The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 6
The Thief of Ashlon

            Darrukin was not sure what all the fuss was about, as he saw Maani rush about organising for yet another messenger to go out to a sister church to summon its leader to the Council of Elders.  Five invitations had gone out already, and there were another six waiting for an opportune and safe moment.  He compressed his lips and walked easily out of the great cavern, making his way down to the chamber where Keesha was kept.

            It had been two weeks since he had arrived with Talana prone in his arms, and he had not seen the young woman since except in the distance.  He thought he may have frightened her with their unfortunate introduction, and felt reluctant to approach her again.  He was also beginning to chafe at being underground most of the time; he dared not go above ground for long, lest he be recognised.  It upset him, he hated being cooped up.  It was worse for Keesha, he thought; the falcon could not fully stretch her wings or fly very well.  He did his best for the bird, but it was awkward.  She did not want to leave him when he entered the city, though he encouraged her to fly off.  Since she would not go, she had to come underground with him, miserable as it was for her.  It seemed that his future, and Keesha’s, depended on the outcome of the Council meeting.

            He made his way down the twisting tunnels and passages that led to the lower cavern.  It wasn’t the darkness that bothered him, it was the way he could feel the weight of the rock above him, it seemed to press down heavily on his spirit.  Keesha chirruped happily as he entered the cavern, and he breathed a sigh as he felt the roof of the cavern lift way above him, giving him some respite from the feeling of closeness that pervaded most of the tunnels and passages in the cave network. 

            He turned his mind to problem at hand, feeding the great bird.  In a bag of strong leather he had a live rabbit, bought up in the city by one of those who garnered supplies for the underground church.  Keesha was hungry, and the rabbit would keep her satisfied for a day or so.  He drew it out of the bag and placed it on the sand, whistling for Keesha, who launched herself up to the ceiling in anticipation of her meal.

            The rabbit was slightly dazed from being cooped up in the airless bag, and took a few shaky hops on the smooth sand in the semi darkness.  Keesha was in no mood to play and dove straight for it, knocking the life from the creature easily.  Darrukin sat with her as she tore apart the rabbit and ate.

            He noticed the great many footprints in the sand.  Not only his own, but somebody else’s.  Tracing the patterns of their progress he could see where they had entered the water and come out again, walked over the cave and stood still.  It was a long foot, booted and bare in places; whoever owned the foot, he hoped that they did not tease Keesha.  Interrupting the bird’s meal he stripped of the skin of the rabbit before letting her finish her meal, so that he could use it as a toy later on.  Keesha needed some more exercise and using the skin as a lure was a game they had played before.  For the moment, he just sat with her as she ate, and watched her preen herself after her meal.

            He had been spending more time with Keesha as he became more and more uncomfortable with life in the caves.  He did attend some special classes with Maani, which took up a lot of time; they were designed to bring out the sorcerer within him.  Tafta had taught him some basic spells, and he had mastered those with ease, but he still did not feel like sorcerer.  He found that he still did not really believe, nor understand, the role of the guardian that had been so unexpectedly thrust upon him.  It was confusing, and he longed to be a mere troop commander back in Darr.  He turned to leave his falcon, and go off to find some lunch, weary in his heart. 

            Talana was grappling with different problems.  The more she learned of the old religion, the more confused she became.  Maani had not spoken to her since the day she had told the older woman of her strange dream, had in fact done no more than nod at her in passing.  The young woman was feeling rather out on the edge of things.  After gaining no real satisfaction from the five-year old class, she had tried to join an older group of students, hoping for a more satisfying and informative group discussion on the concepts which she groped for.  She did not find it.  Religion did not seem to be for her, although she did wonder about her dream and the ‘quest’ she had been charged to follow.  The core of goodness emanating from the golden lady had seemed so real, but although the dream had seemed important once, the feeling had faded, and she was left feeling that it had been nothing but a dream despite Maani’s inference that the Goddess had ‘visited’ her.  Maani’s attention was elsewhere, with the upcoming Council of Elders meeting.  The dream just did not seem important anymore.

            She kept herself amused by trying to learn the different handicrafts that she observed practiced around the great cavern.  Weaving had been fun for a while, and cooking certainly was something that she enjoyed, although the cooks did not seem too pleased with her efforts and did not encourage her to join them.  She liked to visit the great bird in the lower cavern most of all.  Somehow she had never managed to see who else visited the bird, though someone must, as she had seen footprints in the sand and it was clear that someone was feeding it.  Invariably, she found herself making her way along the now-familiar path that led down to the cavern.  The darkness and the sometimes stifling atmosphere usually did not bother her too much, but she found it difficult to estimate time, which confused her often.  It seemed that sometimes she was the only person around, fresh and awake, while everyone else was in their beds.

            She climbed down into the cavern and heard the bird calling out.  The day before there had been the remains of a fresh rabbit, so she knew that the bird was fed and should be ready for a game or two.  Nobody else seemed to be around, as usual, and so she grabbed her old shoe, partner to one that had been shredded, which had become a favoured toy of the bird.   She had attached it to a tough piece of string, so that she could whirl it around her head and give the bird a fast-moving target.  It seemed to like the game.  Beginning to whirl the lure, Talana heard a high-pitched squeal of delight from the falcon, so she began letting out more and more slack on the line as it picked up speed.  Eventually it was moving quite fast at a distance to her head, and the falcon swooped and dove for it, catching it easily, impressing her with its speed and accuracy.

            Routinely, after her game with the bird, she would swim, and today was no exception.  She shrugged off her clothes, a range of cast-offs that she had managed to borrow from people, and slowly entered the cool water.  Its clarity was incredible, and even in the dim light of the braziers she could see under the water for quite a distance.  The water soaked through the limestone, and so its mineral content was high, but it was still drinkable and it did not irritate her at all.  Most of it seemed to be sourced from a hole that lay under a rocky ledge, covered by the water.  She could see the sand bubbling up as the water pushed itself through the vent in the cavern floor.  The ledge reached quite far back and Talana could only see this as a blur; she was unwilling to venture far under the ledge as the thought of perhaps getting stuck there and drowning made her shudder inwardly, good as she was at holding her breath.

            She swam, ducking under the water and reaching the back of the cavern, her long hair flowing out behind her.  Bouncing to the surface she took in great gulps of air before ducking back down under the water, enjoying her exploration.  The fresh water that entered the pool gave it a slow current before it leaked away into the sand.  She saw flickers of things that lived on the bottom of the pool, which grew quite deep in some areas, deeper than she could dive.  Small, pale fish darted away from her inquisitive fingers as she followed the sloping floor of the pool downwards.  As she swam back towards the surface the cavern was suddenly plunged into complete darkness.  Panicking a little, she kicked on more strongly, her lungs beginning to burn as her panic demanded more oxygen.  She could only hope that she was still heading upwards, as without any light she had no reference point to make sure she was going in the right direction.  After what seemed like an eternity she breached the surface of the pool, her lungs exploding with pain as she released her long-held breath and took in fresh air.  Looking around herself, she could see nothing, the braziers had burned themselves out.  Behind the distressed calls of the bird, she could hear footsteps – someone was coming!  Suddenly wary, she swam in silence to the edge of the pool, feeling for the rock and staying in the water.  She waited.

            Darrukin went down to the cavern where Keesha was kept, bringing with him replenishment fuel for the slow-burning braziers that lit it constantly.  He whistled softly to himself as he walked over the rough stone, picking his way carefully so as not to drop the load he carried.  He had visited Keesha twice that day already, and noted that the braziers were burning low.  He cursed as he saw the cavern entrance only as complete blackness against the dim light of the tunnel; the braziers had gone out.  He could hear Keesha screeching loudly, and hurried himself, taking care to tread carefully.

            His eyes adjusting to the dark, he made out the vague shapes of the braziers, the faintest of glows emanating from them.  Without really thinking, Darrukin loaded the nearest one and tried to light it with his flint and tinder, trying to encourage a flame to take hold.  It would not; the embers were not hot enough to ignite the tinder, and the stream of sparks that his flint shot out did not catch, either. Frustration began to set in.

            “Light, damn you!” he muttered fervently, then sprang back in surprise as flame erupted from the brazier.  The sudden light placated the bird immediately, who subsided into a soft peeping noise.  He frowned, realising that the tinder must have caught suddenly.  He quickly lit the other braziers and soon their faint orange glow suffused the cavern once more.  A small splash made him turn towards the pool.

            “Who’s there!” he cried out, suspicious.  He knew he had no need to be wary of the people in this church, but he did not like to be surprised, or spied upon.  He peered at the pool for a moment, and saw nothing, his gaze slipping over the surface quickly.  Something made him stop, and look again.  There was a face, a young woman’s face, looking back at him apprehensively.  How had he missed her?  He must be going blind, he thought with a frown.  The woman looked familiar.

            “Hello, is that you, Talana?” he asked, looking again, recognising her oval face.

            “Yes…er…Darrukin, isn’t it?” she replied, knowing that he was the young man who had taken her into the caverns in the first place.  She felt self-conscious, and swam out into the pool until her feet could barely reach the bottom, her hair floating about her, alive with the movement of the water.

            “Has it been you, all this time, coming down to see Keesha?” Darrukin asked, realising that she must indeed be the mysterious visitor.

            “Is that the birds’ name?”

            “Her name, yes.  She is a blue falcon, very rare.  Have you ever seen a falcon before?” he asked.

            “I guessed what she was but I have never seen one before.  Pretty name, and she’s so smart.  But I guess you know that if she is yours.”

            “Yes, I’ve had her for a while.  Or rather, she has sort of attached herself to me.  Are you going to stay in the water all day?” he asked, noticing her apparent reluctance to step from the pool.  “There’s nothing to be frightened of, I’m not going to hurt you or anything.” he added, remembering her first reaction to him in her room. 

            She looked unsure of herself for a moment, then waded from the pool.  Her nudity was not the issue, as she had been naked in the public bath, and that kind of public nudity was nothing unusual in the city.  It was just that she suddenly felt shy before this man, and it was an unusual feeling for her.  She stepped forward and tried to pretend that her shyness did not matter.

            He saw her momentary hesitation, then swallowed hard as he watched her leave the pool.  Her hair, which fell to her waist, covered her small, well-formed breasts and rained water down upon the sand.  Unable to help himself his gaze slipped lower, over the length of her willowy figure, before he wrenched his face the other way to look in another direction and give her some privacy.  His face burned, he had not realised that she was naked and felt as if he had somehow violated her.  In the colder province of Darr, people did not usually go naked, even swimming.  Tashmar was further south, and the climate was warmer here, and it obviously made a difference. 

            Keesha cheeped at him and he welcomed the diversion, stretching out his arm for the bird to perch on, and providing him with the perfect excuse not to look around.  His imagination began to fill in the details of that scene automatically as he heard the rustle of clothing.  He cleared his throat.  Stroking Keesha’s breast feathers, he concentrated on the bird extremely hard as Talana finished dressing and came up to him.  Truth was, he didn’t quite know what to say to her.

            “Y-your…bruises have…faded a lot, Talana.”  He managed to stutter, his voice cracking embarrassingly in the middle of the sentence.  The young woman looked at him sharply for a moment, then smiled.

            She had seen enough excited men in her time at the brothel to read the signs all too clearly in this young man who stood before her.  Obviously, he was mortified by his reaction to her, something which she found rather...chivalrous.  It was certain that he was a gentleman, the opposite of almost every other man she had ever met. 

            “Did I embarrass you? I’m sorry.” She said gently, trying to ease his discomfiture.  “I think you and I must have very different backgrounds.”  She was unable to see the flush that suffused his face in the orange light.  Smiling, she wrapped a piece of cloth around her forearm, and walked off a short distance away, holding up her arm for Keesha.  The bird gave a short cheep and launched herself at Talana, landing on her arm carefully.  Darrukin looked amazed.

            “She’s never done that before.  Keesha has never shown any interest in other people, only me.” he said, watching the bird hop up onto her shoulder and run her curved beak through long strands of her wet hair.

            “Oh, we’ve been friends for a while now.  We have a great game – I made her a toy out of my shoe; would you like to see it?” she offered, speaking brightly, hoping that she had not offended Darrukin too much.  She was uncertain of how to act around someone her own age, so she was finding it difficult to know what to do.  She did, however, feel wicked enjoyment at his embarrassment at seeing her naked, strange as it was to her, who had seen nudity in a thousand forms over her short life.  Darrukin would be easy to tease, she thought, as she fumbled a moment for the lure, which she had left in the sand.

            Picking it up, she demonstrated it to Darrukin, who in turn had a go swinging it around.  Keesha swooped and caught the shoe every time.  Together the young pair laughed at her antics and began to relax with one another.  When they had all tired of the game, they sat together in the sand in front of the pool.

            “What are you doing here, Darrukin?  You look as though you have lived a rich life, what brings you to these people?”  Talana asked, breaking a companionable silence.  She was interested, she liked him for all that he had frightened her when they first met.  He seemed the most likable young man she had ever met, and she had to admit, he was quite attractive.  His face she considered handsome, deep set eyes, which were blue but she could not see their colour in the light, nor his hair colour, though she could tell it was quite dark.  His face had high cheekbones, a long jaw, balanced by a beautifully aquiline nose and a high forehead.  It looked as if his nose had been broken at least once, and his body looked fit and strong.  He wore a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, exposing forearms which were sturdy. Above them, she could see bicep muscles curved under the fabric, and his chest and shoulders were broad.  Long legs made him taller than her by quite a bit.  Hmmm, she thought, assessing what she saw.  Short hair. Fit and strong.  Gentlemanly bearing.  “Are you in the military?”

            He looked at her sharply, raising an eyebrow. “Yes, how did you guess?”

            “I didn’t.  But it looks as if it would suit you, though, being a soldier.  You aren’t a palace guard, though.”

            “Oh, no – credit me with some intelligence!  I am a lieutenant in my father’s army.  I come from Darr, the province to the north-west of here.”

            “Darr?  I have heard of it.  Good for wine, and has a very cold winter.  You must be a son of the Lord?  Darr-ukin?  She said the name, testing the sound of it.

            “That’s right, Lord Darrulan’s second child.” Darrukin said, uncomfortably aware of how out of his own, familiar environment he was.  “I am here for many reasons, which if you listen to what goes on at the Council of Elders meeting, you’ll hear discussed.  It was called because of me.” he said, rushing over the matter, hoping she wouldn’t ask him any further questions because he had already spent half his time here endlessly explaining what had happened to him in Darr.  He knew that he would have to repeat the whole story to the Council, and he was more than a little tired of it.

            “A Council meeting…so that is what Maani is organising. That’s right, she mentioned that you are the…guardian.”   Talana had to search for the word, trying to remember what the old woman had said.  It had not made much sense to her, and still didn’t.  Still, it seemed to be important.  There was something from her odd dream that she thought might be connected somehow, but couldn’t recall it, and frowned.

            “And why are you here?” Darrukin interrupted her train of thought, leaning back in the sand next to her.  It took her a moment to reply.

            “I don’t rightly know.  I came here because I ran away from home, after Asikei’s death – my father, he-” her voice was full of pain.  “I have nowhere else, I guess.” She finished, her face growing hot as she tried to will herself not to let the tears that threatened to fall in front of this young man.  The realisation had only just hit her that she indeed had nowhere else to turn to; unable and unwilling to go home for fear and hatred of her father, and her friend, Asikei, now dead.  What else could she do?  Her distress grew as she thought of Asikei, her grief welling up like the water at the bottom of the pool, raw and deep.  “Asikei’s dead!” she whispered, looking up into Darrukin’s strong face, her eyes spilling over with tears, try as she might to hold them back.  Frowning at her weakness, she began to cry, grudgingly giving in to the mass of grief that flooded through her.  She hugged her knees and sobbed, choking on tears.

            Darrukin could not help but feel for her.  Hesitatingly, he put one arm around her shoulders to cradle her grief-stricken form, offering what comfort he could in silence.  He felt her stiffen slightly, then relax and lean into his embrace, giving herself to her long-overdue expression of grief at the loss of her first friend.



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