The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 24
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter five)

            “Are you alright, Talana?” he demanded, when he had drawn breath and time seemed to be moving normally once again.  She nodded mutely, pale with shock.  Her upper arm had been cut, deeply, but she had pressed a wad of bandaging over it to staunch the flow of blood.  “And you, Jeron?  Your leg’s injured.” Darrukin said.  His heart still pounded in his chest and his breathing was still heavy, but he was very much relieved that both Talana and Jeron were not badly injured.  Surveying the battle scene, he found it difficult to believe that he’d killed most of these people himself.  He could not take it in. 

            “Jeron, could you check that all these guards are dead. please?” he said, swallowing.  The older man nodded, his face grim and ashen as he walked amongst the bodies.

            “Keer?” Talana called, looking around for the elder.  “I can’t see him.  Oh, there’s his horse.” she said, pointing.  The chestnut was riderless and had slipped back into the forest.  Talana kicked on her black mare to follow the animal, retrieve the pack horses, and look for Keer. 

            “Darrukin, I need your help.” she called, pulling his attention away from the palace guards that were coming towards them up the road.

            “Sure, but we need to move fast. There are more guards coming, and we’d best get out of here.” he said, taking the grey into the forest and dismounting where Talana had stopped.  She had dismounted as well, and crouched over Keer’s recumbent form

            “He’s not dead, is he?” asked Darrukin.  Talana shook her head.

            “He’s breathing, but he’s got a gash along his cheek. Perhaps he was knocked out by a blow.  Can you help me pick him up?”

            Together they sat the elder up, then pulled him to his feet.  Talana grabbed the chestnut and they slung the older man across the saddle and tied him in place, as he showed no signs of waking.  Darrukin led the chesnut out of the forest and called for Jeron to mount up, while Talana took the pack horses. 

            “We’d better put some distance between ourselves and this mess, and those guards.” Darrukin said.  “Come on!”

            They kicked their horses into a gallop and sped off, raising dust that would surely be seen by the palace guards moving up the road.  There was no time for niceties, for burying the dead or getting themselves cleaned up after the battle, they just had to flee.  After a couple of miles of flat galloping they slowed, allowing the horses to recover, but still kept up a fast pace.  The horses were flecked with foam and sweat, and Talana automatically set up the invisibility spell to shield them.  They could all feel fatigue creeping up on them, but their desperate need to put distance between themselves and the guards kept them moving. 

            By dusk they were all exhausted.  Keer had not woken, just been jostled and bounced about on his horse.  By unspoken agreement they pushed through the forest towards the inland sea, following an animal track.  In some places they had to push back trees and vines to let the horses through, but they did not want to cut a trail lest they made it that much easier to be followed by palace guards.  They reached the shores of the sea, the lapping of the water soothing to their jangled nerves.

            “I hope those guards have stopped for the night.” Jeron whispered.  The blackness descended around them as they took shelter under a large tree on the shore.  Stars pricked white light in the dark sky, and neither moon was due to rise for a time.

            “Let’s eat.  We’ll need our strength tomorrow; we’ve got to put in at least another hard day’s riding in order to get away.” said Darrukin, finishing up giving the horses some of the precious grains they carried.  At least by the inland sea they were not hard up for water.

            “Keer still hasn’t woken up, Darrukin.”  Talana said, trying to make the elder at least more comfortable where he lay.  They had put down a blanket in the grass that verged along the shore, and the young woman used her own blanket as a pillow for him.  The elder moaned, but even in the darkness they knew that he was still unconscious.  “Perhaps he was struck with a dagger? It’s only a small cut, but sometimes the palace guards use poison on their blades.” she said matter-of-factly.  She turned to look up at Darrukin as he came over.  They lit no fire, so all she could see was his dark shape outlined against the night sky.  Her thoughts turned to Asikei.  “You know, Darrukin, Asikei used sorcery once to see how I was healing, after I’d been hurt.  You might be able to do the same.”

            He shook his head, taking a moment to answer.

            “As might you.  You have shown some aptitude for magic with the invisibility spell.  Why don’t you try it?” he replied. “I don’t think I’d be very good at it, because I can’t concentrate right now, knowing that there’s a column of palace guards close behind us.  I’m on the alert, and I don’t think healing is really within my power.” he finished. 

            She looked at him as best she could in the dim light, noting the way he kept looking around, an air of tension about him as if he were ready to leap into action at a second’s notice.  He must be incredibly tired after that battle, she thought, but she could almost feel him regain energy as he crouched next to her and began to eat.

            “Right then, I’ll give it a go, and see how far my own talents extend.” she said confidently.  In truth she felt anything but confident, yet Keer needed help, and Darrukin was obviously too distracted to be able to perform it.  Where to start?  She looked at her hands, wondering if they would be able to discern anything.  Trying not to doubt herself or feel silly, she extended them over Keer’s face in imitation of what Asikei had done.  What next? How did Asikei do what he did?  Retracting her hands, she sat and thought for a moment, remembering the old man, the pain she had felt, trying to see again exactly what he had done.  She needed to reach out to Keer, use her own power – such as it was – to delve into him and let her know what was wrong.  Gathering up her courage and her energy, she raised her hands above his face once more.

            Shutting her eyes with concentration, she tried to pull all her energy, gather her will together, and concentrate them in her hands.  She wanted energy to flow out to Keer, reach into him and allow her to see what caused his unconsciousness.  Deliberately, as if she was constructing the invisibility spell, she pushed with her will, sending energy through her hands and out to Keer.  Talana tried not to be surprised when her hands began to grow faintly hot, as if her energy were warming her on its way out to Keer.  That’s it, she encouraged herself, send the energy out.  Wake him up. See what has made him ill.  She knew that in the darkness she would see nothing, but she could feel what she thought was energy flowing through her hands and to the unconscious elder.  Her eyes stayed shut as she concentrated, imagining Keer’s dark form.  In her mind’s eye there a shred of movement over his body, fleeting and insubstantial.

            Keer stirred, sighing.  His shallow breathing deepened, and somehow she knew that he was no longer unconscious, but just asleep. Looking about herself, she caught Darrukin’s astounded expression in a faint glow of light. Light? From where?  Then she realised, and raised her glowing hands to her face, sure that her expression mimicked the young man’s.  Light, a faint yellow glow, illuminated her hands.  It seemed to cling like a mist about them, insubstantial but existing in itself, and not from any one source.   Surprised, she shook her head, and the glow abruptly cut out.

            “What was that?” she whispered.  In all her experience she had never done anything like it before.  “My hands….”

            “Were alight, like Keer and I can do.  Well done, Talana. You must be more of a sorcerer than you realised.”  Darrukin replied in a low voice.  “Were you able to see if he was healing, or what was wrong?”

            Talana shook her head.  She did not think she had divined the source of his problem, she had just known that his wound was there.  “I don’t think so. But he did begin to sleep while I tried to look.  Maybe he’s over the worst of it?” she guessed.

            “Here, you need to eat something.” he said, handing her some bread and cheese.  “You look tired. I’ll take first watch tonight, so get some sleep.  We need to be up and on our way early in the morning.”

            Groggy after the long night and fitful sleep between watches, Talana nevertheless carefully and quietly packed up the camp with the others.  Her arm did not bother her too much; a peek under the bandage showed her that the wound was clean and healing rapidly.  Jeron’s leg, too, was not bothering him.  What she did find most amazing was Keer’s recovery.  He had slept soundly the night through, and was awake and smiling when she arose, doing his share of the work getting the camp tidied up.

            “Keer, are you alright? How’s your cheek? That must have been some blow you took to the face to be knocked out like that for so long.” she said.

            “Yes, I don’t remember much but I do know that I managed to turn the blade to its flat just before it hit me. I guess that must have saved my life.” he said. 

            “Are you feeling dizzy?  Sick? Seeing double?” Darrukin asked, approaching the elder and looking at him more closely.  Keer shook his head, before Darrukin looked at the dressing on his cheek.  “I’ll look at the wound, see if it’s healing well or not.” he said, unbinding it. “What?” he said with surprise.  “There’s only a scar. It’s healed up! That’s incredible.!”

            “I suppose it wasn’t too deep – more bruising than anything.” Keer said, fingering the scar.  It was thin and tender, but definitely closed.

            “I was sure there was more to it than that. Must have been just the blow that made you so unwell.” the young man said, taking the dressing to rinse out later.  “Do you think you can ride today? I’d hate to have to tie you up again over your horse.”

            “Er, I’ll be fine to ride.” Keer said quickly.

            Talana led her horse to the water’s edge to drink, taking a moment to wash her face and fill her water bottles as well.  The sun was not yet in the sky, but it was getting light quickly. The inland sea was a dark emerald green, slightly choppy in the morning breeze.  The sky was clear and it promised to be another hot, dry day.

            “How far have we got to travel?” she asked, as they mounted their animals and set out.  “Why don’t we hire a boat to take us north? Keer probably will need some more rest after that blow, at least, and it might make us less obvious to anyone who is trying to follow us.”

            “Hmm, good idea.  I’m not sure of the welcome we would get in the villages we come to; the Eshtanis may have already put out that warning to everyone against us. I feel they might be getting a clearer idea of who to look for, perhaps, with the priest and the palace guards after us like that.” Darrukin replied.

            “Well if they didn’t before, they might have a better idea now, after that massacre!  How did you do it, Darrukin?” Talana asked, astounded, “I’ve never seen anyone move so fast in all my life.”

            Darrukin blushed.  “I don’t know. I knew Jeron was hurt, then you got hurt, and I had to get there to stop you both being killed.  I felt a rush of power, sorcery, so I guess that helped. All I know is that I had to help you.”  He shrugged. If he thought about it, he too was surprised.  He’d killed over ten men by himself, the others accounting for three or four each.  Surely it had to be something about being a sorcerer, he thought, remembering the rush of power that he’d felt.

            “I still think we should sail, if we can.  It will make us more difficult to follow. I don’t think they know we are heading north, just along this road.” Talana said.

            “Alright, we’ll see what we can find at the next village we come across.  Hang the consequences.  We’ll ride along the shore today, that way we should find a fishing village fairly soon.  From there we can buy passage north.” Darrukin said with confidence.

            “That sounds good. I don’t fancy being tied in my saddle again.” Keer said, rubbing his chest, which was sore from pounding he had taken slung across his saddle the day before.

            “It’s settled then, let’s go.” said Darrukin, kicking the grey stallion onwards.

            They followed the firmer ground, a thin, mostly grassed strip where soil took over properly from the sandy, silty shoreline. At times they were forced to the water, but they did not want to run the horses through the softer stuff more than they had to, they would tire too quickly that way.  The pace they set was still quite fast, for all that they could see no sign of being followed. They all knew better than to assume that the palace guards had given up the search.

            Out across the sea, they could just sight Dragon Isle.  The heat of day as it wore on made the horizon shimmer and move like liquid, so at times it was difficult to tell what was real and what was not.  At times they thought they spotted ships out on the water, black specks in the distance.  There was thick forest to their left, the beach and the sky, and no sign of any pursuit that they could see. 

            They rode hard all that day.  Gradually the forest gave way to small farmlets, and evidence of cultivation, orchards and fields.  There were small stations set up where water was taken from the sea and fed into channels to irrigate crops.  Field hands and farm workers were seen, but the four had the invisibility spell around them and so were not noticed.  And although there were people around, they had not come across any towns or villages that lay along the coast, in their path.

            Night had fallen by the time they spotted lights in the distance.  Urging their tired horses on, the shape of a dull, black pier was soon revealed, and they were relieved to find themselves entering a small village with a clustering of shops and houses around an inn, close to the pier.

            “Let’s stay here, if we can. I don’t think anyone is sailing tonight by the looks of the dock.” Jeron commented.  The others agreed, eager to sleep properly in a bed if they could be reassured that they were safe.

            Arriving at the inn, they were welcomed by a friendly woman who was not suspicious of them at all.

            “You’ll be staying just the one night?” she said, her accent thickening the words slightly. Darrukin paid the woman well and they settled the horses and Keesha in the stables, always wary, but relieved when they found the place almost empty of other guests.

            Keer went straight up to their room, taking Talana.  Jeron and Darrukin paid the taproom a visit, ordered some hot food and began the search for a vessel that would take them, and their horses, north.  The bar was crowded with fishing folk, locals, who stared at them and murmured comments.  Laughter barked out and soon the bar returned to normal levels of conversation.  It was difficult to be inconspicuous in such a crowd but a quick look around told Darrukin that there were no other military types amongst the people here, just fishers, and traders, by the looks of those with more exotic clothing.  This relieved him of one anxiety, at least.  He approached a knot of older men, fishermen by the looks of them.

            “I’m looking for anyone who might give me and my companions passage to Darr.  Would any of you be able to help me, or know of someone who could?”

            “That depends.  What sort of a boat were you after?” a gnarled old man asked, taking a pipe from his mouth.

            “Just something that would take myself, three companions and six horses to the Darr port of Bruna.  Perhaps you were heading in that direction?” the young man replied, trying to sound conversational and not desperate.  The old man hummed and haa’d, and spoke at length with his colleagues. They came to a general consensus that they did not like horses aboard their ships.

            “I will pay handsomely for the privilege.” Darrukin assured them.

            “You can sail with me, then, lad.” came a higher pitched, female voice from behind him.  He turned to see a tall, strong-looking woman with a sun-weathered face smiling at him.  Several teeth were missing from the grin.  “Bruna’s my home port, lad, and I’m heading that way in the morning.  I’ll be glad to take you on.  I’m a trader, not a fisher like these stuffy old men!”  Several of the old men harrumphed with disdain at the woman, but she ignored them.

            “What’s your price?” Jeron interjected, keen to settle the matter and get to bed.

            “I think we can agree on that in the morning, can’t we? I sail at dawn, and if you show up, I’ll take you.  Does that suit?” the woman countered, draining a tankard of ale.  Jeron nodded once.

            “Your ship’s name, Ma’am?” Darrukin enquired, hoping that a native of Darr would not recognise him. She had not given any indication that she had.

            “The Sea Horse, lad. See you there!”

            With that, the woman turned back and moved to the bar, confident that she had the trade she sought. Darrukin and Jeron were glad to escape the taproom, and climbed the stairs up to the rooms wearily, carrying some food.  Keer was already asleep, Talana awake but looking tired, but she gladly ate the food offered and glad of their success.  Bedding down in the bunks, Talana volunteered for the first watch, as Jeron and Darrukin gratefully slipped into deep, dreamless sleep.

 

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