The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 30
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter seven)

            “Something is wrong” Talana said to Keer and Jeron, as they waited impatiently at the Inn in the village. “I can feel it. I know something is not right back at the castle.” A vague and uncomfortable feeling had settled in her stomach over the last day, sitting like a cold, hard lump in her midriff, putting her out of sorts. She paced the wooden floor of the room they had rented, her long brown hair tossed over her shoulders. “Don’t you feel it?” She gazed around the room, fixing her stare on both men.

            “Relax, Talana. Darrukin will be along in a day or so. Having palace guards search his home is bound to take time. Give him a chance. We’ve only just got here ourselves, after all.” said Keer.  Talana’s thoughts raced quickly back to their parting from Darrukin, their desperate flight through the escape tunnel that took them to freedom through the dark and forbidding forest on the far side of the Sapphire river. The tunnel had been dark, except for Keer's light, but the forest had been worse. It terrified her, even as she gratefully acknowledged that it hid them. Even from the sun. It could not filter down through the thick growth of the canopy; the floor of the forest was thick with a layer of dank, rotting leaves that muffled their horses’ steps. Once through the forest, they found the village that Darrukin had spoken of, approached it cautiously, but found no evidence of priests or palace guards there.  It appeared to be a place that had been forgotten about by all but Darrukin’s family. At least the villagers were friendly, and not overly curious, which suited them all very well.

            “I can't relax, Keer. I feel that something awful is going to happen, or maybe already has. I wish I could find out what it was.”

            “Well perhaps you should wait a while longer for Darrukin to arrive before you become convinced that something is wrong. A few days cannot hurt, surely. Darrukin will get here.” Keer tried to reassure her. He wished they had been able to get some more rest; the travelling was really beginning to tell upon him.  “A few extra days at the castle would have been nice, though, don’t you agree?” he commented, and smiled up at Jeron.

               “Wouldn’t it have been? It was fantastic!” Talana agreed emphatically, nodding her head as she stared out the window. Her gaze raked the courtyard below, and then the sky, hoping for some sign of Keesha.  “Have either of you seen Keesha at all?” She asked hopefully, but was disappointed when both men shook their heads. Talana knew that the great falcon’s appearance would signal something. If Keesha arrived, Darrukin should be following, Talana reasoned. If she did not, something must be very wrong. Looking outside again just to make sure, she saw no sign of the bird from the narrow window. She turned and faced inwards again, surveying their room.  It was a small room, in a small inn that was kept scrupulously clean, and obviously was a local meeting place. It was friendly and alive, where Talana and Jeron could go down to the bar and be welcomed, and not treated suspiciously. Both had been out into the village and found the market, buying what they felt they would need in the way of more supplies, purchasing long-lasting goods such as grains and dried meat. But Talana felt that they might have to stay at the Inn for a long while yet, not only waiting for Darrukin. She grimaced as she put her hand to her stomach, feeling ill. If only she knew what was going on at the castle! It was so frustrating.

               “I’m going down to the horses. I'll be back soon.” she said, and without waiting for comment from either Keer or Jeron, left their room.

Running lightly down to the courtyard and across to the stables, Talana was briefly and uncomfortably reminded of her childhood, the wet stained cobblestones she ran over jogging her memory of the back streets of Tashmar. Did the Queen really know who Darrukin was? Was she really after them, aware of them? What would Darrukin be able to do to help the Queen once his power as Guardian was unlocked? Where was he? She fretted as she entered the stables and found her black mare, which nickered at her in recognition. Talana stroked its velvet nose for a moment, drawing comfort from the animal, leaning her forehead against it. She had never found out if the mare had a name, she always thought of her as the black mare, or the black. Picking up a comb and brush, she began to gently groom the horse, forgetting about her fears for Darrukin for a moment, and concentrating on the animal. The mare, and the others, needed more rest, and good food, though she and Jeron had at least ensured the latter since they had been in the stables. Both woman and horse relaxed under her ministrations, Talana’s hands busy in an employment that left her mind comforted by the rhythm, though her stomach remained knotted and uncomfortable. Her ill-ease lessened as she worked, the methodical motion calming her.

The next few days were spent in a similar fashion; very slowly. Talana paced in the confines of their room, and found no relief going about the village, trying to find any scrap of information that she could that would give them news of what was going on in Darr. All that was around was that the palace guards were searching for a criminal, and that they had been rather rough about it, which did not tell them anything new.

            That afternoon, she sat with Keer and Jeron in their room, restless but resting as much as she could, as they were. Her mind was busy, trying to plan, trying to piece together from what they knew of the Queen if she might know about Darrukin. Suddenly, she almost saw him, it seemed, blotting out her vision.  The room faded around her, and he seemed to be there, amongst a group of others, in danger.... she collapsed on the floor. He was in trouble, she felt it sharply in her stomach.

                “Are you alright, Talana? You’re not getting sick, are you?” Jeron asked, as she went pale and sat uncertainly on the floor. After a moment, her vision cleared and she found herself staring blankly into his enquiring face.

                “No....nothing wrong with me, but Darrukin! He needs help! I have to go and help him!” she cried out, leaping up and shaking herself off. 

                “What do you mean?” asked Keer, sitting up and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed.  “How do you know he’s in trouble?”

                “I sort of saw him, I guess – he was surrounded by palace guards, in chains…I need to help him, somehow.”

                “But what do you propose to do? How can you help him?” Jeron asked, his practical mind at work.

                “I’ll have to find him first and then see what happens.  I’ve got to leave, the sooner the better.” she replied, frustrated. Couldn’t they see she needed to go?

                “Look, I don’t think that’s wise,” said Keer, “we should be waiting here for him, not searching the countryside on the basis that one of us has had a vision.”

                “Do you doubt me?” Talana demanded, rapidly becoming annoyed.  She needed to act!

                Keer raised his hands placatingly.  “No, no, I don’t doubt what you’ve seen. Whether it is a vision of the present or future remains to be seen.  I do doubt that we’ll be able to help him by doing anything other than waiting for him to arrive here.”

                “No, I can’t do that, I know he’s in trouble now!” she shouted, eyes blazing, hurriedly gathering her meagre belongings together.  “I have to leave, I don’t have a choice about this.  I will go, whether you come with me or not.”

                There was an awkward pause, then Keer tried once again to argue that she should stay, that they should all stay in the Inn, where Darrukin said they should meet him.  It was Jeron who came up with a solution to the stalemate.

                “Why don’t you go back towards the castle, check out the situation. You’re not Keer, you’re fairly safely anonymous, we hope.  You should be able to scout around and see if what you’ve seen in your vision is fact or not.  If it is, then come back and get us, and we’ll help. We’re not more than a day or two’s ride away from the castle.  If all is well, then return to us and we’ll wait as per our instructions.  What do you think?”

            “Well, at least someone is thinking.” Talana said archly, her back turned to Keer.  “It sounds good. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll take Darrukin’s grey horse in case he needs to get away in a hurry, and half the supplies.  If I am going to be delayed I will try to get word back to you.”  She said as she picked up a bag of her things. Keer still looked doubtful, and, feeling bad, she turned towards him once more in an effort to make peace. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, alright? But I have to go.”

“If all else fails, hide yourselves and try to get in contact with Lord Darrulan to let him know where you’re going, if you have to leave. Goodbye, Keer, Jeron, and good luck!” Talana said.

Her gear was packed, her spear was wrapped and disguised as a walking stick once more. The familiar pull to the north was there as she rested her hand on its smooth shaft. She felt guilty for breaking up the quest, but the certainty that Darrukin needed her, that he was in trouble, gave her no real choice. She had to help him, and find out what was wrong. Why else had she felt the stabbing pain in that instant of vision and knowledge? Kissing both men quickly on the cheek, and before they could say anything more, she left the room, hefting her bags over her shoulder. It was getting on towards early afternoon, and she got to the stables quickly, keeping herself in motion so that she wouldn’t have to think about what she was doing, how she was behaving, leaving them as she was to follow the overwhelming urge to find Darrukin. All of a sudden she was very frightened, but pushed herself into the stables, past the gaping entrance, her determination carrying her through. Once inside, the black mare neighed, stamping its foot, sensing her feelings and knowing that once more they would be travelling, or so it seemed to Talana. The grey was solid and quiet, calm. Saddling and packing the horses, she led them out into the courtyard, fixed the reins of the stallion to her saddle horn, and mounted up.

Talana set off from the yard, appalled by the noise her horses made on the cobblestones, it seemed so loud. Soon, however, she was on the packed dirt of the street outside the Inn, the horses only making a dull thud as they moved. Where would she go? How would she find Darrukin? She would not go directly back to the castle, and she wouldn't venture back into the forest by choice. Instead, she headed vaguely south in an effort to skirt the forest and approach the castle from the south, following a road that was a faint mark once she got beyond the bounds of the village and out into farmland. It was obviously not a main road. There were a few farmers and workers in their fields this close to the castle; they paused to look at her as she rode by, some waving and saying hello, others silently marking her passage. The blank gaze of cows and sheep also regarded her as she went, and she passed late crops, that looked ready for harvesting, the heads of grain bending in the faint breeze that blew that early autumn day. Trotting smoothly, the horses carried Talana past farms and fields, keeping the dark forest to her right and hoping that she could work her way around it and back up to the castle. 

It did not seem like long before the sun dipped towards the horizon and Talana knew she would have to make camp for the night. The sky was clear, and it would be a very cold night, this far north. The fear returned. What could she do, alone, to help

 

Darrukin? Whatever trouble he was in? How could she possibly help him? She must be crazy. She wished fervently for the company Keer and Jeron gave her, their dry humour and help. Guilt assailed her as she looked for a place to camp, hoping that they were both alright.

 

She found what looked like a promising spot for the night, as the sun began to send red streaks through the sky, touching on the few clouds that gathered on the horizon. A small creek provided fresh water, and there was plenty of grass, which the horses got down to eating as soon as they were unsaddled. She tethered them close to a copse of tall grim trees, settling herself and making a bed on the saddlebags. A quick fire gave her a hot dinner, which she appreciated as she knew it was going to be a cold night. She shivered and pulled a blanket around her as she settled into her makeshift bed, night closing in and robbing her of warmth and light.

From the depths of sleep Talana could hear something screaming, a piercing, non-human sound, that dragged her to consciousness unwillingly. She woke, and found that the sun was already up, just as the early morning symphony of birdsong got into full swing. The screeching continued, Talana cautiously looking around her with one eye open and keeping the rest of herself covered in her blanket against the chill of the morning.  Grumbling, she spotted a familiar figure in the low branches above her bed, and shook off the blankets.

            “Keesha, do you have to make so much noise so early?” She groaned resentfully, but smiled. It was good to have her back. The blue falcon squawked apologetically and stopped her noise, hopping down to her outstretched arm, then up to her shoulder. “Where have you been, and where is Darrukin?” She asked, not feeling the slightest bit silly. Keesha just squawked and flew back to the branches of the trees as Talana prepared herself a quick breakfast and checked on the horses. Soon, she was mounted up and again heading south, this time with Keesha on her shoulder, nuttering away in her ear.

After short while, Keesha launched herself off from Talana's shoulder, making her wince, and flew low ahead of her, waiting for the horses to catch up.

            “We’ve done this before, haven’t we, Keesha. You are taking me to Darrukin, aren’t you? Good, carry on then.” Talana said, pleased that she had some help, and company, even if it was only a bird. Keesha was a very special bird. She followed the falcon’s path, watching the bird as she flew up into the air, high above the trees, and headed east. It was difficult at times to see the blue falcon, but she found that Keesha did wait for her.

                        *                      *                      *                      *

Darrukin had last seen Keesha heading north, to where he hoped the bird would find Talana and the others.  It gave him a certain feeling of hope as he marched away from his home, that she would reach them and be able to guide them to him. Though the Goddess only knew what they could do once they found him.

            He was on his second day out from Darr. He had already figured out how his captors amused themselves - at his expense - and had suffered a fair amount of superficial damage; cuts and bruises from blows that were given to ‘encourage” him to be a good prisoner. The priests might want to keep up such illusions that he was going to be a guest of the Queen’s, but the palace guards were under no such compulsion. They tormented him as they would any other prisoner, and this he knew well enough. Their bawdy comments over what awaited him at the Palace disgusted him, as did their sloppy approach to soldiering. Darrukin was certain that only a few of his men would be needed to defeat the mob he travelled with; they were not the least bit soldierly in their conduct or in their manner. From what he already knew of their fighting skill, their trainers had much to answer for. He was held between four palace guards, and the chains that had been placed on him at the castle remained, and were never taken off. This made travel rather awkward, as his steps were hampered by the cuffs around his ankles, and his pace limited to the length of the chain - just short of his natural pace. The cuffs rubbed his wrists, ankles and neck raw, and he knew that the sores were aggravated by the dust kicked up from the march, but there was nothing he could do about it. He tried to keep his mind on other things than his pain, like concentrating on what he could do if given the opportunity.  It didn't seem like much at all.

            One day seemed to run into the next, and the routines never changed. He would be allowed a small meal in the evening when the palace guards made camp for the night, and again in the mornings when they woke. He did not get food during the day other than that, and was hungry. He amused himself by exercising his sorcery, not enough to alert the priests that there was a sorcerer around, but  enough to keep himself from going insane with boredom. Guards would trip over imagined barriers, such as logs, or into pits; and never know why they stumbled. It was most gratifying to see their frustration, although he soon learned not to target those guards assigned to him. They vented their frustrations out on him. The most daring thing he did was trip up one of the palace guards carrying a priest’s sedan chair; the guard stumbled, the pole he carried seemed to become greasy, and he could not keep hold of it. The chair tipped and went over, spilling the green-sashed priest out onto the dusty road. Even a few of the guards chuckled at that sight, the priest with his robes in disarray around him. The whole column halted as the priest tore into the unfortunate offender, to whom Darrukin felt no pity, having been on the receiving end of this guard’s rather brutal attention more than once. The next time he saw that guard, he seemed to have grown an unfortunately large wart on the end of his nose. He was not the only person to use sorcery as a cheap form of revenge.

Darrukin was most surprised when one of the priests actually came to talk to him at one stage of the march. It was on the third or fourth day -he had lost count - and the man was positively garrulous. He was unsure as to why the man had decided to walk instead of ride in the sedan chair; it seemed unusual for the priests to exert themselves so.

            “You are rather lucky to be going to the Palace, you know.’ the priest began.

            “Would you care to take my place?’ Darrukin answered smartly, avoiding the cuff which the palace guard tried to deliver to the back of his head. The priest looked at him blankly.

               “I think you misunderstand the honour which the Queen does you. To go and live in the Palace, to be with Her everyday....I would give anything to do that.”

            “Yes, but you would not be a prisoner.”

            “Neither would you be; you are a guest of Her Majesty!”

            “But not one free to return to my family. You really believe that this is an honour? To be a hostage for the good behaviour of my father?” he asked, and risked a quick glance of truth-sight on the man. He frowned - the priest really did believe that he was going to be honoured. “Haven’t you heard what happens to those who the Queen does not favour?”

            “Oh yes, “ replied the priest, “but then they were found to be lacking in their appreciation of Her Majestys’ generosity. Surely you, a Lord’s son, would understand?”

            Darrukin shook his head in disbelief. “Tell me, how can I appreciate or be grateful for what amounts to a prison sentence? If I am to believe the guards, the Queen intends to…” He trailed off, unable to finish his sentence.  A thought struck him. Was that what the Queen wanted? A man of noble blood to father her child? It was well-known that the Queen was childless; her only pregnancy had ended in a still-birth according to rumour. There had been no others, and the death of her champion years before prevented her from bearing any. Darrukin, in the position he was, knew the reason for that: the Queen could never conceive without her Guardian, it was something that was bound by sorcery that stretched way back to the days of the first Dragon Queen. So he suspected, in any case, from what Tafta had told him.

            “You would be wise to hold your tongue, Lordling, lest Her Majesty finds you displeasing. We shall see what she has in store for you!” said the priest, nettled by his remarks. The man went storming off back to his sedan chair.  The young lord’s son was glad to be rid of him. He suddenly felt violently sick at the realisation that he, as the new Guardian, might just be able to father children by her - if she were not too old. He almost retched. Did the Queen know this? Did she know what he was and what he could do for her? What if all of this had been engineered by the Goddess for that purpose? No! Surely not! He continued to march, depressed for the first time about his captivity, not so sure of his position and whether or not the Goddess had determined that he suffer so.

            Trying to think positively, his capture could be the only way he could get close enough to the Queen to try to turn back the evil within her. It would at least be an opportunity for that, though he hardly felt ready for the task, without the security of the Heart of the Dragon ring to show him the way.

                        *                      *                      *                      *

 

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