The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 27
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter six)

            He reached the castle just on sundown. He slowed his horse well before reaching the gates, allowing the guards to recognise and salute him before he quickened his pace again once inside the city walls.  The streets leading up to his home were almost empty of people, those that he did see were hurrying home or going about their business before the light faded altogether.  Several recognised him and smiled, doffing hats or bowing: these he acknowledged with a friendly nod. 

            Surprised guards saluted him once again at the gates to the castle proper, and he took the grey straight to the stables, handing the horse over to his usual groom.  The lad was startled, but immediately began to fuss over the great horse, and Darrukin was reassured that the animal would be looked after properly.  He strode off to find his private chambers and get cleaned up before greeting his family – he stank.

            Dust sheets were in his apartment, he tore them off the furniture and bundled them into a corner before drawing himself a hot bath. After a bath, a shave and donning clean clothes, he felt ready to greet his family.

            Nibs was the first member of his family that he saw, meeting the boy as he made his way to their private dining room where dinner was about to be served.  Nibs shouted and grabbed him, hugging him affectionately before dragging him with surprising strength into the room. There his father, mother and sisters Darrsan and Darrlani were waiting to begin dinner.

            “Darrukin! What are you doing here? It’s wonderful to see you, my boy!” his father exclaimed, standing up from the table and giving his son a hug.  Lady Dana rose too, her eyes filling with tears as she greeted her son with an affectionate hug and kiss.

            “How are you doing, baby brother?” Darrsan said, smiling, her green eyes glinting with humour.

            “Not so bad, ma’am, and yourself?” he answered, teasing her as he always did, since she outranked him in their father’s small army.  His younger sister, Darrlani, smiled at him, her dark eyes glowing.

            “Sit down, have something to eat.” his mother said, drawing up an extra chair and calling for staff to bring a setting and some more food.  “Tell us your news.  What have you been up to and what brings you back so suddenly? We rather lost track of you in Tashmar.”

            “Start, everyone - I’m hungry!” Lord Darrulan said, tucking into his meal. “I’m sure Darrukin has plenty to talk about, but we’ll talk thoroughly in the library after dinner. Right now, the boy looks as if he needs feeding up!”

            After dinner they all withdrew to the library, one place where they were sure that there would be no listening ears nor spying servants.  Tafta was called down and greeted Darrukin affectionately, clapping him on the back heartily.

            “So, what has happened?” You aren’t in trouble, are you?” Lord Darrulan began.

            “Well, yes and no.  I am currently on a quest, to find the Heart of the Dragon. That much you know.  I have three companions, who are following, and who need to get into the castle. They should arrive tomorrow morning. I went on ahead to make sure everything was alright here before they got here..”

            “Nothing simpler.” commented Darrsan.  “The guards won’t bar their way; just describe them for me and I’ll get our most trusted soldiers onto gate duty. Not that they’ll thank me for it.”

            “Thankyou.  There’s Keer, an older man of about fifty, with dark hair and dark eyes. Then there is-“

            He was interrupted by Tafta. “You mean Elder Keer? Prestigious company indeed!”

            “Have you heard what happened to Keer’s church?” Darrukin asked.  When the old priest shook his head, he continued. “I should leave this for him to tell, but his church has been wiped out by the palace guard.  There was only one survivor, a man called Jeron, who also travels with us. His whole family was slaughtered in the attack, and he is rather ‘damaged’.  Darrukin paused a moment, to let the gravity of what he said sink in. Tafta had paled visibly.  ‘Then there is Talana. She – er, she’s had a hard life, so she’s a bit rough, but there’s goodness in her. She was given the task of guiding us on this quest.”  He smiled as he finished.

            “Is she good looking?” Darrlani teased her elder brother. 

            Darrukin frowned, remembering Maani’s words of warning.

            “She must be!” Darrlani hooted, making her brother’s frown dissolve into a smile.

            “It’s not like that! Not like you disappearing off to stay with Borodor’s family: did you like any of his sons?”  he countered.  Darrlani must have only just come back from the court of Borodor’s Lord, where she had been sent by Lord Darrulan to develop trading opportunities, and – who knew? Perhaps a marriage?  But his comment only made Darrlani laugh harder. 

            Nibs, ever affectionate, sat down on the arm of Darrukin’s chair and put his arm around his older brother. Darrukin couldn’t help smiling at the lad, whose growing frame was getting increasingly lanky.

            “We did hear that you reached the city. But you rather disappeared after that.” Lord Darrulan commented.

            Darrukin gave them a quick rundown of what had happened since he had left them; most of which came as a surprise and a shock to them. “I’m afraid I’m not a very safe person to be around.  I don’t think I’ve been recognised yet by the palace, but the Queen is certainly aware that something serious is afoot.  We’ve been attacked by sorcery, by guards and the priests of Eshtan. They show that she’s hunting.”  His sobering words brought silence to his family as they considered what he said.  “But what has been going on here? I’m eager for any news. As we came up from Bruna, the place looked like it had been emptied. Has there been any trouble?”

            Lord Darrulan looked into his son’s eyes with a heavy heart. Lady Dana rested a comforting hand upon her husband’s forearm, giving him gently support.  The Lord began with a heavy sigh.

            “Things have not been so good, son. The Palace issued decrees that one person from every village had to be sent to Tashmar, and we all knew that it meant they would be sacrificed.  The decrees mentioned that they would be needed to support the Queen’s search for evil within the land.  We could only judge that she meant their blood would be used to support spells and sorcery that would be used for evil herself.  Eshtan is a thirsty God, and His rituals bring power to those that shed blood.  The sudden need for lives we can only think means that the Queen is in a delicate position. From what you’ve told us, I can conclude that she’s using that blood to look for you, or ways to fight you.”

            His father went on, to describe how the Queen had raised taxes and tithes once more, demanding more and threatening to send in palace guards if they did not pay.  Villagers and farmers had flocked to Darr, to shelter from the decrees, to avoid being taken. Priests of the Dragon Queen – of Eshtan – had been sent out far and wide.  “It’s clear that you are a threat to her as she is. She’s not willing to give up the power she’s gained as a tool of Eshtan.” the Lord finished.

            Darrukin listened with a growing anger, but he held himself in check. “We thought so. In Naphka, we almost ran into one of the high priests in charge of the search for us.  We were chased, but we managed to evade capture, after a fight.”

            “What happened?”  asked Darrsan.

            “Two squads of palace guards were after us, with more in the rear.  I don’t know how they were tipped off that we might be the group they were sent out to find. They were working with a priest; they followed us and tried to capture us, but we fought back and won. We killed the priest, and the squads, before their reinforcements could arrive, then escaped.” he replied.

            “Those are pretty big odds. How did you do it?” his sister queried, her gaze sharp.

            “I don’t know. It just happened. Talana, Keer and Jeron must have killed three or four guards apiece, and I killed the rest.  It sounds incredible but it seemed easy – but I don’t particularly relish the memory of it.  Something to do with my sorcery, I’d say, but I don’t understand it.” he breathed out heavily, as if expelling the thought of that battle from his mind.   “In any case, we need to rest the horses, give them a chance to recover, before we travel on. Is that alright? May we lie up here for a while? I know it is dangerous, but we really need the break.” he asked his parents.

            “As if you need to ask.” replied his mother. “Stay as long as you like. We can’t guarantee how safe the town is, with the influx of people there are bound to be more spies around, but if you stay within the castle you should be fairly safe.”

            “Thankyou, mother, father.” Darrukin replied, coming over to give them both a kiss goodnight.  “I’d best get moving. The others will arrive early in the morning and I need to sort out a few things for them before I go to bed.”

            “I’ll come with you, sort out those guards on gate duty.” Darrsan volunteered, rising and accompanying him to the door.

            Darrukin woke to the sound of Keesha screaming to be let in at his window. Stumbling up from his bed, he opened the glass and she fluttered in, her blue feathers bright in the early morning sun.  He dressed hurriedly; if Keesha had arrived, then more than likely Talana, Keer and Jeron were not far behind.  He headed down to the stables to find his friends already within the Keep, unsaddling their horses and getting the animals penned and their saddlebags stowed.

            “No problems getting in, I hope?” he asked, smiling at them as he walked in.

            “No, it seems we were expected.” said Keer. Jeron shook Darrukin’s hand and Talana gave him a quick hug in greeting.

            “Let’s go up to the castle, I’ve got rooms prepared for you all.” Darrukin said, leading the way with his companions falling in behind.  He heard a gasp from Talana as they climbed up the vast stone steps that led from the stable-yard up to the castle, perched high above the town that snuggled behind great stone walls. The castle was a place that could be strongly defended, a last resort if necessary, if the walls of the city did not hold.  The structure was huge, massively proportioned, with many levels to cater for the community that lived within, and room to spare. The apartments he spoke of were spare rooms on the same level as the family’s, at the end of a corridor that led from Darrukin and Darrlani’s own rooms.  He gave them keys, waiting while Keer and Jeron unlocked their doors and went in to their rooms, before escorting Talana to her room.

            She let out a low whistle as she entered the room, Darrukin a step behind her.  Even to her inexpert eyes, the quality of the furniture, the rugs and decorations was apparent.  It was a level of luxury that she had never even imagined before, and it quite took her breath away.  After a moment, she turned to Darrukin. 

            “Well, this certainly beats the Inns we’ve stayed in. Any chance of a bath?”

            “A bath will be a necessity, Talana.  I’m not taking any of you before my parents smelling the way you do now1” he replied in a mock serious tone.  “You’ll find clothes in the cupboards for you.  I hope they fit.  If you have any trouble, ask the maid, or perhaps Darrlani, my sister for help. Her rooms are just around the corner there, but I’m not sure if she’s awake just now.” 

            She watched as he smiled at her, obviously pleased to see her again, then turned away to leave her to it. As he left the room, a maid entered.

            “My name is Ally, ma’am.” the young woman said, to which Talana nodded, but said nothing. A maid?

            Talana looked around the room again, not quite sure what to do with herself or Ally. The maid watched her with dark, friendly eyes.  Quailing inside, Talana felt frozen with unexpected anxiety.  This was not her home, she should not be here, she, a gutter snipe from Tashmar.  Finally, she summoned up the courage to actually ask the young woman a question.

            “Where do I find the bath house?”

            The maid pealed with laughter.

            “No bathhouse, ma’am; you have running hot water here in your room. Shall I draw you a bath?” Ally crossed the room to a door which Talana had barely noticed. She opened it to revealed a small, cleanly tiled room with a raised metal bathtub at its centre.  Talana could only watch in astonishment as the taps were turned on and the bath filled with steamy hot water.  Following her, Talana caught sight of herself in the large mirror that stood above a vanity unit along one wall of the bathroom.

            “I’m filthy!” she said, appalled by what she saw, hair lank and oily, her skin dull and almost grey with grime and dirt. Her clothes were dirty and stained, and worst of all, she smelled awful.  The contrast between herself and the maid could not have been more stark.  She squirmed with embarrassment.  What would Darrukin’s family think of her? She had no right to be here, being treated like a lady in a lord’s castle.  The servants were better off than she was, for what was she? A nobody off the streets of Tashmar.  She looked at her hands, turning the over to look at her nails, then palms, seeing dirt and wear.  But they could heal people.

            Courage enough to make her take a deep breath and straighten her shoulders came to her. She was who she was, regardless of where she came from; she was a sorcerer, a healer, and the Guide on Darrukin’s quest. She was his friend, and if he considered her good enough to extend to her the use of these rooms, then, well, she was good enough to be there.  Talana crushed all feelings of shame or embarrassment, and with a smile, stripped off her clothes and hopped into the bath that the maid had just finished filling.

            She felt much better after the bath.  As the maid Ally covered her with a soft bath robe and sat her down in front of the vanity to dry her hair, Talana found herself no longer embarrassed but eager to find out what it was like working and living in the castle.  Unfailingly polite, and discreet, Ally nevertheless gave her the picture that the Lord and his family were genuinely well-liked and respected within their province. 

            A knock at the door just as Ally finished plaiting her hair gave Talana a start. Immediately, Ally went to answer the door and a murmur of voices could be heard.  Tightening the robe, Talana left the bathroom to find another young woman, petite, dark-haired and with flawless skin in her rooms.  The stranger exuded confidence and charm, and before Talana could say anything, walked forward with a hand extended in greeting.

            “I’m Darrlani, Darrukin’s sister.  You must be Talana. Welcome!”  Talana got the distinct feeling that she was being looked over and assessed by the young woman.

            “Please excuse me, I’ve just finished in the bathroom. I was about to get dressed.”

            Darrlani brushed off the apology, oblivious to the implication that she was perhaps intruding.  “Well, I’ve come at the right time, then. I came to help you out with your clothes. Darrukin said you might need some assistance.” she finished with a grin that disarmed Talana completely.

            “By all means, please…” Talana ventured, sitting on the bed while Darrlani ransacked one of the wardrobes in the room.  The maid discreetly helped Talana with undergarments before the lady returned with armfuls of frocks for her to try on.

            Darrlani was good company, and soon Talana was chatting with ease with the young woman. She found that while Darrlani was physically quite dissimilar from her brother, she had the same sense of humour, and quick wit.  Together they laughed as the dresses that Talana tried on proved to be too short, or too large – instead, she found a pair of comfortable trousers, the pale tan leather supple and strong, decorated with intricate blue stitching up the side seams.  They had belonged to the Lady Dana in her youth, who had used them for riding, but there were hardly any signs of wear on them.  Darrlani found her a blue belt to match, and a very feminine looking blouse of light cotton, which had billowing sleeves and a pleated decorative front. It looked good tucked into the trousers, and when the outfit was topped off with new leather boots, and a touch of makeup, Talana felt thoroughly spoiled. Her reflection in the mirror was quite different now.

            “Shall we go down for breakfast?” asked Darrlani, when she was sure that Talana looked as beautiful as any more privileged lady.  Talana nodded, smiled a little nervously, and joined Darrukin’s sister as she walked out into the corridor.  They were halfway to the family’s dining room when Darrukin himself came up the corridor, a bowl of fresh meat in his hand for Keesha.  The women made way for him, and he smiled at Darrlani before walking three paces more and stopping dead in his tracks.

            “Talana!”

            “Didn’t you recognise her, brother?” Darrlani teased, cheekily, pleased by the look of utter astonishment on his face.  Talana blushed as she watched him take in her new appearance.

            “Darrukin! Do a few clothes make such a difference?” she stammered, her face turning bright red under his gaze.  Instantly a look of apology crossed his face.

            “I’m sorry, it’s just that I’m used to…to your hair being less…well, done up, and travel clothes aren’t exactly flattering. These clothes are.  You’re…you’re so beautiful!”

            “Brother! Wasn’t she always?” Darrlani demanded sharply, pretending to look outraged on Talana’s behalf.

            His gaze shot from Talana to his sister with a look of panic on his face, aware that what he said could get him into more serious trouble if he was not careful. “Of course she was. Er, is. It’s just that she’s, uh, never highlighted the fact before so well…um,  I think I’d better go feed Keesha…” he stammered, blushing, beginning to turn away.

            Darrlani looked at Talana with amusement in her rich green eyes. “I think that had the desired effect.” she snorted, suppressing a laugh at her brother’s expense.  “Come on, I’ll introduce you to our family.”

            Darrukin caught himself and spun around. “No, Darrlani, wait, I’ll do the introductions!” he said quickly, promptly putting the bowl of meat down and running after them.

 

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