Melann felt much better, having spent some time around those whose faith was so strong and whose devotion was so great. The Abbey of the Golden Sheaf was filled with wonderful growing things and those who truly cared for them. Its stone walls surrounded many plots of ground dedicated to various cultivated fields, gardens and orchards, all larger and more important than the abbey structure itself. She'd never seen such beautiful flowers or such vibrant gardens of vegetables, fruit, and all sorts of wondrous plants. The soil was black, with richness and well tended. Even the smell of the abbey gladdened her heart and gave her peace. Despite the importance of the task, at hand, she was loathe to leave the abbey and did so only at her brother's repeated urgings.
Her problem, Melann decided while happily joining in the toil of weeding and watering an expansive and robust patch of strawberries, was that she'd been too focused on their quest. While finding the key to ending her family curse and saving her parents was obviously very important, her meager, mortal concerns were nothing compared to the divine nature and endless toil of Chauntea. Melann now believed she had to focus on the teachings and responsibilities of the Mother of All and the duties that fell on her as a servant and representative of that power in the world of men. From now on, she wouldn't let a day go by without nurturing a growing plant. She needed to become her goddess's tool in the world, to help bring forth fruit and abundant life.
Melann had to admit, however, that accomplishing that goal, being true to her beliefs, and being the sort of servant she felt Chauntea wanted her to be might be more of a challenge than she was prepared to face alone. In the abbey, surrounded by the other Watchful Brothers and Sisters of the Earth, staving faithful was simple-she was eager and happy to do nothing but think of Chauntea, and little of herself-but out here on the road, she found herself thinking more and more of her failing parents and the urgent need she felt to accomplish her personal goals.
She couldn't speak of this problem to Whitlock. Melann loved her brother, but she knew he wouldn't understand.
"It's good to be back on the road," he said. "You didn't care for the time we spent in the Abbey of the Golden Sheaf, did you?" Melann asked. Whitlock didn't answer. He hadn't cared for the Elven Woods at all.
Traveling westward on a road known as the Moonsea Ride, they kept their backs to the sun throughout the morning. It would probably take them four days to reach Tilver's Gap, and five more to Tilverton. The well-traveled road brought a few other wayfarers past them: merchants with wagons of goods and produce, messengers on swift horses, simple travelers alone or in pairs-even an adventuring company or two. Whitlock, of course, examined each of the people they encountered suspiciously.
He warned her about bandits who posed as travelers to mislead the unwary-but Whitlock was never unwary. Melann, however, couldn't help but think he eyed the approaching adventuring companies with a bit of envy. She knew Whitlock wanted to believe their exciting, adventurous life had been his destiny too.
The brothers and sisters at the abbey had been unable to provide any real information regarding their goal other than further news of gathering monstrous humanoids in the direction they rode. Whitlock didn't hide his displeasure over heading directly into such obvious danger.
Melann's mind drifted back to a point ten days earlier, as she and her brother knelt at the bedside of their parents. Cruel fate had struck their mother and father down almost simultaneously, doubling the pain for she and Whitlock. It also doubled the burden, for caring for both parents brought both hardship and radical change to their lives. Whitlock gave up his position among the Ridesmen, the local soldiery, and Melann turned from her duties at the temple known as the Bounty of the Goddess, both to devote their time to tending to their parents. It had been particularly hard on Whitlock to see their father, once a proud warrior, wasting away.
The stench of sickness and strong herbal poultices hung in the still air of the room like a fog. They lay in their single, large bed together, heavily covered in blankets despite the thick layer of fever-sweat that shone on both their faces.
Whitlock entered, the room quietly, his movements awkward and overcareful. "I think-we think we've found a means to end the curse, Father."
Too weak to even turn to look on his son, Father whispered, "It takes magic to overcome magic, boy."
Neither of them had ever beheld their father in such an impuissant condition. It was sobering, particularly when it seemed that his mind was still strong.
"You can't lift the curse," Mother said with a weary rasp, "until you discover the nature of the one who cursed us."
Her eyes were sunken and her face was gaunt, with thin, jaundiced flesh pulled tight over softening bones. She was literally wasting away before her daughter's eyes. Melann had no idea how-much longer her mother might be able to stave off death.
" But no one's ever told us…" Melann replied. "My mother told me it was a demon”. Mother stated, her voice thick with disease. Melann felt hard-pressed to believe that to be anything more than hyperbole or perhaps the delirium of the disease.
"Father," Whitlock said, "We're going to ride north first to see if we can gather more information. Aunt Marta is going to stay here and look after the two of you. If all goes well, we'll be back in a tenday or two."
A silence filled the air thicker than the sickness. Melann felt as if there should be more to say, but no words came to her.
"Goodbye, children," Mother whispered, pulling Melann down, so her cheek was close to her own. Her breath was strained.
"Ride safely," Father added, his teary eyes closed. "Watch for those who would trick you. It's a cruel world."
Riding off that next day was the most difficult thing Melann had ever done. Neither she nor Whitlock had any idea if they would actually see their parents alive again. Chauntea, she prayed, would watch over them-their care was out of her hands, but their salvation was not.