The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 34
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter eight)

            Talana woke with a start.

            She was flat on her back, nestled in something warm and furry.  Dim light revealed that she must be in a cave of some sort.  Walls of rock reached over and around her.  Wherever she was, it was warm, and for that she was grateful.  Slowly, not sure she should trust her senses, she sat up.

            “Darrukin?” she called, wondering if he were dead or alive.  The last thing she could remember was wolf-song, Darrukin howling with the wolves that surrounded them.  Feeling very alone, she looked around herself.  A shuffling sound alerted her to a presence behind her; she quickly turned.  There, at the far end of the cave, stood a person of indeterminate age or sex, looking back at her with curiosity.  The person began to speak, the unusual voice cracking and rough, as if it were not quite able to remember what words were for.

            “Is ‘Darrukin’ your mate? He is by the fire.”

            Talana stared at the person.  The voice was female, perhaps.  Standing up and shaking herself off, she cautiously approached, gradually discerning that it was indeed a woman.

            “He’s not my mate, but he is my friend.” she stated.  The woman looked at her sharply, cocking her head to one side, matted hair framing her face, then beckoned to Talana.  The young woman stepped forward eagerly to find Darrukin.

            The cave was large, and twisted around.  It widened out considerably and she realised that she had been sleeping in an out-of-the-way nook, not the main cavern.  Talana’s eyes first found the fire, a bright orange blaze in the centre of the cave, the smoke rising up to the high ceiling and venting through a fissure in the rock.  Then she saw Darrukin, sitting near the blaze, sharpening his sword.  He looked up at her, smiling.

            “Talana! You’re awake!”

            The young woman took three steps forward and then froze.  Thirty or so wolves ranged along the walls of the cave, and wolf-puppies scampered across the floor. She felt dozens of pairs of eyes fix themselves upon her, watched them sniffing the air and craning their necks to see her.  A few of the less cautious animals took a few steps towards her.  Petrified, she stayed utterly still.

            The woman beside her let out a short, sharp growl, snapped her teeth. At once the wolves looked down, lost interest in her.

            “Don’t worry about them, they won’t hurt you.” she said, putting a reassuring hand on Talana’s arm.  “Don’t threaten me, though, or they’ll have you.”

            Darrukin put his sword down carefully, then stood up.  His face was a picture of relief.

            “I thought we’d lost you there for a moment.” he said, stepping over some wrestling pups.  Swallowing, Talana could only shake her head, tears welling up in her eyes.  They’d been so close to death, the pair of them. There were too many questions, she could not find her voice.

            The large, white wolf that Talana had seen in the snow approached them. He was magnificent; somehow she knew he was male.  The thick, white coat was glossy, his blue eyes were bright and intelligent.  He stepped forward to her, extended his nose to her.  She automatically put her hand out to let the wolf smell her; there was no fear anymore.  The wolf’s nose was wet and cool, and his eyes regarded her steadily, before he blinked and turned away, apparently satisfied.  Talana cast a glance across at the wild woman.

            She had dropped down to the white wolf’s height, to look him in the eye. Silent communication seemed to pass between them both, but before too long the woman stood, a slight smile on her face.

            “Did he speak to you?” Talana asked, curious.  Darrukin nodded before the woman could answer.

            “I’ve been getting used to seeing it myself.” he said.  “Wolf here, she growls, barks, yips and changes expression so rapidly, and in such a wolf-like way, sometimes I forget that she is still human.” 

            “Now you’re flattering me.” The woman said, her voice still sounding slightly rough.

            “’Wolf’, is that your name?” asked Talana, cocking her own head to one side in query.  The woman nodded.

            “It’s as good as any other.  It seems to suit. I may have had another name earlier, but I have no memory of it.”  A little frown creased her forehead for a moment, then disappeared.

            “I don’t even know how I got here.  Darrukin?” Talana moved to him, but halted before they could touch.  “We were in a snowstorm. We were dying of the cold – what happened? How did we get here? How?” Her words stumbled, she lost her voice for a moment. The memory of the storm, of the way in which Darrukin had been howling, surrounded by wolves…she did not understand.

            “He called the wolves.” The woman called Wolf stated simply.

            “I …don’t understand.” Talana’s eyes searched Darrukin’s face.  He looked as confused as she felt, but slightly bemused as well, embarrassed, almost.  Wolf continued.

            “The White Wolf, the pack leader, was summoned by him.  I do not know how, nor understand it, but I saw the White answer the call.  The others followed; they could not resist.  I followed the wolves, for I knew that something important was happening.”  Wolf moved over towards the fire and urged them to sit down next to her.  Talana was glad for it, for she still felt a little dizzy and certainly not as strong as she should do.

            “I don’t know, I don’t remember calling anyone.” Darrukin said softly.  “But I don’t mind having some kind of affinity with the wolves. They are such wonderful animals.” he finished.  The praise made Wolf blush with pleasure, a new sensation for her, it seemed.

            Wolf continued, raking her fingers through her hair as she did, pulling at tangles. Her strange green eyes were clear and bright. “The White wolf heard the call, and followed it, leading the others to you. I followed them, and found you both, huddled together in the storm. I could barely see it was so thick with snow and sleet, but I could smell the wolves and I know that they would never leave me in trouble.  Together we got you back to the cave. It wasn’t far.” 

            “How long have I been asleep?” Talana asked. Since she had lost consciousness, she found she had no sense of time.  It could have been days, minutes, or months, she could not tell.

            “Just one day. Your young man here woke up first, so he’s had a head start getting used to my friends.” She said, her quick hands ranging across the backs of a pair of wolves who came sniffing up to her.  She grinned at the human pair. “Your horses took somewhat more convincing. I don’t know why, somehow they didn’t seem to trust me when I said the wolves would not eat them.  But at least I convinced them to come in out of the cold.”

            “The horses?  They’re here?” Talana asked incredulously.

            “Yes, of course.  The black mare spoke to the stallion: she implied she’d rather risk being eaten than freeze to death.  He followed her in as if he were her foal.”  Wolf chortled, amused by the story.

            Darrukin and Talana exchanged glances.  At first, the young woman thought that Wolf was perhaps mad, not quite sane; her look to Darrukin said as much. He smiled and laughed politely at Wolf’s story, his eyes holding Talana’s.  But when Talana broke the eye contact, she looked across at Wolf, blatantly staring, using  what little power she felt she could summon to ‘see’ inside her head, see if she was indeed alright.  Although the young woman had no idea of what she thought would look wrong, if anything was, all she could see was a normal, healthy woman.  An unusual one, with a lot of old pain and hurt inside her, but one who was calm and at peace with herself nonetheless.  Relieved, Talana smiled also.

            “Well, thankyou, Wolf. You have saved my life, and that of my companion. He’s the important one here, if you don’t already know his story.”

            Darrukin took a sharp breath inwards, as if to warn her, but Talana was confident that what she had seen of the woman before them was trustworthy, and utterly dependable. She would not betray them to the palace guard.  “Darrukin is a sorcerer, a powerful one. One we hope will-”

            Wolf raised a hand to interrupt.  “Before you talk, you had better eat and drink. You must be thirsty at least.”  She rose, shaking off a curious wolf puppy before moving to one side of the cave.

            Surprised, Talana could only nod, suddenly aware of how right Wolf was.  “Are you a sorcerer at all?” she asked, bringing a smile to the older woman’s face.

            “No, I just heard the grumbling of your belly.” she said with a grin.  Even Darrukin began to laugh.

            They sat around the fire, drawing in its comforting heat, at ease with themselves and the wolves as they ate and drank.  Talana told their story, of their journey from the city, through the forest and desert, to Darr.  She spoke of Darrukin’s capture, freeing him, their flight through the forest and pursuit by the demons.

            “Demons? You slaughtered demons?” Wolf said, incredulously.  She looked uncomfortable, and both Talana and Darrukin could see a blackening of her demeanor.

“You have seen demons before?”  asked Darrukin softly, hesitatingly, his expression aghast as Wolf nodded.

“A great, grey beast that – “ she broke off, swallowing hard.  Without so much as a look passing between them, the White wolf padded over to Wolf and sat down beside her, leaned up against her, half rolled into her lap like a puppy.  It brought a smile to the woman’s face.  She looked up at Darrukin. “I’ll tell you later.”

Talana continued their story.  She told the wolf woman of Darrukin’s mission, his power, and their hope that they find the ring to unlock his power completely.

            “What would you do then?” asked Wolf, looking at Darrukin.  Her eyes were piercing, alive with interest.

            Darrukin could not speak for a moment. It was something he had considered many times, but still could not quite bring himself to believe. Once he had the ring, once he had unlocked his power, he would have to go to Tashmar. Face the Queen.  It was too much like suicide.

            “I don’t know.” he answered, quietly desperate.

            Talana put her hand on his, lending him some strength.  Silence descended on the small group.

            “But you, Talana, you are a sorcerer, too, am I right?” Wolf asked, abruptly changing the subject.  Caught off guard, the young woman nodded.

            “Well, of sorts.  I have a healing power, but I am not really sure how to use it.  I also guide the quest.”

            “The wolves see the power in you. It is significant.  You are as powerful as he, they think.”

            That made Talana laugh.  Her own power was so rudimentary compared to Darrukin’s that she could not conceive that anyone would see it any differently.  “They must be mistaken.”

            “Perhaps, perhaps not. But I trust them.  They saved me once, too.”  Her gravelly voice was warm.

            “Really? How?”

            “It was a long time ago. Before I found this cave in the heart of the mountain, before the wolves found me.”  She shifted in her seat, making herself comfortable. A few of the wolves came to sit by her, leaning against her, panting in the heat of the fire, light flickering in their myriad eyes.

            Darrukin and Talana waited patiently, knowing not to interrupt. It  gave Talana the chance to really study the woman, the brown skin of her arms poking through the pelts she wore, her eyes surrounded by fine wrinkles and her matted hair quite effective at hiding her age.  Upon closer scrutiny, Talana thought that Wolf must be in her early thirties – not too much older than herself.

            “There was a time,” Wolf began, her voice sounding distant, “a time when I lived amongst people…in a home, with my mother and father.  I don’t remember too much about that life.  It did not last very long.”

            When it became clear that she was having trouble finding words, Talana probed her gently, summoning up a gentle touch of her own special healing sorcery to look back inside the woman before her.  The old pain she had seen moments before seemed to have surfaced in the woman’s mind, the hurt and fear and panic clear.  Without any other thought but to help, Talana closed her eyes and concentrated, sending a soothing, healing force to Wolf, surrounding the pain and hurt, easing it, allowing the older woman the courage to go into the wound and face it, knowing that there was help should she flounder. 

            “Thankyou.” Wolf said, “I can see that I could use your help with my healing work here.”

            Talana opened her eyes again.  Glancing at Darrukin, the young woman caught a look of surprise on his face, which eased as she smiled at him. 

            Clearing her throat, Wolf began her story again. This time, her words were more precise, clearer, without the faint hesitancy which stilted her speech previously. 

            “I have known demons.  Once, when I was much younger than I am now, I lived in a village on the outskirts of Borodor.  My mother and my father were both priests, of the old faith, of the Goddess.  I was raised with that faith.  The Dragon Queen ruled – kindly, well – but then things started to go wrong.  The Queen began to demand sacrifices…at first animals, and then, criminals, you know, murderers and rapists – I remember it being justified as punishment. My parents were not happy about it, but since the orders came from the Queen, what could they do?  I dimly remember them saying that the Queen was still a young woman, and her Champion would temper zeal.”  Wolf paused, her forehead creased with the effort of remembering her past.  “But he died.  I don’t know how.”

            Her face darkened with remembered anger and pain.  “After that, nothing could stop the Queen.  The Goddess did not, that much was certain,” she said bitterly, “and my parents could no longer pretend to be priests in what they knew was a corruption of their cherished faith.  We fled to the mountains, to a small village nestled in a tiny valley, where the old ways still were dominant.”

            Darrukin and Talana glanced at one another. Wolf’s revelations added to what they had gleaned from Keer and others of the Church, from Tafta, from Maani.  It was another perspective on the dreadful events surrounding the rise of evil within the Queen, unexplained and unchallenged.

            The older woman continued. “We stayed there for a year, but even in that remote place the new priesthood was taking over.  New rituals came into being, and my parents watched as one by one, their friends in the old priesthood buckled to pressure and joined the new, seduced by the power, or blackmailed into belonging.  Evil, bloodthirsty and vengeful – that’s what the new religion is.”  Wolf’s voice roughened as she spoke.  “One day, a high priest of the new religion came, part of a search of the province to chase away the faith of the Goddess, and supplant it totally with the worship of the Dragon Queen herself.  He came to our village, sought my parents.  When he realised that they would not succumb to his pressure, he acquiesced, and left us in peace.  But that night he returned as a demon. I knew it was him: I could see him within.  I called to my parents and we ran into the forest, terrified, and soon became lost in the darkness. But the demon found us; he slaughtered my parents before my eyes.  When I screamed at it to stop, it slapped me away, laughing.  When I begged it to kill me too, it said it wouldn’t.  I would die soon enough, left alone in the mountains.  I was fifteen years old.”       

            “What did you do?”  Talana asked gently, horrified at the woman’s tale.  The firelight could not conceal the glow in Wolf’s eyes as she answered.

            “I called the wolves.”

                                    *          *          *          *

            Storms raged outside the cave, sending cold drafts deep into the heart of the system.  Darrukin stopped what he was doing – grooming his grey stallion – and almost drank in the cool air hungrily. He hated caves, hated being cooped up underground.  He was only thankful that Keesha was not here with him, and hoped that she had made it back to Darr with the message Talana had said she’d sent with her.  What was going on there, he wondered?  How were Keer and Jeron?  Had his family lost their ancestral lands or had Darrsan managed to head off a confrontation with the Palace Guards?  Would the Queen be pursuing him, even now, in the depths of winter?

Wolf had offered to let them stay over the worst of the winter months.  The cave system was large and roomy enough for all the wolves and the horses, and themselves.  He and Talana had accepted, knowing that they could not face the fury or the cold of the winter as they were, and glad of a reprieve in their flight.  Surely they would not be followed in this weather?  Doubts gnawed at him, making him feel claustrophobic and on edge.

            Talana had taken well to Wolf, he reflected, picking up where he had left off with the grooming and continuing the long, soothing strokes across his horse’s back that he knew the stallion enjoyed.  Wolf was so different, so lacking in social graces, unembarrassed, unflinchingly honest, and most of all, helpful.  She had given Talana things to do with her magic, urging her to help heal the wounded wolves or any other injured animals that came their way.  The older woman would not be swayed by Talana’s lack of confidence, she just assumed that the younger woman would help, and, to her own surprise as much as his, she did.  She became quite adept at searching a body for the ills that harrowed it, and could heal, mend flesh and shattered bone and sinew.  Darrukin was quite amazed by the power his companion had.

            They rested.  Winter was traditionally for him a time when he concentrated on book-learning and administration, when his family could spend time together, planning, discussing, sharing.  He found his time in the cave, with Talana and Wolf, remarkably similar – together they would talk, make plans, joke and laugh.

            He was not idle, either. Through practice and following Wolf’s example, he learned to talk with the wolves. Of course, he was not as good as she, but he was quite pleased that he could make himself understood by them, and was amazed at the subtlety and refinement of wolf communication.  A gesture or a facial expression became more meaningful, and he found himself able to read Talana and Wolf with much greater accuracy, their body language and expressions.  He had never had much problem reading people, but the wolf communication that he learned gave it all a new depth and intensity, for which he was glad. 

            “Darrukin? Darrukin?”  Talana’s calling interrupted his reverie.  There was no urgency in her tone.  He opened his eyes, patted the horse, and ducked around the animal to answer her.

            “Yes?” At that moment he felt his stomach growl and realised that she was more than likely calling him for a meal.  He was right. As he entered the main cave he saw her with Wolf, a couple of adult wolves sniffing around them, as they ladled stew into bowls.

            “I’m going outside as soon as this storm eases off.  The horses will need to stretch their legs.”  he said, as he sat down with them, basking in the warmth of the flames.  The two women nodded.

            “I was thinking the same.  I want to know if we have been followed or not.” Talana said before taking a mouthful of stew.  She turned to Wolf. “I would not want to bring the palace guard to this place.”

            Wolf nodded. “The wolves go out and check.  They have seen no men around, nor smelled them.  I believe you are safe for the moment, but if you want to check for yourself, then by all means, do.”

            It was a comfort to Talana that there had been no sightings of men in the vicinity.  Wolf had been so welcoming, so nice to them that the last thing they wanted to do would be to bring the palace guard down upon her.  Talana was only too aware what the palace guard would likely do if they did stumble across Wolf.  The very thought made her shudder.

            If she sat and thought about it, she could still feel the tingling sensation that had so alarmed her in the desert, the sure knowledge that her father was on the hunt for her.  With so much else going on, she had been able to ignore it, but in quiet times she would again feel the chill.  It was unsettling, a reminder that while they had respite now, it would not last. When the snows melted, the imperative to move would be upon them again, to go north, to find the ring.  Only once it was in their possession could they even dare to hope for some kind of resolution to their quest that did not end in their deaths.

            Wolf smiled at her across the fire. It was a strange thing, friendship, Talana reflected.  Her childhood had been so deprived of human comfort from any source – not her mother, only some of the fellow workers in the brothel had ever showed her real kindness, and she had never had a peer.  The wolf woman had been out of contact with people for years, but she was an easy companion to be with, prone to silence unless she had something to say, but willing to talk whenever Talana herself was. There was a warmth between them that grew out of mutual admiration and a sense that they were kindred spirits, true friends.  It amazed her that she now had two friends, Darrukin and Wolf, people who cared about her and whom she cared for in return.

            The storm eased two days later.  Darrukin and Talana ventured out into the thick snow, leading the horses, glad to be out in the fresh air despite the lung-searing cold.  The horses were appreciative, happily following, nervous still in the presence of the wolves.  They were unsaddled, and the two humans let them run free, knowing that they would return to them.  Wolves had already scouted around, checking the countryside; Talana and Darrukin felt secure in the knowledge that the palace guard had not found them yet.

            Wolf joined them, bringing with her a wolf pup, one that had been injured in some rough play.  The pup tested the air, sniffing, unwilling to leave Wolf’s arms and venture into the cold, wet snow.  It was so obvious that it made Talana laugh, bringing a smile to all their faces. Darrukin looked up, scanning the skies automatically for his blue falcon, but Keesha was nowhere to be seen.  He had not really expected to see her, but was hopeful all the same.  The young man felt so badly about sending her away to an unknown situation, even though he knew she would take care of herself. 

            The outside air was cold, but the sunshine was stronger than he expected – with luck, winter was about to break.

            “Do you think that was the last of the storms for this season?” he asked Wolf, looked up at the sky critically.  Wolf shook her head.

            “There’ll be a few more, but I do think that’s the worst of them finished.”  The older woman sniffed around, still carrying the wolf puppy, her feet crunching through the crust of snow.  In places the drifts were quite deep, the wolves and horses floundering at times, but without injury. 

            Talana swung up into a tree, shaking snow off the branches, in an attempt to see further.  Darrukin could tell that she was becoming restless, and that the pull from the ironwood spear was beginning to have its effect upon her once more.  He watched her gracefully swing out of the tree, land lightly, then sink into the fresh snow with a laugh.  He could not help but laugh, too.  She turned to him, hands on hips.

            “What’s so funny?” she demanded, screwing up her eyes against the glare of the snow.

            “You are.”  Scooping up a handful of snow, he made a snowball and threw it at her, laughing harder as it splatted on her midriff.

            “Right! You’re gone!” she retorted, grabbing a handful of snow herself and aiming at him.  He ducked the first, but she was too quick with the second and hit him squarely in the groin. Doubling over and groaning, he collapsed into the snow.

            Talana hurried to him as fast as she could. “Darrukin, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you!” she said, kneeling in the snow beside him.

            “Tricked you!” he said, throwing powdery snow right up into her face. She shrieked, then thumped him on the arm

            “Not fair!” she said, but she was laughing at herself.

            “Now, children, don’t draw attention to yourselves.” Wolf remarked laconically, smiling at them as she patted one of the scout wolves.  “I’ll be back; I’m just going to scout around myself.” she said, moving away.

            Talana was covered in snow.  Her long hair, plaited and decorated with feathers and fur interwoven amongst it, was wet and plastered to her back, and her coat, stitched together with her own hand, was soggy with melted snowballs.  Turning her face to the pale sunshine, she called to Darrukin.

            “Do you think we’ll be alright, when we get going again?”

            “What do you mean?” he replied, putting his arm down. He’d been about to splat her backside with a giant snowball.  It was such a tempting target. 

            She turned, the sunlight catching her hair and making it glint gold.  Darrukin caught his breath for a moment.

            “I mean, how successful do you think we’ll be?  What if we can’t find the ring? What do we do then?” she shivered, took a couple of steps towards him, and floundered into a deep snow-drift.  “Help!” she cried, arms flailing, up to her shoulders in snow. 

“I’m coming, you’ll be fine.” Darrukin said, trying to ease her panic. “It’s not as if you’ll drown in it, it’s just snow.” Carefully, Darrukin walked along the snow, looking at the terrain and trying to deduce where the snow drift began and ended.

            “Yeah, but I’m stuck!” she replied testily, tramping on the snow to try to build herself up to a height where she could climb out of the hole.  With an exasperated sigh, she gave up.  “That’s it, I’m digging my way out!” she said, taking a different approach.

            “Hold on! Here’s a stick, grab the end of it and I’ll pull you out, Talana.” He placed the stick carefully over the snow, and braced himself against a tree as he held the other end.  He felt her take hold of the stick, and slowly began to pull her clear of the snowdrift.

            When she was on more solid ground, she stood, brushed herself off and grinned at him. “Thanks!” she said, thoroughly wet now.  She shivered again.

            “You’d better get inside, Talana, your lips are turning blue.”

            Nodding and shivering at the same time, she walked around the snowdrift carefully with Darrukin and together they went back inside the cave.  The entry was black and seemingly uninviting, but they both knew there was a warm fire burning in there, the dim orange glow of which they could just make out.

 

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