The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 28
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter six)

            They found the Lord and Lady at breakfast in the dining room, with Nibs and Darrsan. 

            “Mother, father, I’d like you to meet Talana.” Darrukin announced as he and the two young women entered the dining room.  Lord Darrulan stood up, beaming a welcome.

            “Lord Darrulan, Lady Dana. I’m very pleased to meet you  Thankyou so much for your kindness and hospitality.” Talana said, acknowledging them with a slight bow.

            “Welcome, my dear.  I see you’ve met our daughter Darrlani – here are Darrsan and Nibs, Darrukin’s elder sister and younger brother.  It is our pleasure to meet you.”

            “Thankyou.  I didn’t realise that Darrukin had such a large family.”

            “Come, eat with us.” Lady Dana invited, indicating that she, Darrlani and Darrukin should sit.  It was an informal meal, not hurried but they did not linger, chatting easily about the day ahead and all that had to be done within the castle and the town itself.  Talana was amazed to know the detail in which the Lord and his Lady knew the business of the town, the people and their problems. She decided that they were far, far different to those who called themselves nobles in the city of Tashmar.

            “Why don’t you and Darrlani have a tour of the castle, just around the residence? I’ve got to feed Keesha and organise some more supplies; how about I see you for lunch back here? Keer and Jeron will join us then, too.”  Darrukin suggested as they left the dining room after their breakfast. 

            “Would that be alright, Darrlani? I don’t want to intrude on anything you might be doing.” Talana asked almost hesitatingly.  She liked Darrukin’s sister the longer she stayed in her company.  The young lady smiled and nodded her head.

            “I’m not too busy – I’ve already reported to our father on my mission to Borodor; I can chase up the merchants I need to see another day.  Right now, I’d love to show you around.” she said, taking Talana by the arm and dragging her away from her brother.

            They spent the rest of the morning together, staying within the walls of the residence for safety and discretion.   It was novel for Talana to be in the company of another female, let alone such a vivacious and friendly one.  She was quite overwhelmed by Darrlani’s instant acceptance of her, and treasured the warm glow inside that having another friend gave her.

            They met the rest of the family again for lunch, with Keer and Jeron, again in the private dining room. Both the Elder and his parishioner looked much better for being clean and well-rested.  The lunch was progressing well when a servant interrupted, whispering something in Lord Darrulan’s ear.  His face darkened.

            “Excuse me, please. I must attend to some urgent business.” the old lord said, rising from the table.  He gave a warning look to his wife, who had already guessed from his manner that something was not quite right.  The conversation was stilled as he left the room, before Lady Dana smiled reassuringly at her guests, glancing quickly at her elder son.

            “What can be the matter? It must be quite important for father to leave in the middle of lunch.” Darrlani asked out loud.  Lady Dana shot her a sharp look.

            “Don’t alarm our friends.  He’ll let us know when he’s found out. Perhaps it is something he had forgotten about.” she said.

            “That’s not like Dad.” Darrsan commented, supporting her sister.

            Darrukin sat, watching his sisters and mother, as concerned as they were, when a sudden pain knifed through his chest.  It was nothing physical, he could tell immediately, but it was sorcery of some kind, like an evil finger thrusting into his heart.  He grabbed the table, and through clenched teeth managed to speak, though his whole body had stiffened as he fought off the pain. Moments later it was gone. Breathing heavily, he looked at the worried faces around the table staring at him.

            “What’s wrong, Darrukin?” his mother asked, her voice barely above a whisper as she half-rose to aid him. He shook his head, uncertain.

            “I’m not sure.  I think I’ve just had a warning – Talana, Keer, Jeron, we need to hide you, quickly.” he answered, rising from his seat.  The sense of urgency in his voice moved them all to react quickly.  “Darrlani, take them up to my rooms using the covert way, get maids to remove any trace of them from their rooms. Quick, move!” he ordered, and they all recognised the command in his tone.  Darrlani swept aside a tapestry and pressed a panel of stone: immediately and silently a doorway swung open beside her.  She ushered Talana, Keer and Jeron through and then disappeared herself.

            Darrukin turned to his mother, elder sister and brother.  “I don’t know what is going on, but this is not good.” 

            “I’m going to take Nibs up to his room. He’s starting to fret.” said Lady Dana, one arm around the frightened boy.  As she left the room with his brother in tow, Darrukin heard her ask the butler outside to clear the lunch away and get the room back in order as quickly as possible. 

            “Are you alright?” Darrsan asked him, approaching him.  He could see the hint of awe in her eyes, the knowledge that he was a sorcerer finally hitting home to her.  He’d always found her a most sensible and solid person, much like his father in character. “Your chest, you looked like you were in such pain…”

            He nodded and gave her a weak grin.  “I’m fine. It was something, a warning, not really an attack upon me, I suppose. But there is something evil close by, something is not right at all.  I hope father is alright.” he said, rubbing at his chest.  Darrsan nodded, satisfied.  The moment of shock had passed and he could see that she saw him once more as her little brother, not as something, or someone, strange or different.  

            He’d barely finished speaking when their father burst back into the room, red in the face and thunderingly angry.

            “The fools! Who do they think I am? I know what this is all about!” he growled, only placated by Lady Dana re-entering the room and coming to his side.  Darrukin waited for his father to explain, but Darrsan was more impatient for news.

            “What’s going on? Who are you talking about?” she demanded.  There was a warrior’s gleam in her eye which boded ill for anyone who threatened her family.

            “A delegation of priests from Tashmar.  They claim that I am holding a dangerous and wanted criminal within my walls! They dare accuse me…!”  The fury in his voice was obvious to them all.

            “Well, they may not be that far from the truth. I am here, and so is Keer. We are both wanted by the Queen.”  Darrukin said, surmising that the pain he had felt had perhaps been in reaction to the presence of the priests.

            “But they do not know you are here, son! We’ve had no reports from our spies that you are known to them at all.” Lord Darrulan protested.

           
            “I guess we’ll find out about that.” the young man answered with a twisted smile.

            Darrsan interjected. “What do they want? Have they demanded that you hand over this person they spoke of? Did they identify him in any way as Darrukin or Elder Keer?”

            The old Lord took a deep breath, his anger simmering.  His voice was low and dangerous, and edge to it that betrayed the deep emotions that ran underneath.

            “They demand the criminal, and if they do not find him, they demand a substitute, a hostage to be taken back to Tashmar and the Queen. If we do not provide one, they will enact a decree by the Queen that all our lands, our province, will be confiscated by the State of Tashmar, which will administer the province, and that our family will be  banished, never to return to Darr again.”

            Shocked silence met this statement.  Lady Dana sad down heavily on the first available chair, while Darrsan frowned, bristling with the desire to run out and throttle the priests who had dared to bring such news.  The Lord paced around the room.  Only Darrukin remained outwardly calm, his emotions kept under tight control, his head clear and his thoughts running fast.

            “They did not say who they were after?” he asked his father.

            “No. I watched them from the spyhole in the audience hall foyer. They made their demands of the Chamberlain in such a rude way that I did not grant them an audience.  I had them put in one of the reception rooms, with food and drink, and guards at the exits.”

            “Good. Don’t let them get the advantage. You’re the lord here, they will wait until you are ready to see them.”  Darrukin was pleased to see his father’s fury pushed aside and a calm exterior projected. He knew that diplomacy might be the only way to save the province from the threat, if it were a genuine threat, and in order to establish if the priests were serious or not, his father would show them who was in control in Darr. 

            Lord Darrulan extended his hand towards his wife. “My dear, we shall prepare for a full audience. Darrsan, please have a troop ready in full ceremonial uniform – plus weapons – in half an hour. Line the walls of the audience hall with them. Send runners out to put the rest of the army on alert. I don’t trust these people at all, and I fear something else is afoot.  Get the army ready for possible action.  Darrukin, your friends will have to be hidden, just in case. You should make yourself scarce as well, just in case their sorcery can reveal anything about you. Come, my lady, we will prepare for this interview as best we may.  I’ll not have them walk into my province and threaten me and my family!” He growled as he took his wife’s hand and together they left the room.

            “I’d best be off to prepare.” said Darrsan, looking at Darrukin. He nodded.

            “I’ll watch from the audience chamber spyhole.  I want to know what’s going on, too.”

            Darrukin went through the concealed doorway, a passageway he had not used since he was a little boy, but with which he was completely familiar nevertheless.  The dusty, narrow passages that took him up to his apartments were part of a network that he knew would take him away from the public places of the castle, hidden completely in most cases, or to the lesser used areas.  When he emerged in his dressing room, he found his companions and sister Darrlani waiting for him in the main apartment.

            “There are Eshtani priests here, looking for a ‘dangerous criminal’.” he explained to them, when he had caught his breath.  They sat on the bed and chairs, wherever was handy.  All faces wore concerned expressions.  “That would be either you or I, Keer, I guess.”  He brushed a cobweb off his shirt and noticed how Keer looked glumly at the floor.  “Were you followed or did you see anything suspicious after I left you?” he asked.

            Talana spoke up quickly. “Not that we were aware of directly, but I believe that we were being watched somehow. I kept getting that odd feeling, you know, when you can feel eyes upon you but you can’t see from where? I was not certain about it, and thought it might just be my own paranoia at work.”

            “When was this?”

            “About an hour or so after you’d left us. We did keep the invisibility shield, but that didn’t stop me from feeling as if we were being watched.  Perhaps the watcher could see us regardless?”

            “That would probably take sorcery of one form or another.” said Keer.  “I fear I must be more tired that I realised. I should have been able to help Talana bolster the invisibility spell.  I hardly felt a thing, really.” The Elder drooped his head down once more.

            “So perhaps they are after you?” suggested Darrlani, her quick mind at work. “You and me, brother, let’s go to the spyhole over the audience chamber and find out.  Then we’ll let you know who is being sought, if the priests are genuinely after someone.”

            “Right,” Darrukin replied, appreciating the chance for action of sorts.  “Talana, Keer, Jeron, please stay here. I’ll let the grooms know that we need the supplies I ordered as soon as possible, and the horses made ready in case we need to get out of the castle sooner rather than later; but in the meantime, do you mind if you just stay here? We don’t let anyone up on this level without the authorisation of the Lord, so you should be quite safe.  Guards will be posted as well, boosting security. Will you wait here?”

            The three nodded; Darrukin and Darrlani left them to go and spy on the proceedings in the audience hall.  They went via the concealed passageways hidden inside the thick stone walls, close and airless, instinctively sticking together.  They climbed right over the top of the audience hall, which had a large vaulted ceiling.  The spyhole was a cleverly hidden aperture that allowed light and sound through the ceiling, unable to be seen from the floor of the hall.  The acoustics of the hall enhanced the sound, so that Darrukin and his sister could hear every word and cough that went on in the hall, and a system of mirrors reflected the proceedings up to them so they could view it as well.

            Darrlani smiled at her brother in the dim light of their vantagepoint.  “I think this is going to be very interesting.” she whispered.  There was a mischievous look in her eye that Darrukin knew only too well; she’d cause trouble for the priests if she could.

            They watched in silence as the troops filed in through a rear entrance.  The delegation of priests had been waiting in the reception room for almost an hour, but they were not allowed into the room until all the troops had been ranged against the walls and Darrsan, herself in full ceremonial uniform, had seated herself at the foot of the dais that held chairs for her parents.  The Lord and Lady’s chairs were set high and slightly back, framed with a rich curtain of fabric and gold, in counterpoint to the simple carved ironwood of the chairs themselves. The entire room was designed to impress upon the petitioner the authority of the Lord of Darr.  When the double doors leading into the audience hall finally opened to allow the three priests in, they looked small, their white-clad bodies frail in comparison to the soldiers around them.  Darrukin’s blood seethed at the sight of them, so close, so dangerous.  There were two green-sashed priests, and one red-sashed one.  He seemed to be the senior, and held himself very stiffly and formally. The other two stood slightly behind him, taking up less dominating positions.  The Chamberlain led them in to a place where they could stand and wait, then turned and stood, barring their access to the dais, halting them in their tracks.   Darrukin watched as the priests waited for the lord to appear.  The entire hall was silent, not one soldier made a sound, Darrsan sat with a serene expression on her face, and the Chamberlain stood statue-like in front of the priests.  The Lord and Lady did not appear.

            The junior priests were just beginning to get fidgety when Darrsan suddenly stood up and barked an order to the soldiers. “Guards! Salute!”  The shock of the sudden noise made one of the junior priests jump.

            A hiss of steel against leather could be heard as the troops unsheathed their longswords. In perfect time, they raised the hilts of their swords to their faces, the steel pointing high towards the ceiling, before lowering the blades and setting them stiffly at their sides.  The glint of steel made the orange light of the braziers in the hall more intense, and more threatening.  The Chamberlain then filled the hall with his booming voice.

            “Their Graces the Lord and Lady of Darr!”

            The priests tensed visibly as the Lord and Lady entered the room via a door to one side of the dais.  Darrukin watched silently as his parents moved towards their chairs. They were richly dressed, but did not seem ostentatious.  His mother seemed almost to float to her chair, so smooth was her motion, while Lord Darrulan looked calm and very much in control.  They sat, expressionless faces turned towards the priest.

            A silence grew in the moments they sat, lengthened by the remembered sound of the chamberlain’s voice that still seemed to echo around the room.  Finally, the leading priest, who for so long had stood almost at attention like the soldiers around him, moved and stepped forward. He had not taken two steps when the chamberlain’s voice boomed out again.

            “The Head Priest, Angka, seeking audience with my Lord!”

            This startled the priest momentarily, but he recovered quickly and approached the dais with increasing confidence.  Darrukin could not quite see his face in the reflected picture he viewed, but he instantly recognised that this man was dangerous.  The red and green sashes of the priests brought back memories of those he had killed on the river near the Valley of Shades.

            “You sought an audience.” Lord Darrulan spoke, his voice as emotionless as his face.

            “Yes, your Grace.  It is about the matter of a dangerous criminal that is housed within your walls.” the priest hissed, drawing a look of contempt from the chamberlain.

            “You had better rephrase that. The Lord of Darr does not house criminals within these walls, nor does he entertain them within his province!” the chamberlain snapped. 

            The look on Lady Dana’s face eloquently bespoke of whom she thought was a criminal.  Darrukin and Darrlani exchanged a glance of mutual mirth, then focussed their attention on the proceedings.

            “With respect, your Grace,” the priest continued, his voice rasping like a stick dragged through gravel, the cowl of his white robe concealing his face from the watchers above, “we have seen the criminal enter your town, and we come to you, naturally, to seek justice.  If you give us that whom we seek, no other action will be taken, and the Great Dragon Queen will know she has loyal and upstanding servants in this large, fertile province.”  He finished, looking up at the Lord with a satisfied expression.

            Lord Darrulan looked at the priest, his gaze as hard as the steel of his soldiers’ blades.  “Who is this criminal you seek?  What action do you propose to take should this person not be found within my walls?” He paused for a moment to draw breath, “What are you really doing here, Head Priest Angka?  Are you threatening me?” 

            From above, both children of the Lord could hear the growing anger in their father’s voice, even if the priest did not – or chose to ignore it.  Even their mother had fixed the priest with a penetrating stare that would make most quail.

            “Why, no, your Grace, there is no threat intended here. You mistook my meaning. But we must enforce the Queen’s laws and we will catch our criminal.  No one will stand in the way of the great Dragon Queen’s justice.” The priest paused, looking about himself at the assembled guards.  “The criminal we seek has been evading capture for a long time, but now we have him almost within our grasp.  He is a dangerous and wily man, a sorcerer, an evil man who has murdered the poor and the needy within the city of Tashmar.  He leads others astray with him, down the path to damnation.  Your Grace, we have followed this man to your lands, now you must allow us to search for him within the walls of this castle. Should you not cooperate with this simple request, the Great Dragon Queen will not be pleased, and will be forced to act in a manner that will not bring you pleasure.”

            Darrukin caught a hint of the black and hungry eyes that lay beneath the hood of the robe.  His stomach tightened as the tension between the Lord and the priest grew more palpable.

            “You refer, of course, to the threat to exile myself and my family, and for the Queen to take over the administration of this province. Not a popular move, I believe, priest.” Lord Darrulan stated, letting the matter hang between them for a moment.  “Whom do you seek?” he demanded.

            “Keer, your Grace. He has a few followers who were last seen entering these walls only days ago.  The Queen wants to bring them all to trial and punish them for their sins.” The priest bowed from the waist, a slight, mocking action that was not lost on the Lord and Lady.

            Everyone within the room was aware that ‘trial’ meant blood sacrifice. A chill went through Darrukin as he listened, despite the relief that the priest had not named him as the wanted man. Keer had been a fugitive from the Dragon Queen for years. This gave him the hope that perhaps the Queen did not know that he was in any way connected with the appearance of a new Guardian.

            Lord Darrulan spoke again, and with a certainty that shocked Darrukin, who knew full well that his father was telling lies.  “Priest Angka, we have no such person within these walls.  I suggest you get your facts correct before you enter my province and accuse me of harbouring criminals within my home.”  He drew himself up, squaring his shoulders and fixing the priest with a furious stare, “Tashmar may be the seat of federal government but we have our own laws here in Darr.  The Queen governs the council of Lords, and that is a useful forum for trade and dispute resolution, but she does not rule here!” Lord Darrulan almost let his temper run free for a moment, before collecting himself.

            “You would have the entire council of Lords of one mind; we won’t give up our right to govern our own provinces. You threaten to take that control away from us and you will find the provinces ungovernable in any case. That I can promise you.” he said, sweating slightly with the effort to retain a civil tongue, knowing that the priest’s threat was not idle.

            “You misunderstand me, your Grace.  I must apologise.” Angka went on. “Myself, my colleagues, and the palace guards we have with us have been sent to your province to search for a dangerous criminal.  We must search the castle and its surrounds; here is our warrant from Her Majesty.  We have been given all the powers necessary to effect this search; to hinder us in any way would only display the mistrust you have in Her Divine Majesty.”  Angka walked forward, his stride confident, the warrant document outstretched in his hand.  A nod from Lord Darrulan sent the Chamberlain quickly to intercept the priest before he reached the dais; the official accompanied the priest onto the raised platform and stood at the ready as Angka stood in front of Lord Darrulan.

            “My Lord,” the priest whispered, so that no one but the Lord, Lady, Chamberlain – and Darrukin – could hear, “you do not appreciate your position.  There has already been considerable interest shown in the governance of this province by your peers.  If you interfere with the work I must do here, it will be the worse for you, I assure you.”

            Lord Darrulan remained seated, easing himself back into his chair, unintimidated by the priest.  He did not answer Angka immediately, but looked over the warrant document as he considered what course of action to take.  He knew very well that the Lords of Wal-Mai had always cast a greedy eye over Darr; Wal-Mai was that much more inhospitable and Darr a more fertile and lush province.  The ancient enmity between the two provinces had been lessened over the years, but the present Lord of Wal-Mai was a cantankarous old man who was more power hungry than most.  Lord Darrulan had no illusions that Wal-Mai would only be too eager to step in to volunteer his help should the Queen confiscate the province.  The very thought left him seething inside, but he could not show that to the priest.  Looking at his wife, he knew that he could not afford to give the priest the defiance he so badly wanted to give, but had to submit to the search at least in the interim. It would buy his province more time to prepare, and would at least give him more knowledge about what the Queen’s real intentions might be. Were they really after Keer, or was he just an excuse to take his province?  Lady Dana’s expression was stoic, but he could tell by her eyes that she was as distressed as he by the thought of losing the province.  They both knew that it would not benefit the people of Darr. He could see, too, the spark of defiance burning behind her calm exterior. It gave him the courage to say what he must to the priest.

            “Very well,” he said in a low voice with more than a hint of steel in it, “Do what you must, priest, but be warned. I will not condone any terrorism towards my people, not within the borders of my lands.  You will have your search, but the palace guards will be shadowed by my own forces, and if any of my people have any complaints to make against you, you will be subject to my justice. Is that understood?”

            “Most assuredly so, your Grace.” The priest spat back, his glittering eyes barely able to contain the glee he felt in executing such power as he had.

 

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