The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 22
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter five)

            Keer was waiting for them when they got upstairs.

            “Hello!” Talana said brightly as she walked in.  “Have you had a good day?”

            “I’ve got some news for us, at least.  Please, sit down everyone.” he said, and waited for them, his mouth compressed into a thin line. “I’ve had an interesting day, and have some rather bad news for us.”

            “We’ve just heard that there’s a high priest in the town, who arrived today.  Could it be to do with that?” Darrukin interrupted.  Keer looked at him with surprise.

            “Where did you hear that?”

            “The barmaid told us.  She took a bit of a shine to Darrukin here, and was more than willing to talk.”  Talana said, grinning across at the young man.

            “Yes, well. Hmm.  Let me continue.  When I left you this morning, I was confident that I would find the church here, and I did.  All the elders know where to look and can read the signs that point out where the churches are hidden.  It was good, it gave me the chance to find out what the needs and problems of this church are, and I can do something about it when there is another council – it’s not often that the provincial churches get the opportunity to come to the council meetings in Tashmar.”  He paused and rubbed his chin. “I’m getting sidetracked here.  I met with Gornhey, the elder of Naphkas’ church, and we had some long and involved discussions.  What he said has alarmed me greatly, quite frankly”  He shifed in his seat on the bed and looking at Darrukin directly.  “The high priest is here to coordinate a search for us.  It is a search on a massive scale, the priests in every village and town will be alerted to the danger.  The Eshtanis see us a very real danger to their power over the Queen, Darrukin, and will stop at nothing to capture or kill us.”

            “What exactly do they know about us?” asked Darrukin, his voice sharp. “It hasn’t been that long since we left the city.  What can they know?”

            “I asked the same question of Gornhey.  According to his information, and he’s close with the provincial Lord, the Queen became aware of your power before we had even left the city.  The raid upon my church was supposed to directly attack you.  I discussed the sorcery that attacked us after we crossed the mountains, and considering what Gornhey said, I think it was directed at you, the new guardian.  Somehow the Queen is aware of you, and is frightened by you – or at least, the Eshtanis that control her are frightened.  That’s why there is an all-out effort to find you.”

            He stopped, and took a glass of water from the fresh jug on the wash stand.  “Of course, we cannot be sure that the Queen is aware that we are after the Dragon Heart.  That ring has been lost so long that even she does not know where it is, and so cannot beat us to it.  But it is my guess that she at least suspects that we are looking for it, and she’s not stupid.  Kerdis’s tomb would be the logical place to start, and she’s sent her people out to look for us.”

            “Do you think that the Queen knows who we are?  How many of us there are?  Our names?  Did Gornhey tell you this?”  Darrukin’s mind was working fast, assimilating the information that Keer had given him, trying to work out the practical measures they would have to take in order to remain safe.  Four people with six horses, while not a large group, could not easily be hidden.  They would need to be alert.  They would need to stay away from the towns, not talk to people nor draw attention to themselves.  The fundamentals remained the same: if they wanted to find the Heart of the Dragon, they would have to travel.  If they had to travel, they would have to be vigilant.

            “No. I don’t think she has got that far.  She knows I wasn’t killed with my church, so she could be focussing on me, but I don’t think she realises that the new power is you, Darrukin.”

            “Well that’s something.” the young officer said.

            “My father must know by now that I have left the city.  He is someone to look out for.” Talana added, her face turning pale at the thought.  It was never far from her mind, the knowledge that she was being pursued by a man she truly feared and hated; but most of the time she could submerge the uncomfortable feeling it gave her and be normal. Her blue eyes looked at Keer.

            “I don’t think that is really important right now, Talana.” he said dismissively. “Your father is a bouncer in a brothel, not High Priest of Eshtan.” 

            Talana’s fear made her angry. “You wouldn’t say that if you’d met him!”  She turned her back on the older man, furious. “He’s nearly killed me at least twice.  I don’t know how I survived the last time he tried.  If he finds me - and he won’t stop looking, I know that – then you’ll have lost your guide, because I’ll be dead!” 

            She stalked over to the window and looked through it, past the balcony and out into the courtyard.  Her fear and anger made her shake, and she hugged her arms around herself to try to stop it.  The sun had dipped below the horizon, leaving only a haze of heat from the courtyard and the rooftops that she could see, but she did not really see the view before her. 

            “Are you alright?” Darrukin said as he came to stand next to her.  She shook her head.  “Here, let me help.” he said, moving behind her. His strong hands went to her shoulders, massaging her tense muscles, working them until her trembling stopped and she relaxed.

            “Better now?” he asked, and she turned to him and nodded, her eyes grateful.

            “As I was saying,” Keer continued, “the fact that there’s a high priest in town means we must be extremely careful, and should leave as soon as possible.  The Eshtanis can be very thorough in their work, and will investigate any abnormal occurrences.  They may well begin looking in the Inns for strangers.”

            “Uh oh.” Darrukin murmured, a guilty flush creeping to his cheeks.  “Strange occurrences wouldn’t mean spell-breaking, would it?” he enquired hopefully.

            “What do you mean?” asked Jeron, speaking up for the first time.

            “Actually, it would.  What have you done?” Keer prompted acerbically.

            “Hmmmm.  Well, I didn’t think that much of it at the time. I broke a spell today, a compulsive spell that was being cast over a crowd in the town square.  An Eshtani priest – a priest of the Dragon Queen – was spouting all this nonsense about her divinity, and I saw the spell he was using on his audience.  It was clear that they didn’t really want to be there and listen, so I broke it.”

            “You didn’t!  Did the priest see you?”  Keer said in a shocked voice.  “I hope it didn’t tip off the priesthood that we are in the town itself.  That would almost make it too easy for them.”

            “It did seem the right thing to do at the time, Keer.  None of us were to know that the leaders of the Eshtani clergy would be here in town today.”  Darrukin said defensively.

            “Good for you, Darrukin. I think you were right.”  Talana spoke up.  She cast a reproachful look at Keer, and Darrukin could tell her words were heartfelt, and appreciated them.

            “Well, we must be very careful now,” said Keer, trying to cope with all that had happened.  “I think we may be safe if the Eshtanis are uncertain of our identities, and while they know of me they can’t say that I am the source of the new power the Queen has sensed.  If she discovers that it is Darrukin, or that I am with the group, then we are going to find it that much more difficult to travel and find that ring.”

            “So when shall we leave?  I can get the supplies quickly.” said the ever-practical Jeron.

            “We still need to rest and so do the horses.  I suggest we leave in two days’ time.”  Darrukin said decisively.  The others concurred.

            “Won’t it be fun being in the saddle again?” quipped Talana, drawing a derisive snort from both Darrukin and Jeron.  She went and sat down on the bed, Darrukin coming to sit next to her.

            “What else did you find out, Keer?” the young man asked, indicating to Talana that she should sit on the floor between his knees so he could continue to give her a massage.  He half-hoped that she would do the same for him after he’d finished.

            “The people out here aren’t so interested in gods – either one, Ishayla or Eshtan.  But the Eshtani priesthood – the priesthood of the Dragon-Queen, they won’t even admit to being Eshtani openly - have a strong grip here, and use fear, greed  and sorcery to ensure their dominance of the town.  Compulsive spells make people listen.  They use greed, getting people to inform on others.  There is a bounty for the capture of church members, and the priesthood here don’t ask too many questions if an accusation is made.  Some traders have used it to lessen their competition.”

            “Would this place be used as a base for the priests who go down to the Valley of Shades?”  Talana asked, remembering the battle on the banks of the river.

            “Yes.  And there is even a seminary for them here, some little distance away.  It used to belong to Ishayla. Now it is comes under the banner of the Dragon Queen.  My church does not fare well in this place.”

            “How can they search for us if they don’t know who we are?” asked Jeron.  His solid, practical question focussed on the down-to-earth.

            “I’m not sure.” said Keer.  “They’d be looking for sorcery of any kind, because if it’s not performed by them, then it must be done by their enemies.  I don’t know what they’ve discovered about us, I don’t know how the Eshtani priesthood thinks.  We will just have to maintain the fiction that we are merchants making business contacts and be very careful.”

            “Well then, we must leave as soon as we are rested and re-supplied.”  Darrukin reinforced, sounding confident in spite of the emotional turmoil he felt.  He didn’t like the feeling of being hunted.  At that moment, he could sympathise greatly with Talana’s concerns about her father.

            They spent the next day close in their room, except for Jeron, who went out to get fresh supplies, and Keer, who furtively went back to speak again with Gornhey.  Talana and Darrukin did not feel comfortable enough to leave the room, but instead, the young officer began to instruct Talana on the use of the spear as a weapon.  She was a quick learner, and he found that she easily mastered the basic thrusts and parries that spear-fighting utilised.

            “I don’t know if I could actually kill someone with this thing.” she complained, hot and sweaty after a practice spar with Darrukin.  “I might give them a vicious bruise or a good needling, but that’s about it, I think.”  The wood felt good and she was able to wield the spear with ease, but she doubted whether she had the strength to do much damage.

            “You might not feel it now, but fighting gives you a certain strength, when you know that it’s either the enemy or yourself who will be killed.  What if it was your father, after you?”  he asked, touching on what he knew to be her greatest fear.

            Talana shuddered.  She would do anything to get away from the man.  “I never want to see him again.  He’s much too strong, too brutal.  I couldn’t kill him but I could run.”

            “You can’t run forever.” he said, his eyes on her face.  Her expression was deeply worried.

            “But I can hide.”

            Darrukin didn’t pursue the matter any further.

            The day passed, bringing for the younger pair a mixture of boredom, frustration and rest.  They talked and talked together, practiced with the spear, and eagerly packed the supplies that Jeron would bring in for them, getting the travelling gear ready once more for a journey.

            “Would you teach me some unarmed combat?” Talana asked Darrukin, after a session pitting her spear against Darrukin’s longsword.  It had been fun, but she was concerned that if she had no weapon, she would not really know what to do.  As she’d grown up, she’d always been able to handle herself against unarmed drunk men who made clumsy lunges at her, but proper fighting was a different thing.  She never wanted to repeat the beatings she’d received from her father; she wanted to fight back effectively.

            “Alright, I can teach you a little, although I’m not an expert.” Darrukin agreed.  They stood in the middle of the room, saddle-bags stacked around the walls.  “It’s got to do with using your opponent’s weight, momentum and balance against them.  Unbalance them, use their movement and strength to defeat them.”  He was virtually quoting from his Academy classes.  “If I come at you like this, what would you do?”

            He charged at her, drawing a fist back as if to punch her.  Intuitively she stepped out of the way, ducking and swiping at him with a foot to trip him up.  He dodged the trip, turned and grabbed her, pinning her arms to her sides with his arms.

            “From this sort of hold, you can do several things.” he said, as she struggled fruitlessly.  “You can drop yourself out of it if you are quick enough.  You might be tall enough to be able to hit your opponent’s nose or face if you cracked your head backwards fast enough.  You can stamp on their feet.  Anything to break the hold.” he advised.  Talana dropped out of it deftly.

            “Not bad!” he commented.  They went through some basic holds and how to get out of them, and balance points so that she could throw a standing attacker.  Talana appreciated the lessons and tried to do her best to match Darrukin, but more often than she wanted, she ended up laughing at her own clumsiness and completely helpless in Darrukin’s grip. 

            Keer walked in as Darrukin held Talana pinned to the floor, unable to break the hold he had on her.  The young man had been about to tickle her mercilessly, but the look on Keer’s face stopped him.

            “I’d better not ask.” was all that the elder said as he dropped his travelling cloak on a bed.  He quickly retreated to the bath house.  Looking at each other, Darrukin and Talana could not help but laugh.

            The next morning they were ready to leave.  Jeron had done a good job with the supplies and they were laden with all manner of items that they would need, including fresh food, more rope, some horsefeed and some medical supplies.  Waking before the sun rose, they shouldered the gear and moved down to the stables, where they found Keesha and the horses, restive and nervous, as if the animals had known they would be leaving that day.  Saddling up, they got the supplies evenly distributed between themselves and the pack animals, before Keer went to pay the Innkeeper his dues. 

            The morning was clear and cool, with no clouds marring the light early sky.  The sun sent gold fingers of light to touch the tallest of buildings in the town, but was not yet over the horizon.  The questers made their way north-west through the town, following the cobbled streets.  As the light grew more intense the streets began to fill, and by the time they had reached the north-west gate there were considerable numbers of people about, pedestrians and those in vehicles or on horseback.  Blending in was no problem, Keer and Darrukin more careful to conceal their faces where they could.  The four had no problems at the gate, joining the few others who were leaving the town to travel via the caravan route to the upper realms of Seer and the province of Choresh.    Keer had thought that following the shores of the inland sea would be the wisest course, the few fishing villages that they would encounter would be far less dangerous than travelling on the caravan route.  They made as good time as they could to the path where the caravan route and the road along the inland sea divided, and headed along the lesser road.

            They had not seen the inland sea from the town of Naphka, for all that it stood on the banks of the river at the place where it joined the sea.  The walled city looked inwards, not out.  In the country to the north west of the town, they found that the presence of so much fresh water brought cooling breezes and that the desert gave way to open forest, the trees loosely grouped but becoming denser closer to the great body of water.  Soon they were riding along a sandy road, quickly outstripping slower wheeled traffic, supply wagons and the like.  They were able to catch glimpses of the sea through small breaks in the vegetation.  It looked sparkling and green, and very inviting.

            “Why is that sea there?” Talana asked Keer inquisitively as they rode.  Her horse was fresh and trotted along with a spring in its step beside Keer’s chestnut.

            “I have heard tales that once, long ago, there were three moons in the sky, and that the inland sea was created when one fell and crashed into the face of Ashlon.  Of course, that’s probably only a legend and not necessarily true.  It does sound good.” he said.

            “Isn’t there an island in the middle? I seem to remember something like that from the geography Asikei taught me.”  As she said his name, she felt a pang of loss.  Keer rustled in his saddlebag for a map, taking it out and unrolling the parchment.

            “You’re right, the island is right there.” he said, indicating a spot in the centre of the map.  “That island is called ‘Dragon Isle’; it’s a volcano, and in the distance it looks like a dragon, lying down in the water, or so they say.  We will find out, as we will be passing it by.”

            Talana looked enthusiastically at the map.  They had travelled such a long way from her home; the further the better, she thouht.  She did not want her father anywhere near her.  Surely he would have given up?  Frowning, she thought of her mother, Bel.  What had happened to her?  After the blow Akel had given her, she was probably dead.  Bel had shown her some kindness, and Talana regretted that their relationship had been overshadowed by the brutality of Akel.  Talana shook her head, and looked back over the head of her horse.  She had to forget her past and concentrate on living a new life.  She was needed, she had a purpose, even if it was a dangerous journey.  For the first time, Talana was happy and amongst friends.

            She looked over at Keer, then to Jeron who took up the rear with one packhorse, and forward to Darrukin, who led the other packhorse.  They were friends, and the joy she felt in that simple fact made her heart feel light and carefree.  Watching Darrukin’s back, she was reminded of the unarmed combat training that had almost degenerated into a tickle fight – it brought a smile to her lips, it had been so much fun, and felt natural.  Was that what being with a man should be like?  It did not matter - Darrukin could never be for her.  He was already destined for the Queen.

            She shuddered, and kicked her horse on towards him, leaning over by the pack horse to touch the ironwood spear that was still concealed amongst their gear.  The familiar pull was there.

            “Still on course?”  Darrukin asked her, looking back at her quickly before looking up into the sky.  Keesha had taken off when they had left the town and flown far ahead of them, out of sight.  They had not seen her yet.  Talana urged the mare to draw level with the grey.

            “Yes, still the gentle pull to the north, nothing more.” she replied easily.  Sweat beaded on her forehead and she wiped it off; the day was heating up and the breeze appeared to have died down  The forest around them was silent except for the odd call of a bird and the chirrup of insects; leaves were still and the air quite dry.

            “Fish for dinner, if Jeron can catch any, I expect.” she said, making light conversation.  Jeron’s ability as a fisherman was almost uncanny.  Her stomach rumbled in anticipation.

            “And probably for lunch and breakfast, too, if we can stand it.” the young man at her side said, his mouth rising at one corner.  “In another couple of hours we should stop, and go down to the water and have a meal break.  I’m looking forward to seeing the water up close.”

            They had not gone too much further, when Keesha returned to them, sporting a large fish in her talons.

            “You clever creature!” Darrukin exclaimed, “I never knew you could catch fish!”  The blue falcon looked smug and ruffled her feathers, sitting on the ground with the fish in front of her.  Darrukin called a halt and dismounted, picking up the fish.  “It’s a good one. Why don’t we head down to the water and cook this, have an early lunch?”  They all agreed.  The four pushed their way from the coastal road towards the sea, through the scrub.  After picking their way through the denser bush they were out on a broad expanse of sandy, silty beach, staring in amazement at the vista before them.

            The sea glittered green as an emerald and stretched away to the north and south.  Dimly they could make out the smudge that was Naphka, and a few boats were bobbing on the surface of the water, quite far away.  The water was calm and lapped at the beach, but there were no waves, for there was hardly any tide.  Only a gentle flow from north to south, with currents that drew water off to the Tashmar river in the east, and to the great river that ran to the south, from where they had just come.

            Jeron collected some wood, helped by Keer, and soon started a small fire to cook the fish.  “I’ll be out of a job if that bird keeps up with this!” he quipped, spearing the fish on a sharp stick after gutting and scaling it.  It did not take long to cook, and soon they were all enjoying the white, sweet flesh.  Even Keesha had some, uncooked. 

            A breeze blew up from the water, cooling them.  Talana was toying with the idea of a swim and went to the water’s edge. Crouching, she felt the jewel-green water and sighed at its coolness.  “It looks very deep out there.” she said, looking up at Darrukin, who had joined her.

            “It is.  The more blue-green it gets, the deeper the water.” he said, turning sharply, looking down towards Naphka.

            “What’s up?” Talana said, standing.  His sudden alertness alarmed her.  The young man looked about himself, as if searching for something.

            “I don’t know, I’m not sure.  But I felt something, some kind of danger.  I’m sure it’s coming towards us from the south.”  His hand was already reaching for his long-sword, slung across his back. He checked the motion, and then mounted up.  “I think we need to leave, put some distance between us and that town.”

 

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