The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 61
The Thief of Ashlon - Part 2 (chapter 20)

“Thankyou for bringing me here so quickly, I’m sorry it was so far out of your way.” Talana said to the captain of the Nightstar.   They had sailed at her insistence to Tashmar – not without additional cost to her, but then, she knew that all the money in the world would not be able to help her if she failed to find the Dragon’s egg.  The Dragon had told her that it was in Tashmar, so to Tashmar she had come.

“That’s alright, young miss – gives us a chance to see a little more of the delights of this city.  Now, when we get back to Bruna, you want me to see the Innkeeper?” he asked.

“Yes, please. If you could give him this.” She said, handing him a letter.  “It’s only about taking my horse back to Darr.”

“Alright, well, good luck, whatever it is that you’re doing.” The gruff sailor said, sniffing a little.

“Thankyou, captain. I’ll need it.  Farewell to you and your crew, and thanks for your kindness.” she said, before turning and quickly disappearing into the throng of people crowding the docks.

It was all so familiar to her – the smells, the crowds, everything from her childhood was here along the Tashmar river, in this city.  She was half comforted by the familiarity, and half daunted, for always as a child she had lived with the fear of her father.  He was dead now, so she could at least breathe a little more easily.

Thinking of her father for the first time since the shock of his death led her to disturbing thoughts.  She had not known that the brutish, dark man who had physically beaten her so many times had such strong associations with the Dragon Queen’s church.  It did make sense – he was a perfect Eshtani, cruel, greedy and selfish.  Yet he had not been who she had thought he was.    He had shape-shifted into a thin, balding man, a sorcerer, and a high priest, no less.   Did all the Queen’s high priests live double lives, where they could indulge their peculiar sadistic passions upon innocent people? It made her shiver just to think how he had treated her and her mother.

Why her mother would have put up with him, she did not know.  Talana could only judge that her birth had been unplanned, unintentional and unwanted.  A young prostitute with a child to support was no rarity, but Bel must have felt some obligation to her.  Still, Talana could not feel too bad about her mother – both her parents had caused her enough pain and suffering for her to never feel remorse over their fates.

She continued to think about her life as she walked through the streets of Tashmar, deliberately falling back into her old habit of stealing what she needed when she needed it.  She would need the practice. All the time she kept an eye out for signs of the underground church – she thought she should meet up with Maani and tell her what was going on, perhaps find out if the old woman knew a little more about what the Dragon had told her, and what was happening in the city.  There was a tension in the air that had not been present when she had been in Tashmar last, a strain, something in the way the people rushed about their business and did not interfere in anyone else’s.  She noted that palace guards were very much in evidence, and that they too, showed the same edginess as the rest of the city folk. What had happened?

Talana walked until she found herself out of the immediate area of the city that she knew, all the way to the giant central square with its gorey spikes.  It took her until late afternoon, but she found the signs she had been looking for and started down through all the checkpoints necessary for her to reach Maani and the underground church.    When she finally reached the familiar cavern with its hussle and activity, she was led straight through to the Elder.

            “Well, Talana! I wondered when we would see you next.” Maani said, rising from her desk and clasping her rosewood cane in one hand.  She extended the other to the young woman.  “Here, sit down. Tell me what you have been up to, and if I’m not mistaken, how I can help you.”  Her wizened face beamed.      

            “It’s good to see you again, Maani.” Talana said quickly, taking a chair.  “I’m here to – well, this sounds a bit silly, but I found the Queen’s Dragon and she asked me to find her egg – it has been stolen by the priests of Eshtan.”  Talana spoke quickly, hoping that Maani would believe her.  The old woman looked at her closely for a second and then shook her head, as if in confusion.

            “I’m astounded, Talana.” Maani finally said.  “The importance of what you have just said leaves me almost speechless.”  The older woman looked up at the roof of the cavern, obviously distracted and distressed.  “No one even knew if the Dragon was still alive, or where it was.  And you say you spoke to it?”

            “To her.” Talana corrected automatically.  “And she no longer lives.  She died in front of me, fatally wounded by the Eshtani priests. She told me that her egg had been stolen.” 

            “Dead?” There was a deep note of sorrow in her voice. “The dragon is dead?  It can’t be…that means that the Queen is completely unprotected…” Maani’s voice trailed away and her brow furrowed as her gaze turned contemplative. 

            “What?” Talana prompted, after a moment of silence from the older woman.  “What exactly do you mean, completely unprotected? Isn’t Darrukin there to protect her?”

            Maani sighed and looked away for a moment.  It was obvious to Talana that the older woman was concealing something unpleasant.  When the elder turned her eyes back to her, they were full of pain.  Deep worry lines etched themselves into her face.

            “With the dragon dead the Queen has no one to help her fight the evil that assails her.  Ashlon has no one else to turn to for help, other than the Guardian.  I hope for all our sakes that Darrukin is alright down there in the palace dungeons. I hope he is still alive, and that somehow, he can manage to save the Queen.  But if the Eshtanis manage to kill him,” she stumbled over the words, “I am afraid of the consequences.”

            Talana jumped to her feet. “Darrukin is in the palace dungeons? What happened?” she demanded, afire with frantic worry.  Maani related what she knew -  a public version released by the palace which indicated that he had attacked the Queen and would therefore be put on trial for his life.  She supplemented it with the few details she could glean from her spies in the palace.

            “He will be put on trial, once the Queen has recovered from the attack, so the palace says.  You know what that means, don’t you, Talana?”  A fleeting image of Asikei’s head passed through both their memories.

            “All too well, unfortunately.” the younger woman replied.  “When was this?”

            “About a week ago.  I think Darrukin had only been in the palace a day, and that it was his first audience with the Queen.  I do have some spies in the palace, but whatever happened, they could not tell me much more than I have told you.”        

            “But that was when the dragon died – I was there, it has taken me that long to get back from the Dragon isle.  Would that have anything to do with it?  The death of the dragon?”

            “It would seem to fit.  The Queen has not been seen in public since then, ostensibly because Darrukin physically attacked her and she needs time to recover.  But those I do know in the palace have reported that she screams more often now, out of the ordinary even for her madness.  It may be that the death of her dragon has sent the Queen quite out of control.”  Maani looked at Talana with pure distress.  “With the dragon dead, it will be only days before the Eshtanis try to take Ashlon completely.  They will execute Darrukin if they get the chance.’

            “What have you done to help him?” Talana asked directly. 

            Maani raised an eyebrow.  “I have organised the churches – called for an emergency meeting – it will take place tonight, in fact – to draw together what support we may from the sorcerers we have on the side of the Goddess.  Darrukin will need help if he’s been disabled - ”

            Talana cut her off quickly, motioning an apology for her abruptness.  “How long do we have until this trial?” she asked. At last she realised why the city was so on edge. They were expecting blood again, the blood of a provincial lord’s son. Who knew what would happen when Lord Darrukin found out?  Talana needed to know for a more desperate reason.  The dragon had spoken to her, told her to find her egg – and the princess! -  before it was too late.

            “Two weeks, perhaps.”

            “Maani, listen carefully.  I’ve just remembered what else the Dragon told me.  It might help you, and it might help me if you know.  The Dragon told me to find her egg – and the Queen’s daughter.  She said they were the land’s only hope.”

            “The Queen’s daughter?  We thought she had been murdered long ago.  Did the dragon say anything more about the princess?”

            “No, she did not get the chance. She died.  Do you know anything about this princess, where she might be? I have no doubt the Eshtanis must be holding her – and the dragon’s egg.  Any clues?”

            “None at all, unfortunately.  We only knew that the Queen and her Champion did have one daughter before he died. It was not long before all the changes started and the evil really began to take over in the palace.  I would have thought that if the Eshtanis had been able to kill the Champion, then one toddler would not have posed a problem. She disappeared.  You’re probably correct; if she’s alive, she’s being held somewhere – who knows in what state?  Their power would be unimaginable if they could corrupt the dragon, the princess and the Guardian.” 

            “Darrukin would never allow himself to be corrupted.” Talana said firmly.  He would rather die, and deny them his power.”

            “That may in fact be what they want.  Look what happened to the present Queen when her champion died.”

            “But if I can find this princess, and the egg, and bring them together with Darrukin, then what? That would help, wouldn’t it?”

            “I’m sure it would.  If the princess is not already corrupted by Eshtan, then she should be able to fight the evil.  Better still to have Darrukin with her, for he could protect her while she fought.”

            “If there is a princess, that means that Darrukin was never meant for the present Queen.” Talana said. She wondered if Darrukin would ever know that before he died.

            “If the princess lives, then, of course – she will be his queen.  Talana, if you can find the egg, and her, then even without Darrukin there would be help for her, the church – the church would try to protect her!  You must try and find them both, if you can!”

            Maani looked at her with such intensity that the younger woman could do nothing else but nod in acquiescence.

            “Finding things seems to be my role in life, you know.” Talana observed drily, drawing a hint of a smile from Maani.  “Alright, I had better get on.  I will be able to rely on the Church for support when I need it?”

            “No one has a higher priority than you, my dear girl.  If you need help, you know where to find it. Leave a message, or instructions, and we’ll carry them out. Someone will be there to help wherever and whenever.  I can’t emphasise more that what you do will save or damn Ashlon – you must find the egg. You must find the princess, if she lives.  They are our only hope, and Darrukin’s.

            Talana nodded and turned to the door.  “I’ll find them both.”

            She left Maani’s office with her head spinning. Find a princess who had not been seen since the Queen fell to evil two decades ago? Find a dragon’s egg – what did one look like?  Her stomach growled, reminding her that she had more basic needs to attend to.  She swerved and made her way to the kitchen caves.

            Sitting in the warm cavern, with three cooks bustling about her, she tried to think logically about the situation.  The smell of baking bread did little to keep her mind on track, but the meat sandwich she ate sharpened her thinking.  If she had just stolen a dragon’s egg, what would she do with it? Where would she hide it? What would it need?  An egg would need to be kept warm, so that the dragonet did not die – assuming the Eshtanis wanted the thing alive.  What had Maani said? That they would have all three – dragon, guardian and queen, if the held the egg, Darrukin and the princess.  Of course they would keep the egg alive.  The centre of evil came from the palace – that she knew.  So, logically, the egg would be there, too. Warmth, security, the centre of evil.  She would look for the egg in the palace.

            .  Talana took a huge bite of her sandwich, and chewed slowly, thinking.  Darrukin was definitely in the palace, the egg was probably in the palace – then why would the princess be anywhere else?  It made her shudder to think of some poor woman, locked inside a dingy cell for years and years, or confined to her rooms, never allowed out.  If the princess had not been seen, taken away from the palace, surely someone would have know, or seen, or been aware of it. The word would have got out somehow. Talana felt a twinge of pity for the princess, denied her freedom, if she had not already been denied her life.

            A young princess captive in the palace would surely have been corrupted by Eshtan.  Talana’s thoughts turned darkly towards such a possibility.  What if she did find the princess, but she was already evil? Then it would be up to Darrukin to help his queen, and the dragon. She still had to bring them together if she could.  The palace was the logical place to start looking, if she could get in.  She may even be able to help Darrukin, she thought wistfully.

            Darrukin’s situation worried her more than she could have admitted to anyone.  In the palace dungeon?  All her life, if someone was taken away or placed in the custody of the palace guards, it meant their death.  She could not let that happen – no matter that he was the Guardian – whoever he was, she loved him and she would not sit by and let him be killed.  Not without a fight.  His trial would be a farce – everyone knew that.  There had not been justice within the palace for years.  The trial was an excuse to publicly demonise and then execute the victim, that was all. No right of appeal.  No justice.  In a flash she was blazing with fury, the sandwich tossed aside. She would not let that happen to him. She could not.

            Abruptly leaving the kitchen, she sought the comfort of a side chamber, where she could think and plan, making preparations for her entry into the palace.   Maani joined her, conveying messages to those she knew inside the palace, readying Talana’s way in.  The younger woman’s mind whirled with possibilities and the danger, but through it all was the strident, insistent knowledge that she had to save Darrukin.

            As she retired to a handy bed, she could not help but feel a strange calm wash over her.  Whatever happened, whether she found the egg, the princess and was somehow able to bring them to Darrukin, she knew that what she was doing was right.  Though the thought of Darrukin with another woman hurt her dreadfully, she realised that as far as he was concerned, she had no hope anyway. All of a sudden she felt a flush of guilt – here she was, feeling sorry for herself when the fate of Ashlon lay with her. Hurt though it might, she vowed she would find the princess, and bring her to Darrukin, so that her dream – the dreadful dream of fields of heads on pikes – would never come true.  It was the Goddess who had chosen her to make this happen, to facilitate Darrukin’s Guardianship by helping him find the ring, and now she would help him find his Queen.  It was his life, and the life of the land that was at stake –she would do whatever she could to aid him.  She had to reconcile herself to the fact that she was the thief, the one who stole – and the one who found.

            Talana was awake and off before the dawn.  Maani told her where to meet one of her spies, and soon she was following a stranger into the depths of the palace, given false papers explaining that she was a trainee kitchenhand.  It was well known that the Queen kept a sumptuous table and that needed staff.  The palace guards, still half asleep as they started their watch, or dead tired at the end of it, waved her through their checkpoints without even so much as checking her papers.

            The grounds were huge, so she kept a careful eye on where she was going and remained close to the spy.  The woman did not talk much, and Talana did not even know her name.  It was probably safer that way, she thought.  They made their slow way to one side of the great palace within the enclosure, just as the sun lifted over the horizon and caught the building in a stream of pink and golden lights.  The palace shone gold, making Talana stop and catch her breath with the beauty of it. For one brief moment, she thought she could see the face of the Goddess reflected in the palace. How could anything evil exist inside this wondrous place? 

            “Come on!” the other woman urged.  Shaking her head, Talana refocussed and kept going.

            Once down inside the kitchens, she helped out with the other kitchenhands, working hard and making sure she was seen by the superintendants.  They questioned her, but Maani’s spy deftly deflected their queries once the basics were answered.  She scrubbed and chopped and stirred and cleaned just as diligently as anyone else, all the while keeping a surreptitious eye out for the movements of guards and other staff. 

            Assisted as she was by Maani’s spy, she soon found herself on breakfast detail for the guards and prisoners of the palace.  With the same subdued manner as every other servant in the palace, Talana followed the cart which carried food for the prisoners, into the depths of the palace.  She took careful note of the way, memorising each turn and paying particular attention to guard stations she passed.  It was clear that the dungeons were re-used storerooms, with added security – strong doors had been cemented in roughly over carefully crafted stone from another time.  A flash of anger went through her – how dare the Eshtanis deface this beautiful palace!  Despite her anger she did as she was told, ferrying meals to the prisoners while the more senior servants paid attention to the guards.  It was her chance to find Darrukin.

            Three levels down, in perhaps the darkest, dingiest part of the dungeons, she found him. She had begun to give up hope, thinking that one of the other hands must have served him, though she was extraordinarily quick and adept at serving the food and returning before the others had finished their allotted cells.  Luckily for her, most of the kitchenhands did not think too quickly, or they would have complained about her disrupting their solid routine.

            Darrukin was slumped against one wall, sitting dejectedly with one hand covering his face.  When she slid open the food grate, she checked to see if there were any other prisoners in the cell.  No one else was around.

            “Psst! It’s not all that bad, you know1” she said, keeping her voice low.  Darrukin’s head jerked up.  She pushed the breakfast bowl through the grate and stood up, opening the guard’s grate in the middle of the door, and smiled at him. The light was so poor that she could barely see him, but she did see him smile as he recognised her.

            “What are you doing here, you’re not in trouble, are you?” he asked, coming the grate and putting his fingers through the mesh. She twined her own fingers with his and they stood for a moment, eyes searching each other’s face.

            “I’m here to find a few things for you, Darrukin.” she replied eventually, “I haven’t got much time, but I needed to know how you were. You’re alright? What happened to you, that you ended up here?”

            He grunted.  “I’ve asked myself that same question for days. The bare facts are that I was in a private audience with the Queen, and I tried to help her with my sorcery.  I failed. That slimy, evil toad Seri – the Queen’s chief advisor – told everyone I had attacked her.  I don’t know, she just went mad, and I couldn’t help her. My power did not work!  What am I supposed to do?” he asked, desperation in his voice. 

            Talana took a deep breath, looking around once more to make sure they were alone.  “The time the Queen went mad, I think it was the time that her dragon died.  It was not your fault, Darrukin.  The dragon fought the evil in the land, and that which attacked the Queen, as best she could, but she was injured by the Eshtanis and died.”
            “How do you know this?”

            “Because I found her.  What is more, I have to find the egg that the Eshtanis stole from her, and then find you a princess that hasn’t been seen for twenty or so years.  It’s why I’m here.  Maani and I figured out that you were never meant to be this Queen’s guardian; that is probably why your sorcery did not work.  In any case, I must find these things before your trial, and try to bring you all together, so that you, she and the new dragon can fight this evil.

            “But-”

            “I can hear someone. Whatever, you do, don’t lose heart. I’ll find the egg. I’ll get you out of here, and bring you all together.” She glanced up the corridor and saw the cart in the distance.  “I must go now.”

            “Talana, I - ”

            “I love you.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

            Reluctantly, she slid back the grate, a look of pain crossing her face.  Running back down the corridor, she caught up to the cart and dutifully doled out more slop to other unfortunates caught in the prison.

            Darrukin recoiled from the door as the grate slid shut, staggering backwards slightly.  He crouched on the dirty floor by his breakfast, picked up the bowl and took a mouthful of the soggy mess.  Forcing himself to eat the vile goo, he allowed himself to think.  What Talana had said sounded crazy, but he hoped it was true.  What had she said, exactly?  A princess and a dragon’s egg to be found.  Pushing the empty bowl aside, he leaned back against the damp cell and sneezed. The small cell – three paces by three paces, exactly – was not large enough for him to lie down on the dirty straw to sleep, but that was not an issue for him. He’d slept much rougher, and been treated worse.  He was still in shock at seeing Talana.  Still in shock at her sudden appearance and at what she had said.

            Darrukin had done little but think of how he had failed his Queen, exploring all the possibilities in the interview he had with her where he might have been able to help, give her more power, protect her, defeat the evil.  Then along comes Talana saying that she was not his Queen anyway, and that there is a princess who is.  He frowned.  A new queen? His queen – the one he was born to protect.  The concept seemed so strange after so long trying to reconcile himself to the fact that he would have to partner the present queen.  Relief flooded through him and he sat, shuddering, eyes rimmed with grateful tears.

            Talana’s words explained why his power had not worked, why his ring had remained inert upon his finger.  The Queen was not his queen. There was another. And what about the Queen’s dragon dying - was that what he had seen within the Queen’s rotting heart, the power of the Dragon sustaining her, helping her to fight? It must have been. No wonder she went mad when the creature died.

            He wondered how Talana had managed to find the dragon and find out what to do next.  Admiration for her filled his heart. Throughout his stay within the cells he had kept himself sane by thinking of her – guiltily, for he could not help thinking that their love must have tainted his ability to help the Queen. His heart had leapt at the sight of her, his pulse was still racing – he loved her still. Yet she had said that she was there to find him another woman, the one who really was his queen.  He winced. How painful must that be for her?

            He wondered when he would next see her.  How could he help her achieve what she had come for, stuck in his cell?  He had tried sorcery on the cell door, and on the whole cell, but had found an intricate and very strong spell placed around him, no doubt by Seri himself to ensure his continued capture.  Well, if he could not help Talana by freeing himself, he could at least prepare for the battle ahead, the fight that he knew would come between himself and Seri should Talana succeed.

            Talana came down again the following morning, this time much earlier than she had the day before.

            “I’ve dodged the guards and the other kitchenhands,” she explained, “I still don’t have a lot of time, but I wanted to see you gain.” There was a catch in her voice which Darrukin heard clearly.  He smiled, bringing a glow from the stone around him to light them.

            “I’ve been practising my sorcery in here. It’s a pity I can’t actually free myself, but I think I’m getting better at focussing my power.”

            “Good. You’ll probably need to.” She paused a moment, head cocked to one side.  “I can’t hear anyone yet, so I’ve got a few minutes more.  Would you have any idea of where a dragon’s egg would be hidden?” she asked plaintively.  ‘I’ve been searching all night, dodging the patrols, even going outside the palace buildings. I can’t seem to find anything, and I’ve had a few close calls with the guards now.”

            “How big is the egg, do you know?” Darrukin asked.

            “Not really. From the dint in the ground where the dragon lay, I would say it could be about half as big as me. I don’t think it would be bigger than that.  It would also need to be kept warm to keep the dragonet alive, if that is a consideration.” she answered.

            “Why do you think it is here at the palace?”

            “The Dragon said it had been taken to Tashmar. Also, you’re here. Maani believes that the Eshtanis may try to corrupt you, the dragon, and the princess – if she is alive. It would give them immense power. It seemed logical that they would bring it here, where Eshtani power is based.  If that doesn’t work, they’ll kill you all.”

            “That makes sense. Hmmm.”

            “Oh, blast, I’ve got to go again. Think about it, will you?” she said, cheekily blowing him a kiss through the grate. He couldn’t help grinning back at her.

            He did think about the problem for her – he had plenty of time to do that.  If the egg needed warmth, where could it be hidden that was still accessible? Easily guarded? If he were trying to keep the egg alive, where would he put it?  At home, in Darr, he would put it in the hypocaust – near the furnace room. It was always hot there, providing heating and hot water for the castle. He would bet that the palace had something similar, and that that would be where Talana could find the egg.  How would it be guarded? With priests and sorcery, as well as guards.  As good as she was with medical sorcery, he doubted she would be able to penetrate such defences, thief though she was.  He would have to be free to help her.  He resolved to talk with her about it when she next came.

 

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