The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 10
The Thief of Ashlon

            Once out of the heights of the mountain range, and amongst the foothills, the travelling became easier.  The forest became more open and brighter, hot sunlight filtered down to the earth below.  The trees still stretched tall above the company, but the undergrowth was less tiring to fight through.  Birds screeched and flew off in alarm as Keesha dropped through the trees to rejoin the company, landing on Darrukin’s outstretched arm.  She hopped up on to his shoulder and rode with him, making noises in his ear.  His shoulder provided a good resting place, free from the hassles of other birds which might mob her.

            The going was slow as the path was vague.  Darrukin felt frustrated at their progress, although he was not sure if that was the only reason why he felt so odd.  He had been thinking about his role as the Guardian again, how it had affected him so far, and what else it might do to his life.  His mind raced ahead of himself, always in motion, strange and half-fearful thoughts whirling through his brain as he sat on his grey stallion with Keesha at his shoulder.  The heady smell from the forest and the motion of the horses, the increasing heat of the day lulled the riders into a somnolence that was almost unnatural; Darrukin felt that at least one of them, himself, should remain as alert as possible.  The possibility of the Queen’s spies, or guards, could erupt at any time.  He was keenly aware of his companions, if careful not to seem like he was paying much attention to them.  Jeron’s pain was clear to him, almost as if it were a blemish on his face.  It contorted the man, wrapping around his heart, choking it.  Keer’s own feelings about the massacre affected him in a subtly different way to Jeron’s loss.  It lay somehow deep and blue in his mind; an icy, cool and detached grieving that seemed at odds with Keer’s usually sunny nature.  Darrukin was not sure how he could see these things, or rather, know them as if by instinct.  He suspected it was something that his sorcery teacher back at the caverns had taught him unconsciously.  If Darrukin looked closely enough, he could really see these people’s unconscious selves – Maani had called it ‘truth-sight’.  He felt the name was appropriate.  Yet he could not see more than the surface of Talana, no matter how hard he concentrated on her.  She was riding ahead of him, with Keer.  He watched her for a moment, the sun catching a gold light in her hair, the brown-gold mass hanging loose at her shoulders.  She was laughing at something that the Elder had said, a happy noise.  Darrukin cleared his throat.  He could not see to her heart.  Had Maani, and Asikei?  Had they, being more powerful and more practiced at this art, been able to penetrate the fog which seemed to surround her when he looked at her with truth-sight?  He looked away from the young woman, his face hardening with frustration as he kicked his grey on, taking the horse around Keer and Talana and out in front of the company.

            The track they followed was thin, barely recognisable, but there.  Darrukin had no knowledge of the particular area but it was familiar nonetheless, the forest, the foothills, not too dissimilar from Darr.  The same birds and forest animals inhabited it.  The going was tiresome, weaving up and down the foothills, but so far, there had been no trouble, and their way was unimpeded, though slower than expected.  His thoughts turned once again to Talana.  She was a mystery to him.  If Talana was a link to the Goddess, as the Goddess herself had indicated, then there must be some way she could help him find the Heart of the Dragon.  But how?  What possible use could she be in his quest?  He felt uneasy, something was amiss somehow.  It was on the edge of his mind, but he was unable to grasp it.  Troubled, he drew further in front of the company and splashed his way through a small stream which cut across the path.

            Something flashed across his gaze as his horse mounted the opposite bank of the stream.  He did not see it clearly, but was left with the impression of something small, brown and scurrying.  Dismissing it as some harmless forest creature surprised by his abrupt movement, he thought no more about it.  Yet a strange mood settled on him, and he felt as if he were being observed from a distance.  The stallion felt it too, and snorted, pacing restlessly as they waited for the others to catch up.  Keer gave him a quizzical look as he came up the bank, his horse pushing aside the bracken fern that was thick upon the ground.  Jeron followed, impassive as usual, leading the pack horses.  Talana came up last, and stared at him as she moved after the others.

            “What’s wrong with you?” she asked as she passed, and it sounded like a genuine question.  Darrukin frowned but did not answer, as she had moved on, obviously not really expecting him to answer her in any case.

            The days continued in a similar vein, as they picked their way through the rocky and forest-covered foothills.  Talana could not bring herself to speak with Darrukin any more than strictly necessary, as it seemed that her attempts were rebuffed at every turn.  Darrukin for his part, could not shake the feeling that the company was being watched. He trusted his instincts for such things and spent several sleepless nights, listening intently to the sounds of the forest, trying to discern something which would give away why he felt as he did.  The sensation certainly grew as time passed.

            To distract himself, or help, he was not sure, he asked for Keer’s help in teaching him more about sorcery.

            “It’s really very simple.” said Keer, pleased to be asked.  “Sorcery, as you would know by now, is based upon the will of the sorcerer.  What you believe will happen, can happen; if you forget your preconceptions and just accept it as happening.” 

            Darrukin had never thought about it that way.  His previous teachers had told him that sorcery depended on his strength of will.  He supposed it amounted to the same thing.

            “Try this exercise.”  Keer said, interrupting Darrrukin’s reverie and drawing his attention to a rock in the middle distance.  “Lift that.  Imagine it up in the air, free from the dirt.  It is quite easy.” he added.  The young man looked at the elder, doubt twisting his expression.  Trying to keep his mind off the gentle swaying of his horse, he looked at the rock.  It looked heavy, so he chose a rotted log beside it.  Technically, he understood that physical weight had nothing to do with what he was about to attempt, but he also felt certain that he could not lift that rock only using his mind.

            “So a spell would only really help me to hold it there if I leave.” Darrukin asked, his brow furrowed in concentration, thinking about the pebble he lifted in the cavern, “That’s right, isn’t it?”

            “Yes, in a manner of speaking.  Your spells help you to concentrate and leave the rock there permanently, or until the spell fails by one means or another.  Spells can be broken, but we’ll not worry about that just yet.” said Keer.

            The log, now much closer, filled Darrukin’s vision.  He pictured it in the air in the same way as the pebble had hung, but the thought of how heavy it was seemed to keep it down on the ground.

            “Just relax, and take your time.  Think of something trivial or silly, that helps to loosen up your mind.” Keer urged him gently, sensing his difficulties.  Darrukin tried again.  This time he pictured the log as a giant sandwich, the most bizarre thing he could think of at that moment.  It was very silly, but it worked, he felt more at ease.  Concentrating, he pictured a giant sandwich hanging in the air, and then put the log in its place, levering it up, raising it from the ground, letting the dirt and leaves fall to the ground.  It was no heavier than the pebble.

            “Good, Darrukin.  Now the rock?” Keer smiled.

            “I went for the log because I thought the rock would be too heavy.  I’ll try now.” he said, lowering the log, allowing the myriad of its insect denizens to get back to their scurrying lives under more normal circumstances.  Focusing on the boulder, Darrukin lifted it easily, and then to try something new, he tossed it with his mind, sending it crashing down the slope of the hill they were travelling on.  Keer applauded and then hastily sought to calm both Jeron and Talana, who had both turned to see what the commotion was.  Darrukin smiled, a broad grin that held Talana motionless for a second.  He had a sudden idea, and without thinking, imagined her floating above her horse, dangling in the air.  With a wicked expression on his face, he applied his will, and up she went with a look of the greatest surprise on her face.

            “What’s going on!” she screamed out, her voice rising in sudden fear.  Her horse bolted off, startled, and she brushed past branches but could not grab anything to stop her levitation.  “Stop this NOW!”

            Her scream pierced through his consciousness.  Appalled at what he’d done, he gently put her on the ground, not letting her fall unceremoniously.  He felt strange, and looked about himself, searching for something.  Her horse?  Before she could say anything he turned the grey stallion and trotted after the black mare, which hadn’t gone far.  He returned, leading the animal back to Talana.

            She was livid.  Her initial fear had subsided and he could tell that both Keer and Jeron were receiving an ear-bashing from her that they did not deserve.  How could he had done that to her?  He did not know what came over him. 
            “What on earth were you doing to me?” she lashed out at him as soon as he came within range.  He handed the reins to her mare and felt hostility coming in waves off her.  Her eyes were flashing, dangerously blue, and her she stood tall, undiminished by the fact that the men around her were all seated on horseback.  She seemed to tower in front of them nevertheless.

            “It was unforgivable, I’m sorry, Talana.  I don’t know why I did it, but I was just practicing my sorcery.” he said, keeping his voice controlled.  In truth he had no notion of why he’d picked her.

            “Well, if it’s attention-seeking behaviour, it sure worked!  Imbecile! Don’t you ever do that again, do you hear me? ” she snarled.  Sunlight caught her hair and turned it bright gold, she looked for all the world like a golden lion, ready to pounce.  He was so astonished that for a moment he could do nothing but stare.  Then several epithets that Darrukin would never have dreamed of ever uttering flowed from her lips, along with expletives that made his ears burn.

            “Don’t be so unladylike, Talana,” he said, “Perhaps I should have let your horse run free, we’d be far better off without you on this trip.”  As soon as he said the words he regretted them.  There was a sharp intake of breath from both Keer and Jeron, and an odd pause from Talana, as if she were waiting.  But he would not apologise.

            “Darrukin, you frightened her!” exclaimed Keer, who felt like banging their heads together.  “Both of you calm down.”

            “Oh, don’t worry, I’m calm.” said Talana, in a deadly tone.  “At least it is clear where I stand with the young lord.” she sneered, mounting her horse.  Glaring at Darrukin, she turned her mount back to the path and kicked her up to a canter, almost going too fast to see the thin, spidery track.  Keer threw his hands up in a gesture of defeat, not sure whether he should take Darrukin to task for treating her that way.  Could he?  This was Darrukin’s quest after all, not his; he was tagging along. Darrukin was nominally in charge of where they were going.  But Talana was there because the Goddess had said she was to go.  The Goddess had spoken through her.  That was worth much to Keer, no matter that neither he nor anyone else knew what her role would really be.  How could Darrukin have treated her so?

            Darrukin wheeled his horse and without speaking to anyone else, turned and followed Talana, trotting quickly in her wake.  Keesha screeched over head, and he raised his arm for her to come and sit on.  Keer watched, with Jeron, as the younger pair left them behind.

            “Probably best to let them sort it out, sir.” Jeron surprised him by speaking in his deliberate manner, before trotting off after Darrukin, leading the pack horses again.  Unsure of what he meant, Keer was momentarily stunned until he realised he was being left behind, and cantered after them.

            That night, the small campfire burned and crackled, providing the only noise except for the restless stamping of the horses.  Jeron attended to them, partly because he enjoyed the task, but mainly to get away from the tense atmosphere between Talana and Darrukin.  A sullen silence had developed between them, they would not speak to each other or even acknowledge the other’s presence.  It was not a happy night.  The long smooth strokes of his curry comb soothed both him and the horses, and he made small, comforting noises as he worked.  Looking at Talana and Darrukin, he thought of his wife and children.  Odd.  Surely they were safe back in the church?  He missed them, but this time was different.  Whenever he thought about them, there was a gnawing pain in his chest and he would find himself breathing too fast.  It distressed him, so he tried his best to push thoughts of them aside. No doubt they were all happily asleep in their home, and would go to the church the next day for school and to work there.  Darkness settled around the camp, the light of the fire the only illumination now.  The shadows played around him in the dark, as he was several metres away, the horses hobbled close by in the forest.  Jeron heard Keer talking to Talana and Darrukin, trying to lift the oppressive atmosphere from the younger pair, but not succeeding at all.  The elder was an odd one, the way he looked after them all, and paid particular attention to himself.  Jeron had forgotten why he had even come on this quest; surely he would be better off back with his wife and children, working in the hospice?  His wife, her rich brown hair in his face, the giggling of their children as they played.  He could feel the pain building up, the discomfort.  What was wrong?  Had he forgotten something?  Had he left without saying goodbye?  He could not honestly remember.  When he left the horses and moved back to the fire, he realised there were tears in his eyes.  Why?  Uneasily, and silently, he took out his bedroll and got into it, trying not to look at the others as he sought sleep.  But it was a long time before sleep would come; he was glad when Darrukin shook him gently and asked him to take over the watch.

 

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