The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 5
The Thief of Ashlon

            Talana did not feel herself hit the smooth stone of the city square, nor did she feel the strong hands that lifted her unconscious form away from the grisly scene.  Darrukin carried the limp young woman in his arms, closely following and old, stooped figure.  The old woman turned to see if he was still behind her, as they made their way through the crowds, and motioned for him to hurry.

            “Yes, Maani.”  He said in a low voice to the woman.  She gave him a half-smile and looked ahead once more.  They had been in the city square to confirm rumours that had gone around the day before that Asikei had been taken by the palace guard.  Maani had wanted to see for herself; she knew that if he had been taken, he would end up as a skull on a pike.  Darrukin watched her back, how she held her pain to herself at their discovery, how she kept going once she realised the identity of the young woman he now carried.  Asikei was her brother, and they had been close.  When they had found Asikei’s head the young officer heard what could have been a sob from Maani, and had seen her eyes film over with moisture.  But she knew better than to display emotion out in the open, where the influence of the Dragon Queen was very great.  He admired her courage in containing her grief.

            Soon they arrived at a small mule-cart, a young boy in the driver’s seat.  They placed Talana carefully in the back, on a pile of hay, and then they jumped in themselves.  The boy whipped the mules into action and they trotted off, careening down the streets at an increasingly bone-shaking pace.

            Darrukin cradled Talana’s head in his lap.  She was still unconscious.  He knew her name only because he had heard Maani hiss it as she saw the young woman faint away at the sight of Asikei’s head.    He could clearly see the bruises marking her face and arms; what she had been through he had no idea.  She moaned as the cart crossed a particularly large bump, but did not wake up.  Better for her not to, he thought, as she would be totally disorientated.

            He was only starting to orientate himself after joining Maani and her underground church the week before.  He had left his family home with great reluctance, but also with the knowledge that he was, as his mother put it, making the right choice.  Mothers were always right, somehow, he thought.  His was, in any case.  The journey to the city, once the contacts that Tafta had established had been ready to receive him, had taken only two weeks.  His big, grey stallion had been a fast mount, and he had travelled lightly.  Darrukin’s escort had turned away within a day’s ride of the city, and he had forged on alone to face he knew not what.

            The cart pulled up in a dirty laneway, to the north of the great square and in a poorer area of town.  Maani climbed down from the cart and helped him with Talana.  The young woman was just beginning to stir and cried out as she was moved, but did not fully wake up.  Once again, Darrukin had to swing her up into his arms, but he did not mind this, for she was very light for all that she was quite tall.  Maani guided him to the shabby back door of an old wood and stone house, and waited for her knock to be answered.  A little girl with her hair in pig-tails peered around the corner of the door, and smiled as she let the old woman in.  Her dark, inquisitive eyes stared at the unconscious woman in Darrukin’s arms, but after a heartbeat she led them down a dark stairway into a musty cellar.  It held no light, but Maani knew what she was looking for.  She waved goodbye to the little girl, who scampered back up the stairs, then the old woman pushed at a certain stone in the wall of the cellar.  It slowly gave under her hand, with a slow, grating sound erupting from the floor.  Darrukin watched as an entrance appeared in the middle of the cellar floor.  A flight of stairs led downwards into the network of natural caverns in which the underground church made its home.  He carefully descended the steps, trying not to jostle his charge too much.  Maani slipped through behind him, and with finality, the stone portal behind them shut.  Talana moaned once more, a slightly more awake sound.

            He followed Maani down a long tunnel which headed into the earth.  It was cold and airless.  A short time later they reached a fork in the tunnel, and in silence, they chose the tunnel that led still further down.  There was, however, a dim glow in the distance, and a low murmur of voices could be heard.  The trio eventually reached a vaulted and spacious chamber, a huge natural cavern in the limestone beneath the city.  Torches blazed and fires were burning in hearths, keeping the dampness of the stone at bay and lending light and warmth to the cavern.  Descending into the cave, Maani and Darrukin nodded greetings to several other members of the church, who were about their normal business in this communal area.  A youngster came racing up to Maani and handed her a cane of rosewood, which she gratefully received and leaned appreciatively on as they moved.  She did not like to go without her cane, but on the topside of the city it was recognised as a symbol of authority in a church that was outlawed.  Together, Darrukin and Maani made their way through the large cavern and off into a lateral tunnel.

            Reaching a sleeping quarters area of the confusing network of tunnels and passages, they came to a spare room, where Maani quickly fixed a bed for the young woman Darrukin still held in his arms.  Talana was almost awake, and had begun to thrash around, such as she could, making it difficult for him to hold her.  He thought she must be having a bad dream they way she began to murmur and let out small whimpering noises.  He put her gently down on the bed as Maani stepped out of the room to call for some attendants, but Talana reacted to the movement by throwing her arms about his neck and clinging on to him.  He lay her half on the bed and sat down on it, trying to lever himself out of her still unconscious embrace.

            “Don’t leave me alone!”  Talana suddenly cried out, holding him all the harder.  Not knowing what else to do nor how to react, he continued to hold her.  He did not want to admit it to himself, but her cry, made with such feeling of abandonment and loss, touched a chord deep within him.  She looked quite fragile and vulnerable.

            She woke up.  The noise of someone screaming had woken her.  Her body jolted completely awake as she felt arms about her, and realised that her own arms were around someone’s neck.  Stiffening, she quickly pulled away from the embrace, and found herself in a bed.  Breathing in great, panicky gasps, her eyes adjusted to the dim light of the room.  Where was she?   The figure of a man sat on the bed beside her.

            “Who are you?  What do you want from me?”  She said in a hoarse whisper to the unknown figure.  Was he real?  He might be part of some dream.  She pulled a sheet about herself protectively, gathering it in front of her to hide behind.

            “My name is Darrukin.”  The young man said.  He suddenly realised that he was still sitting on her bed, very close to her, and that it was not exactly comforting to the young woman.  Slowly, he stood up, not wanting to alarm her any more than he already had.

            “Why did you have your arms around me?  Where am I?” she said, a little more confidently as the young man moved off her bed.  Her panic began to fade, but she was still confused.  At that moment, a wizened old woman with a rosewood cane entered the room.

            “She’s just woken up.”  The young man said to the older woman before turning back to her.  “I shall leave you with Maani.  Don’t be alarmed, Talana, we are friends of Asikei’s.” he said, leaving the room.  As he walked out, her breath caught, but she did not speak.

            “Hello, Talana, I am Maani.  I run this place.  Would you like to know where you are?” said the old woman, taking Talana’s attention.

            “Yes, Maani.”  She said, eyes narrowing.  The old woman looked familiar, as was her name somehow.  Asikei!  This woman looks like Asikei, she realised.  Tears welled in her eyes as she remembered the old man.  “You…are related to Asikei?”  she ventured, before the old woman could begin to tell her where she was.

            “Very quick of you to notice. I am his sister.” she said, a tiny shake in her voice.

            “Then you know, do you, what happened to him?” Talana said, and saw Maani frown and nod, the old woman’s eyes misting over with tears as well.  “It was my fault, if I hadn’t been his friend, he would still be alive.  My father drives away or kills anyone who tries to get close to me.” she added.  How would Asikei’s sister react to her brother’s killer sitting there in front of her?

            “Nonsense, young lady.  The evil of Eshtan killed my brother, not you.  I will hear no more of it.  His death pains me, but I cannot afford to grieve now.  There is too much of importance going on!”  Without being invited, Maani sat on the end of Talana’s bed.  “I had better explain who we are, and where we are, as long as you promise absolutely to tell no one else about us.  I can truth-see, so I will be able to tell if you are lying.”  She said, who then gestured with her hand and tapped her rosewood cane.

            “I will not tell.” Talana said solemnly, although she could feel doubts rising within her; what was she doing her, among these strangely intense people?

            “You are wise to have doubts, my dear.  Eshtan is full of trickery and deceit.  However, I see that in your heart you are pure, and you will not break your word.  You are in an underground church, dedicated to the Goddess, and to the fight against the evil that blights our land.  We, and our sister churches, are all that are left within the city that holds out against the destructive power of the Dragon Queen.”

            “How did I come to be here?  How did I end up in that young man’s arms?  What was he trying to do to me?”  Talana asked, feeling more confident.

            “That was Darrukin, a newcomer to the church.  He and I were in the city square, and saw you faint in front of…well, Darrukin carried you here, because you were unconscious and would not wake up.”  Maani finished.  A woman came in with a bowl of hot soup.  The delicious, meaty smell of it made the younger woman realised that she was starving.  “I must warn you, Talana, that this soup has a pain reliever in it, and it might make you sleepy.  I think you need to sleep in any case, it will help your body recover from the fall and your other…er, mishaps.”

            Talana took the bowl and began to eat.  Then it occurred to her to thank the older woman, and ask her a question which was rapidly rising in priority.

            “Thankyou, Maani.  Er..how long can I stay here?  I’ll leave whenever you want me to, just say.” She said.  To her surprise, Maani laughed.

            “You can stay as long as you want. Or you can leave.  It is entirely up to you, you have the choice.”  She said.

            Free choice, Talana thought to herself, smiling through the soup as she drank.  It was something that she had never really had before.  Grimacing in pain as the cut on her lip reopened, she drained the bowl of soup, feeling tired but happy.  Putting the bowl aside she lay back on the bed, feeling the pain recede from all her cuts and bruises, from the bump on her head that she only just noticed, and drifted off into a soft, restful sleep.

            Talana was in the middle of a very strange dream.  She was wading through clouds and clouds of steam, with a rosewood cane in her hand, which she knew she must give back to Maani.  She was being very careful not to break it.  An invisible thing began to taunt her, to show her Asikei’s head on the pike.  It was almost as if she could hear the old man’s tortured screams.  She was angry, incredibly angry, but could not see the thing in order to fight it.  It was clear that whatever it was, it grew bigger and harder to conquer.  Something was missing, but she did not know what.  Frustrated, she lashed out at the thing and could hear nothing but cruel laughter, the laughter of her father, echoing through the steam.  Then the dream abruptly changed.  Talana walked through a field, a meadow full of brilliant green grass and beautiful flowers nodding in a slight breeze.  Great trees surrounded the meadow, each bursting with life, full and strong, not like the stunted, scraggly trees that grew around her childhood home.  There was a marvellous sense of space and light around her, and she ran through the meadow in sheer delight at being alive.  Then her ears caught a whisper on the breeze, a gentle whisper that hardly seemed there at first, but grew in strength.  Talana could not determine what the whisper was saying, and so tried to follow it.  It lead her on through the field, towards one very large tree.  Underneath the tree sat the most incredible woman that she had ever seen.  It was more than sheer beauty, though this woman was clearly beautiful.  She shimmered and glowed gold, clad in something insubstantial and flowing.  She moved with grace, her golden skin clear under her garment, and her hair tumbled down her shoulders like a golden fountain.  What struck Talana most were her eyes.  They were a deep, bright gold, full of the warmth of the sun.  The woman turned her magnificent eyes towards her and smiled.  She could do little in return but stare.

            “Thankyou for answering my summons, Talana.”  The mysterious woman said.  Her voice lilted like a running brook, vibrant and alive.  “By now, my people will have found you, and they will help you in your quest.”

            “What quest, my lady?”  Talana asked, sitting down beside the woman in the soft grass.  She would be willing to sit there forever.  There was a great sense of goodness coming from this person, whoever she was, and instinctively Talana knew that she would do whatever she could for her, if she needed any help.  Though why this woman, who radiated power, would need help she did not know.  The lady held one delicate hand to her lips, motioning her to ask no more questions.

            “I cannot tell you much, Talana, but you must help my cause.  You must help the Guardian, and find the lost princess, to restore her to the throne of the Dragon.  If you fail, evil will run rampant in Ashlon, and the very fabric of the world will be rent.  You will need to find two things, Talana.  The Guardian will have the other.”  The golden lady glanced around the tree with a worried expression on her face, and stood up.  “I cannot tell you any more.”  Then she extended one lovely golden arm, and pointed towards the distance.  “See what evil will befall Ashlon if you fail!” she whispered urgently, her voice in Talana’s ear.  Talana followed her hand and recoiled sharply.  She did not need to see clearly to know what was in the distance.  Thousands upon thousands of pikes scarred the landscape around her, each surmounted with a skull.  The land underneath, which had been fertile and green, was barren, poisoned by the blood of the people.  When Talana turned back to the lady, she found that the woman had disappeared.

            “Who are you?” she cried, desperate to know.  The whisper came to her again, upon a breeze which blew the dream away.

            “Ishayla…Isshhaylaaa…”

            The young woman jolted awake, trembling.  The dream was fading quickly, but she did her best to try to retain it in her memory, especially the golden woman and her words.  She swung her feet off the bed and sat up, looking about the greyish stone walls of her room.  It had not been carved out, but was a natural pocket in the stone.  The only thing that had been added was a skilfully concealed air shaft, funnelling fresh air from the city above.  Talana got up and wondered what time of day it was.  She had no reference point, no sun or stars, to guide her.  It disconcerted her somewhat, so she left her room and went in search of other people.  She was soon lost in the winding corridors or the underground church, at times heading upwards, at others, deeper into the caverns.  Then she heard a faint, pathetic cheeping sound, and turned towards it.  She followed the noise, intrigued, wondering what could have made it.  It did not sound human at all.  After a few false turns, she found herself in a large, cool cavern, with a large, crystal clear pool at one end.  A trickle of water soaked into the glittering sand of a small underground beach.  The cheeping sound had grown more distinct, and quickly she identified its source, a bird.  It was a large bird, and in the dim light of the braziers along the wall she could see it was a bird of prey, wearing leather jesses.  It must belong to someone, she realised, but although there were footprints on the ground, large ones, there was nobody about.  She approached the bird, curious as to what sort it was.  It was beautiful, the feathers a muted blue-grey in the orange light, and it had a curved beak and long, sharp talons. 

            She moved slowly to avoid startling the bird, which had cocked its head and was watching her.  The bird began to screech more excitedly, but Talana could not tell if this meant that it was agitated or just relieved to have company.  Standing a few metres before the feathered creature, she held out her unprotected arm as a perch.  The bird was obviously tame, she thought she might try and see how tame.

            “You poor thing, you’ve been stuck here all by yourself?  Has someone been feeding you?” she said out loud, hoping the sound of her voice would elicit some response from the animal.  Her voice echoed a little in the cavern.  Her attention was brought sharply back to the bird as it suddenly left the rock it was perched on and in rush of feathers hopped onto her arm.  She was startled, but her alarm turned to feeling rather honoured that the bird had decided to take up her offer of a perch.  It looked like an intelligent bird, it stared at her, cocking its head to one side again and making a peeping noise at her that sounded like an enquiry.

            “I don’t have any food for you, if that’s what you want, bird.”  She said, wondering if the magnificent creature was going to abandon her now it had discovered that fact.  It did not, but moved up her arm and hopped onto her shoulder, causing her to flinch as its sharp talons scratched her skin.  Puncture marks were on her forearm, she saw, but it was worth a little pain.  The bird liked her, or it wouldn’t nestle into her hair like it did.

            “Will you fly for me?”  She said out loud to the friendly creature.  There might be enough room if the large cavern for the bird to fly.  Whether it had understood her, she was not sure, but the bird hopped off her shoulder and onto a large boulder, then launched itself into the air.   The dim light form the braziers made it difficult to spot the bird when it went high up into the cavernous ceiling, but the aerial show made her smile.  The bird flitted around the cavern at great speed, seeming about to smash into the rock walls before turning smoothly away at the last moment.  Talana tore off one of her leather boots, and tossed it into the air, watching as the great bird caught it neatly and returned it to her.  They played the game for a long while, before the leather of the boot disintegrated under the razor sharp talons.  Only shreds remained, and as the bird flapped down to its usual perch, it beeped an apologetic noise at her.

            “It’s alright, bird, I didn’t pay for them anyway.”  She said, laughing, then divested herself of the rest of her clothes.  She walked over to the pool, which was quite large enough for her to swim in, and slowly entered the crystal waters.  It was refreshingly cold in the stifling atmosphere of the cave, and she sighed with relief.    The bird flew over to the edge of the pool, squawking at her, so she splashed it, giggling at is tried to snap at the water and only ended up getting wet.  Having a wonderful time, she ducked underwater, staying down for a moment before bursting to the surface with a splash.  It was so peaceful.

            Finally, she became hungry herself and said goodbye to the bird, putting her slept-in clothes back on even though she was still wet.  She climbed out of the cavern and tried to remember hers steps, so that she could go back again, she had enjoyed it so much.  Stepping lightly through the dimly lit or completely dark passages, Talana eventually fond other people, in a great cavern, one that was almost twice the size or more of the one she had just visited.  It was full of people and cheerily lit.  Fresh air brushed her face, and she looked up and located the ducts that brought it down from the surface.  Judging by the activity going on around her, it must be about the middle of the day.

            Suddenly she felt shy amongst so many people.  They did not ignore her, but smiled at her or nodded as they passed, getting on with their business.  It was difficult to know how to react.  After what seemed like an eternity of milling around wondering what to do, a dark-haired woman approached her and introduced herself.

            “I’m Porra.  You must be new here.  Can I help you with anything?” the woman said kindly.

            “Umm, yes please.  Where can I get something to eat?  And, may I see Maani?” she ventured.

            “Maani is a little busy at the moment, organising some business, but I can help you with your first question.  Through that opening there, across the cavern, are the kitchens.  They should be gearing up for dinner soon, so there will be people around to help you.  Your name is…?”

            “Talana.  Maani brought me here yesterday.  Is it really close to dinner time? I must have slept for about a day!”  She was shocked.  Her stomach grumbled and Porra laughed, gesturing towards the kitchens.

            “I’ll find Maani and tell her you want to talk with her, alright?” said Porra, then slipped off.  Talana watched her go mutely, then made her way to the kitchens.

            In there, she found several ruddy-faced cooks attending to a myriad of tasks in preparation for dinner.  She made eye-contact with one man who was wielding a rather dangerous-looking knife at some vegetables.

            “Can I get something to eat here?” she said in a small voice.  The man whirled on her.

            “What a tragedy it would be if you were not able to find food here, this is a kitchen, after all.” he said theatrically.  “What would you like?” he said in a more normal tone, when she stood there looking blankly at him.

            “Just some bread and cheese, if you have it, please.” She said.  There were many delicious smells wafting around the kitchen, making her feel faint with hunger.

            “Hmmm…perhaps something a little more substantial would be in order.” said the cook, who proceeded to put together the most marvellous meal she had ever tasted; fresh vegetables and huge chunks of spicy meat in rich gravy, with soft bread spread with butter.  She thanked him and found herself a spot in which to eat the huge meal in the great cavern.

            As she ate, Talana looked around her, taking in the cavern in more detail.  There was an area towards one end which held a dais of sorts, carved out of the soft stone, with seats of wood spread around it.  Meetings must be held there, she surmised.  She saw several tunnels leading off the cavern, and tried to identify which one she had come through.  The floor to the cavern was not smooth, but dipped and was moulded around harder stone, making interesting shapes and divisions in the room, but the ceiling vaulted high above, where the light did not quite reach.

            People were performing a variety of tasks, from the simple ones such as cleaning, or scurrying this way and that on errands, to more complex and surprising ones.  Someone appeared to be teaching a group of children in one corner, whilst in another, paintings and artworks were in progress.  She shrugged, not understanding really where she was, and continued to wolf down her meal, attacking it with a more than healthy appetite.

            Maani approached her as she finished up, the old woman leaning on her rosewood cane as she moved.  Talana noted that people moved aside for Maani, nodded to her respectfully.  It made her feel that the easy smile she had flashed at the old woman was somehow out of place.  Maani did not appear to mind, however, her wrinkled face creasing with pleasure at the sight of the younger woman.

            “So, Talana, you’ve finally woken up!  Good to see you up and about, my dear.” said the older woman.  Her manner was so like Asikei’s that it brought a brief stab of pain to Talana’s heart, but as her mouth was busy with the last tasty remains of her meal, she said nothing, only smiled again before swallowing her food.

            “I really don’t understand this place, Maani. I was wondering if you could tell me again about it.” she asked finally.

            “I’ll try” the older woman said, sitting down next to her. “We are all devotees of the old religion.  Asikei, I suppose, told you about the old ways and the changes that have taken place?”

            “Well, he hinted that things had not always been as they are, but he never actually told me about any religion except once, when he mentioned a goddess.”  She paused. “He always brushed off my questions about the goddess, come to think of it, saying that the time would come when I would need to know and he would tell me then.  So I don’t really understand anything about religion at all, just some legends and history.” she almost blurted out. The memory of Asikei was painful to both women.

            “Hmm..strange that he would do that.” Maani mused, after a moment’s contemplation in silence.  “Alright, well, we can teach you these things, if you like, put you in that class over there with the children, for now; would you like that?”

            “Yes! I would love to learn more.” The young woman said brightly.  She had no objection to being lumped in with young children, it would probably be fun.

            “Good, we’ll do that then.  Now, back to the Goddess.  We all worship Ishayla, the great and good goddess – are you alright?”  Maani asked, her old voice full of concern as she saw the younger woman frown and then stiffen unnaturally.

            Talana had been about to speak to Maani of her dream, to tell her that the name Ishayla had been the same as the golden woman in the field, but it was as if a huge fist had clamped down upon her and was squeezing her tight.  She was rigid, locked, by some force that she did not understand and could not control.  Her desperation to speak to Maani seemed to make it worse, she could not move her jaw nor make a sound.  She fought the pressure, and managed to move her arms a fraction, but not enough to make any gestures.  Her eyes pleaded for help.

            “Relax, Talana.  Tell me what you did when you first woke up.” Maani asked her in a careful voice.  The unexpected question threw Talana’s thoughts away from her dream, and to the marvellous game she had had with the large bird in the cavern.  Almost immediately the vice-like grip relaxed, allowing her to breathe properly and move once more.

            “I …got lost in the caverns.” she said, not wanting to divulge her secret about the bird, lest she be disallowed from returning.  She did not want to get into trouble.

            “Just before, you looked as if you were about to tell me something.  What was it about?” Maani said, again, in a carefully measured tone and watching her like a hawk.  Talana’s thoughts immediately went back to her dream, and with that, her body once again grew rigid and stiff, and she was unable to talk.  This time, Maani grasped her rosewood cane and tapped it on the stone floor three times.  Making some hand gestures that Talana could not quite follow, the older woman muttered something unintelligible and then made to grasp at Talana’s head.  Before she could reach her, her hand was stopped short and Talana’s vision went black for a second as Maani ripped something from the air about her.  As suddenly has it had arrived, the rigidity left her body, leaving her breathing heavily for a moment or two.  Maani looked hard at her with knowledge in her eyes.

            “That was a complex spell placed over you, Talana.  Now who do you know could have done a thing like that, and why?” the old woman asked.

            “A spell? Magic?”

            “Sorcery.  What company have you kept that knows such advanced techniques?”  Maani asked again.

            “I…I don’t know.  I was once captured by the palace guard, if that helps.  Other than that, I’ve only been with myself, my parents, the brothel girls and Asikei.”  She explained about her parents and their occupations.  It did not satisfy Maani, but she had to let it go, for it was clear that the young woman knew nothing about how the spell had come to be cast upon her.  Truthsight made that clear.

            “Alright.  Now, what was it that you wanted to tell me?”  Maani asked with a slightly forced smile, more interested in who had been at the bottom of that spell.

            Talana told Maani of the dream.  It was a relief to be able to talk after the awful locking up she had just experienced, and what was more, Maani became enthusiastic and genuinely interested in what she had to say.  This was unusual, hardly anybody had ever bothered to listen to her before.  The older woman seemed to be particularly interested in her description of the golden lady and the quest to help the guardian, and drew back in surprise when Talana told her of the golden lady’s name.  Talana knew that there was more to the dream that she had to remember, but it seemed that some of the details had slipped away, that she was missing something or had forgotten it.  Maani’s reactions, however, turned her thoughts elsewhere in any event.

            “Well!” said Maani.  “What next?  First the Guardian, now this?  Never mind.  Dear Asikei, you saw right!  Why did you not bring this treasure into our house sooner?” the old woman seemed to be more talking to herself.  After a moment she turned her eyes, bright with excitement, back to Talana.

            “Have you ever been visited by the Goddess before?” she enquired.

            “Goddess?  What do you mean? No one has visited me since I have been here.” she replied in confusion.

            “No, I meant, have you ever dreamed of the Goddess before now?” 

            “Did I?  I didn’t realise that I had.  She was very beautiful, and seemed wonderfully good.  Does that make her a goddess?  She was only in a dream.”

            “Have you ever heard the name Ishayla before? Surely, Talana, Asikei must have mentioned her name to you?” Maani asked incredulously.

            “No, he didn’t.  At least, he never mentioned her by name.  He only talked briefly about religion.  I learned legends and history, not religion.  As I said earlier, Asikei told me that the time would come eventually for me to know.” she said, somewhat defensively.

            “So you had no idea of who Ishayla was?”

            “No, I did not!” she said with some heat, wishing that Maani would get off the topic.  It made her feel as if her friendship with Asikei had been flawed somehow.  Maani saw her growing distress and let the matter drop, for now.  She was resolved to bring the matter before the Council of Elders, whom she had already called for on account of Darrukin’s appearance and the revelation that he was the new guardian.

            “Alright, Talana.  Maybe it is time you went and joined that class there.  They are starting a new lesson, I can see; after that, it will be dinner time.  I’ll talk to you later on.”

            Talana watched her walk off, cane in hand, then got up and joined the class.  It was full of five-year olds learning the basic principles of the religion of the Goddess, but it suited her, as she knew nothing.  Her teacher, however, did not enjoy the class.  Five year olds eager to believe every word you said were one thing, a doubting twenty-two year old who asked difficult and often embarrassing questions was quite another.

 

 

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