The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 12
The Thief of Ashlon

            The desert before the three riders was hot, dry, and scorched red.  Dust billowed up in clouds as the wind caught and hurled it this way and that, obscuring great red stones that stood way out in the distance amid a sea of barren, cracked earth.  Darrukin, Keer and Jeron stopped at the edge of the desert, each feeling distinctly uncomfortable with what they had done.  It still seemed to be right at face value, but in their hearts, all three knew that they had betrayed Talana in leaving her behind.  It preyed upon all their minds.  A false bravado and sense of companionship had bonded them together as they crept away from the sleeping woman that morning, and they had stretched out to a gallop when out of earshot.  The relief from tension had been wonderful, and the men had laughed and even ventured to sing as they rode.  But as the day drew on, their moodiness returned, and now, at the edge of the desert, they could no longer deny their duplicity.  Dismounting, they rested, eating and drinking from their supplies.

            “We forgot to leave Talana with water!” Darrukin cried out, horrified, as he counted the waterskins.  “What have I done?”  His alarm was vibrant for a moment, clearing his head and allowing him to see fully the significance of their actions.  Then the lethargy slipped back, like a creeping animal, and his thoughts wandered elsewhere.

            “Why don’t we give this whole thing up, Darrukin?” Jeron said, slowly, his brown face wrinkling up as he squinted into the sun.  “I’ve had about enough of this.”

            “The quest….” The young man began.

            “Blast the quest!  Horsedung to your quest!  It’s nonsense, put into your head by a silly old woman!” Jeron raged.  Darrukin looked at the older man with puzzlement.  Keer interjected, protesting.

            “But the Goddess said we had to.  She said we had to go on the quest, with Talana…”

            The three were silenced, struggling with the realisation that they had deliberately left behind the only member of the quest that had been commanded to join Darrukin by the Goddess herself.  They could all feel it now, the sense that something was incredibly wrong, but they could not put it down to anything. 

            In exasperation, Darrukin turned to Keer.

            “What is wrong with us?  Why did we leave her behind?”

            “I don’t know.” The elder answered, a look of intense concentration on his face.  “Except…except that something, or someone has perhaps…but no, that’s not possible.” he finished, dismissing the thought.  He looked out at the desert in front of them, frowning at the mirage of water in the distance across the red and dusty earth.  He knew that in a day’s travel across the hot, dry sand, they would meet the plateau that they needed to cross in order to reach the river valley.  There was a well marked, if they were lucky they might find water there, and perhaps shelter.

            “I say we go back to the city.” said Jeron, in a defeated tone.

            “No!” cried Darrukin, realising at last what was wrong.  Keer’s half-mentioned idea had put the germ of the solution into his head. “Someone wants us to fail!  To not finish the quest.  Somehow, they are poisoning our minds.  We have to go on!”
            “What about Talana?” Keer asked, his own mind struggling against the terrible tiredness that had overtaken it.  He fought, and slowly, the fog began to clear.  It was difficult to beat back, and wearily he sat down on a dusty patch of earth.

            “Well, you two stay here for the time being.” said Darrukin, his mind back to being his own.  “I’m going back for Talana.  I hope she’s alright!”  He remounted the grey stallion and clipped his heels against the horse’s sides, sending the beast back along the track at some speed.  Ducking his head under branches of trees that overhung the road, he began to call out for her, throwing his voice far ahead of him, hoping for an answer.  How could he have even imagined abandoning her like that? What had come over him?  Shamed, he cursed himself loudly as he rode.

            He sighed with relief when he spied a dark shape in the distance, coming towards him quickly.  Talana’s horse.  He shouted to her, and she called back, the relief in her voice obvious.  Keesha was suddenly about his head, screeching and swooping, unsettling his horse.  She flapped noisily to a nearby tree as he pulled up the grey, and perched with her blue wings half-outstretched, berating him in agitated tones.  Talana raced towards him, pulling up, trying to control her horse as it snorted and shied at the big grey stallion.  Darrukin could see that her eyes were red, and there were tear-tracks scored through the dust on her face.  He found that he did not know what to say, now that he could see that she was alive and alright.  There was just a tremendous sense of relief flooding through him.

            “You absolute bastard, you left me, again!” Talana said, a remarkable amount of control in her voice though there was a rough edge to it.  Her statement raised a half-hearted protest from Darrukin’s lips, but she stilled it with one raised hand. “But I know why.  I know what has been going on, and it is technically, not your fault.  Let’s get back to the others, shall we?” she said, calmly, and walked her horse forward, passing him, leaving him looking behind her, stunned.

            This was not what he expected. He thought she’d go crazy, try to punch him, scream at him, do something.  She had only seemed preoccupied.

            Retracing his steps, they rode in  together and dismounted, surprising the older men with their sudden arrival. 

            “Never thought we’d see you two again.” said Jeron in a dour tone.  He poked a stick into a small fire that the pair had built, its thin flame barely visible in the bright light filtering down through the sparse trees at the edge of the forest.  Talana pursed her lips and looked out at the vast empty space before them.  It looked hot and uninviting.  Keer stood up, and welcomed her confusedly, awkwardly taking her hand. Smiling, she thanked him and walked around the fire, taking a deep breath.

            “I have to talk to you about this, this situation that has affected the quest so badly.” she began.

            “I suspect that something must be wrong, Talana, and I feel I know what it is.” Darrukin put in.  She glanced at him, then at the other two men.  Jeron looked grumpy, but Keer looked at her with a sleepy expression on his face.  He has been badly affected, she thought, then realised that he would be, being perhaps the only member of the company who would be able to identify what was amiss.

            “I believe the Dragon Queen has been using her power to try to prevent us from finishing this quest.  I believe that she will also try everything else within her power to stop us.  I do not know what we are up against, but I think we must all be very careful from now on.” she said, looking to Darrukin for affirmation.  He looked as if he were considering her words carefully, comprehension on his features.  She continued.

            “Keer, are you usually so addle-brained?  And Jeron, do you feel normal today?  Most of all, you, Darrukin, what possessed you to abandon me, in the face of your gentlemanly upbringing, not to mention the command of the Goddess?” she paused, letting her words sink in. “We have all been abnormal in some way; irritable, angry, doing things we would not normally do.  I certainly would not be so obnoxious to you all.  I don’t talk much, that’s usual, but I’m rarely so rude.  And we’ve been so defeatist lately.  Don’t you see? The Queen is trying to force us to give up.  She does not want a new guardian, who might change her ways.  She wants us to fail!  You must see, surely!  You do see, you all see it.  We’ve got to shake it off!”  She found herself pleading with them at first, but practically commanding them as she finished.

            Keer looked about himself, abashed.  Darrukin looked at his feet before saying anything.

            “I believe you, Talana.  I had almost come to that conclusion myself. I felt that things were not right, and that it was not something that was our doing.  I was coming back to get you when you met me.”

            She looked up at him, his eyes deep blue in the weirdly intense light.

            “I know you were.”  She said gently, smiling. “I still feel like punching you in the nose, though.”  Her eyes glowed.

            He grinned at her.  “That is perhaps warranted.” he replied, keeping the laughter he felt inside.  He could see their situation, what Talana had just said made perfect sense.  He felt refreshed for the first time in days.  “Well, Keer, Jeron, what do you think?” he asked, moving around the fire to them.  He could see a struggle on the elders’ austere face, the knotting of his brow and grinding of his jaw betraying it.  Jeron’s expression was blank, and Darrukin could not see beneath it.  Whatever he felt, Darrukin knew that Jeron would only share it if he chose to.  He glanced back at Keer.

            “Come on, Keer, snap out of it!” Talana said sharply, seeing the confusion on his face.  He shook his head, wiped a hand across his eyes.  When he looked up, his gaze was sharp.

            “I think I do see.”  The elder said, amazement in his voice.  “We have all been influenced by the Queen’s sorcery.  It is a powerful magic, but I should have recognised it.  Perhaps that was the thought that I have been trying to think about all these days.  Yes, I am sure of it.  It is the reason why we have been so angry with each other.”  He sounded pleased with himself, the nagging, gnawing voice in his head was finally silenced now that the truth had come out.  His mind was clear, not misted by lethargy or confusion.  He felt much better.

            “How did she do it?  How did she know to attach us?  If she did that to us, what else could she do?”  asked Jeron, the others pausing at his matter-of-fact questions.  Keer attempted an answer.

            “The Queen does have very many spies around the city.  Perhaps one of them found out about the quest, or found out who was going on the quest, or where we were going.  I would not be surprised if the Queen did already know about us and our search for the Heart of the Dragon.”

            “Surely none of Maani’s people would have told?” exclaimed Darrukin.

            “I would not have thought so, but spies are spies.  We cannot hide everything from her, and we did have to go to the surface in order to get the horses and supplies ready.  She may have found out reports of our leaving the city.”

            “But how could she have attacked us with her sorcery?  That’s what I don’t understand.” asked Talana.

            “My belief is that her sorcery was directed at us very generally.  If she knew more about us or where we were we could have expected a more deadly attack, of that I am certain.  She must have some idea of who we are, for the one who has the most direct experience of sorcery – me – has been the one most affected.  I think she is aware that there is a search on for the Heart of the Dragon, and that it is a small group, possibly she knows I am with it. Perhaps some Eshtani priests are helping her to see us somehow.  I guess we must just take our chances and continue the quest regardless.”

            “Well, we knew it would not be easy, and we knew to expect trouble somehow.” Darrukin said, looking up at the sky.  The sun was blazing overhead.  “Let’s stop here for now, and rest for what is left of the afternoon.  The horses will need to feed before we cross that desert, and we may not get another chance of that for a while.  We should cross when it gets dark.  The moons will rise and give us enough light.”

            “Good idea.” said Talana, loosening the saddle on her horse.  “Now that we know the Queen is aware of us, is there anything we can do?”

            “We’ll all be a bit more careful when we take a watch, but really, we’re already doing everything we can.  I’ll stay up if you want to sleep now, Talana.” Darrukin said, tending to his own horse.

            “No thanks, I had a good sleep in this morning!” she shot back quickly, grinning to take the sting out of her words.

            It was early evening when the questers roused themselves from their rest and packed up in the dying light.  There was a light breeze, cool and smelling of the forest.  The sun was almost down, its last golden rays retreating from the sky as the deep blue of night took over.  The red earth of the desert lay before them, and while the heat still radiated from the ground, it was much cooler.

            Slowly, so as not to lose their footing, the four questers left the edge of the forest, and went out into the desert.  It was not barren, hardly plants tufted here and there, covering the red earth sparsely.  Little movements of desert creatures, mice and insects, caught her eyes as they moved through, unimpeded by the scrub.   When she looked back, she could see the foothills rising behind them, the mountains becoming blue then purple as the light deteriorated.  A screech from the sky alerted her to Keesha, the bird’s great wings outstretched gloriously.  The sight lifted Talana’s heart.

            “Which moon rises tonight, Big or Little?” she asked, feeling marvellous in mind and body.  Whatever the attack had been, now that it was over and they had thrown it off, she felt alive.  “Does everyone feel as good as I do?” she asked.

            “Yes, much better.” said Keer, “And that awful tension between you and Darrukin is no longer here.  You two are so stubborn!” he admonished gently.  He smiled, though the darkness was deepening so that Talana could no longer see it.

            “So the spell is broken, then?”  Darrukin asked Keer for confirmation.

            “I think so. Once the spell was discovered, it lost its power; our minds are too strong for such general sorcery.  The Queen will no doubt try some other way to stop us!”   It was said lightheartedly, but a shiver went through them all.  They knew that the Queen would try again.  “Big will rise in about an hour.  Little will rise around midnight.” Keer continued, more somberly.

 

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