I apologise for not posting this on Tuesday. I have a number of problems going on in my life at the moment, so I hope you will forgive me.
If you have missed the previous posts of this story, you can go back through the past posts to find them. They are approximately one each month, beginning in about June.
It was not a pleasant journey that day after Mabryl’s death. Carthinal was sunk into himself, not speaking to either of his companions, Asphodel was in deep misery from Carthinal’s hasty remarks, and Basalt was annoyed with Carthinal for hurting Asphodel with his angry, thoughtless words.
The day was cold, and so they walked briskly to keep warm and stopped for only a relatively short time to eat some of the food that Elpin had packed for them. The land was once more wooded, which gave some protection from the wind that swept down from the mountains in the east, and over the hilly land that they were crossing. They trudged along, each with their own thoughts hardly speaking to each other. It seemed an inordinately long day to all of them with the bad feeling that was between them. Every so often, Asphodel’s eyes filled with tears as she remembered Carthinal’s angry words to her that morning, but she blinked them away, determined not to let him see them, just as she was determined to prove to herself that he was wrong and she would make a good healer.
Basalt was fuming. He liked the elf, and he liked Carthinal too. He had not thought he was capable of such cruel words. Asphodel seemed to have taken them to heart. He knew Carthinal’s reasons, that he was hurting, and like an injured animal he had struck out at the nearest person to him. How he wished that it had been him and not Asphodel who had been there this morning to receive the tongue-lashing. He could take it. He had been through worse in his time, but the young elf was more sensitive it seemed.
‘Well, he’ll come to his senses eventually,’ muttered Bas to himself. ‘I only hope it’s before we get to Hambara, so it won’t be too late for him to apologise.’
Eventually, the day ended and they had made quite good time. There was a clearing in the woodland ahead of them with a stream running through it when they decided that it was time to stop. They were still a morose band, but it was necessary to communicate in order to sort out the watches. Basalt took the first watch, with Asphodel the second and Carthinal the third. They decided that they would rest until dawn, which meant that they had over twelve hours in camp. Each watch was to be for two hours at a time and each of them was to take two watches. That decided, they made a fire with wood they collected from the forest around the clearing. This had become a routine with Carthinal and Asphodel, and not much discussion was required, so the evening was a silent affair. Almost as soon as the meal was finished, Carthinal rolled himself up in his blanket and turned his back on them. Asphodel and Basalt exchanged glances.
Basalt was the first to speak. ‘I know that the half-elf hurt you with his remarks, but he didn’t really mean it. He was hurting and struck out at the nearest target, which just happened to be you. A bit like an injured animal will often bite the person trying to help it. Get some rest, lass. I’ll wake you when it is your turn to watch.’
Asphodel decided that he was right, and she should rest so she, like Carthinal, wrapped herself in her blankets and tried to sleep.
Basalt’s watch went smoothly. He kept the fire going and after a couple of hours, he woke Asphodel. She seemed a little less distressed, much to his relief, and he quickly fell asleep himself.
Asphodel watched for some time. She was thinking about things that had transpired in the last few days. She decided that she was foolish to take Carthinal’s words to heart. In a couple of days they would be at Hambara. He would go to the Mage Tower for his tests and she would be at the temple, probably never to see him again. Anyway, she resolved not to let him hurt her, so she settled down to her watch.
After a while, she thought she felt herself being watched. She turned quietly so as not to disturb whatever it was that she had felt. She could see nothing, and was beginning to think that she was imagining it.
‘An over-active imagination, girl,’ she thought. ‘Just because everyone else is asleep!’
Then she spotted the heat source. ‘Well, at least it isn’t undead,’ she muttered to herself, but she felt a little afraid nevertheless.
On looking closer, she thought that the heat source was human or humanoid, but which she could not tell.
She crept over to Carthinal and Basalt and whispered quietly to them. ‘Don’t make any quick moves, but there is someone or something watching us.’
The others quietly opened their eyes.
‘You can’t see anything with normal vision, you need to use infra-vision,’ she continued. ‘Look over there, just beyond that tree behind the bush.’
She indicated a bush just on the opposite side of the fire. Sure enough, the half-elf could make out a humanoid figure. It was glowing with heat, and seemed to be the size of a rather tall man, maybe 6 feet 6 inches tall, but little else could be determined.
‘Carthinal, ready one of your spells. Asphodel, you be ready for some unarmed combat if necessary, but don’t do anything unless you have to,’ whispered Basalt, reaching for his crossbow very slowly and quietly. He stood up, along with Carthinal and called out in the direction of the figure, ‘We’re armed and ready. Come out so we can see you, but have no weapons. If we see any weapons, we will attack.’
The figure quietly moved into the clearing. He was not armed and had his hands away from his sides. He was a tall, coppery-skinned man and was wearing black leathers, topped by a black cloak. He had black wavy hair, which he wore long and tied back with a black leather thong. His features were arresting, rather than handsome, with almost black eyes and a straight nose over a generous mouth that looked as though it liked to smile, and he carried himself with an almost arrogant bearing. On his back was a quiver containing a number of black-fletched arrows, but he had no bow or sword in sight.
‘I should have remembered that elves can see in the dark and been more careful,’ he said. His voice was musical and low with the merest trace of a foreign accent. ‘However, I did intend to reveal myself to you tomorrow. You are right to be suspicious. Suspicion is the reason that I didn’t reveal myself before. I had to know if I could trust you.’
‘And how do we know we can trust you?’ retorted Carthinal.
‘You don’t. At least not at the moment,’ replied the stranger. ‘I would like to have the chance to prove it to you though.’
‘Begin by telling us who you are,’ Asphodel interrupted, trying to place his accent, ‘And why you want us to trust you.’
‘By all means,’ went on the stranger. ‘My name is Fero, and I’m a ranger. I’m originally from the land of Beridon in the south.’ He mentioned a land far to the south of Grosmer, the country where they were currently living. ‘I left there three years ago to travel and further my knowledge, but I’ve come to learn that it’s far safer to travel in company with others, rather than alone. My last companions left to head towards the Western Mountains, but I decided to continue to Hambara. I was going to reveal myself to you when Basalt here turned up, and I thought you may find it a little suspicious having two strangers turn up on the same day so I decided to wait until the following day or the day after. Then the people at the farm back yonder took you in, and when you came back onto the road again, I guessed your friend had died as he was not with you and you all looked so upset. I’m sorry about that. So you saw me and here I am. At your mercy I may add.’
‘You’ve certainly listened well,’ observed Carthinal. ‘There’s little you could have found out that you failed to do. Was it you that I thought I heard a night or two ago when I was on watch?’
‘Yes. I cursed myself for my carelessness then. I stood on a twig and it cracked. I shouldn’t have done so. My ranger training should have made me able to move silently in the woods at all times. I really thought that I’d have to reveal myself then, but you seemed to dismiss the sound.’
Asphodel was observing the stranger. She looked into his eyes. His appearance was somewhat daunting, dressed all in black as he was, with his coppery skin and black hair and eyes, but she thought she could discern a gleam of humour in those eyes, and a kindness.
‘I’m willing to trust him,’ she said suddenly. ‘I’m not sure why, but I think he’s honest.’
‘You can join with us as a travelling companion, but don’t mind if we don’t leave you on watch alone just yet,’ replied Carthinal. ‘Take a place by the fire, and I think that it’s time for our watch change. I’ll be watching now, and Fero, I have a spell prepared!’
With that, the half-elf took his seat on a fallen log at the side of the clearing, and was silent. The others looked from one to the other. Basalt and Asphodel had hoped that some sleep would lift Carthinal’s mood somewhat, but now that things had been settled, he seemed to be retreating once more into himself. However, since there was nothing more they could do, they decided to try to get some sleep themselves.
Carthinal woke Basalt at the end of his two hours, and rolled himself in his blankets by the fire. Basalt sat, took out his dagger and started whittling on a piece of wood he had found and yawning from time to time. Occasionally, he rose and paced around to keep himself awake, looking carefully at Fero and also at Carthinal. Although the half-elf tried to pretend he was asleep, Basalt glimpsed the gleam of his eyes in the glint of the fire. At the end of his two-hour watch, Basalt was pleased to note that Carthinal seemed to have fallen into a fitful sleep at last.
‘He needs the sleep,’ he muttered to himself. ‘He’s obviously lost more than just his master. Mabryl meant much to him.’
He gently woke Asphodel, and she took her place on watch.
Carthinal had indeed fallen asleep, but it was not very restful. He dreamed of dark figures and fighting around the camp. He tossed around, hearing harsh voices in his dreams, and a scream that was suddenly cut off. He woke and realised that everything had not been a dream. There were many footprints around the camp and there were signs of a scuffle near to the fire. Then he realised that Asphodel was gone. He remembered the scream, and how it was cut off, and he felt suddenly afraid for her.
He heard Basalt saying, ‘We’ll find her and get her back, laddie, don’t you worry now. Fero here is a ranger, and can track these creatures, whatever they are. He’s looking at the tracks now.’
Fero returned then. ‘They are orcs,’ he spat, with hatred in his voice. ‘They sometimes take human or elven women and children and use them as slaves. Sometimes they use the women for other things as well, if they are a raiding party and their own females are not with them.’
This made Carthinal’s blood run cold at the thought of Asphodel being raped by these abominable creatures. ‘She must be found and rescued,’ he said harshly. ‘I won’t let her suffer such a fate.’
He stood and began to make his way into the surrounding trees. He felt a hand on his arm, and turned to see Fero.
His face was grim and his eyes burned with an intensity that took Carthinal aback. ‘You won’t find her if you go rushing off like that, half-elf,’ said the ranger. ‘I can follow their tracks, but not if you obliterate them first.’
Carthinal turned to him. ‘I apologise,’ he responded, ‘We must go quickly though. How far do you think they will have gone?’
‘Not too far yet,’ replied the other. ‘They have an additional weight to carry, but I fear they may have knocked her out as her scream stopped so abruptly.’
Carthinal could not understand why he felt so angry at that thought. He wanted to rip the orcs limb from limb that they had dared to harm Asphodel. He shocked himself at the violence of his thoughts, and began to tremble. He heard Mabryl’s voice in his head saying, “Remember that violence for its own sake does more harm to the perpetrator than to the victim, and revenge eats away the soul.” He forced himself to calm and did some deep breathing exercises. Then he saw the other two watching him in concern.
‘Feeling a little better now?’ said Basalt gently. ‘I thought you were going to have a stroke or something for a minute.’
‘Yes, thank you, Bas. I was overcome for a minute at the thought of Asphodel in the clutches of those creatures, but I’m calm now. Nothing will be done properly in anger, I realise that.’
Fero had been searching around the clearing to find out in which direction the orcs had taken their captive. He quickly returned to the others. ‘I think they must have been a raiding party. They left by the opposite side of the clearing. They entered from the north and left by the south,’ he told them. ‘I don’t think they were expecting us to be here. They weren’t following us in order to capture Asphodel. It was just unfortunate that they came by when she was on watch alone.’
‘Can you follow their tracks?’ queried Basalt.
‘Oh yes! I could track orcs over bare rock if necessary,’
There was a snarl in Fero’s voice. It was obvious to both of the others that he had come across orcs before and for some reason had an unreasoning hatred of the creatures.
‘Then what are we waiting for? The sooner we leave, the better,’ said Basalt, picking up his pack and hoisting his crossbow in his hands.
The three left the clearing in the direction indicated by Fero. They divided Asphodel’s belongings between them and followed the tracks to the south.
The orcs had not made much of an effort to hide their tracks, and even a blind hill dwarf could follow it, as Basalt said. Carthinal, with his elven heritage, walked quietly in the woods, but Fero was trained in woodcraft and he could hardly be heard at all. Unfortunately, the mountain dwarves are not very good at passing silently, especially when loaded down with weapons. Basalt made as much noise as a hill giant with indigestion as Carthinal said.
Suddenly, Fero stopped in his tracks and motioned to the others to stop and be silent.
‘They’ll have set an ambush,’ he whispered. ‘They may not be the most intelligent creatures on Vimar, but they’ll realise that we’ll follow to attempt a rescue. They’ll assume that we’ll be easy to defeat as there are only three of us, and from the tracks, there are about a dozen of them. They’ll also not be able to figure out that we may be on our guard and that an ambush may not be a surprise. Can you see anything in the bushes with your infra-vision, Carthinal?’
Carthinal looked and sure enough, he could see three reddish figures in the bushes on either side of the narrow track a hundred yards further along. He whispered the information to Fero. Fero then whispered that he thought he and Carthinal should creep up behind the orcs and quietly kill them. Bas should remain where he was as he was making enough noise to waken a dead log.
Basalt was about to take umbrage at this, but Carthinal said, ‘We need someone to make them think that we are still on this track, Bas. You keep walking along, and talking as though we are following behind you. That should keep their attention from us.’
This mollified Basalt somewhat. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘That makes sense. I’ll do that.’
‘Give us a few minutes to get into position, and then off you go,’ said Fero. ‘Carthinal, how good are you with a dagger? Can you kill silently from behind?’
‘No problem, my friend, no problem,’ murmured the mage.
‘Then I’ll take the right hand side if you take the left,’ and with that, he was gone.
Basalt allowed them to get half way to the ambush, and then he started down the road, stomping along and calling behind him, ‘Come on! Hurry up you two! They’re getting away. That poor lass must be terrified out of her wits. What? Track them? They leave more tracks than a herd of stampeding cattle. No need of expert trackers here,’ and he marched forward, weapons clanking.
‘Good old Bas,’ thought Carthinal as he crept through the undergrowth towards where he could see the first red shape.
The orc was intent on peering towards Basalt, trying to see his companions, and was not aware of the dagger being drawn across his throat until too late. He did not even have time to draw a breath. The second one was just as easy. By the time he realised there was anyone there, he too was dead.
‘Two down, one to go,’ thought Carthinal. ‘I wonder how Fero is getting on.’
Carthinal had completely forgotten his mistrust of the ranger in the camaraderie of battle.
‘Oops! I’ve forgotten the main tenant of fighting. Do not allow yourself to be distracted, even by wondering about your friends. Every one is his own keeper.’
With this thought, Carthinal put everything out of his mind except the last orc. He crept up behind it and was just about to put his arm around its mouth, both to stifle any cry and to bring its head back into a position where its throat was revealed, when a twig broke under his foot. He considered his momentary lapse in concentration and cursed himself as the orc whirled round and cried out. He crouched in a fighting stance as the orc drew its weapon.
‘Curse these robes,’ he thought, ‘I don’t have time to prepare a spell, and can’t fight hand to hand in these clothes.’
Mabryl had insisted that Carthinal wear the robes of an apprentice mage as he was on official mage business, namely going to the Tower for his Test. Carthinal had continued to wear them because it was what Mabryl had said was right in the circumstances.
The orc was wielding an ugly looking short sword. The weapon had a much longer reach than Carthinal’s dagger. The orc lunged at Carthinal, and he dodged backwards, the sword just missing his face by about half an inch. He feinted to his left, making as though he were about to stab in that direction, hoping that the orc would be fooled. Unfortunately, the orc was battle hardened and easily saw through Carthinal’s ruse. The orc then stepped to one side and was about to make a stabbing cut which would have opened Carthinal’s side when there was a thudding sound and the orc plunged towards him and fell face down to the ground, a black-fletched arrow sticking out of its back.
At the same moment, he heard a harsh voice call out in heavily accented Grosmerian,‘You! Show yerself and hold up yer bow. And the dwarf. You hold up yer crossbow where I can see it too. I’ve a knife at the female’s throat and if either of yer moves, she dies!’
Carthinal realised that the orc did not know that he was there. It must have thought that its companion had seen Fero and that was why it called out, and why Fero had shot it. Maybe this was a chance to do something. He knew there were three orcs on each side of the track, and if Fero was right about their numbers, there must be about six of them left. He must try to do something whilst they did not know he was there. He looked around and could see one of the orcs holding Asphodel. She had her hands tied in front of her and a gag around her mouth, but she was conscious. Suddenly he came to a decision. He took the mana into himself and began to weave it into a shape to draw energy from the surroundings, and then pointed his fingers at the orc that he could see holding Asphodel. Two glowing silvery darts of energy shot from his fingers and embedded themselves in the orc’s chest. The orc stumbled in surprise, but although badly wounded, was not killed outright. Asphodel took her opportunity, as Carthinal hoped she would. She stamped hard on the creature’s foot, and when it dropped its dagger, she whirled and jabbed her fingers hard into its throat. It dropped at her feet, quite dead.
In the meantime, the other orcs had turned towards Carthinal, and were drawing their swords. Basalt and Fero saw their opportunity, and fired at them. Fero killed one instantly with his first arrow, but the second only grazed its intended victim and the orc changed direction, moving towards the tall figure preparing to fire a third arrow. Basalt killed one, but had to draw out his battleaxe as one of the remaining orcs was approaching him, sword drawn. He yelled a battle cry and promptly began hacking at the orc. He became very angry when it managed to get behind his defences and score a cut in his arm. Then, before he knew what was happening, the orc yawned and fell asleep in the middle of a swing of its sword. He quickly dispatched it before wondering what was going on. He noticed that the rest of the orcs were either dead or asleep, and noticed Asphodel calmly cutting the throat of another sleeping orc. He wondered at them falling asleep in the midst of a battle, but put it from his mind to ponder later.
Asphodel, when she had finished dispatching the last of the orcs, crept to the side of the track, trembling in every muscle, and began to retch violently. Carthinal went up to her and put his hand on her shoulder. She continued to retch until her stomach was empty, and then began to tremble violently.
‘You’ve never killed before, have you?’ he said gently.
The girl shook her head. ‘Not even a chicken for dinner,’ she admitted. ‘And I’ve vowed to save lives, not take them.’
‘It often takes people like that the first time, especially if you’re killing a sentient creature, even if they are basically evil,’ Carthinal continued.
He turned her towards him and saw the tears in her eyes as she continued to shake. He held her to him and she rested her head against his chest. She felt secure, hearing his heart beating strongly and evenly in his chest, and all the horrors of the flood, the death of Mabryl and Carthinal’s subsequent unkindness, not to mention her kidnapping and the killing of the orcs suddenly came together and she began to cry uncontrollably. Carthinal stroked her long black hair, which had come loose in her struggles with the orcs, and allowed her to cry herself out, knowing that this would be a healing process, and also knowing that it was a process that he should allow himself. As her tears flowed, he felt his own tears begin, and shortly, they were both crying and comforting each other.
After a short while, Asphodel looked up into Carthinal’s indigo eyes. He was still holding on to her, but he let go when he saw her looking at him.
‘Will you accept my apologies for the way in which I’ve treated you all day?’ he said.
‘Of course I will,’ she replied. ‘You were upset at Mabryl’s death and wanted to hit out at someone. I just happened to be the one who was there.’
They looked for their companions and saw that they had been removing arrows from the orcs and cleaning their weapons.
‘Let’s get away from here,’ called Fero. ‘There could be others coming to meet them.’
The four walked slowly through the last hours of the night until they came once again to their campsite. There were still a few hours of darkness left, and they decided to remain there. Fero rekindled the fire, while Basalt fumbled in his pack. Asphodel sank down to the ground gratefully as she felt that her legs would give way. She had not fully recovered from killing the orcs.
‘I had some in here somewhere, for an emergency,’ Basalt mumbled to himself.
Carthinal was just going to ask what it was he was searching for when he gave a cry of triumph.
‘Ah! Knew it was here,’ and with that he pulled out a flask. He uncorked it and took it over to where Asphodel was sitting. ‘Here, lass, take a wee sip of this. It is good in such circumstances,’ and he passed her the flask.
‘What is it?’ she queried.
‘Some dwarven spirit. Only take a small sip, mind. You’re not used to it.’
With that, Asphodel put the flask to her mouth and took a small sip as directed. She felt as though her mouth had caught fire, and as she swallowed, the flames roared down her throat and into her stomach. She coughed, but then the feeling of warmth and well being began to permeate her whole body.
‘I think we should all have some of this,’ she said, handing the flask to Fero.
He took a mouthful and then passed it to Carthinal who, after taking a drink, passed it back to Basalt. Bas took a large mouthful and then put it back into his pack.
‘For another emergency,’ he said.
‘I hope we don’t have many more like that one,’ replied Asphodel, beginning to feel better as the spirits circulated through her body. She yawned.
‘You sleep,’ said Carthinal. ‘The three of us will take the rest of the watches tonight.’
Fero looked up from stoking up the fire. ‘You’ve decided to trust me then, half-elf?’ was all he said.
Carthinal replied with a nod. ‘You had a good opportunity to do us harm back there, but you were indispensable. The dwarf and I couldn’t have done it alone, and the gods alone know what would have happened to Asphodel then.’
He glanced over towards the fire. Asphodel was lying close to the flames and had fallen fast asleep. He went and put her blanket over her, and then turned to the others, ‘Bas, you take first watch, I’ll take second and Fero can take third, if that is all right by you both.’
The others agreed and soon, those not on watch were asleep just like Asphodel.