Fero could barely walk now, his fever getting worse and Davrael and Carthinal were half carrying him. Asphodel declared they would have to find some shelter quickly, but this was easier said than done in this barren land.
‘There must be some people living around here,’ exclaimed Basalt after they had walked slowly on for around an hour, ‘After all, there seem to be sheep on the hills. Someone must look after them.’
Then Carthinal spotted what he thought looked like a dwelling some distance ahead.
‘Lets hope that the occupants are friendly, if the place is occupied at all,’ he said. They all concurred with this hope.
When they eventually reached the hut, for it could be called little else, they noticed smoke coming from the chimney, indicating that the hut was indeed occupied. There was a pen at the side of the hut, built with stone, as was the hut itself, and the pen had a shelter also. A woodpile leaned at the other side of the hut, covered by a lean-to. Carthinal knocked on the door, and called out.
‘We are travellers who are in dire need of shelter. We will not harm you. Please may we come in?’
A man’s voice called out from inside.
‘Few come this way. You are welcome. Enter.’
Carthinal suggested to Muldee that he remain outside at least for the moment, as they did not want to frighten whoever lived in the hut. They would call him if they felt it was all right for him to come in. When the little creature agreed, they opened the door and found themselves in a small one-roomed place. There was a fire burning in a hearth at one end of the room, in front of which were lying two black and white sheepdogs. The room was sparsely furnished. There was a small bed against the opposite wall, a table in the centre with four chairs and two comfortable chairs by the fireside. The furniture was shabby and old, but serviceable, and the floor was strewn with fresh rushes. There was a delicious smell of stew coming from a pot suspended over the fire. The companions’ stomachs rumbled at the aroma.
‘Lamb and herbs, if I’m not much mistaken,’ thought Asphodel.
The sole occupant of the room was sitting in one of the chairs by the fire. It was an old man with grey hair and a gnarled face, but the eyes in that face were of a bright and twinkling blue, indicating an intelligent and active mind.
‘Pardon me if I don’t get up to welcome you,’ he said. ‘My bones are not as young as they were. I keep saying I’ll retire and go and live with my son and his wife down in the valley, but I know I’d miss these hills and the sheep. My son says I’m mad to not give up, but you know how it is. You are welcome to share my hut, such as it is. You are from Grosmer, I take it since you are speaking Grosmerian?’
‘Yes, we are,’ replied Carthinal. ‘At least we came from there, and most of us call it home, even if we were not all born there. I take it that in our travels we’ve managed to cross the border. This is Pelimor I assume?’
The man nodded.
‘You crossed some way back, but on these moors the border is not marked.’
‘How is it that you speak Grosmerian so well?’ queried Randa.
‘I live near the border, so get the occasional traveller, and also, sometimes I used to take sheep over to the markets in Grosmer in my younger days, so I learned your language quite well.’
‘Lucky for us too,’ replied Carthinal, ‘None of us speak Pelimorese.’
‘Please may we get Fero somewhere to lie down?’ Asphodel said rather sharply. ‘He’s nearly falling down as it is. We can do the introductions after he’s settled.’
‘Put your friend in the bed,’ said the old shepherd. ‘What’s wrong with him? ’Flu is it? I’ve a herbal preparation that I take for that. It’s very good although the sickness has still to run its course, but it does help with the fever and seems to prevent the worsening of it.’
While Asphodel, with the help of Bas, got Fero out of his clothes and into the bed, the old man rummaged through a cupboard and found a bottle of some preparation. Then he and Asphodel went into a huddle to discuss the contents and dosage to give to the tall ranger. After a few minutes, he turned to them and told them to help themselves to the stew.
‘You must be hungry. The stew is lamb. One of this winter’s, only a few weeks old, but rejected by its mother. I failed to keep it thriving, so I killed it for the meat. It’s good and tender.’
‘I’m afraid we had all our gold stolen and so cannot pay you,’ Carthinal told the old man, ‘but we’ll do whatever we can to help to recompense you for anything we eat or use. We are all fit and healthy, and can work for as long as we’re here.’
‘Don’t worry about such things. You’re my guests. Go ahead and eat.’
They did not need telling again, and quickly found bowls and spoons. The lamb stew was indeed delicious, and after eating, they all felt much better. Basalt got out his dwarven spirits that he had kept for “special occasions” and deemed this was one of them so they passed his flask round. It was much appreciated by the old man, who told them his name was Grandolin. He spent the late winter and early spring in this hut as long as the sheep were lambing. He lived alone with his dogs, Fren and Crue, who helped him with the sheep.
‘You are lucky to find me here. Lambing is almost over. A few ewes still to drop, then they will be turned out onto the moors. I’ll visit from time to time to check on them, but this is the only time I spend any length of time here. Yon ranger looks in a bad way. You say you were robbed? By whom? There’re few enough travellers hereby, and so no bandits and robbers.’
So they told him about the capture by hobgoblins, leaving out the finding of the Sword, simply saying they were making their way to Pelimor in search of adventure. They also told him of the existence of Muldee and how the dragonet had helped save them from the hobgoblins by using his mind skills.
‘You young people!’ he went on. ‘Always so restless. You must go and find danger even though it seems to have no difficulty in finding a body if you don’t look.’ Grandolin sighed. ‘I suppose I was just the same at your age. You all look to be between sixteen and twenty-five. Am I right?’
‘Actually, Asphodel, Basalt and I are both above that in actual years, but in human terms, yes, I suppose you’re right,’ replied Carthinal.
Grandolin asked more about Muldee, and Carthinal fetched the dragonet indoors. The dragonet was pleased to get out of the cold and he and Grandolin discussed the little creature’s abilities.
‘So what you do is not magic then?’
‘Carthinal say not. He cannot feel anything in what he calls “mana”. I think what I do is something maybe anyone can do,’ replied Muldee.
‘Why do you think this?’ asked the old man.
‘I mindspeak some of my friends. They hear me. I think they can block me too, but they do not know what they do. Thadora can sometimes mindspeak to me, too,’ went on the dragonet.
The conversation was interrupted as Fero stirred and began to thrash about. Asphodel rushed over to him and listened to his breathing.
‘Carthinal,’ she called. The half-elf went over to her. ‘I don’t like this,’ she told him. ‘His breathing is bad. Listen to him. I fear he may have pneumonia. He can’t be moved for some time.’
Grandolin came over.
‘He’s bad, isn’t he?’ he said. It was a statement, not a question. ‘Poor young man. Pneumonia if I’m not mistaken. You must stay here until he’s well, or…’ His voice trailed away. ‘My wife died of pneumonia,’ he added softly. ‘Twenty-five years ago tomorrow. And my first born… Still, this young man is exceptionally fit and strong. I expect he’ll get over it. Many do, you know.’
That day, Asphodel remained by Fero’s side, keeping him warm, and feeding him with a mixture the old man provided. It was not something Asphodel knew, but reasoned that it would do him no harm when she had discussed its contents with Grandolin, and who knows, she reasoned, maybe this Peridorean old man knew something about healing, living as he did alone and isolated for much of the year.
Half way through the night, when the others were asleep on the floor of the hut, Randa came over to Asphodel where she was still keeping watch over Fero. Asphodel was feeling tired and was almost asleep but would not leave her post. Randa approached and told her to get some sleep.
‘I’ll watch him and wake you if there’s any change. You’ll be no use to him or anyone else if you make yourself ill or too tired to function.’
The elf was only too grateful, and impressed on Randa that she was to wake her if there was any sign of change whatsoever. Randa took the cloth that Asphodel had been using to wipe Fero’s head, and sat down on the bed beside the tall man. Muldee sat at the head of the bed and crooned a little soothing tune to help Fero sleep more calmly.
In this manner the night passed. The next morning, Asphodel once more took over and Randa got some sleep. The others all did some chores to help Grandolin. Basalt and Davrael chopped wood, Kimi and Thadora helped to birth a pair of twin lambs, much to the excitement of Thadora, for whom this was yet another new experience, although Kimi was used to helping at the birth of foals. While they were doing this, Carthinal went with Grandolin and his two dogs to check on the other sheep on the moors.
Fero remained very sick and Asphodel was beginning to despair, thinking they were going to lose him. His breathing was laboured, and he was barely conscious most of the time. Some of that time he was delirious, talking to people from his past.
‘No. Papa, Please don’t,’ he cried one night, and began to struggle to sit up and get out of bed. Randa was sitting with him at the time, as she was most nights so that Asphodel could get some rest, and she soothed him with gentle words and stroked his hair. He settled again, saying, ‘I’m all right, Mama. I’m not hurt. Are you hurt?’
‘No, I’m not hurt, Fero. I’m all right,’ Randa said to try to settle the ranger again, and at her words he mumbled something that she could not quite catch, and drifted back to unconsciousness.
Another night, he began to cry.
‘She’s not dead. She can’t be dead. I’ll save her. Oh my poor little Zepola. What will they do to you?’
This went on for five nights during which Randa soothed him and stroked his hair, and held him when he seemed in need of most comfort. In the quiet of the night, when no one was awake, she wept. She realised how much the strength of this man had come to mean to her. She had been so dismissive of him, and the others, at the beginning of their quest, believing that all other classes and races were inferior, and put in the world to serve her and her class. What a small-minded person she had been. How shallow her previous life seemed now. This band of adventurers, who would be treated as little more than thieves and beggars in some places, had taught her more of life and loyalty in a few weeks than she had learned in all her previous eighteen years. She wept at the thought of losing one of them. But it was more than that. Yes, she would weep at the loss of any one of them, but she felt deep within herself that this ranger from so far away had impacted her life in a much stronger way than any of the others. She was drawn to him in a way she could not understand. His quiet voice, his steady presence, all filled her with a new sensation, and when he looked at her as she combed her hair it felt as though his eyes were boring a hole in her head. She could scarcely prevent herself from looking round. She was always aware of his presence, even when she could not see him. When he had touched her to help her over a difficult part of the mountain, she could feel his touch burning into her elbow for hours afterwards. And so she wept.
‘Why are you crying, my Lady?’ The voice was soft, and the hand that brushed her long silvery hair from her face was gentle. She raised her head and her tear-reddened blue eyes met the almost black ones of her charge.
‘I thought you were going to die,’ she replied, in a whisper, before she had time to think.
‘And that gave you cause to cry? I’m honoured that you thought me worth your tears.’ His eyes held hers. She could not look away.
‘I…I… Of course you’re worth it. I…,’ she paused, ‘I promised to tell Asphodel if there was any change in your condition,’ she said in a rush to cover her confusion, starting to get up. Fero reached out and held her arm.
‘Sit with me for a few minutes longer. Please.’ She obeyed his request, and managed to look away from his gaze.
‘How long was I sick?’ he asked, ‘And where are we? I remember being captured by hobgoblins, and being force-marched, and I remember some of them being take ill. Is that what I have had?’
‘No. Asphodel said you had pneumonia from the exposure you had on the moors and the shepherd agreed. This is his hut. They’ve been dosing you with some medicine or other. We’ve been here five days now. The shepherd is very kind and is letting us stay in exchange for help with his chores. But I must tell Asphodel now or she will be very cross,’ she gently removed his hand from where it still rested on her arm, ‘and you must sleep. Proper sleep, not the restless kind you’ve had up to now.’
As she stood, he said, ‘Wait, Randa. I’ve had such strange dreams. Of the past, and also I thought there was someone gently talking to me and holding me through the worst times.’ There was a query in his voice.
Randa responded, ‘I did what I could to help you, Fero.’
He looked up into her face and smiled.
‘Go and get Asphodel now, my Lady,’ and his eyes closed as he drifted into a normal and peaceful sleep.
Asphodel woke when Randa called softly to her and went to check on Fero. She declared that his sleep was more normal, and that he seemed to have lost his feverishness.
‘Randa, you go and get some sleep. I’ll sit here now. It’s nearly dawn anyway.’
Randa gratefully went and lay down in her blankets spread on the rushes and was soon fast asleep. She did not disturb until nearly noon, in spite of the others moving around her, and the two dogs coming over to sniff at her sleeping figure, wondering why she was still asleep in broad daylight.
Although Fero was mostly recovered from his illness, he was still very weak. He remained in bed for two more days then insisted on getting up. As soon as his feet touched the ground, he regretted his insistence as the room began to spin around him, but with typical determination, he struggled to one of the chairs by the fire. He felt as though he had walked ten miles. Asphodel was there though, and she settled him in, tucking a blanket round him. She and Randa took turns with caring for Fero, at Randa’s insistence. The ranger seemed to take comfort from Randa’s presence, a phenomenon that mystified the dwarf.
‘He doesn’t even like her,’ he observed to Carthinal one day as the pair was out working the dogs and rounding up the sheep.
‘Doesn’t he, my friend?’ was all the reply Carthinal gave him.
‘He said to me once that she was beautiful on the outside, and it was a pity she was so ugly inside. That doesn’t sound like someone who likes someone else.’
‘Bas, Randa’s changed,’ Carthinal replied to his friend. ‘She was a snob and, yes, something of a bigot as far as other races are concerned. Remember how she treated you and me in the library at the ducal palace in Hambara? We weren’t humans, and therefore inferior. I think that she used to think that non-humans were not only inferior but none existent. She doesn’t treat us like that any more, does she?’
‘Humph!’ replied the dwarf. ‘She’s got used to us, but what about strangers? How will she feel about them? We’ll have to go through S…Sill…the elven kingdom when we leave here.’ Basalt struggled with the elven name for their land. ‘That will be a true test of whether she’s changed for real. She’ll be surrounded by strange elves.’
One morning, Basalt came up to Thadora as she was preparing some vegetables for the midday meal.
‘I have something for you,’ he said. ‘Call it a belated birthday present if you wish.’
He held out his hand with a small wooden carving in it. Thadora took it and looked at it. It was a young wolf, with its forelegs along the ground and its hind quarters raised. It’s tail was obviously wagging. It was looking at a butterfly on a flower. There was a leather thong running through a ring on the top of the carving.
‘It’s beautiful, Bas,’ said the girl, passing the thong over her head. ‘It’s so, like, real. A young wolf cub playin’ wi’ a butterfly. What a cool idea. An’ I’ve never had a real birthday present afore.’
Thadora showed it to the others and they all declared it to be a beautiful work of art.
‘I suppose it supposed to be you, Red Cub,’ said Davrael. His Grosmerian was improving with constant use and he made fewer mistakes now. He turned to the dwarf. ‘It be nice for us all to have wolf symbol, you know, to show the world that we are one.’
Basalt decided to carve a wolf for each of them to wear. He tried to put some of each individual’s character into their own particular pendant, and they all agreed that he succeeded very well, and were pleased to wear their new symbols.
They remained there for two further sixdays, and then Fero declared he was fit enough to travel. Asphodel and Randa would have liked to stay for a few more days to allow for a more complete recovery, but they both thought that they had put on Grandolin for long enough. The old shepherd insisted they took enough food with them to last for a sixday as they had no gold to buy any more. They bade him farewell and he made them promise to call on him if ever they were in the area again. This they did, and they set off once more on their journey back to Hambara.