The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 16
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter four)

            The four riders moved their horses from the edge of the river at a quick pace, hurrying past the rushes and palms that lined its banks, and took a path closer to the canyon walls.  The ground was harder, firmer for the horses, and they did not have to fight their way through so much dense vegetation.

            “Where is the first possible landing place?” Darrukin asked Keer.  The elder unrolled the map as he rode, skillfully reading it as his horse followed the other animals.

            “It should be less than a day’s ride away, Darrukin.”

            “Do you think the Palace will have guards about?” the young officer asked.

            “Possibly.  It is hard to tell, but in any case we must be prepared for it.  Can you think of anything that would help?”  Keer replied.

            “I’ll come up with something.”  Darrukin thought hard about a plan of action they could take as they approached the landing place and the Valley.  Not knowing what he would be up against was a great hindrance, whether ten or twenty enemy made a large enough difference to any plan when there were only four fighters on side.  His brows knotted in concentration as he rode, letting his horse have its head and trusting it to keep pace with the other animals.  He was the only trained fighter, Keer and Jeron had basic skills and Darrukin did not even know if Talana had ever used a weapon before.  He doubted it.  Whatever plan he made, it had better be rather modest and concentrate on evasion and concealment.  That much was obvious.  He continued to mull the problem over in his mind.

            A dust storm began to blow through the winding river valley, forcing the riders back down to the waterside to avoid the flying grit and sand.  The breeze had picked up right along the river, and they could not avoid all of the dust, and had to pause to dismount and cover the heads of the horses so that the beasts would not suffer too much.  The dust got into eyes, ears and hair, into any cavity or space that allowed it while the storm raged.  It lasted under an hour, and left them all itching and scratching with grit throughout their clothes and gear.  Talana removed the blanket from her horse’s head and shook it out – a shower of sand  fell about her feet.  She gave a twisted smile that eloquently expressed how they all felt about the sandstorm.

            The four remounted and got on their way, Darrukin concerned at the delay the sandstorm had caused.  Yet it almost seemed too soon when Keer suddenly pointed out a landmark that he thought would be close to the landing place.

            “That pinnacle, there, the one that looks like a head – we’re close!” he said to the others in a low, excited voice.  Ahead they could all see a mountain spiking up from the plateau at a bend in the river.  The mountain’s side looked as if it had been sheared away in ancient times.  It had a profile like a face.  It was marked as ‘The Watcher’ on the map.

            “How far now?” Jeron asked.  Darrukin reined in his horse and listened carefully, looking at the map himself.  If  Keer was correct then a landing place was not far away – so close as to be dangerous, in fact, if anyone else was there.  He shot a worried glance at the elder and Jeron.

            “I’m not sure what to expect, but I’ve thought about what we can do, how we can approach this.” he began, as soon as Talana had joined them.

            “Very carefully?” she threw in off-handedly, reddening with the withering look Darrukin gave her and the silence that met her quip.  “Oh well, it was worth a try.” she said to herself.

            “Listen in, Talana.” Darrukin continued sternly as he began to outline his plan.  “You and Jeron stay here with the horses, while Keer and I scout ahead for any sign of danger.  I’ll send Keesha up to keep an eye on us, so watch her, because she will react if we run into anything.  Keep a watch for any danger here, too.  Keer, we shall see if there is a landing place up ahead and if it is occupied.  If it is, we’ll come back and consider what to do next.  It all depends upon what we find.  Any questions?”

            “What do we do if you get into trouble?” Talana asked.  The young man paused, looking at her intently for a moment.

            “I don’t think you’re in much of a position to mount a rescue effort; help if you can, but be prepared to run for it.” he answered.  She looked at her toe and scraped it in the dirt, looking abashed.  “Right then, are we ready?” Darrukin asked.  He handed his reins to Talana, flashing a grin that had the effect of making her smile despite her sober mood. “We’ll be back, Talana, don’t worry about that.”

            “Me? Worry about you?  Your head must be full of sand from that storm!” she replied, batting at him with a playful punch.  He dodged it and stood next to Keer.

            “Ready?” he asked the older man.

            “Mmmm. Let’s move.  I want to see what rounds that corner.” Keer replied, striding off.

            “Wait!” Darrukin cried out as softly as he could, wincing at the bold and forthright way in which the elder had taken off.  “We must go quietly, like this, and here, use this to cover your face!” Darrukin said as he caught up to him.  The young man picked up a handful of dirt and rubbed it over his skin and clothing, mottling his appearance.  He moved stealthily, showing the older man how to make very little noise.  Keer looked at him with mild surprise on his face, making Darrukin straighten up.  “Trust me. It’s for concealment.”

            Keer looked at him sceptically but imitated his actions.  Soon the pair were moving off far more carefully, with Keesha over head doing lazy circles.

            Talana and Jeron had to admit to themselves, as they watched the pair draw away, that Darrukin’s camouflage techniques indeed worked: they could only see them because they knew where they had been.  Soon the pair had rounded the bend and were lost to sight.  Once they were, she and Jeron pulled back into the shadow of the escarpment, sheltering by boulders that had fallen from the rocky slope.  Talana kept her eyes on Keesha, watching for any unusual movement from the bird, while she noted that Jeron’s hand hovered near his short sword, ready to draw the weapon.  Far from giving her a sense of safety, it outlined to her that there could be danger quite near – around the corner – and that Darrukin and Keer had gone towards it.  It was not a comfortable feeling, but all she could do was watch and wait. 

            Stealthily moving forward, Darrukin inwardly cursed himself for not doing more to check their position, however tenuous it might be.  He fervently hoped that Keer’s educated guess was wrong, and that they would not find anywhere that a barge could land.  But he thought that Keer might be right.  At least he did know ‘the enemy’ well, knew that they could be so confident and secure in themselves that they neglected to set watches, nor patrol areas where they operated if they felt secure.  He hoped that they trusted their sithneth network to do the work for them.  Still, he was nervous, for the sithneth that Keesha had killed might not have been the only one near them, and he had no idea where she’d caught it.  Glancing up, he searched the azure sky until he spotted her, comforted by her circling presence.  What would really comfort him would be the presence of his troop, armed and ready for action, he thought, and felt a sting of conscience.  He should have been better prepared, should have prepared all of them far more than he did.  He resolved to do exactly that, should he return from their current adventure. 

            He had moved back towards the sheltering rock of the escarpment, and reached a place where it jutted out like an isthmus on the bend in the river. Nodding grimly at Keer as the older man moved up beside him, he whispered instructions.

            “Let’s move carefully forward and look around the bend, slowly, so as not to draw attention to ourselves.”  He slowly moved his head forward of the jutting rock in order to see around it, crouching low so as not to make a silhouette against the sky. 

            There was no one in sight.  All they saw was more of the sand, the strip of vegetation and the ribbon of water.  Looking more carefully, they saw a cove along the river bank, a rocky strip where no grass or trees grew.  There was a stone construction at its centre that Darrukin immediately labelled ‘landing place’.  It had to be a dock, jutting into the river, the stone buttresses lined with high water marks from past floods, and a smooth stone pavement leading back from the river well up towards the escarpment.  The river flood-plain was not wide at that point  and the escarpment seemed to reach down for it, making the distance between river and rock neglible.  It was a perfect place to land the bodies of the queens and their guardians, and take them to their final resting places.

            “Let’s go and have a closer look.” Darrukin suggested, drawing his sword from the sheath he carried on his back.  The blade hissed out with a smooth sound that he found oddly comforting.  Together with Keer, he moved past the jutting escarpment and into the cove, wary and poised, ready to fight or run as the circumstances dictated.

            It soon became clear that there was no one around.  Rubbish had been left by the dock, evidence that there had been people there, but none of it was fresh.  With increasing confidence the pair tracked their way from the dock up the cove, following the worn path up as far as they could towards the escarpment.  The path petered into the sandy, rocky floor of the canyon, leaving them with no clear indication of where the Valley holding the queens and guardians might be. The escarpment became sheer cliff face, the rock towering above them and gloriously red-gold in colour.

            “Hmmmm.” Darrukin murmured, thinking.  What would he do, if he wanted to hide something?

            “This looks like the end of our path.  What now?” asked Keer, looking around for any sign of an entrance to a valley.  “It can’t all be cliff.  Can you see a way up the cliff?  Perhaps it is behind this escarpment.” he suggested.  Sweat dripped down Keer’s face, leaving a trail in the dusty camouflage.

            “What does the map say?” asked Darrukin, keen eyes scanning the rock face.

            “It doesn’t.  There never has been any record of where the queens and guardians were buried.”

            “Oh, that’s right.”  replied Darrukin, recalling their previous conversations.  “Look, there has to be an entrance somewhere.  They couldn’t have just taken the bodies and left them here.  There has to be a solution to this puzzle.” the young man said.

            “Yes, and it is likely to be quite obvious, like most puzzles of that nature.” added Keer.

            The comment reminded Darrukin of something, it was on the edge of his mind.  He thought a little harder about it, searching his memory.  Darr.  Why did he suddenly think of his home?  Something obvious, but hidden.  The revelation hit him suddenly.  The secret room!  Tafta’s secret room!  Could that same principle be applied here?

            “Keer, I think I have it.” he said softly, looking around again and scanning the area for danger automatically.  Keesha still circled above him, apparently unconcerned, so he relaxed a little.  He backtracked to the last visible point of the path from the cove, then followed it in a straight line towards the cliff face.

            Keer looked on, the bemused expression on his face turning to alarm as Darrukin approached the cliff face.  The elder almost glanced away, but Darrukin called out to him just as he appeared to hit the cliff face, jerking his attention back.  To Keer’s amazement, the young man disappeared straight into the rock.

            “That old trick!” the elder cried, gruffly laughing at the ingenuity of those who had constructed the spell.  “Who would have thought that such a simple spell would be used on such a massive scale?”  Looking at the cliff face now, Keer could clearly see the breach in the cliff, and Darrukin, who had turned back and was smiling at him from the divide of the narrow valley entrance.  The great cliff was a sham, the reality was a huge fissure in the plateau that appeared to lead to a side canyon.  Keer rushed forward to join Darrukin, and together they walked through the sandy separation of rock to find a wide, flat floored valley beyond it.

            “The Valley of Shades.” Keer said in a respectful tone.  The plateau loomed high, the great rent in its fabric that was the valley stretching back towards the mountains in the west.  The cliff faces nearer the river began to give way to more sloping faces closer to the mountains, and there appeared to be many small sub-valleys among the water-worn rock.  The light was harsh in the open, but the shadows were thick, appearing deep against the sloping red gold of the rock.  The floor was sandy, mostly red-gold in colour with spectacular flashes of the stronger coloured rocks all around it.  No trees nor any vegetation grew inside the sheltered chasm, and the stark beauty of the place took both men’s breath away.

            Darrukin had to force his mind back to his task.  “Where do you think we will find the Tomb of Kerdis?”  There was still a hushed note of awe in his voice as he looked around at the austere beauty of the valley.  It was almost as if the rock in this particular place was alive, bright with red and gold and a myriad of colours, imbued with the spirits of those buried here, the essence of those that dwelled within.  His breath caught in his throat as he looked around.

            “Perhaps we should go back and fetch the others so they can help us search.” Keer suggested.  Darrukin nodded, and they reluctantly retraced their steps out of the Valley and back to the cove.

            Talana spotted the pair as they rounded the bend in the river, and jumped up as they approached.  Keesha had swept down from her spiralling flight and alerted her to the movement, the flash of bright blue against the dusty rock making her easy to see.  Darrukin let the bird hop up into her usual place on his shoulder as he walked.

            “No trouble then?” Talana asked, smiling at both men, glad to see they had not encountered anything untoward.  The relief she felt was a surprise to her.  It must be that way with friends, she thought.

            “No trouble, there appears to be no one about, and better still…” Darrukin began, only to be interrupted by Keer, whose enthusiasm spilled over at that point.

            “We found the Valley of Shades!” he said, grinning from ear to ear.  Talana laughed at the spectacle he presented, dusty, sweat-streaked, dirt in his grey-flecked hair and teeth everywhere as he smiled.

            “That didn’t take long, did it!  A bit lucky, perhaps?” she observed, a glint in her eye.

            “That’s a good thing.  Now we can get what we came for and get out of here.” said Jeron.  “ I don’t like this place. There’s something wrong about it somehow.”

            “You’re right about that.  We did see evidence that other people had been here, so we must continue to be careful.  But at least we have found the Valley!  Talana, you won’t believe how beautiful it is!” Darrukin enthused, his grey-blue eyes alight as they regarded her.

            “How much time before dark?” Keer asked, looking up at the sky, realising that he and Darrukin had been away for some time.  It was approaching mid-afternoon.

            “Oh, a while yet.  Time to get back to the Valley and search for the Tomb of Kerdis.”  Darrukin replied, the excitement in his voice catching hold of them all. “Come on, let’s go!”

            Making sure they had left nothing behind, the four mounted their horses and made for the bend, Darrukin insisted that they stay alert for danger, and it took him a few moments to be satisfied that the cove was still deserted.  When they rounded the bend and were given the all clear by the young officer, Talana and Jeron were surprised as he kicked his horse on suddenly and charged ahead of them, riding straight for the cliff face.  Talana chased him on her black mare, nearly catching him.

            “Have you gone mad?” she cried through the mouthfuls of dust thrown up by the horses.  The cliff face loomed high above them, and they were racing straight for it.

            “No, trust me!” came Darrukin’s reply, half-heard through the pounding of hooves.  Talana’s mare drew slightly behind the grey, following closely.  Racing towards the cliff, Talana’s eyes widened in fear and then shock as it suddenly seemed to disappear.  Her horse did not falter, but rode straight after the grey, and soon they were both thundering along the narrow passage that led to the Valley of Shades.

            “That was dangerous!” she exclaimed, as their horses slowed down in the flat expanse of the Valley.  She was about to say more, but the colour and light and beauty left her speechless.  The Valley stretched before them, walls gleaming with as the myriad crystalline facets were lit by the sun.

 

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