After a while, the woodland through which they had been passing ever since meeting with Basalt seemed to move back, leaving more open country. Carthinal was grateful, as this meant that nothing could hide in the trees and surprise them. The countryside was still undulating. Low green hills rose on either side. It was a gentle land with many small woodlands and streams, all hurrying to reach the Brundella and eventually the sea. There were a few fields with crops and some cattle on either side of the road and the odd well-fortified farmstead, but few villages. Then, when they rounded a bend, they saw a farm at the side of the road. Dogs ran out barking as they approached. One rather angry looking black and tan beast ran up to Carthinal snarling and showing his teeth. Carthinal prepared a spell to send the animal to sleep, when the farmer appeared with a crossbow ready loaded and pointing at them. He looked as though he knew how to use it and was not reluctant to do so if necessary. The farmer was tall and muscular with dark hair and eyes. He was deeply tanned from working outdoors, and was wearing a boiled leather jerkin and trousers with a thick woollen cloak dyed green fastened around his shoulders against the chill of the day.
‘Down, Bramble,’ he called to the dog.
The animal cowered down, still growling and looking at Carthinal in a menacing way, teeth bared in a grim smile. The other three dogs were slinking around obviously ready to attack if the one called Bramble did so. He was the obvious leader of these dogs. The others were smaller. One was black and white, with a rather piratical look as it had a black patch over one eye, and one ear cocked and the other down. The other two were both all black, but one was almost as large as Bramble and had a ragged ear as though it had been chewed in a fight. No doubt a challenge for supremacy amongst the animals had occurred, but whether Bramble had been the original leader and had beaten down the challenge, or whether he had won the leadership off the chewed ear dog, none of them could say. Although if asked, Carthinal would have plumped for Bramble having been the challenger as he looked the younger dog.
‘If ye be friends, then ye need have no fear,’ said the farmer, still pointing his cross-bow, ‘But these be dangerous times and we’ve a need to be careful. No sudden moves now or Bramble there’ll attack; not to mention how me finger might slip on this here trigger. State yer names and business.’
With a nervous look at the dogs, especially Bramble, Asphodel replied for the group.
‘I am Asphodel and my companions are Carthinal and Basalt. The man on the travois is Mabryl, and he is seriously injured. We are trying to get him to the temple in Hambara. We were caught in a flash flood on the ford back there, over the Brundella. We are the only survivors that we know of.’
‘Guard, Bramble.’ The farmer addressed the dog, and he lowered his crossbow.
Bramble looked ready and anxious to have a piece of Carthinal for lunch, with Bas for afters. He showed his teeth again. Carthinal ignored him, although it took all his willpower to do so. He knew the dog was only being controlled by the slenderest of threads and that the farmer could lose control at any moment if he did anything to upset the animal.
‘The others dogs will follow the lead of Bramble,’ he thought, ‘As he is the pack leader here.’
‘Don’t ye move,’ said the farmer ‘And ye’ll be fine. I need to look at yon man on that thingy to make sure he’s what ye says and not a trap. A man can’t be too careful. There’s bandits around these days and they have all kinds of wiles t’get into th’ house.’
With that he walked slowly towards Mabryl. He bent down and touched him gently.
He sighed, then crouched down and put his head on the man’s chest. ‘He be not long for this world,’ he said. ‘He be dyin’. Fact is he be nearly gone now. Ye been tellin’ me the truth I guess.’
He turned to the dogs. ‘Come. These be friends. Bramble! Friends!’ With that, he went and patted each of the companions on the back. ‘Ye’ll be fine now. Bramble and his pack’ll do ye no harm.’
The four dogs came and sniffed each of the companions one by one. Bramble even licked Asphodel’s hand, much to the surprise of the farmer.
‘Well I never!’ he exclaimed. ‘Ye be greatly honoured, Sister. He’s never done that to nobody save in the family. Well, I be Borolis and this here be my farm. It were me father’s afore me and his father’s afore him. I hopes it will be me sons’ and their sons’ too, the gods willing. It’s hard farming here. The land is good, but it be dangerous times, and lonely hereabouts, hence the dogs. Come on in and have a bite and meet the missus and kids.’
‘I don’t know about us having a bite, I thought we were going to be the bite,’ whispered Carthinal to Asphodel, as he shrugged off the harness. ‘I’m not leaving Mabryl here with those animals. They look as wild as wolves to me,’ he observed to Asphodel.
Borolis had second guessed him and said, ‘Bring your sick friend in on that thing. Better than leaving him outside. It be warm indoors too. Mayhap help him somewhat.’
They followed Borolis into the farmhouse where the warmth made them feel most welcome. There was a delicious smell of cooking, obviously the midday meal being prepared. A pretty, blond woman came up to them wiping her hands on her apron.
Borolis addressed her. ‘These here be travellers heading for Hambara. They have met with a mishap on the road. Do we have enough food for us all?’
‘Well, Borolis, you know how as I always cook too much food. You’re forever telling me about it. We can find plenty for yon strangers. Are ye going to tell me who they are?’ scolded his wife playfully.
‘Oh! Sorry. Forgot me manners. The mage, he be Carthinal, and the dwarf be called Basalt. The healer be a young elf called Asphodel.’
At the sound of his voice, two young boys about ten years old, obviously twins, and a girl of about five came running into the room. The boys were dark of hair, like their father, and like him had dark brown eyes which were full of mischief. Their sister was blond, but had also inherited their father’s brown eyes. All the children were dressed simply in brown trousers and jackets, but all had immaculately clean shirts underneath. The girl had a shirt of primrose yellow which seemed to match the colour of her hair, while one boy had a green shirt and the other an orange one.
‘Did you say there was an elf here, Papa?’ cried the girl.
‘Now, now, calm down, Amerilla,’ said their mother fielding the twins, but missing her daughter, ‘Yes. The young lady there is an elf, and her name is Asphodel.’
‘Ooh! I’ve always wanted to meet a real live elf,’ exclaimed Amerilla
Borolis laughed. ‘That be my daughter, Amerilla, in case you haven’t guessed. The boys be my twin sons. Voldon be wearing the orange shirt, and Kram, he be in the green. Unless they’ve changed over shirts again!’
‘No, Papa,’ replied the boys, looking innocent, as though such a thing would never enter their heads.
‘My wife be called Elpin and she be the best wife a man could have.’
This with a loving glance at the said lady, who blushed and said, ‘Go on with you! Now I’ll just set some more places at the table. Would ye like to put your cloaks over by the door on the stand, and sit ye down by the fire to get warm? It’s mighty cold outside.’
With that, she bustled off to get some more plates and cutlery out of the kitchen. The boys were questioning Basalt about his weapons and Amerilla was gazing in awe at Asphodel, who in her turn was trying to put the young girl at ease so Carthinal had time to look around and take in his surroundings.
The room was large, taking up most of the ground floor of the house. The fire was in a large fireplace built on the left hand wall as they came in through the door, and next to it, stairs went up to an upper story. There was a door in the wall opposite the fire, where Elpin had disappeared, and Carthinal surmised that it was the kitchen. Next to the entrance door was a window with pretty curtains and there was another window on the back wall. The door through which the children had come was obviously a door into the farmyard, and was next to the back window. There were five wooden chairs around the fire, made comfortable by having plenty of cushions and a large table in the centre of the room, which Elpin was now setting with three extra places. All together, it was a clean and happy place, although obviously not very rich. Carthinal thought to himself that the love and care that he felt in that house was worth all the riches on Vimar. Asphodel’s voice broke his musings. ‘I must tend to Mabryl. I will do another healing on him now.’
‘Can I watch. I’ll be ever so quiet.’ This from Amerilla.
‘Don’t you disturb Asphodel now Rilla. She be working. It be mighty hard being a healer. Takes a lot out of a body,’ rebuked her father.
‘As long as she’s quiet, she won’t disturb me,’ replied Asphodel.
She went over to Mabryl and looked at him. He did not look good. She knelt down and lifted one of his eyelids. There was no response to the influx of light from his pupils. This looked very bad. She felt for a pulse. It was there, but very weak, and it seemed to flutter as she felt it. The rise and fall of his chest as he breathed seemed to be getting less, and causing him some difficulty. She began her prayer to Sylissa, and laid one of her hands over his wounded head and the other over his heart as she felt Sylissa’s healing grace filling her. She hoped that this way some of the healing would help both the wound and keep him alive. This time there was very little improvement. His pulse seemed to steady momentarily, but then it began to flutter again.
‘Don’t die, please, Mabryl, don’t die,’ she whispered to herself.
She decided to try another prayer and prayed again to Sylissa. Again that brief but fleeting revival. She did not like to try again at the moment, as she would have no more energy left to channel the god’s energy for any further healing later. She pondered on what to do. While she was doing so, Elpin emerged from the kitchen carrying a tureen full of stew, followed by Borolis with a platter of bread. The twins had been roped in too and they had eight plates between them, which they placed carefully in front of the chairs that had been pulled up around the table.
‘Come and eat,’ called Borolis, and they all sat around the table while Elpin spooned large helpings of stew and bread onto each plate.
The stew was delicious and the bread still warm from the oven. To the hungry travellers the meal seemed like the nectar of the gods. Borolis insisted on them having second helpings, and plied them with ale, and they were feeling full when Elpin left to go into the kitchen. When she returned, she was carrying a bowl of late autumn’s fruit that she had dried for use in the winter. This had been soaked in a syrup of honey and water and then cooked. It was still slightly warm, and the sweet warm syrup perfectly complemented the slight tartness of the mixed fruit. All told, it was a delicious meal, and the three companions sighed, replete with good food. They thanked their hosts gratefully.
‘We did not expect so gracious a welcome, or such wonderful food,’ said Carthinal to Elpin, who beamed at his compliments.
‘Not after the welcome ye received from me and me dogs, eh?’ responded Borolis with a twinkle in his dark eyes. ‘But ye can’t be too careful round here these days,’ he went on more soberly. ‘There be all sorts on the road now. Thieves and brigands, aye, and worse.’
‘Shh! Don’t frighten the little ones,’ Elpin quickly hushed him, but Voldon replied, drawing himself up as tall as a ten year old could.
‘We be not frightened, Mama. We be men now. We be nearly eleven, and Papa has told us we can have short bows for our birthday so we can learn to fight to help to protect the farm. With Papa’s cross bow, us with our short bows and the dogs, nothing can harm us.’
‘I want a bow too. Papa, can I have a bow? I want to fight for the farm as well,’ cried Amerilla, who was bouncing up and down in her seat. ‘I want to be a fighter when I grow up. Or perhaps I’ll be a healer like you Asphodel,’ she said, turning to the elf.
‘She wanted to be a travelling entertainer last sixday, and the sixday before it was a druid. We never know what she’s going to come up with next. Thank the gods the boys are not like her. Farming is all they ever wanted to do,’ smiled Elpin.
‘Parador has smiled on us with those two,’ went on Borolis picking up his wife’s thoughts quite naturally, and referring to the goddess of agriculture. ‘Not that I’d change Amerilla in any way shape or form,’ he went on to say fondly. ‘I expect she’ll get married and settle down with some farmer eventually.’
This was a truly happy and devoted family. All three travellers hoped that everything would turn out well for them for their kindness.
Carthinal then spoke. ‘We thank you kindly for sharing your food and shelter this cold day, but we really must continue. It is imperative that we get to a temple as soon as possible for Mabryl.’
‘I understand lad, but ye’d be welcome to stay longer. We seldom see visitors. Elpin’ll pack some food for ye and ye must fill all yer water skins from the well. The water is good, and does not need boiling,’ replied Borolis.
During this exchange, Asphodel, followed by her shadow, Amerilla, had returned to Mabryl to give him some water. She felt his skin and pulse, and gave a sudden intake of breath.
‘Go and get Carthinal, Rilla,’ she said quietly, ‘And then go and help your mother to pack the food she promised us.’
The girl did as she was bid, and Carthinal came over quickly. ‘What is it, Asphodel?’ he queried.
‘I’m so sorry Carthinal. I couldn’t save him. He’s gone.’
For a moment, Carthinal did not understand what she was saying. He looked at Mabryl lying on the travois. Then realisation dawned. Mabryl, his first true friend, adopted father and master was dead. ‘No,’ he whispered. ‘You’ve made a mistake, haven’t you, Asphodel? Check again. He can’t die.’
Carthinal felt a gentle hand on his arm and allowed himself to be led to the fire. It was Elpin who, noticing his distress, had realised what must have happened and come to see what comfort she could offer.
Carthinal sat with his head in his hands. He was totally oblivious of the people surrounding him or of the warm fire crackling in the grate. All he was aware of was a pain in his heart, which seemed to permeate his whole being. Mabryl had rescued him from the gutters of Bluehaven and probably saved him from ending up at the end of a rope as a criminal. Then the mage had adopted him as his son, since he had never married and consequently had no family of his own. Carthinal owed all he was to Mabryl, and looked on him as a friend and father. The half-elf could barely remember his real father who had died when he was still very young. Mabryl had been patient with the wild, impatient young man and taught him all the lessons that a father would have taught his son, so Carthinal felt he had lost his father all over again.
Eventually, he became aware of voices speaking softly around him. He looked up. The light was fading outside the room, and oil lamps had been lit. Where had the day gone? Surely it was the middle of the daylight hours when they arrived? How could it possibly be dusk? He glanced over to the travois. It was empty. A sudden surge of hope filled him. Maybe he had fallen asleep and had a nightmare, and Mabryl had recovered enough to get up. His master could not be dead, he who had always been so full of life and wisdom and good advice. Yes, that was it. In the split second that these hopes flit through his head, Borolis spoke.
‘Don’t ye be anxious about the body, Carthinal. It be lying on one of the couches up the stairs. We’ve washed him and dressed him in decent clothes. Asphodel thought you wouldn’t mind if we searched for something clean in his pack. He was a mage of high rank it seems and it wouldn’t do to send him on his last journey unfit.’
Cathinal looked up, his eyes red. ‘Yes. Thank you,’ he replied listlessly. ‘I suppose we’ll have to bury him. He must be buried properly, and not just left somewhere on the road for wild animals to consume.’
‘That be all taken care of,’ replied Borolis gently. ‘We’ve decided that he can be buried in our family plot. We’ll care for his grave as one of our own. The plot’s protected by a fence to keep out wolves and the like that may decide to dig up any bodies, so it’s a safer place than most. We’d be most honoured if you’d accept our offer.’
‘Thank you. You’re very kind. This is all too much. I will repay you somehow.’
‘No need, boy. We’re pleased as ye were here when it happened and not on the road. At least this way your friend can get a decent place to spend eternity. If you agree, we’ll bury him tomorrow morning, and then you can be on your way as soon as you wish.’
‘No rush now,’ said Carthinal listlessly. ‘The rush was all for Mabryl. The ungrateful bastard.’ This last was said angrily, as he banged his clenched fist into the palm of his other hand. Carthinal surprised even himself by his sudden rush of anger. ‘After all we did. Both Asphodel, and myself. She wearing herself out with her healing and I with pulling him on that travois. All for nothing. He goes and dies on us.’ Then Carthinal broke down in a sudden rush of tears and he turned away from Borolis.
Borolis turned away feeling helpless. He was not the one to deal with this. He called his wife to him, to ask her for her advice.
‘I think he should go to bed,’ she replied. ‘I’ve rigged up a couple of extra beds in the boys’ room, and another in Rilla’s for Asphodel. Take him upstairs and I’ll send up a drink of something to help him sleep. I’ve some herbs dried that will do the trick. He will have to face things sometime, but not tonight.’
Carthinal’s tears had at last ceased and he allowed himself to be led upstairs to a room, which now seemed crowded with four beds. Borolis indicated one of the beds, and Carthinal sat down on it. In a few minutes, one of the twins came in carrying a beaker of a sweet-smelling drink. The steam carried the smell throughout the room.
‘Mama says you’re to drink this,’ the boy said, carefully placing the mug in Carthinal’s hands. ‘It’ll help you sleep.’
With that, he was gone, and his father with him. Cathinal sipped the tea. It was pleasant tasting, and seemed to soothe him. He soon began to feel sleepy and he undressed and lay on the bed, pulling the covers up over himself. He was now truly alone in the world. His friend had gone and left him. He had no family of his own. Mabryl had been family to him and he knew he was going to miss him dreadfully. He had been too young when his parents had died to really understand they were gone forever, but now he knew real loneliness. He had no one, no one at all. Soon he drifted into a dreamless sleep. He did not hear the twins come to bed, nor much later, Basalt slip into the bed next to his. He slept until he heard the cocks crowing in the farmyard and the cattle softly lowing in the cowsheds as they were being milked.
He looked around him. The other beds were empty. Then he remembered. He had been given some kind of draught to put him to sleep because of his despair at Mabryl’s death. The sorrow he had felt the night before hit him again. Tears swam in his deep blue eyes as he rose and dressed. He washed in the water that had been left in a jug in the bedroom and looked into a mirror on the wall. Why should he continue on to Hambara? He had nothing left now. First his father, then his mother and grandparents. Now his adopted father. All gone. No, he had no one at all to care if he lived or died.
This self-pity lasted until his anger re-asserted itself as he entered the family’s main room. Mabryl had no right to die and leave him alone in the world. Surely he could have made some effort to swim out of the flood. He was the one who had insisted that a reluctant Carthinal learn to swim, and he had not even tried to swim to safety himself. That Mabryl had probably made a supreme effort but the waters were just too strong for the older man never occurred to the grieving half-elf. Then his anger turned on himself and Asphodel. He surely could have done something to help Mabryl, but he just stood watching the young elf, while she obviously did not do her best for a stranger. If it were her own father lying there, he supposed it would have been different. Then he saw Asphodel seated by the fire playing some child’s game with Amerilla.
‘That’s all you’re good for,’ he snapped at her. ‘Playing children’s games. You couldn’t even manage to keep him alive until we reached Hambara.’
Asphodel looked shocked. The smile that had come to her lips as he entered the room faded and her eyes filled with tears. She rushed out of the room quickly before he could see her distress.
‘We’d better be getting on with the burial,’ said Carthinal gruffly. ‘Get it over with.’
‘Have something to eat and drink first,’ Elpin replied, leading him to the table and placing a plate of bread and a fruit preserve in front of him. She also poured him a mug of milk. Carthinal decided he had better eat something, even though he was not hungry, and began to spread the preserve onto the bread.
Shortly after, Borolis and the boys came into the room. ‘We’ve dug the grave.’ said Kram. ‘When can we start the funeral?’
‘Ssh!’ scolded his mother. ‘Carthinal’s very upset about his friend. We have to be sensitive about this.’
‘Sorry!’ said Kram, not sounding at all sorry, and he rushed out.
‘Where’s Asphodel?’ asked the farmer.
‘How should I know,’ replied Carthinal. ‘She was here a minute ago, but then she left.’
Just then, Asphodel appeared red-eyed, with Basalt, who was looking rather severe.
‘Perhaps we should be getting on with the funeral and then we’ll be leaving you. We’re not fit company at the moment. I’m sorry for all this,’ he said.
‘We understand. Anger be a part of grieving, as well as guilt. He’ll get that shortly too. At the moment he be blaming others, yes, even his friend himself. Soon he’ll start blaming himself. After that, he’ll start to mend,’ replied Borolis, ‘Although how long it’ll take is anyone’s guess. He needs the support of good friends at this time. Well let’s get it over with.’
The three travellers and the farming family trooped out to a plot of land adjacent to the house. On a wooden plank, was Mabryl’s body, with a white linen wrap to cover it before it went into the ground. It was lying next to a deep hole that Borolis and his sons had somehow managed to dig in the cold ground.
‘We thought you might want to pay your last respects to him, Carthinal, before we wrap him,’ said Borolis.
‘Thanks,’ muttered Carthinal, and while the others drew back, Carthinal knelt down beside his mentor.
‘You should not have gone like this, old friend,’ he whispered. ‘We had so much left to do. So much left unsaid. I never thanked you for giving me a chance in life, for being kind and understanding, for bringing discipline to my life where there had been none. I never said how much I cared for you. You became my father when I could barely remember my own. You were the friend I never really had before. You were the teacher who gave me inspiration and taught me so much more than my lessons. I will treasure your memory, and try to live as you taught me. Although it will be hard, I will do my tests as you asked me not so long ago, and I will gratefully accept your staff. I will be strong now. I have grieved for you deeply, and will continue to do so all the days I live, but you once told me to always look to the future, “Learn from the past,” you said, “Remember it, but do not live there.” So much good advice. You were the wisest man I know. Goodbye, my father.’
With that, Carthinal slowly rose to his feet and covered Mabryl’s body with the sheet. Borolis stepped forward with Basalt, and they slowly lowered the body into the Earth. Then Asphodel began to sing. She sang a sad hymn of mourning, commending Mabryl’s soul to the care of Kalhera, goddess of Death and the Underworld, and then said a brief prayer to Kassilla, the chief goddess, to pray that Mabryl may one day return to the wheel of life. Carthinal threw the first spades of soil onto the body, then turned away.
As they were entering the house once more, Basalt took Carthinal’s arm. ‘You’ve hurt that lassie dreadfully,’ he said angrily, ‘With your careless remarks. In the few days she’s known you she has learned to respect you, and like you and you go and speak to her like that!’
Carthinal did not reply, but continued to walk into the house.
He picked up his pack, turned to thank his hosts for their hospitality, and generosity, and then said to the others, ‘We should go now. Are you ready?’
They also picked up their packs. Basalt apologised for Carthinal’s behaviour that morning, but the farmer and his wife understood.
‘He had a terrible shock and loss,’ Elpin said. ‘It mayhap affect him for a while. We know it be not his normal self. We saw what kind of man he be when you arrived. That is what we will remember. Come and call on us again.’
Farewells having been said, the little party continued on their journey. The dogs, led by Bramble, accompanied them for a little way along the road, but then turned back, Bramble having given Asphodel’s hand another lick. Their journey was once more under way.