The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 40
The Thief of Ashlon Part 2 (chapter 10)

            Travelling again was an ordeal.  They passed through four villages where neither of them could find the marks that might lead them to church help, and they did not want to stay lest they attract too much attention to themselves. Keer travelled hooded, so that he would not be easily recognised; it was a sad fact that even in remote areas there might be spies for the Dragon Queen waiting.  They could never be too careful.

There was precious little information from Darr that reached the remote parts ahead of them, so they could not determine what had happened at the castle.  If Talana had tried to get word to them, she had failed: hopefully she and Darrukin would be alright – wherever they were and whatever they were doing.  Jeron and Keer had to look out for themselves.

            Jeron discovered the difference between the country folk they met and those he had known in Tashmar.  Country life was more rhythmic, according to the seasons, plantings and agricultural pursuits.  The people they met lived simple measured lives, with as much social gusto at their local inn as any city person might find in a tavern in the suburbs of Tashmar, but without the constant pressure of people, of action, of something happening always.   The city’s frenetic pace was absent, replaced by time according to harvesting and hard, physical work.

            Keer, who had lived in Borodor in his youth, had to explain to him the workings of a province, how a family like Darrukin’s fitted into the structure of society as he knew it.

            “The provinces are run by families, who act as protectors and governors for their people.” he explained. “The lords govern the province, collect taxes and offer protection. Folk living in Darr could expect Lord Darrulan to protect them from encroaches by other provinces, expect him to find a market for their excess produce, and look after them if they get in to trouble in the capital or outside of Darr.” He paused to catch his breath.  “It differs from Tashmar because there the Queen acts as the local lord. She’s not: she was a religious figure only – the conduit between our world and the Goddess, as you know – but in years past Tashmar grew to be more than just the religious centre of Ashlon, but its trading hub as well.  The authority of the queens began to extend into the business and trading world, to bring order to the squabbles and arguments of the traders.”

            “The palace guard were just that, once – palace guards? They did not police the capital nor act as an army?” Jeron asked, enjoying the lesson.

            “That’s right. The name is just a carry over from when they really were just palace guards.  I’m not sure how many queens ago it was that they came to police Tashmar – and it could only have been a few hundred years ago that they were used as an army to break up the endless fighting between Choresh and Rabta…those provinces have always been troublesome areas…” Keer answered.

            “So a person in Darr would expect to be loyal to Lord Darrulan, rather than the queen?”

            “Yes, that’s generally the case.  I don’t think it was a great conflict until our present Queen changed so dramatically and set herself up as a rival, or supreme, government of Ashlon.  She should be an intermediary between the Goddess and ourselves, not a ruler in her own right.”

            “But the provinces have always supported the queen, haven’t they?”

            “Well, yes and no.” Keer explained.  “Long ago, the queen would never have interfered in the actual governing of a province. She was there to wield her formidable sorcery to benefit the whole country.  She could stop plagues, bring rain to drought-stricken areas and control floodwaters. She could call on the Goddess to do these things for everyone.  She can make crops grow, bring on the harvest; she can take the prayers and wishes of the people to the Goddess.”

            “I can’t remember the old ways. I can barely remember when our present queen came to the throne.  Wasn’t there some kind of scandal early on that made her begin to impose her rules on everyone?” the younger man asked.  He could vaguely recall something of the sort, though he had been very young at the time.  If he stopped to think of his own life in Tashmar, and thinking about what had happened through his adult eyes rather than as a child, he could see how Keer’s interpretation could be right. It was just that for the past twenty-odd years, the queen had become a political force under the guise of a religious one.

            “What do you remember of those days, Jeron?” Keer asked, partially to while away their time as they began to circle Darr in a great arc, heading north-west.  The fields had given way to patches of forest and they hoped to find more villages: perhaps on Darr’s western side they could find out more about what was happening at the castle. 

            “I can just barely remember going to the great square in Tashmar and seeing the queen’s coronation. At least, I think that’s what it was. I can’t really be sure, I must have only been five or six. Nothing seemed to change – I still went to school as normal, still had friends and games and …but, I do remember my parents having a big argument about something.”  He struggled to remember; he had not thought about it for so long that he was uncertain about whether what he remembered was true or coloured by his later past.  His parents had shouted at one another, going from urgent whispers to raising their voices and back to hard, reproachful looks at one another when he had made his little presence felt.  His mother had come to him, cuddled him, assured him that they were not angry at him; they were angry at their neighbour. There had been fear in her voice. She had not explained any more than that, but he never looked at his neighbours again with quite the same trust or friendliness.  “I remember having to go to the church to listen to the priests.”

“Yes, that was one of the first changes that the Queen made.  I don’t know if you realised this but I used to work quite closely with the palace on religious teachings” Keer said as they rode slowly along, pack horses in tow.  “I knew people couldn’t be forced to go to church and it was that edict which started me thinking that things weren’t right in the palace.”

“Well, it was very boring for a child to be forced to listen to a long sermon about the Queen.” said Jeron bitterly, glancing across at the elder.  “When things got worse, our neighbour went on to inform on my parents.”

“It happened to many families.  Did the palace guard take both of your parents or only one?”

“Both.  I won’t forget the look of betrayal my father had on his face when the guards came.  Nor the fear on my mother’s.  I had to live with my uncle and aunt, but they were so thoroughly scared of the Queen by that stage that I couldn’t live there for long.  I had to leave – they treated me as if I had a disease.”  There was great bitterness in his voice. 

“I saw many families broken up when the Queen began listening to informants.”  Keer said.  “I remember the first churches, the first times they were run without the Queen’s blessings, when the official church had become so much less than it had been.  Those first meetings brought many of the Elders together, and for a while it seemed as if our own little churches were beneath the notice of the Queen.  We were all terribly worried that the changes to the worship of the Goddess that the Queen had brought about would do no good, but it was not really up to us to say anything at the time.  The Queen, after all, has always been there to look after Ashlon, and not to attack it.  So, although we worried, we did not act.”

Jeron looked across at the elder as they rode.  The weak sunshine struck the elders’ dark head, highlighting the grey flecked within in.  He looked old, Jeron realised, then screwed his face up in self-mockery.  Keer wasn’t the only one.  He felt old right now, too.

The elder cleared his throat and began his story again, a quick glance at Jeron confirming the younger man’s attention.

“I think it was the death of the champion that really spelled the beginning of the troubles for our church.”

“How so?” asked Jeron.  “Did the Queen crack down on the churches, force them underground then?”

“That came a little later. But I did realise that she was not quite what she should be, and with his death, it became that much more obvious. It was like a constraint had been cast from her.”

“I didn’t know you had personal knowledge of the Queen?” Jeron commented, looking sideways at Keer with a corner of his mouth lifted in a slight smile.

“More knowledge of, rather than knowing her.” Keer corrected. “I did used to work in the palace, back when my beliefs coincided with the Queen’s!”

“So what happened?”

“I’ve never been able to figure that one out.  All I can guess is that she is under attack and, being unable to defend herself, has submitted to evil. I don’t know what sort of choices she had.  All I know is that six months after her champion died, she became the queen we know now.”

“That’s not very comforting.”

“No.  But it’s what Darrukin has to deal with.”

They rode on in silence, hoping to find another village along the road through the forest.

Five days later, they were lost. The road had kept going, becoming smaller, heading north-west, seemingly to reach around the province; but they found no more villages on its length.  The land began to climb and both men suspected that they would head into the mountains if they continued.

“Shall we turn back, sir?” Jeron asked, his voice a little dulled with fatigued and desperation.  Keer pulled up his horse, reined in the pack horses as well, and they sat in their saddles, looking up at the clear, blue sky through the forest canopy above them.  The trees were quite thick and the road had petered out to a smaller track; not a good sign. 

“We don’t know if the palace guard are gone yet from Darr.” The elder said, looking back along the track.  “But it’s clear we can’t continue on this way.  We’re lost.  We should backtrack, I suppose.”

Wheeling their horses, they began to plod back along the track, weary and discouraged.  After not many miles of travelling, they came to a fork in the rough road.

“That’s odd. I don’t recall seeing this before.” Keer said, pausing at the fork.  He looked at his companion uncertainly.  The fork bent off towards the south west, while the other headed southeast.

“We maybe just didn’t see it, we would have been travelling the other way.” Jeron suggested, though there was puzzlement in his voice.  “Shall we take it? It might lead us to a village, perhaps.  It looks a bit more used than the road we were following.”

“We can hardly call this a road, Jeron.  But, hmm, yes, I agree. It might just lead us on to a remote village where we might rest up again.  I need it!”

With the decision made, they turned their animals down the forest track, and were heartened to hear water running not long after they had trotted on its way.  At least they would not go thirsty, and they knew that people tended to live near water, if they could. Feelings of hope lifted their spirits.  But as the day wore on their spirits faded, as the endless forest stretched before them.  By nightfall, they had found a small glade to camp in and located the little stream whose music had accompanied them during the day.  They sat, frustrated and tired, around a small fire, eating a rather tasteless stew of dried meat and grains.

            The flickering light from the fire was mesmerising.  Keer stared at it, without really seeing, just taking in the warmth and the light without really comprehending.  How had they managed to get here? Why? He forced himself to focus on Jeron, who was stretched out on the other side of the fire, rolled up in a blanket.  He too, was staring into the flames.  There was an expectant stillness in the forest, as if the insects and night creatures who would normally be out and about were somehow suspended, waiting.  Was it his imagination, or did he just hear a footstep or two?

            “Jeron?” Keer spoke, and in the darkness of the forest the sound seemed extremely loud.  He had to force himself not to whisper.  “Did you hear anything just then?”

            “No, I didn’t. I was just thinking about my wife…how she would love it up here in the forests.” he said, his voice choked with emotion.  Keer sat up a little straighter – it was the first time Jeron had mentioned his wife in a very long time.

            “Yes, I think she would have. Cerrin never struck me as the type to enjoy living in the city. Do you have any family left now?”  Keer asked, concerned. 

            “No. Not now.  Not since…they died.”

            “Jeron, you’ll always be welcome in my home.  Not that I have one of those, either, since our church died. But, well, you know what I mean.”  Pain closed in on his own throat; it was difficult to speak of.  He saw Jeron’s eyes glistening in the firelight.

            “I had hoped that I had, you know, dreamed it?  Dreamed that Cerrin and my children were dead, that I could go back to them and find them still safe and sound in the city.” Jeron said in a constricted voice.  “But I know they’re gone. I couldn’t help them!”

            “You did help me. From what you said, you could not help them, could not fight the palace guard: could not protect them without losing your own life.  You did save mine. I would have gone back without you to stop me.  I’ll always be grateful to you for saving my life.”  Keer said, trying to help him make sense of what had happened.

            “But I’m lost without Cerrin. I miss her so much!”

            “Lost!” said a gravely voice not far from them.  Instantly both men leaped to their feet, looking outwards into the blackness of night.

            “Who’s there?” Keer demanded, trying to sound stronger than he felt.  A vision filled his mind, blanking out the night time forest, a picture of a dirty child, covered in grime and wearing a huge grin.  Bright black eyes and messy hair faded back to his normal vision.  “What?” the elder said, confusion making him sit down again suddenly.  Jeron rushed to his side.

            “Sir, sir! Are you alright?”  the younger man fussed.

            “Yes, yes, I think so. I…think someone is around, that’s all. But I can’t seem to see them.  You heard the voice?”

            “I wasn’t sure it was a voice, just a grunt or something from an animal, perhaps?” Jeron said.  A growl came from the darkness, and Jeron looked up, bewildered.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude…I-” he said out loud, as if speaking to someone else.  With confusion on his face he turned back to Keer.  “I just saw something – but I didn’t see it, if you see what I mean, it was put in my head.”

            Breathing hard, Keer stood up, nodding his understanding.  “There’s something strange going on here.  I’ll try something.”  He looked about into the darkness.  “Hello?” he called, “Is anybody there? We’re lost, we need help. Can you help us?”  He realised what a risk he took.  If the noises had come from bandits they would make short work of himself and Jeron; but something told him they were not in danger.

            There was a scuffling noise in the darkness, and the horses began to fidget and stamp their feet.

            “Keer?” Jeron said shakily, looking around himself into the blackness.  The flames of the fire made shadows leap and dance outside the circle of firelight, confusing both men. 

            “Hello! I say, are you there? Can you help us? We’re lost!” Keer called again, strongly.  

            A murmur went up from the blackness, a guttural, growling noise.  At once Keer’s mind was assaulted by a confusing jumble of images; he flung his hands up to his head in an effort to protect himself, crying out.  Abruptly the onslaught stopped.   Taking a deep breath, he straightened up, and with a trembling step, walked slowly to the edge of the firelight. 

            “I’m Keer.” he said to the blackness.  Jeron looked on as if his companion had gone mad, but in silence.  Keer waited, watching the darkness.  Movement in the shadows to his right made him turn.

            A small person, or at least it looked like a kind of person, stood very still, looking back at Keer with black eyes that were bright and intelligent.  The face was grubby, as were the odd clothes the creature wore, but it looked quite deliberate.  A thatch of thick hair on its head looked as if it covered the little person’s body as well.

            “You’re a troll.” said Keer, surprised.  He’d heard of trolls but never seen one.  The troll stood only up to his mid-chest, and looked immensely strong, with thick arms and legs.  Yet the trolls’ hands were long fingered and looked capable of quite delicate work.  Nodding, the troll grinned, displaying a set of white, strong teeth that were almost tusk-like in appearance.

            “Tterrrll.” The creature said.  It took Keer a few moments to understand that the troll was trying to say ‘troll’.  Speech did not seem to come easily to it, but when Keer looked into its eyes, he knew it did not need words to communicate.  The pictures came into his head once more; he understood now, that this was how the troll was communicating with him.

            “We are lost.” Keer said, speaking out loud, hoping that the troll would understand him.  The creature nodded once more, then looked about.  With a start, Keer realised that the campsite was now surrounded by the small grey-brown bodies, trolls that had slipped out of the shadows.  Pictures came into his head, indicating for him to follow them.

“Jeron, they want us to follow them.  Let’s pack up the camp and see where they take us.”

            “Are you sure? They aren’t dangerous, are they?”  There was uncertainty in Jeron’s tone.

            “No, I don’t think so – not to us, anyway.”  he replied.  Quickly, they gathered their meagre belongings and packed up the horses, before waiting for some direction from the assembled trolls.  The trolls began to make guttural noises and again, pictures seemed to be thrown into Keer’s mind, urging him to follow them.

            “Wait!” he cried, burying the fire and plunging them all into darkness.  “You’ll have to show us the way, we can’t see in the dark!” he called out.  He was dimly aware that small hands had taken the horses and were leading them away: neither moon was up so he could not see a thing in the dark forest.  But a little hand took his and gently pulled him along; he could hear Jeron ahead of him, also obviously being towed by a troll.  Giving himself up to the little creatures, he put his trust in the warm body leading him and followed blindly.

            “Nnnott  lossst.”

            Keer felt the vibrations of the trolls’ rough voice through the hand that held his, and knew his troll had spoken out loud. The accompanying flash of a scene in his mind was one of community, many trolls, gathered together, around a huge figure.  Unable to make any sense of it, he kept his silence.

 

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