. I bet you fancy him, don’t you? I know I do. Are you going to try to get him to go to the woods with you tonight?’
Thadora blushed. ‘No. O’ course not,’ she replied.
‘Why not? If you don’t, someone else will. Trust me. A man that good looking will not pass this night alone.’
‘He’s got a girlfriend already, like,’ Thadora retorted.
‘One of your group? That tall, beautiful girl or the pretty elf? I must say, I don’t like the blond much. She’s a bit too fond of herself if you ask me.’
‘No. Some elf back in ’Ambara, I think, but I’ve never met ’er. She’s a mage too.’
‘Well, tell me about him anyway. Where’s he from?’
‘He comes from Blue’aven, right, and came to ’Ambara to take his apprenticeship exams. ’E passed very well, I think. With distinction, me sources tell me. But, ’e, like, scares me a bit. ’e has a fierce temper, yer know.’
‘It’s the red hair,’ said Mandreena, knowingly, glancing at Thadora’s unruly red curls. ‘To tell the truth, that other one, the horselord scares me more, but go on.’
Thadora suddenly realised that she knew nothing more of Carthinal, and when she considered more deeply, she also realised that she knew no more about the others, except for Randa. The conversation was getting too personal, and she wanted to think about what the clairvoyant had told her, so she told Mandreena that she wanted to go back to the inn to rest in preparation for the celebrations later.
As she walked, she wondered. Here she was with seven people that she knew nothing at all about. She was about to go off into the wilds with them. Her mother would have a fit if she knew. She smiled at that thought, then began to wonder if it was in fact wise to trust these strangers. Yet trust them she did. She entered the inn, still deep in thought, and ascended the stairs to the room she was sharing with the other girls. They were all three there, asleep, or resting, and she threw herself on her bed and fell asleep herself.
Kimi aroused her a little later telling her it was time to begin to get ready. Already the others had bathed, so she went down to the bathhouse and had a bath. On her return to the room, the others were getting into their dresses and doing their hair. Kimi had tidied Asphodel’s roughly cut hair, and it looked much better. She offered to do the same for Thadora. Afterwards, Thadora had to agree that it looked and felt much better. Her red curls seemed to fall around her face in a way that flattered her features and she smiled at the result as she looked into the small silver mirror that Randa produced.
‘You look more like a girl now,’ said Mandreena, entering the room to help them to dress, although you’ll look much better when your hair has grown. You’ll be really pretty with long hair and wearing a dress.’
Thadora grimaced at the thought of wearing dresses and privately vowed that even if she got back to Hambara she would revert to her previous persona if it were the only way to avoid it.
Mandreena had brought with her some jewellery for them to wear. It was only cheap imitation jewellery, but they thanked her for her kindness, and although Randa had to bite back some remarks about it, she accepted it gratefully.
Eventually, after much laughter and discussion about how to do Randa’s hair, the girls were ready. It was fifteen minutes before the sixth hour, but Randa suggested they keep the men waiting.
‘It doesn’t do to seem too eager,’ she told them. ‘We’ll make an entrance. We’ll wait until we hear them go down, then wait another five minutes or so before going down ourselves.’
This they agreed to as Randa knew more about this sort of thing than any of the rest of them, but it was an impatient wait as they were all eager to get to the festivities. Eventually Randa told them the men had waited long enough.
The four girls came to the top of the stairs, and decided to go down one at a time for maximum effect. Each of them paused briefly at the top of the stairs and then slowly descended.
Thadora was wearing a green dress almost the exact colour of her eyes, which sparkled with excitement. The imitation emeralds at her throat and ears gave off green fire in the light, and her red curls set off the image to perfection.
‘Thadora,’ smiled Carthinal, ‘You look lovely. I hadn’t realised how pretty you were under all that dirt.’
Thadora then spoiled the image by sticking out her tongue at him and coming out with a few choice swear words, and they all laughed.
Kimi was wearing a lemon dress, with a skirt that trailed slightly at the back. She was wearing “diamonds” at her ears and throat, and had a “gold” bracelet on her wrist. Her hair was done in its usual braids, but they had been pulled up onto the top of her head, revealing her very pretty neck. Davrael was entranced at how lovely she looked and hugged her hard, earning a reprimand for disturbing her clothes.
Randa looked very dignified, having done this sort of thing many times before, although never in an inn. She had chosen to wear a dress of her favourite sky blue. It was cut very low, revealing her exquisite breasts and it clung to her as she moved, revealing her almost perfect figure. Round her neck was a necklace of imitation aquamarines the exact colour of her eyes. The girls had eventually decided that her hair was her best feature, (although Mandreena had remarked that all her features were her best feature) and so it was left loose, falling in a silvery gold rain down her back.
‘Close your mouth, ranger,’ Basalt whispered to Fero as the tall man gazed at her in awe.
Finally Asphodel came down. She paused and looked down at the men. Fero in his usual black, shirt and breeches, hair tied back with a black leather thong, and a silver earring in one ear; Basalt, in a brown shirt was also in black breeches. She looked at Davrael. He was wearing what was obviously the dress of his tribe. Dark brown leather breeches with a green shirt, covered by a tunic of brown leather, tooled with many symbols. On his head he was wearing a multicoloured headband to keep his long hair out of his eyes. Finally she regarded Carthinal. He was wearing an indigo silk shirt. His breeches were a pale fawn colour and his auburn hair was brushed until it gleamed, and hung loose around his head. She smiled at him, as she came slowly down the stairs. Her red dress made a dramatic statement against her black hair. She had a shawl of black wool draped over her shoulders, adding to the drama of the dress. The dress itself was fitted to her figure and both revealed and concealed. Around her neck was a necklace of a single piece of jet set in a gold surround, and she had similar jet earrings in her ears. She slowly descended the stairs, noticing that she was making quite an impression, not only on her own party, but also on others in the common room too. Once all the girls were down the stairs, the eight of them moved out of the inn to the market square where the feast was to be held.
It was a merry occasion, held in the market hall. Everyone in the village was there. The four girls were glad they had taken the opportunity of borrowing dresses, as everyone else was looking their best. A table at the near end of the Hall was set across the others, and there was seated the Baron and his family. The other tables were set down the long sides of the hall, one on each side to allow space in the centre for both the entertainment and the ease of serving.
Carthinal found eight seats, four on each side of the table, and they sat down. After a brief benediction from the cleric, they found themselves plied with drinks. Then the first course, a spicy mutton soup, was served. Serving girls served each course, and then went to sit down to eat their own food. Between each course, there was some kind of entertainment. First came jugglers who came in juggling balls, but eventually were juggling anything that came to hand; knives and forks, drinking goblets, fruit of various kinds or anything else left loose on the tables. When the jugglers left, the serving girls came round with plates of steaming fish, caught in the river, and eaten with a fine white wine from the cellars of the Baron. After the fish, the entertainment was acrobats who amazed the feasters with their agility. Then came the main course. Platters of meat were carried out and set on the table. Much of the meat was from the sacrificed animals, and so there was a great variety. Bowls of fresh vegetables, and bread warm from the oven were also served with the meat, along with a choice of red wine or ale. Basalt chose to drink the ale of course, but the others drank the wine, which flowed freely. As soon as a goblet was emptied, a server or a neighbour re-filled it. It seemed everyone was intent on getting everyone else inebriated.
The next entertainment was a “mage” whom Carthinal said was nothing more than a man clever at sleight of hand, and not true magic. What he was doing did not disturb the mana at all, as true magic would do. However, this did not detract from the enjoyment of the spectacle as he drew doves from a hat, and coins from behind people’s ears.
After this, there were chunks of local cheeses with butter and more fresh bread, and of course, wine or ale, and finally the meal concluded with a dessert made with apples and sweet pastry, and a variety of other sweetmeats.
During this course, a bard came into the centre of the Hall and began to pluck his instrument. Silence fell, and he began to sing. It was a song of the legend of Grillon and Parador.
‘One day the Lord of Nature was walking all alone
When beside a hidden pool a lovely sight was shown.
For bathing in the moonlight, where no-one should have been
Was a beauteous maiden, the loveliest he’d e’er seen.
‘Lord Grillon lost his heart to her
This maiden oh so fair.
He vowed that she would be his own
His life with her would share.
‘He showed himself at once to her
As forward he did tread.
She said “And who are you, good sir?
Should you not be abed?”
‘“Oh lovely maid, my love, my life,
I ne’er will rest again.
Unless you come to be my wife
My heart will feel such pain.”
‘And so fair Parador was wed
To Grillon. She agreed
To always sleep within his bed
And others ne’er to heed.
‘But evil now will turn to dust
That love and bliss
For Barnat after her did lust
And swore she’d be his.
‘He poisoned Grillon’s mind and said
She was untrue
That she had been into his bed
And others too.
‘Lord Grillon he was truly sad
That she should treat him so.
He thought that he’d go truly mad
So far from her he’d go.
‘Now Parador had done no wrong
To deserve this fate.
She could not any more be strong
Beneath Lord Grillon’s hate.
‘So mourn she did and all the world
Did join with her in sorrow.
All green things died and creatures curled
All safely in their burrow.
‘But in good time, Lord Grillon found
How false the god of war.
He came to her and he reclaimed
The love of his wife once more.
‘So once again the land grew green
And springtime came again.
And summer’s warmth and life serene
While she forgot her pain.
‘And so each year the land remembers
The love of Parador
And autumn comes and winter’s embers
Till Spring returns once more.’
The story of Parador and Grillon having been told once more, the tables were cleared and moved out of the way. There was to be dancing until sunset when the bonfires were due to be lit. Small tables were set around the outside of the hall, and also the taverns set out tables. It seemed that there was still some expected drinking to be done here. A small group of musicians set themselves up at one end of the building and began to play. Soon the space was filled with people dancing. Fero and Basalt were not too sure of the dances as they were Grosmerian dances, but the others joined in with gusto. Soon, with a little more ale, and not a small swig or so from Basalt’s flask if dwarven spirits, the dwarf and ranger were persuaded to have a go at a dance that was danced in a circle, and performed quite competently.
Just as the sun set, someone rang a bell to indicate that the bonfires were to be lit. There were fires at all the cardinal points of the town, and so the throng of people went in four different directions. The friends were in the middle of the hall, and found themselves separated by the milling people. Carthinal saw Fero’s dark head above the crowd, being swept away towards the south. He could see no one else except Asphodel, and he quickly grabbed hold of her hand.
‘We’ll go with the flow, Asphodel,’ he told her. ‘The others can take care of themselves. We’ll see them at the inn later, or tomorrow morning.’
‘But what about Thadora?’ Asphodel looked a little concerned. ‘She’s hardly more that a child. Not yet sixteen.’
‘Two points, Asphodel. One, Thadora is only a few days away from sixteen, if she is to be believed, and two, she’s looked after herself in the Warren at Hambara for about four years, so I don’t expect harm to come to her here. Anyway, you’re not her mother. Hardly old enough, are you?'
‘Well, yes. You’re right of course. Let’s go and enjoy the fires.’
So the two went towards the eastern fire. By the time they reached it, it was burning brightly. A circle had formed, and the people were dancing round and round the flames. The pair managed to insert themselves into the ring and joining hands with the others were soon being pulled madly round in a circle. This dance was said to date back to the earliest times and to represent the turning of the seasons, the fire being the sun around which the planet of Vimar moved. Others said that it represented the wheel of life, with souls being constantly reborn. Whatever the meaning or origins, it was a tradition, and great fun. Soon, people became hot and thirsty, and more drink was provided at a table near the fire. The tables by the fires were run by the taverns and inns in Roffley, and were run as a business, so now the drinks were paid for. Water was free, however, so Carthinal and Asphodel had a goblet of water each, then they followed it with a goblet of wine. They sat down on a log placed there for that purpose.
‘I’m feeling a little giddy,’ Asphodel confessed. ‘How much have we had to drink this afternoon?’
‘I washn’t counting,’ replied Carthinal, ‘But I exshpect it was rather more than we think. My wine goblet sheemed to be alwaysh full. Maybe it wash one of those fabled magic onesh that never runsh dry!’ He laughed at the idea.
‘You’re slurring your words, Carthinal,’ said Asphodel. ‘I think you’re drunk!’
‘And you’re not, I suppose?’
‘A little merry, maybe. Look, the fire’s burning down. People are disappearing too.’ She shivered.
‘You’re cold. Do you want to go back to the inn?’
‘No. Not tonight. Not on Grillon’s Night. Let’s walk for a little. I’ve got my shawl, and walking will keep us warm.’
So they set off walking around the outskirts of the village. After they had walked for a while, talking of this and that inconsequential thing and laughing a lot, a light shower surprised them. Ahead of them they could see a dark shape suggesting a farmer’s barn.
‘Let’s shelter there,’ said Carthinal, pulling Asphodel after him in the direction of the barn.
‘As long as there are no dogs like Bramble,’ she replied, running hard to keep up.
They reached the barn, pushed open the door and nearly fell in. They were both wet. A surprised cow turned her head to look at them. Her expression of surprise made them both begin to laugh again. Never had a cow seemed so funny. They clung together, laughing until their stomachs ached. Then Carthinal was taken by an impulse. He bent his head and kissed Asphodel. She stopped laughing immediately and put her arms round his neck and kissed him back.
‘Let's go up into the loft. There will be some hay there,’ Carthinal whispered in her ear, tracing its pointed shape with his finger. In reply, Asphodel led the way towards the ladder, climbing it rather unsteadily.
Carthinal heard a cock crowing, then a slight tickling on his cheek. He opened his eyes slowly and saw light beginning to creep through a high window to his right. He felt something thump lightly onto his chest, and then small, sharp needles began to prick his skin. He opened his eyes wide and looked down. On his chest was a small black and white kitten. It was settling down and purring, kneading his chest with its tiny claws.
‘Hey! No you don’t! That hurts!’ Carthinal protested as he gently removed the small creature, setting it down into the hay. ' Although maybe not as much as my head!'
Then last night came back to him. He looked over to his left and saw Asphodel asleep in the hay, her nakedness covered by the black shawl she had been wearing. He groaned. This was something he had not intended to happen, even though it had been Grillon’s night, when such things were allowed and even expected. He admitted to himself that he felt a strong attraction to the young elf though. He did not remember the walk from the village much, but he recalled a sudden shower, and running into the barn for shelter. He remembered kissing Asphodel and, all too clearly, the rest of it. He knew he should not have allowed it to happen. He was not worthy of her, and he respected her too much. He remembered his past life, and buried his head in his hands. Asphodel would not understand the things he had done when he was an orphan boy living with the gangs in the poor quarters of Bluehaven. How he had fought and thieved to stay alive. He could not hurt her by admitting his past life. She would not accept that at all. No, he decided. She deserved more than the man he was. He would let her believe that it was just a Grillon’s night celebration. Yes, that was the best thing. That way she would be hurt the least. He leaned over to her and gently shook her awake.
‘It’s dawn, Asphodel,’ he murmured. ‘We should get back to the inn. We walked farther that I thought last night.’
The young elf stirred in her sleep and then opened her clear grey eyes.
‘Oh, yes,’ she said, and smiled at him.
He thought that her smile would break his heart. He hardened it to her and said, ‘Last night. I’m sorry. It should never have happened,’ he told her. ‘I seem to be apologising for this sort of thing a lot these days,’ he thought to himself.
The girl’s smile faded. ‘I suppose it’s because of your girlfriend in Hambara,’ she replied.
Carthinal was about to ask her ‘What girlfriend?’ when she continued. ‘What is her name? Yssa isn’t it?’
Carthinal decided to let her think that Yssa was the reason for his reluctance, but could not bring himself to say so in so many words. He looked away.
Asphodel took that as affirmation of her assumption. ‘Don’t worry. I’m no threat to her. Last night was Grillon’s night after all and these things are expected to happen. I expect she celebrated in a similar way.’
During this speech, Asphodel was dressing, and had her back turned to Carthinal so did not see the look of pain that her words brought to his face. He was himself surprised at how he felt hurt at her seeming indifference to the previous night’s activities. So it was nothing more than a Grillon’s Night assignation to her, was it? Well, it was best that way, he thought. She wouldn’t be hurt if that were how it were, but he felt sad nevertheless that she should look on it as just that, in spite of the fact that he was also relieved that she would not be hurt by his reaction to the event.
‘Come on then, get dressed and we’ll go back. I expect we both need some more sleep. It wasn’t incredibly comfortable up here.’
They finished dressing and then climbed down the ladder. The cow looked at them again, this time pleadingly; it was time for her to be milked.
‘Never mind, old girl,’ Carthinal said as they passed her. ‘I expect they’ll be late this morning, but it’s only once a year.’ And he patted the animal as they passed.