The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 59
The Thief of Ashlon - part 2 (chapter 18)

The sight of the city of Tashmar, even in the haze of a late afternoon, was enough to render Darrukin almost speechless.  Though dust rose in clouds from the dry streets, thick in the air, he could still make out the sprawl of the city, its thousands of inhabitants crowded together in a jumbled mass of architecture that crept outwards from the great river that slashed the city in two.  Ships plied their way along that highway, and he could make out the tangle of masts and partly-furled sails.  The whole scene was of a cosmopolitan, living city, where business thrived.  Darrukin knew a little of the truth to the city, the deaths within, the fear at its heart.  It took away from the gleaming image he beheld.  From where he sat, his horse pulled up next to the commander’s, he could even see the snake of palace guards, far to their front, already entering the great metropolis.  Stark whitewashed walls from an endless sea of houses and buildings reflected the dying sun painfully back into the eyes, yet Darruin could just make out the shape of the great temple on the hill, and the palace that stood nearby, their stone surfaces gleaming white.  He was headed there, towards what he did not know.  But a growing sense of unease in the pit of his stomach reminded him that he was not safe within this city, whatever its appearance might be.

It did not take long for the column of palace guards to reach the palace once they had entered the city.  Though there was heavy pedestrian and wheeled traffic, they mostly got well out of the way of such a large body of soldiers.  Darrukin was very aware of the stares he received, mostly blank faces showing no emotion – whether by disinterest or caution he was not sure.  All he felt was a tightening claustrophobia, the crowded buildings and bustle of the streets serving only to remind him of his home in Darr, of the open fields, and the wide streets of his home town.  The dirtiness of the city of Tashmar appalled him, though the streets improved dramatically as they drew nearer the palace and through the wealthier neighbourhoods.

Great gates manned by palace guards were held open as the column passed through and into the grounds of the palace.    The actual palace where the Queen lived was still quite some distance away, but the grounds served as a barracks for the palace guard and contained everything they required.  Darrukin did not speak to anyone but his troops, who stayed in a tight formation flanking him, but he did follow Commander Rael’s lead as she and the other officers left the guards and stayed mounted, riding on towards the looming shape of the palace proper.  Even then, he watched as more junior officers peeled off from the mounted body.  Finally, Darrukin and his half-troop of Darr soldiers outnumbered the officers of the palace guard, a subtle compliment from Commander Rael that she knew he would not cause any trouble for her.

She wheeled her horse outside another set of gates, ones that led to what looked like the main palace.  Advancing to meet her, Darrukin looked expectantly at her as he reined in his horse.

“Your soldiers will dismount here, please, and follow us in.  We can stay in the saddle until challenged.  Then we will dismount, and you can follow me in to the palace.”  Rael said.

“And my troops?  Will there be anyone to look after them here?”  he asked, unwilling to let them out of his sight.

Rael smiled.  “I have an officer waiting to show them to their quarters and to the stables they can use.”

“Do you know if I will be presented to the Queen today, and if so, how soon?  My troops will have to clean themselves up and so will I.”

“Not today, I think.  Tomorrow morning, my aide says.  It is getting late now, and Her Majesty prefers an earlier audience.  Mid-morning tomorrow.  I will collect you and your soldiers, and present you to Her Majesty.”

Darrukin gave the order to dismount to his troop, and rode on with Commander Rael.  They were met halfway into the shadow of the great stone walls of the palace by a fearsome looking squad of palace guards.  Their green livery was embellished with ornaments that marked them as the Queen’s own special guards.  Without complaint, Darrukin dismounted with Rael and they were escorted into the palace, their horses whisked away.

The palace was impressive. Through the gates they entered a forecourt, with manicured gardens in a formal style.  Massive stone walls were faced with marble and other decorative stones, creating a pleasing effect with the garden.    The palace seemed to defy its construction of heavy stone and reinforcing, with natural light filtering through enormous open spaces and grand rooms.  Palace guards with special uniforms toured the buildings and grounds in squads much like the one that had met himself and Rael at the gates.  Other than the guards he only saw a few civilian servants, and then those rarely.  The coolness of the interior was a welcome change to the dust and heat of the sun outside.  He was so close to the Dragon Queen!  What could he expect? His insides seemed to be churning and roiling with anxiety, but outwardly he did his best to appear calm.

            Commander Rael accompanied him to his quarters, through a maze of passages that, had he not been particularly good at orientating himself and practised at running through those of his own parents’ castle, would have left him totally confused and confounded.  As it was, he could remember the path they had taken from the palace gates, little landmarks along the way helping him navigate.

            “I hope you are comfortable here, Darrukin. Don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything.  The servants are also at your disposal” she indicated three mute servants, standing very still in the entry.  They all kept their eyes cast down, but he knew they were watching him surreptitiously.  “Remember, mid-morning I will present you to Her Majesty; I’ll call for you and your soldiers well beforehand.  Until then.” She opened the door to his apartment and motioned for him to enter, crisply saluting him before turning away.  Darrukin was left by himself in the entry to what was obviously an extensive, and impressive suite.  Cool polished stone floors ran through the entry he was standing in, and back into a reception room, with rich furnishings, tapestries and rugs for adornment.  Off the reception room he saw a balcony, so he went to investigate.  There was small courtyard and fernery below, and it was clear he had no access to the outer walls of the palace.  Turning back inside he could see three doorways.  One led to a generous bathroom, the other to a room dominated by an enormous, canopied bed, and the third to a private study.  Every room had a fireplace and he had no doubt just as many hidden doorways and internal passages as the castle at Darr.  The study even had bookshelves, stocked with tracts by non-threatening and non-controversial authors safely under the Queen’s patronage.  Darrukin snorted with amusement, then turned his mind to preparations for the next day.

            “Your names?” he queried the servants, who dutifully followed his voice into the reception room. They replied with flat voices, making him wonder if they were quite right in the head. “Alright, Lor,” he said to one of the two male servants, after finding parchment and ink to write quick orders.  He signed and sealed them. “Please give this to my sergeant at the barracks where my troop is staying.”  He handed the man the note and dismissed him.  “Mat, please run me a bath and organise for clean clothes. I have a uniform that needs some attention, please attend to that.  Temma, please go and find me some food – fresh bread, meat and vegetables, with some fruit to follow.”

            The servants dispersed quickly, leaving him to the emptiness of his new home.

                                    *                      *                      *

            The young woman swore lustily as she stubbed her toes on yet another unseen rock.  She glanced back over her shoulder to make sure that the Nightstar was still at anchor, and was reassured by its dark bulk dimly below.  Keesha flew overhead, screeching; Talana could not see her through the fine mist but smiled grimly at the sound.  How was she ever going to find a dragon, let alone its egg, on this damned island?  Her first thoughts when she had seen the looming shape of the isle were ones of panic – what if the dragon and egg were not here? How could she then help Darrukin?   It did seem hopeless, the jagged rock of the isle damp and slippery, with mist crowning the peak.  She had no idea of what to do or where to go once she landed.

            She decided to climb, as much to see if she could get above the line of the mist as anything else.   The Nightstar’s crew  had grumbled about having to row the lifeboat to shore, but she had persuaded them with the promise of a little silver, making it known there would be more if they could guarantee that the fishing boat be there when she signalled for it.  If she did.  So now she was slowly making her way upwards, over slippery, mist-slimed rocks, painfully making her way upwards.

            The island seemed devoid of life of any kind.  It looked like nothing more than a lifeless, haphazard pile of stone.  Rocks that looked solid would move when she placed her weight on them, and the mist seemed to thicken as she rose above the water level.  The dampness seemed to clog her lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

            Talana sighed when she finally broke through the mist and came up into the sun.  Its golden light warmed her as she looked around.  The body of the Dragon Isle, she decided, was as harsh as its wet feet.  From her vantage point she could see nothing but mist below, but the spine of the barren ridge rose up and away, stretching northwards.  Keesha fluttered around and hopped from rock to rock, cheeping at her whether in encouragement or scolding, she could not tell.  All she wanted to do was to go back to the ship and leave, but, sighing, she continued up the interminable slope along the ridge.

            It was not too long before she had to rest, her legs and arms aching from the climb.  Leaning back against a sun-warmed rock, she settled herself as comfortably as she could, allowing her eyes to become heavy as she basked.  On the point of sleep she felt the rock beneath her rumble and begin to give way.  Moving faster than she imagined possible she hurled herself off and to the right, thudding into the trembling rocks around her.  Panicking, she whirled as a dim crash sounded far beneath her.  A large hole was left where she had been resting, a few smaller rocks tumbling into the void, but the larger ones around seemed to be stable.  Cautiously testing the stability of the rocks around her, she approached the hole, ready to leap away if any showed the least sign of movement.  Peering over the lower edge of the hole and into the dimness below, she could just make out that she was over a large cavern.  Its interior was lit by shafts of light, from holes much like the one she had made, and the walls were covered with a  web-like tracery of cracks and faults.  No wonder the rock had given way. The whole place looked as if it would shatter and collapse at any minute.  Beneath her she could just make out the floor of the cave, scattered with rock. Talana caught her breath. There, in the centre of the cavern, was a dragon.

            It looked dead. Then she noticed a faint plume of breath that rose steaming from its nostrils.  It was magnificent; Talana had never seen such a beautiful creature before, the multi-coloured feathers of its wings bright even in the dim light, its scaly hide luminous.  A desperate need filled Talana; she had to reach the dragon, get down and into the cave, and try to find the egg.  It was impossible from her present perch, she had to move lower. Fixing in her minds’ eye the location of one of the other openings she leaned back from the hole.

            “Come on, Keesha, let’s go.” she said to the bird.  The falcon cocked her head to one side and cheeped questioningly, but happily followed when Talana edged away from the gaping hole she had created and began to angle down and around the massive hump of the Isle of the Dragon.  It was still hard work clambering over the rocks, but the young woman managed to negotiate her way around to the opposite side of the isle, desperate to find the opening.

            Finally, she found an entrance.  Keesha refused to go inside, which did not surprise Talana; the thought of having to worm her way through a narrow tunnel of unstable rock did not exactly thrill her, either.  Still, the dragon was there, and she needed to be there, so she took a deep breath and squeezed herself inside the entrance, trying to stay as quiet as possible as she slithered through.  She popped out behind a pile of rock out of sight of the dragon, and immediately put up a spell of invisibility.   Hopeful that the massive dragon would not notice her, she crept around the side of the cave, treading carefully over the loose rock.

            She reached a point level with the dragon’s head.  Its eyes were closed, the warmth from its body permeating the cave and making it seem not so damp or claustrophobic.  Talana was unsure how to feel; she was wary, but not really frightened.  It was so beautiful that she had to stop to admire it.  The long neck wound around its side, and its body was curled up, the tail curling back along towards the head.  The wings, folded neatly against the body, were banded with intense colours.  The very tip of the tail was twitching slightly, the only sign of life other than the dragon’s breath.  Talana forgot her invisibility spell as she looked at the dragon, lost in the wonder that such a huge, beautiful animal, could exist.  Drawing closer, she could not imagine anything else so beautiful or majestic.

            The dragon opened one jewelled eye and looked at her.  She froze instantly, desperate to restore the invisibility spell around her.  It did not seem to work.  The steady gaze from the multicoloured eye held her, the pupil dilated in the dim light.  Gradually she lost her panic and regarded the dragon with more courage.  Then she noticed a dark stain on the dragon’s body, an oozing blackness that pooled beneath it.  Realisation hit her.

            “You’re hurt!” she cried out, and strode forward to the great creature, losing her fear completely and finding it replaced with outrage and concern.  The dragon allowed her to approach, raising its head slowly and looking at her with both bright eyes.  Talana placed one hand gently on the dragon’s side, feeling its warm hide and catching a strong whiff of its musky scent.  She ran her hand towards the wound, but could not reach it, as it was high on the dragon’s massive side.  How had she not seen so much blood?

            “What has happened here?” she asked the creature, unsure if it she was speaking to herself or the dragon.  The dragon moved its head slowly, coming so close that she could feel its hot breath against her face.  As she looked into the fascinating kaleidoscopic colours of its eyes, she saw in her mind what had happened.  The dragon’s thoughts came in pictures, almost words.

            The things she saw appalled her.  From the dragon’s viewpoint she saw twenty priests of the Dragon-Queen – the priests of Eshtan – enter the cavern and immediately begin setting up an intricate spell to protect themselves.  She felt the anger of the dragon as they dared to approach her, felt her channel some of her energy away from her main task in order to protect herself, and felt her frustration as she found her power blocked by the spells of the priest.  With her sorcery ineffective, the dragon used more instinctive means to protect herself, and her egg, which was snug and safe beneath her.  Wing beating and tail lashing, the dragon hissed and fought the priests bodily, killing some, yet there remained one priest at the centre of the group who was the focus of their power.  He remained alive and unperturbed by the carnage around him, concentrating on the sorcery that attacked and weakened the dragon.

            Exhaustion finally overtook the great dragon.  One priest hefted a cruel-looking spear, a weapon which throbbed with evil power and the only weapon which could injure the dragon.  It pierced her side – Talana relived the pain in the dragon’s memory, causing her to cry out – and the great creature collapsed, mortally wounded.  Even injured, the dragon tried to fight as the priests claimed her egg, raking one from head to foot with her claws.  But they took the egg anyway, and those that were left laughed as they left the cavern, the dragon shrieking in outrage and pain.

            “They stole the egg?” Talana felt tears in her eyes as she looked up at the dragon.  “I will get it back for you, I swear!” she said fervently.  Anger and determination swept through her.  How dare they do such a thing to this wonderful creature?  She would make them pay.

            Please, find my egg.  They have taken it to the palace.  Find my egg! 

            Talana started as the pictures merged into words, the dragon’s soft voice whispering in her mind.

            “I will find it for you, and I will bring it back here.” She replied, reaching out to touch the dragon’s soft, warm muzzle.  The dragon looked at her sadly for a moment.

            I will not live much longer.  You must find my egg, and then find the Queen’s daughter.  They are our only hope of restoring balance.  You must go quickly, for once I am dead there will be no one protecting this land from the evil of Eshtan.  I have fought the dark power as much as I am able to without my Queen’s help, but I am dying, and when I die, she will know.  They will try to take her over completely.  They will have the power to do this then.  Only the egg my daughter, and the Queen’s daughter, will be able to save this land and restore it.  Please, find my egg.

            Talana felt a rush of feelings that were not her own storm through her – pain, loss, determination and strangely, calm.  She knew that she must help the dragon, knew she must succeed. The image of heads on pikes, an echo of her dream, flashed before her and she knew with certainty that if she failed to find and steal the egg from the Eshtanis or find the Queen’s daughter, then that dream would come true.  In a flash of realisation, she knew what the dragon’s calmness was. It was death.

            “No!” she screamed, as the dragon’s great head came to gently rest on the floor at her feet.  She hugged the warm head, tears pouring down her face as she felt the life drain from the dragon’s body. Desperately, she summoned her power, to try to push back the death, force life back into the great body.  The dragon opened her eyes, life flickering back for one glorious instant.  In that moment she saw that the dragon placed all her hope within her; those beautiful eyes held hers as the life sparked and then dimmed once more, overcome by evil.  Talana stayed with the dragon, and cried out as the last breath shuddered through the great body.

            She sat holding the dragon’s head for a long moment, saying farewell to the creature.  She had never felt more like a failure, unable to heal the dragon or save her life.  Still, she had made a promise to the dragon and would keep it – she had to get back to the Nightstar.  She would track down the egg, and steal it, and take it to its rightful owner.

 

 

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