The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 31
The Thief of Ashlon (chapter seven)

Keesha led the way for Talana for several days, guiding the woman and her horses through the fields along a faint track, and then leaving the track and making her way through open tracts of grazing land. Talana found herself travelling through rolling hills. She had covered a good distance when she met the road, at what she realised was the main highway out of the Castle of Darr. 

Keesha flew towards Tashmar in the east, away from Darr. Talana kept to one side of the road, no knowing what she would find, but fairly sure that this had something to do with Darrukin. Darr was a dim hulk on the western horizon, the bulk of the castle and the great walls of the town too far away for any detail to be made out. The road itself was a hard-packed strip of dirt amongst the green hills, wide and interspersed with farms and long stretches of forest and fields. She was cautious, but could see nothing, not towards Darr. Looking to the east, however, the way Keesha flew, she could see something in the distance, something with ponderously slow movement, and flashes of bright light every now and again. Looking at the ground, the thin layer of dust that coated the road was marked with hundreds of footprints. The young woman had an uncomfortable idea of what the crawling thing in the distance was, and took herself off the road again to confirm it.

It did not take Talana long to identify the smudge and she felt ill when her fears had been realised. The green livery of the palace guards was unmistakeable as she drew closer; the bright flashes were reflections off the metal in their weapons and uniforms.  Travelling in the centre of the body of troops were three sedan chairs, which she knew would contain priests.

            She kept herself at some distance away from the column, shadowing them, hiding herself in the vegetation , able to keep up with it easily. Keesha was flying extremely high above, circling. The knot in Talana's stomach tightened.  Finally she could make a figure towards the end of the column, shackled and guarded. It had to be Darrukin.  Why else would she be here? She felt fury leap within her as one of the guards pushed him in the back; she used all her will to trip the man up, imagining a large rock in his way. It was gratifying to see him stumble. Perhaps her own limited sorcery might be useful for things other than just hiding and healing? But returning her thoughts to her friend, she pondered just what she might be able to do to help.

            “I will help you, Darrukin, don’t worry!” she whispered fervently, and watched his every move as she followed the column, careful to stay hidden in the surrounding countryside.

Darrukin risked a glance up at the sky. It was something he did regularly, risky because it invariably led to a blow on the head or a push in the back. It was a quick glance, but he had seen enough - Keesha was there! His spirits soared, flying almost as high as the falcon, it seemed. He didn’t even mind it when the guard behind him pushed him; but was surprised when the man tripped over empty air. He hadn’t done it; and the road was smooth. Probably drunk, the young man surmised, although he could smell nothing. Some of the palace guards had brought alcohol with them in their packs, so he wouldn’t be at all surprised if the guard had been drinking.

The sun was high and he still felt jubilant over the sighting of Keesha. It had been the first time he had seen her since he had left Darr in chains. What had she been up to? Had she found Talana, Jeron and Keer? What were they all doing? Were they near?

I will help you, Darrukin, don’t worry.

            Talana's voice sounded so near that he jumped. He looked around, confused, but could not see her. What had he just heard? She had spoken to him. Or was he just imagining things, his mind running wild because he had seen Keesha and was hopeful of help arriving? Everything around him seemed the same, the palace guards, the dust, the priests up ahead. She could not possibly be around, he must have imagined it.  Feeling sad for a moment, he smiled wistfully; he could use her humour right now.

            He spent the rest of the day feeling uneasy, trying to concentrate and not let his mind wander or play tricks on him. Instead, he tried to create as much havoc as he could with his own sorcery.  It took a certain control to make the backpacks of certain palace guards unbearably heavy for a few miles, to increase the weight as the bearer tired. Tripping guards up became very easy.  He did as much as he could to make their time as uncomfortable as his own. Slowly working a Palace Guard's trouser belt loose was a favourite. A few of the guards found suddenly that their pants were around their ankles, much to the delight and mockery of their fellows. Darrukin knew it was petty, but he also had no great moral reason stopping him – he did, quite legitimately, feel that he was exercising his powers of sorcery and refining them.

That night, as the sleepy guards assigned to watch over him drifted off, Darrukin tried to deal with his chains. He had tried before at nights, never during the day in case his sorcery was discovered. But at night, when it was dark and especially when the palace guards were sleepy, he used his power. He turned his chains into butter, for a brief moment, before letting them revert to what they had been. The soft fat soaked into his clothes, leaving a stain, but it did not matter much, when his clothes aready were stained from the blood and fluid of his weeping wounds. The chafing eased for a moment, then the pain continued once the iron regained itself. Still, he was quite pleased with himself; he could do it at will, and it was no longer much of an effort. Experimenting with his power, he made the metal as light as air, whilst keeping its shape and colour as metal. This was more difficult, but he managed to do it. The guards did not notice; one was even snoring. The young officer looked about himself with distaste at the guards. No piquet was on duty, no sentries patrolled the camp perimeter, and the camp was very haphazard, especially regarding hygiene. A rough toilet had been dug, but it was already overflowing and the stench was incredible - he had the misfortune to be nearby. He shook his head. It was awful. Tired, he tried to sleep.

Talana watched Darrukin carefully that night, and all the following day, trying to decide what to do. Should she ride ahead, and try to find help in the form of a garrison further up? Or should she try to help Darrukin herself?  Her plan to find a garrison of soldiers from Darr's army seemed quite attractive at first; perhaps they could attack the column and free him, dressed as bandits so that they would not be recognised as soldiers? But she was not even sure if there was a garrison up ahead, nor if the column would stay on the road to Tashmar. They might just as easily go towards the inland sea, and sail the rest of the way to the capital. This uncertainty did not make her feel any better than she did, but she was determined to get him out somehow. Two difficult days spent shadowing the column and watching their routines, especially at night, gave her the assurance that there were no guards or sentries posted around their camps, and only two posted on their prisoner. That worked in her favour. The problem was that she would have no way of letting Darrukin know of her intentions to rescue him, and really, what could she do? The young woman had to think hard, for she felt she was running out of time and luck.  So she decided she would try to rescue Darrukin that night, when the palace guards were sleeping and she could use her own natural talents to steal up to them and get him out of there. She hoped.
            Once her decision was made, it then seemed to take an eternity for night to fall, and for the camp to settle down into sleep. She was grateful that there was no moon that night, for its bright light would have made her that much more easily seen.  Her invisibility spell was good, but could not be relied upon as it was easily broken if the watcher became suspicious.  Talana backtracked some way down the highway and crossed it, well out of sight and sound of the camp. The palace guards had set up their camp on the south side of the road that night, whilst she had been hovering on the north.  She left the horses well back in the open forest that lined the road, loosely tethered so that it would be easy for herself and Darrukin to grab. As she scouted, she kept up an invisibility spell around her, something that she carried with her now as naturally as breathing.  When she stole things, she was ‘invisible’; well, tonight she was going to steal Darrukin.  It would not be easy, skilled as she was, she was very aware of what would happen to her should she be captured.

Talana ranged stealthily around the perimeter of the encampment, trying to find the best way to sneak in and get Darrukin out.  The palace guards slept in canvas tents; Darrukin did not. He was in the open, with two guards close by.  The camp was off to one side but close to the road.  Scraggly trees were dotted through the camp, which she was grateful for as she darted from bush to bush, remaining concealed. Finally, she closed to within a short distance of him, and settled down to wait, silently, still as a rock, until she was sure that the guards were asleep. Her mind encouraged them to sleep, almost singing a lullaby to them. Gradually, they nodded off, the intensity of Talana’s wish for them to sleep, and her projected will, enhancing their natural tendencies. Darrukin remained awake.

When she was absolutely sure that both guards were asleep and that she was unobserved, she swiftly and silently moved in to Darrukin. Looking about her, she touched him, and smiled at the surprised look he gave her.  In seconds, they were both up and away, out to the perimeter and off into the forest, their silence maintained. She could not even hear the clink of metal, which she expected from his chains; but it was too dark to really see his face or what he had done with the chains. Talana spread her invisibility spell to him, and they rushed away into the night, back to the horses. It took minutes, and then they were away, riding back through the open bush as fast as they dared, crossing the road and diving into the bush on the other side, pushing the horses as hard as they dared in their haste to escape.

They rode hard until dawn, when the growing light made it possible to see each other more clearly. Slowing they allowed the horses to catch their breath somewhat as they moved.  Darrukin’s escape must have been discovered by now, and pursuit would be on its way.

“We should have a good start, being on horseback.” Talana said, smiling at Darrukin. She almost could not believe that they had escaped.  Sighing with relief, she looked up into the sky to find Keesha there, overhead. “Are you alright?” she asked, concerned by the marks around his

neck and wrists. The wounds looked like an awful mess, but Darrukin shrugged.

            “I seem to be. I’ve been pushed around a bit, but I’m fine. How

did you find me?”

            “Need you ask? I followed Keesha - again.”  She smiled to take any sting out of her words at reminding Darrukin of his earlier behaviour.  “I’ve been following you for a couple of days, trying to work out what to do. I figured that since I’m such a good thief, I might as well steal you.” she finished.

            Darrukin smiled. “I’m glad you did. But we’d better be careful; I’m sure that the palace guards will be after us. Not to mention the priests.”

         “What will they be able to do?” asked Talana, a thrill of fear rushing through her.  Her companion shook his head.

         “I'm not sure, but they are sorcerers, and I have no doubt that they will use their sorcery to search for me. Thank you, though, for getting me out of there. You gave me quite a start, sneaking up on me like that!”

            “I told you I could steal anything.” she retorted.

Some hours later, as they rode at a trot through the forest, they heard what Darrukin thought was the first signs that they were being pursued. Faint crashings and creakings, and worse, a horrible chorus of gurgled howls and hisses. He looked uncertainly behind them, and caught Talana’s worried glance.

“I don’t like the sound of that at all.” he said in a low tone, kicking his horse to a faster pace and urging Talana to follow. “I think we had better get a move on.”

               She did follow, glancing back over her shoulder to see if she could see the cause of the terrible sounds.  Within minutes an evil smell washed over them both, making them gag. The horses neighed with fear.

            “That smells like something has been dead for a week; any idea what it is?” she asked.  Darrukin pulled a face and tried to speak through the thick, revolting stench.

            “No, I don’t know, but I think it has something to do with those noises, and probably has something to do with - watch out!” he cried, as a huge grey and scaly foot crashed down amongst the trees only metres away from the black mare.  Both horses needed no encouragement to flee as quickly as possible, breaking into a gallop as soon as they both saw the legTalana and Darrukin had hardly begun their terrified flight when a similar pair of legs crashed down in front of them.  The horses swerved dangerously, nearly unseating them. Branches and bits of trees fell every­where as huge claw-handed arms came swinging down through the canopy, narrowly missing Darrukin. Talana screamed as another pair of arms pushed their way through the trees and grabbed at her. She felt the air rushing past her back as the claws missed, and heard her horse scream in terror. Desperately, she grabbed her spear, struggling to hold on to the reins and tear off the protective cover over the weapon. Darrukin’s sword was still in its scabbard strapped to his back; he drew the weapon as quickly as he could.

They finally realised that there were three of the things, in a rough triangle around them, their vicious claws slashing at them whenever they came within reach.

            “We’re being herded - quick, try and escape through there!” he pointed to a hundred metre space where there were no beastly legs.  Beyond that seemed to be a clearing in the forest. “Go for it!” he cried, urging the grey stallion on, making sure that Talana knew where he was heading. She bolted for the gap, and the things, their scalely legs crashing through the trees, howled in anger as their horses slipped through the triangle, sweat flying off them.  They flew across the clearing in plain sight of the creatures, allowing them to see the beasts clearly for the first time.

            Talana quailled at the sight.  The beasts were huge, their heads well above the tree-tops, monstrous legs joining with a barrel-like torso that was covered in the same thick scales. Powerfully built arms were long, much longer than their legs, and were set into huge shoulders. The things had virtually no neck, so stumpy were they, and heads that sat ugly and squat upon their shoulders.  Their faces were dog-like, with snub, upturned and teeth that curved viciously out from wide, slavering mouths. Drool splattered down their fronts but this was not noticed. The pushed-in snouts of the beasts had flaring nostrils, greenish-grey in colour.  Dreadful orange eyes glared balefully at their quarry. The eyes were set deeply into a low skull. There was no forehead and only rudimentary ears on each beast, but around their necks were slashes of colour, red on one, and two with green, stretched tight.

            “The priests! These are the priests! Demons....we must get away!” Darrukin called out to Talana as soon as the realisation hit him.

            “You don’t need to tell me that!” she rejoined, her horse just keeping pace with Darrukin’s grey. They heard the beasts coming after them, and screamed as one jumped, landing ahead of them. Talana could not stop the momentum of her horse, much as she tried -  the animal was going to plough into the legs of the demon priest. Realising that she was about to die, she raised her spear and clenched it firmly, rushing under the beast in a spurt of speed that surprised it. As her terrified horse passed underneath the demon, she launched the spear upwards into the belly of the demon with all her might. Scooting out through the massive legs, she fought to turn her horse and try to locate Darrukin.

            The beast she had speared screamed an unearthly howl and collapsed, writhing in pain, black fluid gushing from a jagged wound in its underbelly. The other two beasts paused for a second to watch their fellow demon. Talana watched, horrified, as the huge form shrank and melted away back into the form of a man, his belly ripped atrociously by her spear. He looked at her with pleading eyes, then his head lolled forward in death.  She did not waste any more time. Pushing her horse back to the dead man, she took back her spear.     Howls of rage came from the other demons as they realised that one of their number was dead.  It quickly became clear that it was Darrukin they were after, not herself. Terrified as she was, she tried her best to distract them from him. Screaming and waving the spear, she harried the demons, slashing at their legs as they tried to lunge for Darrukin.  Both demons roared, their foul breath hot in her face, but ignored her.  They chased Darrukin, closing in on him and forcing his horse to stumble.  He was thrown, but scrambled up and quickly ran to draw the beasts away from the stallion so that it could right itself. Talana kept on harrying one of the demons, mastering her horse to dart in and out of the demon’s way.  It paused to bat at her ineffectually, giving Darrukin more time to escape. The young man scooped up a rock as he ran and hefted it at the other demon, which was still in pursuit. His first cast was wide, but, pausing behind a tree to quickly look back and see what his situation was, he picked up another stone and hurled it straight into the face of the demon. It roared at him and appeared to shut one eye, but kept coming towards him, undeterred.  He ran in a wide circle, trying to get back to his horse. Talana, a fierce look on her pale face, pushed her mare to a gallop, drawing close behind the demon that pursued him, and lanced it in the knee.  The creature howled in agony as she pushed on the haft, the strong wood driving between the kneecap and the joint.  Without pausing, she tore the weapon out at an angle, popping the cap off in the process. The demon screamed and fell, lashing out with its talons, raking at her, but she dodged, the mare quick and light on its feet.  Circling, she lunged at the demon, catching its other eye and blinding it. It stumbled about, unable to do any more damage to them.

            The last demon looked at the second beast and snarled with anger, walking over to the fallen demon.  The young woman and her horse were well away from it; like Darrukin, they were circling back to try to reach the grey stallion.  She was quicker on horseback, and found the stallion shivering and nervous at the other side of the clearing.  Thankfully it had not run off.

            “Talana!” Darrukin yelled as he ran towards her across the meadow, panic in his voice.  The last demon abandoned its fellow, cuffing it on the head, and returned to the chase. With all the speed she could muster, Talana raced back across the clearing, the reluctant grey in tow.  She could see she wasn’t gong to make it in time and screamed a warning out to Darrukin, too late.  The demon, red sash cutting into its neck, swept one clawed hand down to scoop him up and hunkered down over him, its drooling maw open.

            Darrukin felt the breath knocked from his body and he dropped his sword as the scaly fist clenched around him.  The claws were like iron; he knew he would not have the strength to push them aside. The demon was the priest Angka, that he knew.  It gurgled laughter at him – a nauseous sound - and poked at him with a claw.  The black tip scored through his clothing and drew blood, but although he was aware that he’d been injured, he could not feel any pain.  Something hit him that was not physical; it stopped his breath, held him rigid.  He fought it, desperate to breathe, desperate to move.  All he could see was the look of murky suspicion in the demon’s eyes.

            Shattering the spell upon him, he threw his will at the demon priest.            “Angka! You will be still!”  The sudden freezing of the demon’s muscles told him that his spell had taken effect. It was a tiny instant of stillness that he knew would not hold for long. Surprise and fury was reflected in the beast’s orange orbs. Before he could even think of what to do next, Talana galloped up to them and shot underneath the demon, screaming as she threw her spear upwards.  The spear hit the demon’s belly, which burst like an overripe fruit in an explosion of blood and innards.

            Darrukin’s spell broke and the demon dropped him. Howling in pain, it turned and fell, slashing at her with its great claws. Before she could recover her spear she had to run. Galloping away, Talana headed for the safety of the few scraggly trees that edged onto the clearing, her breath coming in great gasps as she paused to see if the demon was coming after her. It was not. It lay on the ground clutching the wound in its belly with one clawed hand, reaching with the other for Darrukin, who lay motionless on the ground. Terrified that the thing was going to reach him, yet without her spear, Talana ripped out a dagger from one of the saddlebags and dismounted, tying the horses together to the branch of a tree. Hurrying on foot towards the demon, she put herself between it and Darrukin. The beast looked at her for a moment.

               “Come no further, demon priest, or die.” she shouted, trying to shake the fear from her voice with volume. She held the dagger out before her as firmly as she could. The demon’s laval eyes regarded her steadily, and a great rumbling chuckle erupted from its thick throat through coughs of pain. She gagged at the stench of the demon, her stomach rebelling. Then she watched incredulously as the beast began to blur and change, and transformed into the outline of a man. The priest Angka lay on the grass in front of her, clearly dying, but still looking at her with a steadiness that shocked the young woman.
                   “You! Filthy wretched woman!” The priest gasped, “Her Majesty will send retribution...” The priest began to cough again, and blood trailed from his mouth. Talana seized her opportunity, and closed with him, grimly slicing the man’s throat before he could speak again, seeing terror in his eyes as he died. She stood up after wiping her blade on the man's body, and plucked her spear from the wound in his abdomen. The spear was covered in gore, red and black.

                   Darrukin appeared to be out cold, but a quick check showed his chest wound was only seeping blood, not gushing. She pressed a wad of cloth torn from her shirt to the wound, but could do nothing else for him until they were safe. Feeling bad about leaving him, she turned to seek the blinded demon. She found him in his human form, sitting under a tree, starting at her approach. He clutched at his damaged eyes convulsively.

           “Angka! Is that you?” The priest said in a shaken, frightened voice.  There was a large mark on the side of his head where the leading priest had hit the man, when in demon form.

           “No, it is not. Angka is dead.” Talana replied in a flat voice. She did not like or want to have to kill him, but she supposed that was what she had to do; for her own and Darrukin's sake. The priest began to shake with fear. Mastering himself, he spoke again.

            “And you are going to kill me, too.”

            “I suppose so. You tried to kill us.”

            “Where am I? I want to know where I am going to die.”

            “That I cannot say. I do not know the name of this place, if it has any. We are in Darr.” She replied. The man was so pathetic, so much in pain; she did not know what to do.  He moved slightly, trying to crawl towards her voice.

            “I could leave you for your palace guards to find. I suppose they will be along soon. You don’t need to die.” She called out to him as he bumped his way along in the grass.  How could she kill someone so helpless?

            “No!” the priest cried, “Kill me! I have no more reason to live. Her Majesty will kill me anyway, for failing her…Don’t leave me to Her! Please!” The priest cried, still inching forward, blood seeping from his torn and damaged eyes. Talana stared at him in horror.

            “She would kill you, even if I don’t?” she asked incredulously.

            “Yes, She would; I would be sacrificed to Her divinity in the temple fires in the Palace....Oh merciful mistress, please kill me now.” The priest begged. His hands fell before him, clutching at her feet. She jumped back. “Oh please, oh please do it now, please do it now!” He begged, whilst every fibre of Talana’s being rejected the notion that she should kill a helpless man. Sensing her reticience, the priest sat back. “Very well then. If you cannot kill me as I am...” Talana's eyes went wide as she watched his shape shift from man to demon, his blurred outline grow and change as he took on the grey scaled form of the hideous beast. As his form solidified he lunged, slashing with razorsharp claws into the space in front of her, still blind. The young woman heard the horses shriek and pound away over towards Darrukin.

            “You are still the same under that disguise!” she screamed, tears beginning to spill down her face. The demon howled at her, pleadingly, then let anger into its voice, its foul breath blasting her. It made a desperate leap towards her, to crush her.  With a reflex action she threw up the spear, tripping over backwards. She screamed as the demon fell on top of her, the spear lodged in its throat, black blood gurgling out of its mouth. The weight of it crushed her to the ground and she could not move, the grey stinking scales hot with blood.  Screaming, she tried to escape, but could not.  Then the weight lifted as the demon form dissolved. In moments there was nothing but the broken body of a man sprawled half over her. She rolled out from underneath him, and wrenched the spear out of his throat. Her legs went out from under her as she looked at the man; trembling, she screamed again. The priest’s damaged eyes stared sightlessly at her. “Thankyou.” He mouthed more than said, bright red blood welling up over his teeth, then died. Talana turned around and vomited.

 

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