The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 7
The Thief of Ashlon

            Maani looked with satisfaction at the preparations that were in progress for the first day of the Council of Elders meeting.  It had been a month since she had first recognised the need for the Council to meet; since that time she had worked ceaselessly to bring the meeting about.  There had been much to organise, sending out messengers with news of the meeting, although not the agenda, receiving replies and fixing a definite date with which all the Elders were happy.  Her peers, the other eleven Elders of the underground church, each with their own church to run and minister to, had to settle their own affairs and then secretly make their way to her church by whatever means available.  It was a difficult business, and she was pleased that it was finally coming to fruition.  The meeting would begin in the evening, after a feast to welcome the visiting Elders.

            She watched Talana make her way through the crowded great cavern, carrying something to the kitchen for the cooks to deal with.  Probably stores from the lower caverns, she thought to herself, pursing her lips.  Talana did not know it, but Maani was going to introduce her to the Council, as well as have Darrukin speak his own story.  The dream that Talana had had was too significant to let pass without discussion, especially at this time.  Maani already had her own ideas as to what the Council must decide for the two young people; it seemed clear to her that their fates were intertwined.  In her view, Talana had been sent to help Darrukin find the lost ring, the Heart of the Dragon, and so aid his empowerment as the Guardian and combat the evil in the palace.  That was what she fervently hoped in any case, that Darrukin would somehow gain the strength to restore the Dragon Queen to herself and cast out the sickness she suffered from.  The old woman had no doubt that the Dragon Queen was sick; she remembered that she had once been kind and good.  Eshtan, the evil one, had seduced her to his bloodthirsty ways, but Maani saw hope for the ailing ruler in the young lieutenant.  Her old friend Tafta had sent her a message confirming Darrukin’s story. 

            Maani looked away from Talana and saw Keer, one of the younger Elders, looking her way.  She smiled and approached him, noting that his black hair had gained a few more streaks of grey since she had seen him last, and that the creases around his eyes were that much deeper.  He had developed into a fine leader, a caring and passionate father to his church, and Maani respected him for the pains he took in keeping their faith alive.  His church lay in one of the most difficult areas of the City, beneath a rich quarter, whose residents were doing very nicely out of the various changes that the sickened Dragon Queen had instituted.  They were not evil, but would take advantage of opportunities, and consequently had no interest in keeping with the old faith if it did not serve them also.  There were, of course, some rich members of Keer’s parish, more concerned with their spiritual life than their temporal ones, and these he relied on greatly to help him give aid to others.  Keer’s church, which lay underground like her own,  was used as a hospice for the ill and the dying, a hospital and refuge for those unable to cope themselves with the world above.  There were many people there, not all necessarily defenders of the Goddess, but all given welcome, sustenance, and a place to be themselves.

            “Hello, Keer,” said Maani warmly, holding him at arms’ length for a moment before hugging him closely to her, “I trust you had no problems getting here?”  He had only arrived that day, one of the last to reach the Council meeting.

            “Yes, well, we did have a few moments of panic; there seemed to be palace guards crawling all over the topside when we left.  My team here and I had to get underground again as quickly as we could.”  Keer replied, with a grin that showed that he had enjoyed the adventure.  It was not often that the Elder of a church left their people; it was only for important occasions such as Council meetings.  “What is the purpose of this meeting, anyway, Maani? Your message gave us no clue.” 

            “I think I will leave it until tonight to tell you all – but be assured, it is very important.  Perhaps the most important thing you or I have ever encountered.”  She said with a knowing smile that Keer responded to with a laugh.

            “Alright, I’ll let you off for now, but not for much longer!” he joked, and, seeing another Elder who was a friend of his, moved off.  Maani tapped her rosewood cane on the hard stone floor of the cave, and decided to seek out Darrukin.

            She found the lord’s son busy helping the cooks in the kitchen caves, laughing and joking with them, and to Maani’s surprise, with Talana.  Maani’s brow furrowed as she watched the ease with which the young woman and Darrukin related.  Obviously, something had happened in the weeks they had been here, she thought, but what?  She interrupted the playful atmosphere.

            “Darrukin, may I have a word with you, please?”  Maani asked, a slight edge to her voice.  She had not intended to speak of what she was about to, but she felt she had to enlighten Darrukin to a few basic facts.  He did not look like he was aware of them.

            “Yes, certainly.” he said, his rich voice answering her, but his eyes on Talana.  There was an amused expression on his face as the young woman held a spoon full of biscuit mixture out in front of her, threatening to splatter him with it.  Talana made a wry face at Darrukin as he turned to leave with Maani, which elicited another smile from him.  He’d be back, she’d keep, his expression said.

            “How have you been since I last saw you?” Maani asked innocently.  She wanted to jump straight to the point, but could not.  She knew that the young man valued his privacy and could be quite shy; she wanted to make him feel comfortable first.  What she would say would probably alienate him, and she would not enjoy that.

            “Oh, fine.  I’ve been keeping myself busy helping out in the sick ward, and also with some of the children’s classes.” he replied, thinking of Talana’s threatening gesture with the spoon.  Maani had missed the vegetable fight, of which he was glad; he decided that Talana brought out his irresponsible impulses.  She was a lot of fun to be with, he had to admit, and chuckled to himself as he thought of their antics.  Wielding carrot swords around the kitchen had been excellent, careful as they were not to get in the way of the real cooks.  At least they had cut the vegetables up after their mock fight.

            “Are you prepared for what you have to say tonight?” she asked.  Darrukin sighed, not really wanting to get up in front of the Council, but knowing that he had to tell them his story first-hand, and without any of the interpretation that Maani, Tafta and his father had put upon it.  The Councillors needed to see for themselves just what the situation was.

            “I suppose so; all I have to do is tell them what I saw, what has happened, don’t I?  I don’t have to add anything else?” he asked.  She shook her head.  “Good, then I guess I am ready for it.  Will the decision take a long time, do you think?  About what is going to happen next?”

            “It may take a little longer than I first thought.  I have a few extra things to bring before the Council, and I think it will be a long night.” She replied, keeping her tone bland and neutral.  “And how are you getting along with our errant young lady in there?” she enquired, rather innocently.  She watched his face for reaction, seeing him smile briefly, before his face became mask like.  Perhaps he had caught a frission of tension in her voice?

            “It is good having someone my own age around.  She has never had any friend, other than Asikei, and although she is a little difficult at times, we’re getting along quite well.  She loves Keesha, and we go down to the cavern a lot to play with her.  She’s good to talk with.”

            “Is that as far as it goes?” said Maani gently, but could almost see him shutter himself against her.  His face closed although his expression remained the same.

            “Is that any business of yours, Maani, really?” he replied sharply.  He did not appreciate people prying into his affairs, and was not used to people making such direct enquiries of him.  No one other than Lord Darrulan or Lady Dana had ever asked such a personal question, and he was quite offended.

            “I am sorry to appear so rude, Darrukin,” she said in a placating tone, “but it is important.  Were you aware that the Guardian must remain virgin for his Queen?”

            His face went white, shocked.  He glanced around the great cavern, uncomfortable with so many people potentially witness to this extraordinary conversation.

            “Can we go somewhere else to discuss this, since it is of such importance to you?” he hissed, on the edge of anger with old woman.  No one had the right to delve into his personal life, it was his, and his alone.  They moved in silence through the crowded cavern and out into a corridor.  Maani had a private room in which she dealt with the administration of her church, and it was to this office that they now headed.  She absentmindedly flicked on the braziers with a wave of her hand, lighting them with her magic.  It put him off, slightly, and he sat in a leather chair feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

            “The Guardian must remain pure for his queen, as she must be for him.  No other but the Guardian may touch the Queen, and the love of the Guardian would be less if he had taken other women to his bed.  Does that explain my rather rude question?” she began, hoping to deal with the matter quickly and without fuss.  It was better to stop anything between the pair now, before anyone else, and especially the Land of Ashlon itself, suffered for their foolishness.  “Is there anything between you and Talana; if there is, it has to stop now.” she said with as much authority in her voice as possible.      

            Darrukin was not impressed with her tone; he was not one to be intimidated so.  But he did appear to be listening, much as it was obvious that he did not like what she said.

            “If you must know, no, there has not been anything sexual between Talana and myself.  She has trouble trusting people, and I think that aside from your brother, I am the only person who has ever shown her any friendship.  I wouldn’t jeopardise that friendship with anything so…so…basic!” he retorted, anger rising within him.

            “Not that you hadn’t thought about it, hey?  She’s an attractive young woman, you’re a man…”  Maani probed, employing her truth-sight.  She could quite clearly see that Darrukin had.  It was only a natural response from a male to the presence of a female, she knew, but it had to be crushed.  She did not like to hurt the young man, but he needed to be told.  The fate of the land rested on him, and she would not have it spoiled by anything.

            “Now that goes too far, Maani!” he said angrily, and to her surprise she lost control of her truth-sight as his mind threw off her spell.  He continued. “You are being unfair.  It is alright if Talana remains a friend, is it not?  And, I suppose you will want to hear about my past, too!  Well, just to satisfy you, yes, I am a virgin, I had been warned by my father to be careful about such things!  I am your pure guardian, Maani, is that what you wanted to hear?” 

            His voice lashed out at her, and she winced under the force of his tone.  She had a grave expression on her face, but inside she was gleeful: the force of his will was so clear he would make a very powerful sorcerer.  His anger hit her receptive mind like a torrent of water, and she knew that her own powers were incredibly weak in comparison.  She sat down, facing him, waiting for his outburst to pass.

            “I knew it would upset you, Darrukin, and I am sorry.  But can’t you see, Ashlon’s fate is far more important than anyone’s feelings?  I wanted only to warn you, to make you aware, so that the power that is within you will be fully able to combat the evil in the palace.  I know it seems unfair of me to put it to you in the way that I have, but I needed you to hear me.  Do not touch Talana, or any other woman – you are the Queen’s and she is yours.” 

            His mind was open now, and she could see the disgust within him at the thought.  She let it pass.  It would be something he would have to get used to.  She walked around her oak desk and leaned against it, next to him, touched his arm in a gesture of comfort.  He recoiled and shrugged her off.  The rejection made her purse her lips, shake her head.

            “It has to be this way, Darrukin.” she said, trying to keep her voice gentle.  He took a moment to answer.

            “I see.  But I do not like it.  I will, of course, acquiesce; but why, Maani, does this whole business leave me in such an invidious position?  I can’t have normal relations with women, because I am the guardian.  Why?”

            “It is just the way of things.  All I can say is, without your strength, we are nothing, and your strength must go into preserving the Queen.  It is your role, I believe, whether you want it or not.”

            “The Queen – a hag, an evil hag!  I hope the Council thinks differently.  Sometimes all I want to do is go home.”

            “The Queen is your ruler, Darrukin, and she was not always as she is now.  You have to fight that sickness within her, the evil of Eshtan; she has no power to do that herself.  Come.  All of this is in the future.  At least, I am fairly sure it is.  We will see what the Council says.  Let’s get back to our preparations.” she said.  They left her office together and parted company back at the great cavern.

 

            Talana was annoyed.  Darrukin had returned from his talk with Maani very sober and not much fun at all.  She had tried to tease him and play-fight with him, but was getting nowhere.

            “What did Maani have to say?” she asked, giving up trying to play.  She was curious, as his mood swing had been so dramatic.  He frowned, not speaking, but seemed focused on something internal.

            “Not much, Talana.” he said, looking up at her with a tinge of sadness in his eyes.  Sadness and…anger?

            “Whatever it was, it has put you in a bad mood.” she said, walking around the workbench and stepping up to him.  She had grown comfortable with this young man, sharing as they did an interest in Keesha and the feeling that they did not belong down here in the caverns.  It had taken a little time for her to relax and get to know him, and to know what was acceptable behaviour and what was not.  It was sometimes hard work for her to think about someone else, to think of how her behaviour made someone else feel.  But as she got to know him better, talking and mucking about, being with Keesha, she had grown more confident.  She liked him.  And she could tell that there was something wrong.  He had come back from his interview with Maani so distant.  He even moved away from her, keeping himself physically away from her.  It made her frown.

            “What is wrong?  What did she tell you?” Talana demanded, taken aback by his withdrawal from her.

            “Nothing, I – I can’t…” he trailed off, his face contorted with anger.  “Maybe it was a mistake for us to be friends, that’s all.” he admitted, in a voice that did not sound convinced of the words he spoke.

            “What?” she said, shocked.  “What are you saying?” she said, grabbing his arm.

            “Don’t touch me, I can’t be your friend any more.  Please let go of me, please.” he implored, untangling his arm from her grip.  He could see the shock in her eyes, could watch the trust she had built up in him crumble away.  Her face went blank and for a moment he found it hard to physically look at her, she seemed to fade.

            “Maani told you to say that, didn’t she?  This is her fault!” Talana said, her voice quiet and controlled.  “Can’t you trust your own feelings?” she railed at him, appalled and obviously hurt.

            He wished he could, but as the guardian, he had to think of Ashlon first.  It was not fair!  He should not have to do this to a friend, not for any queen!  He hated himself.  Darrukin could not take any more, he whirled and left the kitchen, not willing to even look at Talana.  He so much enjoyed her company, they had been getting along so well.  That he was attracted to her was certain, but would never ever have done anything about it without encouragement from her, and from what he knew of her, she was not ready for that.  He sought the lower caverns and Keesha, and stayed, crouched on the sand, trying not to let the anger and the disgust he felt overwhelm him.

            Back in the kitchen, Talana stood and stared after him, completely stunned, as he left the room.  She did not believe what she had heard him say.  Their friendship, a mistake?  Betrayed!  She could not face the stares of the other cooks and assistants, and ran from the room, suddenly frightened again.  How could their friendship be wrong?  In her rush, she almost bowled over Maani.  The sight of the older woman made a part of her snap.  She whirled on her, absolutely furious.

            “You!” she screamed, “You took away my friend!  How dare you do that to me!”  With all the force she could muster, she punched the older woman, landing her a blow that knocked her flying.  Several people rushed to Maani’s aid, and restrained Talana, but she shook them off and stalked off to her room.  Utterly furious, she slammed the thin wooden door, making it shake, and flopped down onto her bed. 

            Slowly, her anger subsided, replaced by guilt about hitting an old woman.  Tears began to fall, slowly at first and then more quickly, and then she could not stop them.  There was pain, reminding of her childhood, when her father drove away any friend she tried to make.  Would the same pattern keep happening in her life?  Why had it happened again?  Maani had been nothing but kind to her so far, why should the old woman drive Darrukin away from her?  They had only just become friends.  She cried until she was exhausted, appalled by the betrayal, astounded that Darrukin would go along with it.  Well, she would know better than to trust anybody, any more.

            Rubbing her jaw, Maani stood up and tried to calm the several outraged voices around her.

            “It’s alright, the girl meant no real harm.  In fact, I think I rather deserved that.” she said, to the disagreement of a few.  “It’s fine, I’m not hurt.  Please return to whatever you were doing.” she continued.  It was obvious that Darrukin had taken to heart her warning about women, and equally obvious that Talana was less than impressed by the idea.  Maani wondered what he had said.  Whatever it had been, he was probably sporting a black eye, or worse.  She had wanted to spare Talana the pain, but still, if it were a choice between Talana's feelings and the Goddess, Talana did not stand much of a chance.

            The Elder walked down towards a class of children, and spoke with their teacher for a moment.  She wanted Darrukin to continue his instruction in sorcery and organised with the instructor a time for them to meet.  After sending a message off to Darrukin to tell him of the arrangement, she sought her peers, the company of friends, wanting to know all that had happened in their parishes.

            The evening came almost too suddenly for Maani, but she did see that all she had asked to be done was done, and everything was in place for the meeting.  The Elders were rested and ready to begin the meeting, and the great cavern was filled with an expectant air, an excited murmur at the opening feast.  They seated themselves one by one at the high table, which overlooked the tables of the other diners at the feast, of which there were a great many.  Maani, as mother of the host parish, sat in the place of honour at the centre of the table, looking out at the faces in the crowd beneath her.  She could pick out Darrukin easily enough, for he was seated at a table close to the high table, but she could not see Talana, not in those seated or in those waiting upon the tables.  Perhaps the young woman was helping out in the kitchens.  Unconsciously, Maani rubbed her jaw, a faint bruise marking the spot where she had been hit.  Her thoughts were elsewhere as the first course was served to the waiting Elders, and the feast began in earnest.

            The feast was a traditional way to welcome guests and begin formal occasions, and it was very welcome to the parishioners below, who partook with gusto and enthusiasm of the food set out before them.  Cooked meats, steaming vegetables, fresh cheeses and fruits and sweets were all waiting to be demolished by the hungry crowd.  She knew that many of the crowd would never have seen so much food at once, living as they did on the topside of the city in poor surroundings.  That such a feast had been organised at all, and in secret, spoke volumes about the dedication of those within the church who were determined to keep the faith alive and not succumb to the Dragon Queen’s evil.  Maani sniffed appreciatively at the hot meat and vegetables before her and sipped her wine.  It was a good vintage, and the food tasted excellent.  She bantered easily with her peers, the dinner a good chance to re-establish connections with her friends and colleagues, to catch up on gossip and news.  Their clandestine nature meant that communications were mostly brief and to the point, not chatty or newsy, and so this relaxed atmosphere, with face-to-face contact, was very welcome.

            When the feasting was over, she announced that the Council would retire.  The crowd below the raised dais of the high table, full and content, waited whiles the Elders retreated to the private conference room set aside for such occasions.  They then dispersed, going home to their houses in the city, or staying in the caverns.

            Darrukin waited outside the door of the conference room, not wanting to enter until called by Maani.  He was still very angry with her for what he had had to do to Talana that day, and was not feeling particularly forgiving.  He wanted only for his ordeal to be over with, so that he could get out of the caverns and away from both Maani and Talana.  Guilt assailed him, he did not want to have to see Talana again if he could help it.  That wasn’t actually true; he did want to see her – a sudden memory of her emerging naked from the cavern pool made him swallow convulsively – but they had begun to become good friends in their short time together, and Maani’s words had totally spoiled that budding friendship.  It could never be the same again, and he felt a sudden loss that he knew was completely inappropriate.  His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of his name being called.

            Entering the room, he saw the Elders seated around a large wooden table, platters of fruit and cheese placed at intervals along it, pitchers of water and goblets as well.  He stared at the faces before him, feeling grim, his lips compressed into a thin, unsmiling line, and waited to be introduced.

            “Elders of the Church of the Goddess, you see before you Darrukin, the Lord of Darr’s third child, Officer in his father’s Army.  He has a story to tell you that is the main reason why I called the Council.  If you please, Darrukin…”  Maani said with formality.

            Darrukin saw the discolouration on Maani’s cheek and wondered what had happened to her.  He said nothing for a moment, but bowed to the assembled Elders and began to tell his story, stark, bare of embellishment, but omitting nothing.  When he was finished, he asked to be excused, and was given leave, with the proviso that he stay within earshot should he be needed to answer any questions.  Bowing once again, he exited the room.

            As he left, he was surprised by Talana, accompanied by one of Maani’s trusted aides.  The aide looked as if he were ready to tackle the young woman.  He wondered why.  Talana’s face was red and her eyes puffy from crying.  She glanced up at him, but her eyes touched his only briefly before she forced herself to look at the ground.  Not before he saw the look of hatred on her face, and depth of hurt that was quite visible.  He stared after her as she entered the room, noting the reluctance with which she did so.

            “Why is Talana appearing before the Council?” he asked the aide, when he came out of the conference room a moment later.  The aide looked at him, a thinly disguised veil of contempt on his face for the young woman.

            “I don’t know,” he snapped, “Probably to mete out some punishment to her for assaulting Mother Maani today.”

            “She did what?” he gasped, startled.

            “The little cat punched Mother Maani!  Unbelievable, isn’t it?  I saw the whole thing.  She was fighting mad, I’ve never seen someone so angry, she just walked up to Maani and punched her, after shouting something about being betrayed.  She ought to be cast out of the Church.”

            “She’s not a member of the Church.” Darrukin said to the outraged aide, who only huffed.  Shocked as he was, he couldn’t help but admire Talana, not for hitting Maani, but for at least being true to herself and letting her outrage be known.  She was certainly not one to take something lying down!

            He sat on a bench close to the conference room, toying with a goblet of water that he had asked Maani’s aide to bring him.  The aide, outraged already, and doubly surprised by Talana’s lack of status within the Church, was not very cooperative, but Darrukin had looked at him in such a way that he scurried off quickly to get the drink.  Well, he had asked nicely.

            He could hear nothing of what went on within the conference room, the Council chamber’s thick wooden door and solid rock walls keeping its secrets locked within.  A little bored, he decided to practice some of the magic he had been learning.  Cortus was not as natural a teacher as Tafta had been, he reflected, but the lessons he taught were far more advanced.  The young man concentrated on a loose stone on the floor.  Sorcery had a trick to it, he had discovered.  It came from the focusing of the will, which could be shaped by words of power and most of all, command.  He had learned that the magic could be suspended in a spell and left alone, one did not need to be there to enforce one’s command with actual will.  He tried to construct a spell that would lift the pebble and hold it in the air.  It took some time and concentration, but eventually the pebble floated up to about knee-height and stayed there.  He stood, keeping his eyes on the stone, whilst walking away from the bench.  He turned his back on the stone, breaking eye contact, deliberately focusing his consciousness on something else, then a minute later, turned back and sat down on the bench.  The pebble still hung there in space.  Feeling happier, he thought about releasing the spell and heard a small clatter as the pebble dropped back to the cavern floor.  Darrukin grinned.

            Talana suddenly burst through the conference room door, and he stood up suddenly, surprised and wanting to know what had happened.  He could hear Maani calling out to her, but she was well away, running, obviously upset.  His first urge was to follow her and ask what was wrong, but he remembered Maani’s warning and pushed the thought away.  Maani herself came out of the Council chamber and looked up at him.

            “Which way did she go?” the old woman asked.

            “That I wouldn’t know.  To her room, perhaps.” he replied, not pleased.

            “I’ll be back in a moment.  Go in and sit down, I’ll explain things when I get back here with Talana.”

            He shot her a dark look as he went back into the conference room while Maani shuffled off in search of Talana.  It was not long before the Elder was back, with an unresponsive Talana in tow.  Her eyes were streaming again.  She sat down opposite him at the conference table and paid no attention to the surrounding Elders, though they asked her questions and looked on excitedly.  Alarm rang within him as he watched her seem to collapse in on herself, shrinking away from the crowd of Elders, a look of fright replacing the stubborn expression of before.  Stranger still, he began to feel another presence in the room, one that was growing in strength.  He had to admit to himself that he had no idea of what was going on.

            “Talana has been very uncooperative.” explained Maani to him, as she came back to her seat and sat down.  “She would not tell her story to the Council and was very rude to all of us.”

            “Do you blame her?” said Darrukin, his anger kindling once more.  “She looks as though she is scared out of her wits.  Look at her!  What are you doing to her?  As if she would tell her story with you all heckling her like that!”   He spoke with heat, trying to calm his growing anger but not able to.  Maani should know that they were treating Talana unfairly.  The old woman looked at him keenly for a moment, as if estimating his strength or determination, all the while his ears filled with a noise like rushing feathers, the presence in the room still growing.

            “You’re right, of course.” said Maani with a sigh, and called the Elders to order.  They subsided, their excited murmurings softening.  Maani spoke again.  “Talana had a dream of the Goddess, in which the Goddess named herself to her, and told her to follow her quest, which was to help you find the Heart of the Dragon.” she said, then twitched, looking about herself queerly, as if she had just noticed something different about the room.  To Darrukin, the presence had grown to such a degree that he could almost reach out and touch it; he could not understand why nobody else could hear or feel it.

            With unexpected abruptness, the braziers that lit the room suddenly extinguished themselves, plunging the entire room into darkness.  It stopped all questions, the arguments, the noise, at once.  Darrukin could barely hear himself breathe, the presence in the room was overpowering.  He gasped, noticing the beginnings of light coming from opposite him.  Pure, golden light suddenly blazed across the room. Talana was bathed in the golden light, yet it seemed to emanate from her, surround her, and encompass her.  A voice which was not hers then spoke through her mouth, in a voice that was rich and warm and made Darrukin feel that he was ready to follow it into the teeth of death.  It was a woman’s voice, but no woman that he had ever encountered had owned a voice so entrancing.

            “Stop!  All of you, stop!  Talana is so frightened she cannot tell you anything.” The voice said from the young woman’s mouth.  Her face held no expression.  It was as if she were not there.

            “Beloved Guardian, you must take this woman Talana with you on your quest.  She knows what she is to do, although she will not remember this.  You will need her on your quest, to help you against the evil of my brother.  Farewell, beloved Guardian, and know that I am with you.”

            The presence vanished at once.  That voice! Come back! There seemed a gaping void in his heart now it was gone.  He tried to reach out towards Talana, towards the voice, with his mind, but found nothing. Dimly, he was aware that the braziers were burning again, as if they had never been extinguished.  But the expressions on the faces of the Elders around him confirmed that something extraordinary had happened to them all.  The silence that hung on them all was broken only by the small voice of Talana, her real voice, as she spoke up from the floor where she had fallen.

            “May I leave now?”

            Darrukin grinned.

            Talana looked at him with resentment; he would laugh at her!  The horrible tension had relaxed now, and she noted that the Elders now looked at her with relieved smiles on their faces, and a kind of awe.  Why?  She could remember nothing of the past few moments, nothing except a faintly pleasant feeling that she hadn’t felt since…since she had dreamed of the golden lady.

            “Elders, I think that was a pretty clear indication of what the Goddess wants to happen, don’t you?”  Maani said loudly, enough to be heard over the growing murmur of voices.  “It would appear then, that Talana and  Darrukin must leave, so that they can pursue the Dragon Heart, and from then, we shall see what happens.”

            “What we need to do, so that they may travel quickly and in peace, is alert all the churches of the true faith to their needs.” said Iskel, one of the Elders.

            “That might also alert the evil ones in our land, Iskel; we do not want the priests of Eshtan to also go after the ring or hamper our guardian here.” commented Forn, scratching his short grey beard.  “If we teach these two the universal signs that will gain them entry to any of our churches, that should be enough.  But Iskel, I think you are right.  We should mobilise somehow, and prepare to combat the palace.”

            “They will need horses, supplies, clothes…and an idea of where they are going.” muttered Keer.  Maani nodded, adding her own comment.

            “We can start organising things amongst our own parishes.  What can each contribute to this quest?”

            A sudden knocking at the door startled them all and stilled conversation.  Forn got up to open it.  A breathless young man was waiting on the other side.

            “Elder Keer, you are needed!” was all he said, gesturing wildly for Keer to follow.  The Elder jumped up immediately, with a frown on his face and a premonition that he was not about to enjoy what was waiting for him.  The other Elders rose, too, and followed him, out into the great cavern and over to one of the hearths that warmed the cave.  A small crowd had gathered, late as it was, and in its centre the Elders saw a broken, ragged man.  He had cuts and bruises all over his body, and he was covered in the filth of the sewers and tunnels through which he must have travelled.  His clothing was torn, every piece shredded and rent in some way.  He lay gasping on the floor, his head on a cushion, drinking in the warmth of the fire.

            “This man is from my parish.” said Keer, dropping to the floor and cradling the man’s head in his lap.  “Jeron, what has happened to you?  Can you speak? Jeron?”  The man stirred slowly from his exhaustion, enough to look up into the Elder’s eyes.  “Fetch water!” Keer ordered sharply, and a second later a goblet was in his hand.  He held it to Jeron’s lips and the man drank a sip.

            “They’ve killed them all.”  Jeron croaked out in anguish.

            “What?  Who do you mean, Jeron?”  Keer asked, watching as Jeron lost consciousness.  A damp rag was thrust towards Keer, who took it and sponged off the unconscious man’s face.  “Jeron!  Wake up!  Wake up!” the Elder barked.  Moaning, Jeron came round, his eyes unfocussed and expression bewildered.  A look of horror crossed his face before he spoke again.

            “The palace guard.”  He said with effort, “They found the church, there must have been a spy amongst us – they killed us all, the whole church.  My family is dead! My little children all murdered!”

            Keer was momentarily dumbstruck, as if he could not absorb what Jeron was saying.

            “Oh, Jeron, everyone…killed?” he whispered in shock.  Jeron nodded weakly, wincing as the movement brought more pain to his body.

            “Even the sick in the hospice.  They were after you.  When they could not find you, they began to butcher everyone!  What are you going to do?”  He groaned, the vision of his young wife attacking the guard that had killed their children brought a tearing pain to his chest, shame to his heart.  He had watched in horror as the guard had casually murdered his children, too horrified to move, to react, but his wife had launched herself at the man, screaming in grief and anguish.  She had taken a sword in her belly and the guard had left her, moving on to others in the bloody confusion.  Doubled over, she looked up at him.  Go, she had mouthed, run.  Run!  Still rooted to the spot, he watched her clasp her children’s bodies to her own and leave this life.  And he had run.

            Jeron ran for his life, ran through the twisting passages and tunnels, pushing past others who also fled, running, not daring to stop, not daring to try and hide, and with only one thought.  To find Keer, to tell him not to come back, to let him know that there was nothing to come back to.  The guards would have murdered everyone they found.  If there were any other survivors, they would know not to come back.

            Keer could see what the effort to talk had cost the man, exhausted and battered as he was. 

            “Jeron, rest now.  You will not be alone, and we will keep you safe.  I’ll stay with you through the night.  First, have something to drink, and eat, if you can.”  He said.  Quickly both appeared, and Jeron was pulled up to a sitting position.  Though weak, the food seemed to do him some good, revive him somewhat.  But his face remained stained with grief and loss and guilt.

            “Come on, let’s find you a bed, and see to those injuries.”  Keer said, and helped carry the man to a place where he could rest.

            The next morning, Keer emerged from the room where Jeron had slept and went straight to the other Council members.  He informed them of the grave news.

            “My Church has been betrayed and most likely, its members scattered or murdered.  The cave system was discovered by Palace Guards and they went in search of me, specifically.  Jeron tells me they slaughtered everyone they came across, including the sick, the elderly and children, when they realised that I was not there.  Jeron lost his wife and two daughters, but managed to escape to come and warn me not to come back.  There is nothing for me to go back to.”  His voice was grim and harsh, roughened by lack of sleep.  “With the Council’s permission, since I have no church to return to, I would like to accompany Darrukin and Talana on their quest.  I hope that Jeron will come, too.”

            “Shouldn’t we send search parties back through the caverns to see if there is anyone else left from your church?” said Phara, her green eyes glistening with moisture at the sad news.  She was one of the younger Elders, only a few years older than Keer.

            “If anyone was alive, then they’d know not to go back.  I would think that the palace guard would be watching the caverns in the hope of catching more members.  I doubt if they would leave any survivors.  If, perchance, anyone did escape the massacre, they would know to go to your church, or to Forn’s – they were aware of the closest churches, and how to find them.  I hope when you return to your parishes, you take them in and give them what I cannot.  Please.” he said with emotion, sitting heavily at the conference table.  “At least Jeron and I can give Darrukin some help, and perhaps some guidance.  The outer churches will recognise me, which might come in handy.” he sighed. “It is a shame that the outer church representatives could not make it to this meeting, we need them.”  Someone placed a hot brew before him, and he took a long draught.  It was bitter but reviving, and he soon downed it.  He turned back to the Council.  “How long do you think it will take for us to prepare to leave?”

            Iskel replied.  “It will take some time to organise some supplies, and make sure we are as prepared as possible, but it shouldn’t take longer than a few weeks at the most.”
            “The quicker Jeron and I get away from the city, the better.  I’ll not leave these caverns in the meantime.  I do not trust myself with what I might do if I run into some palace guards.” he added darkly.

 

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