The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 36
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter nine)

The spring morning stretched into a fine, sunny day; cold if they were amongst the shadows of trees but quite warm if they happened upon a patch of sunlight.  The wolves stayed with them for some miles; the last to leave was the White Wolf, who had run ahead and stood, silently watching as they passed, before raising his voice to the wind.  They could hear the other wolves took up the chant and soon the air was full of their howling. 

Talana took the lead, the spear giving her direction, letting her know if she strayed too far off the course it wanted her to take.  It still appeared that they were to go due north, towards the great glacier they had spotted while on top of Wolf’s mountain.  They could just make it out, riding lower in the valleys as they were, the blue massif of ice still quite some distance away.

“Do you think the ring could be all the way up here?” she called back to him.  Twisting in the saddle, she trusted her mare to walk on without guidance for a moment.  Darrukin scratched his head, looking back at her.

“I don’t know.  I don’t recall the legend of Lord Kerdis mentioning that he lost the ring up in these mountains.” he replied.  “I don’t think it will be too long before we hit the glacier though; is there any change in direction?  Still heading due north?”

“Yes.  The pull is getting stronger now, definitely.  And at least we don’t have to worry about water, like we did in the desert. There’s plenty about.”

“That’s true. We just have to stay warm enough and hope that we don’t get a late snowstorm.  Oh, and, er, try not to get too wet.” he grinned at her, to show her that he was only teasing.  It was the first time he’d even alluded to their awkward moment weeks before. 

Talana flushed, her cheeks glowing. “I did say I was sorry.” 

Darrukin kicked his horse on so that it was next to Talana’s, while there was space amongst the trees.

“I know.  And so am I.” he said, in a gentle tone, not teasing her anymore.  “I know you’ve seen things that I’ve never experienced, and would never want to.  I just hope that one day, you will get to experience what I have seen.”

“Do you mean a loving relationship between myself and a man?”

“Something like that.” 

“I’d only ever seen men behaving like absolute beasts to women before I met you and the members of Maani’s church.  I guess it is just where I grew up; hard not to see women being abused and exploited at Loella’s brothel. She didn’t care too much for her girls, that’s for sure, and if a few of them got beaten up by customers, well, as long as it wasn’t too bad, and the girl could still work, it didn’t matter to her.  She never stopped trying to get me to work there.  She had younger girls…” Talana trailed off bitterly. 

“What did you think when you met my parents?” Darrukin asked, curious.  “Their relationship has always been how I thought my marriage would be.”  The words were out before he had really thought about them.  Wincing, he looked at her.

Talana bit her lip. Darrukin wondered how stupid he could be.  He’d assumed he’d have a wife of approximately his own age, one whom he’d grown to love and respect and be friends with.  A normal life! That was not going to happen, not if Maani was to be believed.  He knew it, and Talana knew it – he belonged to the Queen.  He could not even consider another woman, unless he wanted to imperil his whole land. What sort of a choice was that?  Yet there could be no other way.

“You and the Queen, bound together by some kind of magic or sorcery.  Hmmm.” Talana muttered, almost to herself.  “Well, where does that leave us?  I mean, we’re friends, aren’t we?  You are still allowed to be friends with a woman, aren’t you?”

“I guess so. Well, in this case, with you, we have to be together – you’re the guide on this quest, and I can’t complete it without you.”  Darrukin answered her, looking across at her reassuringly.  “Look, I know I’m male, you’re female, my friend and quite beautiful besides, but...you know.  This queen-guardian thing....”  he rolled his eyes, looking away.  There was no point thinking too much about the inevitable, even though every time he thought of what he had to do, as Guardian, it made him feel ill.

  “I almost wish I didn’t like you so much, Darrukin.  You’re trustworthy, a good friend, and…well,” she faltered, looking at him sideways and then glancing away, “you’re very good looking yourself. The Queen…the Queen will be pleased, I’m sure.  If only you weren’t the guardian!”  Talana blurted out, then covered her mouth with her hand.  Her blue eyes went wide and she turned to him, obviously appalled by what she had said.

Darrukin nearly choked.  It was his turn to blush, to look away. “Is that what I think it is, Talana?  An admission that you, er, like me?” he asked, hardly daring to believe his ears.  Had she just admitted that she found him attractive?  That she wanted him? 

“I…I…don’t know. Yes. I mean, I’m not sure.  I don’t know what to think!” she stuttered, in confusion, obviously deeply embarrassed.  She took a deep breath and looked him full in the face. “What does it matter what I feel about you anyway?  You’re not for me.  I could be desperately in love with you, but it doesn’t matter one little bit, not with the Queen waiting.  It’s not within my control.” she said, again with bitterness in her tone.  Their eyes locked for several seconds before she spoke again.  “For all I know, Darrukin, the reason why I do find you attractive is precisely because you can’t touch me, and I can’t touch you.  I know I’m safe with you.”

Darrukin exhaled as if he’d been punched hard.  Recovering himself, he nodded and then looked straight ahead, unwilling to look at her again.  She did not speak again but he could tell by her expression that she was aware that she’d hurt him.  He let his horse drop back behind the black mare, all too willing to just follow and not think too much about anything for the moment.

The irritating thing was Talana was more than likely right.  He watched her back, noting her slender shoulders and narrow waist, the glint of sunlight on her hair as it fell in its plait down her back.  Her hand flexed around the spear; she looked at the black shaft and made a slight adjustment to her horse’s heading.  It was when he saw her dash the back of her hand across her eyes that he realised that she, too, was hurting.         The day passed in relative silence: they found themselves following the river more closely, fighting their way through thick vegetation and along rocky, occasionally steep, banks.  Exhausted by the end of it, they lit a good fire and had a hot meal in a small clearing, letting the horses graze in the last of the daylight.

“I’ll stay up first.”  Talana volunteered, as they settled down into their sleeping furs.  Although they had seen no sign of pursuit of any kind, neither of them wanted to take the chance of discovery; they had travelled all day carrying Talana’s invisibility spell and were still using it.  It was as natural to her as breathing, whilst on the move.  The fire was risky, but necessary.  The early spring nights were still freezing this far north. 

Talana curled up in a ball, covered in furs and listened, looking up at the sky.  Stars were winking into sight as the sky deepened towards night, and soon there were hundreds of points of light spread over the sky.  Neither moon had risen, so as the daylight faded the forest became a black nothingness from which animal rustlings and movements could be heard.  With the cold night air biting at her face, Talana stayed silent, listening to Darrukin.

He was not asleep.  She could hear his restless movements and breathing. 

“What’s wrong?”  she asked softly, hoping to ease his discomfort.  The day had been an emotional one for them both, saying good bye to Wolf, and speaking so personally about themselves as they had.  Talana would have felt better if she could have spoken more freely about her feelings, but something seemed to block her.  Darrukin’s role as the guardian meant that, as far as she was concerned, he wasn’t male.  She knew that she could not afford to think of him in any way other than as a friend.   Of course, she did, she had to admit to herself.  He was handsome, but more than that, she valued him.  He was the one person on whom she knew she could rely, whom she could trust wholly. 

With only the soft glow of the low-burning fire to give her light, she could not really see him.  He was on the other side of the fire, not close to her as had been their usual practice.  Deliberate?  Possibly, she mused.  But from which point of view – protecting her from him, or himself from her; she could not begin to guess.  Probably the latter, she realised, after what she had said during the day.  It made her feel like a monster.  He’d only said that she was beautiful, not that he was attracted to her.  She’d admitted much more than that.

“Nothing’s wrong.  I just can’t sleep.”  He replied.  His voice was muffled in his sleeping furs.

“I’m really sorry for saying what I did today.”  she said, hoping that it would help him relax.  If not him, it would at least help her: she felt she needed to apologise for her behaviour.

“No, it’s alright.  I’m not worried about that.”

“Then what?”

“Well, what you said did raise some questions in my mind.  I mean, you and I both know that I am bound to the Queen.  What if she does not accept me?  More likely, what if I cannot stand to be touched by her?”

Talana reflected on this for a moment.  It was a good point.  Frowning, she scratched around for something sensible to say. “There’s sorcery behind this, don’t you think? More than that – the Goddess?”  she began, “I am sure that the Goddess would not let you suffer at all. I’m sure that when you meet the Queen, it will be alright.  If she’s got blood running in her veins, she’ll like you.  She’s sure to.  I don’t think you’ll have a problem in that regards.”

“But what about me? What if I can’t stand her?” he complained.  The distress in his voice was obvious.

“I’m sure whatever magic binds you will work both ways.  She’s older than you, we know that – but does that matter?  She’s not that old, only in her early forties, I think.”

“She’s a mad woman!”

“That’s your job to deal with.  That’s why there is a guardian, isn’t it?  To protect her?  To make sure that whatever attacks her can be defeated?  To keep Ashlon safe?”

Darrukin let out a growl of frustration.  “I just wish things had been different.  I’m not free to choose, and it doesn’t feel right.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t. I’m sure I’d be as intimidated and upset as you if I were in your position.  You didn’t choose to be the guardian, you just are.  It’s something you have to accept.  Like I have to accept that I have a father who is going to kill me when he finds me.”

“He won’t find you out here.”  Darrukin said reassuringly.

“He’s still searching. I know it.” Talana said, and shivered. “You’d better get some sleep.  I’m going to wake you up at midnight!” She heard rather than saw the smile in his answering sigh.

The next morning was crisp and bright.  Darrukin had started some breakfast cooking on the embers of the fire, building it up enough so that they could have a hot drink and warm porridge before beginning the day’s travel. 

“Good morning!” he said cheerfully to her as she woke.  Talana rubbed her eyes and sat up, pleased to find him in a good mood.  Her own sleep had been disturbed by dreams of her father chasing her. She felt tired before the day had even begun.  Reluctantly she got out of bed and began packing it up, putting on her coat to keep the chill away.  By the time that was done, the porridge was ready.

“I thought about what you said last night, Talana, about the Goddess and the magic between me and the Queen.” he said to her, his expression clear and untroubled.  “You’re right, I’m sure that the Goddess wouldn’t have chosen me for this if She didn’t think it was right – and who can argue with Her?”

“So, no doubts now?” she asked speculatively.  He had been so upset about it the night before.

“Well, erm, I’m taking a leaf out of your book.  You said it didn’t matter how you felt about me.  I think it’s not going to matter what I think about the Queen.  I am still her guardian.” 

There was a shadow of doubt around his eyes, but Talana did not pursue it.  Let him think that way, it would probably be kinder.  She smiled and shook her head, as if to clear it.  Something was still not right, but she did not want to keep raking up their past conversation.  It was as uncomfortable for her as it appeared to be for him: he really did look quite gorgeous in the early morning sunlight, his chiselled face unlined and worry-free, his hair slightly rumpled from sleep.  If she could only brush it…

Talana shut her eyes.

“Do you think we will reach the glacier today?” he asked, hefting his saddle and pack onto the grey stallion.  The horse stood quietly as he tightened the girth and adjusted the weight of the saddle packs and furs.

“Probably. We don’t look that far away from it, do we?” she answered, looking north through the forest.  The looming face of ice could be glimpsed ahead, above the trees, but it was difficult to tell just how far away it really was.  “The spear should lead us, wherever it heads. It’s got us this far, I just hope it follows through.” She joked. 

By noon they had reached the foot of the glacier, and stood in awe of the towering wonder.  They were half way down the valley through which the glacier flowed; its jagged face glowing a deep blue where the sun struck its top.  It stretched endlessly above and back from them, a frozen river that blended with the blue of the sky so that it was difficult to tell where one finished and the other began.  Intensely cold, not much vegetation grew along the foot, the ice floe pushing its way down the valley and buckling the ground before it slowly.

“It’s beautiful, but it looks deadly.” Talana said.  The tingling from the spear increased as they had neared the glacier; it now seemed almost to buzz in her hand.  They could not go north any longer, the ice barred their way.  “I hope we aren’t expected to climb it!” she said, a hand covering her eyes from the glare as she looked across at Darrukin.

“What does the spear tell you?” he asked.

“North, still. But I’ll see if it changes with my direction.”  She answered.  Holding the black ironwood spear in one hand, and the reins in the other, she kicked her mare into motion, backtracking along the path they had taken.  Almost immediately the spear began to protest, the tingling increasing as she moved away to almost painful proportions. When she could no longer stand it, she wheeled her horse, went back to Darrukin, then headed west up the side of the mountain.  The spear tingled, normally at first, then after she had moved about twenty metres, began to hurt her hand.  Persevering, the longer she continued west, the more her hand hurt: giving up, she turned and went back to Darrukin. 

“Not that way.” She said, screwing up her face and shaking her hand.  “I’ll try east; see if that’s any better.”

Picking her way carefully amongst the loose boulders and rubbish at the foot of the glacier, she headed down the valley, east wards.  Immediately it was obvious that the spear wanted her to go his way; the tingle increased, but did not hurt.  When she was sure she was heading the right way, she twisted in the saddle and beckoned to Darrukin.  He followed, and together they wove their way towards the valley floor.

Nearly there; they struck a problem.  The mountainside dropped off into a sheer cliff fifty feet from the floor; the rock was wet and slippery. They had to dismount and tried to follow the cliff back southwards, to see if it levelled out to a place where they could cross.  At the base of the cliff, they could see a small but fast-flowing stream, sprung from the glacier itself. 

“We’ve come all this way only to find this?  We have to get across!” said Talana, as after an hour’s fruitless back-tracking they had not found one break in the small cliff.

“I’ll have to levitate you across, and the horses.” Darrukin said, resolving in his own mind that it would be the quickest way.  Talana looked at him sharply, then nodded her head.

“Alright.  Are you confident that you’ll be able to levitate yourself this time?” she asked, reminding him that in the desert, he had fallen.  “I know you can do it, if that’s any help.”

Darrukin took a deep breath, sharp, cold mountain air clearing his head.  “I can do it. I don’t have a choice, we’ve got to get across.”

“That’s right. Well, send me across then, and I’ll look after the horses on the other side.” Talana said matter-of-factly.  “And I don’t want to get wet, alright?” she warned him, a sparkle in her eye to show she was teasing.  He smiled.

Darrukin closed his eyes for a moment, and Talana took a deep breath.  She remembered being terrified the first time he had levitated her, but she would not show any fear this time.  She would be quiet, so she would not break his concentration.  Despite her resolution, she still gasped slightly when she felt herself rising; tried not to panic as she then hurtled quite quickly over the cliff, and across the stream, towards a clear place on the opposite bank.  Controlling her fear, she opened her eyes and looked about her, moved to cut into the wind and found the sensation something like swimming through air instead of water.  The opposite bank seemed to rush up towards her, but fortunately Darrukin slowed her down before landing her on the ground.  She called out to him and waved that she was alright.

Darrukin felt nothing but relief as he landed Talana, answering her wave.  “Sorry, old thing.” he muttered to his stallion, as he prepared himself to lift the horse and send it to Talana.  Concentrating, he had to remind himself that the horse’s weight meant nothing.  Extending a hand, he made as if to grab an imaginary horse, raising it with his arm. There.  The inhuman squeals from the beast told him that he’d lifted it; he dared to look and saw that he had.  Pushing gently, guiding the horse out over the drop, over the water, trying to ignore its thrashing movement, he placed the terrified grey on the ground as gently as he could.  Talana rushed and grabbed the reins, easing the horse’s fears instantly, calming it down.  A wave of relief rushed through him.  Gathering his will once more, he picked up the black mare, and with much more confidence in his ability, sent the horse to the opposite bank with little fuss.  Perhaps he was getting the hang of this sorcery business after all?  Talana waved to him, and he could hear her faint shout of encouragement as he prepared to levitate himself across the water in the same way.

It’s all in the imagination. If you can imagine it, you can do it, he told himself, taking a deep breath.  Lift. Push. Nothing.  He tried to calm his mind, aware that it might be his own unbelief that was stopping him from moving.  What should he do, pretend to be a rock?  He did, but again had no success.  His alarm and frustration grew. He had to get over there! He had to!

“I can’t do it!” he called out to Talana, “I’ll have to climb down and walk across!”

“Don’t you dare, Darrukin!” she called back, a note of panic in her voice, “You’ll fall and be killed!  Try again, you can do it!”

He knew that she was right.  The cliff, although not very high, was sheer, and he would not survive a fall onto the rocks below. What was he going to do? He had to get across.  He tried to lift himself, push himself across with his sorcery, but it did not work. 

“I need to be there, with Talana. Not here, there!” He shut his eyes, and stabbed a finger towards Talana, so angry with his own inability that he knew he would almost certainly fail once more. “Come on!” he goaded himself.

“It’s alright, you’re here.” Came Talana’s voice, quite close to him.  There was wonder in her tone.   Slowly, Darrukin opened his eyes, and looked straight into Talana’s face. Looking about, he almost could not believe it – the cliff was in the distance and he was with Talana and the horses.  He looked at her, confused.

“You disappeared from the cliff top and reappeared right next to me.” she said, her voice shaking slightly.  “I didn’t know you could do that. Did you?”

“No.”

Swallowing, she gave him a shaky smile and laid a hand on his arm, curling her fingers around his bicep.  “You are real, aren’t you?  You seem to be. Right,” she said in a matter of fact voice, “I told you, you could do it!”

“Thankyou for believing in me.” he said, placing his hand over hers on his arm and giving it a squeeze.

“I don’t understand how you got here, but you made me fly. I was quite enjoying it!” she said, looking slightly amazed.

“I don’t think the horses did very much, though.”  He commented, noting their sweat-streaked flanks.   “At least neither of us got wet!”

They laughed together, the noise making the birds up in the stunted trees around them panic and fly away.  

The spear guided them back to the glacier and up the eastern side of the valley. As the glacier protruded into the middle of the valley, they travelled in a north-easterly direction as they made their way up the mountain.  The spring sunshine took the edge off the cold emanating from the ice, but they were plunged into the shadow of the glacier once the sun passed its zenith.

Darrukin followed Talana, trusting her guidance and too wrapped up in his own thoughts to question what they were doing.  He was still coming to terms with how he had crossed from the cliff to the other side of the stream; he must have willed himself there, it was the only explanation.  Ideas kept tumbling through his head about how he could use the talent, if he could perfect it and perform it at his will.  It would have some brilliant military applications, and if he could figure out the distance over which he could move himself, he might even be able to go back to Darr…the possibilities excited him.

Talana felt the tingling of the spear grow stronger as they progressed north-east. It was not painful, more as if the spell was becoming more defined.  The ice that loomed above her dominated the landscape.  Fallen chunks of ice, and the buckled ground before it, made the going dangerous; they would not travel too close to the glacier lest more ice fall upon them.  The glacier spread halfway up the mountain they were on, and they had to dismount and climb on foot, leading their horses.  It was tough, and on the other side of the mountain they could see the glacier sloping away, stretching down another valley.  The young woman gasped and stopped.  Mutely she pointed out what she had seen to her companion.

Halfway down the mountain, perhaps a mile away down the gentle slope, was a huge gash in the ice.  It looked as though something had forcibly ripped it apart; a great ice canyon slashed backwards into the heart of the glacier.  The broken and torn ice sparkled as a shaft of sunlight touched its exposed face.

“That’s where we’re heading.” she said, looking across at Darrukin.  He shot her an enquiring glance, but nodded and pulled his horse on.  Together, they lead their horses towards the canyon, walking quickly but carefully over the debris-strewn mountain until, panting with the effort, they reached it.  When Talana touched the spear, she knew instantly that they would have to enter the frigid blue canyon.

“We need to go in there.” she said nervously, looking up at the sides.  Ice loomed above them, jagged and sharp. Chunks littered the floor of the canyon.  It looked very dangerous.

“Are you sure? That ice looks like it could fall in on us.  We will have to be very careful.”

“I know, but this is where we have been led.”  Looking more closely at the canyon walls, she could see that not all the jagged edges were sharp.  None were soft, either, but she could tell that the canyon had been there for a long time.  Probably – hopefully, she amended – it would not collapse in on them if they ventured inside.

The ground was wet with runoff as they walked to the entrance.  It formed a rivulet, trickling down the mountain slope.  For a moment, the sound of the moving water held them still, then, Talana leading, they sloshed through the tiny stream and into the ice chasm.

Inside was decidedly eerie.  Blue and white light reflected off so many different facets of the walls that it was difficult to tell where they were going, so intense was the glare.  It seemed almost pointless for Talana to use the spear once they were inside, yet she clung to it as if it afforded her some kind of security.  Her eyes lowered to the sodden, muddy ground, she picked her way over boulders of ice, churned mud and rock.  Darrukin followed, she could hear his footsteps and that of the stallion behind her.  After ten minutes walking in silence, she looked over her shoulder at him, and got a fright: it looked as though the chasm entrance had disappeared, the two walls blending into one another until she could not tell which was which.  Talana stopped and looked up, desperate to find a patch of sky so that she did not feel like she was in a blank ice prison.

“Are you alright?” Darrukin asked, stopping near her.  His horse snorted and touched noses with her animal.  It was plain that neither horse liked being in the chasm.

Nodding slowly while still looking around herself, Talana noticed something that made her feel decidedly uneasy.  Bones were everywhere, big ones, little ones, whole skeletons and disarticulated piles, wedged into corners and drifts.  “This place is so strange. Why are they here?” she asked in a hushed voice, pointing the piles of bones out to Darrukin.  He looked around, and up, noting that the light seemed to be beginning to fade. They were deep in shadows inside the canyon.

“Probably just animals which wandered in and died here. Don’t worry about it.”  He reassured her. “Let’s get going.  Does the spear still urge you forward?”

She held the spear already, and nodded.

“Then I guess we go as far in as we can before we have to stop for the night.  Unless you want to get out of here and try again tomorrow morning?” He asked.

“No, I’d rather stay.  We don’t know how far back this canyon goes or how long we will need to be here.  Let’s find as clear a space as possible and then set up camp.”  She said in a no-nonsense tone. 

“Right, then. I don’t see much wood, but for a fire tonight we can burn the bone. Let’s collect it while we search for a campsite.” He suggested.

 

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