The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 2
The Thief of Ashlon

            Darrukin tried to comfort his frantic mother, the Lady Dana.

            “He can’t be too far, mother, it’s only been one night.  I’ll find him.”

            Darrukin’s little brother was missing.  He was named Darrnibus, although everybody called him Nibs.  The last place he had been seen was down by the river bank past the lower home field, the previous afternoon, by one of the Castle’s field workers.  He had been chasing butterflies.

            Nibs was a harmless, loving boy of thirteen, and Lady Dana was terrified that he had fallen into the Sapphire river.  The river was fast flowing and cold, coming directly from the glaciers to the north, and the boy had never learned to swim.  He was often unaware of danger and did not know how to get himself out of trouble.  His warm and loving personality had endeared him to the whole castle community, and to lose him would be a tragedy to them all.  Darrukin hugged his mother, then sent out the order to his troop to form up in the Castle’s large square.  He planned to search the river and its banks.  Lady Dana smiled wanly at her son, then called for one of the staff to find out how the search inside the Castle was progressing.

            Darrukin adjusted the leather jerkin he was wearing , and the shoulder pad where Keesha would often sit.  He made his way through the thick stone Castle, down the grand stairway and outside to main square, into the crisp, early morning air.  The sky was blue and at least the weather was good, bright and sunny.  A knot of fear for his brother gnawed at his stomach as he waited for the groom to fetch his horse.  Whistling for Keesha, he looked up as he heard her screech a reply.  She was a tiny dot in the azure sky, rapidly descending to him.  He held out his forearm for her to land on, and she thudded into him with some force, but the tough leather of his forearm guard protected him.  She peeped an apologetic noise in his ear as she hopped up onto his shoulder.

            His troop would normally be relaxing at this time, home with their families, but were now beginning to form up in the square,dressed warmly as advised.  The ground was damp for it had rained overnight; the thought made Darrukin frown.  His brother may have been out all night in the cold.  What state would he be in?  Spring was close but the winds were often biting as they swept down the Sapphire valley.

He could trust his troop to search thoroughly.  They respected their young troop commander, and liked his foolish younger brother, and were almost as concerned about the boy’s welfare as he.

            Darrukin outlined his search plan to his four corporals, to search both sides of the river, and the reporting channels if they found Nibs.  The grooms were bringing out the horses, and the soldiers were mounting up after receiving their rations.   The young Lieutenant eyed the sky, its clear blue was now edged with dark cloud on the horizon.  He frowned; the season brought fickle weather, and the Sapphire river had already flooded more than once that winter.  The spring rains had not yet come, and he hoped that the clouds creeping over the horizon would not bring rain.

             A gathering crowd of onlookers assembled by the huge wooden gates to the Castle gave a rough cheer as they moved through the main gate on horseback.  The Castle was an enormous granite structure with thick walls and battlements, and a large central square.  It housed not only the Lord and his family, but the families of those soldiers attached to the Castle, and all who worked there.  It was a walled city, the centre of provincial government as well as trade.

            The troop kicked their horses on, and, led by Darrukin, headed t off on their search.  It would only be a short ride, a few miles through the lower fields towards the river.  Field workers put down their tools and watched the troop pass.  The fields surrounding the Castle grew most of its food; corn, wheat, vegetables, vineyards, and herds of cattle, sheep and horses.  They provided the staples needed by the residents of the Castle.  For sport and extra food, the forest that abutted the lower fields and the river provided wild game.  Looking across at the dark forests in the distance, Darrukin hoped fervently that they would not have to search too far into it.  The trees were dense and it was very easy to get lost in there if you strayed from the paths that wound through them.  The bare trees looked unfriendly in winter.  Despite his misgivings, as he watched his troop following steadily, corporals with their squads, and felt confident that despite the cold and the recent flooding, Nibs would be found quickly.

            The field where his brother was last seen lay fallow, awaiting turning and a new crop next season.  The field hands who had seen Nibs, on their way from the river to higher meadows to ready them for spring planting, had reported that he had been chasing butterflies close to the riverside.  Darrukin thought it a bit early for butterflies.  The troop split into squads and began the search, fanning out.  If Nibs was found, they would report to the sergeant at the Castle, taking the boy straight there. Signal flags would be raised on the battlements to let the other squads know the status of the search – the Castle would be easily seen by all the squads wherever they searched, perched as it was on high ground on the edge of the Sapphire valley.

            Riding with Buel’s section, he quickly crossed the fields towards one side of the river, the knot of worry in his stomach tightening suddenly.  The squad fanned out.  Behind him, he could hear the two squads on the other side of the river begin their efforts.

            The horses found it hard going, tramping through the soft, wet ground, still boggy after recent flooding over winter.  There had been an unusual amount of water in the Sapphire river lately, glacial melt that had swollen the river to high above its normal flood, causing serious concern amongst the farms and villages nearby.  The floods had caused some stock losses and fence damage, but so far no lives had been lost.

            After several hours fruitless searching, Darrukin felt justified in taking the reiverbank area of the search himself.  It was definitely the nastiest area to search.  He did not want to really believe that Nibs had drowned, but in taking the riverbank, was preparing himself to face that eventuality.  Nibs could not swim, and had no sense of danger.  Darrukin’s lips compressed into a thin line as he kicked his horse on and moved ahead of the other soldiers.  The wind was beginning to pick up from the west, and the clouds gathered overhead, staining the blue sky with their dark grey.  Darrukin could smell rain in the air, and the knot of worry in the pit of his stomach grew.  He approached a copse of trees along the bank.

            Keesha suddenly launched herself from his shoulder with a shriek, and flew straight and low away from him.  The bird and he had been inseparable since his graduation, and he did not have to hide her anymore.  She pulled up suddenly, landing in the lower branch of a tree swept with flood debris.  Puzzled, Darrukin also halted; checking behind him he saw that he was well ahead of the soldiers, who searched the area more thoroughly behind him.  The young officer extended his arm to Keesha, inviting her to take it.  She did not move, but to his surprise just cheeped at him instead.  He tried again, but the bird ignored him, looking around her with her large, sharp eyes.

            Darrukin dismounted his grey stallion, boots squelching into the mud, observing the flood damage to the riverbank.  It was quite a steep bank at this point, lightly wooded, the area used for grazing, to the best of his knowledge.  Uprooted trees and branches washed from further upstream had been strewn along both banks, and the remains of a sheep’s carcass lay scattered about, obviously pulled apart by scavenging creatures.  Wool and bone lay about in sodden lumps.  The noise of the river was quite loud, its rushing, fast-flowing waters tumbling past.  Darrukin looked up as a light rain began to fall, then continued his search on foot, leading his horse past Keesha, looking about with wide eyes.  He could not remember such a high flood before.  As he rounded a bend, the bank began to give way – he jumped back, pulling his horse back from the collapsing bank.  Steadying himself, he saw that a large portion of theriver bank had been completely washed away.  Further ahead, a broken cliff of sandy rock, painted in river silt, was now exposed.  It was above the water line now, but the mud at the foot of the small cliff was still wet.  He looked down at the fine, silty brown mud, and scrambled closer.  Footprints.  Footprints which ran down from the top of the sandy bank towards the cliff face.  Darrukin’s pulse began to race as he followed the prints to the base of the cliff.  He could see a small crack near the base, and scrambled at it.  By this time, he had forgotten his horse and Keesha, but she watched him and screeched.

            The split in the rock face was only a slim one, but he could see the footprints that went through it, and as he looked in, saw that the space opened out inside the cliff.  It was barely enough for a thirteen year old boy to squeeze through, he thought as he tried to push his twenty-two year old, and very muscular, body through the same crack.   Halfway into the attempt he thought he was never going to make it, and would be found by his troop, stuck, unable move or call for help.  The embarrassment that would result from that particular scenario was enough to compel him to try harder to squeeze through, and scraping his chest, he managed to slide through the split sideways, getting muddy and wet in the process.  He did not care, as he could see in the dim light that small footprints led away into the darkness, clearly defined against the silty floor of the cave.  Darrukin stood up, realising that he was in an underground chamber of some size, and let his eyes adjust to the darkness.

            “Nibs!” he shouted, as he moved forward into the darkness, and then called again.  “Nibs, are you there?”  he was certain that the boy was, as the footprints had led into, but not out of, the cave.  He hoped that his brother was wearing something warm as it was cool in the dark cave.  Shouting his brother’s name once again, he thought he heard the sound of giggling, but couldn’t quite tell from which direction.  Finding the wall of the cave, he walked forward into the gloom, calling again, listening.  The giggling became louder, and with one hand touching the cave wall, he followed the sound, glancing back at the entrance to the cave to estimate how far he had come.  It was a tiny crack of light against the blackness.

            Darrukin continued, and could clearly hear his brother now.  At least, the voice he heard was his brother’s, but how could it be?  Nibs was talking sense!

            “I will, my Lady, I will.  The Guardian will come and your daughter will be found.”

            Darrukin stopped, confused. Was it his brother?  Moving forward towards the voice, he could feel the cave opening up before him.

            “Foun’ dis!” he heard his younger brother say, in a more familiar tone.  “Foun’ dis!” the boy repeated, scurrying in the dark towards Darrukin, and flinging himself towards him.

            “Nibs, are you alright?” Darrukin cried, breathing a sigh of relief.  Nibs did not seem to be hurt, if he was up and about.  The boy wrapped himself around his older brother, and only seemed a little wet and cold.  Darrukin pulled off his leather jerkin and tried to dress Nibs in it in the dark, a nearly impossible task . Once it was achieved, Nibs grabbed his brother’s arm and repeated his words with some impatience.

“Come now! Now! Lady wants you! Now, now!”  he said, pulling at Darrukin and pushing him until they rounded a corner in the cave.    Puzzled, Darrukin allowed himself to be pushed and pulled, and could see a faint glow ahead in the darkness.  Perhaps there was a tunnel leading up ground? His jaw dropped as he saw clearly what was making the faint light.

            “Foun’ dis!” cried Nibs triumphantly.  There, glowing on the wall of the cave in an eerie fashion, was the source of the chamber’s strange light.  The glow filled the chamber with a luminescent radiance that was like nothing Darrukin had ever seen before.  It was writing on the wall, an inscription in the stone lit with glowing grains of sand that were the fabric of the stone itself.  Slowly, in awe, Darrukin approached the words with his brother, and reached forward to touch it.  It was not hot, and felt like the native rock.  Stepping back, he read the writing, which seemed to be in an ancient style.

 

                        To the Knight marked as myne,

                        Thou art the Guardian

                        Thou hast a duty to the Goddess, a Queste

                        For her protection

                        Honour her, Love her and Help her restore

                        Through the Heart of the Dragon

 

            Darrukin had absolutely no idea what the words meant.  He looked at Nibs in the soft light, who suddenly shrieked and pointed to the glowing message.

            “Loo’!”

            Darrukin’s head snapped back up to look at the message.  Dismay clutched at him, the message was beginning to disintegrate in front of their eyes.  The glow of the grains burned bright, then puffed out one by one, exhausted of the magic that had held them there for millenia.  The letters crumbled off the wall in a soft, dry hiss of sand.  Darrukin read the rapidly fading message, trying to commit it to memory desperately, but all too soon it was gone.  The brothers were plunged into complete blackness.  Nibs started to cry, his face buried against his brother’s chest.

            “Pretty lady gone! Pretty lady gone!”  He murmured, again and again.

            Darrukin picked him up, the boy being small for his age, and felt for the wall.  The brothers made their way around the cave chamber, the elder trying to comfort the younger as they rounded the corner and saw the crack of light that was the entrance to the cave.  Shadows passed in front of the entrance and Darrukin could hear voices calling out for him.

“Ho! I’ve found him!”  he answered as he trudged with wet footsteps towards the light.  Nibs jumped down and in a flash had run to and through the crack, while Darrukin took a moment longer to squeeze his frame through, much to the amusement of his waiting squad.

            Once out, Darrukin saw Nibs sitting up on his big grey horse.  The boy was softly stroking the horse’s mane, which the stallion seemed to be enjoying, while muttering and talking to the horse in his usual nonsensical way.  Darrukin rubbed a sore spot on his chest, no doubt the few hairs he’d had on his chest had now been rubbed off.  That was alright, he thought ruefully, it could have been worse.  His soldiers congratulated him as he walked over to the grey stallion.

            “Alright soldiers – we’re finished now, we can go home.  Buel, ride ahead and report to the sergeant, quick as you can.”  He said as he mounted up behind Nibs.  The young officer located Keesha, sitting in a nearby tree.  He held out his arm for her and she obediently hopped onto it and up to his shoulder.

            “You difficult creature.”  He whispered to her, smiling.  As one, the squad moved off the river bank and up to the meadows above, making their way back to the Castle as rain began to fall a little more steadily. 

 

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