The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 44
The Thief of Ashlon Part 2 (chapter 11)

Darrukin listened for what seemed like hours to his cousin’s description of the state of the province. He was pleased that his father’s call to arms had been well-heeded, and that his family were so far, safe within the walls the castle.  But he was desperately worried about their situation – he knew that the castles’ reserves of food would be running extremely low after winter. 
            “Why don’t you see if you can use sorcery to get supplies in there?” Talana suggested.  “Like when you crossed the river … remember?”

He did remember.  “I don’t know if I can do that to something else, but it is worth a try. Good thinking!”  At Danai’s confused look, he shook his head.  “I’ll tell you later.  What progress have the palace guards made?”

Danai went on to explain that the palace guards had not made much of an effort to actually fight after their initial assault on the castle was beaten back by the town garrison.  They had been content to surround the walled city, to try to starve out the population.  They had the advantage of numbers, but even they were not so stupid as to continue to sustain the heavy casualties they had in that first clash.  It became a battle of wills, which side would lose the will to fight first.  There were other practicalities to consider as well.  The castle had an abundant supply of fresh water, if not food, and one that the palace guard could not foul.

The sheer size of the palace guard force outside the castle seemed out of all proportion to any force Darrukin had ever experienced or even heard about.  Danai told him that the encampment they had set up had taken up most of the good, flat farming land close to the river. They had sealed the two main roads, patrolled continuously around the perimeter of the town, out of arrow-shot, and foraged into the surrounding countryside.  Supply lines went all the way back to Tashmar and orders came both from the palace, and from their own contingent commander.   There were rumours that reinforcements were going to arrive, and when that happened, it would likely spur the palace guard to try to storm the town once more.

“But we’ve had a lot of volunteers for Darr’s army – how are they going? Training seems to be in full swing here.” Darrukin asked his cousin.  The sandy-haired officer nodded, absently stroking his moustache.

“It’s been going well. We’ve been turning out soldiers at quite a rate, and they’re good, too, if lacking in experience.  Most of the standing army has been put to work training, building up our forces.  Of course, we do have scouting parties constantly on the edges of the palace guard forces, keeping an eye on their movements, but we try not to engage them.  There’s too many of them, and to bring on a battle now would end our training program very quickly.  Quite frankly, they are content to sit there, and we are content to let them, to give us time to work up our troops.  It’s not ideal but it definitely could be a lot worse.”

Darrukin nodded.  “I see. Thanks, this is great.  What else have you heard?” 

“Only that the lords of Wal-mai and Choresh are readying their own armies. It’s not clear what their intentions are, but you can bet they would both like a piece of Darr if it were on offer.”

“Hmmm. I don’t think Choresh would have a problem, but Wal-mai might.  Borodor is next door to them, and they’ve always been quite supportive of Darr in the past.” Darrukin commented.

“There have been other rumours, cousin.” Danai said.

“Oh yes?” Darrukin asked innocently, knowing perfectly well to what his cousin was alluding.

“Word is you are a new Guardian. True?” Danai raised an eyebrow in speculative contemplation. 

“Where did you hear this?”

“There have been mutterings around the town, I thought sourced through the local church. I wouldn’t know, I don’t go to church, and certainly not the temple – especially now. But whether or not the rumour is true, I think it may have shaken the palace.”

“Well, it’s true.” Darrukin held up his hand so that Danai could see the Heart of the Dragon, his ring. Danai slumped back into his seat, his face a picture of surprise.

“What does this mean? Isn’t…isn’t the Guardian an old name for Queen’s Champion?”

Talana spoke up. “What it means is that you have the second most powerful sorcerer in Ashlon on your side. But it also means that he must, at some stage, try to help the Dragon Queen.” she said in a steady voice, though her insides were anything but steady.

“Help her? You can’t! She’ll kill you! What about your own people?” Danai began, shocked. Darrukin cut him off.

“Talana is right, unfortunately, cousin.  But not perhaps in the way you have interpreted.  I would never do anything against the people of Darr. But I do have a duty, as the Guardian, to try to help the Queen.  No one is certain how, but it would seem that evil has overtaken her, forces her to behave the way she does. Queens cannot defend themselves against evil; that is why the guardians exist.  Her power is of a different kind, and mine, although strong, is mainly geared to her protection. At some stage, I must go to Tashmar, and fight for the Queen.  I’m sorry, but that is the way it is.” he looked intently at Talana, his grey eyes meeting hers. “I have no choice in the matter.”

“It won’t look like it!” Danai said, harshly, clipping out the words. “It will look like you are abandoning your own people.”

Darrukin shot him an angry glance. “Not so. I would never do that.  But going to the Queen will be the only way I can ever hope to really help them all – everyone, not just Darr, but the other provinces as well.  Don’t you think they all suffer in some way?  I have to help the Queen return to her true self, whatever has happened to her.  She was not always this way, just ask your own mother! It’s up to me to defend her, to protect her from evil. That’s my job. Do you understand that?”  He tried to keep his voice even, but he was shaking with suppressed rage.

“Oh, I understand now.” his cousin said quietly, “But will our people?”

Talana found the barracks a strange place to be. There were so many people about, dressed in uniforms with varying stripes and insignias of rank, none of which she could recognise.  Soldiers marched around in pairs, squads, or larger bodies, orders were shouted and groups were out at practice everywhere.  Swords glinted and flashed, spears bristled.  So many people, all organised, it was unlike anything she had ever seen before.

She followed Darrukin and his cousin to where they would be accommodated.  It was a grand building, not the general barracks accommodation that she would have expected to have been housed in, but then, she had forgotten that Darrukin was the son of the provincial lord.  They would be settled into the lord’s own suite, a foyer, office, private dining room, bathroom and several bedrooms – accommodation kept ready in case the lord visited, which he did reasonably often.  It was very similar in style to the castle, furnished with quality fittings and with understated elegance.  A batman was waiting for them just inside the foyer, at their service.

“I’ll speak more with you over lunch, which I’ll have brought up to you. But I’ll give you a moment’s peace for you to get cleaned up and sorted out.” Danai said, preparing to leave them.

“Yes, we’ll discuss some more tactics.”

“Plans for the future of the campaign?” Talana quipped. Danai gave her a quick smile.

“Yes, exactly.  I’ll see you later.” he said, turning on his heel.

“Well, I didn’t realise you would be so abruptly sequestered straight into the planning of things.  My goodness, look at this place!” Talana gasped as she walked around, taking in the suite.  “It’s like being back in the castle.”

“That’s what lords in the past have wanted, and my father has seen no need to change.  Home away from home; easier for when you’re on a progress through the Province.”


“Travelling, seeing how the province is running, letting people see you and giving them the opportunity to bring to you any problems or complaints, that sort of thing.” Darrukin said.

A maid knocked politely and entered the suite.  “Sir, Ma’am, if you would like any fresh clothes, I would be pleased to assist.”

“Yes, thankyou.” Darrukin replied.  “Now, Talana, what do you think? Time to get cleaned up?”

Looking presentable, Talana in a pale blue dress, Darrukin in a borrowed uniform, they answered Danai’s knock and watched as he and several other officers invaded the suite and went straight to the dining room.  Food was brought in by attendants; roast meat, fresh and cooked vegetables, and oven-warm bread.  When the introductions and preliminaries to the meal were over, both Talana and Darrukin tucked in to the meal with hearty appetites.  Such good food was not to be taken for granted, especially in such uncertain times, they both knew.

Finally replete, they adjourned to the sitting room where comfortable chairs welcomed them and encouraged conversation. Talana could sense the tension building in the room as the officers looked to Darrukin for leadership. 

“Well, now we can really start planning.” Danai began, looking around at them all.  One or two heads nodded in acknowledgement.

“The palace guards are too strong for us to attack right now. We need more time to build up our troop levels before we even think of doing that.”  a captain said.

“True, true.” Darrukin answered. “Aside from the containment of the palace guard, what else are you up to?”

“Intercepting squads and hoping to capture orders.” Danai said.  “But most of us here are involved with training.”

“You finish off the training by that gradual exposure to battle? Good.  That gives the troops some real experience.” Darrukin said.  He was aware that everyone looked to him for direction, even though he was only a lieutenant.  He was not intimidated by the responsibility, but relished it; it gave him the chance to really make a difference to the outcome of this confrontation.

Danai shot Talana an impish grin, but she only looked bemused. It was kind of them to allow her to listen in, but she really could not add anything military to the conversation, that much she knew.  Still, a fresh perspective might be of some use.

Darrukin spoke up.  “I think we could take the harassment operations to a new level.  Try to penetrate into their encampment, gain information that way.  What steps are being taken to stay in touch with what is going on inside the castle?” he asked. He would have given anything to have Keesha around, send her soaring back to the castle with messages.  But then again maybe he could do something about that himself?  He listened as the other officers talked, but a part of his mind was running on separate train of thought that had nothing to do with their discussions of interception and harrying.

“So you won’t attack them outright for some time, then?” Talana asked Danai. He shook his head.

“They are a bit too strong for that, and we haven’t got enough trained soldiers – yet – to be successful.  It won’t be too long before we are in position to attack them, if Wal-mai and Choresh stay out of it.  But right now, we want to minimise the loss of life on our side if at all possible.

“Oh, right. So, Darrukin’s suggestion that you take the nearly fully trained soldiers and give them some experience, get them used to battle, that sort of thing?”

“That’s right.  Darr has not had to fight a war in a very long time – it will even give our fully trained soldiers some real experience.  War is a nasty business, but when it happens, you want people around you who know what they are doing.”

Darrukin cut in.  “What we will do is disrupt their foraging parties, cut off their intelligence, their scouting, set up booby-traps in and around the camp if we can.”

“Yes, we can try to distract them from their primary task of trying to starve out the castle, and make it hard for them to stay where they are.  They have a long supply chain if they can’t source local food, and if we can intercept their orders it will be like cutting off their heads, they won’t know what they are doing.”  Danai commented.  He looked as if he were enjoying himself, anticipating the action ahead.

Darrukin looked more circumspect. He had killed before and knew the price it exacted.  It was not something he would want anyone to do, but he would protect his home, his family and the people in his province.  “If we can generate some discontent amongst the palace guard, then we might make them that much more difficult for their officers to control.  Discipline has never been their strong point, but it’s a risky strategy.

“What about the Queen?” Talana asked him softly, her eyes searching his face.  He shot her a glance which betrayed all he felt for her in that moment.  Then he closed his eyes, swallowing hard before answering.

“I have been thinking about that. There is a rumour that the Queen will come to Darr, but I don’t believe that, or at least, not until I see proof of it.  I can’t leave my home unprotected. I have to fight for my home. Now I am more aware of what is going on, it is clear to me that I have to stay, have to fight.  I will go to help her – but not yet.” he almost choked on the words.

“Don’t you think that is sort of counter-productive?” Talana interrupted. “The sooner you get to the Queen, and help her, the sooner this mess can be sorted out.”

“That is assuming I can actually do something to help the Queen.  I am not at all sure that I can. I might be killed before I get there, or when I get there, before I even see her or get the chance to try to help her.” he sighed, frustration showing in his voice. “Sometimes I think she must be a lost cause, too far gone into evil to ever come out of it.  The reality might be something different.  But I cannot leave my home unprotected, undefended, in case I fail. I need to do the best I can to make sure that if I do fail, that Darr might not sink into the mire and die. If I fail to help the Queen, before I help my province, I may as well have killed my family myself.”

“He’s right, Talana.” Danai put in softly. He stood, signalling to the other officers that it was time to leave. 

Talana looked at both men, perplexed; smiled and waved as Danai excused himself.  Turning back to Darrukin, she could see the self-doubt within him. He really did not know if he could help the Queen.  She did; she knew he could.  Perhaps it was just the love she felt for him that made her feel so sure, but she could see that he really was the one and only hope that the Dragon Queen had of ever returning to the ways of the Goddess.

            “Well, I have faith in you.” she whispered, not even sure if he could hear her. “Even if you don’t.”



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