The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 11
The Thief of Ashlon

The four riders spent the next week travelling in virtual silence through the foothills, making their slow way along the edge of the mountains.  The mood that had taken them the day Darrukin had lifted Talana by sorcery had not left them, they were all sullen and unhappy.  Too far inland to see or smell the salt of the sea, they nevertheless felt the breeze which blew off the coast and freshened their way, taking the edge off the growing heat.  The desert was drawing nearer and nearer, they were all becoming aware of it.  They took to using their water rations judiciously, drinking as much water as they could whenever they found it, refilling their water-skins as often as they could and letting the horses drink deeply.  The travelling was becoming harder and was taking its toll upon them all.  Each person seemed to have retreated into their own thoughts, slowly dropping into a minimum of talk.  It was as though they had all become too uneasy to speak openly, and when they did, it was in whispers.

            Darrukin was not enjoying himself, as he thought he would.  Travelling was something he was quite used to, but this was somehow different.  The weight of Talana’s scorn lay upon him heavily, though he fought it, and returned his own to her.  She was a distinct nuisance, he concluded, and wondered if they should not contrive some way to discourage her from continuing along with them.  Surely she’d be better off without them?  It was always strange how he felt so guilty thinking these thoughts, yet they wouldn’t go away.  Probably just the fault of his upbringing, he mused, as he had been taught to respect other people.  Talana was just too annoying, too infuriating, for him to be bothered with.  It was a shame, as they had started off with quite a promising friendship until Maani had ruined it for them both.  He was still angry with the old woman for what she had said, and how, but his anger had been modified by Talana’s behaviour since they had set out on the quest.  A sudden feeling of hopelessness enveloped him as he thought of the miles they would have to travel together.  Could he stand it?  He was not sure.  He continued to practice his sorcery as they went, guided by a subdued Keer, and followed by an increasingly worried Jeron.

            They saw no other travellers, nor did they expect to, in this remote and increasingly inhospitable area.  Darrukin, his instincts honed by his years at the military academy, maintained that they were being watched, but none of the others could feel it.  They only felt the moroseness which had grown with every step they took towards their goal of reaching the tomb of Kerdis.  It all seemed so hopeless.  They could all feel a sense of wrongness growing within themselves, as though they were somehow intruding upon something better left unseen, unheard, unspoken.  It frightened Talana, bringing back memories of her childhood and the darkness she had felt living with her parents.  Something was definitely not right, she thought, but then it slipped away before she could define exactly what. 

            Bedding down that night, the four riders shared a silent and cold meal, not bothering to light a fire against the chill in the air.  It was all too much for Talana, and she spoke up.

            “This is ridiculous!  Why are we all so unhappy?” she demanded, her voice loud.  One moon had risen, sending bright light through the trees and making her clearly visible to the others.  They all looked at her, surprised.  Trees swayed in the freshening breeze and somewhere in the distance an animal spoke, its eerie voice howling through the night.  One of the horses stamped and snorted.  “What was that?” Talana said again, in a smaller, less confident voice.

            “Just a wolf.  Nothing to worry about.  They won’t bother us.” said Keer.  He was disturbed by Talana’s words and wanted to answer her, but the truth was he had no idea why he in particular felt so unhappy.  He had blamed it on the tension between Darrukin and Talana, but was beginning to realise that that was not quite correct.  Trouble was, whenever he felt he was edging towards the answer, he would begin to feel terribly tired, and his mind would wander to other things.  He, like Darrukin, had been questioning the quest’s ability to continue with the high feelings running between the two younger quest members.  He could not answer her, but looked into the trees, watching a small animal clamber up a tree, its feet making little stomping noises on the loose bark.  Jeron was startled, but turned back to the others when he saw what the noise was.

            “It’s your fault.” said Darrukin, frowning as he heard himself say words that appalled him.  She just snorted at him.

            “And I suppose you are innocent?”

            “Well, at least I am useful, at least I have a purpose!” he snapped back.

            Talana paled, momentarily taken aback by the vehemence in his voice.  He really must hate her.

            “I’m supposed to help you, you know, although of course, the Goddess in her wisdom should have realised that you needed no such thing, shouldn’t she?” she bit back, anger and mockery in her tone.  It had been this way every time she had talked to him virtually since they started.  Why couldn’t they just leave her alone?  She was tired.  Tired of all of them, and she wanted them all to go away.  She turned her back on Darrukin, slowly and deliberately, then got into her bed, wrapping up against the cold.  Angry and tired, she drifted off to sleep, heedless of the men as they spoke in low voices, and none the wiser as to why the quest was turning so bad.

            She woke, bright light hitting her face.  As she opened her eyes, she realised that the sun was quite high in the sky.  Why had the others not woken her?  It was obviously late, and they should get going, not that she didn’t appreciate the sleep-in.

            “What’s for breakfast?” she asked, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.  There was no reply.  Puzzled, she looked about her, to discover to her horror that she was alone. Completely, utterly, alone.

            “Stop fooling around, come out!” she cried out, jumping at the echo that her voice seemed to make in the forest.  All she managed to do was startle some birds in the trees around her, their loud calls setting off other birds in the vicinity.

            “Darrukin?  Keer?  Jeron!” she yelled.  Finally it dawned upon her that she had been deliberately left behind.  She saw her horse, still tethered, and quickly packed up her blankets and readied herself to go.  Without any other guidance, all she could do was presume that they had continued on the quest, following the faint road towards the desert.  She kicked her horse on, taking that path, hoping that they had not had too much of a head start and that she could catch them up.  Her worry was that they had abandoned the quest altogether and gone back the way they had came, beaten by the apparent hopelessness of the situation.  Tears started in her eyes as fear rose within her, but she was silent, not wanting to give in to her fear and cry out loud.  She knew that although she had wished it last night, she hadn’t really wanted to be left alone, she had just been annoyed.  What if she couldn’t find them?  She’d die out here, alone.  Her waterskin was almost full, but she only had one – the pack horses held more.  Swallowing nervously, she blinked back tears so that she wouldn’t waste water, if nothing else.  Her horse was fresh and frisky, well rested, which was comforting.  She could not believe she had been abandoned, left behind.  How dare they?  Her anger surged and she renewed her determination to find them.

            Three hours later, still travelling the faint path, hoping that it was the path and not an animal track, she felt like giving up.  There were no obvious signs of the others, like horse dung or hoofprints.  The ground was hard, making tracking difficult.  She was beginning to doubt that she was going the right way when a flash of blue against green caught her eye.  Feathers against bark and leaf.  Keesha!  She shouted for joy and kicked her horse on towards the bird.

            “Keesha!  You wouldn’t desert me, would you!” she cried, extending her arm for the bird.  The bird cheeped at her, somewhat sadly, but instead of taking her arm, she flew ahead, coming to land in another tree within sight.  Talana trotted after her, getting the idea that she was to follow.  She only hoped that Keesha was smart enough to lead her to the others.  Her hopes soared, she began to think with relish of the ear-bashing she would give them all for leaving her.  What was wrong with them anyway, leaving her like that?  She pondered, thinking deeply about the matter in a way that had just not been possible for the past few weeks.  Her mind was clear, unclouded by either lethargy or hate.  With a suddenness that startled her she saw to the heart of the problem.  The quest was being manipulated – and there was only one person who would want the quest to fail, or who had that much power, the Dragon Queen.

            “Keesha, I have to warn the others, quickly!”

                                    *          *          *          *          *          *

 

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