The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 23
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter five)

            Catching the urgency of his tone, the others packed up, obliterated the fire and remounted.  Talana removed the spear from the pack horse and held it ready, just in case Darrukin’s intuition was correct and they needed to fight.  The pull to the north also kept them going in the right direction as they moved off the beach and the glaring trail their horses left behind them, into the open forest.  They did not want to return to the road, but kept to the scrub, hoping to travel more discreetly that way.  The countryside began to change, the land beginning to slope upwards to their left.  Small creeks and low hills became more frequent, but did not significantly impede them; however they spent the day looking over their shoulders, Darrukin’s wariness catching hold of them all. 

            The sense of danger still clouded Darrukin as they made camp for that night in a small glade.  They were all nervous.  Keesha had still circled overhead most of the time, but had flown out of sight on a couple of occasions.  Everyone felt the tension; they did not light a fire that night but ate a cold supper of dried meat and bread.

            The night was spent in tense discomfort.  Each watch seemed to take an eternity, and no one slept comfortably.  Vague animal scuttlings and rustlings alarmed them, and the horses seemed to make too much noise stamping and snorting.  Every one was glad when dawn pierced the black night sky and they broke camp.  Ever alert, they set off, eager to outrun the feeling of danger that now settled over them all.

            The quick pace they had maintained the day before was impeded by thickening vegetation the further north they rode.  After the morning’s ride they had to admit defeat.  The forest was slowing them down, forcing them to a decision.

            “We had better get back to the road, Darrukin.”  Jeron said, his voice glum with the knowledge that they would be more vulnerable on the track, even if they were able to move more freely.

            “We could go via the beach.” Talana suggested.  “We’d be close to water all the time.”

            “I think the horses would tire very quickly if we rode them on that silty sand for very long.” Darrukin said, pulling at his chin unconsciously.

            “Perhaps we could weave a spell around us that would help us be less noticeable?”  Keer suggested thoughtfully. “I don’t know if it will work on a moving group but I don’t see why not.”

            “You mean, place a spell on us that acted like the one at the Valley of Shades?  That would make us seem invisible?” asked Darrukin.

            “Invisible?” Talana chimed in, “I’m very good at making myself seem invisible.  I had lots of practice as a child.”

            “Have you really?” said Keer, intrigued. “Show me, if you please.”

            “Alright.  Look away for a moment, then try to find me.” she challenged.  Keer did so, and while he did Talana quickly willed herself and her horse as invisible as she could, drawing on all the times she had done the same thing in the past on the streets of Tashmar.  Her past as a thief might prove useful in other ways, she thought, grinning as Keer looked about himself, over the group, sliding past her several times before he finally could look directly at her.

            “That’s really quite impressive, Talana.  Did Asikei teach you that?” he asked, genuinely surprised.

            “Asikei?  No. I’d been doing that long before I met him.  He was the one person who could see me, though, when I was trying to be invisible.”  She faded in, a little further away from the company.  Jeron and Darrukin also looked surprised.

            “Well, that’s exactly the sort of spell we need to help protect us, I think.”  How about we take turns at keeping such a spell up around all of us?  Talana, I’d like you to go first, I want to watch what you do, if you don’t mind.”  Keer said, after confirming with Darrukin that they should go back to the road.

            “Well then, lets’ head off.” she said, pleased, and made a special effort to make them all disappear as they moved off.  She was not certain if she had made the company invisible, and had no way of telling if she had; but as they fought their way through the vegetation back to the dusty track that passed for a road she became more confident that she was able to make them all less obvious at the very least.

            The road was further inland by the time they rejoined it, and the cooling breeze off the inland sea hardly touched them.  Darrukin moved cautiously out onto the track after checking thoroughly that there was no other traffic around.  It was an ochre slash bordered by the ever-thickening forest.  Probably not too much further to the north the forest would become dense jungle, untamed and broken only by the road and  those paths off it that might lead to villages along the edge of the inland sea.  He was still unnerved by an awful feeling of impending danger, but did feel mollified by Keer’s suggestion that they use the spell to help conceal them.  It would certainly make them less memorable to anyone they might pass, and that was a good thing.

            Keer himself pondered Talana’s abilities as they rode down the track.  Perhaps Asikei had seen the sorcerer’s potential in Talana and cultivated her because of it?  He could not think of any other reason why the old man would have made such a special effort for her.  The young woman must be reasonable powerful if she could perform an invisibility spell successfully without any training, especially as a child.  Keer could see that the spell she had constructed around them now had not taken her too much effort, and was impressed by her strength.  Perhaps he should pay more attention to her and help her develop her latent talent.  He resolved to begin to work with her, teach her, partially to satisfy his own curiosity about her abilities.  Any help on the quest would be welcome, and the role she had defined for herself as guide would only be enhanced if she could bring out other useful talents.  The elder remembered learning about his own powers, the delight in his abilities as they were discovered and trained.  With some work, perhaps Talana would feel that way also.

            The afternoon wore on without incident, as did the next day.  But Darrukin’s sense of danger increased sharply on the morning of the next.  He’d become aware of motion and movement in the darkness of his watch just before dawn, the sound carrying from some distance away.  He knew it well - marching feet.

            In the cold grey light of the approaching dawn, he woke the others, softly asking for silence as they broke their camp.  Tension in the air made the horses subdued, and not even the great falcon Keesha ventured a squawk as Darrukin stroked her blue feathers to make sure she woke up.  Talana ensured that the invisibility spell around them was enough to cover them all.  They could do nothing but wait in silence.

            The sound of marching feet increased, the crunching of boots on the hardpacked earth of the road getting louder and louder with each passing moment.  Darrukin risked looking out to see what was coming.  From the south he could see at least two squads of palace guards on the move, the glint of metal catching the first rays of the sun confirming it.   He carefully went back to the others and remounted his horse.

            “Two squads of palace guards on their way.  I think we’d better sit tight and hope that the spell works.  If we are spotted, run for it.  They are on foot and can’t move as fast as we can, but they might not be specifically after us, so we’d better not draw attention to ourselves by bolting just yet.” he said in a low voice.  The others nodded.  As one they prepared themselves, drawing their swords, or in Talana’s case, getting the ironwood spear ready.

            The forest around them was quite thick, and they hoped that it would screen them as much as the spell would.  They watched as the palace guards approached, and the first squad began to move past them.  Then they could just see a sedan chair, being carried by four guards.  The chair was covered, but they were all certain that it would be a priest inside.  A guard commander walked beside the chair, head inclined as if listening, nodding his head.

            “Halt!” the guard commander yelled, and both squads stopped immediately.  “Fan out, search both sides of the road.” he barked.

            Darrukin drew his breath in sharply, hoping against hope that they would not be discovered as the squads broke up into pairs and began to search methodically.  The thick bush did hinder them, and the four companions hoped that they would not be so enthusiastic as to penetrate the bush as far back as they now sat.  Talana kept the spell up, reinforcing it with her mind, and felt the subtle strength of Keer add his own touch to it.  His support helped her overcome her automatic reaction to flee, control her fear and abhorrence of the green-liveried guards.  She watched with wide eyes as the palace guards thrashed the trees and bushes, but failed to see the four or their horses. 

            Remaining still and silent, they watched and listened hopefully as they heard the recall command of the guard commander.  The guards drew back and reported, and the Eshtani priest stepped out of the sedan-chair to speak to the commander, obscured by the forest.  After a moment or two, they heard a voice being raised in anger.  The guard commander told his troops to fan out once more, take another look.  He moved forward, to a place where the four could see him, and they saw the priest move to stand beside him, his gaze raking the forest.

            Talana felt something press against her mind, then almost shrieked out loud as the spell she’d constructed shredded under the force of an attack by sorcery.  A shout went up from the guards in the forest; they could now see the four.

            “Run!” Darrukin yelled, kicking the big grey stallion into motion.  With a wild yell he launched himself at the oncoming guards before they had the chance to get into any kind of attack formation.  Even in the close environment of the forest he rode down one of the guards, the gap giving him enough space to reach the road.  His horse burst out from the cover of the trees and at once he was fighting, his horse whirling around, kicking out, as he slashed and parried and thrust with his sword.

            The young officer knew he would have only a limited time before the guard commander would begin to fight back effectively, overcoming the surprise of his assault.   Sword blazing, Darrukin aimed a bolt of gold light straight at the priest, felling the man immediately.  Looking up quickly, he saw Talana, Keer and Jeron rush from the forest on their horses, but they did not run away.  They joined the attack, Keer and Jeron, slashing with their swords, Talana using the ironwood spear, using the techniques he had taught her.  Not knowing whether to be angry or glad that they’d come to help him when he told them to get away, he fought his way to them, the blade of his sword biting deeply into anyone who got in his way.  He fought furiously, not wanting to think about the odds against them.

            A cry from Jeron signalled that he had sustained a wound, but the young officer could not spare a glance for him.  For all his formidable fighting skills, he knew that the battle was turning against them.  A glimpse down the road told him that there were more troops on their way, a crawling smudge in the distance.  More palace guards!  Just what he didn’t need, he thought bitterly as he cut the throat of the nearest guard. He needed to do something to end this battle.  Reining his horse around, he turned to the guard commander, busily shouting orders and trying to organise the remaining guards.   Fighting his way towards him, Darrukin killed three guards before reaching the man.  The commander raised his sword and they joined in battle, but Darrukin’s skill was by far the greater, and the commander went down under a flurry of quick, powerful strokes.  The young officer was about to finish off the guard commander when a cry from Talana pierced his consciousness.  She had been hurt.

            Instantly flushed with fear for her, he turned from the commander and began to hack and cut his way towards her.  Something changed within him and his need to reach her, help her, dominated all else.  It was as if time had slowed down, for the palace guards could not seem to match the speed with which he cut and thrust.  Even the grey stallion seemed to be taking too long to kick out, the blows landing after Darrukin had already killed the guards.  Yet even the amazement that he felt at this was nothing to the raw power that he felt pulsing through him, his sword not only slashing and thrusting, but burning with gold fire. The furious pace at which he fought did not slow, and soon he was surrounded by dead palace guards.  There was no one left to fight, only a silence which lasted a heartbeat before he turned to face Talana and Jeron.  They looked at him with astonishment.

 

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