Saturday, October 27, 2018

Vast and Perilous Estates ~ How to Find a Friend

Then the great old, young, beautiful princess turned to Curdie.
“Now, Curdie, are you ready?” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” answered Curdie.
“You do not know what for.”
“You do ma’am. That is enough.”
George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie

Since his departure from the village, Father Caril maintained a preoccupied silence as he considered ways to remain at the inn when they returned. His companions were just as taciturn. Sir Arlan was intent on reaching Lord Lokinvar’s castle before sunset, and Sir Willis was nursing mild heartburn from an excess of sausages at breakfast. Sir Willis was thankful, however, that nothing of consequence happened last night at supper save for Sir Arlan’s unwelcome advances to the serving girl. He reflected that he was getting past the age of foolish adventures and was glad nothing serious came of Sir Arlan’s intemperate behavior.
At midday, the party stopped to rest the horses and partake of some bread and cheese. Father Caril walked away from the rest, making his way toward the sound of a small stream. He stood gazing out over the stream pondering his situation. A sound in the nearby shrubbery made him glance down in search of its source. It was then that he noticed something; he bent down and examined the bush more closely. He smiled. This will do, he thought. This will do very well.

The great hall at Caerleon Castle blazed with light. Abundant candles cast their reflections on the highly polished tables, whose surfaces were laden with platters and bowls of food. This was Lord Lokinvar’s hospitality for his honored guests, Sir Arlan, Sir Willis, and Father Caril. Even Sir Arlan’s squire Stubbs was accorded a place of honor among his peers. Skandar and Alanar had occasionally seen displays such as these, but never was their purpose so keenly felt as this. It was on account of Skandar that these visitors were now sitting here in his father’s hall. At other times, Skandar was content to play a minor role in the festivities—a brief introduction and perhaps a toast as Lord Lokinvar’s son, then freedom to pursue his own pleasure. This evening, however, Skandar was seated between his father and mother, and there was no escaping the fact that he was the center of attention. Skandar craned his neck for a glimpse of Alanar, seated further down the table. Alanar returned his look with a smile and a wink.
If Sir Arlan thought it unseemly to seat the older son at the same table as the younger, he made no sign of it. Lord Lokinvar was a powerful ruler who would not be gainsaid in a chosen purpose. If he chose tonight to acknowledge his eldest son, then he, Sir Arlan, would honor it. When he left for London two days hence, it would be with Skandar, not Alanar. As Arlan considered both of the boys, he admitted to himself that Alanar was the better favored of the two. When they were first introduced upon his arrival at Caerleon, both Sir Arlan and Sir Willis were startled by the resemblance between King Rheynold and his nephew, Alanar. A small wonder it was, seeing as how alike Lady Rhowena was to her brother.
It’s a pity, Sir Arlan thought, that things turned out the way they did. Anyone with eyes can see that Alanar was born to rule—which might not be acceptable to Prince Rhino. The priests say that God’s will be done; perhaps it is so in this case.
Sir Arlan came out of his reverie to hear Lady Rhowena inquire after her majesty, the queen. He made the appropriate comments and then applied himself to his plate. A man of action, he chafed under the required social courtesies such occasions called for. He would be glad to be back on the road to London.
Father Caril had been offered a place at Lord Lokinvar’s table, which he politely declined.
“I am a disciple of Jesu,” he said, “and am not fit for such a place of honor. It would be more fitting for my office if I could seat myself among the humble.”
So saying, Father Caril bowed and wound his way to a quiet corner at the back of the hall. From that vantage point, he could observe the assembly undisturbed. He, too, had been struck by the grace and prowess of Lokinvar’s oldest son, Alanar. He also noted the resemblance to the royal family. But unlike many others, Caril did not envision Alanar on his father’s throne, or on any other royal throne. Alanar was destined for the church and Father Caril intended to make use of that. In Alanar, Father Caril saw a tool, an elegant instrument that he meant to wield in his quest for power. Alanar, with all of his breeding and beauty, would be the connecting link between the church and the kingdom.

The horses stamped and chafed at their bits. They sensed a departure and were impatient to leave. Sir Arlan was as restless as the horses. He fidgeted impatiently in his saddle while the lord and lady of the castle said their final farewells to their son. The other boy, Alanar, was nowhere in sight. Their party had grown by three; Lord Lokinvar had provided two of his own knights, Sir Matson and Sir Berek, to ride with his son. Accompanying them was Sir Matson’s squire.
The escort party was much livelier with the new additions to the group. Sir Arlan and Sir Willis were interested in getting better acquainted with their peers. In their conversations, they compared various aspects of their duties and responsibilities. Sir Matson, in particular, wished to know the training and education the prince and his new brothers would undergo. Having known Skandar since he was a baby and having supervised his training up until the present, he was anxious for Skandar to do credit to his teaching. He elicited from Sir Arlan that the training would begin with the basics, so that all of the boys would have the same foundational knowledge. This he was relieved to hear; his concern was that Skandar would be compared unfavorably with the other young lords if he were not as well prepared.
Father Caril was more talkative than he was the previous journey. He attached himself to Skandar and did all he could to make himself agreeable. He plied the boy with questions about his life at Caerleon and showed every interest in his answers. For his part, Skandar was pleased with the attention and used the opportunity to talk about his brother, Alanar. It provided a measure of comfort to him. On their last day together, the brothers had agreed to make the most of this new adventure and learn what they could from them. By nature, Skandar was a cheerful soul and soon he chatted the hours away with the priest as if he were a lifelong friend.
As the company approached the spot where they had rested the previous day, Father Caril requested a halt.
“I beg pardon, Sir Arlan, but I have a need to take care of. If you would be so kind to pause in our journey, it would be greatly appreciated.”
Sir Arlan looked at the height of the sun and decided that this would be a good time to rest the horses and have a mid day refreshment. The party dismounted and the squires set about preparing the food. Father Caril, in the meantime, had separated himself from the others and made his way toward the stream. A few minutes later, he came hurrying back to the group, a look of distress on his face.
“Sir Arlan,” he panted, “I need Stubbs’ assistance immediately. My crucifix detached from my neck and fell into some bushes. My eyes are not keen enough to see where it is. Could Stubbs come with me?”
“I can go, Sir Arlan,” volunteered Skandar. “Stubbs is busy, and I will be glad to assist the father.”
So much the better, thought the priest.
“Very well,” Sir Arlan waved him off. “Mind that you stay out of that stream!”
Father Caril led Skandar to a place by the stream. He pointed to a nearby bush and said, “I am certain it fell in there, but I cannot see it. Perhaps if you move some of the leaves aside…”
Skandar knelt where he indicated and began carefully parting the leaves and small branches of the bush.
At length he cried, ”There it is! I see it.”
He reached his arm into the bush, almost up to his shoulder, and retrieved the prize with a delighted smile. He handed it to the priest, who held out a gloved hand and carefully wrapped the ornament in a cloth, which he then placed in his pocket.
“There,” he said, patting his pocket. “That will keep it safe until I can have the clasp attended to. Thank you, my lord; you have been most helpful. Now, we should make haste to rejoin the others lest Sir Arlan worry.”
The party had been on the road for about an hour when Skandar started fretting in his seat. His arms were beginning to itch and burn. He scratched his nose and presently it also began to itch. In his frustration, he rubbed his face. Soon a burning sensation assaulted his cheeks and chin. Sir Matson noticed his discomfort and trotted alongside him.
“My lord,” he began, “What is…Great Heavens! What has happened to you?” He stared at Skandar’s face and arms, which were swollen and red with rash.
“Sir Arlan,” he called. “Please attend immediately! My lord is in a poor condition!”
Sir Arlan took one look at Skandar and inwardly groaned. Father Caril joined them.
“We must get lord Skandar to a place where he can be treated,” he said. “If we make haste, we can reach the inn in a few hours’ time. With your permission, I will ride ahead and secure assistance.”
“Yes, yes, by all means,” said Arlan. “Ho, Sir Willis, I beg you accompany the father. We will hurry as quickly as we can”. Turning to Skandar, he said, “My lord, we will take every measure to provide you relief. Can you manage to stay in the saddle if we ride more briskly?”
Skandar turned a face full of misery to the knight and nodded. Already Father Caril and Sir Willis were out of sight down the road.
A few hours later, the rest of the party joined them at the inn. Before Skandar could dismount, Virgil was on hand to guide his guests to a quiet room in which supplies for Skandar’s recovery had already been gathered. Virgil’s sister, Beryl, was sorting through a pile of leaves, and as soon as Skandar was laid on the bed, she began bruising them before gently rubbing them over his face and arms. The men left the room so she could continue her ministrations without interruption. At her touch, Skandar began to feel immediate relief. He turned a grateful face to her and smiled.
Wait until I tell Alanar about this, he thought. Then he fell fast asleep.
Back in the common room, Virgil consulted with the knights.
“It is most likely stinging nettles. They are abundant around here—a plague on us, especially children. We have found that dock leaf cools the skin and heals the rash. My sister, Beryl, is most skilled in healing. The burning sensation should subside almost immediately; however, the rash will take a few days to clear.”
Sir Arlan looked at Sir Matson and frowned.
“We cannot bring Lord Skandar to London looking as he does now. What would his parents think of our care of him! What would the king say? Oh, this is an unexpected and disagreeable situation!”
Sir Matson looked at Virgil.
“You are certain the rash will clear in two or three days?”
“Three days, at the most,” his host replied.
“Then I propose that we remain here until Lord Skandar is fit to be seen. We will send word to London and to Caerleon of our delay. The investiture ceremony is not for three weeks yet. That gives us enough time to wait out Lord Skandar’s recovery.”
Turning to Virgil, Sir Matson asked, “Will you be able to accommodate our party for that length of time?”
“With pleasure, sir,” came the reply.
Father Caril, who had been a silent witness to the conversation, considered the situation neither unexpected nor disagreeable. He had known well enough about the affects of stinging nettles and had taken care not to expose his skin to its fine hairs when he dropped his crucifix in the bush. He now had a small window of time in which to satisfy his curiosity about the village and its inhabitants.
The next morning Skandar woke to the anxious faces of Sir Arlan and Sir Matson bending over him.
“My lord, it is good to see you awake,” said Sir Arlan. “How are you feeling? Is there much discomfort?”
Skandar stirred, stretched, and looked at his arms. They were still a fiery red. But the itching and burning was gone.
“I feel much better. But how do I look? Does my face look like my hands and arms?” he asked.
Beryl walked over with a small looking glass. Skandar squinted at his reflection and then grinned.
“Not such a pretty sight…but at least it feels normal.” He bounded out of bed.
“How long will I have to remain here? Do I have to stay in bed?” He looked at Beryl inquiringly.
Beryl shook her head.
“The rash will clear of its own whether or not you remain in bed. If your guardians will permit, my niece, Amalia, would be pleased to show you around the village and keep you company while you are our guest. And she can show you how to distinguish the leaves of the stinging nettle.”
Both knights nodded their relieved assent. They were not looking forward to playing nurse to an eleven year-old boy. They just wanted to deliver him to London in good health.
After they left the room, Stubbs helped Skandar dress and guided him to the common room for breakfast. Sitting at one of the tables was a girl about Skandar’s age. Also at the table was the innkeeper Virgil.
“Good morning, my lord,” Virgil greeted him. “This is my daughter Amalia. If it pleases you, she will keep you company.”
Amalia smiled, and Skandar decided he was very well pleased. He noticed that she had placed a large serving of sausages, bread and preserves on her plate and followed suit. Virgil left the young people to their occupation. It was several minutes before either spoke. At length Amalia set down her knife.
“I heard about what happened I am very sorry for you,” she said. “I fell into a bush of nettles once when I was five years old. I will never forget how much it itched. I thought I would die.”
“How did you happen to fall into the nettles?” asked Skandar.
“I was climbing a tree trying to catch caterpillars. There was this one beautiful caterpillar just out of my reach. I stretched out as far as I could to seize it and lost my balance and fell. It wasn’t very far to the ground and fortunately, there was a bush to break my fall; unfortunately, the bush was a nettle bush.”
Skandar was duly impressed. She was a person after his own heart.
“What would you like to do today?” asked Amalia.
“Whatever you would like,” answered Skandar.
“Well, then, shall we go?”
Amalia took Skandar’s hand and led him through the common room, into the kitchen, and out the back door of the inn. As they walked, Amalia pointed out the various sights such as the large oak by the riverbank, the blacksmith’s pet rooster, and the village green. The shops were open for business, and the shopkeepers were glad to share samples of their wares with the innkeeper’s daughter and her guest. Amalia told Skandar about her brother, Cyril, her sister, Anna, and her cousins Finn and Bethna. Skandar longed to tell Amalia about his brother, Alanar, but he had strict instructions to no longer speak of him. Instead, he told Amalia that he would reach his twelfth year on the twenty-first of October. She promptly shared that she would be twelve years of age in August, which was in two months time.
Presently, Amalia turned to Skandar and said, “Most people here call me ‘Mole’, short for ‘Amalia.’ You may do the same, if you like.”
Skandar nodded his acquiescence. His companion could have been called anything for all he cared. In his eyes, no name could diminish the sparkle in her grey eyes or the sheen of her glossy brown hair. He considered telling her his nickname; he wondered if she would laugh.
After some hesitation, Skandar cleared his throat.
“I have a nickname, too. It was given me by my bro – by someone at my father’s house.”
Mole looked at him expectantly.
“It’s ‘Skunk.’” Skandar’s heart pounded. His rash covered the deep blush that crept from his neck to the crown of his head.
“‘Skunk?’ Why are you called ‘Skunk?’”
Skandar pulled his hair back from his face, exposing the two golden stripes of color in his hair.
Amalia’s face lit up.
“How wonderful! Of course, now that you’ve shown me, ‘Skunk’ is a very fitting nickname.”
Amalia continued. “I have always thought that skunks were some of the world’s most beautiful creatures and were most unfairly misunderstood. Aunt Beryl says that a skunk’s odor is the best cure for a head cold, so whenever I smell one, I breathe deep. ‘Skunk!’ That is a wonderful name! Does everyone call you that? May I call you Skunk?”
Again Skandar nodded. You can call me anything you like, he thought. Having spent most of his life in the company of his brother, Skandar had never considered that he would encounter another person whose tastes were so similar to his own. And to think that she was a girl!
On her part, Amalia was wondering what the young lord knew about the ‘not-good’ and was looking for hints of it in his speech and actions. Whether or not it was there, she had decided that he was a most agreeable companion, despite his nickname, his unusual hair, and the temporary rash discoloring his face.
Presently, Amalia said to Skandar. “Would you like to see a magic place?”


Skandar and Amalia were not the only two taking in the sights of the village. After an early breakfast in the kitchen, Father Caril quietly stole out of the inn before any of his companions could take note. When Sir Arlan and the others missed him at breakfast, they assumed that he was still in his room in meditation or prayer. Reluctant to disturb a priest’s devotions, they soon dismissed him out of mind.
Most of the inhabitants of the village were just beginning their morning business as Father Caril strolled down the street lined with shops and small, but neat houses. From their opened windows, he could hear the sounds of families rising to breakfast and chores. Occasionally a child’s voice rose above the others in delight, drama, or general protest. In all, it painted a picture of a prosperous community, content with its situation in life and with each other. The village exuded such an aura of peace and security it took the priest a good while to discover that it had no church. He walked the length of the village street up and down again several times in search of any building or establishment that resembled a Christian church.
Is this the mystery that I have been sensing? Father Caril asked himself. Do these people know of the Christ? If not, this might very well be a den of heathens. Perhaps that is why I cannot perceive the thoughts of the innkeeper, the serving girl, and the other villagers. It could be that the darkness of their unredeemed souls is acting as a shield against me. Why, I might be called upon to face the devil himself!
In his mind’s eye, Father Caril entertained a vision of himself doing battle with the forces of darkness, with principalities and powers in high places, casting them down in defeat. He saw himself as a champion of truth, the right arm of the Church, wielding moral, as well as spiritual, authority. The pope himself would be forced to acknowledge his great service to the faith; he would probably insist on a cardinal’s ring and robe for the humble Father Caril.
These happy meditations were brought to a halt by the appearance of Skandar and Amalia approaching from the other end of the village. They were so engrossed in each other’s company they did not see the priest, who slipped into one of the shops. From the window, he watched them pass, noting that while Skandar’s thoughts opened to him like a book, the young girl’s mind was a shuttered room.
“No doubt the darkness begins at a young age,” Father Caril muttered under his breath.
At his words, the shopkeeper walked over.
“I beg your pardon, sir”, she said. “Is there something you require?”
Startled, the priest shook his head. Seeing Skandar and Amalia out of sight, he passed through the door and quickly walked in the opposite direction.
The two youngsters made an appearance back at the inn just long enough to secure provisions for a midday meal and to assure Beryl and Sir Arlan that Skandar was making sufficient progress in his healing. Skandar’s delight in Amalia’s company manifested itself in his countenance to the extent that Sir Arlan found himself thinking his lordship was not unattractive after all.
With bulging satchels, Amalia and Skandar made their way through the kitchen and once again out the back door. This time, Amalia did not direct their path to the village, but continued forward to a thicket of trees. She was taking Skandar to the meadow and the stone.
After a forty-minute trek through the trees, Amalia and Skandar emerged from the edge of the forest into a meadow. It was the same meadow recently visited by her father and mother several nights ago. In the bright sun, there were no moonlit shadows to give it an unusual atmosphere; nonetheless, the air breathed of mystery. Even though the day was warm, Skandar shivered involuntarily. This was the same feeling of magic that he and his brother had experienced in the cave. He and Amalia exchanged looks of delighted expectation; she could feel it too.
Without thinking he blurted out, “This is just like the cave that my brother and I discovered!”
“Brother?” Amalia looked puzzled. “You have a brother?”
Skandar was aghast. What was he to do? He stammered as he searched for words.
“I, uh, I…well, I can’t really…what I mean is…there’s this person who…who…oh, bother!”
“Are you going to tell a lie?” Amalia asked. “Because if you do, tell a lie, that is, I really don’t mind. The lie, I mean. I just want to know what it feels like.” She looked at Skandar expectantly. Perhaps she would perceive his evil!
Skandar stared at Amalia.
“I am not going to tell a lie,” he protested. “I’m just looking for a way to tell the truth. There are some things I am not supposed to talk about, and my brother is one of them.” Skandar threw himself down on the ground and began pulling up tufts of grass. Looking somewhat disappointed, Amalia plopped down beside him.
“So why can’t you talk about your brother?”
“It’s because of the covenant. You’ve heard of the covenant, haven’t you?”
“A little, but what does that have to do with your brother?”
“Because the covenant states that I’m supposed to be the prince’s brother! It makes it rather awkward to already have one. What I mean is, Alanar, that’s my brother, and I had all sorts of adventures together. Just think how that would be if I went around telling everyone how much fun we had; my mother said it would be inappropriate.” Skandar looked at Amalia for reassurance. “Mole, do you understand what I mean?”
Amalia nodded sympathetically. At length she said, “I think it will be alright if you tell me about you and your brother. After all, I am not the prince, and I won’t think it’s ‘inappropriate’, whatever that means.”
With that encouragement, Skandar plunged into a narrative about the covenant and its creation by a group of women who wanted to save the land of Albion. He told Amalia about its precepts by which the four Lords of the Provinces were chosen and how they are the royal brothers to the king. He told her about the law that allowed no rivals to the throne or to the rule of the Provinces, that if there were a second son, the chosen brother would be the one closest in age to the prince. As if a long-suppressed grief finally found its voice, Skandar’s words poured forth in a torrent of joy and sadness as he described his brother, Alanar, and the life they had shared, a life now come to an end with Prince Rhino’s approaching investiture.
“So you see,” he concluded, “that is why Alanar and I went to the cave. It is a place of magic. In fact, we think it is the very cave where the holy sisters created the covenant—it has to be. The old stories say that the sisters did not have to speak aloud to communicate with each other; they could share thoughts across time and distance. Alanar and I thought that if we could touch some lingering magic that we, too, could share our thoughts and our hearts even though many leagues lie between us. You say this is a magic place? Well, it’s the same magic that Alanar and I felt in the cave that day.”
Amalia was silent as she considered Skandar’s words. She had always known the stone in the meadow was special, but she never knew why. As she thought on what he said, it occurred to her that his description of sharing thoughts without speaking was not unlike her own experience with her visions of evil and of Lammet’s compassion. She wondered at this and shared her musings with Skandar.
“You saw another person’s thoughts?” he asked.
“I don’t know if it came from their thoughts or feelings or where it came from. I just know what I felt when I saw the visions.”
Skandar leaped up. “Do you see what this means?” he asked, excitedly. “It means that magic has not gone out after all. It must still be here in this place! You must have experienced it without knowing.”
“Come!” he said, pulling Amalia to her feet. “We can try to touch the magic, the two of us.”
Taking her hand, Skandar led Amalia to the fallen stone. Without a word, they climbed onto the stone and sat cross-legged from each other. Grinning shyly at first and then broadly, they took each other by the hand and gave themselves over to the magic.


         Two days later, Sir Arlan and his party were back in the saddle, making their farewells to Virgil and his sister, Beryl. Skandar had fully recovered from his rash and was considered presentable to the king and his court. Amalia watched their going from an upper window of the inn. Skandar saw her and gave her a knowing smile, which she returned. He might not ever see her again, but he left with the knowledge that their hearts were immutably linked together.

Next Week: Where to Find Love 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Vast and Perilous Estates ~ How to Overcome Ignorance

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
~Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill

Sir Arlan awakened the next day with a pounding head from too much ale, and a sense of shame buried so deep that he could only feel its existence as a sense of something amiss. He supposed that he might have misspoken a word or two. In settling his account with his host, Arlan slipped Virgil an extra coin to smooth over any unpleasantness he might have caused. Father Caril also woke in a state of unrest. The memory of the previous night was still fresh, and his spirit writhed before its implications. He felt there was a mystery about the inn and its inhabitants, and he intended to discover it. He longed to stay behind in order to investigate, but his reason for doing so would be awkward to explain.
No, he thought, I must find some way to prolong our visit when we return with Lord Lokinvar’s son.

Another person rose in the early morning hours with a distinct feeling that something was different. Amalia looked about the room; she was in bed with her little cousin, Bethna.
Why am I here? she thought. Then she remembered last night at the inn, the knight and Lammet, the vision of the bluebell, and what her father told her about evil.  She had learned something last night, and she could not un-learn it. Her father said that a door had been opened to her, a new path had been laid before her feet, and that Amalia was destined to walk it. However, Amalia felt she would be much happier if she remained in her ignorance. She sighed and looked at her small cousin, still enjoying her sleep. Amalia bent and kissed Bethna’s forehead.
“You are fortunate to be so young,” she whispered. “I envy you.”
Amalia lay back in the bed, fully awake. Sounds from another part of the house indicated that breakfast was being prepared. She knew she should get up and go help her aunt, but she felt reluctant to do so. She did not want to face the understanding smiles and sympathetic looks of Aunt Beryl, Uncle Emmet, and Cousin Finn. Amalia plopped back on her pillow. Beside her, Bethna stirred at the movement.
“Is it time to wake up?” she asked sleepily.
“Not yet, sweetheart. You go back to sleep. Don’t be in a hurry to awaken. It will happen soon enough.” Amalia muttered the last part under her breath as she swung her feet over the side of the bed and sat there, chin in hand.
No use sitting here, she thought. It won’t make it any easier if I wait. With a sigh, she rose from the bed and plodded into the kitchen.
“Mole, dear, you’re up.” Aunt Beryl greeted her over her shoulder as she bent over the porridge pot. “There is some hot tea in the kettle and the cups are on the table.”
Amalia slouched over to the table and poured herself a cup of tea. As she watched her aunt bustling around the kitchen, it occurred to her that her aunt must have also encountered evil at some time. She wondered how it happened and what it was like for her aunt. Dear, plump, comforting Aunt Beryl being confronted with evil presented an incongruous image to Amalia’s mind. How could someone so safe, so…so motherly have anything to do with evil? And then her mother’s face came to mind. Did Mother also know about evil? And Father? They must have known. Just think, they knew all along about evil, and yet could go on like everything was normal. This, Amalia decided, was not normal. It couldn’t be. Evil was just so…so evil. How could anyone face it and then go on with their lives. Maybe her evil was a particularly evil type of evil. Maybe she had surpassed everyone else’s brand of evil, and maybe it was because she was so evil herself. Maybe she should run away from the village so that no one would be tainted by her evilness. Amalia sighed and buried her head in her arms. Aunt Beryl walked over and stood behind Amalia’s chair. She leaned over and whispered in Amalia’s ear, “Is the tea hot enough?”
Amalia looked up, stared at her aunt, and then burst into tears.
“Oh, Aunt,” she wailed, “You do not want to touch me! I have EVIL in me. I am not CLEAN!”
Her aunt embraced her. “If that is the case, then I had better you extra hold tight.”
At that moment, Beryl’s son, Finn entered the room and sat down next to his cousin. Amalia kept her head down, her cheeks flushed with tears and embarrassment. She greatly admired her cousin; that he should find her like this was humiliating.
“So…Mole,” he said. “I heard about what happened last night at the inn. I understand what you are going through and thought you might want to talk about it.”
When Amalia made no response, Finn took hold of her hands and nodded to his mother, who quietly left the room.
“The thing is,” he said, “at some time all of us come to know the ‘not-good’, what we call evil. Usually we learn about it because we see it in ourselves. You, on the other hand, encountered it from an outside source. With no prior experience with evil, that must have come as quite a shock. It’s no wonder you are so upset. It’s bad enough discovering one’s own shadow side.”
Slowly Amalia raised her head. She looked at her cousin searchingly. Was he speaking the truth or just saying something to make her feel better?
“Are you saying that you had the ‘not-good’ in you? I mean, how did you know?”
Finn rose from his chair and walked to the window. Several minutes passed as Finn gazed outside. Then he turned, folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the windowsill. In a low, hesitant voice he began.
“It happened a few years ago when Bethna was a baby; about fourteen months of age. I was learning to play the harp and was fond of making up songs to play for myself and for the family. One evening as I was playing a new song, Bethna began to cry. At first Mother checked for the usual things that would make a baby cry, but Bethna was warm, well fed, and comfortable. We thought it might be the harp so I put it aside and picked up the flute instead. I played a few songs and then decided to play my new song on the flute. Again, Bethna started wailing. I played a different song on the flute and then the harp, and Bethna seemed happy again. We decided that she must not like the song. Just to see, I sang the song, and her tears started flowing. It was disappointing to me that my little song, which I loved, would cause my sister such distress. However, I agreed not to sing or play it in front of her.
“A few months later, Uncle Hosten came for a visit. In talking with him about my music, I mentioned Bethna’s reaction to this one song. Uncle Hosten was very interested and asked my parents if he could witness this for himself. So I brought out my harp and played a song. Bethna smiled and clapped her hands. Then I played my new song and, as if on cue, Bethna began crying. Uncle asked me to continue to play as he held Bethna on his lap. During that entire song, that poor baby cried as if her heart would break. I think we were all in tears by the time it was finished. Uncle hugged Bethna and kissed away her tears. Then, rocking her in his arms, he told us his opinion.
“‘Your song,’ he said, ‘is a melody of particular beauty and power, especially to Bethna. You are mistaken in thinking she does not like this song; on the contrary, she loves it. There is something about this song that is magic to her. It speaks to her heart and moves her in a way not known to the rest of us. However, because she is a baby, she has not yet mastered the language necessary to express the deep feelings inside her—so she cries, not for sadness, but for an indescribable joy.’”
“Well, you can imagine how we felt. It humbled me to think that I had created something so powerful as to have this effect on my sister.”
Finn paused and looked at Amalia; then he bowed and shook his head.
“Mole, you do not know what it is like to see the evil inside you. It is a terrible thing. I can hardly bring myself to recall it, much less share it with you.” He drew a deep breath.
“When I first realized what my song meant to Bethna, as I said, I felt humbled with a good sort of pride. If a beautiful melody was meant to be, I was pleased that I was chosen as the instrument to bring it forth. One day, on the pretext of helping my mother, I took Bethna to a place by the river to play. I also brought my harp. Once we were settled down, I took out my harp and began to play. I played all sorts of songs for Bethna who was delighted, laughing while she tried to dance. Then I played the one song, the special song and Bethna began to cry. I continued to play while Bethna cried, and I did not stop until the song was finished. When I was finished, I looked at my sister’s tear streaked face and smiled. ‘I can make you cry’, I said, ‘anytime I want you to.’ Those words seemed to hang in the air, accusing me, exposing me for what I had done. The horror of my action filled me with grief and shame. I had used my own little sister to satisfy a personal desire. I had taken advantage of someone innocent to serve my own self-interest. I saw an opportunity to exert power, and I took it despite the pain it caused my sister. What is worse, I deceived my mother. She thought I was being considerate when I was actually being selfish. I had even deceived myself. I told myself that by playing my song, I was really doing Bethna a favor because she loved it.”
When Finn raised his eyes, they were filled with tears. Amalia kept silent as understanding began to dawn in her face.
“Oh, Finn,” she whispered, “I am so sorry I asked. How awful it must be for you!”
Finn shook his head.
“I know it must seem so, and at the time I thought it was too dreadful for words. But since then, I have learned a greater truth, and I would never go back to the lovely ignorance that is innocence. You see, Mole, because I have seen the shadow, I have seen the light as something much more precious. To me, that which is good has grown ever more valuable because of the great cost it demands.”
“And what is the cost?” Amalia asked fearfully.
Her cousin replied, “Choice.”

Amalia spent the rest of the day wandering about the village.
Curious, she thought, that the one person who best helped her make sense of it all was the person she least wanted to talk to. Finn was almost eight years older and, although he was very kind to her and never teased her, she could never regard him with anything but awe. After all, he was so much older. How could he understand anything about girl her age? But he did know about evil.
Amalia was astounded at his tale. She would never have guessed such a thing about her adored cousin. Here was her model of idolized perfection confessing his moment of self-discovery. Yet as Amalia reflected on his words, she found that this glimpse of his inner world did not at all diminish her love and respect for him; if anything, it gave heightened her regard.
Her meanderings eventually brought her to the well in the village square. She sat down on its edge and watched a group of children at play.
They do not know, she thought. They can play at being millers and tailors and bakers. All day long they can play and not know. But I know.
Amalia pondered again her cousin’s words. He had said that the cost of “good” is “choice.” She wondered what he meant by that. An image came to mind of the stable at the inn. There the horses were kept in individual stalls. She asked her father once why the horses could not be housed together, so that they could play as friends.
“Oh, child,” he laughed, “if we put the horses together, they would not think so much of playing as of fighting. Horses have their own feelings, and take no more to a roomful of strangers than we humans do. Put two stallions in the group, and there would be a great battle over the mares. No, we best keep them separated so that they behave themselves.”
Amalia compared the image to the idea of “choice.” It dawned on her that the horses in the stalls were well behaved because they could not make mischief. They had no choice. Amalia’s frowned as she teased out an idea. It occurred to her that the Great Good did not make people free from choice. Oh, there was a short while in which children grew in innocence (the “lovely ignorance” as Finn called it.) But the age of innocence did not last. The choice had to be there, or people would behave because they had to, just like the horses in the stalls. There was something very human in making a choice for the good, and the “not-good” was a necessary part of it. Her father said that the Great Good made evil paths so that people would know the good ones. Perhaps it was time for her to walk an “evil path.” All for the good, of course!
Later that evening, Amalia’s parents came to supper at her aunt and uncle’s house, bringing her little sister, Anna and her brother, Cyril. The sight of her sister reminded her of what Finn had shared about Bethna. She sat close to Finn the entire evening until it was time to return home to the inn. At their parting, her aunt embraced her warmly.
“Mole,” she said, “we have so enjoyed your company. Bethna asked if we could keep you. She promised that she would feed you herself and would share her bed and her toys.”
At these words, Bethna ran to Amalia’s mother and hugged her around the waist.
“Aunt Franna, I promise to take good care of Mole. Can she stay?” she asked.
Amalia bent down to Bethna.
“Sweetheart,” she said, “if you take care of me, who will take care of Finn?”
At these words, Bethna released her hold on her aunt and climbed onto Finn’s lap.
“I will,” she answered. She reached up and patted Finn’s cheek.
“This is my Finn,” she said.
Amalia caught Finn’s eyes and smiled.

It was with some trepidation that Amalia walked through the back door of the inn. It seemed ages ago since she was last here. Perhaps it was an age. She threaded her way through the kitchen and peeked in the common room. There were only a handful of guests tonight, all of whom she recognized as people from the village and outlying farms. It was a different Amalia back at the inn, one who was planning her first excursion into the “not-good.”
The next morning, Amalia stood outside the door of the kitchen. She peeked in the window and caught a glimpse of Lammet busy with the baking. Her mother and father were taking inventory of the stores, and her brother was busy about the stables. This was an opportune moment to have a private word with Lammet. Amalia entered the kitchen, hesitantly, almost shyly. She stood by the large service table until Lammet turned around and noticed her presence.
“Mole, dear,” she said, “I did not see you come in. Have you been here long?”
“No,” Amalia replied, “I only just now came down for a bit of breakfast.”
“If you are hungry, there is fresh baked bread in the pantry and the porridge pot is still hot. Would you like milk or tea?” asked Lammet.
“Hot tea, please.”
In a short time, Amalia was supplied with thick slices of bread, honey, a slab of butter, and tea. She tucked in and spent the next several minutes satisfying her hunger and devising a way to broach the subject of last night’s events with Lammet. Lammet, however, knew in a moment what Amalia’s intent was in visiting her in the kitchen; she had anticipated it and now waited patiently for her to begin.
Amalia pushed back her plate.
“Lammet, I was wondering if I could ask you something, about…about last night.”
Lammet gave an encouraging smile and pulled up a chair alongside her young friend.
“Of course, dear,” she said. “You may ask anything you wish. I will answer as best as I can.”
A deep sigh preceded Amalia’s next words.
“Last night, when I was helping you serve tables, something very strange happened. I saw one of the knights pull you onto his lap. It seemed like something was amiss, and I wanted to help you. As I got closer to where you were, I felt something horrible go all through me; it made me sick in my stomach. So…I was wondering if you felt anything unusual or strange.”
Lammet answered. “Yes, dear, I did. I, too, was aware of something strange, something horrible.”
Amalia hesitated. “Did you feel the ‘not-good,’ the evil, too?”
“That I did,” answered Lammet. “There was a very powerful presence of it. So strong it was, I do not wonder at your reaction to it. I was almost sick myself.”
“So what did you do about it? I mean, was it because of the knight, Sir…Arman?’
“Sir Arlan? No, it was not from him. Working in the inn, I have encountered his kind of passion before and know well enough how to recognize it and temper it. No, it was from another source. In fact, that was the reason I was in that part of the common room. I perceived a shadow and was trying to discover its source.”
Amalia was silent as she considered the young woman’s words. She looked at Lammet and saw her with new eyes. Lammet was only six or seven years older than herself. Amalia never noticed before how fair Lammet was, with her deep brown hair that fell in waves when it was unbound, her clear grey eyes that looked at everyone with kindness, and her mouth that seemed always ready for laughter. In such a place as the inn, with its variety of guests, it was not surprising to Amalia that Lammet would attract many admirers. Amalia found herself in awe of Lammet. How could she be so gracious if even half the male visitors behaved as the knight did? With so many guests passing through the inn, how could Lammet withstand the constant awareness of whatever evil they possessed?
“Lammet,” she asked, “how can you bear it? How can you work here and move among people whose evil you can feel? Does it ever make you want to run away to some place that knows only the good?”
In response, Lammet held out her hand. Amalia looked at it. It was the same hand that Sir Arlan held when he secured her on his knee. It seemed to Amalia that Lammet’s hand might be unclean, tarnished by the brush of evil. With trepidation, Amalia placed her hand in Lammet’s, cringing before the evil she knew she was sure to feel. Instead, she felt the roughness and strength of her hand. She was aware of a warmth emanating from Lammet’s hand and enveloping her own. The warmth began to spread up her arm, to her shoulders and across her back; it rose to her neck and traced its way to her cheeks, her eyes, and the top of her head. Everything in her was relaxed and submissive to the warmth. Her eyes took in the details of the hand that held hers, examining the fine lines that cut paths across its surface. Amalia followed one of the lines and found that it was one of many winding paths through a maze of tables and chairs, not unlike those of the inn. So intent was Amalia on finding a path through the tables, she did not immediately notice that there were people sitting at them. They were making such a cacophony of noise that Amalia could not distinguish one word from another. From the looks on their faces and the accompanying sounds of laughter, she assumed that they were making pleasant conversation. She ignored the people and once again began threading her way through the tables and chairs. The voices followed her like a trail of smoke. An acrid odor in the air caused her to stop and look again at the people occupying the tables. She gasped, startled. She was in a sea of faces from whose open mouths issued noise, smoke, and shadow! Whatever pleasant words the people were speaking, the sounds they were making were not happy ones. In fact, the noises about her issuing from the hundreds, no, thousands of open mouths were ultimately and inexorably sad. Full of grief, despair, and bitter desperation, a countless multitude cried out in their human isolation. Shadows poured forth in an unrelenting stream from every face. Amalia felt as if her heart would break.
These are like the bluebells, she thought. These are the flowers on the windowsill, swallowed in the shadow of their own human souls.
Amalia wanted to reach out and embrace each shadow and bring it into the light, but there were too many of them. Oh, if only she were bigger, if only her hands were large enough to gather them in and ease their suffering. If only…
Suddenly, Amalia found herself back in the kitchen alone with Lammet. With a start she looked around, expecting to see a roomful of people.
“Lammet,” she whispered. “I…I saw…what was that?”
Lammet stroked Amalia’s hair and kissed her.
“That,” she said, “is compassion, and that is why we are allowed to know evil.”

It was approaching midnight, and Amalia lay awake on her bed. It had been a week since she had returned home, and during that time, Amalia had formed a plan that she meant to implement tonight when the family was asleep. Amalia slipped from under the covers, fully dressed, grabbed her small satchel, quietly crept down the stairs and went out the back door. Tonight she would discover the ‘not-good’ inside her soul.
It was one thing to see or hear of it from another, she thought, but to truly understand it, I need to experience it for myself.
The evil path Amalia had chosen to walk involved one of her father’s friends, a farmer who kept the inn supplied with apples from his orchards. It was to Goodman Anselm’s barn she now made her stealthy way by the light of the moon. A path along the river took her behind the main road of the village. After about twenty minutes, she reached Anselm’s apple barn. The scent of apples was heavy in the air; Amalia was in such a nervous state, the fragrance nearly made her sick.
It will soon be over, she told herself. There was a small door on the side of the barn. It was unlocked, and Amalia slowly pushed it open just enough to admit her slim frame. She shut the door quietly and turned around to face a mountain of apples. Apples everywhere! In crates, in barrels, in careless piles on the floor—more than enough for her purpose.
Amalia walked over to one of the piles and selected five smooth-skinned apples, which she stowed in her satchel. Then she let herself out the side door as quietly as she had let herself in. Following the river path, Amalia set a brisk pace until she reached the large oak tree behind the inn. It seemed a fitting place to experience her own personal evil. Although the night air was cool, Amalia was perspiring and not just with the exertion of her walk. Her palms were sweaty, and her mouth was dry; both her heart and her head were pounding. If second-hand evil from another was such a terrible experience, Amalia could only imagine the horrors awaiting her when she encountered her own. With great trepidation, Amalia bit into the apple and felt…nothing. She frowned and took another bite. The apple was delicious. Amalia took a third bite and felt a lovely sensation thrill her inner being.
There is no doubt, she thought, that this is the best apple I have ever eaten. As she finished the apple, Amalia became increasingly aware of a sense of well being enveloping her. She leaned back against the oak tree and reveled in the overwhelming presence of calm and peace. All was well, very well with the world.
 I could stay here forever, she thought, sitting under this tree and eating apples. If I asked him, I am sure Goodman Anselm would give me as many apples as I want.    Amalia entered a happy reverie in which she imagined herself going to her father’s friend and asking for the apples. “I am honored”, he would say,” that of all the apples in all the orchards, you wish to have mine. Allow me to take you into my apple barn so you can pick out the choicest of my apples.”
Amalia bolted upright. The thought of being given the apples somehow spoiled her happy mood.
I don’t want to be given the apples, she thought, I want to take them myself, just like I did tonight. I liked sneaking out of my room and into the apple barn. No one but me knows what I did. In the morning, when I see Mother and Father, and Anna and Cyril, they won’t know anything about this, but I will. And I will look at them with all my knowledge and keep them in their ignorance. And when I smile at them, they will think its because I thought of something amusing. They won’t know its because I know something they do not know.
So thinking, Amalia picked up her bag of apples and stole back up to her room. Once in bed, she promptly fell asleep.


The next morning, Virgil and Franna sat at the kitchen table. Breakfast was long over for the rest of the family, and still there was no sign of Amalia.
“It seems that Mole’s efforts have tired her out,” observed Franna. “Should we wake her, do you think?”
“I would let her sleep on,” replied Virgil. “Her awakening has been very trying for her. If only she were not so young. It is difficult enough to enter a new level of perception at the usual age of thirteen or fourteen. That she is not yet twelve must make it doubly hard for her. Her emotional and mental capacities are being stretched to their limit.”
Franna smiled. “I have confidence in our daughter as well as in the Great Good. Mole is taking her small steps toward knowledge in her own way. Did you know that she had a discussion with Lammet, as well as with Finn, about her recent experience?”
“I knew she had talked with Finn, which surprised me seeing as she is usually so shy around him. Finn probably set her ears a tingling. You say she talked with Lammet? That is a good thing. Lammet is a wise and sensible young woman. I would have recommended to Mole that she do so, but I hesitated. I did not know whether she would feel a reluctance to relive the event with Lammet. Did Lammet give you any idea of the nature of their conversation?”
“Well,” Franna hesitated, “Lammet must hold much of what was said in confidence, but I did gather that Mole had a glimpse of Lammet’s inner world. It made a considerable impression on her. She moved there of her own accord and did not seem unduly surprised at its appearance. Speaking of appearance, Mole is coming down the stairs at this moment.”
Franna and Virgil waited in silence until Amalia entered the room. She said not a word, but smiled at them; her parents smiled back. Amalia helped herself to some bread and jam, which she attacked with gusto. Her mother and father quietly sipped their tea and commented on the plans for the evening’s supper and which rooms needed to be set in order. Amalia dropped her knife, and then shoved her plate aside. She stomped over to the kettle and poured herself a cup of tea. Slurping her tea, she wondered at her parents’ silence. Sighing, she leaned her chair back, balancing on two legs. Franna and Virgil continued their conversation. Finally, Amalia slammed her chair to the floor, spun it around and, faced her parents.
“Well, then.” she said, “Since you want to know, I will tell you I have learned about the ‘not-good’. I think it is not so bad after all.”
With that, she proceeded to recount her excursion to Anselm’s apple barn and how she stole some of his apples and the wonderful way it made her feel.
“Finn said that good demands a choice, and Lammet said that evil allows compassion, but neither said that the choice to do evil could make one feel as if it is good. When I bit into the apple, I expected that I would experience the same horror I felt that night at the inn, only a hundred times worse. Finn said that it is the very worst thing to see the evil in oneself. But I saw and felt none of that. Is the ‘not-good’ bad or isn’t it? If it is bad, then why did it feel good? If the ‘not-good’ feels good, does that mean what is good can feel ‘not-good’? If they can be both at the same time, then how can anyone know anything? Oh, my head aches!”
Franna and Virgil looked at their daughter with love and pity. The growing process is necessary and inevitable for every human soul, but how difficult it is at times to witness in one’s child.
“What do you think, dear?” Franna asked her daughter. “How does one know whether a choice belongs to the good or to the ‘not-good’? What was the true reason you determined to steal Goodman Anselm’s apple? What was your intention? Search your heart, dear. It will tell you.”
Several minutes of silence followed as Amalia recounted the events of the last few days and her thoughts and actions.
“Well,” she said,” I was curious about this ‘evil’ that I had seen and heard and I wanted to know more. It seemed so strange to me that something called evil could be all around me, and I would not be aware of it. It seemed to me that however much someone else told me about it, I would never truly know evil’s nature unless I experienced it for myself. I know it is wrong to steal, so that is why I decided to take the apples. I just wanted to know what it was like to be bad.”
“So you decided to steal a few apples,” replied her mother. “But why steal Anselm’s apples? If you really wanted to do something bad, why not steal his wife’s pet cat? Or instead of taking a few apples, why not set fire to the apple barn? What is the purpose behind the choice you made?”
Amalia looked at her in disbelief.
“To steal a few apples is not the same as stealing a favorite pet! It is not as hurtful. And destroying all the apples would do a great deal of harm, more than I wanted to do. I only wanted to do a little bit of evil, not enough to really hurt anybody; just enough for my purpose.”
An embryo truth stirred inside Amalia.
Virgil asked, “So if stealing a few apples is not harmful to anyone, how many would you have to steal to make it so? What is the boundary between doing harm or not? Are you certain that stealing five apples was not hurtful to Goodman Anselm? Maybe having five of his apples stolen was a real grief to him. Maybe you should have taken just four apples.”
“Well, if the difference is just one apple, then why not take them all? Or why take any? How am I to know whether a single apple is the difference between good and evil?” argued Amalia.
The truth inside her waxed stronger.
“How indeed,” replied her mother, “if the difference is just one apple, or just one word, or just one flower on a window sill? Consider the question again, Mole. What was the reason you stole the apples?”
The truth clamored to be admitted into Amalia’s heart. She wanted to shut it out, to abort it, to never let it see the light of conscience.
This is ‘choice’, she thought. I can choose to know the truth or choose to believe what is not true. Suddenly, she was overwhelmed with a feeling of compassion for herself. This is a hard place to be in.
Amalia hesitated and then said in a voice so low it was scarcely above a whisper, “I really did want to know, to experience for myself the ‘not-good’. But once I actually had done the deed, I felt…powerful.” Amalia looked up in wonder as the truth dawned on her.
“What I liked wasn’t really the apples, but the sense of power that stealing them gave me.”
Her parents moved closer and each took her by the hand.
Amalia felt their assurance and continued.
“Now that I think of it, it seems that any good at any time can be a ‘not good’; it just depends on why a person does it. And to do something that gives you power over another is definitely evil. Even if you say to yourself, ‘Oh, this won’t hurt him’ or ‘He won’t notice’, then you are giving yourself power over that person by deciding what that person should feel or think. And to do that makes that person into less than a person. It makes a person into a nothing.”
Amalia looked at her father and mother and sighed
“Why is it so hard to let go of ignorance when knowledge beckons?”


A week had passed since Sir Arlan and his companions had left the inn. The only guests in the common room were people from the village. Virgil and Franna sat at a large table in earnest discussion with several of them.
“No doubt, it has been a challenging time for Amalia. She has, of necessity, been required to comprehend a great deal in a short time. Virgil and I did not anticipate this event so soon, else we would have been more diligent to prepare her.” Franna sighed. “My dear little Mole, how she must have suffered!”
Beryl’s husband, Emmet, frowned as he spoke.
“From what Lammet has said, the evil that Mole perceived emanated from the priest, not the knight. So what do any of you know of this priest and his religion? I confess that my knowledge about the Roman church is that it exists, but no more.”
Virgil responded.
“Here in our village what do any of us know? We keep to ourselves, and the Christian church leaves us be. For generations, my family has had nothing to do with it. Occasionally a priest or a monk will pass the night at the inn, but I have no interaction with them beyond the usual service.”
“I talked at length with one of the priests who passed through one summer,” said Finn. “At the time, I was interested in different beliefs, and he was glad enough to share his and those of his church. He told me of a prophet called Jesu, the Christ, whom they believe is the son of ‘God’; I assume they mean the Great Good. In speaking of the church itself, the priest gave me the impression that it is an institution that wields great power, which seems contrary to what the priest was telling me about their prophet.”
“Lust for power was the source of the evil that so affected Amalia,” said Lammet. “I felt its force most distinctly. We must be wary of it for I perceive that we shall encounter it again. This priest, at any rate, we shall see again on his return visit.”
Virgil arose.
“Then I will commune with my brother Hosten. Living in London gives him more access to what is happening in the realm and the outside world than what we encounter here in the village. Perhaps he can tell us whether the church is exerting its power in our direction.”
Moonlight shone on a large stone in an open meadow; its position on the ground indicated that it once was standing upright but had fallen on its side. The meadow was intimate, surrounded by oak and beech trees, which cast their deliberate shadows. The river faintly whispered in the distance. A small brown rabbit ventured forth from its den for some nightly foraging. It suddenly ceased its gentle ambling, ears and nose intent on the shadows. Soon the shadows lengthened into abnormal shapes that resolved themselves into figures of men and women converging on the stone. They were from the village and included Virgil and Franna. Beryl emerged from the shadows accompanied by Emmet and Finn. Also in the company was Lammet, who was followed by five other villagers, three women and two men.
When they reached the stone they formed a circle about it. Not a word was spoken. Silent communication passed from heart to heart until at length each person, with shining eyes, lifted their arms above their heads. Their hearts began pulsating with the energy that formed the worlds, and the company rose as one into the air. Their bodies hovered several inches above the ground and then, with a sigh, dropped gently to the earth and lay there like so many discarded garments.

Next week: How to Find a Friend