The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 4
The Thief of Ashlon

            A few bawdy sailors made inexpert lunges at Talana as she passed them in the taproom below the brothel.  Their drunkenness made them easy to avoid as a general rule.  One managed to grab her around the waist and pull her to him, breathing alcoholic fumes into her face as he made a lewd suggestion.  She laughed in his face and aimed her knee expertly; he went down to the jeers of his mates.  The young woman stalked off haughtily; she did not like men, except old Asikei.  The ones she was familiar with were all grunting brutes like her father, who had no respect for her sex.  Talana knew she could out-wit, out-run and probably out-fight most of the men she encountered, as she frequently had to, living as she did in a brothel.  

            She escaped from the brothel without further incident, wiping the beer-soaked straw off her feet and onto the cobblestones outside as she left.  Walking slowly away from her home, she wanted to have a good day out, thieving what she could, and returning only when she absolutely had to.  Akel and her mother, Bel, were arguing over something again.  The young woman preferred not to be around at such times, although she had learned her lesson eight years previously and always returned to the brothel by nightfall.  She had never tried to run away again, though she fervently wished to do so; the threat of her father was enough to keep her tied there.

            Recently it seemed as if Akel and Bel’s fights had grown more frequent, and, they seemed to abruptly stop if they realised that Talana was in earshot.  She wondered why, vaguely, but then decided that she did not particularly care.  She had done everything she could to make her life as bearable as possible, even trying to talk sensibly with her father about leaving.  It had not worked, and she had received a blow across the face from him in reply.  It seemed as if he kept her there just to enjoy her misery.

            Akel was not about when Talana returned to the brothel later on in the day, before nightfall.  She breathed a sigh of relief and set about making dinner for herself in the greasy kitchen.  She made enough for her mother as well.  Loella, the madam, came into the kitchen and made an unpleasant face at her, knowing it was useless to even try to solicit Talana for her establishment, even though she was desperate for girls under the age of thirty.  Talana always brushed her off, so the painted madam stalked out again.  Finishing her preparations, the young woman climbed the stairs with a tray, pausing to see if her mother was in.  The door was open, which meant that Bel was not ‘entertaining’ anyone at the moment, so she went inside.  She found her mother looking tiredly into the dressing-table mirror, doing her hair.

            “Has father been hitting you again?”  she asked when she saw the deep black bruise on her mother’s cheek, and her puffy, half-closed eye.  Her mother nodded slowly.

            “And what have you been up to that has your father in such a flap?” the older woman asked, “He’s been going crazy all day because of you, I don’t know why.”   Her mother gave her a tightly malicious grin, aimed at Akel, not her daughter.  Talana felt a shiver go down her spine.  What had her father found out?

            “What has he said?”  she asked, her blood screaming through her veins at the thought that Akel might have found out about Asikei.  She may as well be dead already, and Asikei, for that matter, too.  She turned away from her mother and unconsciously made the sign to ward off evil that Asikei had taught her.  Unfortunately, her father chose that moment to come storming in, and saw her do it.  He flinched fractionally, but then loomed murderously close.  His face was livid with rage, his bushy black beard bristling.

            “YOU!”  He yelled at her, making her cringe with the force of his voice, “You little bitch, where did you learn that?”  He looked at her with a hate so intense that she knew there was no reasoning with him.  She appealed mutely to her mother, too terrified to speak out for herself.  Bel stood up, anger sparking up within her at Akel’s behaviour.

            “Why don’t you just shut up and get out?”  The older woman snapped, reaching for something to throw at him.  There was no love between the pair, Bel as heartily sick of Akel as Talana was. 

            The brutal man realised her intent, took a step forward and punched Bel so hard that she spun and fell to the floor.  She lay motionless.  Talana crouched by her mother’s side, but could detect no breath, no life.  Anger boiled up within her and she stood up, daring to face him.

            “What do you care, father,”  She screamed derisively, “You’ve nothing to do with me!”.  She spat at him, hitting him in the face, her fury barely contained.  With a speed that was blinding for such a heavily set man, Akel launched himself at her and grabbed her by the throat.  With a look of pure evil on his face he began to squeeze slowly, choking her.

            “I ought to kill you here and now for that.”  His voice was low and vicious,“Did the old man Asikei teach you that?”  He continued, grinning awfully as he saw the reaction in her eyes.  She could say nothing, being strangled as she was, but her anger gave way to real fear in the face of his knowledge.

            “Didn’t I forbid you to learn? Yes, I know about the schooling…I know all about your friendship with that crazy old man…He taught you that blasphemous sign, didn’t he!”  he shouted at her, pulling her close ot his face.  Still holding her, he stepped back arms length away, and used his free hand to slap her across the face, hard.  “Asikei is going to die for this.”  He said coldly, before releasing her neck and grabbing both her shoulders, shaking her so hard that she thought she would die.  She crumpled to the floor as he suddenly released his grip.

            “I’ve followed you, and I’ve found out what you’ve been up to.  Asikei is being arrested right now, criminal that he is.”  Akel finished grimly, a smug note of satisfaction in his voice.

            In pain as she was, Talana stirred.  Before he could react she leapt up off the floor and threw her whole weight behind an unexpected punch to his nose.  She felt the crunch of bone under her knuckles.

            Akel pinioned her arms against her sides and ignored the punch, propelling her out of the room.  Pushing her so that she all but fell down the rickety stairs, he laughed savagely as he followed, then forced her outside the door of the brothel.  On the filthy cobbled street stood a small section of palace guard, holding the white-haired old man.  Akel dragged her beside him as he approached the squad leader.

            “That’s him, that’s the one!” Akel shouted.

            “I’m not deaf!”  the squad leader muttered to himself in response, and ordered the guards to take Asikei away.  Talana screamed, and tried to free herself of her father in a desperate effort to help Asikei, to try to get him away from the guards.  But Akel held her too firmly. She turned on her father to beat him as hard as she could, trying to inflict as much damage as she could against this hated man.  She had seen the look of horror on Asikei’s face, and knew that she would never see him alive again.  Akel  winded her, and she dropped to the ground.  Struggling for breath, she looked up after the squad and saw Asikei’s face, white with fear.  Their eyes locked, and for a brief moment she could see strength and vigour within the old man.  He smiled briefly at her, his hands rapidly signing a benediction, the ward against evil.  Talana did not see her father flinch once more.  Her tears blinded her as Asikei was lost to her, pulled away by the squad and into the crowd.

            She did feel the heavy cuff that her father delivered to the back of her head.  It all but knocked her senseless as he scooped up her thin body.  She was dragged inside, tucked under her father’s hairy arm, and carried up the stairs back to her mother’s room.  Bel still lay motionless on the floor.  Akel dumped Talana on the bed and turned away, swearing under his breath, as if uncertain as to what to do.

            Something within him resolved itself.  He turned back to her with violence on his face.  She tried to scramble off the bed, but he caught her.  Desperately she scratched and bit and kicked with all her might, but to no avail.  He was simply too strong, and pinned her up against the dressing table, pounding one fist into her body as he held her with the other.  Fumbling behind her with her mother’s things, she endured the beating, searching frantically for something to defend herself with.  Her fingers touched on the smooth metal shaft of a long hat-pin, which she swiftly thrust with all her strength into her father’s face.  He screamed, released her immediately and staggered backwards, clutching his left eye.  Blood streamed between his fingers.  Talana aimed a strong kick to his groin, which brought him to his knees, then, as hard as she possibly could, she lashed out with her foot, catching him under the jaw and making his head snap backwards.  She only heard the thud of his body hitting the floor; by that time she was running out the door of the brothel.

            The young woman did not stop to consider her situation, she just ran.  She ran for her life, from her past life, bolting through the streets.  She flew past strangers, drawing surprised looks and backwards glances as she pushed her way through.  Unwittingly, she headed for the docklands, to where she had first met Asikei.  There, under the eaves of a dark warehouse, upon a pile of rotting straw, she collapsed and cried herself to sleep in the darkness.

            In the morning, she woke stiff and sore.  It was early, the sun just over the horizon.  Few people were about, except for the early morning river fishermen eager to start their day’s catch.  A few merchant ships pulled away from the wharfs, the orders of the ships’ masters shrill in the clear morning air.  Sleepy birds twittered to each other in the few stunted trees around the docklands.  With surprise, Talana noted that these trees were heavy with buds about to burst, and realised that it was spring.  As if on cue, a beam of golden sunlight struck her full in the face, as the sun climbed over the city into the sky.  Standing up and brushing the dank straw from her thin dress, she shivered in the chilly morning air.  She walked over to the nearest wharf and sat down on its edge, her hair catching the light and turning gold with it.  She gazed into the water.  It was dark and fast-flowing, bits of rubbish collecting in eddies.  It was a wide river, the Tashmar, and must have been beautiful outside of the city, upstream.  Sighing heavily, she sat on the wharf, trying to decide what to do.  She would never return to the brothel.  She would never ever see her father again.  She hoped that she had killed him with her kick, but she could not be sure.  Bel was most likely dead, she thought grimly.  It was strange, Talana realised, that in all her life that she could remember, her father had dominated her with fear and she could not wait to get away.  Now, she knew she would never go back, but she did not know what to do with herself.  Smiling at the absurdity of it, she stood.

            She knew that she had to get away entirely from this district, somehow.  If her father was still alive, he would search for her.  He would hunt her down and bring her back.  But for the moment she was free.  She revelled in the new sensation.  Free!  She would never let herself be dominated in that way again; she would evade her father and cheat him of that dominance.  The thought made the young woman feel good, and the sense of freedom swept her up, dizzily.  Unselfconsciously, she leapt about and danced, to the astonished stares of the early dockyard workers.

            Talana decided to explore the city of Tashmar, get clear away from anywhere she had once known.  She had only ever been familiar with the poor quarter of the city, but according to Asikei, it was much, much larger.  Setting off, she felt strong and adventurous, her new found sense of freedom making her feel so good that she even refrained from stealing herself breakfast from a street vendor she passed.

            The city was much larger than she had ever imagined.  She did know that traders from all over Ashlon, gathered in the city, but she soon discovered that the city held much more than that.  The young woman walked through the city a little self-consciously, going at a slow pace that allowed her to duck out of sight and not draw attention to herself.  Gradually, the houses and streets became cleaner and more affluent, their occupants obviously richer.  Gardens and parks began to intersperse the houses, things which she had not seen before.  She marvelled at the fountains that adorned the lawns of the rich mansions she passed, and the beauty of the well-cared for gardens.  She walked, and walked and walked, seemingly forever, through the bright day and into the dusk.  She ate whenever she found some food she could steal, pick-pocketed a few coins here and there.  As she walked through the more affluent suburbs of the city she became aware of the looks she was getting as she passed through, people frowned at her, looked down upon her, and expected her to move aside for them if they shared a footpath.  There were not many other poor people around, only a few beggars, and she observed that they were moved on by palace guards, if they were in the vicinity.  She frowned when she saw this; but knew better than to try to interfere.

            Night was falling, her second night of freedom.  She did not know where to sleep, but kept walking, passing a busy marketplace that showed no sign of slacking off trade as the daylight faded.  A block or so down from the market place, Talana read the words ‘Public Baths’ on a large and impressive stone building.  She paused and looked down at herself, at her filthy clothes and her ragged hair.  To be clean! A quick plan formed in her mind, and she ran back to the marketplace to execute it.  With the agility born of a hungry stomach, she snatched a blue dress from a clothes stall, unseen.  The boots that followed the dress looked comfortable, but Talana could not be certain of the size of her feet.  A few extra coins found their way into a newly acquired purse just to complete the look.  The young woman ducked into a deserted laneway,  and did not hesitate to strip off, throw away her old clothes and get into her new ones.

            Breezing through the entrance to the baths as though she owned them, her excitement grew.  She could not wait to get properly clean.  Paying a few coins to an attendant, she found the steam baths, with very few people in them at that time of evening.   The changerooms were guarded, so she did not need to hesitate about leaving her new clothes unattended, but donned the robe that a sour-faced man offered her, and stepped into the hottest steam room she could find.  Stiflingly hot, sweat began to pour from her after a few seconds, as she found a vacant bench and burned her bare bottom as she pulled off the robe sat down on it.  Other patrons were quietly sweating to themselves, hardly lifting their gaze to consider the naked woman.  Steam gushed and hid them, making them vague figures, but occasionally she could hear the murmur of voices, male and female.

            Talana stayed in the room as long as she could stand, appalled by the amount of black grime that was oozing from her pores.  Finding the main baths, she plunged into sweet, scented waters, the initial shock of entering the water making her gasp.  The grime of years was washed away as she scrubbed and scrubbed at her body.  The recent bruises she had suffered became startlingly apparent as the in-ground dirt washed off, but despite the livid marks she delighted in the freedom and warmth of the waters as she cleaned herself.   She could not help but play.  Deciding to attack her hair, she vigorously scrubbed at her scalp, ejecting at least one colony of lice or fleas, she could not tell which.  In the past, she had combed her hair whenever she could, usually with her fingers, but it was still knotty and dirty.  Great lengths of it came out in her hands as she soaped it up and rubbed it between her palms, massaging and making the bubbles form up into a great, foamy wig.   She soaped and rinsed, ran her fingers through her hair and pulled out yet more hunks, then soaped again, waiting until she could feel her hair squeak under her fingers before finally rinsing off.  So much hair had come out she wondered if she had any left on her head.  At last, she felt clean, and left the bath with a spring in her step.

            Her fingers were prune-like as she dressed herself under the watchful gaze of the room attendant.  She felt marvellously spoiled by the bath.  As she dressed, she caught sight of herself for the first time since she had run from the brothel.  She reached out to touch the image, incredulous, then ran her hands down her body.  Her large blue eyes were wide with surprise at the figure they perceived.  Not short and dark like her parents, nor with the swarthy skin of her father, she stood tall and willowy.  Her hair was a light brown, almost gold, and streaked with blonde where the sun caught it most.  Pale skin revealed clearly the dark purple bruises her father given her.  She could even see the scars left by repeated skinned knees and scraped shins.  Her rough hands touched her cheeks.  She was amazed by the shape of her face, distinctly oval, with well-defined cheekbones and a petite nose.  Her mother’s mirror had been old and not very effective, the image it had shown had been distorted.  She stretched her swollen mouth over her teeth in a smile, wincing slightly as a cut on her lower lip reopened.  Her teeth were all good and all still there, she was glad to see; more a function of her contraband diet and ability to duck her father’s blows than any other measure.  She felt revived.  Although very much still scared of her father, she felt new strength enter her as she finished dressing in her new clothes.  She looked completely different to the rag-clad beggars and people of the area where she grew up.  Collecting her purse, she left the building, feeling uplifted.  If she had known any decent songs to sing, she would have sung.

            As night was now full upon her she considered trying to find a place to sleep.  She did not want to draw attention to herself in any way, and could not think of what to do but to keep walking.  So, she walked. Through the night, slowly, she made her way through streets that gradually thinned of people and then were empty, save for the darting of a cat in the blackness.  She tried to make it seem as if she were heading purposefully towards her ‘home’, to make it appear to a casual observer as if she knew where she were going.  The truth was she was lost, but was following a major route as delicately as she could, leaving the main road to take a minor one and go parallel to it, before rejoining it blocks later, keeping out of sight of squads of palace guards and places that seemed too crowded or noisy.  Judging by the increase in the public buildings she saw, she was coming to the business heart of the city, where great stone buildings housed large trading companies, banks and businesses and service shopfronts appearing.  When she got too tired to continue, she found a deep doorway in a side alley, and sat, hoping that she would not be seen in the gloom.  It did not take long for her to fall asleep, and catch a few much-needed hours of rest before the early morning dawn light woke her again.

            She trudged on at first light, avoiding any of the workers in the great building where she has slept the night before.  The shoes she wore did not fit very well, and the blisters she had accumulated the day before were sore, her toes cramped.  Hunger had never been a problem for her, as accomplished a thief as she was.  She was confidant that she could steal whatever she needed to survive, a fact that had been the butt of many jokes between herself and Asikei, as he had tried to persuade her that stealing was not appropriate behaviour for a young lady.  He did, however, concede that she needed to survive somehow. 

            As the morning wore on, she judged that she was leaving the business centre of the city behind, with its growing crowds of people on their way to work.  She passed a library and a courthouse, and saw rich apartments and mansions.  She hesitated in front of the richer houses, wondering if she should apply for work within them as a domestic servant or nanny, but did not have quite the courage to go into any of them.  The fear of her father kept her walking past any other opportunity she might find within the city.  She kept walking, feeling out of place and disconcerted as the sun reached its zenith, blazing down upon her head.

            It was mid-afternoon by the time she entered the city square.  Even Talana had heard of the square, it was where any great public event was held, gatherings on festival days, performances given by touring players.  Recently a great platform had been erected at one end of the square.  A raised dais of stone, intricately carved, sat atop that.  There was a processional stairway jutting out from its middle, and the superstructure for the royal palanquin.  On this day the rich fabric canopy was absent. 

            What struck Talana was the immense size of not only the dais, but of the square itself.  Figures at the opposite end were small and blurry to her long-sighted eyes, and the glare of the gleaming white expanse of paving hurt.  It looked a mile across if anything.

            The square was separated from surrounding buildings on the far end by a sturdy fence, stone on its bottom half, with large wooden posts with carved knobs on top.  She could not see it properly and frowned, stepping out into the square, careful to avoid attention as best she could.  There was something wrong with the fence that she could not identify, so she began to walk through the thin crowds of people to get a better view.  With an intense feeling of foreboding, she picked up her pace, and it did not take too long  to reach the other side.  Talana’s frown deepened as she realised that what she had thought were carved wooden knobs on top of the fenceposts turned out to be something quite different.  She stopped short, feeling suddenly very ill.

            What she discovered were gruesome, severed heads, fixed upon the tall pikes.  Lined up in a macabre display, some bare skulls cleaned of flesh by hungry scavenger birds, others with their eyes picked out and hideous lipless grins.  The heads gaped down at the people in the square, screaming a silent warning of the power of the Dragon Queen. 

            A flash of white and grey at the corner of her eye made Talana turn.  Her eyes widened in horror and her heart gave a lurch.  Hardly daring to believe what she saw, she sprinted towards a newly fixed pike and looked more closely.  Thick, black blood matted the grey beard, and flies buzzed eagerly around the trail of blood that smeared the pike.  Asikei’s head was mounted atop the wooden pole, the terrified expression on his face in death a testament to the evil he had warned her about.  She tried to cry out, too shocked to make a sound, but the world began to spin and drop away from under her, and as she held her churning stomach, she collapsed.

 

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