The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 58
The Thief of Ashlon - Part 2 (chapter 18)

The first few days travelling with Commander Rael were quite awkward for Darrukin, though he was physically comfortable enough.  It took both him and his soldiers some time to settle down to being with their enemy, fresh from battle as they were.  Eating and sleeping alongside them was difficult, and Darrukin used every ounce of diplomacy he had to ensure that there was no conflict.  He had taken only half a troop with him, men and women who had no family ties and who had volunteered for the duty.  They were all mounted, in itself a sharp differential with the palace guard, who were on foot.  Darrukin did not want to enter Tashmar without his soldiers, and although heavily outnumbered, being mounted meant that they could break away whenever they chose to.   He was sending a signal to all that cared to take note that he was there willingly, and reminding them that he was a son of a provincial lord.  A guest, not a prisoner.

Darrukin had been surprised at how well received he was by Commander Rael.  She went out of her way to ensure the safety and comfort of him and his soldiers, and dealt harshly with any palace guard who dared to overstep the mark with her guests.  He was still not comfortable with it, but reflected that his choice had saved lives, and that it met his ends as well to reach Tashmar safely.

Rael was approachable, although naturally busy and often interrupted with the many concerns that a commander has with a large force.  Yet she found the time to talk with her guest and indeed, seemed glad of the opportunity to talk somewhat more freely that she had been able to for a long time.

“The problem my palace guards face” she commented one day, when they were deep in discussion about the various attributes of her force, “is that they are usually city-folk, and get little field training. That is alright if you are destined for a purely city-based job, policing and such like, but for an expeditionary force such as mine, it can be a problem.”  She rode alongside him, amidst the Darr soldiers.  Few palace guard officers were mounted though the supply train had wagons.

“Training, it’s all in the training.” Darrukin agreed.  “Did you get much field training when you joined?” he asked. She laughed.

“The palace guards were a little smaller then, but not much. The queens have been building it up slowly for some generations.  I am from Rabta, and my recruiters saw to it that on my journey from the island I did get training in field craft.  But it has taken a dedicated effort to maintain that level of skill. We don’t get much practise in the city and the provinces tend not to like large forces of palace guards encamped in their territory, it makes them nervous.”

“Quite.” Darrukin rejoined, drily.  “What is their exact charter?”

“Guards for the queen, her family and the palace; a secondary task is police force for the city, and finally, a force that can be projected in order to inhibit the squabbling that flares up between the provinces.”

“Or taking over a province.”

“Well, that’s a new turn.  It has not been tried before this expedition to Darr, the queens have never needed to directly challenge a Lord before.  Disputes have always been between provinces, with the palace guards there to enforce a peace.  Not that they have had to do that for generations.” she paused before asking.  “I wonder if you realise that you, Guardian, are second-in-command of the palace guard? Technically, I should be answering to you.”

Darrukin could not quite suppress a smile at the thought, given his situation.  “So the Queen is commander-in-chief?”

Rael nodded.  “She has directly controlled the palace guard since the death of her champion twenty years ago; lately her special advisor has been having his say.”

“Just how did you find out about me, anyway?” Darrukin had to ask, “I would have thought that any mention of a guardian would have been silenced by the Queen. It was my belief that she did not wish for any implications that things, er, were not always as they are now.”

Rael gave him a strained look.  “Tashmar is a big city, my lord.  Rumours are rife within its boundaries and cannot be entirely controlled by the Queen.  I think the word of your position has spread, especially since winter.  Someone has been letting it become known that the guardian has returned. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, now, would you?”

Darrukin ignored the question. He could not entirely trust Rael, even if he was her supposed superior officer.  “Anyway, I guess my position in the palace guard depends on whether the Queen will accept me as her guardian.  Somehow I doubt she will.  Things are, shall we say, different to when her champion was alive.” He tried to phrase it delicately.  Rael betrayed no more emotion, just nodding a sharp assent.  He could appreciate her position.  She was a high-ranking officer within the palace guards, sworn to protect the Queen and all that she stood for.  That was regardless of what she herself actually believed in, and he had the suspicion that that there was much more to Rael than she let on in her role as force commander.  He let the matter drop, not willing to place her in the embarrassing position of discussing matters which might lead her into more trouble. Her future was uncertain enough as it was, in taking the action that she already had with him.

There were few priests with the force, he noted.  Normally they would be present in greater numbers, for such a large body of guards, but he counted no more than ten.  He wondered at that, thinking that the High Priest would have wanted support in numbers, but that perhaps with his demise they had been sent away.

At their evening meal, taken at sundown, he and the palace guard commander spoke again.  Her officers joined them in a large tent, forming a small band, to which Darrukin’s presence must have seemed quite alien.  His own soldiers ate nearby, always close to their leader but not intrusively so.  He made sure they stood piquet with their horses at night, and kept a discreet eye on each other, but otherwise there was no reason for anything other than normal camp discipline.

“Your defences were quite well prepared, my lord.” One young officer approached Darrukin.  On the whole, Darrukin found their company rather dull, as they were almost without exception very boring and unimaginative.  Given Rael, perhaps they just hid it well.  They radiated a certain amount of hostility towards him, but in this case it was an exercise in blatant information gathering, something he did not appreciate.

“Yes, weren’t they?” he replied, desperately wanting to turn away.  What did the young man expect, sloppiness?  When he was fighting for his home?  But he could not ignore them entirely nor could he insult his host, Commander Rael, by being openly rude to her staff.  He matched the officers dull conversation with his own equally dull replies, waiting for the inevitable turn of the young man to ask him for an explanation of the rifles.  He had made his troops swear that they would not reveal the truth about those weapons – not that many of them had actually seen or knew how the rifles worked – he was sure that no human did.  But he did not want to betray the trolls, and also, he had been thoroughly appalled by the destructive power of the weapons. He did not want them to spread to the armies of Ashlon.  The rifles were too powerful; it was better to leave that particular power to the shy creatures who had invented it.

As predicted, the officer asked about the weapons.

“I really cannot tell you anything about them” he said, trying to remain aloof. “It is not for me to say. You might ask my father, Lord Darrulan.”  The young officer persisted for some minutes more before making his excuses.  They knew Darrukin was lying, but they could not challenge him on the point.  He had made it clear to Commander Rael that he would not discuss the weapon, and as much as possible had ascertained that none of them had actually seen it – a boon, for they could not copy what they had not seen – he made sure that any discussion on the topic was quickly squashed.

Time dragged, and the road seemed road endless. He looked for signs of the trolls along the route, feeling sure that he was being watched.  He never did see one.  It was too much of a risk for him to try to leave a message for them, to try to get a message back to his family that he was alright. He would have to trust the open channels that Commander Rael allowed him, censored and scrutizined as they undoubtedly were. 

The grey stallion fretted at the enforced slow pace, and Darrukin found himself missing Talana and his family – even Keesha was not around.  The blue falcon was probably with Talana. He caught his breath.  Emotions wrestled with each other as delicious memories of Talana flashed through his mind.  He felt himself stirring just thinking about her, and desperately tried to think of something else lest his preoccupation become obvious.  Embarrassed, he tried to find some feelings of guilt amongst those he felt, but there were none. Their love seemed to be right.  How could it be wrong or dangerous?  How could the Goddess want him to be the Queen’s lover?  How could he, now he and Talana had consummated their passion?


Saddle-soreness caught up with Talana as she made her way to the coast of the inland sea. She had not ridden for ages, it seemed, and all the spots that had grown callused and hard had become soft again.  Nevermind, she thought, she would have to go on regardless of her discomfort.

It had been difficult saying goodbye to Lord Darrulan and his family – they had been so good to her.  She wondered if Lady Dana suspected that she and Darrukin had made love, but did her subtle best to disabuse the family of any notion that her farewell from Darrukin had been anything but chaste.  Talana did not like lying to them, but she did not want their scorn either, and needed their help.  It was best that they not know.

As it was, she rode along the road that lead to Burna, the port town that she, Darrukin, Keer and Jeron had used many months before.  That time seemed almost an age ago, she realised.  Idly, she wondered if the captain of the vessel that brought them from Naphka would be in port when she reached Bruna.

Talana kept her stops to a minimum and tried to move at as fast a pace as she and the horses could manage.  Resupplying herself and finding out any recent news was all she really needed.  Generally she resisted the impulse to steal her food, the Lord had given her ample money to travel with; but she knew she had to keep in practice.  The habits of a lifetime might go rusty, she reasoned, so every now and then she would filch something from someone, somewhere, just to reassure herself that she was as good a thief now as she had ever been.  After all, hadn’t she been given the job of stealing a dragon’s egg?

When she finally reached Bruna, she decided to stay a few days and think about her next move.  Where would she go from here? She booked herself into a seaside inn and waited for inspiration.

At the bar of the inn, she found desultory conversation from the locals, constantly roaming as they did between the ports and the countryside.  There was useful information in there, she was sure, but she had to sift through it methodically in order to make any sense of it.  As far as she could make out, there had been only one unusual thing that had happened recently, and that was a sighting of a large, dark boat, a vessel only seen in the distance that kept well away from the main routes to and from the seaside ports that ringed the inland sea.  Following a hunch, Talana decided to find out if anyone knew any more about it.  Buying herself a drink, she scanned the crowd for a likely face.

Waiting until the glow of alcohol could be seen in the faces around her, she approached a small group of sailors, sitting down next to a tanned, fit-looking woman.  She smiled briefly at the woman and took a sip of her beer.

“You’re not local, are you?” the woman asked, her broad face friendly.  It seemed that most sailors liked to talk, meet people and swap stories.

“No, I’m from Tashmar.” Talana asked.  “Have you been there?”

“Oh, all the way from the city – hey, boys! We’ve got one of them city people here!” the woman said to her fellows, who all turned to stare.

“Better looking than those wenches in Choresh!” someone commented in a half-hearted whisper.  Talana bridled slightly, sending a sour look down the table.

“Ah, never mind him.” said the woman, her voice rough and friendly. “Tell me, what are you doing here in Bruna?”

“I’ve just come from Darr – from the fighting.”  Talana figured that would be bait enough.  She’d be included in the conversation if she had any kind of news.

“You have? What’s happened? Is our Lord alright?”  There was genuine concern in the woman’s voice.  The faces around her looked at her keenly, and it was obvious that they had not heard much news.  Perhaps she could trade information?

“Tell you what, I’ll tell you all I know about the battle for Darr, and if you could please let me know what’s been happening here, anything unusual, I’d appreciate it.”

“Did you fight?” asked one sailor suspiciously. “How do we know you are telling the truth?”

“You don’t. But I did work in the castle, with Lord Darrulan and his family. I’m a healer – I fight only if I have to – most of the time I fix people up.  Do you want to know what happened or not?” she challenged the sailor.  He looked at her steadily for a long moment, then nodded his head.


“Will you tell me what is going on around her? Anything odd?”

“We’ll see. It depends on how good your story is.” The woman sitting next to Talana said jestingly.  Talana smiled. She would tell them anyway, but wanted some kind of assurance that they’d help her if they could.  With great aplomb she recounted all that had happened in Darr, explaining as much as she could for the news-starved sailors.  By the end of it quite a crowd had drawn around, eager to hear news of loved ones away with the fighting.

“Well, that’s some story, girlie!” one sailor commented when she had finished.  “Goodness, wish I’d been there to brain a few of them palace guards!”

“Do you see them about, on the sea here?” Talana asked, trying to direct their thoughts.

“No, not often. Mind you, that black ship…”

“Let’s not talk about that, shall we?” Another sailor cut him off gruffly. “It’s bad luck.”

Talana looked up sharply.

“I asked you to tell me if you had seen anything unusual lately.  It sounds as though you have.  Please tell me more.” she asked, trying to hide her eagerness.  Could this black ship be something? She pressed the issue. “I’ve heard of this ship in rumours only –  could it be something to do with the palace guards?  Did you see it yourself?”

A look passed between the group, before finally, the woman began to recount what they had seen.

“About a month ago, we were out on our routine trip across to Saradon – know where that is?” Talana nodded and the woman continued.  “I don’t like talking about this, because something about it tells me that it’s evil.  Since you were so obliging about news from Darr, I reckon it’s a fair exchange, if it’s important to you.”  Again, Talana nodded.  “Well, it was about sunset, and we had been out at sea for about a week.  We still had about that much to go, and we were drawing near to the Isle of the Dragon.”

Talana’s spine began to tingle.  This was what she wanted to hear.  The sailor continued in a voice hoarse from shouting.

“Now, weird things happen around that isle.  Usually there are mists and fogs, and there can be some very strange noises echoing across the water.  I think the place is haunted.  As I said, it was close to sunset when we drew near enough to see a ridge of the Dragon’s back – that’s the highest point on the isle.  As we came around the isle, we saw another ship in the distance.”

“The black ship?” Talana asked, and the sailors nodded.

“Eerie, it was, because it was just so black.  It rode the waves in silence, without the slightest sound.  Everything about it was dark, the sails were furled for the night and it rode at anchor.  It looked menacing, but I could not tell you why I thought that.”

“Was there anyone on it?”

“Well, that’s strange also, because I thought – just thought, mind – that I saw a person in white on the deck.  The only thing that wasn’t black.  Then someone joined the white one – and that person wore green.  I would swear it was a palace guard, young miss.  Swear it.  We hove-to as quick as we could, and followed another route to Saradon.  We didn’t want to get any closer to that ship than we had to. Rumours, you understand, of shipwrecks and sinkings – second hand tales, but there nonetheless.  I don’t think we were seen, and we weren’t chased, but you never know.”

“I appreciate that.  Is that all you can tell me about the ship?” Talana asked.  “Could I trouble you some more?” she ventured, thinking quickly.  “Could you take me to the Isle of the Dragon?”

“You must be mad!  You want to go there?  No ship would take you.  It’s haunted – bad luck!” Several sailors shook their heads in shocked agreement with the woman.

“I can pay you very well, and it’s very important that I get there.”

“Huh? What do you mean? No, not on my ship.”

Talana looked around at the other sailors pleadingly, but under the fierce gaze of the one she saw now was their captain, she knew none of them would break ranks.  Disappointed, she stood up, finishing her drink quickly.

“If you change your mind, I’m staying here. It is important that I get there.” She turned and went upstairs, to her room and to bed.

In the morning, she went for a walk along the jetties, looking with interest at all the ships lining them.  The place was busy; too busy, it looked as if the crews were working overtime.  No doubt they were all over-stretched, as some crewmembers had gone to Darr to fight.  It was familiar in one way to Talana, having grown up near the river Tashmar and used to the comings and goings of ships and sailors.  But it also seemed very different without the delineation of two river banks, and nothing but open sea before her.  A breeze blew off the water, raising small choppy waves.

A sharp screech drew her eyes upwards, and she saw Keesha doing lazy circles above.  Smiling, the young woman raised her arm upwards, extending it for the bird to land on with a whistle of invitation.  Seeing Keesha made her feel happier, and somehow less despondent that she could not get a ship to take her where she felt she ought to go.  The blue falcon landed with a thud on her forearm, and immediately hopped up onto her shoulder, sharp talons digging into her with excitement.

“And what have you been up to, you silly bird?” Talana asked, stroking the grey-blue feathered breast with affection. “Keeping in touch with Darrukin?”  A pang of loss went through her. He was gone, on his way to Tashmar and to who knew what.  Swallowing, she made herself smile, smoothing away the frown that had crossed her face.  Keesha muttered something to her in a peeping, squawking way.

A sailor approached her, his solid build and odd expression making her wary.  She stood still, determined not to give ground should he come any closer.

“Aw, relax, missy.  I mean you no harm.” he said, and Talana recognised one of the sailors she had met in the bar the night before.  “I’m here to take you up on your offer –if you pay the right price.”

“I thought you were with the others, and that they would not have me on board.” she asked, suspicious.

“To tell the truth, I am, but I have a brother with a boat andhe’s willing to take you there – if you’re willing to pay.”  The man shuffled his feet, scraping a toe on the wooden dock.

“What sort of ship? A fishing boat? A cargo vessel?”

“Just a fisher, ma’am, but it’s comfortable enough and it will get you there.  He’s leaving this afternoon if you are interested.”

“And how much was your brother looking for?”  she asked, preparing herself to bargain.  Lord Darrulan had given her money, but she did not want to spend it all at once.

“Oh, how about fifty gold pieces? That should be adequate, considering it is a dangerous journey.”  It was said only semi-seriously, an opening gambit.

“I think I’d rather swim at that price. How about fifteen gold pieces?”  She smiled at the man, knowing it was too low a figure.

“You jest!  That’s what it would cost him to get his crew to sail there.  He needs some profit…thirty-five.”

“Twenty-five. I will go no higher.” She said, folding her arms.  Keesha looked at the man intently, swivelling her head owl-like while keeping her eyes fixed on him.  It put the man off for a second, and he crumbled.

“Oh, alright, twenty-five! The ship is the Nightstar, ou can see her from here. He leaves after midday.”

“My thanks to you, sailor.” Talana said, smiling at the man warmly.

“It’s for my brother. He needs the money.”

“Yes, of course.  Thank him for me and tell him I’ll be there before he sails.” She said, before walking off to the inn to fetch her belongings and get something to eat before the boat sailed.

Talana paid the innkeeper for her room and gave him an extra gold piece to look after her horses.  He was only too happy to do that, and heeded her offer of another gold piece when she returned, if the animals were in good condition.

It did not take her long to reach the Nightstar, and she was a little perturbed when she saw the vessel up close.  It was small, with nets and lines everywhere on the deck.  She nodded to the captain, who looked very much like the brother she had met on the dock, and stepped aboard along a narrow gang-plank.

“Where can I store my things?” she asked, approaching the large man cautiously.  He eyed her for a while, taking a careful measure of Keesha’s sharp beak and talons.

“Down below there, you’ll find quarters for the crew.  You’ll have to stay below while my lads fish, and come up on deck when they rest. There’s not too much room on this tub, but she’ll carry you to the Isle of the Dragon.  As long as you pay me.”

“Don’t worry about that, Captain. I have your money.” She returned, suspicious of him all of a sudden.  What would stop him from stealing her money, murdering her and dumping her body in the sea?  Her eyes narrowed. Keesha, sensing her disquiet, ruffled her feathers antagonistically.  The man’s focus shifted from the woman to the bird, and in that instant Talana realised he was, as far as she was concerned, honest.  She lifted a hand to stroke the soft feathered breast of Keesha, glad of the bird’s company.

“We’ll get underway, then.” The captain said, turning to his first mate.  Orders were shouted out, and with a heave, the small boat left the wharf and rowed out into the open water.


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