The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 1
The Thief of Ashlon

 

 

                        The turquoise sky arched above the land of emerald plains, diamond-capped mountains and deep sapphire seas.  It was bathed in a rich golden light, set like a precious jewel.  Rivers like blue silken threads cut through the countryside.  A great city straddled the banks of one river, gleaming in the sunlight.  It was Tashmar, the capital, by turns both chaos and order; a grid pattern of wide boulevards and tangles of lesser streets and alleyways, crowded marketplaces and quiet neighbourhoods, busy docks and dingy slums.  People were everywhere, out on the streets, on the river, in the large city square.  It was an ordinary day, people were going about their business, there was nothing unusual to it, or so they thought.  If any of the people had looked up, they might have seen a dark speck against the sky.  If they were long-sighted, they might have distinguished what it was.  The Queen’s dragon in flight.

                        She was large, her scaly body taller than a man  by half again at her shoulder, her feathered wings twenty metres tip to tip and beating hard to gain the height she needed.  Her lithe, muscled body was thickened in the middle, her legs curled up underneath her.  One leg was injured, and a score-mark wept blood across her flank.  She was flying as fast as she could, her long neck and tail outstretched with the effort, flying to save her own life.

The city below looked peaceful from this height, but the dragon knew otherwise.  There was evil there.  As if to echo her sentiment, from far below a huge bolt of green light flashed upward, straight towards her.  She turned on a wing-tip; the bolt whooshed upwards above her and detonated.  The explosion began forming a black net that writhed and grew, a malicious web of sorcery.  Cocking her head she caught sight of the blackness as it began to fall towards her, and, roaring her defiance, she beat her wings harder, stooping into a dive to add some speed and distance.  The black net continued to fall, growing and spreading, until its shadow began to blot out the sun.  She could not outfly  it.  The dragon swept out of her dive, catching an updraft and gaining altitude, closing in quickly.  Beating her wings strongly, she charged at the net.  Just as it came close enough to entangle her, she breathed a gout of fire, scorching a hole right through it, filaments of web glowing gold before disintegrating into fine, black ash.  Punching through, she flamed it from above, a jet of golden fire destroying the hated thing, sending black ash flying on the winds.  Something howled far below her, from the city, a cry for revenge.  The dragon flew on, striking out to the west.  Keeping a careful eye out for any more attacks, she followed the sun, as fast as she could.  She had to get away.  She had to survive; for if she did not, all was lost.

                        *          *          *          *          *

                        A grubby little girl bolted though the narrow alleys, laughing as she ran, evading capture yet again.  In her hand she held a steaming hot pie; far behind her the vendor she had stolen it from gave up the chase, red in the face and puffing as he bent over, hands on knees.  The little girl paused to catch her breath, wiping her dirty brown-blond hair away from her bright eyes.  She bit triumphantly into her prize.  The pie was very hot, and burnt her tongue, but she smiled through the mouthful.  It tasted good; rich flavoursome meat in a buttery pastry.  In seconds it was gone, the girl licking her lips with satisfaction. 

            Shivering, the little girl Talana walked down towards the docklands by the great river.  She was still hungry.  Her feet moved sure-footedly over the worn cobbled streets and through the growing crowd.  An accomplished thief, the docks were a rich hunting ground for the likes of Talana, the traders and merchants making easy targets.  She was always surprised at how careless some people were with their valuables.  Wrapping her thin coat around her spare frame, she concentrated on being ‘invisible’.  She was very good at this – people did not often notice a poor girl like her.  Aside from food, which was her main objective this cold and grey wintry morning, she could sidle up to passers-by and dip her hands in loose pockets without them noticing.  Her hand could dip into the fat purses the merchants wore about their waists as they haggled amongst a crowd, or she would flit by a rich lady and whisk the silk handkerchief from her neck, a light touch and the whisper of fabric all the lady would hear.  Her best had been a golden brooch set with a large ruby, stolen from the lapel of a dandy man whose intoxicated state made him an easy target for her quick hands.

The young girl noticed that the breeze was picking up, and unobtrusively made her way past the crowded hovels so familiar to her, towards the river, through garbage-strewn lanes stained with wet muck.

                        The smells which wafted up from the river told Talana that she was drawing closer to it.  The vessels that plied the river dumped their waste straight into the it, and the city’s sewers drained into the water as well.  The river seemed to ooze along rather than flow, thick with foul-smelling lumps and clots of rotting matter.  It had been that way for as long as Talana could remember.  Soon she noticed more enticing smells.  Hot foods, ready to feed the merchants and sailors, made Talana’s stomach growl.  Roasting meats and spicy kebabs competed with the river’s rotten, muddy stench.  The streets began to change character as shopfronts, taverns and bazaars replaced the decrepit houses.  She could see the tips of tall-masted vessels reaching high above the rooftops.  The streets began to bustle with people, a flurry of all classes and trades went past.  The courtiers’ servants in their richly coloured clothes, down to ensure their masters’ merchandise had arrived, tradesmen, with tools and apprentices in tow, there to sell their services to those who needed them or buying supplies to work with.  Shipwrights found a ready trade repairing damaged or leaking vessels, publicans enticed thirsty sailors into their bars, hawkers of all kinds peddled their wares.  Talana scuttled to the side of the street as a merchant and his entourage pushed all before them as they carried great multicoloured bolts of cloth from the docks, a pushy attendant shouting for people to get out of the way.  He came too close to Talana: she darted in close to him in the crush of people, deftly reaching into his pocket and finding a few coins before he moved on to growl at more obstinate people in his way.  He had not even noticed her.  Happily she darted back down the wake of the procession to the centre of all activity, the river front.

                        She felt very much at home in the crowd and started to enjoy herself.  It was full of noise, people bargaining, arguing, trying to make a deal, workmen back and forth, ships being repaired, being loaded and unloaded with all kinds of goods.  She had known the docklands most of her life, since she had first learned to run from the dilapidated brothel that was her home.  The people of the docklands did not beat her or tell her off the way her father did, unless she stole something from them and was caught.  If this happened, she believed she deserved to be punished for not being quick enough.  She still had to be very careful at times to avoid getting into trouble on the streets, but even at ten years old was streetwise enough to hold her own in most situations.  The docklands had taught her much about life, and was more home to her than her physical house.

                        Home, where she slept at night, was frightening.  She took every opportunity to get away from it.  Her father, Akel, was a terrifying figure, dark, short and thickset, he was immensely strong.  His deep-set eyes were shaded by shaggy brows that seemed in a perpetual frown.  She had never seen him smile nor heard him laugh.  Her mother, Bel, was none too happy being married to him.  They fought, violently and often, Bel coming off the worst in most cases.  Talana knew that her mother worked in the brothel, not as the madam, but as one of the girls, and that Akel was effectively the brothel’s only security.  The brothel made a little profit, that all went to the fat, brassy-haired madam, Loella; but her parents stayed anyway.  At least her parents largely protected her from the advances of the clientele, but that was about all they did to look after her welfare.  She was isolated from other children, never allowed to play with them, and had never been to school.  Her home was awful; the river was a far happier and comfortable place for Talana to be.

                        A screaming monkey on the shoulder of a passer-by diverted Talana’s attention from her dark thoughts of home.  She moved silently and took up her position near a food stall, milling about innocently, waiting for a discreet moment in which she could steal some more breakfast.  The spicy, sizzling kebabs on the grill smelled so good that she considered paying for one and being honest for a change.  She looked about the stand for the vendor, and noticed an old man approaching.  His step was springy despite his apparent age, and his eyes were sparkling.  Without thinking, Talana smiled, and then got a surprise as the old man looked directly at her.  She was being invisible, how did he see her?  The old man smiled at her, his face becoming even more wrinkled, his eyes full of kindness.  She had never seen such a smile before, and suddenly felt like the most special person in the whole world.

                        “Hello, young miss.” the old man said in a gentle voice. “What is your name?”   He crouched and extended his wrinkled and liver-spotted hand to hers.  Trustingly, and amazing herself at the same time for doing so, she took it.

                        “Talana, sir.”  She replied, surprised at her politeness.  Old men were usually people to be wary of.  This one, however, seemed to be different to the lurking, lecherous old men she was more used to seeing, she could sense it.  She could trust this man.  He stood up, his stained robe fraying in several places, his drooping grey beard caught up with his robe.

                        “Two kebabs, please.”  He said, paying for the food and giving Talana one of the spicy meat sticks.  “You look like you could eat a dozen.” They moved away from the stall.  She could do little but nod dumbly as her blue eyes went wide with staring at the man, then at the food.  She took a large bite of the meat and marvelled at its delicious taste.  A contented sigh escaped her lips, and she looked up at the man as he spoke again.

                        “I’m afraid, little Talana, that I can no longer read the street sign terribly well – my eyes are failing.  Would you help me by showing me where the Cross Keys Tavern is?  The sign should be around here somewhere.”  The old man dithered and appeared to look around himself, but eyes were keenly fixed upon her.

                        “I can’t read, sir, but I think I know the place where you mean.  It’s this way.”  She said, taking the old man’s hand and leading him across the crowded street, past a myriad of stalls and peddlars vying for trade as the merchants and sailors unloaded their cargoes onto the docks.

                        “Can’t read?  Can’t read!  Don’t they teach you anything at school these days?  And stop calling me ‘sir’, my name is Asikei, so you may as well call me that.”  The old man sounded slightly outraged, muttering and raising his fist.

                        “I’m not allowed to go to school, sir – er, Asikei – my parents won’t let me.  I’m not even allowed to have any friends.”  She told him in a small voice, flinching slightly at the raised fist.  Asikei turned to her with a smile on his face.

                        “Well, young miss, I’ll be your friend, and if you like, I can even teach you to read.  You don’t have to tell your parents about me, either, just keep it between you and me.  Secret friends, hey? Would you like that?”

                        “Yes, sir, I would!” she answered eagerly, and with her new teacher and friend, found the Cross Keys Tavern, where they arranged to meet.  Talana’s education had begun.

                        At age fourteen, Talana had mastered her letters, thoroughly, thanks to the patience and help that Asikei had given.  She had managed to keep her meetings with the old man a secret; she had not even so much as hinted that she had a friend, or that she was literate to her parents.  It was a hard act to keep up at times, but she knew that it was very necessary, for her father would likely as not kill Asikei, and her, if he found out.  She did not know or understand why her parents were so cruel towards her, so cruel and restrictive, but she had learned to live with it as best she could.  But there were times when all she wanted to do was drive a knife between her father’s shoulder blades.  She loathed her existence, her only respite from it being her lessons with Asikei.

                        Talana had grown, too, into a slim girl on the verge of becoming a woman.  She was very girlish in some ways, but also tough, capable and bright, as Asikei pointed out to her.  He praised her for her cleverness, which she felt could not be deserved, as she had no one to compare herself with. Still, she loved the old man and their friendship had grown.  She listened with attention to what he taught. 

                        The land, she knew, was called Ashlon.  It was a wide continent surrounded by the sea.  Beyond the sea, only the bravest sailed, there were stories of other lands, but vast distances had to be crossed in order to reach those shores.  Rumours of lands filled with monsters abounded, and most Ashlonians despised the thought of adventure and discovery, especially if there were no guaranteed profit into the equation.  Most ships hugged the coastlines.  Talana found this interesting, as she had an adventurous spirit within her and scoffed at the idea of monsters.

                        The city where she lived, Tashmar, was named after the great river that ran through it.  She learned that it was the capital of the country, a centre for trade and government.  The river was the highway along which most trade routes ran, which was why the docks were always so busy.  Provinces further out from the capital were administered by great families, headed by a lord or lady.  But the government of the country, the heart of which lay in Tashmar, was ruled by the Dragon Queen.

                        Asikei held Talana spellbound with his tales of the history and legends of Ashlon.  The two were so often intermixed that not even Asikei could separate them.  Talana’s interest was piqued because the tales were at such odds with the little she knew or understood of the world.  The stories that Asikei told were marvelous to listen to, regardless of the truth of their content.  They wove history and legend together into a tapestry of the world that held her breathless.  She loved to listen.  Asikei told her of the Goddess, who made the world and all its creatures, and of her good and peaceful rule through the throne of the Dragon Queen.  This shocked Talana, who, young as she was, was aware of the shocking cruelty of the Dragon Queen, and had never before heard of any goddess.  Talana was not even sure she understood what a goddess was – someone to be worshipped?  Didn’t that make her the Queen?  What she did know was that her life, and the lives of many within her quarter of the city, feared the Dragon Queen with all the virulence and hatred of those whose lives were made wretched from injustice and abuse.  She knew that the hate and the fear were directed at the Palace in the centre of the city, which she had never seen, but only heard about in whispers.  She did know of the palace guards, soldiers who were used for the policing of the city, who executed their duties with vigour.  Their green livery was reviled and feared, for it usually meant that someone was going to be taken away and never seen again.  The thought of the Dragon Queen as a benevolent ruler was absurd to her.  It had always been the opposite.

                        She told Asikei of the stories that her parents had told her, about the practices within the temple of the Dragon Queen, how the Dragon Queen gloried in the sacrifice of prisoners of the city and provinces, in ceremonies of fire and bloodshed.  This was innately repellant to her, and she suspected that she had only been told these stories to keep her coming home; runaways, she was told, were killed like any other criminal.  She had also witnessed the terror on the faces of those citizens hauled away by the palace guards.  Pausing to think, she realised that she had indeed never seen any of those faces again.  How could the Dragon Queen be good?  How could there be a good goddess in the world, if in the temples to the Dragon Queen such evil things took place?  When she asked Asikei about it, he shook his head in sadness.

                        “Our days are evil days, it was not always so.  When the time comes, I will tell you everything, but for now, be content to know that the world has not always been so evil.  There is evil in the heart of Ashlon, and it is growing.  See this pendant?” Asikei unfolded the front of his robe, and displayed a gold pendant that hung about his neck on a long chain.  It was a dragon depicted in profile, encircled, with its feathered wings about it.  At the apex of the design was a golden face, long hair flowing down either side and into the circle around the dragon.  The old man let Talana look at it for a brief moment.  “This represents the true Goddess, and the true Dragon Queen.”  He made a sign, a wave of his old hand, and explained how it was a primitive, but effective spell to ward off evil.  Talana copied his movements and remembered them.  “Tell no one of that, it could get you into terrible trouble.”  He warned.

                        “Are you a sorcerer, then, like Lord Kerdis?”  She asked, linking the mention of the spell to one of the legends Asikei had taught her.

                        “No child, just a man who knows some things, that’s all.  Sorcerers are few in this world, which is a great pity.  We need someone like Lord Kerdis to protect us.”

                        Talana was not really satisfied with Asikei’s words, but he would not be drawn further.  It was time for her lesson to come to an end in any case, and she had to return home lest she get into trouble with her father.

                        “I must leave now, Asikei.”  She said, kissing the old man on the cheek fondly as she rose from the cot that served as her chair.  The musty ‘schoolroom’, one of the rooms above the Cross Keys Tavern, had been their classroom for four years now, and she was intimate with its every detail.  She did not care to think what the management of the establishment thought that she and Asikei were doing up there day after day, but found the familiar cracks in the floor, the rickety chair and the bare window in its ill-fitting frame a comfort.

                        “Yes, go. You have stayed too long and your parents will be worried about you.” Asikei said.  Talana made a face and a rude noise at that remark; he well knew what she thought of her parents, as she had eventually told him of the abuses she had suffered.  It make him angry to think that parents could treat their child that way, stifling her growth, keeping her in the most appalling and inappropriate conditions.  They’d probably give her to the madam of the brothel soon, he thought bitterly, and that might just be the end of the bright and beautiful young girl.  He watched Talana leave the tavern; she glanced up at him from the street below and smiled, before disappearing into the throng of pedestrians.  He relaxed a little.  She was so special, he could see it, but could not quite see how.  But he did know that she was important, to him, to his people.  Only the future would reveal in what way.

                        Talana did not show up to their class the next day, nor the next.  Concerned at her non-appearance, Asikei put out some feelers, asking a few discreet contacts if they could find her.  He felt frantic and helpless, knowing that she had somehow landed in trouble.  After a month with no word at all about her, he gave up looking.  If she was alive, she knew to come to him at the tavern.  It would do them both no good if he nosed around too much.  All he could do was to continue to turn up, day after day, to the tavern, in the hope that she would one day be there.

                                                *          *          *

                        A circle of young men and women surrounded the pair of duellers, whose blades flashed and glinted as they parried and feinted, slashed and stabbed.  The contestents were glistening sweat as they fought, their uniforms slowly darkening with it.  Low cries of encouragement for one or the other came from those encircling the pair, one always on the lookout for those in charge.  They were all officer cadets, in training at the Military Academy in Darr.  One of the contestants in the duel was the son of the Lord of Darr.  As the son of the local Lord, he had to put up with snide and envious remarks from others on occasion, but Darrukin had had enough when Yan, from the province of Marad, had suggested that Darrukin had won the swordsmanship trophy upon name and rank alone.  The duel was the result.  Yan was fast discovering that Darrukin had, in fact, won the trophy through skill.

                        In a final flurry of strokes, Darrukin disarmed Yan and stood, momentarily poised with his sword at Yan’s neck.  Then he dropped the weapon into a more relaxed stance, although he did not feel relaxed at all.  His thoughts and emotions were whirling around him; here he was, supposedly to graduate in the coming week, and he had been reduced to fighting with his own classmates.  Darrukin was not very happy with himself, but could not see any other way out of the slur upon his honour.  He wiped the sweat from his eyes and looked around at the other cadets, a challenge implicit in his stance. Yan drooped, his face burning with shame.  There was a large tear in his uniform, just over his chest.  He looked up at Darrukin.

                        “Would anyone else care to take up the issue?” asked Darrukin, just in case any of the other cadets had thought the way Yan had.  None accepted the offer.  They had seen him defeat Yan, and did not want to share in the other cadet’s humiliation.  Still, Darrukin did not want the matter to end bitterly, so he sheathed his weapon and extended his hand to Yan.  The warning shriek of a falcon came from the sky above, just as the cadet on lookout barked a cough that meant ‘officer coming this way’.  The assembled cadets instantly became a friendly group, discussing mundane military matters such as their next lecture.

                        “Standfast! Morning, sir!”  cried one of the cadets, as the officer approached the group.  They held themselves stiffly at attention, and in silence.  Darrukin hoped that the officer would not notice the state of his uniform, nor Yan’s. 

                        “Good morning, relax.”  said the officer, who surveyed the group carefully.  His eye stayed overly long on Darrukin, but fortunately skipped over Yan.  He did not appear to notice the torn uniform, or ignored it if he did.  Darrukin found himself holding his breath under the officer’s scrutiny.

                        “I thought I saw unsheathed swords here a moment ago.  Might I ask what was going on?” the officer enquired.  The cadets stayed silent for an embarrassingly long moment, until Darrukin realised that he would have to be the one to answer, as usual.

                        “I was just teaching Officer Cadet Yan some of the finer points of swordsmanship, which really needed a demonstration, sir.”  He said, in as confident a voice as he could muster.  He ignored the poisonous look that Yan shot him.  The officer looked at him steadily for a moment, his eyes narrowed.

                        “You do realise that if you are caught duelling, Officer Cadet, you will not graduate.  You will be thrown out of the Academy, son of the Lord or not.  Understood?”

                        “Yes, sir.” Darrukin answered.

                        “Very well, carry on.”  The officer said, and strode off after receiving their salute.

                        Darrukin let out a long sigh of relief, as the other cadets relaxed.  Yan looked sulkily across at Darrukin, fingering the tear in his uniform.  Put a good face on it, and finish this matter, Darrukin thought, as he smiled good-naturedly and stepped up to the beaten cadet.  He once again held out his hand, and this time, Yan took it.  They shook briefly then dropped the contact.

                        “Look, Yan. I know you wanted that trophy, and you are good, but it won’t make a bit of difference once we’ve graduated.”  Darrukin began.

                        “Hmmm.  I apologise for what I said, Darrukin.”  said Yan, still looking as though he felt foolish.  The other cadets looked pointedly at other things while this exchange was going on.  Darrukin kept the calm expression on his face as Yan apologised, knowing that it would keep him off his back.

                        “Thanks, Yan.  Now let’s get out of here before any more officers come sneaking past.”

“Yes, I’ll need to change my uniform – you could have picked a more unobtrusive place to slash it!”  he said, a bit more brightly, reddening as he revealed the large rent that spelled the evidence of his defeat.  Darrukin grinned, and watched Yan march off with a few of the other cadets back to their accommodation.  Little snot-faced whinger, Darrukin thought as he turned away; some cadets don’t deserve their sashes.  He marched back to his own room, and found his falcon, Keesha, waiting for him on the window ledge of the cell-like accommodation.  She cheeped a greeting at him, gave a slight hiccough, and sat watching him, her large, dark eyes tracking his movements.  He offered her his arm and the bird hopped onto it, allowing him to stroke her beautiful blue patterned feathers.  Pets were not allowed at the Academy, either, but Keesha wasn’t really a pet, she was just herself.  Darrukin did not have to find her food, he couldn’t in any case, he was not allowed to leave the Academy grounds.  He was glad that the large falcon seemed to want to be with him.  She climbed up his arm onto his shoulder and nuzzled into his neck affectionately, as Darrukin sat at his desk and finished off some work that he had to do.

                        He had been at the Darr Military Academy for five years, and was about to graduate.  Healthy and extremely fit, his body was lean, muscular and strong from years of hard physical training.  In his time at the Academy, he had learned all the military arts of tactics, operations, strategy, and administration, and had managed to remain sane.  He was an accomplished swordsman, archer and horseman, able to fight on horseback or unarmed on the ground.  It had been a hard five years, he reflected, as he began to straighten up his room, transferring the now sleepy Keesha from his shoulder back to the window ledge.  Darrukin was very glad that soon it would be over, and the attentions of people like Yan would become a thing of the past.

                        He sighed.  Although he was quite prepared for it, and was very good soldiering, he felt somehow that he was not going to lead the way he had been taught to.  He was not the first son or daughter of the Lord of Darr to go through the Academy; his elder sister, Darrsan, had graduated eight years previously and was now a major in their father’s small force.  She was the heir, the one to take over the governership of the province from Lord Darrulan when he died.  Not that she required military training in order to do so, but she was the type of person who wanted to ‘know how things are done’.  He admired his sister for that.  Still, Darrukin felt rather dejected.  In a week he would graduate, be appointed commander of a troop in his father’s army, a home-guard troop resident within the Castle in which the Lord lived.  That he did not mind, but he did seem to lack some career direction.  Smiling at Keesha, Darrukin decided to forget all thoughts of his uncertain future and concentrate on getting his sash.  Things might look up after his graduation, and besides, the next officer that caught him duelling might not be so ‘understanding’.

                                    *          *          *          *

                        Asikei peered once more out from the rickety window to look down into the street.  The past three months had been painful, with Talana having disappeared.  He could not help but wonder at the trouble in which she found herself, although others in his community had simply suggested that she had abandoned him.  He had tried to persuade them that the young woman had so little in her life that his friendship and schooling were very welcome to her, and that she would never give them up willingly.  He hoped desperately that he was right.  In his heart he knew that he was, he could see what kind of a person she was.  He knew that she was very special, someone destined to play an important role in something, but he could still not see exactly what.  Perhaps, she was destined to be a skilful leader the way his sister, Maani, was.  He did not know.

                        Movement caught his eye and relief flooded through him as he caught a glimpse of a slim, young woman.  He rubbed his eyes, just to make sure he was seeing correctly.  It was Talana.  Outside in the street, she looked up at their window and smiled, seeing him peering out.  The old man almost fell over himself as he hurried to the door and down the stairs to let her in.  It was obvious at once that she had suffered dreadfully.

                        She greeted Asikei warmly as he opened the door to the tavern for her, and helped her through the taproom.  She was so happy to see him, happy to be able to walk again, if slowly, and with the aid of a rude crutch.  With one arm around the old man’s shoulders, she managed to hobble up the stairs, half carried by the surprisingly strong old man.  She sighed in relief as he helped her to the cot in the corner of their ‘classroom’, and lay down on it.  Asikei could see the pain plainly on her face.

                        “It is wonderful to see you again, Talana, my child.  What happened?” he enquired gently.  He watched her face, smiling a moment ago, cloud over with a dark frown.  Tears welled up in her eyes and she fought them back, but some splashed down her face.

                        “I tried to run away from home.  I couldn’t stand it any longer – the fighting, the beatings, being constantly frightened of my father.  I just wanted to run and find you.”  She said simply.  Poor child, she did not know where to run to, Asikei thought with a twinge of guilt.  He would have taken her in.  He would take her in, he decided.

                        “Can you come with me tonight?”  he asked.  She shook her head.

                        “No. My father swears that if I ever try to run again, he will kill me.  I am only here because he thinks I am still in the brothel, with Juna covering for me; she’ll tell him I’m in her room, resting.  I don’t dare try again.”

                        “What did he do to you?”

                        “He found me.” There was a tiny catch in her voice, before the words came tumbling out.  “I didn’t plan my escape very well.  When I woke that morning, and heard my father and mother fighting again, something inside me just snapped.  I had to go.”  She continued, relating how she had slipped out of the brothel unnoticed, and run into the streets.  She couldn’t go to the tavern, as Asikei would not have been there – their meetings were in the afternoon.  The docklands were too close to home to be safe for her.  So, without any idea of where she was heading, she just ran.  She ran until she could not run anymore, and even then she walked as fast as she could to get away.  Her movements were quick, and she kept a close watch to see if she was being followed, knowing that when her father discovered that she had not come home, he would come after her.  She did not feel safe.

                        After a time, she began to read the street signs around her in an effort to discover where she was.  They were not much help.  She found a path to the river and followed the banks of the Tashmar, ducking around the docks and shipyards that sat on the banks.  Feeling terribly alone, she tried to put a brave face on her situation and pretend to be one of the thousands of other people she passed, however, as the day drew on, she felt more and more hopeless, more and more lost.  As dusk approached she ducked into a culvert to try to find some sleep.  She did not sleep well, inner alarms warning her whenever someone else came too near, waking her.  She knew she would have to be very careful.

                        The next day was worse.  Talana could always find enough food to eat, and was not hungry, but the nervous strain of running away, and her fear of being captured, was beginning to tell.  She felt haggard, and was almost caught stealing herself breakfast.  She continued to follow the river, past unfamiliar places, into areas of the great city which she had never known.  It was quite overwhelming to her fourteen-year old imagination, the threat of being captured again by her father, the strain of being constantly on the move in territory she was unfamiliar with. Halfway through the morning, she felt a thrill of fear jolt her, like a tiny cry of anger in the distance, and knew somehow that her father had given chase.  She almost fell where she was with fright.

                        From that moment, she knew she had limited time to hide.  It was if she could feel her father closing in on her.  It did not matter that she was miles from anywhere that she had ever known, she could sense that her father knew which direction she had taken.  The knowledge made her forget herself, and she ran blindly, the fear inside her kindling new energy.

                        She ran straight into a squad of palace guards.  Too late she saw the green livery with its silver tracery, she could not stop herself.  Her momentum carried her through them, and she attempted to keep running, but was snagged by one of the men and tackled to the ground.

                        “A runaway, or a thief!”  the sergeant said as they picked her up off the ground and bound her.  “I think you should come with us.”  He leered at her unkindly, and without waiting for any kind of reply led her along the rough streets to the nearest guardhouse, and put her into a holding cell after a rough interrogation.  The sergeant’s eyes narrowed slightly as in a shaking voice she told him who her parents were.  She had never been so frightened in all her life, her mind seemed to have gone numb: she could not comprehend the fact that she had been taken by a squad of palace guards.  Falling into a corner of the cell, she rested against the cool stone wall, looking about her at the other wretched occupants.  That’s it, she thought, I’m going to die.

                        After what seemed like hours in the cell, her situation got worse.  She heard a commotion outside the cell and looked out through the dark metal bars into the guardroom.  Her father had arrived.  She stayed huddled against the wall and tried to stop herself shaking, feeling nauseous.  If she closed her eyes, maybe he would go away, she hoped in vain, but he stayed, entered the cell and roughly picked her up.  Throwing her over his shoulder he marched outside to a small cart, left her bound in the back and lashed the startled donkeys that were paired to the haft into motion.  He did not speak to her, his expression darker than she had ever seen it before, his thick brow creased and angry.  It was a bad sign for her.  Talana made herself as small as possible in the back of the cart and endured the bone-jarring ride until they arrived at the brothel.  Man-handled out of the cart, her father marched her up the stairs to their rooms. She knew what would happen next.

                        Juna, one of the girls, told her later that she had found her at the bottom of the stairs, unconscious.  Several customers had drawn the young prostitute’s attention to the fact that there was apparently one of her company lying dead in the bar area, and she felt she had to investigate.  Bruises were already a livid purple and black on Talana’s face, it appeared as if one blow had narrowly missed severely damaging her eye.  Juna, aided by two of her clients, took the stricken girl up to her room, and then contacted her own mother for help, knowing that Talana’s mother would not really be interested.  Juna’s mother was a healer of sorts, and by the time she arrived with her small kit of medicines, her daughter had discovered that Talana had a broken leg and ribs.  The older woman looked over the badly beaten girl and did what she could, setting the bones of her leg, binding her ribs and cleaning up the worst of her wounds.  Mercifully, Talana did not wake up as her bones were set; but the healer woman was concerned that she might not regain consciousness.  There was nothing more that she could do for the girl.

                        Talana did wake up, eventually, totally disorientated and in horrible pain.  She had no idea where she was and only dimly recognised Juna.  Fear dominated her mind and she could hardly speak for her injuries.  In time, it filtered through to her that her father, so keen to get her back, would not come in to see her, and neither would her mother.  At least she could rest quietly, but her father’s insistence that she be there with him puzzled her, since he totally ignored her now she was back under his control.  She stayed in Juna’s room, hidden in a corner behind a screen, so that she could rest and get better.  It was a long, slow recovery, aided by one of Juna’s clients making her a crutch to walk with once she got better.  She was so grateful to Juna for her help that she promised to steal her some gold jewellery for her and her mother once she was fully recovered.

                        Asikei was furious that a father could do that to his child.  He seemed to grow before her eyes, raising himself into a force that she felt might even be able to fight Akel.  But then, he seemed to shrink back into his normal self.

                        “Lie back and relax, Talana. I must see how you are healing.”  He said.  She did as she was told, watching what he did.  He mumbled something and waved his hands, making them hover over her body, slowly moving from her head to her feet.  Was it her imagination or did a golden glow seem to emanate from them?  She felt much better, and there was a look of concentration on his face that she did not want to disturb, so she said nothing.

                        “You’re healing well, although you’ve had quite serious injuries.  I believe you were concussed, but there does not appear to be any brain damage. Your ribs are almost completely better, and your leg was set well, though I think you will feel it in the future when the weather turns damp, my young friend.  Are you tired?”

                        “Yes.”  She replied, physically and emotionally exhausted.

                        “Then perhaps you had better return to Juna’s room, and I will see you again when you are completely better.”

                        Talana began to complain, but Asikei would not listen. 

                        “Young lady, you are in too much pain to be able to concentrate properly.  You would be a poor student, and I a poor teacher to force you.  Please.”  He added in a gentler tone of voice, “Stay there until you can walk freely again.  It would be better if you did.”  Reluctantly, she agreed.  After a moment, and with Asikei’s assistance, she recovered the crutch and made her way back down the stairs and out onto the street.  She looked sadly at Asikei as he stood in the doorway of the tavern, then turned without a word and limped back down the street.

                        *          *          *          *          *

                           

 

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