The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 62
The Thief of Ashlon - Part 2 (chapter 20)

            It was two days later when she finally did come back.  The time had passed so slowly for him, being so anxious to talk to her, fretting within the confines of his cell until he saw her face peeping through the grate once more. 

            “Talana!”

            “Sorry, Darrukin, I haven’t been able to get away from the kitchens much.  The supervisors there are getting stricter; I think the Queen is almost ready for another public appearance.” She let the sentence hang, and he was aware of her meaning.  They did not have much time in which to find the egg or the princess – his trial, and execution, if it went that way, could be in a matter of days.

            “Alright, have you managed to find any clues to the whereabouts of either the egg or the princess? Has Maani been of any help?”

            “I haven’t had much contact with her. I’ve done my best to search for both but I am completely stumped.  I’ve searched some of the apartments for the princess, but there doesn’t appear to be anywhere that is particularly guarded or hidden away. I don’t actually think there are that many people living here in the palace grounds, but certainly I can’t find any trace. I would have thought that a princess would be here, though, kept under control somewhere. Perhaps she is already an Eshtani?”  Talana suddenly sounded very disheartened.  Darrukin put his hand through the bars, taking hand and squeezing it reassuringly.

            “Well, I have an idea which might help us.  The egg, I think I may know where it may be hidden.”

            “Where?” Talana’s voice was suddenly more animated.

            “There must be a large hypocaust system here to heat the palace and all its hot water.  Somewhere near the furnace room would be constantly hot, it would be a logical place to keep the egg if they wanted the dragonet alive.”

            “Brilliant!  I’ll take a look as soon as I can. Ah, how do you think I’ll find it?”

“I suppose it would be on a lower level, and close to a water source, to make the plumbing system more efficient. That’s my guess. It’s how we have it at home.”  Darrukin frowned, feeling a pang of homesickness.  He looked at her through the bars.  “It will probably be guarded by sorcery, priests and guards, if it is that important to the Eshtanis.” He watched her face darken.

“I guess I’ll have to deal with that when I come to it, if I can.” she replied.

“Or you cold help me escape and we will go there together.  I’ll do my best to counteract any sorcery and fight the guards while you get the egg.”

She smiled at him, then cast a furtive glance over her shoulder. 

“Would you believe it, they are early!” she whispered, indicating the coming crews of kitchenhands.  “I think your idea is a good one. There are plenty of places you can hide once I figure out a way to get you out of here.  I’ll be back1” she flashed a grin at him as she disappeared into the gloom, and once again Darrukin felt empty.

That night, when the palace was much quieter and the patrolling guards that much easier to hear, Talana made her way down to where she thought the hypocaust would be.   She began at the kitchens, a familiar place by now, with the huge cool rooms and storerooms branching off from the main cooking and preparation areas.  Too cool, no heat there, she reasoned, and backtracked to find another corridor, following a steady stream of servants.  It took her to the laundries, where the great vats of hot water were agitated by harried staff on night shift, where she was able to duck and weave through the steamy rooms without attracting too much attention.  At least it was hot, she thought; looking around the various rooms to find where the heat source lay.   Pipes lined the walls and disappeared downwards.  Therefore, so would she.

Sidling out of one of the exits she scouted around, looking for stairs that lead down.  Peeping around a corner at the end of the corridor where it joined another passage she had to back up quickly as a patrol of guards marched by.  With her invisibility spell cloaking her, they did not notice, but her heart beat loudly in her ears even so.  To be caught now would be disastrous.  Following them quietly at a distance, she saw them turn sharply and descend. Marking the spot, she waited a few moments before following them, reaching a wide staircase.  Cautiously she descended, ready to bolt at the slightest sign of danger.  There was a glow coming from passageway beneath; and she could hear the murmuring of voices. As the staircase turned she took care to remain silent and as hidden as she could. The stairs descended yet another level, but on the floor she was on Talana could see the guards down a passageway of hewn stone roughly plastered over.  It looked as if they were doing a handover – she could see more guards than she followed down.  A door opened next to the guards, and with an imperious command a white-clad priest strode out. Fast as she could Talana ran back up the stairs and through to the laundries, anonymous and out of sight. Excitement began to build within her – she knew she had found what she was looking for.  The hypocaust was there, and in its warm heart, the dragon’s egg. 

But how to get to it? She needed Darrukin, that much was sure.  And the princess – all her searching so far had proved fruitless.  No one in the dungeons looked as if they were the right age – there were few women anyway.  And her surreptitious searching of the palace apartments had not been any more successful.  Perhaps the princess was already being held with the egg? It was the only conclusion that Talana could draw, if the princess was indeed alive.

Her morning was unusually busy in the kitchens, as some large orders had come through from the housekeeper and all hands were needed to scrub, chop and prepare vegetables, portion meats and bake breads.  The Queen must be entertaining, was the gossip, but Talana was not so sure. Still, prisoners had to be fed, so by midday, she was on her usual rounds doling out food to the prisoners. Her team had pulled up outside Darrukin’s corridor, when a large contingent of palace guards – the Queen’s special contingent, no less – pushed them out of the way roughly.  The cart was sent clattering into a cell door, the other kitchenhands scurrying out of the way.

“Hey! Careful!” Talana shouted, ducking the backhand that the squad leader sent in her direction and hoping to alert Darrukin, if he could hear her.  Terrified, she kept her head down, avoiding the supercilious gaze of the priest that was with the squad.  What could she do? They marched straight to Darrukin’s cell where the priest chanted, and something black and alive seemed to leap from his hands through the door. 

It was no surprise that Darrukin was held between two guards when the squad marched back up the corridor.  He was chained, but the metal was only for show. The real restraint upon him was the spell that Talana had seen the priest throw at him.  Their eyes locked momentarily as he passed; she saw he was calm.  Determined to help, she abandoned her duties and followed.

He must be going to trial, and that was why the kitchens were so busy – guests were arriving.  As they ascended the various passageways she could only cheer him on silently as she watched him throw off the restraining spell.  He did not struggle, nor did the priest realise that the spell was broken.

He was taken to the audience hall, the huge room where the Queen’s throne sat amid a thousand palace guards and a somewhat lesser number of the general public.  Talana noted sourly that the occasion had to be a public one, because of the position of the detainee – a Lord’s son – he was not one that could be dismissed lightly, not when news of his supposed crime had been broadcast to the world.  Besides, the Queen would have to show that she had recovered from the attack, that she was inviolate.

The dais was set up as a court.  Darrukin was marched to a dock where he remained chained and surrounded by palace guards.  Green livery was everywhere, around the crowd, lining the walls, each guard with a short sword.  Talana did her best to slip unnoticed into the crowd, making herself as invisible as she could, but kept only a short distance from the doorway.

The trial commenced with a fanfare of trumpets, the Queen entering and sitting on her throne.  A tall man in a dark robe, who Talana thought must be the advisor Seri whom Darrukin had spoke of, stood a short distance behind the Queen. He was the most prominent of her entourage, who filed in obediently after them.  When all of the Queen’s followers were seated, the tall advisor stepped forward and addressed the assembled gathering.

“Our dear Queen has been the victim of an outrageous attach!” he began.  “The perpetrator has been caught and we will have justice!”  There were several oohs and aahhs from the crowd, but no one was really fooled.  “I present Her Majesty with a list of charges against this man, this Lord’s son.” The advisor sneered.  He turned, the scroll in his hand being passed on to the Queen, who handed it on to a lackey to read out.

“Do you, Lord Darrukin, deny that you attacked the Queen’s person on the aforesaid day?” the tall advisor thundered, using his dark cape with a theatrical flourish.

Darrukin looked  back at him steadily.  “Yes, I deny it.”

“You lie even now, Lordling!”  Seri sneered, turning his back on Darrukin to face the Queen.  “I beg of you to sentence this man to death for his heinous crime against your person.  Nothing less would suffice to pay for the sacrilege he has attempted to commit.”

The Queen said nothing at first.  Talana was not at all sure that she actually would, but then her voice, thin and reedy, screamed out above the murmur of the crowd.

“He will die!”

The crowd let go a collective breath. Talana shuddered.  What the Queen had said was not unexpected, but her voice was not natural.  Talana could sense the insanity behind the woman’s façade.  She was surprised that a woman in her mid-fifties could look so young, whether it was painted on or she really was well preserved, Talana was not close enough to see.  What she could see of the monarch was her hair, her slim figure, and her growing restlessness and irritability.   The Queen seemed to writhe in her seat, as if afflicted by something that Talana could not see, making her movements jerky and puppet-like.  She began to mumble to herself as the advisor turned back to Darrukin, her talk the talk of a madwoman.

With a suddenness that caught even the advisor Seri by surprise, the Queen flung herself from her throne and towards the dock, trembling and raving and seeming to fall into a fit before Darrukin.  The young Lord could only look on her with what Talana thought was pity, before the tall advisor rushed to her side and with the help of some alert palace guards, picked the Queen up.  They quickly spirited her away while the advisor turned again to the crowd.

“He attacks her still with his sorcery!” Seri shouted, and the crowd stopped its noise to listen.  Tension mounted.  “He will die tomorrow – as the Queen has ordered – tomorrow at sunset!”  The advisor turned to face Darrukin and his captors. “Take him away!”

As the squad of guards marched Darrukin off the dais and out a a side door, Talana pushed her way through the crowd to follow.  The squad seemed to be heading for the cells, but she was not certain.  She was petrified that they would take him somewhere that she had no access, where she could not help him.  A hasty plan formed in her mind.

Racing ahead of the squad through the network of corridors and passages, she grabbed some cleaning equipment from a storeroom – a mop and bucket, partially filled with water – and headed to where she hoped she would meet up with the squad as they descended to the cells.  Relief flooded through her as she heard the tramping of booted feet on the stone floor approaching; she splashed water on the floor and pretended to mop, nervously waiting for the guards and Darrukin.

They did not stop marching as they came towards her, expecting as usual, that she would move out of the way for them.  Five paces away the Guard corporal shouted at her to move as his squad advanced, and he came to the front. Talana could see that Darrukin was still restrained within the squad, but his head was up and out of the corner of her eyes she thought she saw him smile.  The corporal advanced on her, raising one arm to knock her out of the way.  She stopped mopping, looked up at him and rammed the butt of the mop squarely into his throat. He went down instantly, gasping surprise on his face, but she did not have time to see that.  She attacked the next pair of guards, this time quite aware of the shock on their faces as she kicked one in the groin and cracked the other across the face with the mop.  There was a gold flash, and within seconds the fight was over, Darrukin free and sword in hand, dead or stunned guards littered at their feet.

“Thanks, let’s go!” he said, grabbing her hand.

“No, wait – this way – towards the hypocaust, I’ve found it. Here, follow me!”  she replied, setting off at a run.   

She cut down a few levels, to evade any more palace guards.  Taking the most direct path she could, she guided them through the maze of stairs, corridor and service room until they reached the corridor to the hypocaust.  As she suspected, there were guards posted outside the door that she had seen the priest emerge from. Hurriedly she whispered this to Darrukin, filling him in.

“If you could just make us invisible, I’d like to try something.” Darrukin said, a slight grin on his face.  She nodded in agreement.  He took her hand, and, giving it a reassuring squeeze, they boldly walked up the corridor to the palace guards outside.  Talana almost dropped the invisibility spell in her panic, but calmed down when she saw that the guards were all looking in other directions than at them. Her spell was still working.  Darrukin was concentrating, mumbling something under his breath. He stopped a few paces short of the guards and flung his arms out in a broad gesture.

The guards froze where they stood, still as carved stone.  Darrukin calmly stepped between them and to the door.  It opened easily for him, and he turned to smile at Talana, who just stared.

“Quick, someone else might come along and see us.  I’ve got them caught until this door shuts again, hopefully they won’t even know that someone has got inside.  Talana picked her way through to him and they shut the door. They were in a small, deserted room, with nothing but another door at the end of it.

“I’ve even put the spell back on the door outside so that any priests coming along won’t realise, either.” He said.  Talana shot him an arch look, still slightly amazed at the boldness of his approach.

“You have been practicing, haven’t you?”

Together they started to explore, sweat beginning to bead on their foreheads as the heat from the hypocaust system hit them.  The door led to a corridor; again, there was no sign of anyone, so they quickly followed it down.   The corridor, its walls becoming rougher and less finished as they descended, twisted back around on itself.  Dim lights glowed from small baskets every so often.  Darrukin took Talana’s hand.

“Oops, careful here.” he said, coming to a sudden stop.  “There’s a barrier spell at work on this bend, see?” he explained.  Talana frowned, searching – then spotted it.

“Oh! I do see it!”

With little effort Darrukin dismissed the spell, preparing one to go in its place, subtly different to the first in case they were pursued.  His spell would not collapse so easily, and it would set off a loud clanging, hopefully giving them some warning. 

“You know, we must be right underneath the hypocaust now.” Talana said, as they moved on through the rough-hewn rock.  “This corridor is heading upwards again. I don’t know, but we should keep an eye out for some kind of room, we must be getting close.”  She stumbled on the rough floor, tripping over loose rock that had crumbled from the walls, but Darrukin’s hand kept her from falling.  Both noticed that the heat began to intensify as they moved up the corridor.

“Sure to be.” Darrukin replied, wiping sweat from his forehead. “There’s another spell – gone!” he said, then suddenly flattened himself against the tunnel wall, pulling Talana back with him.

“What is it?” she whispered urgently, frightened. Then she heard it.  Two or three people ahead, a low murmur of voices, a thrumming sound.

“Chanting. I think we are about to run into some priests.” Darrukin said, locking eyes with her in the dim light.  “Are you ready for this?”

“I made my choice long ago. There’s no turning back from here.” she replied, taking a deep breath, and boosting the invisibility spell around them.

Together they very carefully moved along the rough corridor, clinging to its side.  She was sure they would be heard, it was difficult to hide the sound of their footsteps. Yet the chanting continued unabated and she decided that the priests must be concentrating hard on what they were doing.  As they moved along, the quality of the light changed, steadily moving to an orange glow.  Its eerie intensity unnerved the young woman, but she clung to Darrukin to calm herself, thankful for his presence.  His figure was solid and reassuring.

He stopped.  They must be near another bend in the tunnel, for the glow intensified, but as yet they could not see anyone or anything.   Inching forward, Darrukin carefully looked ahead, keeping her back.

“Three priests ahead.” he said in the barest of whispers.  “They look like they are reinforcing some kind of spell.  They are sitting around something bright. The tunnel opens out into a room, but I couldn’t see what was behind the priests. It’s like there is some kind of fire between them.” he finished. 

“Do you think you can handle the three priests?”

“I don’t know, but I guess we have little choice.  There might be more priests inside, too.”

“You could probably use the practice.” Talana grinned at him. “What can I use to fight with? You’ve got your sorcery and your sword – I’ve not even got a knife.”

“How good a throw are you?” he asked.

“Why?”

“Try using these.” he said, hefting a chunk of rock in his hand that he scooped up off the floor, one of many that littered the edges of the tunnel.  Talana smiled.

“Yes, that’ll do nicely.”

As quietly as they could, they gathered some of the loose pieces of rock, chunks with sharp edges and points.  Talana edged around the corner to see her targets.  She saw what Darrukin had described, the tunnel widening out into a room, the three priests chanting around a low bowl. Behind the priests a huge ball of bright orange light glowed unnaturally.  Talana agreed that she would throw rocks first, then Darrukin would rush the priests.

Inching forward, she took careful aim and pitched her first rock at one of the priests.  Her aim was true – it hit the priest in the side, forcing a grunt. He did not stop chanting.  Calling to Darrukin, Talana threw another rock towards the three.

There was a squeal of pain as the rock hit a priest in the head, knocking her over and breaking the chant.  Once broken, the two remaining priests finally reacted to the attack.  Quickly Talana threw the rest of her small store of rocks as Darrukin rushed in, sword at the ready.  The priests drew together, summoning a spell to repel them, but Talana could see the fear on their faces as their attempt was swept aside with a  flash of gold. Petrified, the priests backed away.

“Don’t kill them, please.” Talana said, feeling a pang of pity twist through her.  She looked at the priests with her own form of sorcery – tiny little sparks of defiance still fired within them despite the layers of spells and conditioning they had submitted to.  “Darrukin, they don’t want to be here. Well, I’m not too sure about her –“ she indicated the fallen priest, “– but these two at least won’t hurt us if we free them.  Will you?” she said, ripping apart the spells that bound them with a flexing of her will. 

Darrukin looked at her, his sword still at the ready.  “We can’t take any hostages here, but I agree, there should be no killing if it’s not necessary.  But I think we should hold them. You – pick her up and the three of you sit by that wall.” He spoke directly to the priests, who were so stunned that they just nodded in submission. Taking their fallen comrade, they shuffled over to the wall, looking dazed and confused. Darrukin turned to Talana.  “Make them sleep, deeply.  I’ll bind them.”

It felt odd to use her sorcery to deliberately put someone to sleep, but she did it, bringing each priest to the edge of total unconsciousness one by one.  Sleep took them, and Darrukin bound them with a spell that would both keep them in one place and offer them some protection should palace guards rush by.

“I hope that works.” he said, smiling at Talana. “Let’s see what we can do here.”

“Caves. I hate them.” Talana commented, as she looked up around the room. The corridor, which had ended in a rough hewn tunnel, was now a man-made cave.  She could not help but think how much of her time she had spent in caves with Darrukin.  “Can you see any more spells?”

He looked around, puzzled.  “Well, I can, it’s strange.  There is a huge spell here – Seri must have constructed it.  The priests, I think, were monitoring it. Let’s see what the priests were chanting around.”

They moved towards the bowl around which the priests had stood. It was a large bowl, full of a dark, sticky-looking liquid that reminded Talana uncomfortably of blood. Orange light seemed to ball over the bowl, mirroring the brightness that glowed in the chamber, but beneath it they could distinguish something reflected in the dark liquid.

Darrukin mumbled a few words, then the reflection in the liquid began to change.  It resolved itself into a picture, like a window looking into a room.  They could see a central dais, upon which sat a large egg.  Its mottled shell was intact, the leathery surface dully reflecting the bright light. Chanting priests surrounded the dais and swayed to the rhythm of their own sorcery. 

Talana pulled back from the bowl. 

“Does that mean that the egg is here? Over there?” she looked at Darrukin, uncertain.  They looked at the brightness. 

“It’s there, alright.” Darrukin replied.  “The question is, how do we get through?”  He walked over to the orange glow and tentatively reached out to it. Before his hand had even touched the edge, a bolt of green light shot out, connecting with his fingers.  “Ouch!” he withdrew his hand quickly.  “That hurt!  Though I’m not sure if it is there to keep us out or the egg in.”

Talana picked up a rock and pitched it at the great glowing ball of light.  They watched as a green bolt shot out and disintegrated the rock with a puff.

“I’m glad you didn’t just try to step through.” She observed.  Darrukin gave her a wry look.

“I’ll try to break it.  Follow me, or jump through, if I can force a gap. The egg is in there; we need to get it.”

Talana watched as he drew himself together to begin fighting the spell.  Amazed, she watched as a golden tracery began to envelope the glow, a bright web that gradually encircled the fiery orange light.  Darrukin was concentrating so hard that sweat began to bead on his forehead; but Talana could see the determination in his eyes.

The sound of running feet and shouting reached her ears. Talana looked desperately around. She could not fend off a squad of guards, what could she do? Darrukin was still intent on breaking the spell.  Quickly, she raced over to the bound priests, waking the two she thought might help.  Their groggy expressions quickly cleared as she brought them back to awareness.

“Will you help me? I have to take that egg you were protecting, get it away from here. Do you understand? Will you help me?”  She asked, searching their faces for an answer.

“Why should we?”  One priest said, a fearful but angry look on his face.

“Shut up, look at her. Don’t you think we should after what she’s done for us?” the priest’s companion said.  “Look at her.  They warned us about her and that man over there – I’m helping her.”

“Thankyou.” Talana said.  “Can you release yourself? I don’t want her to wake up or be unbound – I don’t think she will change.” 

The priest nodded, and with a bit of a struggle, wrestled Darrukin’s spell aside and stood up.  “I’ll hold the palace guards as long as I can.” he said, running off down the corridor. Talana could hear him shout a spell as he went. 

Turning back to the prone priest, she looked at him sharply.

“Are you going to help me, or not? If not, I’m putting you back under, but you should be safe.”

“I’ll help.” The priest said, a little grudgingly. He began to stomp away, but stopped and turned back to her.  “Thanks, you know, for freeing us.” he said with humility.

“No problem.  Please just keep those guards away.” she replied, giving him a faint smile before turning her attention to Darrukin.

The spell Seri had created had been completely surrounded by the golden web.  It seemed to flow and move over the orange glow, concentrating for a moment in certain places before moving again.  As Talana approached him, a knot of golden web formed in front of them, growing in size. With a grunt of effort from Darrukin the golden strands at the centre of the knot pushed inwards, piercing the orange glow and forcing a small hole in its domed surface.  Gradually, the hole grew, as more power poured into it from Darrukin.  Grabbing a loose rock, Talana threw it through the hole, desperate to see if the spell would disintegrate it.  It didn’t.  The hole in the spell grew wider; the second it was large enough for her to go through she charged through, not wanting to waste the opportunity.

Once inside, she turned to see if Darrukin could come, but he was locked in battle with the spell, shredding it piece by piece.  She was not even sure if he could hear her call to him.  Looking around her, she saw twelve priests, their hands joined and all facing inwards, towards the large egg that stood upon a dais in their centre.  Their voices mixed in a low droning chant and they paid her no attention whatsoever, it seemed, concentrating hard on their sorcery.   Trying to distinguish the spell they were working on, Talana carefully stepped forward toward them, ready to defend herself.  Heart in her mouth, she slowly walked around the circle of priests, wondering just what she could do to help the dragon’s egg in its midst.  On the far side of the circle she realised that the dais was an altar; a metal knife with a serpentine blade gleamed dully in the orange light. 

Anger filled her – they intended to kill the dragonet when it emerged; why else would they have a knife? Without thought she charged into the circle of priests, shouldering aside the nearest one and quickly snatched up the dagger.  It seemed to ooze in her hands and she wanted to drop it the moment it touched her flesh, but she kept a firm grip on the weapon and quickly flung it outside the circle of priests, shouting at them.  But they did not react.  The priest that Talana had shouldered aside just stood up and resumed his place in the circle, as if he did not realise that she was there.

Talana turned back to the egg, reaching up towards it. Something seemed to force her back, not letting her touch or take the egg. It wound around her limbs and with a shout, she realised she was caught. Summoning her limited sorcery, she could see the spell, where it originated – from the priests surrounding her. They were aware of her, they were fighting her.  Wildly, she struggled, thrashing in slow-motion against the strengthening spell. Try as she might she could not fight it, could not seem to loosen its hold on her or on the egg.  The dragon’s egg rocked on its stand, and she did not know if it too, were being crushed by the spell. She feared for it, wanted to protect it somehow.  The spell seemed to strengthen with each passing second, and as it immobilised her she could feel it climbing its way up her body.  Terrified and angry, she could see the contempt and gloating on the face of one of the priests in the circle, and in desperation sent a blast of sorcery towards him, trying with all her might to heal him, to break the compulsions and evil that worked on him.  The flow of her power was not stopped by the spell that was slowly crushing her; stripping away the layers of evil in the priest did nothing to stop the twisting pain.  The spell had reached her chest, wrapped itself around her neck, slowly squeezing in on her. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t force her muscles to work against the crushing spell.   The priest was free now, nothing held him there, but she could see fear in him.  Struggling for breath, she cried out to Darrukin, feeling the strength leave her body.

An echo of dark laughter filled her mind.

 

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