The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 14
The Thief of Ashlon

            “Go back to sleep, Talana.  I won’t let anything happen to you.  No one will hurt you while I am around.” he said.  He hoped she would listen.

            “Do you mean that?” she asked, the fear still evident in her tremulous voice.

            “Yes, I do. Now sleep, you need it.”

            “Alright.  But…Darrukin, can you stay close by?” she asked, her voice small and tired.  He could see that she was almost asleep, her breathing had returned to normal and she looked utterly exhausted.

            “Certainly.”

            “Not too close, mind.”  Talana murmured, her eyes already closing as sleep overtook her again.  Darrukin shook his head, a half-smile on his face as he asked Keer to take over the watch before unpacking his bedroll and putting it down near her own, a modest distance apart.

            Jeron woke him just as dusk fell.  Jeron and Keer had packed up as much as they could and already watered the horses, refilling the water skins and preparing a cold meal for them all to eat.  Talana still seemed tired, and fearful, but she smiled at him as she packed up her bedding.  After their meal they mounted up, and went in search of a path that was marked on the old map.  It led up the eroded side of the plateau, and hopefully would take them to the river valley.  The evening sky gave enough light to read the map, to figure out which direction the path might be, and it was not too long before they found it.  The ancient caravan route wound its way up the side of the escarpment in a path that was now only wide enough for two abreast.

            Darrukin dismounted and led his stallion up the path.  The pack horses were strung along by rope to his and Keer’s saddles, and followed docilely.  Talana  fell in behind with Jeron taking up the rear.  Everyone felt some doubts about going up the path, as it was so ancient and its state of repair was uncertain, but they had no choice.  It was the only way marked over the plateau.  It had been the main highway for trade in times long past, before the inland sea had been negotiated and when the northern states had been at war.  But it had not been used much since that time.  The ascent was made easier for the small party once the Big moon rose, sending out orange light over the eerily silent landscape.

            It was a breathtaking view from the top.  The desert stretched out behind them, with the dark smudge of the faraway mountains on the horizon.  Moonlight streamed down upon the rockfalls they had left behind, making the still forms assume the shapes of fantastic and terrifying animals.  The small clearing with the well was almost unrecognisable in the moon-shadow play.

            The plateau itself was a great shelf of rock, worn and pitted.  They could all see that it sloped gently down towards the river, before falling steeply away, forming a canyon.  The river split the valley, and on its far side they could see not only the continuation of the plateau, but a barren mountain range running parallel to the great rock shelf.  Dark shadows loomed around them but the four struck out over the plateau, following the old caravan route.  The horses’ hooves struck the rock in a shockingly loud clash that sounded like metal on metal.  Half-heard scuttlings and scratchings of small creatures fleeing from their progress kept them all alert for the least sign of danger.  In time, as the Little moon rose, they crossed the plateau and found themselves looking down into the canyon.  The river below was a thin strip of silver along the wide canyon floor.

            “Can you see the path down into the valley?” asked Keer, peering over the edge of the plateau into the canyon below.  Darrukin looked about him.  The path they were on, faintly marked on the top side of the plateau, seemed to just disappear off the edge.  He walked carefully along the edge, trying to see where the path might snake down the side.  Then he saw it.  Gentle blue moonlight lit the path to the bottom.  The problem was, the upper section had completely fallen away.

            “I think we have a problem.  I can see the route further down the sides, but there’s been a rockfall and we cannot reach it.  Keer, are there any alternative routes?” Darrukin asked.

            “There must be some alternative.  There can’t only be one way over this plateau.” said Keer, trying to consult the map in the moonlight.  He couldn’t see anything, and looked up in frustration.  “This light is too dim.  I can’t see anything.  But it looks like a gentler slope to the south, why don’t we just look for a path ourselves?  We’ll need to hurry, while the moon is still up, or we’ll get caught up here.”

            “And fried, when the sun comes up.”  Talana commented.  “Could you levitate us towards the path?” she asked Darrukin, “seeing as you did such a good job of lifting me up the other day.  What do you think?”

            Darrukin swallowed.  “I don’t know if I could do it.  I would have to move you quite a distance.”  He looked over at Keer, uncertain.  The elder seemed to be considering the proposal.

            “You’re certainly strong enough to do it, if you have the confidence in yourself to be able to, I should imagine.” The older man finally said. 

            “Size and weight shouldn’t matter, should they, Keer?” Talana asked. “You can do it, Darrukin. You’ve done it before, moved me, so it shouldn’t be difficult for you.  You are a sorcerer, you can do it.  I tell you what, you lift me and my horse first, and give it a try.  I’m willing to risk it.”  She challenged him.

            He looked at her.  “You’re sure?”

            She nodded.  “Go ahead. It’s the quickest way for us all to get down there.”

            He took a deep breath and thought about what he would do.  The theory was fine; lift Talana and her horse, move them over the edge of the chasm and down to the path.  He swallowed nervously.  One slip would mean that she would crash to the valley floor, and be killed.  Yet he could see the sense in what she asked of him – they had no way of knowing if there was another route down, and soon the sun would rise.  If they were caught up here in the open, they would suffer greatly.  At least if they were in the river valley, with its verdant growth running in a narrow strip either side, it would be cooler, and there would be some cover and water for them.  Talana was right.  He could do it.

            “Here goes.” he said.  “Talana, mount up.  The path down there looks wide enough for you to ride on.”  He watched as she did as she was told, sitting on her horse, waiting for him to perform the sorcery.  His nerve almost failed him, until she spoke up.

            “You can do this.  Believe in yourself.  I do.” she said gently.  Jeron remained silent, but Keer added his support.

            “That’s right. You can do it.”

            Frowning in the darkness, Darrukin gathered the force of his will around him, building up a picture in his head of what he wanted to do, and how he would do it.  Focus, he thought.  Talana and the horse were one ‘thing’, one object, which he could pick up, like so…concentrating, he heard the mare whinny in alarm as he imagined a giant hand cradling them, lifting them off the surface of the plateau.  Talana was pale, but she leaned forward and stroked the mare’s neck, soothing the animal.  Darrukin did not waver.  Knowing it was crucial that he get this right, he focussed his will, moving them out over the edge, trying not to feel any fear for them, just concentrating on carefully manoeuvring them towards the path.  He held them over the cliff edge, one hand out towards them as if he were actually holding them, and then swung his body around, his arm still outstretched, directing them towards the path.  The mare squealed in alarm, but could not move, so Talana was as safe as she could be.  Gently, carefully, they floated across the distance of the rockfall and landed well into the remaining path.  When he was sure they were safe, he let go of them, and sagged back with relief.

            “I’m alright!”  Talana shouted up at them, daring to breathe again.  She had been petrified, of course, but knew she could not show the slightest doubt in Darrukin’s abilities lest he not be able to use them.  Her mare snorted and stamped, obviously troubled, but she hopped down from her back and sought to comfort the animal.  “Send the other horses down, I’ll look after them.” She called out, and soon, she saw one, then the other, squealing pack horses moving silently and steadily towards her.  Jeron followed, and then Keer, mounted on their horses; Talana got right out of the way and moved down the path slowly to give them room.  She looked up at Darrukin.  Would he be able to lift himself?

            Flushed with his success, Darrukin resolved not to think about what he was about to do.  Quickly he mounted his horse and rode it right to the edge, ignoring the nervous snortings of the stallion.  No doubt. He could have no doubts about himself or his ability.  He focussed his energy, his will.  He and his horse were in a bubble, a sphere, solid yet see-through.  The bubble would float over the edge and down to the path…now.  He felt the horse leave the ground and he concentrated hard on the bubble, floating it, with himself inside, over the edge, carefully, gently, moving over the edge.  He could see Talana, Keer and Jeron down on the path, and he made the bubble float toward them, carrying him there, slowly, slowly…his horse was screaming, frightened, trying to buck and sway as they swung out over the drop.  The stallion would break the bubble! Fear stabbed through Darrukin, and he involuntarily looked down. 

            Talana looked at Keer.  Darrukin was taking a long time to move himself over the edge, and she could hear Keer murmuring something.

            “Are you helping him?” she said, not sure if she should speak to him in case he needed to concentrate.  He did not look at her, but continued to stare at Darrukin, but he nodded.  Talana moved back from him, holding onto her horse and watching tensely as Darrukin and the grey stallion began to move out over the edge, over the vast chasm.  Would he be able to do it?  His horse was terrified, she could see. She hoped desperately that it would not break his concentration.  Then he looked down.  She watched, powerless, as shock registered on his face, and he began to fall.

            “No!” she screamed out, reaching out for him with one arm. “Keer, help him!”  A shock of power seemed to vibrate around them, and she watched incredulously as Darrukin’s fall stopped suddenly.  He hung in the air, still in the saddle, his screaming horse frothing at the mouth.  “Get him down to the valley floor, Keer, now!”  Talana roared, not wanting to look at how close Darrukin had come to being smashed against outcrops of rocks in the canyon.  She watched, heart in her mouth, as Keer kept up a constant mumble and waved his hand, seeming to push Darrukin down, taking him in a controlled descent to the Valley floor.  When Darrukin called up that he was safe, Keer staggered backwards into the cliff side, Jeron at his side ready to support him.  Talana shot the exhausted man a look of gratitude and mounted up, leading the pack horses as quickly as she could down the old caravan route.  It was only minutes later that she was galloping across the sandy, rocky ground towards Darrukin.

            “Are you alright?” she breathed, pulling up her horse and dismounting.  He was sitting on the sand, his breathing coming in great gasps.  The grey was still lathered with sweat, but otherwise calm.  Darrukin stood as she approached.  He looked badly shaken.

            “I think so.”  

            Impulsively, she closed the short distance between them and hugged him, hard.  “Don’t do that again, will you?  You scared me half to death!” she said, her face pressed against his shoulder.

            “You were frightened?  What about me and my horse?”  he said, some semblance of life coming back into his voice.  Talana could feel him shaking, so she held him more tightly.

            “Well, next time get a horse which has a head for heights!” she said, profoundly relieved that Darrukin was alright.  Regaining her own composure, she moved back from him, feeling herself reddening. “Uh, sorry.” she murmured, as she stepped away.

            Darrukin was about to answer when Keer and Jeron came up.  The elder took him by the shoulders.

            “Thank the Goddess you’re alive.” he croaked, and wiped sweat from his forehead.  Even Jeron commented that he was glad Darrukin was alright.  They all broke out into nervous laughter.

            “Thanks, Keer, for saving me.” Darrukin said.  “I hoped you would be ‘backing me up’.  Luckily for me you were.”

            Keer looked at him.  “Yes, but it was your strength that allowed me to stop your fall.  I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow you sent me a surge of power, so I could hold you. “

            “Really?  I did that?” Darrukin asked, surprised.  “I didn’t know I did that.” he said.

            “Well, you’re safe, and that’s all that matters.” Talana said.  She could feel her insides starting to shake as the shock and excitement wore off.  Taking several deep breaths, she went back to her horse, keeping her face turned away from Darrukin so he could not see – even in the dim light of the Little Moon – how affected she had been by his near-death.  He was her friend, and she knew that she could not bear to lose another one.  Asikei’s death had been enough.  It brought tears to her eyes which she blinked away quickly before anyone would notice.  “Shall we get on?” she asked.  The others agreed, and they mounted up.

            More than half the night had been taken up with the dangerous exercise of crossing the plateau to reach the valley.  The Little Moon was edging its way towards the mountains to the west.  Its light would soon be gone.  The canyon’s floor was sandy and bare where they stood, but they were on the edge of the green river valley.  They could all smell water and hear the river rushing through the valley; as one they moved off towards the thick grasses and trees that grew along its banks. 

            They travelled the slim floodplain as dawn began to light the sky.  The sun had just lifted itself above the escarpment when they finally broke through to the river.  The growth was lush, and it added a certain breath of coolness.  Hungry and tired, they sought the tallest trees they could for shelter from the harsh sun, after first checking as best they could that they were alone in the valley.  Unsaddling the horses, they allowed the animals down to the river side to drink, graze and rest.

            The river was wide, shallow and cool at this point.  In the morning light they all jumped in to swim, washing off the dust and grime of the desert in the delightfully refreshing water.  Keer, closely followed by Jeron, left the river first to go and prepare something to eat, while Darrukin and Talana stayed in the water to give the horses a proper bath.  Even Keesha splashed and bathed in the fresh water.

            Later, they sought the cover of palm trees to alleviate the growing heat of the day.  Jeron took the first watch, allowing Darrukin and Keer to sleep.  Both men were exhausted from their efforts at sorcery; and it was no surprise to Talana when Jeron woke her to take over from him on watch.

            By midday, it was too hot for Talana to sleep in any case.  She’d napped before taking over from Jeron, and felt refreshed.  She pulled off her clothes and ran down to the river, making sure she still had a clear line of sight to the camp.  The water felt delicious, and she drank deeply, trying not to disturb the crystal clear flow too much.  The red sand over which the water flowed was vibrant; the cliffs all round rich with a myriad of colours.  The greenery either side of the river was in stark contrast to the reds and yellows of the rocks.  Diving underwater she saw schools of fish darting about, the intensely clear water keeping the heat of the sun at bay.  Squelching through red mud, she went back up the bank to the palm trees where Keer, Jeron and Darrukin slept, letting the warm breeze dry her body as she squeezed water from her hair. It didn’t take long for her to dry and put her clothes back on.

            Keer sat up and rubbed his face in his hands.  He still looked greyish and tired, but he smiled at Talana.

            “Shall we stay here for a day and let the horses eat?” she asked him.  The break would be nice.

            “I think so.  I’ll see what Darrukin thinks, but it would be good to stop for a while and rest up.  I don’t know if the whole river valley is as green as this; the horses might not get any fresh food later.”  He looked out across the river.  “I think I might go do some fishing, see if I can’t find us something fresh to eat ourselves.” he said, rummaging through his saddlebags for a line.

            Talana joined him at the river bank, helping him find insects and worms for bait, and sitting with him while he waited for a bite.  She found him an easy companion, completely different to Jeron, whom she found somewhat forbidding, and to Darrukin, with whom she related in a completely different way.  They spoke of trivial things at first, before Keer asked her about what had happened in the cave in the desert.

            “I felt my father,  I know he is coming after me.” she said, feeling a chill just thinking about it.  “He’s an evil man, Keer.  I don’t know how or why I feel this connection to him, and I hate it, but it is there.  It has been that way all my life.  He’ll stop at nothing to take me back, to get control of me again.”  Her voice was almost a whisper, but strengthened as she continued.  “I will never go back.  I would rather die.”

            Keer said nothing, only placed a hand on her arm in sympathy.  He knew what it was to be persecuted, and to live with constant fear.   They said no more about it as they sat, and soon were too busy too as the fish began to bite.  By the time the sun dropped low in the sky, they had a sizeable haul caught and cleaned, and were busily cooking them for dinner.

 

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