The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 47
The Thief of Ashlon Part 2 (chapter 12)

            “Darrukin!” Talana’s voice sang out above every other noise, high and clear.  His head snapped around, trying to find her amongst the throng of soldiers that greeted the observation parties, some taking tired mounts to stables, some helping other members of the teams with their gear. Where was she?  He spotted her on the steps of the administration building; then the wolf cub was at the feet of his grey stallion, tail wagging, squeaking out a greeting.  A groom approached and offered to take the horse: Darrukin thanked him and picked up the cub and pushed his way through the crowd towards her.

            She smiled at him, a purely happy grin that made him smile immediately.  He almost ran up the steps to her before he remembered where he was and adopted a more measured, self-conscious pace, more fitting a person of his rank and station.  He could not take his eyes off her. His grin seemed to have a life of its own: he’d missed her so much, felt so strange without her around. And there she was, glowing with excitement and happiness.

            She would have hugged him on the steps in front of everyone, if he had not been holding the wolf cub.  Reluctantly, he kept the cub close not trusting himself not to take her into his arms and give her a big kiss if he put the animal down.  He was still an officer and she a recruit, of sorts, and he could not do anything like that so publicly.

            “Let’s go inside. I can’t say hello properly to you out here.” he said in a low voice, hefting the wolf cub.  She looked at him in confusion for a second, but, as he indicated the crowd around them, he saw understanding spark in her blue eyes.  They made their way quickly up to the lord’s suite, where, as she shut the door behind them, he finally put the now-struggling wolf cub down and swept her up in a hug.

            “Hello! I’ve missed you so much!” he said, feeling pleased as he felt her arms return his hug.

            “I’ve missed you, too. Are you alright? Everything went well?” she asked, releasing him and stepping back, looking him over.

            He was more than well, now.  Seeing her look so happy made his heart swell, but the familiar pain returned: she couldn’t be his.  Taking a deep breath and trying to put a brave face on it, he replied.

            “Well, I’m exhausted, hungry and very dirty. I’ve spent an age sitting in a pit with three other smelly people, watching others wearing a particularly nasty shade of green. Aside from that, I’m fine! How have things been here?”

            “I’ll let Danai fill you in on the details, after you’ve had a bath.  Come on, I’ll get you organised and then you can get some sleep. You look exhausted.”

            Quickly, efficiently, and without making him feel silly or at a loose end, Talana did as she had promised and ‘organised’ him: got him attendants to help him bathe, found him clean clothes and some food.  He saw Danai with enough energy left to be enthusiastic about his cousin’s own operations, and to briefly report what he had been up to.  By the time he had finished, however, he was truly ready for sleep: he felt like something Keesha had mangled.  As he went back to the suite he shared with Talana, he was met by the excited wolf cub, who ran back and forth between him and the door until they both went inside.

            Talana had ordered some extra food, biscuits that he could eat whenever he felt peckish, and placed it by his bed along with a drink.  She’d pulled up a chair and sat reading, patiently waiting for him to return.   He was so exhausted that he flopped down onto the bed without her having to say a word.  He’d not been so tired for a very long time.  Sleep tried to claim him immediately, the sound of Talana’s voice soothing him as he slid down into its depth. He resisted, fighting its effect upon him.

            “Talana?” he said, his voice thick with sleep and emotion.

            “Yes, Darrukin?”

            “I love you.”

            “I love you, too. Now go to sleep.”

            He was asleep before she finished her sentence.

            He cried out, jolting awake, heart pounding.  Dreams – just dreams, he realised. Dreams of battles and swords and clashing metal, of death and wounds and pain.  His eyes remained unfocussed and blinking in the soft light of the room, he felt chilled; and then Talana was there with him, her hands – rough now, in places, he realised – stroking his hair and asking what was wrong.

            “Shh, it’s only a dream. Are you alright?” she asked, as she sat back on the edge of the bed. She looked as if she had just woken up, and looking about her he saw blankets piled next to the chair.

            “Have you spent all night there with me?” he asked, realising that it was morning.

            “Yes, I thought you needed, well, looking after.” she answered him sheepishly, blushing.

            “You didn’t have to, you know.” he smiled at her, wiping his eyes and yawning hugely.  His heart was beginning to beat quickly for other reasons. He looked at the warm, furry lump on the end of his bed and saw the wolf cub eyeing him with alarm.  The cub cocked his head slightly, questioningly.  Darrukin reassured the young wolf that he was alright. 

            “I wanted to.” Talana continued, in a small voice.

            “Well, thanks for doing that, then.” he said, flopping back down into the bed.  “This bed is so comfortable! Ahhh!” he snuggled down underneath the blankets, leaving only his face uncovered. 

            “You look a little more human today.” Talana commented, smiling at him.  “How did you go out in the field?”

            “Uggh, don’t remind me.” he began, but continued. “It went well, actually. I think the teams picked up a lot of information, which we’ll cross check, and will have to verify when we go back.  Are you ready to join us?”

            Talana looked away from him for a moment, her expression dark.

            “What’s wrong? You do want to join us, don’t you?” he asked, concerned.  He really wanted her there, knew that she’d be invaluable with her skills, not just as company for him because he missed her, though that was part of it, he knew.  She took a moment to reply, sighing.

            “Yes, of course I do.  It’s just that, well, I had an awful time when I went out with Danai.  I felt so sick after the fighting; I couldn’t stand seeing all that blood, all those people killed. I know this sounds silly, the enemy being palace guards, but I felt sorry for them and it seemed to me as if what we were doing was wrong. Well, not right, if you see what I mean.” she stumbled.

            “People shouldn’t kill one another, is that what you are trying to say?” he asked.

            “Exactly. It’s not right, it shouldn’t happen. But I know why we are doing it.  Anyway,” she finished, “I’ll come with you, and help you how I can. And if I have to, I’ll kill palace guards, but I’d rather not.” She looked into his grey eyes and gave him a weak smile.

            “We’ll see how things go. But thanks, I’ll need you there.”

            Darrukin and Talana spent much of their time in the following weeks preparing to go back to the castle, part of a carefully orchestrated guerrilla force that would harass the palace guards and hopefully establish contact with those inside the walled town. With luck, they would be able to unsettle the palace guards, make them nervous, whittle away at their fighting spirit and make it easier to defeat them when the time came.  Darrukin could see that confrontation would be necessary to get the palace guards out of the province, and hoped that they had enough time to prepare Darr for it.  Time was what they needed, and while over winter it had not been that much of an issue, now the weather was warmer, the palace guards would be more inclined to tighten their grip by sending more forces to attack other parts of the province, if the castle did not surrender.

            “We must get back before those trebuchets are ready!” he said, his tone harsh with frustration.  Danai and he had been scouring maps with the palace guard deployment marked on them: the mighty catapults would be a devastating weapon against the town.  Cern had said the trebuchets would be ready soon and that the palace guards were stockpiling ammunition.  It would not be too long before it was put to use.

            “We’ll be more effective if we’re properly organised. My soldiers are doing the best that they can, please!” Danai responded, an edge to his voice.  Darrukin looked up at him, sharply, taking in his cousin’s nervous habit of stroking his moustache, his green eyes snapping with annoyance, fatigue and – something else. What? Darrukin took a deep breath.

            “I’m sorry, I’m just anxious. Is there nothing else that I can do to speed things along?” he asked.

Danai let out a huff of breath.  “I wish there was, believe me, but everything is going as planned.  It should only be a few more days.” he paused, “Has Talana decided what she will do yet?” he asked lightly as he turned away from his cousin.

Darrukin frowned unconsciously.  Danai had sounded as if he did not care, but one look at him showed a tenseness in his posture that was not there a moment ago.  Darrukin took a moment to think about his cousin and Talana, the strange way they had been behaving since he had returned.  Talana looked slightly strained whenever she was near Danai.  She had been reluctant to invite him up to dinner with them, though had acquiesced when he had insisted.  Come to think of it, Danai had not been that comfortable around her, either.  Darrukin’s frown deepened.

“She will come with me, of course.” he replied.

“Of course.” Danai looked at him with a clouded expression, half sad, half angry.  Darrukin had seen that look before – jealousy.  His cousin was jealous! If Danai was jealous, then he wanted Talana for himself.  Instantly, he felt a surge of uncontainable fire move through him, of anger and shock. 

“What have you done to her?” Darrukin shouted, making his cousin turn to face him, “You…she…what have you done? Have you hurt her? If you have so much as touched my Talana, I will-”

Danai cut him off abruptly.  “Your Talana? I do think that she is nobody’s but her own, dear cousin! And why should you have her, anyway? You can’t! You’re pledged to the Queen – ha!  You can’t touch her, though obviously, you want to as well!”  Frustration and anger poured out of the older man.

“Did you? Did you touch her?” Darrukin stabbed back, surprised by the anger sweeping over him.  His whole body seemed to burn with it, and at the edges of his vision he could see flickers of golden power sparking off him like an aura. A look of fear flashed across his cousin’s face, quickly masked by anger and indignation.

“Ask her yourself!” Danai retorted, slumping into his seat with his arms folded across his chest, his face turned away from the younger man.

“Darrukin, I’m alright.  Danai didn’t try anything with me.”  Talana’s voice came from behind him, calm but worried.  He had not heard her enter the room, he had been so outraged.  With an effort, he mastered the force raging through him, stopped the flickerings of gold, and regained control of himself.  She was there, before him. Safe.

Talana spoke again.  “You and I, we’re hopeless!” she laughed. It was an awful sound, full of pain.  “Danai did ask me if I could love him – calm down! – but I told him I could not.”  her eyes, looking nowhere but at him, were brimming with longing and a promise of passion that could never be realised.  His heart ached with pain, ached for her.  Then a more rational thought struck him.

“I’m sorry, I should have known, Danai.” he said, turning to his cousin.  The older man looked up at him warily.  “If you’d tried anything with Talana, you probably be wearing the scars to prove it.”

Talana gave a self-deprecating cough.  “You know me well.” she glanced at Danai before continuing.  “He offered himself, in a most gentlemanly manner. In one way, it is a shame that I can not take up his offer – the situation between you and me being what it is. And I must confess, I did try to think of what life would be like without you. But it didn’t work.  I couldn’t do it.  Even if we can’t be together, I can’t love anyone other than you, Darrukin.” She turned to Danai. “I am sorry.”

Without waiting for any kind of answer, she rushed out of the office.  Darrukin gave his cousin another sharp look, but quickly followed her. 

Danai cursed himself softly in the suddenly empty room.

“Wait! Talana!” Darrukin called out to her as he followed her diminishing figure through the winding corridors of the building.  She looked back, but did not stop, breaking into a run as she twisted and turned, making her way upwards towards the roof of the administration block.  She had discovered the way up to the flagpoles that topped the building, a small staircase that led up through the ceiling and onto the turret.  It was a place of retreat from which one could see almost the entire barracks.  She made for it now, eager to flee the pain she felt she had caused in both Darrukin and Danai.  Would she never be free of it?  Clambering up the staircase, she opened the bolt on the trap door and pushed hard. In a moment she was through, the cool breeze of the early evening gusting gently.

The flagpoles divided the small space into two, the three poles in the middle of the wooden decking.  The flags – Darr’s flag, the unit flag and the town’s flag – tossed sporadically in the wind. She crossed the floor to one side of the turret and leaned agains the solid stone wall. It was low enough so that she could peer easily over its edge, a comfortable height she could rest against and contemplate the sunset.  She let out a huge sigh of frustration, and in angst closed her eyes on the pinkish-blue sky, oblivious to the glorious golds and reds of the clouds as the sun touched their underbellies.

Darrukin. Danai.  What a mess! She was glad she had walked in on their argument when she had, or who knew what might have happened.  How silly it all was, that anger, that heat, over her.  Resting her chin on her folded arms, she opened her eyes and tried to see into the future as she looked out over the town.  It was insane, the way she felt. Yet why could she not stop it?

A creak of the trap door warned her she was about to have company.  She did not turn around to see who it was, already knowing it would be Darrukin.  She closed her eyes again and let the evening wind play with her long blonde-brown hair, pulling and lifting its unbound strands to tickle her neck and face until she grew irritated with it and brought the errant hair under control with a swift knot at the nape of her neck.

“May I join you?” Darrukin’s voice seemed hesitant.

“Yes.” she replied, still not turning. The breeze caressed her faces. She heard him approach her and felt the nearness of his body to hers. He seemed only inches away from her, his warm, spicy scent reaching her and making him smile involuntarily.  She stopped herself, frowning at his unfathomable power over her.  Her independence had crumbled, been torn down, willingly thrown out for a man she could never have. Ridiculous!

“What was that?” he asked, leaning against the stone next to her.

“I said, ‘ridiculous’!”  she answered, trying not to sound too cross.  “Don’t blame Danai for what he did. He was only following his own heart, surprised as I was about it.” she pleaded, looking up at him suddenly.  He tossed his head back with a half-smile, his eyes now black in fading light. The sun’s last rays caught the angles of his face, sharply defined, making her heart beat faster though she was familiar with every line and feature of the man next to her.

“Well, I wish he hadn’t.” came his gruff reply.

“He wasn’t to know how I felt. If I didn’t already love you, perhaps…”

“He was in with a chance? Yes, I see what you mean. But I didn’t like hearing about it.”

“Why should it bother you?’ she asked, “You are, after all, the Queen’s.”  No matter how much she loved him, nothing changed that fact.

“I wish people would stop telling me that!”  he cried out in anguish.

“But it’s true. Perhaps Maani was right after all.” Talana mused, her voice calm, but there was pain behind it.  “You and I. It hurts so much to love you, you know. And it’s futile.” She lowered her eyes.  “I don’t know. Maybe this is my punishment.  I’ve lived all my life in fear of men, loathing them, holding them in contempt. It serves me right that the one man I do love and respect is destined for someone else.”

“You can’t believe that this is some kind of punishment, do you?  You’ve grown more than you think.  I’m not just a safe, non-threatening man, someone you can love because you know you can’t have me.  Give yourself more credit than that, Talana.”  He looked steadily into her face, touched with rose from the dying sun.  She could not answer him for a moment, choking on words, trying to find a way to express herself.

“You.  You can’t touch me, it’s dangerous for Ashlon. But I want you to, and I know you want to.” She whispered fervently, raggedly, her breath coming in great gasps as she tried to hold herself in check before him.  Involuntarily, she swayed closer to him, drawn to his presence as if by a magnet.  His strong hands caught her, then pulled her close.  She could not resist, did not want to resist, and found herself wrapped up within his embrace with her head resting against his broad chest.  Eyes closed, she savoured being so close, being where she wanted to be, moulding herself to him without thought or reason.  This was Darrukin, the man she loved, she could smell him, feel the heat coming from his body, hear his heart hammering inside his chest.  Blind happiness rose up within her, filling her mind and heart with a heady, rushing excitement that blotted out everything else but him, her arms around his body, the feel of her cheek against his chest.  Slowly, he drew one hand up to her face, cradling her with his other arm. A wisp of her hair was caught by the wind and fell into her face: he pushed it away, tucking it behind her ear, gently, before his fingers traced a line along her jaw, tilting her head upwards.  If she looked into his eyes, what would she see?  Fluttering open, her eyes locked with his.  There was nothing in his gaze but love, pure and bright.  For a moment, all was stillness, as they regarded each other silently, unwilling to speak aloud, unwilling to think.  Lifting her chin, Darrukin brushed his lips softly against hers. The touch was exquisitely gentle yet incredibly arousing.  She sighed with ecstasy, wanting more.  Twining her arms around his neck, she pulled him closer and let her fingers run through his dark hair, kissing him harder, his touch filling her senses, so extreme and yet still delicate.  Without thinking she opened her mouth to his, deepening the kiss, bringing him closer, her head swirling, her whole body tingling.  Every caress seemed to send more sparks shooting up and down her body, and her own hands revelled in finally being able to touch him, feel the play of muscles under the skin of his back, draw him closer to her, pressing herself so close that nothing but thin fabric separated them.  She was blissfully lost, caught up completely in the magic of this kiss, swept away and utterly beyond any kind of reason. Her entire world was nothing but Darrukin.  Together they blazed with passion as the sun set with a last burst of fiery gold.

A sudden, painful shock lanced through Talana’s head, breaking off the kiss abruptly and sending her reeling backwards away from him.  Blood filled her vision.  A terror she had known as a child gripped her, clutching at her vitals with icy fingers.  Unable to stand, she grabbed desperately for Darrukin, sinking uncomprehendingly to the floor with him white-faced and worried beside her.

“Talana! Talana!” hHe said urgently.  Slowly, she turned to look at him, but could not see his familiar features. Instead, they blurred, changed, seemed to mould into something else, someone else.  Horrified, she turned her head away, looked up at the sky, but the terrifying image was still there, the image of corruption and death, of rot and ruin.  She knew it was Asikei, knew it was his severed head.  Blindly staring, unable to blink the vision away, nor shake it out of her head, she cowered against him, trying to find a voice with which to scream.

When the sightless, rotting face of Asikei opened its ruined mouth to speak, she did scream.  The face seemed to laugh at her, the fleshless mouth gaping at her and seeming to reach forward to bite her, bring itself closer to her. The vision changed from Asikei to something else, someone else, a woman’s head this time, with burning green corrupted eyes and shrivelled, parchment skin, flaking away from the skull. 

Struggling to get away from it, she suddenly found her strength and stood, flung herself against the stone wall and tried to scale its height.  She needed to jump, to get away, there was nothing she could do to stop the awful vision, she had to get away, had to jump...

A detonation of gold exploded around her. Absolute quiet reigned for one heartbeat, two heartbeats, three….she dared to breathe again and opened her eyes. 

She was lying flat, face upwards.  It was interesting to note that the sky was now the deepening blue of evening, though she could not work out where she was.  Blinking, she continued to look up, staying absolutely still.  The world did not make sense.  What was she doing here? Where was here?

“Talana?”

That was Darrukin’s voice, she knew.  The vision! Remembered panic made her sit up, to find him sitting next to her, holding her hand.

“Darrukin! What happened?”

“I’m not sure.  One moment we were kissing…” He had the grace to blush, she noticed, “then you were screaming and terrified of something, trying to jump off this tower.”  His voice sounded as confused as she felt.

“I saw a horrible thing, an evil thing.” She shuddered with the memory of it.  “I don’t know why, or how. It just seemed to hit me, and I couldn’t stop it.  It was as if something had been forced into my head, I didn’t want it there, but I couldn’t help seeing it.  It was disgusting, it was evil, I couldn’t do anything but try to get away from it.” She looked up at him, her face full of wonder and realisation.  “You stopped it – or stopped me.”

He looked at her as if she were so incredibly fragile that to touch her would mean she would shatter.  “I think we’d better go back down now. It’s getting cold out here. You need to get inside.”

Nodding, she followed him meekly down through the trapdoor and back to their suite.  After a hot drink and some warming food in the safety and comfort of the suite, she felt much better, but could still not explain what had happened.  She could barely describe the horror she had seen, let alone find an explanation for the way she had behaved.

“Are you ill? I could get a healer, if you like.”  Darrukin asked, his face still ashen. 

She sat at the dining table, watching his restless pacing around the small room.  “No, I don’t think so.”  She looked up at him, and could tell he was holding something back.  “What?” she asked, holding his gaze.  His eyes broke off the contact.

“Nothing, it’s – nothing.” he stammered, blushing deeply, stopping his pacing and leaning over the table, hands outstretched..

“No, go on. You’ve got something to say, so please, say it.” she demanded, leaning forward to touch his hand with her own.

He snatched his hand away as if he’d been stung.  Anger quickly followed her surprise at his reaction.  “Tell me!”

Darrukin sat down at the table. He was clearly unwilling to speak, but she had demanded it.  “You…me…we were kissing.” he began, his voice breaking huskily. Talana could feel herself colouring, warming to the memory.  A stab of desire that ran through her, making her take a deep breath. She nodded, letting him continue.  “Well, we’re not supposed to. I’m not supposed to…touch…another woman.  I think it’s the Goddess trying to warn me off – or rather, you – from doing it again.” He finished and sat down, put his head in his hands in defeat.

She did not know what to think and sat there in silence, just looking at him.  Shock held her still as she tried to understand his meaning. Punishment?  Perhaps it was.  They had violated something fundamental to the Guardian’s life.  He belonged to the Queen, and Talana knew that was his destiny. It was something she could not interfere with, or be a part of. It just was what it was.  Pain washed through her.  A spark of defiance to his fate, to their fate, lit within her.

“But something happened up there.  You did something, you stopped me from jumping.  What did you do?”  she said, wanting to talk about what had happened. There was some desperate need within her for him to acknowledge that their kiss had been a special thing.

“I’m not entirely sure. I couldn’t let you leap to your death, so I held on to you – I didn’t really understand what was going on, I just wanted to stop you from hurting yourself.”  Puzzlement still clouded his tone. He looked at her with an awkward expression, his face still red.  She could tell he was thinking not about his rescue of her, but about their kiss.  Heart pounding, she stood across the table from him, willing him to mention it, willing him to say something.  She knew it was wrong of them to have kissed, knew that it threw their whole world into jeopardy, yet she still could not relate that with the fact that it had been so wonderful, so right.  Punishment from the Goddess or not, she was going to treasure the memory of that moment for the rest of her life. 

“Well, what shall we do about this?” she demanded as his silence lengthened. It was clear she was talking about their kiss, nothing else. A tinge of bitterness invaded her tone, hurt and anger and frustration made her pout slightly.

“Nothing.” Darrukin said, his tone flat.  “We can’t do anything about it.  I have to, er, forget it happened, I suppose.”

“And can you?” she asked, eyebrow arching upwards, putting her hands on her hips.  It was a defiant pose, but inside she felt anything but:  trembling, waiting, wanting to see how he felt.  Tears threatened, but she blinked them back, swallowing hard and breathing deeply to bring herself under control.  If he could ignore the chemistry between them, the power of the connection they had, then, well, she could too.  It would be difficult, but she was used to hardship. Hadn’t her father taken everyone who had ever shown her friendship away? Driven them away? Why should this be any different to those times?    A shadow crossed her face, thinking of her father, and a tingle zinged down her spine, making her shudder and break out in goosebumps.  Still she held his gaze, uncertain of his answer.

When it came, his voice was barely above a whisper, as if he did not really want her to hear him.

“No, I can’t.  I could never do that.”

 

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