The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 38
The Thief of Ashlon Part 2 (chapter 10)

The young woman Talana runs away from her wretched life and finds friendship and a purpose travelling with Lord Darrukin, the new guardian to the Dragon Queen.  She is his guide, chosen by the Goddess Ishayla to lead him to the Heart of the Dragon, a ring lost centuries ago.  Without the ring, the power of the guardians - protectors of the Dragon Queens - has been eroded to the point where the Dragon Queen has fallen under the sway of evil God Eshtan.  With it, Darrukin will gain full mastery of his power as a sorcerer.  Only then can he hope to restore the Dragon Queen to her true self. 

Since being drawn together on this quest, Talana and Darrukin, along with companions Keer and Jeron, have travelled across the land of Ashlon to find the tomb of the Guardian Lord Kerdis, who lost the ring. They have escaped from pursuit by the Queen’s palace guards, only to have a palace guard force headed by the Queen’s priests target Darrukin’s family, seeking a hostage.  To save his family’s province Darrukin submits as the hostage, but Talana breaks him free and they flee north, following her own magic as guide, only to nearly die in the frigid winter. Saved by a lone woman with her wolf-pack, they rest over winter before searching once more for the ring.  The hunt leads them to a glacier, where Darrukin is tested by the ghosts of previous guardians, and fights off an attack of evil sorcery.  He is found worthy...  

 

A blast of golden light burned in his eyes, and he felt the Goddess move through him.

“Ishayla!” he cried out, the transition of her leaving making him collapse to his knees, gasping; appalled that the ecstasy he had felt the moment the Goddess had entered him had vanished.  “Don’t leave me!”

I am with you, came an unspoken reply.  I am always with you.

Golden light touched his face. Shivering, he seemed to wake, but before he opened his eyes he could tell that the light was not from the Goddess.  Stranger still, he was surrounded by warm furs, and there was a warm body next to him.  He rolled over and felt the lumpiness of saddlebags underneath him.  A dawning of understanding slowly overtook his confused mind.  He was still in the camp.  Looking up into the sky, he saw the sun shining just over the ice canyon walls, sending golden light down to touch him.

“Did you say something?” Talana said sleepily, pulling at the furs and exposing him to the chilly air.  Darrukin looked at her sleepy face; a rush of feelings he could not deny flooded through him.  She was everything he wanted; a challenging partner, caring, quirky, and beautiful.  He loved her.  Gently, he pushed a wisp of her hair from her face, barely touching her.  Her eyes opened, and the look she gave him carried echoes of the way the Goddess had seen right to his heart.  Abruptly he looked away, remembering to breathe after a second.

“No, I didn’t say anything.  I had the most peculiar dream, though.” he answered, a trumpeting of dragons on the edge of his hearing.  The fresh morning air cleared his head and he tried to recall what had happened; it had taken on the fuzzy, not-quite-real aspect of a dream.  It had to be a dream.  Except for the Goddess.  That had to be real.

“Did you?” said Talana, sitting up.  “So did I.  I dreamed I was trapped in a silver cage, by a thing that reminded me of my father…it was so evil, terrifying – you were below, fighting somebody; you called out to me…What’s wrong?” she asked, frowning as she looked into his face.

“I don’t understand, I had that dream too – I saw you in the cage…heard you cry out…we dreamed the same thing?”  He looked about himself in confusion, noting that the fire had burned right down.  How could they have had the same dream but from different perspectives?  He continued, wanting to explain himself, to let her know what had happened, even if it was only a dream.  “Last night, I met the Goddess, I met the old guardians, and I claimed the ring – I became the Heart of the Dragon!” he blurted out.  He jumped out of the bed, ran a hand through his hair as he the blue ice around him reminded him of his dream.  Talana drew in her breath sharply.

“Darrukin.”

“Yes?”

“Look at your left hand.”

He did as she said automatically.  The sunlight touched the ring, the Heart of the Dragon, and set its diamonds on fire.  A rainbow of colours leaped out at him, dazzling him, holding him entranced.  Between the diamonds sat an achingly beautiful deep blue sapphire.  “It’s…it’s the ring.” He said uncomprehendingly, turning over his hand to see the golden band encircling his finger.  Gold of the Goddess, surrounding the pure sapphire of the dragon, and the diamonds of the queen and guardian.  It was there, on his finger. How?

“You have it. The Dragon Heart.  You are the guardian, you are the Dragon Heart.” Talana stated simply.  A soft emotion touched her voice and her face, her eyes, glowed as she looked at him.  She left the bed, walked over to him and gently pushed his lower jaw shut.  Reaching up to his cheek, she kissed him.  Without really knowing what he was doing, his arms went around her and he hugged her, tightly.

Darrukin was so glad he felt his heart might burst with joy.  They’d done it, they’d found the ring, unlocked his power!  He knew that the ring acted like a key; he did not strictly need it anymore, but it was what had unlocked his full power.  His knees went a little wobbly and Talana held him tight to balance him; the realisation hit him that he was the most powerful sorcerer in Ashlon next to the queen.  His power existed to protect hers.  The ring on his finger seemed to burn as he held Talana, he could sense the Goddess in and around him, just out of sight.  Confusing emotions, confusing images, rushed through him; he felt Talana moving him back to their makeshift bed to sit down.

“I think you’re in a little shock, Darrukin. Are you alright?” she asked him, gently.  There was so much pride in her voice that he could not help but smile back at her, happily bemused at his state.

“I guess so. I don’t really understand what happened, but it has, and it’s real, like you.  You’re real.  So much isn’t; but you are.”  He wanted to say more, but she looked away and he heard her sniff.  The little noise brought some sense back to him, like a bucket of ice water dashed over his happiness.  He wanted to confess his feeling for her, then and there, but of course, he could do no such thing.  If they had not believed that he really was the guardian before, now he had the ring, they had to.  He had to. 

He closed his eyes and a tiny frown creased his forehead.   A part of him felt crushed and broken.  He was the guardian. He belonged to the Queen.  His feelings for Talana were inappropriate, even dangerous. He could never admit them to her out loud.

Yet there she was, standing up before him and smiling at him with pride in her eyes and relief on her face.

“I’m so very proud of you, Darrukin. You’ve done it!”  She said.

“Thankyou, Talana. I could not have found this without you.”

His left hand went out to take hers, the ring glinting in the morning light. 

They retraced their steps through the mountains from the glacier back to where Wolf lived as quickly as they could. Once they had worked through their euphoria at finding the ring, Darrukin had remembered the golden ones and told Talana of his fears for Wolf.  There were signs all around the cave when they reached it that a large number of people had been there: litter and churned mud, and many, many footprints.

And bodies.

Darrukin and Talana were sickened by what they saw. Blood, dried and black, splashed everywhere, and the skinned carcasses of wolves piled mainly at the cave mouth.   Cautiously, they approached, keeping a sharp lookout for whoever had committed this atrocity.  Both felt certain that they knew who had done it.

“Palace guards. It’s got to be palace guards.” Talana muttered as they scouted around.  “No one else would be this cruel.” 

When they were convinced that they were not going to be attacked themselves, they walked in amongst the devastation.  Tears poured down Talana’s face as she looked about her at the bodies.  They were both searching for Wolf, wondering what had happened.  Together, they entered the cave, Darrukin’s sorcery lighting their way.  His light crackled and gained intensity with every new atrocity that he witnessed.

“Wolf!” he cried out, spying her twisted form against the far wall of the main cavern.  She had been propped up and was artificially posed.  Bile rose in Darrukin’s throat as he looked at the dead woman. It was clear that she had died in incredible pain from a gaping wound in her abdomen.  Both of them rushed to her side, but knew that she was dead.  Scattered around and across her were the bodies of dead wolves, cold and mutilated.

Darrukin moved aside huge skinned wolf’s body from Wolf’s legs, then realised that it must have been the White Wolf.  Shock made him cry out and drop the body, horrified.  Looking closer, he saw something glint within the bared teeth of the dead wolf.  Grimacing, he pulled a dead hand from the White Wolf’s mouth, a golden ring on one swollen, purple finger.  Flinging the hand away he shuddered.

            Talana stood and searched the room.  “Here, look at this. One for the wolves, at least.” she said, pointing out a dead body underneath a pile of wolf carcasses.  It was most definitely a palace guard. His throat had been ripped out by the wolves.

            “Is he missing his left hand?” Darrukin asked, covering his mouth and nose with his own hand.  The cave was beginning to reek of death.

            “No, that must belong to someone else.” Talana replied, her voice flat as if drained of emotion.  “Let’s bury them.  It’s the least we can do.” she suggested, looking across at Darrukin.

            He nodded. “Yes. Let’s do that.” he looked up and around at the cave.  “Why don’t we put all the wolves inside and then collapse the cave? I’m sure I could do that.”  

            They began the grim task of collecting up all of the wolf bodies, laying them in neat rows. They laid Wolf out near the ashes of her fire, wrapped her up in pelts and set her so that she looked as if she were just asleep.  The White wolf they lay beside her.  It was hard work, but neither of them complained nor said a thing until they had placed most of the bodies in the main cave ready for burial.

            A slight noise made Talana look at Darrukin.  “Sorry, did you say something?” she asked him, breaking their self-imposed silence.  She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.

            “No, I didn’t.  What was that?” he asked her, as the noise repeated itself. 

            “It sounded like a whimper. Perhaps there is an injured wolf in here?” Talana concluded, casting her eyes around herself.  “The horse room!”

            She sprinted for the side cavern where the horses had spent the winter.  It was in total darkness but she was familiar with its layout and felt her way in the darkness until Darrukin came to light it with his sorcery.  There was old grass on the floor, left over from the horses. Wolf had obviously not cleaned it out in the few days since she and Darrukin had seen her.   Her hands pushing through the dried grass, searching and clearing it aside, she heard another whimper and turned to where the noise was coming from.

            “Over here! Please, some light!” she cried, locating a small, furry body in amongst the dried grass.  It was warm.  Talana brushed aside the grass and Darrukin leaned forward, giving her light.  It was a small wolf-cub, one of the half-grown cubs that Wolf had in the cave over winter.  Talana’s hands hovered over it, trying to see where it was injured.  There was a large gash in its side.  Anger burned within her as she realised that the wound had been inflicted by a palace guard, but since the cub was too small for its skin to be worth much, the guard had left it to die, not even bothering to finish it off.  The cub gave a cough and spasmed, then went limp.  Desperately Talana looked for some sign of life in the little animal.

            “You can’t die, we only just got here!” she whispered to it, frantically rubbing it to see if that would get a response.  Darrukin leaned forward and touched her shoulder.

            “Come on, Talana. It’s dead. Let’s bury it with Wolf and the others.” He turned to move away.

            “No! It can’t be dead!” she shouted, feeling angry and heartbroken. “It’s got to live!” She kept her hands over the cub, desperately trying to ignite her own sorcery to heal the little body.  Screwing up her eyes with the effort, she forced as much energy as she could out through her hands, quivering with the effort.  “Live!” she gasped, tears unheeded on her cheeks as she bent over the cub.

            Something wet and rough reached out and touched her hand.  Talana let out a yelp of fright and drew back in surprise.  The cub was alive!  Quickly, she steadied herself; concentrated her healing power. Torn flesh, blood vessels and bruised bone felt her healing touch: she worked her way over the warm little body, saw and healed as much as she could.  Slumping against the cave wall when she finished, she cradled the cub in her arms, took a few steadying breaths and then got up.  Darrukin was still working out in the main chamber; she walked unsteadily towards the entrance and set the cub down near the horses.

            “Stay there, won’t you?” she asked it, finding a bowl and giving it some water.  The cub looked at her with grateful eyes and then lapped up the water.

            When they had finished their grisly task, they moved a safe distance away from the cave entrance and stood together in silence.  Darrukin knew that when he sealed the cave it would be like sealing off a part of themselves. Wolf had been their friend, and her kindness towards them deserved more than this kind of death, this burial.  But he knew that it was the most that they could do for her and her wolf pack. Talana had tears running down her face, leaving tracks through the dirt and dried blood, but she did not wipe them away. 

            “You’d better do it now.” she whispered to him, her voice sounding thick and painful.  Darrukin nodded.

            His anger helped him to focus on what he had to do.  It boiled up inside him, outraged at the murder of his friends, Wolf and the wolves.  Palace guards!  He had suffered under them, and they would suffer for this.  The idea of revenge was uppermost in his mind as he tried to apply his sorcery, but then his anger died away.  Guilt assailed him: surely thinking murderous thoughts made him as bad as those who had killed Wolf?  Clearing his mind of all thoughts of blood, he gathered his will once more, thought of the Goddess, of her pure light, and how Wolf must be with her.    The cave needed to be sealed, he needed to bring down the entrance, collapse it so that no one could get in to disturb Wolf’s rest.  With a push of his mind, he felt the ground tremble slightly, heard a thunderous noise, but did not want to open his eyes to see what effect his power had had.  Talana’s gasp was enough to know that he had achieved his aim.

            When he did open his eyes, the first thing he saw was Talana’s face, looking at him with wonder.  He surveyed the devastation: there was a shadow of dust hanging in the still air where the cave mouth had been, but otherwise it was completely stoved in.  Trees creaked and groaned as their root were disturbed, and birds screeched in alarm at the massive disturbance.

            His grey stallion nudged him from behind, like an order to leave. 

            “Farewell, Wolf!” he said, turning to the animal and mounting up.  As Talana mounted her horse, he saw a small face peeking out from a saddlebag on the black mare’s rump: the wolf cub.  It smiled at him.

            They rode away from Wolf’s cave, not speaking much until they were well away.  Talana broke the silence first.

            “Was it difficult, what you did this morning?” she asked, her voice still a little shaky with grief and awe.

            “The sorcery?” he asked, turning back to her, as he was riding in front.  He was glad of the conversation, as his thoughts had been far too grim for him to remain silent for much longer.  “It was, at first.”

            “You were very careful about it.”

            “Was I? I wasn’t aware of that. I didn’t really think about it.” He paused a moment, reflecting on what he had done.  “I was really angry, but that didn’t seem right when it came to sealing the cave.  I don’t know, but perhaps the Goddess wouldn’t really approve if I’d used my sorcery in anger like that, wanting revenge.  Then I thought of Wolf, how she would be with the Goddess, and how that would be wonderful for her.  The sorcery seemed to flow then.”

            Talana tilted her head to one side and gave him a long look before answering.  “Perhaps that could be right.”  She hefted the spear that had led them to the mountains. It sat in her hand, lifeless, no tingling sensation left in it.  “You know, this is just a spear now.  I guess its job is done, but I think I’ll keep it.  It’s a good weapon.”  Do you really think that Wolf has met the Goddess? I didn’t really think there would be anything after a person died, you were just dead, and that was it.” She finished.

            “I don’t really know for sure.  I saw…strange things…when I claimed the Dragon Heart.  I saw the ghosts of guardians, queens and dragons – sort of like the guardians we saw in the Valley of Shades.  They seemed to be still alive in a way.  The old religion did say that a person who died returned to the Goddess – but I never understood how.  I always thought that meant that they would become a part of her, and that we all carried a spark of her within us.  I’m not sure any more. I know that as much as you or I might go to the Goddess, there are those who would go to Eshtan.”

            “Yes, that’s certainly true. I’m sure the Goddess doesn’t want everyone! Or maybe there are some who don’t want her?” Talana shook her head with confusion.  “It’s too much for me. I’ll find out one day!” she said with a laugh. 

Darrukin looked at her and was reminded sharply of how he had fought for her in that weird ice cave; the feeling of fear he had had for her as she cried out from the silver cage.  It had been so strange, so unreal, yet too real –his instinctive reaction had been to protect her.  Once more he had to bury his feelings for her, hope they did not show, restrain himself from reaching out to her.

Talana turned to him with a serious look on her face.  “What shall we do? Track these palace guards? Or go to Darr? I guess I’m not an official part of the quest anymore, now my part is done. But what will you do?”

            “Well, it’s clear that we were tracked, or at least that we are being searched for by palace guards. Nothing else would have brought them up this far into the mountains. What that means, I don’t know.  I think we need to get back to Darr, return to my family. I have the feeling we are going to need to defend them – the Queen is not going to be happy about my escape and I am sure she will take it out on them.”

            “But we need to get you to Tashmar, don’t we?” she queried.

            Darrukin paused to consider for a moment.  “Yes, we do. But on my terms, not the Queen’s. I won’t surrender to the palace guard again, and I won’t leave my family in danger.”

            He said it with such conviction that Talana believed him instantly.   She nodded, nudging her horse to catch up to his.

            “We need Keer and Jeron, too.  They will either be in Darr or the village where I left them.  I hope they are safe.” she said.  “It’s getting late. Should we make camp for the night?” The sun was slanting through the trees and soon would touch the horizon.  

            “Sounds good. Let’s make a plan over dinner.” Darrukin suggested, and they began to scout for a suitable place to spend the night.

            The camp they chose was close to the river, so that they could wash the dirt and blood from themselves, refill their water supplies and give the horses a good drink. It was freezing water, but they both scrubbed off as quickly as they could.  The horses grazed and the wolf cub was content to sit on the bank, watching them wash; dipping a toe in the water and withdrawing it quickly.  Talana was pleased that the little wolf’s injuries were just scars; she’d healed him completely and he was ravenously hungry.

            Go catch a rabbit.  She tried to communicate to the little wolf, not quit sure she’d got the message across.  The wolf cub, a male, looked up at her with reproachful silver eyes.  Talana was sure he was the White Wolf’s son, his eyes confirming it, though his coat was not the snowy white of his father but a normal grey-silver.  The wolf yipped and yowled at her, pawed at the air.  In confusion, she looked at Darrukin for an explanation. She was just not that good at understanding wolf language.

            “He needs help to hunt; he’s had no experience.” Darrukin told her, smiling at the cub.  “I’ll help him, if you stay with the horses.”

            “Yes, that’s fine. Bring back a rabbit for us, won’t you? I’m sure it will taste better than the stew I’ve been making lately.” She said with a smile, getting up from the river bank and going back to the camp.  They had already made a fire, knowing that they’d be wet: she dried herself in its warmth as the light faded.  Darrukin nodded and went off into the forest with the wolf cub at his heels, its tail wagging enthusiastically.

            Later that night, eating roast rabbit haunch and stew while the cub feasted on the carcass, they made their plans. 

            “Let’s go back to Darr, to begin with. See what the situation is once we are there.” Darrukin suggested.

            “We might find the Queen has already overrun it, or taken control – but I doubt it!” she added quickly, seeing the outraged look on Darrukin’s face.  “We can decide what to do from Darr, in any case.”

            Darrukin was plagued by terrible thoughts, so that when he and Talana retired for the night, he volunteered to take the first watch.  The cub sat with them and he watched the dying embers of the fire as Talana slept; his mind whirling with all that he had to do.  He did still need to get to Tashmar, did still need to confront the Queen.  How could he cure her? He did not know.  How could he reveal himself to her and not be killed immediately?  She was the queen, the most powerful sorcerer in Ashlon. Yet her weakness was her inability to protect herself.  Uncertain and daunted despite the knowledge of who he was, all he could do was continue his watch as the Big Moon ascended slowly into the evening sky.

            Talana dreamed she was wading through a stream, the current pulling at her legs and slowing her down. She could not move properly, and felt a mist rise all around her, hiding some force that watched her, was waiting for her.  She did not feel safe.  The wolf cub wailed faintly, and she jolted awake, finding him sitting up on the ground next to her, his tail wagging frantically.

            “Hush, little fellow! Shhh…” she whispered, sitting up. Automatically she looked around at Darrukin.  He pointed out into the forest, the trees dark shapes against the moonlit night sky, except where the glow from the fire caught them.  Swift movement caught her eye and she gasped as silvery shapes began to move and flow through the trees.  Wolves.

            Bewildered, she reached out for Darrukin, found his arm and held it.  Her hands clung to his shirt as the wolves raced towards them, flowed around them and then circled them, sending the little wolf into paroxysms of confused howling and tail-wagging.  He rolled on his back, wiggling all the while, and scampered around the silent figures, trying to gain some acknowledgement.  Talana glanced at Darrukin, who was smiling, as two large wolves detached themselves from the main group to move slowly up to the edge of their makeshift bed.  One was huge and white, his wise face grinning in wolfish delight.  Talana looked at the other wolf, a shaggy, darker female, slight smaller, with bits of fur and feather seemingly stuck into her coat, and a greenish cast to the silvery, ghostly eyes…Wolf! Recognition brought an answering grin from Wolf’s wolf face. 

            Amazed, Talana reached out a hand as if to touch them both, but stopped herself.  They were ghosts, like the rest of the insubstantial silvery forms around them.  Instead, she placed the wolf cub before the White Wolf and Wolf,  watching the little cub scrabble around on his belly, roll around on his back, try to nuzzle the two adult wolf ghosts and give confused little cries when he could not.  The White Wolf looked at the cub, and he calmed down, sat up and seemed to listen to the pair, his ears cocked and head tilted at an angle.

            Talana had not quite mastered the wolf language the way Darrukin had, and so sat quietly as he, the White Wolf and Wolf communicated.  She could sense what they spoke of every now and again, but sat at the edge of the bed, wishing she could tell Wolf how much she missed her and how sorry she was that they had been unable to protect her, that they had not been there to help her against the palace guards.  She felt guilty, knowing that the only reason palace guards had been there was because they were searching for herself and Darrukin.

            The ghostly pair seemed to touch noses with Darrukin, then moved to do the same with her.

            “Goodbye!” she said out loud, as the two wolves turned away and melted in with the rest of the pack, to run, fluid and majestic, through the silent trees until they could be seen no more.

            Darrukin had a happy-sad look on his face; a smile, but he looked like he was in pain. 

            “What did they say?” she asked.  She got the feeling that a lot had passed in the few moments of communication they had had.  A shaft of moonlight struck the campsite as Darrukin gave a sigh.

            “They spoke of many things, strange things.  Wolf asked me to tell you not to be sad for her, for she is happier now she is a wolf.  She has become in death what she wanted to be in life, and she and the White and their pack will roam these hills forever, together.  She is happy.”  He paused for a moment. “The White Wolf asked me a strange thing. He called me brother and asked that I take his skin from the palace guard who stole it.  The palace guards are about two days south of us – we should catch up to them quickly being on horseback.  He…he joked, saying that he did not need his skin anymore, but that I did; he was quite insistant.”  He looked at her, puzzled.

            “I guess we had better retrieve it, then.  Did they say why at all?”

            “No, just that I needed it. I explained that we were sorry they had died and that we had buried them – they knew and thanked us for that.  They also said to thankyou for rescuing the cub – he is the White’s son and they did not want him to join them.  They are happy that at least one wolf did survive.”

            “Well, it was good to see that death is not all about sadness. It makes me feel quite good to know that we do exist after our death, even if we don’t quite understand how or why. I know you’ll be fine – you’re  a guardian, and we have seen their ghosts – but it’s nice to know that ordinary people like me might get the chance for another kind of existence.”

            “There’s nothing ordinary about you, Talana, not by a long way!” Darrukin answered her fervently.

           

 

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