The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 25
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter six)

            Darrukin’s internal clock woke him early, well before they had to be down by the docks to board the trader.   He nodded to Jeron, who had been taking the watch, and they roused the others.  He was eager to leave the hamlet, get moving; the more quickly they moved the less risk of capture.  Fortunately the others, once properly awake, were as eager as he was to get away.

            The morning air was fresh as they walked the horses down to the docks.  Along the pier they counted the fishing boats moored alongside, then saw the trader at the end.  Crew were busily loading crates, and they saw the blond captain, her tall form standing out amongst her crew as she whistled and directed them, urged them on or told them off.  She looked towards the shore and watched them coming.

            “Ah, my passengers. Didn’t think to see you down here quite so early, but there’s no harm done, we can get away earlier as a result. Now, how much are you going to pay me for taking you to Bruna?” she began, her eyes fixed on Darrukin.  She wore the same soiled clothes as the night before, and smelled like stale beer, but her eyes were bright and there was no denying her authority with the crew.  Darrukin began to bargain.

            A breeze blew off the sea, sharply cool in the early dawn.  Talana shivered as she regarded the captain, now deep in discussion with Darrukin.  She eyed the trader, thinking that it looked distinctly unseaworthy, but she knew that she really had no idea about such things. The deck was covered in crates and goods ready to be traded, and she did not really see how it was all going to fit and leave room for them and their horses.  Feeling decidedly uncomfortable, she flashed a pained expression across at Keer.

            “Was this such a good idea after all?”

            Keer laughed at her doubts. He was from Maradi, and there most people were at least familiar with watercraft.  “I think it is an excellent idea.  I had no idea I had missed sailing so much. Have you ever been in boat, Talana?” he enquired.  His keen gaze was sizing up the ship’s capacity, gauging its speed under sail. “I think we will do very well on this ship. It may look clumsy and like it is about to sink, but I’d say it moves, especially with the right wind.”

            “Aye, it certainly does. But if it’s speed you’re after, that’ll cost extra.” the captain of the vessel chimed in.

            “Just go at your normal pace, Captain, that will suit us well enough.” Keer replied.

            “You’re ain’t running from trouble, are you?” she asked blatantly.

            “Goodness me, no!” Darrukin interjected, grinning broadly at the woman.  “Our friend here has some family business to attend to, that’s all.  It’s not an emergency.”

            “Very well. It’s a fair price I’ve asked, what do you say?”

            “Indeed it is, Captain.  We would be grateful if we could load the horses and get started, and thank you for the opportunity to sail and cut our travel time significantly.” Darrukin said, concluding the deal. The captain whistled for her crew and several men came running to take the horses down to the hold.  The beasts went nervously onto the ship, especially Talana’s black mare, which bit one crew member and kicked another. A few frowns were thrown in the direction of the passengers, but Talana herself had to suppress a smile of mirth. She did not blame the horse for feeling nervous. She felt the same way.

            “Alright, let’s board.” Darrukin said, once their horses had been loaded.  He hefted his saddlebags and supplies, and walked up the gangplank with ease.  “Do you need a hand, Talana?” he offered, turning back to her once he was on board. 

            “I think I’ll manage by myself.” she replied, with more bravado than certainty, but she did begin to walk up the gangplank. The feel of the ship moving under her feet was most uncomfortable, and she felt an irrational desire to drop everything and run back to the pier.  Solid, safe dry land. Gritting her teeth, she waited for the others. Keer looked boyish and refreshed, which was good to see considering his earlier knock on the head. Jeron, Talana noted, looked as though he would rather walk through hot coals than be on board.  She couldn’t help but agree with him.

            There was only one cabin for them, as passengers were not really a priority for the vessel, and some of their belongings had to go below with the horses.  What was important they carried with them. They went below deck to settle into the cabin just as the crew weighed anchor and pushed off from the dock, using long oars to give the ship some headway before the wind could pick up the sails.  The four came up once more onto the deck to stand with the captain, amidships, to watch the receding shoreline.  Soon the sails were unfurled on the three tall masts, and the wind grabbed at them, pushing the ship along with more force.

            “How far away is Bruna?” Jeron asked Darrukin.   His desire to be off the vessel was implicit in the question, and his expression was tight.  Darrukin saw that the older man cast suspicious glances about his feet as the deck beneath them began to pitch and roll with the gentle motion of the sea.

            “Oh, it’s about a week’s journey by the inland sea, depending on the wind.  It would have taken at least a month by land.” he answered.            The sun had now risen and it was quite strong despite the cooling wind.  They watched the shoreline recede as the ship steered away from the shallower water and out into deeper, dark blue-green water, running before the wind.

            Sailing was something that Darrukin had done before, on this very sea and also on the more dangerous, unpredictable waters of the oceans off Darr.  He’d boated down the Sapphire river innumerable times, and had a good understanding of watercraft, but was not a keen sailor for all that.  He felt suddenly homesick, and glad to be going back to Darr, or through it at least, depending on where the spear led them.  With luck he would be able to call by his home and see his family.  Turning his face into the breeze, he peered up into the sky, looking for his falcon. There she was, screeching and diving, racing along the wind.  A sea-eagle joined her, its larger form dwarfing her, but it was not aggressive.  The enormous bird stooped, splashed and then winged off with a fish in its talons.

            “That’s a good sign, and a lucky one, so early in the voyage.” the captain commented as she came to stand beside Darrukin. “We should have a good run to Bruna.”

            Darrukin didn’t speak, but nodded, his eyes too full of the beauty of the sea around him.

            Talana went below deck with Keer, as the old man looked tired. She had to remember that he was still recovering from a blow to the head, and might not be feeling quite right.  Her own arm felt remarkably good; it didn’t ache or itch, and she was tempted to take the bandage off; only it looked like a battle scar and not an accident, and she did not want to raise the suspicions of the crew.

            The close, crowded feeling below deck was uncomfortable for her.  It felt almost like being in a cave again.  There was an ominous creaking of the ship’s timbers as it moved which made her feel uneasy, but she could not complain.  At least they would be out of the way of the palace guards, and it would not take them half so long to reach Darr.  What awaited them there she had no idea.

            Their cabin had one small porthole through which she could see the water at quite a close range.  Visions filled her head of the porthole opening, allowing water to flood in and drown them all, but she quashed the fear grimly.  There were bunks that lined the walls that folded down and their belongings were piled in the centre of the small space.  It was enough.

            “So this is home for the next week or so.” she said glumly to Keer, as he pulled down bunk and lay in it.  “At least we’ll go north much faster than on horseback.”

            “And if we are led south again?”  Keer asked, one eye open and looking at her as she looked through the porthole again.

            She turned to him.  “Well, let’s just hope we don’t have to.  I wouldn’t want to have to run into the trouble we’ve just left behind.  Do you think the Queen will have alerted all of the provinces?”

            “Perhaps. I can ask once we get to Bruna.” Keer’s voice was sleepy.

            “Travelling north leaves the whole question of where we are going so open, doesn’t it?  You could be right, we might have to turn around and head south again. What if we are directed towards Tashmar?” Talana shuddered.  There was no answer. Keer had fallen asleep.

            Back out on deck, Talana approached Jeron and Darrukin, who were looking out over the railing and into the water.  The coast was now a thin strip in the distance and some clouds had gathered, blotting out the sun’s fierce heat occasionally.

            She leaned over the rail to find small silvery fish leaping out of the water alongside the ship. They were like tiny jewels against the green-blue water.  It was enchanting to watch.

            They spoke in low voices, not really wanting to be overheard by the crew. Even here, on the ship, they decided that they should trust no one, but at least they would abandon the watches.  There seemed to be no danger of being boarded by another vessel, and if anyone knew who they were or what they were doing, then they themselves were not in a position to tell the Queen or do anything about it until they docked. 

            Sleep that night did not come easily for Talana.  The bunks were awkward to get into, especially for her and Darrukin, who had taken the top two.  They had to climb over Keer and Jeron’s bunks. It was hot and stuffy, so that even the light blankets that they had were not needed.   Only a faint breath of air filtered down through the door to relieve them.  Talana waited, restless, listening as first Keer and Jeron, then finally Darrukin, stopped moving and began the soft, regular breathing that indicated slumber.  Quietly, she climbed down from her precarious nest and eased open the cabin door, hoping that it wouldn’t creak.  She went up onto the deck and wandered, enjoying the cooler air and greeting the sailors left to keep the vessel on course over night.  Keesha peeped at her, the bird sitting on a spar, her head coming up from beneath one wing.

            “Can’t sleep?” asked the sailor on the wheel.  The wooden wheel creaked as he turned it slightly, adjusting their course.

            She shook her head.  “It’s too hot down there for me. I’d rather be up here in the breeze. Are you going to be steering the ship all night?”

            “No, just for the next few hours, then the next watch will come on and I’ll be relieved.” he replied.

            “What happens if a storm brews?” she asked, interested.  She knew little of a sailor’s life, only having seen the ships docked and being loaded or unloaded in Tashmar.  Life at sea or on the river was unknown to her.

            “Well, then I make what decisions I have to make, until the captain relieves me. She takes over when she’s up or if anything happens.”

            Talana nodded in acknowledgement, but lapsed into silence, rocked by the motion of the vessel.  She certainly felt more restful as she watched the way the starlight reflected off the water, now inky black with night.  Suddenly tired, she resigned herself to the fact that she would have to sleep in her uncomfortable berth below deck for the duration of the passage, and went below.

            It was a tedious journey.  Endless days of sailing, the movement of the ship never ceasing, the cramped quarters, all drove Talana mad.  She would check the horses and look after them, feed them and clean them. She made it her main task, for the creatures would snort and fidget with the boredom and inactivity of the hold.  The spear still pulled towards the north, which she was glad of, at least they were still travelling in the right direction.  While she marvelled at the expert way the captain handled her crew, and sought the deck often so as to be out in the open air, it was still frustrating for her and she felt trapped.

            The ship made good speed using wind power only, no oars were needed.  Keer told Talana that sailing on the ocean was far more exciting, as the ocean had stronger currents, stronger winds, and was a far more dangerous place to be.  The inland sea was really a very, very large lake, which had no tides, but a gentle currents that ran towards Tashmar and to the south.  The water did not smell anything other than fresh, and was quite clear, but became siltier the closer they went to the rivers that drained into it.  Birds abounded, as did fish, and the meat served up in the galley was mostly freshly caught.

            Darrukin, meanwhile, felt a sense of foreboding take over from the watched and pursued feelings he had had on land.  Wondering if he was going crazy, he asked Keer, but the elder assured him that it was not unusual for a sorcerer to get feelings, hunches; a sense of some knowledge of what the future held. 

            “So I’m not demented our going out of my mind?” Darrukin asked on the third day of their voyage, wanting reassurance from the elder.  Keer was resting on the deck, his face to the sun. The scar on his cheek was a thin line and he had recovered from the blow to the head well.  He cast a sleepy eye up at the young officer.

            “No, I don’t think so.  You were right before, I don’t see why your intuition should be wrong this time. You must remember that you are integrally linked with the fate of this land, as is the Queen; you should respond to threats.” Keer said.  “It’s a shame it’s not more specific, because whatever it is it can’t bode well for us, nor for Ashlon in the long run.”

            Darrukin could only shrug his shoulders and look out to sea.  There were no answers there either, but at least the view was soothing.

           

            Talana stirred in her sleep, her dream rapidly turning into a nightmare, the earth beneath her feet beginning to roil and turn as Eshtani priests practiced their magic, trapping her, wrapping her in spider webs.  She was unable to move, unable to resist or fight them, one of them drew nearer with a great blade, lifted it, began the downwards stroke. Crying out, she sat up, momentarily disorientated before finding herself safe in the cabin.  The floor still pitched violently, and she was nearly shaken out of her bunk. There was a harsh drumming sound, amid shouts and cries, and she could see water lashing the porthole. A storm.

            Noting hurriedly that the others were already out of their bunks, she raced up to the deck. Emerging at the top she saw the grey half light of dawn on the very horizon, but thick clouds masked the light and kept it dark as nigh.  Rain was lashing the deck and she was soaked in an instant, lurching as waves whipped up by the strong wind tossed the ship around.

            Sailors were everywhere, almost immune to the roll of the ship, and even above the thunder Talana could hear the captain’s voice, calling out to her crew, giving orders.  She saw Darrukin, Keer and Jeron hauling on a rope, trying to help the crew pull in one of the main sails before it tore. A sailor dangled from a rope high above, swinging violently.

            Staggering across to Darrukin, she picked up the end of the rope and began to haul. He yelled at her, but she could hardly hear him for all that he was right next to her.  A huge wave then crashed over the deck, catching her and sending her sprawling against the railing. Terrified, she grabbed about her for something to hold on to as she felt the water pulling at her, trying to drag her over the rail and into the water.  A strong hand grabbed her and pulled her up, all but throwing her to the entrance to the hold.  Looking at her rescuer, she saw Darrukin, a furious expression animating his features.

            “Go below and stay there!” he shouted at her.

            “But I can help here!” she objected.

            “No! Go!” he countermanded, pushing her into the doorway.  “It’s too dangerous out here, if you want to help, see to the horses, they’ll be terrified.”  He spoke in a more reasonable voice.

            Reluctantly, she agreed, and watched him make his way back to Keer and Jeron.  A rope was about his waist, securing him so that he would not be washed overboard.  Talana ducked as another huge wave crashed over the deck, and scrambled down below, deciding that it was a good time for her to leave.  Scrambling in the darkness, she made her way to the hold which held the horses, and could hear their frightened squeals and shrieks.  Hurrying in, she did what she could to soothe them, making sure they were not hurt. The smell of a familiar person calmed them somewhat, but the movement and noise of the ship in the storm was too much for them.

            An ear-splitting shrieking sound cut the air, sending a shiver down her spine and unnerving the horses even more.  Stroking their noses, she tried once more to calm them, but then a great creaking, booming crash reverberated through the ship and sent the animals wild again.  Talana had to flee or be crushed or injured by flying hooves. 

            Deeply frightened, she left the hold and ran up onto deck to see what was going on.  The scene that greeted her was chaotic.  The main spar of the rear mast had split, sending sail and rope flying as it fell, crashing onto the deck.  Darrukin, Keer and Jeron were helping some sailors untangle lines so they could free the spar, and the captain strode amongst them, swearing and cursing.  One man was crushed underneath the spar, and even as the ship lurched and foundered on the water they worked to free him.

            “Leave him! Back to your stations!” the captain cried, admonishing those sailors who had joined the rescue effort.  “Get back now, or we’ll all die on this tub!”

            Talana lurched across to her companions and joined them, sorting out the tangled mess of lines and digging down towards the injured sailor. She could hear his distress, his cries of pain.  Pulling away rope, she found the man’s foot.

            “Help me! I’ve got him!” she cried, then screamed as she pulled and fell backwards on the deck, a severed foot in her hand.  It had parted company with the sailor’s leg at the ankle.  Shuddering, she flung it away from her.

            “Try again!” Jeron called to her, his face grim and set in the faint light of dawn.

            Redoubling their efforts they scooped away rope and sail, heaving at the beam to lift it off the man underneath.  His cries were weakening. Their strength was not equal to the task.

            “I’m going to levitate it.” Darrukin said.

            “You can’t! They’ll guess we’re sorcerers, we’ll be in danger!” Keer looked at him worriedly.

            “Then we’ll pretend to lift it!  A man’s life is at stake here!” Darrukin replied savagely.  Without waiting for an answer he gathered his will, and lifted the spar, making sure that he and Jeron at least had a hold of it.  Talana scrambled underneath, amid the shattered remains of wood and rope, and dragged the man out. He was bruised and losing a lot of blood, but still conscious.

 

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