The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 48
The Thief of Ashlon Part 2 (chapter 13)

The wolf cub lay between their bedrooms, curled up with ears twitching in either direction, unable to decide which room to sleep in or which person was more upset.  The not-so-little creature was unsettled by the tension between his two humans. 

Darrukin lay in bed, feeling guilty. What had possessed him to kiss Talana?  He screwed his eyes shut against the darkness of his room, but could not help feeling a thrill of happiness as he remembered it. The feeling of exultance that touching her gave him, her willing mouth soft under his; it had been bliss.  He struggled to put down such feelings before he became too aroused, knowing they were wrong. He had only to see what had happened to Talana to tell him that the Goddess could not be pleased with their actions.   Would She punish him, as She had punished Talana? Why should only Talana be punished for what was his fault, too?  A strident little voice inside him reminded him that the Goddess had been nothing but goodness: punishment and the perception of evil had never been a part of Her.   Had they just doomed Ashlon? He wished he knew.  An icy chill ran down his spine at the thought.  How could he have given way like that? Kissed her?  His mind went back to her soft lips, the way she had melded to him…then he screwed his face up again at the thought of the Queen.  That was who was waiting for him, who he was destined for, not Talana.  How he was ever going to reconcile himself to the Queen when he had kissed Talana, he did not know.  But he would have to.

At least he was grateful for the fact that they would be too busy to even think about each other in that way before too long.  They could be together, enough to feel comforted by the other, but there would be no time for personal feelings, out in the open, fighting palace guards, no cause to touch each other again and no privacy in which to do so in any case.   If he did start to feel frustrated, he could convert it into aggression against the palace guards. The silliness of this thought made him smile and he relaxed, abandoning himself to sleep, dreams of planning and fighting for the castle, his family, and in a red glow of excitement, Talana.

It was with more equanimity than the day before that he faced the morning.  Thumpings within the suite told him that Talana was already awake, and had come back from taking the wolf cub outside for a run.  Taking a moment to quickly wash and shave, he dressed and met her in the dining room, where breakfast had been sent up by the barracks kitchen.  The wolf caught his eye before he could say good morning.

“He says you’re frightened. Not of me, are you?” Darrukin asked, looking at her intently.  Talana had been so scared of men, would she suddenly think better of what they had done and feel violated by it?  One look in her eyes told him that was a ridiculous thought: she loved him, it was there in her expression.  But her blue eyes did have a shadow under them, as if she’d had a fretful night.

“No, no, of course not.” she said with a half smile at his assumption.  “I had a rather unsettled night. Bad dreams.”

“About?”

“Oh, you know, my old fears. My father, chasing me.  Never being able to run fast enough, never being able to get away.  It sort of matches in with what I saw up in the flag tower.”  Her eyes widened and he could tell that her fright ran deeply. “Darrukin, I think my father is nearer to finding me. I think he put those images into my head yesterday, not the Goddess. He’s after me, still, I know it. I’m terrified.”

His first instinct was to rush to her, to put his arms around her and tell her that no one would hurt her while he was around. But of course, he could not do that.  Holding himself stiffly in check, ever mindful of the effect contact with her had on his self-control, the tragedy it could cause his land, he confined himself to simple talk.

“Look, no one will threaten you here.  And soon we’ll be off fighting. If your father does come, we’ll be there to help you. We won’t let him take you back.”

His words were spoken sincerely. If the man did ever come and find her, there would be no way that he would be allowed to take her away. Darrukin would fight him, and he knew that she would never go willingly. The man had some kind of insane power over her, the thrall of a childhood spent in submission to a bullying parent – Darrukin only wished that she could see that she did not need to be afraid of her father anymore.  She was an adult, entitled to an independent life no matter what the man said. 

“Thank you.” Her voice sounded fragile, but it strengthened as she spoke. “Now, what does today have in store for us?” 

Talana was now one of three, stuffed into the tiny cave of Darrukin’s childhood, watching the encampment of palace guards.  Darrukin, Pops and herself were at the observation post to do a quick check that the palace guard routines had not changed since Darrukin’s last excursion.  So far, they appeared not to have.  And why should they?  The contingent surrounding the castle had a clear mission: obtain the surrender of the city.  They had no need to look further afield or send out part of their own forces to conquer other towns within the province: if the Dragon Queen wanted to do that, she would send another force.  The Queen knew the extent of the Darr Army and must consider it no threat.  That must be the reason why there was no other focus to military operations than the siege of the castle.  Cut off the head, and the body is useless.

She looked down at Darrukin, who was curled up asleep against their provisions, breathing softly and regularly.  His eyes moved rapidly under his eyelids with some inner vision or dream, his face, relaxed with sleep, seemed almost too handsome.  Looking at him brought the ache she felt back to the surface, longing to touch him again, but she knew she could not.  After that day, he had seemed ashamed of himself, ashamed of the danger they had put their own country in.  Of course, they had talked about it, and agreed that no matter what they felt they could not endanger Ashlon again: so like figures in a strange kind of dance they edged around each other’s feelings every day, careful not to touch with too intimate a gesture, careful not to gaze too long, fencing in their feelings and keeping them under control.  It was hard work, especially being so close together, but at least they were together, she thought.  The strain of not being with Darrukin was too much for her, and at least they were both experiencing the same kind of pain.  In a twisted way, it comforted them both that they were together, even if they could not succumb to their heart’s wishes.

Evening had just closed in when Cern arrived at the tiny hole with news for the small team.  She had travelled all day to reach them and was dusty and tire.  Slapping dust from her thighs, she addressed Darrukin, who was on watch, as Talana slept and Pops kept an eye on the cave entrance.

“Sir, you’re needed back at headquarters. Some visitors for you. Sergeant Horth says I can take over from you if you need me to.”

“Who? My family?” he asked eagerly.  He was ever hopeful that at least one member of his family would risk using the escape tunnel to get out of the castle.  Well, he was certain that his father and mother would not leave the town; though Darrsan might.  However, since she was in charge of the defence she might not, trusting that others would put into action her family’s plans to defend their province.  That left Darrlani.  Perhaps not. She had no interest in anything military and would probably be in too much danger if she tried to escape, unless she had protection from others. The bigger the escape party, the larger their chance of getting caught.

“I wasn’t told their names; only that they were your travelling companions.”

“Ah. Keer and Jeron.  Alright. I’ll get back to headquarters.  Cern, stay here with Pops and Talana. Pops, you’re in command.  Follow the plan we prepared.  I’ll be back with you as soon as I can.” He packed up his small amount of gear quietly, so as not to wake Talana.  He thought perhaps he should wake her to say goodbye, but couldn’t bring himself to wake her up. She looked so peaceful that momentarily his breath caught in his chest; but he had to go. 

Slowly, he made his way back to the horses and their guards, who were several miles back from the cave and hidden well within the forest.  He was careful, although did not expect the palace guards to be out patrolling the river in the evening – they usually stayed closer to the castle and their encampment.  The Big moon was rising and helped him navigate, the trees casting weird shadows in the silvery light.  The Little moon would rise soon, sending cross shadows and more brightness to the night sky. He needed to move fast.  Horseback made it much faster, and he reached the headquarters buildings by dawn.

Headquarters for the observation and raiding operations was in a small farm, in an out-of-the-way valley. Hidden in the loft of one of the outbuildings, it was difficult to disguise the comings and goings of soldiers but they were confident that the palace guard did not suspect anything yet. 

“Sir! Cern arrived safely, then.” Sergeant Horth greeted him with a crisp salute.  He was at a large table, set up with maps and many other documents scattered about.  Three other officers were around the table, studying the map and making subtle changes to the markings which denoted the deployed forces of the palace guards and their own soldiers.  Deeper into the loft, in spaces cleared of the normal accoutrements of farm life, were rough sleeping quarters for those who manned the headquarters.  Some soldiers slept, others were involved in other tasks.

“Yes, thankyou, sergeant.  I’ve left her with Pops and Talana, to continue the operation as planned.  They know what to do. The routines have not changed as far as we have seen, so I’ve said they could start the raids straight away.”

“Excellent. We’ve contacted the other teams and they have much the same to report.  Now, to your visitors…ah, here they are, sir.” Horth moved back, allowing light from an oil lamp to reach to the back of the loft.  Figures moved forward into the light.

“Darrukin! Good to see you! Where’s Talana?” Keer said heartily, Jeron as usual a step behind.  The Elder grasped Darrukin’s outstretched hand and shook it warmly.

“Keer, Jeron! How have you fared? I’m so sorry Talana couldn’t get back to you.  Are you better now?”

Sergeant Horth came in, offering the young lieutenant and his guests a chair and dragging up a bench for them to sit around. 

“Here, sirs, sit, and I’ll fetch you something to eat.” He said.  Darrukin realised that he was ravenous, agreeing readily.

“Thanks, sergeant.”  He acknowledged him with a nod before turning back to Keer and Jeron. “Now, both of you need to be thanked for your work here in Darr, organising the churches and the villages.  You’ve made quite an impact, from what I’ve seen.  How have you been managing it?  Where have you been?”  He had a dozen other questions for the older man, but Keer held up a hand, fending them off. 

“One at a time, my friend, one at a time!”

Jeron spoke up. “When Talana took off to search for you, we headed north to escape the palace guard search.” He outlined their story to Darrukin, who listened incredulously.

“Trolls? You ran into trolls?  We’ve heard about them…” his thoughts went to Wolf and the White for a moment, before he looked back at his guests with shining eyes. “What next?”

“Well, they’ve helped us tremendously, actually.” Keer said, his voice filled with genuine admiration for the lost children, “They are our messengers, our spies – and the troll-mother says they will be our fighters as well.”

“So that’s how you’ve been communicating with all the churches.”   Darrukin said, eyes narrowing as he took in the possibilities.  Military strategy and tactics were never far from his thoughts these days, it seemed.

“Yes, it’s how we found out where you were as well.  They seemed to be able to find you rather quickly after we described you to them.  They are the most amazing people I’ve met.  Once they know you, you will never be lost again, no matter where you are.  They all seemed to know exactly where we were at any time, and we’ve done a lot of travelling around.  I’ve never had any trouble calling them, and it’s rather nice to know we’ll never be lost again.”  The Elder smiled at Jeron, who blushed slightly with the knowledge that he had got them lost to begin with.

“Where have you travelled. What exactly have you been doing?” Darrukin asked, fascinated.

“Well, we’ve contacted the churches in Wal-mai and Choresh, and some beyond that, too. We’ve been doing our best to rouse sympathy for Darr amongst the other provinces and let them know that there is a chance for the old ways again – that the Guardian has come.”  The older man looked intently at Darrukin for moment.  “Which leads us to a question for you.  How has your quest progressed?”

Solemnly, Darrukin raised his left hand for Keer and Jeron to see.  Ordinarily, one hardly noticed the ring upon his third finger, though it was of gold and diamond and sapphire, but as he clenched his fist to show them, it blazed with gold and blue light for a second before lapsing back to a normal, inconsequential looking piece of jewellery.  Keer went white, made a sign in the air and tipped backwards in his chair, flailing at Jeron for support. Immediately the younger man tore his gaze from the ring to see that Keer was alright.

“You did it!” the elder gasped, fighting for breath.  “You actually found it!  The Guardian has come!”  The last was said in a reverent, almost hushed voice.

Darrukin looked away, embarrassed.  “Yes, Talana and I found it at the beginning of spring.  It was caught in a glacier.”

“But how…?” Jeron asked, turning a puzzled face to him.

“It’s a long story, one I don’t really have time for at the moment.” he replied, shifting uneasily in his seat.  Keer’s white face flushed with colour, excitement in his eyes, breathing quickly.

 Sergeant Horth approached, carrying a tray laden with food and hot drinks. 

“Eat, Darrukin.” Keer said, his breathing under control.  The elder’s expression remained only a tiny bit awestruck, reverent – but then Darrukin’s stomach growled audibly and all three men smiled easily at one another, their normal camaraderie reinstated.

“I must get the news to the city as soon as possible.” said Keer, thanking the faithful Jeron for his help.  “Maani will be greatly heartened by it, as will all the churches.  Why don’t you finish eating while I draft a quick message?”

“Certainly, I’m not going anywhere just at the moment. I need sleep. If it’s convenient for you, I’ll grab a nap now and talk with you in more depth once you’ve sent your message and when my head isn’t quite so fuzzy.” Darrukin answered.

“Of course it is, Honoured Guardian. We’ll talk later.”

“What’s this ‘Honoured Guardian’??” Darrukin asked Keer, his face bemused.

“Well, that’s your correct term of address, Darrukin. You are the Guardian, the second most important person in this world.  Especially since you’ve found the Dragon Heart, your importance is second only to the Queen.  Didn’t you realise?”

“My importance, yes, but I don’t think that form of address is entirely appropriate at the moment, so I’d rather you didn’t use it.  I’m a soldier, fighting for my home right now, not the Guardian. I have to deal with the Queen in time, but right now the most important thing to me is my family and my home.” And Talana, although he did not voice the thought.

“Alright, but remember the Goddess’s words.” Keer pleaded, seconded by Jeron’s silent look.  The two stood and moved away, back towards the activity in the centre of the loft.    Darrukin finished eating and found himself a bed, falling asleep despite the sun sending tiny shafts of light to bathe his face.

Talana hid her anger at being abandoned by Darrukin, lest the other soldiers think her soft and unprofessional – though in truth, she was no soldier and they knew it as well as she.  Cern seemed nice enough, certainly good at what she did, Talana found out as she listened to the older woman and Pops plan an attack on the encampment.  They included her in their discussion, though she did not have much to offer as an inexperienced civilian.

“We shall use this cave as a base, a place to withdraw to, Talana.: Pops explained.  She understood that much, at least.

“So what shall we do?” she asked, eager to get on with it.  Cern and Pops grinned at one another. 

“Nothing too risky, I hope.” Said Cern. “We were thinking of booby-trapping their water supply with this.” She held up a bottle of colourless liquid.

“What is it? Poison?”

“It’s a draft that will turn your urine blue.” Pops said, stifling a smile.  “It’s not designed to hurt anyone, this attack, but it will let them know that we could have, had we wanted to.  It will certainly unsettle those who drink it.”

Talana could not help smiling at the thought.  “They hold their water in a small reservoir, with the water-fetching detail going to the river several times a day.  When shall we put this draft in the reservoir?”

“Tonight.  It won’t be easy, and there’s not much time between the moon rises and the sunrise, but we should manage it.” Cern said.    The woman then explained how they would carry out their attack. 

“Right. Let’s rest up before this little adventure.” Pops said in an authoritative tone.  Cern stood watch while he and Talana settled down to sleep and wait for the dark hours of night to give them cover.

When it did come time to carry out the raid, it was silent, efficient and swift.  They went in and out of the camp with no witnesses, the damage done to the small holding reservoir of water with no palace guard being the wiser.  Talana had watched from the edges of the camp, ready to act as a decoy or create a disturbance should Cern and Pops be discovered, but they were not.  Soon they were across the river and away back to their hiding place, slipping silently through the forest like ghosts.  It was past midday before they heard the first howls of alarm coming from stricken palace guards, and hoots of laughter from their fellows, sobered quickly as they, too, were touched by the blue malaise.  All three understood what the alarm was about instantly, but did not laugh out loud.  They all knew that the palace guard officers, at least, would understand the full meaning of the attack, and they fully expected some form of increased vigilance or patrols from the palace guards in response.

Talana thought of Darrukin as she watched the camp once more whilst Cern and Pops crept quietly along the embankment of the river. The rushing of the water covered any noise they made at this distance, but they were still cautious.  The apparent success of their raid had encouraged them all. 

She hoped that he was alright, whatever he was doing.  He had not been in contact with them since he had left them days ago.  Talana worried, silently, but was more tense with fear and excitement as she followed Cern’s signal to move closer.  Stealthily approaching the camp along its noisy river side, they would infiltrate the place as soon as they could. 

All knew that there were other guerrilla teams working on the palace guard encampments around the castle.  Discreet contact between them and their fellow teams had established that the palace guards were definitely beginning to become stressed by the uncertainty of the siege.  Booby traps took their toll, as did ambushing the last member of a palace guard patrol so silently that it was minutes, sometimes more, that the rest of the patrol realised a man was missing.  Simple things like showing the palace guards that they had been there – slicing a uniform to ribbons within a sleeping guard’s tent, leaving little cards with a little grinning face on them – these things showed the palace guards that they were not safe. And that the perpetrators had clemency.  The attack on the water supply could have been fatal for hundreds, but was not.  They hoped that it would let the palace guards know that they had options, that if they surrendered or deserted they would not necessarily be killed in Darr.  It undermined the discipline and authority of the palace guard officers.

From what Talana knew of the palace guards, they were bullies and thugs; those used to police the city of Tashmar little more than that.  They had a reputation for cruelty, one which was amply justified in what she had seen.  But policing a city and sending out an expeditionary force were two different things; what she did could not be certain of was if the palace guards used as an army were really any different when placed in this context.  She had a sneaking suspicion that the army was more professional than the police force, but it was obvious that neither would be a match for the Darr Army, if it had anywhere near the numbers.  Darr’s own small army, professional soldiers who understood discipline and loyalty, did not have to be kept in line with threats and bullying, and did not have to act as a police force for the province. They were not there to keep public order in a hugely crowded capital, but there to defend the borders of the province should the neighbouring provinces take liberties with the boundaries.  It had happened on more than one occasion – and while Darr had been largely peaceful in recent times, border skirmishes and all-out warfare between the provinces had been known. 

Talana knew that the palace guards were recruited from a wide base of the whole population of Ashlon.  She guessed that it was an escape for some, a chance to leave a difficult life behind, a chance to see Ashlon, and of this she had no doubt, an opportunity for those who delighted in cruelty to give vent to their desires.  There was a system of rank and the officers did seem to have a career.  What she could not understand was how they could submit to the ravings of the priesthood, nor did she really understand how the priests of the Dragon Queen could wield so much power.  Fear, force and depriving people of their own free choice seemed to be the way. It made her burn with anger at the injustice. 

 Cern and Pops knew it was time to inflict real damage on the palace guards now: not just psychological warfare but something that would really hinder the palace guard siege effort.  The trebuchets were their target now.

The three crept along past the toilet pits, screwing their faces up in disgust at the smell as they carefully edged past, knowing that it was perhaps where they were at the greatest risk of discovery.  Palace guards went to and fro at all times of day and night, and the three froze as they heard footsteps approaching.  Talana ensured that they were covered by her invisibility spell, but they were all armed in case they did need to skirmish.  The palace guard passed them, found his relief at the pits.  Quickly, Talana, Cern and Pops darted into the shadows of the canvas tents and made their way to the heart of the camp.

The great trebuchets were nearly complete.  Stockpiles of projectiles were stored close by the great structures, affording some cover.  The trebuchets were guarded by six palace guards, three on each. It had amazed them all that such important weapons were so lightly guarded: they thought it could only be that the palace guards did not feel under too much of a threat.  The trebuchets were placed in roughly the middle of the encampment, a smallish clearing surrounded by rows and rows of tents.  The great wooden arms of the machines were extremely heavy and difficult to manoeuvre, and it had been a labour-intensive process with teams of craftsmen to build them.  Two guards patrolled around the perimeter of each construction area, the other two were posted right at the trebuchets themselves.  Pops, Cern and Talana knew their guarding pattern, knew when they’d be tired and not at their peak, and knew how much time they had before relief guards would appear.  Pops and Cern targeted one trebuchet, snatching the patrolling pair of guards and killing them without so much as a scuffle breaking out.  Then they took their place, walking together in the darkness in formation, Talana hidden slightly behind them.  The guard at the trebuchet was sleepy; he was not paying close attention to the pair walking around him.  It was only when they suddenly rushed in and grabbed him that he realised it wasn’t his fellow guards, but by then it was too late. 

Cern had already pointed out where Talana was to inflict damage; she and Pops covered the small distance to the second trebuchet.  Working as quickly as she could, Talana cut at ropes and chiselled away at the joints she could reach, all the time searching the darkness around her, listening for her companions as well as for danger.   She heard the sickening slice of metal on flesh; the thunk of a head being hit heavily.  A slight scream from one of the second set of guards made her heart hammer, and she rushed to finish her sabotage, spreading a volatile oil onto the main timbers of the machine.  Stirrings from the camp alerted her to the possibility that they’d been discovered; yet she had not heard the pull-out call from either Cern or Pops.  Hoping that they were alright, she gave a low whistle that signalled she was ready to go.  After an anxious few heartbeats, she heard Cern’s answering whistle. 

As fast as she could she struck a spark and ignited the trebuchet. A flare of light burst into the night; Talana retreated into the shadows and watching as the fire spread with a dull whoosh.  The fire flickered and licked itself around the oil-splashed timbers, dancing colours of yellow, gold and red, with greens and blues weaving and fluttering almost like feathers.  Momentarily oblivious to all else, Talana stared into the flames as they grew.  A pattern seemed to form before her, the greens and blues and golds merging and twisting and curling…what was it? Huge eyes of golden light seemed to focus on her.  Time seemed to slow as she gazed into the eyes, and faintly, at first so faint that she thought she was mistaken, she felt rather than heard a deeply distressed cry.  Taking a step towards the fire, she almost cried out herself, but a hand on her shoulder pulled her back.  She jumped, startled out of her reverie, and looked up at Cern.  The older woman gave her an enquiring look.

“Did you hear that?” Talana whispered, not moving.

“Hear what?” Cern replied, crouching and looking around to see what palace guards were about.  “Come on, we’ve got to move!”

Shaking her head, Talana nodded, but she took one more look into the flames. The eyes were gone, the cry nothing but an echo in her memory.  Glancing over at the second trebuchet she saw that it was also burning.  Time to go.  

Leaving before the shouts and cries of panicking palace guards woke up too many of their fellows, they slipped back into the shadows, met up with Pops and headed back to the safety of their cave.

“Thankyou, Cern.” Talana said, flopping down to the cave floor and resting against her pack.  “I don’t know what happened then.  The flames – I saw something looking at me.”  she collected herself, trying to dispel the sense of distress that the cry had instilled in her.  Looking at her companions, she saw that they were both unhurt, but were frowning in consternation.  “I’m alright, really. I’m not going mad – I swear it – it’s just that I’m sure I heard something calling me, and I saw eyes…” she trailed off, seeing that she was not exactly reassuring her fellows.  “Well, at least you two were successful, and I think I disabled the trebuchet in exactly the way you told me to, so it was a successful mission. I’m so glad that we got out of that without getting hurt, and without having to kill too many people.”  She abruptly shut herself up, aware that she was on the verge of babbling.

“It really gets to you, doesn’t it?” said Cern, a bemused but kind expression overtaking her more severe look.  “This killing business.  They are the enemy, they are threatening us.  I’ve never questioned it the way you do.  I’ve always known that I could kill to protect my family and my home.”

Pops spoke up, addressing Cern. “We’re soldiers, Talana’s not.  I would be concerned if she did want to kill people.” he said, his brows raised.    Wiping a hand across his tired face, he looked at Talana.  “Are you alright? You look rattled.” When she nodded her assent he continued, taking up the conversation where Cern had left off.  “Do you think you could kill someone, if you had to?  You’ve had all the training.  It’s important, as our lives may depend on it, too.”

Talana nodded slowly.  “Yes, I could, and I have. But it’s still not something that rests easily with me. It’s wrong to kill.  I know that right now, our enemy are the palace guards; I’ve hated them for my entire life.  They’ve meant nothing but persecution and death for as long as I can remember. And since I met Darrukin, this province has become more important to me than any home I’ve ever known.  I could kill for him. For Darr. But it’s not right, and palace guards are still people.”

“You show a maturity and poise that would befit Lady Dana.” sSaid Pops with a slight smile as he leaned back against the cave wall.  Cern rummaged amongst their supplies, but spoke to Pops.

“Just as long as she can do the job.”

Talana looked steadily at the older woman.  “Don’t worry about that. I won’t let you down.”

Shrugging, Cern turned away from the conversation and proceeded to replenish her backpack, signalling clearly that she had no more wish to talk.  Pops held Talana’s gaze for a long moment, smiling briefly before dropping his eyes. 

“I’m sure you won’t.” he said, and she felt a rush of gratitude for his support.  It went some way to comforting the feeling that she’d never be quite good enough, not for them, nor for Darrukin, nor for herself.  The distressed cry echoed in her head once more, making her sit up and try to hear where it came from.  Would she let down whoever that was?  She hoped not.

 

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