The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 20
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter five)


            The four companions spent the next few days riding upriver cautiously, hoping they would not see any more boats carrying Eshtani priests or squads of palace guards.  Their encounter had been quite enough, and reinforced the value of vigilance and security.  At least they had dealt with the survivors humanely, set them up as much as they could so that the rag-tag group of humans and sithneth could make their way towards the nearest town or village.  The men and women who had survived the sinking of the craft and the pull of the river were a surly bunch, but without the priests compelling them, they could at least recognise that their lives had been spared and they were being given a choice.  Keer could have forced them to stay silent, not reveal that they had been in a battle or seen any of the four in the area, but they all thought that to use sorcery in such a way would make them no better than the Eshtani priests, whose compulsion spells Keer broke decisively. It was the best that the companions could do, and they hoped that the crew would make the most of their new-found freedom and quietly disappear into the local communities.

            The tingling pull Talana felt whenever she touched the spear had not stopped.  She rode with it in one hand, its butt resting on her toe.  She was tired of travelling and knew that it would not stop, not any time soon, judging by the gentle tug of the ironwood.  The heat and the dust, made the travelling unpleasant, relieved only by the occasional dip in the river.  With the sun getting fiercer as spring moved into summer, the river was their only relief from the heat, and they stuck as close to it as they dared.

            When the plateau ended and the river broadened, the four knew that their vigilance would have to be increased.  Lush vegetation and the beginning of cultivation on a much larger flood-plain made them wary, there was a distinct lack of cover as what had formed the canyon walls downstream petered out to become more gentle hills, extending to the west to join up with the western mountain range.  Their presence was rather stark.  They were on a trade route that had once been busy, until the river had been blocked to traffic.  Strangers were not often seen in the agricultural villages and towns that scattered the banks.

            Trying to be inconspicuous, the four reached Naphka, where the river met the inland sea.  They rode in as dusk approached, after a long day in the saddle.  The town sat high on a platform of rock, which acted as a kind of natural dam to the inland sea.  The fertile floodplain they had just travelled through looked like a green bowl that extended back towards the mountains to the south, as if scooped out.  Naphka was walled, and large enough to be called a true town.  It had a wide bridge that spanned the rent in the rock platform, allowing the inland sea to spill down in a rush of water.

            They reached the bridge and discovered that there were watchmen posted at the town gates.  This was something of a surprise, and the way the sentries eyed them so suspiciously was also unsettling.  After a quick discussion, Keer went forward to ask if they might enter the town.

            “ ‘oo are ye, and what’s yer business in Naphka?” one of the watchmen rudely enquired as the elder approached.  Keer smiled diplomaticly and extended both hands to show he was unarmed and meant no danger.

            “I’m a businessman come fresh from making contacts in Rabta, and I am on my way home to Maradi.” he answered.  The sentry stared at Keer, looking back to Jeron, Darrukin and Talana, the suspicious look on his face easing somewhat at the explanation.

            “I’m after some business contacts here, too, and accommodation, if you would be so kind as to let me and my party through.” Keer said, with more force in his tone.  The elder reached into a pocket and produced a copper coin.  “Here, man.  Take this for your trouble.  I am impressed by your thoroughness and attention to duty, and will make sure that I mention it to the governor.” he said, beckoning to the others as he gave the coin to the sentry.  Uncomplaining, the sentry let them pass, lifting the pike he held out of the way..

            “That was unexpected.” said Darrukin, “Why is this town so heavily fortified?  What are they frightened of?” he asked the elder.

            “Were you never taught of the wars that rocked this area, between Seer and Choresh?  There were battled along the length of the inland sea, hundreds of years ago, fights over trade routes and boundaries that only ended with the intervention of the queen.  These fortifications are a hangover from that time, and several towns along the inland sea are walled.” Keer answered.  “But that man seemed especially suspicious.  I wonder why?”

            “Will we be able to find somewhere to stay?”  Talana asked as she drew up to Keer and Darrukin.  “My horse needs a good rest.” she said, patting the mare’s neck.  Jeron stayed back with the pack horses.  Their supplies were almost exhausted and they were all tired, and needed respite.

            “We should do.  A few days rest will be welcome, and we can resupply, as well.  Do we still head north, Talana?” Darrukin asked.  Talana had hidden the spear with one of the pack horse loads, making it less obviously a weapon.  Its gold handgrip had been disguised with strips of plain cloth, as had the iron tip.  She took a moment to let the pack horse catch up, then reached over and felt the warm wood.  The familiar pull was there.

            “Still on course.” she replied, glancing at Jeron, who sat dusty and silent on his horse.  “Are you alright?” she asked him.  He’d not spoken much that day.

            “Well, I guess so.  I’m looking forward to a proper bed tonight. I am just missing my wife and children.” he said glumly.  His reply made Talana’s eyes narrow slightly as she regarded him with puzzlement.

            “Yes, yes of course you must miss them.  I don’t know how you can bear it, sometimes, Jeron.” hesitation creeping into her words.  He would miss them, she reasoned, trying to dispel the strange feeling she got as he’d spoken; they were dead.  He’d miss them for the rest of his life.  She turned back to follow Keer and Darrukin, riding through the narrow streets.

            The town was similar to Tashmar in some ways, the narrow cobbled lanes, street hawkers and markets making her feel at ease.  The noise and smells were familiar.  She had to remember that she was in just as much, if not more, danger here in these streets than they had been out in the desert or travelling through the forest. 

            Torches were being lit on the streets before they found a suitable place to stay.  The Inn had a noisy taproom, but there was plenty of space in the stables for the horses and the rooms were clean.  Not only that, there was a bath house available. 

            “That’s it, I’m heading off for a bath!” said Talana, as she dumped some of their packs in the spartan room they had taken.  Keer had paid a fair sum for a large room, which held four bunks, a wash-stand and ewer of cool, fresh water.  There was a small window with a deep sill, to which Keesha immediately hopped and settled.  The bird took only moments to settle off to sleep.

            “We’d better take it in turns.”  said Keer.  “Jeron and I will stay here while you two go wash.  Then you can watch the baggage when it’s our turn.” he suggested.  Talana and Darrukin glanced at one another and shrugged, before heading off together for the bath house.

            “This looks promising.” Talana commented, as they entered the low building that stood to one side of the Inn’s courtyard.  They found a dim, long room, with several deep tubs and a small female attendant, boiling water.  Cubicles allowed them to undress in private and there were large towels available to wrap themselves in as they padded barefoot over the tiled floor to the two tubs the attendant had filled for them.  Both sighed with relief as they stepped into the hot water, sinking into the baths and letting themselves relax for a moment before getting down to the serious business of getting themselves clean.

            Darrukin was a lot more relaxed about both his body and Talana’s.  Her unembarrassed approach to her own body had taught him not to feel so shy of his own, and upon reflection, he thought that it was no bad thing.  After roughly a month travelling together, he had not only seen Talana, but Keer and Jeron, in all stages of undress, attending to personal needs with no privacy available, and being matter-of-fact about it.  As they had seen him. 

            Yet the glimpse of her body as she lowered herself into the bath had made him react, man to woman.  To distract himself, he busily scrubbed at himself with a loofah, focussing on the skin of his arms and hands, now tanned deeply. Glancing across at Talana, who was sitting up sloshing water over her head in an attempt to wash her hair, he noted that she had fleshed out a little, she did not look as thin or hungry as she had when he had first lifted her from the city square.

            Very conscious of her, he looked away quickly when he noticed that she was watching him through the steam.  He flushed, and she smiled, in the dim light.

            “What do you think, do I look any better than when we first met?” she asked, as if she had been reading his mind.  It was another habit that she had.  Putting a bold face to his embarrassment, he answered her forthrightly.

            “Well, yes.  You’re not so stringy.  More meat on your bones, and you look healthier.  You are what my mother would call ‘well made’.”  Without volition his gaze dropped to her breasts for a moment, blushing furiously before he caught the look of amusment on her face.

            “You’re not so bad yourself!” she quipped, stifling a giggle. “Fool!  Give me the loofah and I’ll do your back.” she said, making him cough and splutter unexpectedly as she stood up and got out of the bath, water running down her body.  Quickly she wrapped herself up the towel and sat on the edge of his tub, taking the loofah.  Her ministrations were gentle, yet hard enough to scratch the itchy spots on his back, relaxing him once more, something he desperately needed if he were going to get out of the tub any time soon.

            Jeron poked his head around the doorway some minutes later.  “Could you two please hurry up, we can’t stand the smell of each other anymore.” he said in his usual bland tone.  It set both Talana and Darrukin laughing, but they complied, drying themselves off and dressing quickly in order to allow the others to bathe.

            The four had slept soundly, comfortable in their beds, even though they still kept watches and woke each other in the night.  They did not want to relax enough to get caught by the Queen or her spies, but they did need the rest and so did the horses.  Early in the morning, Darrukin let Keesha out, opening the window to let her fly free.

            “Should we scout about to see if there is any news from Tashmar, any intelligence which might show if we’ve been identified by the Queen?”  Darrukin asked, keeping his voice low despite the fact that they were alone in their room.

            “Yes, that would be good. I’ll see if I can locate our sister church here.  They should be able to tell us something.”  Keer said.  He had never been here before, but knew the Church elder by reputation, and was confident that he would be able to find the marks that would tell him where the church was.  “I might be recognised, so I’ll travel hooded up. Darrukin, I suggest you do the same.”  They had light travelling cloaks that were hooded, and would not look too out of place, nor be too hot.

            “Can I just sleep in?” Talana asked, lying on her bunk with no thought of anything so difficult as getting up.  Hitching herself up onto one elbow, she smiled.  “I know, I’ll look after all our gear here.  I don’t think we can really be too careful!”

            “If anyone should be keeping a low profile, it should be Darrukin, Talana.” Keer said sternly.  Then his tone lightened. “But you’re right. Someone does need to stay here, and while I trust the landlord, I don’t like the looks of some of his employees.”

            A screech was heard from outside, then a sharp cry of pain from a person.  Darrukin looked out the window to see a young man running from the stables holding his fingers.  Keesha flew out of the open doorway, stridently calling for Darrukin.  The young man looked at his companions.

            “I’d better get down there so Keesha can see me.  I bet that stable boy will keep his fingers to himself next time!”  he said, grabbing his pale cloak and leaving the room, Keer and Jeron following behind.  He could imagine what had happened.  The staff in Darr had quickly learned not to touch the blue falcon; her beak was sharp.  As Darrukin ran down the stairs he pulled the robe on, the hood almost completely covering his face.  He threw it back as he reached the courtyard, looking for the falcon; she dived in to his outstretched arm immediately.  Squawking and agitated, Keesha’s feathers were puffed up and she held her wings half-extended until Darrukin’s gentle stroking calmed her down. 

            “Off you go, have a good stretch of those wings.” he said to her, and launched her upwards again.  If he was going to scout around the town he did not want her with him, she would make him too conspicuous, too easy to remember if anyone was later questioned.  He wanted to blend in and be just another merchant or ordinary traveller, not stand out from the general throng. 

Leaving the Inn’s courtyard, he went out into the streets, hoping to find some news from Tashmar.  Walking along the cobbled pavements, around slower moving wagons and knots of people, he had no fixed objective other than to find a market place or a town square.  They were the most likely places he would find news.  The pale robe flapped about him, but others were dressed similarly, so he did not stand out.       

            The town’s narrow, crowded streets were filling rapidly.  Darrukin wove his way through them, stopping here and there to look around, curiosity taking him in to a shop full of jewellery and down a laneway that was lined with pet shops.  As the number of shops and hawkers about him began to increase he knew he was reaching the central, market area of the town, the hub of business and probably where he would find news.  If he was lucky he might find the town square there as well, a public place designed to pass on information to the people.  The thickening crown also indicated that he was on the right track.

            Being taller than most around him, he could see fairly easily over the growing crowd, and kept moving forward, hoping to reach the market or square through the bustle of people.  The likelihood of his being recognised by someone he had met before, like another cadet or one of the ruling families, he thought was remote, but he kept his hood up just in case.  In moments he reached what he knew to be the town square. 

            There was some kind of public address taking place.  On a raised dais towards one end of the square he could see white-robed priest, and could just make out what he was saying.  The priest was expounding the virtues of the Dragon Queen, her divinity, her love for her people, the punishments that would be borne by them if they did not comply with her guidance...Darrukin was disgusted.  The priest was green-sashed, like the two on the river he had met, and he thought that the sash indicated rank.

            What he could also see, if he looked at the man in a certain way, was that he was using a compulsion spell on the crowd.  They were listening because he was making them listen, a fine web of sorcery cast over the mob.  Only those with stronger minds and definite purpose were able to resist, and moved off; there was a constant movement of people into and out of the square.  Some listeners paid rapt attention to the priest.  But many of them looked trapped, held against their will by the spell.  Sweaty faces, panicked eyes, the look of betrayal and frustration.  It was too much for Darrukin.  He decided to do something about it.

            He stayed back to one side, hopefully out of the direct line of sight of the priest, but concentrated his own burgeoning powers on the compulsion spell.  He could see the spell, and quietly began to kill it, to dismantle the web, pull it apart using his mind.  With a final flick of his will, the spell shattered and disappeared, leaving the crowd suddenly free and the priest stumbling backwards slightly.  The look of consternation on the priest’s face was the best reward for Darrukin.  The priest stopped speaking, and looked about himself in confusion, tried to collect himself and continue, but could not.  The spell was broken, and the people were moving away quickly.  Darrukin got out of the square himself, unobtrusively slipping away and very pleased.  That would teach the priesthood of Eshtan – of the Dragon Queen – a small lesson in humility, he hoped, as he passed through the crowded, dusty alleys.


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