The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 57
The Thief of Ashlon - Part 2 (chapter 17)

Brother and sister arrived at the family dinner that night, unannounced and unexpected.   Their afternoon had been spent in frantic activity, releasing orders for the stay of battle, with an emergency back up plan should anything go awry.  Darrsan was distrustful, but Darrukin tried his best to reassure her that the palace guard commander had been genuine. 

Extra places were quickly set and food heaped upon fresh plates.  Both parents looked expectantly at their returned children, with Darrlani and Talana silent and tense.  Only Nibs was as happy and playful as ever, not bothered by the heavy air of suspense in the room.

Darrukin could not eat until he had told his parents all that had happened and the decisions that had been made.

“Are you certain this is not some kind of subterfuge?” Lord Darrulan expostulated, crashing his cutlery down and half-rising in his place. His face flushed and concern gathered his brows.  Lady Dana had paled, but put a restraining hand on her husband’s arm.

“Yes, I do, father.  I am trying to salvage this situation as best I can.  Darrsan has worked out a plan if everything goes wrong, but I think the palace guards will withdraw and this treaty will hold.  I don’t want any more bloodshed and neither does Commander Rael.  This way, you keep the province.”

“Are you sure of this?” Lady Dana interposed.  “They took you away in chains before, how do you know that this won’t happen again?  How can you give yourself over to their control?”

Darrukin sighed.  He knew what he had seen in the commander, but that wasn’t to say that others would agree with her.  “I have to take it on trust, to a certain extent.  I have demanded a guard from our army, and this has been agreed to. I’ll be a hostage, but a willing one.  And how else am I going to get near the Queen?  I need to be there, to do what I have to do as the Guardian.”

The discussion raged but eventually, his family agreed that his decision was probably for the best.  Only Talana had said nothing, amazed by the turn of events and shocked that she felt so strongly about it.  It robbed her of the power of speech.  He was going back with the palace guards, back to Tashmar.  Trembling with suppressed fear, she could do nothing but watch as he described his fate, how he would go to the Queen, and how easily his family fell into line.  Say something! Object! She tried to speak, to tell them that he should not leave, should  never be away from her, but reason asserted itself and she stayed silent.  He must go to the Queen. She knew that.  In three days, he would be gone.  What would she do?  Biting her lower lip, she excused herself quietly from the table and withdrew to the library, resting in one of the comfortable reading chairs. A few small lamps lit the room, sending a warm glow off the books that lined the walls, lending warmth to her suddenly chilled frame.  Slumping forward, she rested her head in her hand and felt tears threatening.

After a few minutes alone, the door opened. Looking up, she saw Darrukin and Nibs.  The younger brother squeezed into the chair beside her, his gangly arm slung around her shoulders.  She smiled at the gentle boy.

“Talana.” Darrukin said, draging up a chair to be nearer to her.  She watched his troubled face silently.  “I’m trying to do what is right.  For my family, the Goddess and the Queen.  Do you see that?”

“Who said I didn’t?” she retorted, then apologised for her hasty words.  Of course, he could read her face, her expression.  Of course he knew that she did not want him to leave, couldn’t bear the thought of him going to Tashmar and the Queen.  She felt numb, as if all her feelings were suddenly blanked out, except for the little knot of pain in her belly that grew and grew the more she realised just where Darrukin’s future lie.  With the Queen.  He was the Guardian. The Queen’s champion, the Queen’s lover.

“I do see.  I just don’t like. I don’t want to know that you are going to the Queen.  I don’t want to know that she will take you as her lover. I don’t want to face that.  I love you.” Her voice was full of passion.  “I want you.”

He responded in a voice that was as full of agony and feeling as hers.  “You think I want this? It has to happen, or…you know what does.” He could not hide the revulsion in his expression.  “Do you really think I want to be the Queen’s lover? I never asked to be the Guardian. I’ve never been happy about what it meant, ultimately.  You know I have to do this, whatever it does to us. You know the Goddess wants it this way, else I would never have been revealed as the Guardian.”

“Goddess?” Nibs piped up unexpectedly, his voice cracking mid-syllable.  Both Talana and Darrukin looked at him.  “Goddess? Pretty Lady! Pretty Lady!” the boy giggled and slid out of the chair, squatting on the ground and looking up at them.

“Yes, she is, Nibs.” Darrukin said, reaching out a hand to his brother.  Nibs took his brother’s hand and picked up Talana’s, looking earnestly from one to another before pausing to rest his gaze on the young woman.  She watched his expression change from foolishly happy to serious, intelligent and aware.  Eyes widening with shock, she began to pull back her hand, but Nibs smiled, and she felt a goodness and calm flowing from him to her that melted her fears away.

“Talana,” he said, and the voice, his but touched with awareness, struck her deep and commanded attention.  “You know what to do now. You must find the dragon.  Find her.”

“Where? What dragon? How do I find a dragon?” she gasped, plunged into confusion.

Nibs smiled again in that ethereal way.  “You will know, and you will find the Queen’s dragon.  There can be no queen without her dragon.”

Abruptly the presence which held Nibs departed, and the awareness left him.  The boy frowned, pouted and finally began to weep, as if frustrated by the knowledge of the awareness that was so briefly his.  Talana slumped back into the chair, overwhelmed.  Things were happening too quickly for her, she felt lost.  Looking at Darrukin, she caught the awed expression on his face.

“What was that?” she asked, in a totally confused tone.   Reaching for Nibs, she rocked him gently in her arms to ease his sobs. He sucked his thumb as she cradled him, clinging to her.

“Ah, I think that might have been a message for you, direct from the Goddess.  Hmmm.” He regarded her with something akin to reverence.

“So what am I supposed to do now?” she hissed, unable to scream her frustration with Nibs held in her arms.

“At a guess, go find the Queen’s dragon, like Nibs said.”  Darrukin raised his eyebrows quizzically.

“Right.  I’ll sally forth and retrieve the Queen’s dragon for her, shall I?  What am I going to do, bring it back on a lead and present it to her? I don’t -” She stopped suddenly, her face alight with sudden knowledge.  “I have to steal the egg!”

“Now I don’t understand.  Egg? What egg?” said Darrukin, perplexed.  “Didn’t Nibs say you had to find a dragon?”

“Well, yes, but the dragon has an egg, and I have to steal it.  I just know that’s what I’ve got to do now.  Odd.” she said contemplatively. “Why would I suddenly know that, when before I didn’t?”

“I may be able to answer that.”  Darrukin replied, frowning slightly with the effort of remembering events that seemed ages past now.  “In the caverns, under Tashmar, the Goddess said that you would know what to do when the time came.”

“Pardon me?” she asked, looking at him blankly.  He explained what had happened in the council of Elders, all that time ago in Maani’s underground church.

“Let’s go for a walk and discuss this.  I need to move, it helps me think.”  Darrukin suggested, suddenly aware that his family were still in the dining room nearby. 

“Yes, I need some air.”  Talana agreed.  She shifted Nibs, easing him into the chair and leaving him curled up there quite contentedly sucking his thumb.  Taking Darrukin’s arm she escaped with him into the corridors of the castle, walking slowly around and around the private wing of the great building.

“You need to find the dragon and steal its egg.”  Darrukins tated matter-of-factly. “The question is, why?”

“You need to go to the Queen and confront her.  I could ask the same question of you!” Talana replied with some bitterness.

“Well, we know the answer to that one, don’t we? Hang on, maybe that’s it – you have to find the dragon and its egg and to help me confront the Queen!”

“Hmm, that would explain how both of these events have come up simultaneously. It’s a possibility.  Everything else I’ve done seems to have been in support of that aim - the spear, guiding you to the ring – I guess it’s related.  I’m an expert thief; perhaps it is the reason why I was chosen for this task? If I can steal the Guardian out from under the noses of the palace guards, I can steal a dragon’s egg!”

“Maybe you were destined for the task and that’s why you are such a good thief.” Darrukin suggested.  “Like myself being the Guardian.  I was a soldier first, and part of the provincial nobility – how much training does one need to protect a queen in her palace?”

The suggestion made Talana pause.  The corridors were lit with small lamps, their flickering glow throwing shadows on rich tapestries that lined the stone walls.  Looking up into his eyes, she was reminded of how far she had come from her time in Tashmar, of how much she had grown and how much she had learned.  The pain was still there, though. She did not want to see him go.

“What part did the dragon play in the link between the Goddess, the Queen and the Guardian?” she asked.

“As far as I’ve been able to tell, the dragon seems to be the inhuman expression of the Goddess’s power. I’m not sure, but there is only so much power that can be projected through the queen and the guardian, that’s the frail human body for you.  Keer told me that the dragon was necessary as a source of power that cannot be tapped by people. It is a pure power, incorruptible, and without it the queen and guardian are that much more vulnerable. The dragon completes a trinity that supports itself, and which, without one or other part, will lead to the destruction of them all.”

“And that destruction was started when the ring was lost to the guardian, Lord Kerdis. The guardians became mere champions and unable to protect the queen fully.  They did not have the power to stop the Eshtanis from corrupting our Queen.”  As she whispered the name of the evil God, the darkness in the corridor seemed to increase, and a shiver went down her spine. Instinctively she moved closer to Darrukin.

“There was a rumour that our Queen’s dragon left, flew away; nobody knows where it went.” Darrukin said, squeezing her arm to dispel her fears.

“Her dragon is the only reason she’s still alive, isnt’ it? It’s the only thing left that is protecting this land from the full power of the Eshtanis.” 

Darrukin nodded, seeing the sense of her argument. 

“If it is alive, then it can be killed.” Talana shuddered with a sudden premonition.  “I need to find the dragon before the Eshtanis kill it.  I do need to bring you the dragon, so you help the Queen. With dragon and yourself, the triangle will be complete again, and then – you might have a chance to defeat the corrupting power of Eshtan.”

“That sounds good.  But it doesn’t explain why you have to steal the dragon’s egg, does it?” 

Talana shrugged.  “I suppose we can’t know everything. Perhaps the Goddess will let me know when the time comes.  I don’t know.  All I know is that in three days time, you’ll be gone.”

They had reached her bedroom door, whether by accident or design, she was not sure.  Their eyes met, both full of pain.  Bending down to her, he chastely kissed her forehead and bid her goodnight.

Talana retreated to her room and allowed the pain to overcome her.  His impending departure left her more bereft than when he had left to fight for Darr.  He would go away to Tashmar, never be more than a brother to her ever again, if she ever got to see him again.  How could she stand it?  She loved him, her being cried out for him and knew that he responded.  It was all the more bitter and cruel a blow, their love being a thing forbidden and with so much at stake.  Months of their lives they had spent working for the safety of Ashlon, for their world, but what was it without Darrukin?  She would be a meaningless, empty husk. Crushed. Had she not one more task to achieve for their quest, Talana doubted that she would bother with her life.

Controlling herself, she made herself ready to do as she had been asked by the Goddess, to find the dragon, and steal its egg.  So she made herself ready, readying new travelling clothes and planning what supplies she would need.  If the Goddess wanted her to find the dragon, find it she would, and trust herself to be lead to wherever the beast was.  Alongside Darrukin she prepared to leave, packing her spear, making sure her black mare was fit and healthy, and trying to keep herself busy enough to forget that Darrukin would soon be off, to the Queen, to be his lover, to leave everything he did love in Darr – herself included – and do his duty for Ashlon.  The treaty was duly signed by Lord Darrulan, and Talana knew that the palace guard commander would accommodate Darrukin’s wishes this time, but she still worried for him.

She bumped into him in the kitchens, in the stables, in the library. Each time they were attending to some details which their separate journeys demanded, each time, they looked at each other with a mixture of longing, sorrow, guilt and hunger. It became very difficult to be near him without feeling an overwhelming urge to throw herself into his arms.  Meals with his family were tense.  As the three days passed Talana became more and more consumed by thoughts of Darrukin, her pain and her fury towards the unknown, dominating Queen. 

On the third day, she was in the stables, cleaning her mare’s tack, polishing up and waterproofing the leather and checking it for faults. Her mare gleamed with good health and she had supplies ready to go.  Darrukin would be leaving today and she did not want to face it when he did.  Outwardly busy and calm, she nevertheless was fraught with distress for Darrukin and herself. She tried to think of the task ahead of her, but could not get beyond the basics.  Lord Darrulan had given her as much money as she could carry without attracting too much attention, as well as all the supplies she would need. She thought he was giving her the hint to leave before Darrukin, and could not blame him if he did want her to go.  Talana had decided to travel alone, and head towards the inland sea, the ironwood spear in hand once more.  This was because she did not know where else to go, and the emerald sea fascinated her.  She wanted to bathe in it before summer died into winter, and let it lead to her to the dragon.  It was a vague plan, but one she could follow, having nothing else.

A creaking door alerted her that someone else had entered the stables. It was mid morning and already warm, golden sunlight piercing the windows that faced the stable courtyard.   Leaving the tack, she quickly scaled a ladder up into the loft area, and hid amongst the bags of feed and sweet-smelling straw.  She was in no mood to be with other people, she only wanted to be left alone.

Peaking through a crack in the wooden planks, she nevertheless tried to see who had come in.  The smell of the horses was comforting, and her mare gave a short whicker of recognition.  Probably one of the stable hands, Talana thought, then felt a tweak of anxiety as she heard the ladder creak under someone’s weight.  Hiding amongst the hay in the loft, lit only by the skylight, she patiently waited, willing herself invisible to anyone who looked.

“You can’t play that trick on me, Talana.” Darrukin’s warm voice came to her from directly in front.  She opened her eyes and he was there, real and solid.  Picking herself up, she smiled at him as she dusted the straw off her clothes.

“I know.” Then her face paled as an awful realisation hit her.  “Oh, Darrukin! You’ve come to say goodbye.”  she looked at her feet and felt tear start behind her eyes.

“Yes, I’ve got a little while, but I wanted to spend it with you.” he replied, moving towards her and picking up her hands in his.

“Really?” she looked up, blinking hard to stop her tears from falling.  She failed.  A fat tear began to roll down her cheek.  Darrukin reached up, catching it gently, his hand cupping her face.  There was nothing she could do but close her eyes and let herself sink into his touch; she felt afire, suddenly and completely.  When she opened her eyes, she saw the same reaction in him.

“I came to tell you so much, Talana.” he whispered, his face drawing nearer.  In one fluid movement she silenced him with a finger to his lips, melting into his arms.

“Don’t say anything at all, my love, don’t say anything at all.” She whispered, her mouth closing with his.  As they kissed the sunlight streamed in through the skylight, bathing them with a warm, golden glow.

Afterwards, when he had dressed and gone, there were tears. But they were not what she had expected.  She felt as golden as the sunlit straw around her, consecrated and bathed in love.  Lying back and watching the straw dust particles in the shafts of light, she revelled in the memory of his touch upon her, his gentleness, playfulness and their urgent desires fulfilled.  They had not spoken, needed no words to communicate their needs, just a depth of emotion that locked them together in an overwhelmingly passionate embrace.  They had surrendered themselves to that passion, and found in each other a love that they both knew would last their whole lives.

Tendrils of guilt tried to insinuate themselves upon her, but she ignored them, defiant.  Their lovemaking had seemed right.  Never would she regret it, even though she knew she had endangered the land.  If that was the case, she resolved, then she had better get on her way and find the dragon, and do whatever else she had to do, to help the man she loved.  Smiling broadly, she clothed herself and left the loft, sad at Darrukin’s departure, but curiously at peace. She was happy, for hopeless though their love may be, they did love each other.

 

 

 

 

 

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