The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 9
The Thief of Ashlon

 

            By the end of the first day, Talana knew exactly what was meant by the words ‘saddle-sore’.  Much as she enjoyed riding the black mare that was assigned to her, she did not realise quite how difficult it would be to walk after a few hours in the saddle.  The company stopped about mid-afternoon to rest their mounts, and she lightly hopped down from the mare’s broad back.  When she hit solid ground, she lurched alarmingly, her legs felt like jelly; it was difficult to control them.  This brought a few smirks from her male companions, which were immediately silenced by the poisonous looks she gave them.

            They were well outside the city now, turning back, it could only be seen as a dim smudge on the horizon.  Talana was thrilled to see the countryside, it was so open and fresh to her.  Darrukin had lived in it all his life and rather took it for granted, he could barely see why she made such a fuss.  The four had followed a dirt highway that mostly paralleled the Tashmar river.  The stop they made was by a ford in the river, they crossed with their horses before unsaddling them and resting the sturdy beasts.  The horses drank deeply from the waters, although being downstream from the city meant that the water was none too clean.  Jeron fixed a small meal from their supplies.           

            There was little talk and after an hour, unspoken agreement led the group to pack up once more and head off, this time down the far side of the river.  Talana would occasionally point out things and ask Keer about them, but mostly the four kept their thoughts to themselves.  The horses plodded on, their rhythmic gait lulling the company into a watchful silence.  There was no sign of anyone following them, but Talana knew that her father would still want to find her, if he was alive.  Fervently, she hoped he was not, but the doubt left her feeling uncomfortable.

            “Where are we heading, anyway?” she asked Keer.  The Elder held a map and could figure out their direction, which impressed the young woman.  If it weren’t for the river, Talana knew that she would be totally lost in minutes.  And they would have to leave the river sooner or later, in order to reach the desert regions in which the tomb of Lord Kerdis lay.  She did know that they were going to search for the tomb first, and that it lay to the south of Tashmar.  Having never really travelled, she was unaware of how long the journey might take, and asked this of Keer, as she shaded the sun from her eyes, looking ahead.

            “I think it would be best if we headed for those mountains to the south of us.  They take us a little out of our way, but once we are on the seaward side of them, we will probably not want for water, and we will be well out of range from most prying eyes.  People usually travel to Seer via the inland sea, but that is too dangerous, there are too many chances for the Dragon Queen’s spies to find us.”  He answered, looking up into the sky. It stretched blue and clear above them.  The sun, on its way west, burned brightly, the hot yellow ball hurting the eye to look at.  Farmed fields surrounded the travellers, but Keer knew that these would peter out as they drew away from the river.  The few small towns and villages that dotted their path should present no impediment to their journey, and they should make good time.  “We should reach the desert in about two weeks.”

            “Two weeks!” Talana cried, surprised that it would take so long.  She was rocked by the thought that she would be spending the next two weeks in the saddle – and with the sullen Darrukin.  What would it be like?  Talana frowned.

            “Yes, that’s making good time.  If we have any problems, our trip might take longer.”  The black-haired Elder said.  He’d seen her reaction, and thought it best that she know exactly what she was in for.  “Have you ever spent much time travelling, Talana?”  When she shook her head, he kicked his horse over to hers and led her aside, letting the other pair ride some distance before them.  “I’d better tell you a few things about it, then, just to prepare you.  I wouldn’t want you to get embarrassed or shocked by living a nomadic lifestyle.” he said, and proceeded to discuss with her the ins and outs of travelling, how to make it easy on herself, how to look after her horse and basic navigation.  Their voices were a low murmur, like the running water they followed.

            As dusk fell, and the company halted to bed down for the night, pulling away from the river and finding an open field in which the horses could graze, and a copse of trees that might provide some shelter should the wind pick up.  Talana felt more confident about travelling.  Simple things like camp hygiene had been explained to her, and she followed what Keer had told her implicitly.  She knew that eventually it would become routine for her to see to her horse before she cooked a meal, or to help out with the other animals to free up another of the company to do so.  Her legs ached dreadfully, and she could almost see the bow shape that the horse’s body had forced them into; certainly she felt they’d been irrevocably bent.  Ignoring the pain her legs gave her, she reached across the black mare’s back and brushed her glossy coat, working out the lines of the saddle.  The mare snorted appreciatively, but jumped when Keesha screeched in to land on Talana’s shoulder.  The young woman, too, was startled by the bird’s sudden appearance, but not unhappy, saying hello and stroking her feathers.  She was amazed at Keesha’s glorious colour, ranging from grey-blue on her breast feathers to a much deeper, cobalt blue across her hood and back.  The bird looked much happier now she was out of the caverns and able to really fly, and had only been seen a few times that day by the company.  The bird swooped over to Darrukin, as he bent over a cook-pot preparing their dinner.

            “How is it going?” asked Keer of Talana, as she sat beside the fire, easing herself down to join the others after finishing off her horse.  He could see the pain that the riding had caused her but knew better than to draw attention to it.  He wasn’t feeling the best himself, having not ridden for a while.

            “Oh, generally alright.” she replied.  The light was fading fast and the glow of the fire reflected in her eyes.  “I shall sleep very well tonight.”

            “Do you think we need a watch, Darrukin?” the Elder asked as the young man dished out four portions of a quick stew, handing the plates around.  The food smelled good and they all attacked it with gusto.

            “I shall sit up and watch first, then wake you or Jeron. It’s probably wise to get into the habit.  I haven’t seen any evidence that we are being followed, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t.” he replied, stuffing food into his mouth.  He was tired, but would take the first watch, and would sleep lightly, in case anything should happen.  He saw that Talana was very tired, knew that Keer had found the day wearying, although Jeron seemed to be fine.  They could take over when he grew too tired to remain alert.

            “Alright then.  Well, I’ll bed down here, but I’ll just check on the horses.”  Keer said, finishing his food and rising to go and check on the animals, which were hobbled.  A light wind had sprung up although there was no cloud, so they did not expect rain.  The camp was in the open, the long grass enabling the horses to feed.  Satisfied, he came back to the fire and found Talana already curled up under a blanket, her eyes closed.  He lay down across from her and was soon asleep.

            One bright moon rose during the night, which disturbed Talana’s rest.  She woke, its light in her face, and a strand of her long hair tickling her nose.  She brushed the hair away irritably, half asleep, then noticed that the fire had died down.  A short way away she could hear the horses, stamping and snorting every now and then, and she could see out of the corner of her eye that Jeron was awake and sitting up.  He was still, looking about, but not in her direction.  It seemed quite peaceful, with the wind blowing fresh across her face, scented with an earthy, country smell that she was totally unfamiliar with.  Her thoughts turned to Darrukin.  Their silence had grown worse during the day.  She felt intimidated by his stony gaze and fixed attention on things other than her.  It was not that which really bothered her, but the seemingly senseless action that he had taken that had upset her.  Telling her that she should no longer be friends with him, really!  Should she say something?  It might make travelling easier if she did. In the morning, she would speak with him, though what she would say she didn’t know.  Taking that decision made her feel more comfortable, and she relaxed, falling asleep once more despite the moon’s white incandescence.

            The weather was clear and fresh when she awoke the next morning, a light breeze still dancing across the paddocks.  After a quick breakfast, the four mounted up and resumed their path, heading further towards the mountains that hovered on the horizon as a faintly purple blur.  Talana’s face twisted as she rediscovered her sore legs and stretched muscles from the previous day’s riding, but did not complain.  She didn’t want to give the others the satisfaction of knowing just how sore she was, nor would she let herself become a burden on them.  Besides, the riding was getting easier, and she trotted her mare over to Keer’s chestnut, and they led the way in silence, Darrukin, Jeron and the pack animals taking up the rear.

            By mid-morning, the sun had risen high and was becoming hot.  The company took it slowly, walking, allowing the horses time to drink and feed at intervals along the riverside road.  The area was still dominated by farmland on the rich alluvial soil.  It was very green, and the cool breeze made it quite comfortable to travel.  Talana decided that she might as well try and talk to Darrukin, to make up with him if she could, and try to make their journey together easier.  She kicked her horse on, up to his great grey stallion.  As she drew alongside him, he glanced at her, his face betraying no emotion.  Plucking up some courage, she looked at him as squarely as she could and drew in breath to speak.

            A fox darted out from the roadside verge and streaked across the road in front of Talana’s horse, a flash of red-brown across their paths.  The black mare reared in surprise, almost unseating her, as Darrukin’s grey startled.  The mare took off at a fast gallop, bolting down the dirt road at great speed.  Talana yelped in surprise and hung on to the saddle, not sure of how to slow the beast since she’d dropped both her reins and her stirrups.  Crying out, she could not tell if she could be heard, looking back over her head, she saw that she was out-distancing the others quickly.  Trying to reach out for her reins, which flapped uselessly at her horse’s neck, she nearly lost her grip as she pitched forward, off balance against the horse’s quick movement.  Just as suddenly, Darrukin’s grey stallion drew close, the young man caught the reins and gently slowed the horses down, bringing them to a halt.

            “Thankyou.”  Talana said, breathing heavily as she put her feet back in the stirrups and collected the reins from Darrukin.  He looked at her with a hard stare.

            “I’ll lead you if you need it.” he said, no hint of friendliness in his tone. 

            Talana, her face already white, felt herself pale even more.  She gave up any thought of trying to reconcile herself with him at that moment.  Blaming her indeed! Hadn’t he seen the fox?

            “And have to look at you all day?  No thanks.” she said, calmly but with vitriol.  Resettling herself in her saddle, she kicked her horse on, taking her up to a canter that put distance between herself and the young man.  Within, she was boiling with anger.  How dare he say such a thing?

            Darrukin watched her dark figure make its way up the road and cursed himself inwardly.  He’d been childish; mind you, she had been no better.  What had made him snap at her like that?  He’d got the sense that she might have been about to talk to him before her horse bolted.  One could never quite tell with Talana.  The others drew up to him, looking at him quizzically, but he just shook his head, saying nothing as he moved on with them in her wake.

                        *          *          *          *          *

            They rested at the last town marked on their map in the direction they were heading, giving the six horses a good feed of oats and mash, as well as replenishing themselves with supplies.  The townsfolk, welcoming of strangers, fed them with news that had been passed along by the river traffic that had passed through the small town.

            “There’s some big deal going on in the city, and I don’t rightly likes it.” said one old man, drinking his ale in the tavern where they had stopped for a meal.  It was a typical tavern, with a straw-strewn floor in the taproom to soak up the frequent spillages, dogs scavenging amongst the tables and guests ranging themselves on broad wooden benches.

            “Do you know what is going on?” enquired Keer, his easy manner – and paying for a drink – making the old man talkative.  He waited patiently for an answer as the old man scratched at his grubby beard.

            “Well, as far as I can figure, mister, there’s some folk up in the town that we don’t want to name, ‘cos if we do, they might raise our taxes or such, if they finds out.  But I’ll tell y’something, they are pretty het up about some to-do, and it ain’t good at all.”  The old man paused to scratch himself again, though this time it wasn’t his beard that got the attention.  He eyed Talana with something akin to wonder on his face, and beamed at her, his old face crinkling up as an idea hit him.  “I’ll gives y’ten pieces of silver for y’woman, I will!”  he blurted out to the elder.  Twisting his face to avoid smiling, Keer turned to Talana to calm her down, as she had immediately puffed up at the old man’s suggestion.  She looked at the elder darkly, but remained silent.

            “Perhaps we can come to an accommodation about that at a later time.” said Keer, “But right now, I’m more interested in any news from the city.  You do have more news, don’t you?” he said lightly, but challenging the old man’s apparent knowledge.

            “I heard it from an honest merchant, I did! Sure as rain falls, the city is a buzzin’and a screamin’, and the Queen is furious and has sent out her guards.”

            “Whatever for? Is there some kind of discontent in the city?” Keer asked, an ominous feeling edging into him.

            The old man seemed to collapse into himself, shrinking up.  “Now that I don’t rightly know, sir, but whatever the reason, it must be very important to the Queen if she is willing to send out extra guards. There’s enough in the city as it is!”

            “Ah, nevermind.” said Keer, inwardly disappointed.  He would have felt more comfortable if he could have extracted some more detailed knowledge from the man, but at least that knowing there was a disturbance in the city enough for the Queen to call out more guards was something.  The group was not really that far away from the city, not by river, so they would have to be careful lest they be the reason for the commotion.  He rose from the stained wooden table, and paid the barmaid a few coins, enough to keep the old man happily in beer for a while yet.  The Elder motioned to the others, and they retired for the night to the rooms they had rented above the taproom.  They met in one room before turning in, to discuss what, if anything, they had found out from other customers below.

            “I think we had better leave early tomorrow, and get away from the river as quickly as possible.” he said, after explaining what he had heard.  The others agreed, as they had gleaned as much from those they had spoken to.  It was not clear if the Queen even knew that the group existed, or their intention to find the Heart of the Dragon, but it was better that they beware, for the Queen had spies everywhere and might just know their movements.  Getting away from the river would be the simplest way for them to make it that much more difficult for spies to find them.  They said goodnight.

            Talana felt uneasy.  She had not yet felt the touch of fear that she had when she was a runaway child, and she wondered if she would.  Was her father dead?  If there was any life in him, she knew that he would chase her, track her down, and so she expected to feel the chilling shiver at any moment  The expectation weighed upon her, and it was with trepidation that she lay down on the musty bed in the tavern, the others with her bringing little comfort.

            They woke early and packed quickly, barely taking advantage of the hot bath available.  Talana did, cleaning and scrubbing her body while she could, and attending to the large red-raw patches on her legs and backside.  They stung!  Without much delay, the four were on the road again, and kept a low profile through the town, not wishing to be noticed as they left.  The river was busy with fisherfolk and merchant ships plying back and forth, which took most of the attention of the town, or so they hoped.   As soon as they had drawn well clear of the town and its surrounding farmland, they angled away from the river, heading more directly for the mountains on the horizon.  Once off the highway they felt more comfortable.  The open woodland was easy to travel through, being mostly large deciduous trees mixed with evergreens, the tangy scent of pine in the air.  Birds and insects played their tunes as the company moved forward, approaching the foothills.

            “We’ll have to find a pass over the mountains” Keer announced, looking up at the looming giants above them.  The mountains thrust up from the ground like a breach in the earths’ crust, rising imposingly above the four travellers and dwarfing them, though they were still many miles away.  The open forest continued up their side, growing right up to the peaks like a soft, green mantle.  Talana was enchanted.

            “Is there no other way?  Can we not skirt round them?”  asked Darrukin, looking with concern at a few rocky faces, bands of different coloured stone adding colour to the cliffs, with crystalline surfaces glittering in the mid-morning sun.

            “No, I don’t think so.  There’s a path marked on this map, so we should be able to find a way through.” Keer answered.  Jeron grunted and kicked his horse on.

            “Let’s get on with it then, and see how long it takes to climb.” He called over his shoulder as he moved away.  The others trotted briskly after him, their mounts catching up as they went through the forest.

            The trees thickened as they climbed, becoming darker and denser as they ascended.  Light penetrated the canopy and filtered down upon them in dappled patches, and the birds continued to sing.  Keer led, navigating as best he could with only vague reference points to guide him, stopping frequently to gauge where they were with Darrukin’s help.  The going was slow but Talana was clearly enjoying herself, the fresh air, the smell of the trees and the forest all new to her.  She had a dreamy expression on her face.

            Darrukin watched her, feeling rather less than romantic about their present circumstances.  He’d spent too many times on military exercises out in forests, sleeping on hard ground, getting wet when it rained, cold when it snowed and sweltering when it was too hot, digging through rock-like ground constructing obstacles, or having to be silent as they lay in wait in an ambush.  He liked forests, but found himself looking at them from a military perspective: what cover was there, where was the high ground, what would be an effective defence?  The forests could hide much that helped or hindered, and he was familiar with the life they were now leading.  He was certain that Keer had a little experience of travelling, and thought that Jeron, like Talana, had possibly no experience at all.  Jeron was a city-dweller like the young woman, and appeared to spend much of his time looking about him in wonder, as she did.

            The fleeting movement of forest animals caught Talana’s eye, flashes of brown or grey scurrying away, bright birds screeching protest at the strange invasion that the four travellers represented.  People did not travel far from the water in Ashlon, there were many rivers and coastline along which most settlements were built.  When they did go off the river, people usually followed a road.  The company was following a path, faintly marked, like the last vestige of a more-travelled route gone to ruin.

            Though impressive, the mountains were not so high as to be impassable, but it was a steep climb through the thickening forest as they followed the path.  It wound its way through the trees, serpentine, becoming so steep that the riders eventually had to dismount and lead their horses.  The path they followed turned and twisted, going ever upwards until they reached a narrow saddle between two rock-faced mountains.  It looked as though the two mountains strained away from each other, each seemed to look in the opposite direction.  The saddle itself was thinly treed, there was grass growing, and a small rivulet seemed to ooze out of the rock on one side of the pass, forming a stream.  The four paused, catching their breath on the level patch of ground, the horses snorting and stamping in the cool and strangely quiet atmosphere. 

            “Shall we rest a moment here?” asked Keer, looking around at the others.  The sun was high, reaching over them and beginning its long descent towards the west.  The others agreed, and they let the horses drink and graze, filled water bottles and ate sparingly. 

            “You did well to lead us here.” Jeron remarked to Keer as they ate, gathering around the packs which they had stripped off the horses.  No fire was lit, but the packs formed a centre around which they all ate.  Darrukin looked up with a surprised expression on his face; Jeron was not talkative.  Keer laughed in a self-effacing manner.

            “Don’t be too sure, we’ve yet to go down.” he said, smiling at the younger man.  The Elder was worried about Jeron, who seemed so quiet, too quiet, for a man who had suffered such a massive loss as that of his family.  Keer expected to hear outburst of grief, sobs, crying – anything but the pent-up silence that Jeron presented them with.  He could see that the pain Jeron felt was being internalised, pushed aside, but he knew that the grief would grow like a canker and cause harm if it were not expressed sooner or later.  It would hurt Jeron.  His own pain, the loss of his church, the people, he carried around with him in silence. He did not want to think about it too much, and so was as yet not willing to try to force a response from Jeron.  But it would have to come sooner or later.

            They spent a delightful hour or so resting, taking advantage of the water, and searching for any fresh food that might be around.  The stream was too small for fish, too close to its source, but the water was pure and drinkable.  Soon it was time to continue, so they gathered up their packs, resaddled the horses and got on their way, once more leading the horses.

            The path they followed, a mere shadow amongst the thick trees was slippery and far rockier than that of the rising side.  It was more of a fight to get through on the seaward side, but Keer assured them they were heading in the right direction though the path looked more like an animal track.  Darrukin’s cross-checking confirmed it.

            “We must be in…Rabta, is that right?” Talana asked Keer, who nodded his head.  He was vaguely surprised by her knowledge until he remembered Maani telling him that she had been a student of Asikei’s.  Another one who has lost someone, he thought with sorrow.

            “That’s right.” he said, striking up a conversation. “We are on the mainland of Rabta, though they have a large island off the coast which they use mostly; they have little to do with this area of their territory.  Sailors, mostly, so they like to stay by the sea and the river.”

            “Do they use the inland sea much?” she asked, the distant memory of her geography lessons with Asikei coming to mind.

            “Yes, and no.  They prefer the ocean, and the rivers; the inland sea does not have a tide, so they have to rely on wind or oar power. It’s more difficult to negotiate, but they do use it.  Their city on the island is quite spectacular, you should visit it some time.”  he said.  Keer himself was from Maradi, one of the three northern provinces along with Darr and Wal-Mai.    Maradi was sometimes a harsh, stark land, producing hardy people in its northernmost areas, though there was rich farmland in the more temperate areas.  Maradians used the coast and the rivers as well, but were keener to use their interior, unlike the Rabtans.  Keer could understand that Rabta’s interior was sometimes very hot, very dry, and so farming was that much more difficult.  It was not the most fertile of provinces.  The company would travel through the mountains and along the foothills, guaranteed water and cover, and perhaps even fresh food, but further down towards the sea, which was hundreds of miles distant, the plains were hot and dry.  There was a river that ran down from the inland sea, dividing Rabta from the province of Seer, through a strange and twisted gorge cutting through an implacable desert.  It was towards this that the company was traveling, for within the desert gorge were the tombs of the Queens and their Guardians, in a secret valley, a place created by flash-floods and violent winds.

 

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