The four travellers stood on a small hill overlooking the town of Hambara. It had taken almost a sixday to reach it after the rescue of Asphodel from the orcs. Those days had taken the travellers through the central mountains of Grosmer by way of deep passes. These mountains were small in comparison with the huge mountain ranges that surrounded the land, but were about two to three thousand feet in height.
During this time, the travellers had become firm friends, any lasting distrust evaporating in the camaraderie of travel.
Hambara was the largest town in the region. In fact it was the regional capital, ruling the duchy of Hambara, and second only to the capital city of Grosmer, Asperilla, in size and importance. Rolling hills through which the little party had travelled over the past few days surrounded it. There were large areas of woodland and some heath, which Fero surmised were hunting grounds. Small farms similar to that of Borolis and Elpin also studded the land around.
From their vantage point at the summit of the hill, the little group could see the town laid out before them as though they were looking at a map. The town had grown up at a crossroads where the roads which travelled north/south crossed those going east/west. It had begun as a trading post and fishing town, situated as it was on the Blue Lake, and had subsequently grown to an important merchant city. It was situated in a strategically important place in almost the centre of Grosmer.
In the centre of the town, from their vantage point, the travellers could see a large area of green with a building in it. From here, the four main roads radiated out to the cardinal points of the compass. Thus the town was divided into four main areas. There were walls around what had been the original town, with gates leading through them on the main routes, but now the town had spilled out to form a sprawling complex of buildings of various shapes and sizes.
These buildings seemed to form a number of concentric rings around the walls of the old town. It was obvious that some of them were dwellings. In the outermost ring, these dwellings were large and built in the main in squares, with gardens in the centre of the squares. The next ring in, were smaller dwellings with small gardens out at the back, but were obviously not the homes of the poor, they were just a little too fine and large for that. Maybe the people who worked for the rich merchants lived in them. Finally, there was a ring of what appeared to be warehouses and workshops just outside the walls. T
o the north, they could just glimpse the clear waters of the Blue Lake. They could not see the details inside the walls very clearly, but it seemed to be built on a different pattern, more as though the town were divided into quarters with the roads forming the borders.
‘So this is Hambara,’ stated Carthinal. He looked down on the town. ‘I suppose that area in the southwest inside the walls is the area of the temples and the mage tower. There seem to be a number of large buildings, some with spires, and I can see a tower standing up above everything else. It seems to be in some sort of green area. I think that’s where I’m going.’
‘It seems to be near the temples.’ Asphodel spoke quietly. ‘Maybe when we get to the town, we can both travel to our destinations together.
‘Where will you two go?’ she asked Basalt and Fero.
‘I’ll go to see if there are any vacancies in the town guard or the militia first,’ replied Bas. ‘They usually need some experienced fighters. After that, if I have no luck there, I’ll look for something in metalwork. What about you, Fero? Towns don’t seem to be places rangers like very much.’
‘True, friend, but a man must eat, and there are usually people who want a guide, either for hunting, or a journey. The militia sometimes employ rangers as scouts, too. I’ll see what happens when we get there. I may come with you to see if they want anyone,’ he went on, speaking to Basalt.
‘Well, standing here’s not getting us anywhere. We’d better move on. It’ll be dark in a couple of hours and I’d like to find somewhere to rest and have a bath.’ said Carthinal, ‘And I have a letter to deliver to Duke Rollo.’ he revealed, beginning to move off down the hill. The others quickly followed.
The companions soon found themselves passing through an area of fine houses. This was the area in which the nobles and very rich lived. Most of them seemed to be hidden away behind walls and gates, a sure indication that their owners considered that they needed to be away from prying eyes and safe from thieves and vagabonds.
Most were built in squares with gardens in the centre, as they had seen from the hill outside the town. These squares were paved with blocks to prevent mud from clogging up the wheels of carriages and the feet of people. Some of the houses had guards at their doors dressed in the livery of the house. All the guards seemed to be alert and ready to do their duty in preventing unwanted access.
Soon these houses gave way to houses without walls. These houses were built with their doors fronting onto the streets, but it was obvious that the people who lived there were not short of money. Finally, as the houses became less and less grand looking, they entered the area of warehouses.
They came to the gate just before the sun set. There was a nominal guard, but there was no sign of the gates being closed. When they asked if they were closed at night, the guard replied that they were not, as so many people lived outside the walls that they were forever opening and closing them to let people through.
‘It’s not as though there is a war or anything, is it? There are no enemies about to cause us problems since the country is no longer divided into separate kingdoms, and the other races such as orcs and hobgoblins don’t come near any more,’ the guard went on, leaning indolently against the wall of the guard house. ‘We always stop strangers to make sure they are not smuggling though. The merchants get angry if they think that cheap goods are coming into the town to undercut them. I suppose I’d better check your bags although you don’t look like merchants or smugglers. Must be seen to be doing the job.’
He made a very perfunctory search of their bags, simply opening them and looking inside. He did not move anything or take anything out.
‘Well, off you go then,’ he said. ‘I’ll pass you.’
‘It’s our first time in Hambara. Is there a good, reasonably priced inn you can recommend?’ asked Carthinal.
‘I’d try the Golden Dragon if I were you. It’s not far. Go down this road (called by the very imaginative name of Southgate Street!) and then take the second turning to the right, you’ll find yourself in Market Square. The Golden Dragon’s on the opposite side of the square. It’s clean, and the food’s plain, but good. You’ll get a bed there for a reasonable price. Tell the proprietor that Jandi sent you. He’s my sister’s husband and his name’s Keloriff. He’ll treat you well if he thinks you know me.’
They thanked Jandi, and walked on smiling.
‘I wonder how much custom Jandi drums up for his brother-in-law?’ said Fero. ‘It’s ideal for his brother-in-law to have a man at the gates to send strangers to him.’
The main streets in Hambara were cobbled and this made walking easier for the unpaved side streets appeared to be very muddy. It also showed the richness of the town for many towns at that time could not afford to do more than put wooden boards down to try to protect people from the ever-present mud. There was much traffic too, and they had to jump back several times to get out of the way of carts and carriages as well as some people on horseback.
They reached the second turning, and walked down the road for quite some time, until they were beginning to wonder if they had turned down the wrong street.
The street was lined with shops, all closed up for the night. They were timber framed, and had bricks between the beams in the main, but they could see a few that seemed to be wattle and daub. The roofs were all of a red tile and were all at different heights as the buildings all had different numbers of stories. Some had only two, while they saw some with as many as five or six.
Shutters were closed for the night, but occasionally a light could be seen gleaming through a crack as a shopkeeper worked late, checking his day’s takings, or an artisan was hard at work replenishing his stock.
Most of the shutters on the downstairs windows closed by pulling one shutter up and one down, the lower shutter acting as a counter during the day. Upstairs were more conventional shutters, again mainly closed against the cold of the late winter night. (Few people could afford glass for the windows.) Many houses’ upper stories overhung the cobbled street, making it gloomy in the fading light.
A channel ran down the centre to carry away waste and rainwater and occasionally there were gratings leading to the sewer tunnels below the town. This was one of the cobbled streets, which indicated that it was an important thoroughfare, and so the friends decided that they were on the right road after all.
Then they were suddenly out of the street and in a large open square. Around the sides of the square were various buildings, many of which were still open. These were obviously taverns, as evinced by their signs and the smell of ale and sounds of revelry coming from them, and in various parts of the square were stalls selling chestnuts, savoury and sweet pastries, pies, toffee apples and other candied fruits as well as hot drinks.
Some of the buildings were closed and shuttered, and these had signs of moneylenders and pawnshops hanging over them. There were two large buildings on opposite sides of the square. One had a big golden dragon painted on the sign that was swinging in the breeze, and the other was painted in bright and garish colours. Over the door it said “Madame Dopari’s Emporium.”
‘What is that building?’ queried Asphodel, looking at the reds, blues, oranges and gold that adorned it. ‘It looks truly awful with all those clashing bright colours.’
Carthinal coughed slightly and looked at Basalt, who shrugged as though to say, ‘You tell her.’
‘The colours denote that it is—how can I put it—well, a brothel, but it is a licensed one, and checked every few weeks. The girls are all checked for their health and if any are carrying infectious diseases, they are healed by the priests,’ he went on hurriedly. ‘You can tell it’s licensed by the red letter “L” in the circle at the left of the sign.’
All Asphodel could say was ‘Oh!’ and blushed. He hoped that she would not think he was well acquainted with such establishments. She would not appreciate such knowledge he was sure.
‘Let’s get to the inn,’ Fero interrupted, to try to ease the embarrassment that Asphodel was obviously suffering.
The inn was a welcoming place. From the outside, the lights shone brightly, illuminating the cold air. The door was open, and from within there came the sound of laughter and voices in eager conversation. It was obvious that the inn was a popular place in Hambara; a place where both residents and visitors came and were made welcome. The large door was in the centre of the outside wall, and there were large windows on either side. Over the door was a sign with a painting of a gold dragon, with the words ‘The Golden Dragon Inn’, and in smaller letters, ‘The Best In Town’.
It was built in a similar style to many of the other buildings, being timber-framed and brick with an overhanging upper story. This overhang had been put to good use in that a wooden veranda had been built all along the front so that in warmer weather, customers could sit and drink in the shade of the upper storey. The latter had many small windows overlooking the square.
‘Bedrooms,’ surmised Basalt to himself.
Three steps mounted to the door, and the four travellers climbed wearily up them and entered.
‘I’ll be grateful to sleep in a bed tonight,’ mused Carthinal. ‘I’ve had enough of the ground for quite a while.’
‘Me too,’ sighed Asphodel, ‘but I must go to the temple tomorrow to report.’
‘I, too, have to go to the Mage Tower to report for my tests,’ replied Carthinal, ‘I think I should first go to see this Duke Rollo, though, and give him this letter from Duke Danu.’
Carthinal had told his friends about the paper he’d found in Mabryl’s book, and they had all puzzled over its contents and what it meant. Now, after the flood and Asphodel’s capture by the orcs, they felt that it might be referring to the current time.
‘I’ll come with you,’ said Basalt. ‘I can vouch for the flood and the new arrival of orcs in the land if Rollo is sceptical.’
‘I’ll do the same,’ said Fero.
‘Thank you my friends,’ replied Carthinal, ‘but don’t you have business of your own? What about talk of finding work?’
‘That can wait for half a day, eh Fero?’ said Basalt. He turned back to the apprentice mage. ‘I’ve begun to consider you to be a friend after travelling with you these past days.’
‘Yes, we’ll come with you. Moral support and all that,’ This from Fero.
‘Thank you, I’d welcome your company.’
They entered the inn, which was very busy. There was a blazing fire in the fireplace set on the opposite wall of the inn, and there were tables and chairs scattered around the large and comfortable room. The bar was situated on the wall to the right of the entrance, and behind it was a door obviously leading to kitchens and probably the living quarters of Keloriff and Jandi’s sister. Stairs ascended from the left-hand side of the room to the rooms above. A young woman approached the group.
‘Find a seat and sit down, and I’ll be along in a moment,’ she said with a smile. ‘All right, Jolli, have some patience. I’ll be with you in a minute!’ she called to a large man who was trying to get her attention.
She turned to another man at a nearby table. ‘Now, sir, I can take your order. Did you want a meal or just a drink?’
‘There seems to be a free table over there, near the window,’ noticed Asphodel. ‘A pity it’s not nearer to the fire, but it seems to be quite warm everywhere in here.’
They took off their cloaks and went to sit down at the table. Shortly, the young woman came to them.
‘Now, what can I get you?’ she said.
‘First, we would like a meal,’ said Carthinal. ‘And a drink, then if you have any rooms, we would like a bed each.’
‘And we were told to tell you that Jandi sent us,’ added Basalt, smiling his most winning smile.
The young woman smiled back. ‘That brother of mine. Always trying to “help” us. As if we can’t get enough custom on our own. We’re nearly run off our feet every night these days. Not like it was when we took over. The inn was very run down, and we needed all the help we could get. Then Jandi’s recommendations were a godsend. Now they can make life a little too busy at times.’
‘If you don’t have any rooms, then maybe you could recommend somewhere else.’ said Asphodel.
‘Oh no. If you gentlemen don’t mind sharing, I can move a bed out one of the other rooms and the sister can have it to herself, then I can then put it into a room with two beds. I’ve only got the two rooms left. We’re very busy at the moment, and will get busier in the next few sixnights as people come into town for the celebration of spring.’
‘Of course,’ Asphodel said in surprise. ‘It’s only about three sixnights away. I’d forgotten.’
‘Yes. And the celebrations always attract a good crowd. They start a week before and culminate on the Equinox itself. If you are still here, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it immensely. There are games, dancing, entertainers and finally the Spring Procession—and the bonfires, of course. Now, I’ll go and sort out the rooms, and order your meal. We’ve got roast mutton and baked potatoes with roast vegetables if that will be to your taste?’
‘Sounds wonderful,’ a dreamy look came over Basalt’s face as he contemplated the meal. ‘I’ll have a tankard of your finest ale to go with it.’
‘For me too,’ said Carthinal ‘What about you, Asphodel?’
Asphodel ordered a glass of white wine from the islands in the Inner Sea and Fero decided to have a red wine from the same region.
Soon the meal arrived. The simple fare seemed like feast fit for the gods themselves, so hungry were they. They ate in silence, each of them relishing the good cooking, and meat other than rabbit, pigeon or dried beef. They finished off the meal with fruit brought by the landlady, whose name turned out to be Mabrella.
‘Would you like to use the bath house?’ Mabrella asked as she came to clear away their dishes.
‘Oh yes please,’ responded Asphodel. ‘I wouldn’t like to turn up at the temple looking and smelling like this.’
‘I’ll show you to your rooms and then to the bathhouse. You’ll have to take it in turns as it has only one bath.’
With that, Mabrella turned and made her way to the stairs. As she reached the stairs, she turned to them and said, ‘You can wash your clothes, and if you leave them in there, hanging on the line, the warmth will dry them.’
‘Thank you,’ replied Carthinal ‘I’ll be glad of clean robes.’
‘Are you here to take your Apprentice Tests?’ queried Mabrella. ‘only I notice that you are an apprentice. There are some tests due to begin soon, I believe.’ Mabrella glanced at Carthinal’s tawny-red robes.
‘Yes I am,’ replied Carthinal. ‘We had a little trouble at the ford on the Brundella. There was a flood and the entire caravan was swept away except for Asphodel, Basalt and myself. Asphodel and I were very lucky to have just about got across when the flood struck, but Basalt was swept downstream. We met him later on the road, then Fero turned up, which was lucky, as I don’t think that two of us would have made it. Fero’s hunting and tracking skills are excellent, and he kept us from starving.’
They reached the landing, and Mabrella showed them to a pair of doors that stood opposite each other at the end of the corridor.
‘Sister, I’ve given you the room overlooking the square,’ Mabrella addressed Asphodel in the customary way the people addressed the clergy. ‘It is a much more interesting view. Gentlemen, your room overlooks the stable yard and the bathhouse. I hope you don’t mind, but as I said, they’re the last two rooms we have.’ apologised Mabrella.
‘Anything with a proper bed will do me,’ replied Bas. ‘Even if it is in the cellar with no view at all.’
‘I don’t think they would allow a dwarf to sleep in the cellar with all that ale stored there,’ teased Carthinal.
Basalt responded with ‘Humph!’
Asphodel entered the room and sat down on the bed with a sigh. She looked out of her window down onto the Market Square. It was going dark so she could only see from the light streaming out of the inn windows and the taverns and the brothel. The stallholders seemed to be doing a good trade from the local people. This square seemed to be a natural meeting place for the townsmen and women.
Many folk were buying their evening meal from the stall- holders and wandering around chatting to friends and neighbours whilst eating the various goodies they had bought. There were both rich and poor there, she could see, but the rich did not seem to be eating as much as the poor. They would be going home to a good meal cooked by their staff, she suspected.
Then Asphodel turned her attention to the room. It was not large, but very clean. It had pale green curtains at the windows, and the walls were painted a slightly darker green. There was, as well as the bed, a large cupboard and a chest of drawers. Someone had been in and lit a fire in the small fireplace, above which was a mantelpiece with some glass ornaments.
An oil lamp burned on a table under the window, giving off a warm, cheery glow. Asphodel sighed. It was good to be back in civilisation. She was looking forward now to getting to the temple, whatever the letter that Mother Caldo had written to accompany her said. Now to get clean.
Picking out a clean, white robe and scarlet sash from her pack, she wandered down towards the bathhouse. She found it easily enough from the steam rising from the chimney, and she entered to find again, a clean and welcoming room. There was a large copper boiler in one corner with a fire burning under it. It was filled to the brim with water, which was nearly boiling.
Standing next to it was a bucket, obviously for taking the water to the bath. In the other corner was a pump, with another bucket, for filling with cold water to cool the hot water so that it was amenable to the skin.
She took a bucket of the hot water and tipped it into the sunken bath in the centre of the room. When she had almost half-filled the bath with the hot water, she added cold from the pump until it was a cool enough to enter.
There were bars of soap in a glass pot. It was expensive soap, with a pleasant perfume. She selected one with the scent of lavender and then, after undressing, she stepped into the bath and leaned back luxuriating in the warmth of the water.
She soaped herself all over and then washed her long black hair, which she rinsed with clean water from the pump. Lying back in the bath, Asphodel almost fell asleep. She had not realised how tired she was.
Soon she decided that she had better go back to her room and sleep in the bed—oh yes! The Bed—so that the others could use the bathhouse, rather than sleeping in the bath.
She quickly washed her robe and hung it on the line, and then after towelling herself dry with the fluffy warm, white towels that were provided, she slipped into her clean robe and left the bathhouse.
It was cold outside and she hurried across the courtyard to the inn and up the stairs. Once back upstairs she knocked on the door of the room that the others were sharing and told them that she had finished and that they could use the bath house, and she slipped into her bed and within minutes was fast asleep.
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