The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 42
The Thief of Ashlon Part 2 (chapter 11)

Jeron and Keer stayed with the trolls for two weeks, resting the horses and themselves, being well-fed and knowing that it would be a cold, hard winter outside.  It was so nice to be warm and welcome.  They spent their time learning from the trolls, how to call them, how to find them, how the trolls could help them.  It was impressed upon them that they would never be lost again; a fact that seemed to reassure the trolls as much as Keer and Jeron.  Keer felt that it was probably a reminder that the trolls had been lost and homeless once, so knowing that they would never be lost again would give them strength and hope and happiness.  Both men found the trolls’ concern rather touching.

Yet the time came when they had to say goodbye to the troll-mother, and thank her for all she had done for them.  Her giant form shook as she spoke, pleading with them once more to look after her babies and keep them safe.  Hordes of trolls of all shapes and sizes came to see them off, leading them through to the cavern entrance.

The world outside was bathed in a pale, wintry sunshine.  Two trolls accompanied the men back through the forest to the road, whereupon they disappeared back into the forest with a bark and a picture of smiling, friendly troll faces. 

“Goodbye!” Keer and Jeron called to the departing trolls, knowing that they could call and be found by them in moments should they need it. 

“Now, what we must do is find out what is happening back at Darr.” Jeron suggested, looking at Keer for confirmation.  The horses were fidgety and flighty, glad to be moving again.  “Shall we go back that way, and try to find out?  We could find the last village and get some information there.”

Keer nodded agreement, feeling invigorated by the chilly air and wanting as much as his horse to get on the move.  “We also need, I think, to become more active in our opposition to the Dragon Queen and her priests.  Yes, we’ll stop at the next village and see if any information has filtered out this far.”

“I wonder what has happened. You know, with the palace guards? If they were going to search the province we could still be in trouble.”  Jeron said.

Keer was silent for a moment, thoughtful.  “You’re right, as usual, Jeron.  We need to be careful, but we need to foment some rebellion as well, not let the Queen think she can take the province – or any others – just because she feels like it.  Let’s get moving, see what we can find out, then decide how to act.”

A week’s speedy travel brought the two men back to farmland and to the first small hamlet.  The folk were reserved, wary; welcoming but not forthcoming with information. They had not seen anyone new in the town since winter; and were troubled that no traders had come through.

“Did you not wonder, or has anyone gone towards Darr to find out why?” Jeron asked, drinking ale in the building that served as a tavern and general meeting place for the tiny village.  He spoke to a group of older men and women.

Pained looks on their faces gave away more than words.  “We have sent our young folk to Darr to defend it.  Word came out months ago that trouble was brewing and an army would be needed.  We haven’t heard anything since.”

“We’ll find out, and send word back to you.” promised Keer, upset. They had no choice but to go further, possibly put themselves at risk of capture, to find out what was going on.

They continued on towards larger, more substantial villages. The travelling was hard, as the nights began to get very cold, but they both agreed that their first priority was to get information. Stopping at one village, they located both the Inn and the local church quite easily.  It was a perfect place to stop and put their plans into action, make sure that the province of Darr would be ready to fight the evil in the palace.

“So what can you tell us of recent events in the province?” Keer asked the parish father, a man slightly younger than himself and a farmer, solidly muscled from working his land.  The man seemed awestruck that a city Elder had decided to visit his church, but made every effort to welcome Keer and Jeron.  His eyes bulges slightly as he contemplated the breadth of what he had to say.  “Well, Triam?” Keer prompted, leaning back into his chair.  The sitting room they were in was plain but comfortable, a low table between the men as they sat.  The farmer’s daughter offered them biscuits, and gave Jeron a cheeky smile before being chased out of the room by her father.  The exchange relaxed the farmer, and he began to talk.

“As you might guess, we don’t get all that much news up here. I remember Jeron and yourself passing through – that made local news for quite a way around, amongst church members only,” Triam added, looking fearfully at Keer’s alarmed face. “But after you went through we had a few villagers come back from down south, and they had ghastly tales to tell.” He paused, looking earnestly at the elder. “It would seem that the castle is under siege.  As far as is known, one of the lord’s children was taken hostage by the priests and was sent off to Tashmar in chains.”

“Who? Which child?” Keer demanded urgently, a worried look crossing his face. Surely not?

“Darrukin, as far as we know.  The young man volunteered for it when it came to a choice between his father losing his province or being taken hostage. That’s bravery for you.”  The farmer paused as Keer sagged into his chair.  Jeron looked pensively at his companion, his back to the fireplace.

“So that was why Talana had to leave so suddenly.” The younger man said, looking first at Keer and then their host.  Triam continued.

“Thing is, the palace guards that took him away were ambushed, and they lost him. Three priests were killed in the process. When the Queen found out about it she was furious, and sent a detachment to lay siege to the castle.  It has been proclaimed by her majesty that Darr is no longer an independent province, but is now subject to the federal government in Tashmar.  I don’t know what has happened after that – no one else has returned – but I know that Lord Darrulan will not give up his province even if that means rebellion.”  The farmer’s voice dropped to almost a whisper at his last word, as if afraid that some agent of the Queen would hear him and take him away. He looked at his guests, who were white-faced and shocked.

“Oh, Goddess! I’ve caused all this trouble!” Keer groaned, more to himself that anyone present, but Triam looked at him expectantly for an explanation.  “It would seem that I am the cause of this mess. The palace guards came to Darr to search for me, which was why we had to escape and travel north so quickly – and became lost.”

“But that was nonsense, and you know it.  They were looking for an excuse, and just knew your name, that was all.” Jeron interrupted quickly.

“Be that as it may, I was still the nominal reason for the palace guard to be there in the first place.” Keer leaned towards Triam. “The question is, what are we going to do about it?  What we must do, I think, is support the Lord to the fullest extent possible.  If the castle is under siege, then the city could be starved out over winter, forcing a surrender.  If the Lord is advocating a fight…”

“He will not give in.” Triam said defiantly.  His face began to flush and there was a spark in the farmer’s eye.

Keer paused to think for a moment.  The Dragon Queen would throw everything she had at Darr, to break the Lord and gain the province.  She probably had the loyalty of other provinces, at least one – to whom she may have promise the administration of Darr once she had it won.  That would mean that perhaps the surrounding provinces were getting ready for a war in support of the Queen.  Keer sighed. It was complex, and the troll-mother was probably correct.  War was at hand.

“Triam, Jeron, I have a plan”  Keer said.  “Well, Triam, you must first decide whether your parishioners could follow this, for it would be dangerous.  Firstly, will you support Lord Darrulan?”

“I am from Darr, I support my Lord!” Triam said angrily.

“Would your church support you?”

“Yes, I am sure of it.  We are like-minded here, and the Queen’s new ways have never had much support here. People remember the old ways and stick to them. My church is strong enough to laugh in the faces of the priests who dance and rave at the temple. Most of them hate coming here, because the people are independent-minded and do not fall for the spells that they try to weave. Still, we have to be careful, but I am certain that if I make a decision, my parish will follow me.  We would do anything to support our Lord.”

“Good. It will be dangerous. What I envisage is the network of churches becoming more active in opposing the priests.  Show that there is resistance. Cause havoc for the priests and the palace guards as much as possible. They might come this far out to search for supplies, to loot or to look for recruits.  Don’t let them walk into this village and take what they want: hide it, make if difficult for them. Harrass them. Most of all, become more open in the old ways again. Show the Dragon Queen that we don’t adhere to her new ways.  Send supplies to the castle; I know a way which might help.  I have one more piece of information for you, that should give you and your church the hope and spirit it will need for this.  A new Guardian has come. His name is Darrukin.”

Keer watched the news filter into Triam’s consciousness and register. All at once the farmer seemed happy, hopeful, shocked and frightened.

“Darrukin…the Guardian?  A new Guardian?  Hope has indeed come!”  Triam leaped up from the table with excitement.  Suddenly he sobered, turning to Keer.  “If the palace guards are after you, how will you be able to tell the other churches about this? Is it not a bit risky for you to travel, Keer?”

“I’m not at all sure that they really expect to find me, though of course, they’d capture me and take me back to Tashmar if they had the opportunity.”

“The accusations in Darr were made for different reasons than to find Keer, but you are right, we have to be careful.” Jeron added.

“I have ways of communicating with the other churches that you wouldn’t dream of.” Keer explained, thinking of the trolls.  He could send messages out to the churches, who all had drop-off points where messages could be left. It was an existing network, but one he could augment using the trolls as couriers.  He knew it would work well, the trolls having already agreed, and were completely trustworthy.  They were also going to make communicating very fast and safe from prying eyes.  He told Triam.  “We shall have to trust our other churches to act as they can, and I will travel as far as I can to spread the word.  But messages will still be the main way we pass information.  I just hope that the Queen focuses on Darr. Now you’ve given me this intelligence about the siege – I’ll confirm it if I can and then leave the province, see what Jeron and I can do in other provinces.  I think we can rely on you to coordinate things here in Darr; you can get a message through to the provincial elder if you need to, you know how.” Keer finished.

He stood up, eyes bright and mind whirling with thoughts of action.  A glance out the window showed that it was nearing dusk and beginning to snow.  Jeron rose also, but at that point, Triam’s wife and daughter entered the room.

“Before you do anything else, please, Elder Keer and Jeron, would you do us the honour of eating with us?  And of course, you must stay the night. It’s getting late.”  Triam’s wife invited graciously.

                        *          *          *          *

Talana and Darrukin reached the outskirts of farmland and knew they were back in Darr, heading towards the heartland of the province.    Keeping to smaller roads they travelled quickly, the wolf cub loping alongside the horses. It was early spring, and neither bone-chillingly cold nor too hot for travelling, making it perfect weather.  Their pace was set by the needs of the horses, who had no other feed than what Darrukin and Talana could purchase from farmers along the way.

They were wary of approaching people, not at all sure what the situation was in the province.  But the villages they passed through were remote and not much information had passed into them during the winter: all they could glean was that the army had been raised.  But there was a definite mood of defiance to many of them, a quickness to challenge strangers that Darrukin found heartening. He was sure that if palace guards were to come this far north then they would not find it easy to take what they needed from the people of Darr.  He could not have been more proud.  He tried to remain incognito as far as he could, thinking it safer that way not only for himself but the villages – they could not be accused of lying if they did not know he had been there.  His father had travelled the province widely, and he had as a boy: but not since becoming a man.  His face, so like his father’s in many ways, was bound to be recognised here and there, if people really looked at him, but he felt safely anonymous most of the time.

“Do you ever think we will be free of looking over our shoulders for palace guards?” Talana asked him wearily as they rode, the late-afternoon sun in their eyes.  She looked across at him, thinking that they would have to leave the road and find a campsite soon, let the horses graze and rest. 

Pursuit had been uppermost in both their minds.  Since disrupting the palace guard camp and stealing the wolf-skin, they had covered a lot of ground and hopefully were well away from that particular platoon of guards.

“I’m not sure.  My sister is likely to have raised the army, or be training it, if they are not engaged in fighting yet.  I think the winter was a good damper for any action by the Queen, but she’s still got palace guards out and about, as we know.  We’ll have to keep alert, I think, at least until we find out what is going on in Darr.”  Darrukin answered her.  “Let’s get set up for the night. I think I can see a break in this stretch of forest – there might be a farm up ahead.”

Talana held his gaze for a moment, her eyes narrowing.  “You’re still worried about what will happen when you meet the Queen, aren’t you?” she stated it more as a matter of fact, not a question.  He nodded, looking away.  “I am sure you will know what to do when the time comes.  If we get to the castle, perhaps Keer or Tafta might be able to give you some more guidance.”  She kicked her horse on to keep pace with his, looking ahead through the loosely clustered trees to where he had indicated there might be a farm.  Fields opened up before them, neatly walled and hedged, with newly turned land in some paddocks.  “Well, this area looks good. I don’t think they’ve been raided by palace guards or disrupted too much by war.” she commented, surveying the fields. 

There was a farm house in the distance, with smoke coming out of the chimney.  The fields that they saw looked well cared for.  A look at each other and they agreed to try and see if they could stay the night there.

Dogs barked in frenzy as they approached, to the extent that Talana dismounted and picked up the wolf-cub, placing him on her horse’s back.  Darrukin urged him to stay there if he did not want to be torn to shreds by the farmer’s dogs.  He dismounted also, not wanting to look threatening at all. A woman came out to greet them well before they reached the farm buildings.

“Quiet, you mutts! Get back here!” the woman yelled; the dogs fell back, still growling, but obedient.   There was a suspicious look on the woman’s face, but she walked boldly forward, straightening her shoulders.  “What can I do for you?” she asked, stopping several feet from them. 

“We are travelling a long way and would like to ask if we could stay a night here, if it is not too much trouble for you.” Talana asked smoothly.  Darrukin stood behind her slightly, but the woman took a good look at them both. 

“You’re heading towards the castle, then?” the farmer asked, and they both nodded at her.  The woman’s gaze kept flicking back and forth between their faces, lingering over Darrukin’s.  “Are there any more of you to come, or is it just you two?”

“Just us, our horses and one wolf-cub, who will behave.” Talana assured her.  The dogs were still growling and stalked around with hackles raised, directing baleful glares at the small wolf sitting atop the horse.  The wolf-cub looked down at them majestically, as if their posturing were of no interest whatsoever.  He sniffed the air then looked away, as if bored.

The woman looked at them, again, lingering over Darrukin. Her brown eyes narrowed, then widened with dawning realisation and surprise.  “Of course, please, you are both welcome, especially you, m’lord.” she said, addressing him directly. 

“Thankyou.  You are most kind.” he replied, following her into the farm yard and putting the horses into a stable.  “Might I ask your name?”

Lena.  My name is Lena.”

“Do you have a husband or any family here with you?” Talana asked. The yard was quiet, no sounds of other people, just farm animals.

The woman looked at her feet, a brief look of pain on her face.

            “My two eldest children and husband have all joined the army. My three youngest are inside the house. I asked them to keep quiet; times are uncertain and strangers could be dangerous.”

            “I understand.” said Talana, with sympathy.  “My name is Talana, and this is…well, I think you know who it is.” she trailed off, looking at Darrukin for a brief, embarrassed second.

            “I know my Lord’s eldest son when I see him.” the woman said, almost sounding affronted.  “Lord Darrukin, you and your companion are welcome in my house.  It is not large, but it is yours.”

“Thankyou, Lena.  We would not dream of putting you or your family out but will stay in the stables if there is room.”  he looked at her using the strange double-vision of truth-sight.  She was honest, would not betray them, and was not hiding anything that he could see.

Lena harrumphed and motioned towards the stables.  “Well, if you are sure, I do have a loft in there you could use.  I don’t mind sleeping there – you could use my bed.”

“That’s very kind of you, but no, thank you. Talana and I have been living rough lately so a loft will be very comfortable.”

“You will eat with us, won’t you?” she asked, her face pensive until Darrukin nodded.  “Alright, er, here’s the well for water, and there’s the barn; I’ll get on with cooking dinner.  It should be about an hour away, would that be alright?”

“That would be wonderful.” Darrukin said, grinning broadly.

Later, after their meal, Darrukin and Talana made up their beds amongst the hay-strewn loft.  They had a lamp, carefully hung to avoid any sparks amongst the hay. The dim glow was quite comforting, and settling down to go to sleep was easy.

“Talana, are you still awake?” Darrukin asked in a sleepy voice.  He was tired but wanted to talk. They were comfortably settled into separate beds of soft hay topped with blankets, and the light was now out, but he could hear Talana turning over to listen to him.

“Mmmm..?”

“You mentioned it before; that your role in this quest has finished. I wanted to ask…did you want to stay with me? Or did you want to leave?”  It had been niggling at him at the back of his mind, that she would want to leave.  He loved her, he did not want her to leave. The thought made him ache inside.

Talana sat bolt upright. “What?” she asked sharply, sounding shocked and indignant. He heard her get up and in a second, the lamp was turned back up, filling their little space in the loft with a soft yellow light.  Her eyes were enormous and dark in this light, expressive.

“Well, are you sure you want to stay with me?” he asked in a gentle tone, feeling his heart leap in his chest. 

“What do you mean? Are you trying to send me away? Get rid of me?”

“No, no, no! That’s not what I meant.”

“Then what did you mean? You don’t need me anymore now you have the ring, now you’re fully the Guardian?”  Her tone was rising, but she sat down on her bed with a slump of defeat.

“It’s not that, it’s not that I don’t need you. I – oh, nevermind. I just thought that while you had the chance, you might like to go back to Tashmar and live your own life. I’ve put you in a lot of danger, and, well, I only think it’s fair to give you the choice.  You no longer have to help me search for anything – you’ve already fulfilled your role.  So the choice is yours. I won’t keep you with me if you want to go.  That’s what I meant.”

She had been staring at him with hurt in her eyes, but she turned away. He still caught the look of fear on her face as she did.  Swallowing twice, she could not speak for a moment, and when she did, her voice trembled slightly.

“Choice. It seems a strange word to use in circumstances like mine.”  She blinked several times, and looked back at him.  “I’ve never had a lot of choice in my life, Darrukin.  My parents, where I lived, dreaming about the Goddess, being the guide on this quest – it has all happened without any choice on my part.” 

“You have a choice now, Talana.” he interrupted softly.

“I don’t! That’s the trouble!” she gasped.  “I cannot go back to Tashmar. Not ever. My father would find me and kill me for running away, for disobeying him, for being free of him!  I can’t go back there, and I don’t want to!  Don’t send me away!” she pleaded, her voice edging on the hysterical.  He grabbed both her hands and held them firmly.

The wolf-cub poked his head out of the hay and shuffled over to them, licking their hands before sleepily settling down again.

“You don’t have to go back, if you don’t want to.”  The steadiness of his voice allowed her to calm down, to crush the mad panic that rose within her when she thought of the darkly bearded man that meant nothing but pain and hate to her.  Tears began to fall down her face as she looked up at him.

“I really hadn’t even considered leaving.” she said finally.  “The thought of it does nothing but upset me. I know I’ve been foolish, for why would you want someone like me around? I don’t have a part in the quest anymore, I don’t have a purpose anymore and I’m certainly no use to you.  I don’t know what to do.  If you want me to go, I’ll go – I don’t want to be a burden to you. I won’t go back to Tashmar, I’ll…settle here in Darr, if I may…”

“Now stop that!” Darrukin said, almost crossly.  “You’ve never been a burden.  You’re not useless. Believe me.”  he did not let go of her hands.

“I guess I was trying not to think beyond finding the Dragon Heart.  Your father probably wouldn’t want me in his province, I can’t exactly bring much to it.  If you want to go on alone…” she stopped, biting her lip, looking down at their entwined hands. 

“Stop talking self-pitying claptrap, Talana!”

“What?” she looked up at him sharply, eyes narrowed.

“My father will have you if I ask him to.  I don’t want you to go away, I don’t want to leave you. I like your company. No one else makes me laugh so much, nor has been such a friend to me.  No one. But what I have to do is dangerous, and might get me killed. I don’t want to be responsible for your death, you’re too-” he broke off, looked away, looked as if he was biting back words.  Even in the dim light she could see that he was blushing.

“You’ve already led me into danger, as I have you.” she said quietly, her voice resonant.  Slowly, she untangled her hands and reached for him.  He appeared surprised but held still as she pulled at the buttons on his cotton shirt and parted the fabric to reveal his chest.  She was so close to him that she could smell the scent of his skin: with one finger, she traced the scar that slashed across his chest, where the demon’s claw had injured him.  Abruptly, he took her hand and flattened it against his chest: she could feel his heart beating fast and the sharp intake of each breath.  Palm tingling where she touched him, she leaned in to him, closing her eyes against the surge of emotion that filled her.  Realisation struck her with a force that almost knocked the breath from her body.  She had to tell him. To do anything else would be to lie, and she did not want to lie to this man, her friend. His friendship meant more to her than anything.

Taking a deep breath, she pulled away from him, looked straight into his eyes.  “I don’t know how to say this.” she began, feeling herself colour.  Attraction she had acknowledged.  Yet never before had she admitted how precious Darrukin had become to her, not even to herself.  How much she needed him, how much she wanted to be around him.  She loved him, yet knew it was a hopeless love.  A thief, from the gutters of Tashmar, and a lords’ son were not natural partners in her eyes. More importantly, he was the Guardian.  Untouchable.  But he needed to know the truth of how she felt, even if it destroyed the friendship that she so wanted to preserve. She did not want to lie to him.

“This is going to sound ridiculous, foolish and hopeless, and I understand if you never want to see me again after this.  It’s time I told you the truth.”   she hesitated slightly as she looked into his enquiring eyes, then blurted it out.  “I love you. I want to be around you. I’ve never been as happy as I am now, with you, and without, I -” she stopped, unable to continue, unable to believe that she’d said what she just had.  She could not face him, and lowered her face, certain of rejection, as there could be no other way.

He lifted one hand to her chin and raised her head so that he could look into her eyes.  Her words had stunned him, amazed him, made him feel exultant – and left him crushed.  Tears brimmed in his own eyes as he answered her, emotion clouding his voice.

“I love you, too.” he said, feeling worse as she saw happiness and hope flash in her eyes and then fade away.  She realised, then.  “I don’t know when it happened, but I know the instant I realised it for sure. I love you.  You are the most important person in my life.” his voice faltered. “And yet you can’t be.  You know the reason why.”  Darrukin knew that each word inflicted pain upon her, but he could not say anything else.

“Yes, I know. You are the Guardian, you belong to the Queen. You can have no other.”  she whispered.  There was an instant of silence, and then she was blazingly angry.  “Why did I have to fall in love with a man I could never have?” she railed at him, causing the wolf-cub to lift his sleepy head up again out of the hay.  “Why couldn’t we have just stayed friends?  I don’t believe it, only I would do something so…so..stupid!”

Her passion ignited Darrukin’s frustrations. He sat back from her, crossed his arms and looked away.  “Well, why do I love you? You are completely the wrong person. I am supposed to love the Queen – and only the Goddess knows how that is going to happen!  Do you know what danger Ashlon is in because I don’t have the right feelings for the right person?” 

He looked back at her and instantly regretted his words. She was frozen in place, a look of horror on her features.  Her haunted eyes searched his face, as she struggled to find words to express herself.

A vast field of pikes, each topped by a bloodied head, had filled her vision. 

“Yes, I do.” she whispered, too frightened to even cry.

 

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