The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 8
The Thief of Ashlon

            Talana went down to the lower cavern in search of Keesha.  She still visited the bird, although she was careful not to run into Darrukin.  A few times he had been there already and she had departed quickly, unseen, whether for her sake or his she was not sure.  It had been a week since the Council meeting had begun, and she still could not forgive the old woman Maani for what she had done to her friendship with Darrukin, nor would she speak to her.  It was still hard to believe that Darrukin would have broken off their friendship on a word.  Obviously it had not meant much to him.  Disgusted, she knew that she could effectively only leave with the ‘quest’, with Darrukin, and chafed at the prospect – she had thought she had left the manipulations and bullying tactics behind when she left home, only to find them entrenched in this so called ‘church’ of Maani’s.  Interfering people telling her how to live her life, who to be with, who not to be with.  Still, she knew she would only leave with the quest; any other alternative gave her a very bad feeling indeed.  Always a follower of her instincts, she waited until the quest was ready to move.

            Keesha was alone in the dimly lit cavern, and cheeped at Talana when she entered.  They took up their usual game, but somehow it had not been the same lately.  Talana’s mind was on other things.  How was she going to last even one day on a quest with a man who did not want her around?  It was bizarre.  He wouldn’t talk to her, he’d just ride all day, and to what?  What would she do?  She was damned if she was going to be the domestic, and be the one to cook and ensure that his lordship remained comfortable.  A brief smile touched her lips as she thought that perhaps Darrukin would deserve her cooking.

            “Sorry, Keesha, my mind isn’t with it today.  At least you’ll be getting out of here, too, soon.”  She said to the bird, who flew down to her shoulder when their game had lapsed.  The bird made noises in her ear, strange, affectionate mutterings; then squawked loudly as the sound of footsteps approaching made Talana turn suddenly.  Darrukin entered the cavern, his belt-pouch bulging with a struggling, live animal.

            “I’ll get out of your way, Lord Darrukin.”  She said, emphasising the title with sarcasm.

            “No need.  I can ignore you in here just as well, if you prefer.” he retorted coolly.  Word games didn’t work with Darrukin, she knew that much, so she tried to keep her voice calm.

            “Very well, I’ll stay.  At least Keesha still likes me.”

            To demonstrate, she held up her arm, and Keesha hopped down from her shoulder on to it obediently.  She stroked the remarkable blue feathers of the birds’ head.  Keesha’s large orange eyes regarded her kindly, questioningly, then cocked her head in Darrukin’s direction.  Darrukin gave a heavy sigh and held out his own arm for the falcon, whereupon Keesha fluttered over to him, with her usual amount of squawks, cheeps and peeps.

            “Deserted again!  Will I ever have a friend who won’t betray me?”  Talana said without rancor, she knew the falcon would always return to Darrukin.  She took in a large breath and emptied her lungs with a noisy huff.

            “Talana, there were reasons for what I did – why won’t you listen to me?”  Darrukin began, but Talana’s face closed to his entreaty.

            “Listen?  Why should I listen to you?  You did the worst thing anyone possibly could to me.  You took my trust and friendship, and then threw it back at me!  Why should I listen?”  She stormed off, infuriated.  Echoes of her voice lingered around Darrukin as he took the pouch off his belt and opened it.  Keesha rose into the air as he let a rabbit out, she swooped quickly and within seconds the rabbit was being torn to pieces.

            “I’m going to have to spend I don’t know how much time with that woman, Keesha; save me!”  He implored.  Keesha just looked up at him, her beak covered in rabbit blood, and burped.  He knew that was probably the most appropriate comment.

            “I don’t know, I can’t seem to get sympathy from anyone these days.”  He muttered to himself, before casting off his clothing and having a swim in the cavern’s cool waters.

            Keer looked like a fanatic, thought Maani, as she watched him and Jeron exercising in the vast space of the great cavern.  They were practicing sword fighting, sparring with short swords with somewhat rusty skill.  The pair obviously felt that they would be able to provide some sort of physical protection to the quest, but she was not entirely convinced, looking at them.  Probably best to leave any fighting up to Darrukin, whose training, youth and fitness made him far more dangerous a prospect than this pair.  Not that Jeron was old; he looked in his late thirties, and reasonable fit.  At least he had overcome his exhaustion and looked more alive, though his expression barely moved from the grim.  What else could be expected after such a tragic loss?  Jeron’s grimness matched the air of fanaticism that Keer carried about him, perfectly.  She was glad that she was not going on this quest, though she doubted that Talana would tolerate her in any case.  Her thoughts turned to the young woman, perturbed.  Talana had not spoken to her in weeks, not since she had advised Darrukin to be careful about his friendship with the young woman.  The Elder knew that she would likely as not never be forgiven for what Talana perceived her having done.  Not that she blamed the young woman for her reaction, she knew that to have her friends driven away was something that her father had done to her – she had not expected it to happen anywhere else.  Most of all, Maani worried about the upcoming quest, which would leave in a few days.  How would the pair go, out on their own, on a search that might prove fruitless?  She tried not to think about it too much.

            At least Keer’s new-found fanaticism, his all-consuming hunger for the quest, had borne some fruit regarding where the quest would actually begin to look.  Maani was glad of this, for she had been too busy to consult her library of religious, historical and mythological texts.  Keer had spent hundreds of hours in the library, searching for a clue to the whereabouts of the Heart of the Dragon, the ring which would allow Darrukin to fully utilise his power.  He had read the legend of Lord Kerdis, which Darrukin had brought with him, and had gone in search of any corroborating evidence to back up the manuscript’s tale.  He managed to find a snippet, left as a footnote across another retelling of the tale.  In the copy that he found, it described Kerdis as having a sickness in his soul, weak, but still strong enough as guardian to deny the Eshtani sorcerer who was after the ring, and lock it away.  The note scrawled on the side of the manuscript, written some hundreds of years ago itself, stated that ‘they’ should look for the tomb of Kerdis, which might reveal the location of the lost ring.  Keer thought it best that the quest initially head south, towards the old burial grounds of the queens and their guardians.  Maani considered it rather macabre to search for a tomb and break into it, but if in the end Eshtan’s power would be diminished, she would sanction it.  She watched as Darrukin, seeing the older men at practice, retrieved his own sword from his quarters and demonstrated a few more complex movements for them.  He sparred with Jeron, the speed and agility with which he brought Jeron to surrender a pleasure to watch.

            At last the day came when the quest was fully prepared.  Horses had been arranged and would be met on the edge of the city, four for riding and two pack-horses to carry extra supplies.  Talana, Darrukin, Keer and Jeron wove their way through the complex system of tunnels and passages that made up the underground cave system, not risking going above ground until absolutely necessary.  Maani, and the remaining Elders, had seen them off from the great cavern in a simple farewell ceremony, which the four travellers endured rather than enjoyed, eager as they were to get away from their underground life and be out, on the quest, doing what they were supposed to.

            Ever careful as they reached the surface of the city, the group made their way to the appointed area and found their mounts.  A small group from Iskel’s church met them and they had a last meal in the garden of a disreputable looking hotel.  Darrukin and Talana in particular were trying to get used to the awfully bright light of the sun once more, not having been above ground much during their stay with Maani’s church.  Keesha had taken off as soon as they had reached the surface, soaring to freedom.  Darrukin was not worried, he knew that she needed to stretch her wings and really fly once more, glad to be out of the cavern, as indeed was he.  If he looked hard enough he could see the speck that she was in the bright blue sky.  He vowed never to live in a cavern for any length of time again.

            All four travellers felt strange, taking their leave of Iskel’s parishioners, and mounting up when the time came.  Talana, for one, had never ridden a horse before and looked apprehensively down at the ground from her perch on the saddle.  Keer assured her that she would get the hang of riding very quickly, though she would be very sore for the first week or so.  This did not please her.  Her uncomfortable silence with Darrukin was also a source of concern for the group.  The Elder and Jeron chose to ignore the problem with the younger pair, and Darrukin himself decided that she was just trying to disconcert him with her silence.  She had not spoken to him for days, but the truth was, she did not know what to say or how to approach him.  What was worse, she realised how her treatment of him appeared to others, but did not know what to do about it.

            The group set off, mid-morning, from the edge of the city.  The sun was already hot and the cobbled streets had turned into dusty, unpaved lanes which left a cloud of dust hanging in the air if anyone passed.  As they wound their way through ramshackle houses, market gardens and the farmlets that edged the great city, there were many other travellers on the road, in carts piled high with produce to sell, with horses, on foot or riding pedalled machines.  The four of the quest were no more conspicuous than any other.  Short swords were worn at every side except Talana’s, but this was not unusual for people on the move.  Talana did not know how to use a sword, so had none.

            The traffic thinned considerably once they were on the open road – freight was usually carried on the river by boat, as were passengers.  Without the impediment of other people or vehicles, they were able to stretch the horses to a canter and pick up speed, eager to make some distance between themselves and the city.  It jolted Talana’s bones to jelly, but at least they were at last, away.


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