The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 49
The Thief of Ashlon Part 2 (chapter 14)

Darrukin moved forward slowly, inching over the ground, freezing still whenever he thought the squad of palace guards was too near.  He was half-way between where he’d left his horse and the little cave on the river bank; he desperately wanted to rejoin Talana, Pops and Cern. There was so much to tell them.  However, there were ten palace guards tramping through the forest to his left, so he kept himself in check, hardly daring to breathe.  The noonday sun blazed down through the trees onto his shoulders; it was hot and sticky, and he cursed himself for his impatience and the urgency of his information.  If he had been sensible, he would have waited until sundown, but he knew he could not have held himself back for that long.

Crashing through the undergrowth, a palace guard suddenly sidetracked and headed straight towards him.  The young man was fumbling with the front of his uniform; it was obvious what he wanted to do. Darrukin crouched, ready to move.  Although he was covered by the same kind of invisibility spell that Talana used whenever they travelled, he was knew that if the guard tripped over him, he would be seen. Then he would probably have to kill the young man.  He wracked his brains trying to think of an alternative as the guard blundered into the small depression where he was hidden, possibilities rushing through his head.  The young man came directly towards him, completely unaware of him.  An idea hatched in Darrukin’s mind. Swiftly he stood, casting a quickly-formed spell at the man.  The look of shock on the guard’s face was replaced by a vacant stare as it took effect.  Slowly, calmly, Darrukin spoke to the guard, weaving the spell around him in more intricate and lasting ways.

“You need to sleep. Lie down here and sleep.” Obediently, the palace guard did as he was told, carefully sitting, then curling up into a little ball and rolling onto his side, eyes shut fast.

“Sleep, and when you’re rested and wake up, you can decide for yourself who you fight for.  You won’t be coerced by the spells of the priests any more.  You are free.” In the curious double-vision that he could slip into if need be, he saw the spell take effect, saw the older spells around the young guard shredding.  It was satisfying to give a man back his choice.

With the young man softly snoring he continued on, hoping that his action would mean at least one less palace guard to fight.  Some palace guards were not coerced into the force, they wanted to be there.  He had not stopped to check which the young man was, but hoped that whatever the circumstances, that he might have a change of heart about fighting in Darr.

Moments later, the voices of the other palace guards reached his ears. 

“Oi, Tarn! You constipated or something?” one guard called. There were snorts of laughter from his fellows.  Disgruntled grumblings followed in the silence that followed the query.  Heavy footsteps crashing through the forest told him that the squad was returning to look for their missing man.

There was no time to think.  He drew his sword.  The squad moved quickly, noisily, staying within sight of each other and calling out for Tarn.  They were scant metres away when one of them spotted him and called the alert.

Swearing, Darrukin rushed the nearest guard and sliced through his neck, instantly killing the man.  The remaining eight guards converged in a knot, weapons hastily drawn, as Darrukin broke into a run and fled.  Branches whipped him, he ducked and dodged, running as fast as the forest would allow.  Angry yells followed him as the palace guards pursued.  The dappled light filtering through the trees disguised the uneven forest floor – he stumbled over a protruding tree root, sprawling forward, his sword skittering away ahead of him.  Desperately he lunged at it, managing to grab the sword, turn and face the palace guards just as they caught up. 

A moment of stillness engulfed them. Darrukin had no time to even think of sorcery.  As one, the eight guards rushed him.  Blades slashed and hacked the empty space where he had been; he dodged and parried and thrust so skilfully that despite being heavily outnumbered he was holding his own, but he knew it could not last.   He’d have to break off again and run if he wanted any chance of survival.

He heard a familiar thrum; eyes widening as he realised what it was.  Launching himself backwards he twisted around with a wide slash of his sword and killed a palace guard who had managed to get behind him.  Several arrows whistled over his head and thudded into the bodies of his attackers, throwing the survivors into disarray.  Blades appeared from nowhere and the forest seemed to move until he distinguished the shapes of three people coming towards him, two armed with bows, all with swords.  Whoever the newcomers to the fight were, they were on his side!

Something within him surged, whether it was relief or not, he was not sure, but he felt a flow of strength return to his tired muscles.  Whirling so quickly he could hardly be seen, he attacked the four remaining guards and dispatched them so quickly their bodies were left standing for a few seconds before they all collapsed on top of one another.  Darrukin was left standing with his bloodied sword hanging down, taking deep breaths, slightly disconcerted by the ease with which he’d just killed four people.

“Darrukin!”

It was Talana’s voice.  Here? He turned, looking for her.  Covered in camouflage but with weapons at the ready,  Talana, Pops and Cern emerged through the forest, closing the distance with hurried steps.

Breaking from the others, Talana ran to him, her eyes searching his face.   She was filthy, smeared with dirt and grease, her hair and clothes had leaves and twigs attached, her sword now dangling at her side.  She stank of dirt and sweat and trees.  Never had he been so glad to see her.

Sheathing his sword, he grabbed her shoulders, keeping her at arms length lest he betray his true feelings in front of Cern and Pops.  Their eyes locked, in a wordless moment she managed to convey her anger at his disappearance months before, her fear and worry for him, how glad she was to see him and even – he saw it before she dropped her gaze – a spark of desire.  Swallowing, he looked up at the two older soldiers.  Both had politely averted their faces from his reunion with Talana, but he knew they were both thinking the same thing.  Were his feelings that obvious?

“What brings you out here, sir?” ventured Pops.  Leaves and twigs were woven into his matt of hair, and curled into his beard. It gave him an almost comical look, but was very effective camouflage. 

“I could ask the same of you, Pops. You’re a little beyond what I’d call your range.”  Darrukin could not help sounding slightly admonishing.  They had not discussed raiding this deep.

“Ask that young lass of yours.” Pops replied, almost cheekily – but with a more fatherly look at Talana.  She glared back at the old soldier before speaking up.

“I thought we should come out and harass some patrols here for a change, as we’ve been quite active inside the encampment.  We needed to do something different, let the palace guards know that they weren’t safe anywhere – not in their beds, not in their camp, not out patrolling…we’ve been tracking that squad for hours, waiting for an opportunity.”

“Ah, she was just getting restless without you around, sir!” Pops joked, while Cern rolled her eyes and sighed.  Then the older man’s face turned serious.  “We’ve not heard from you for two months.  We were becoming concerned.”

Darrukin wiped his forehead with one sweaty hand.  “My apologies. Rather a lot has been happening and it has taken me a lot longer than I anticipated to get organised.  But I do have much to tell. First, let’s get this mess cleaned up and get back to the cave.”

With a quick nod, Pops directed Cern to search the bodies of the palace guards for anything useful.  Darrukin could see the look of disgust on Talana’s face at what they had to do, but he touched her arm gently in apology. She relaxed somewhat, and sighed with resignation.

            “What happens with the bodies? She asked, her blue eyes bright from behind the veil of filth on her face.

            “I’ll bury them.  Can’t leave them here to be discovered, or have animals eat them.”   With that, he selected a small clear space between the trees, and dug it out using sorcery.  He held the earth he’d taken up in the air, waiting for Cern, Pops and Talana to place the bodies in the resulting pit.  Nine bodies.  With luck, the sleeping guard would not ever know what had happened to his comrades, and finding himself alone, would desert.    The burial was swift; Darrukin pausing a moment after the earth had settled to say a quick prayer to the Goddess to look after the souls of the fallen guards.  Nothing was said, but he saw Cern and Pops looking at him with awed expressions at what he’d done.   Talana had not even blinked at his use of sorcery, just set about disguising the slight disturbance in the earth as best she could.

            She said little to him on their way back as they were still travelling under threat of discovery, but he knew that she was as aware of him as he was of her.   Talana would smile at him brightly whenever he caught her eye, and there was something in the way she moved that showed that she knew where he was at all times, even when she walked before him.  Cern was out front, probing first, Pops in the rear. They travelled carefully in the heat, staying in the shade of the forest and avoiding open space where they could. 

            Talana tapped his shoulder as they skirted around a small clearing in the trees, pointing up to the azure sky.   It was cloudless and intense, a portent of hot, dry weather for the next few days at least.    With a confused glance, he looked back at his companion, but she pointed again to the sky.  Looking hard, he saw it – a speck so high up it was almost out of sight.

            “Keesha?” ventured Talana, though she was guessing. It could be any high-flying bird of prey. 

            “I’ll find out.” he replied.  Abruptly, he let out a shrill whistle, sounding much like a falcon himself, and stepped out further into the clearing.

            They watched as the bird circled, hovered, then stooped.  The small body came hurtling towards him, and when he was convinced that it really was Keesha, he held his arm out high and braced for the impact as the blue falcon back-winged and landed, her talons gripping him painfully on his unprotected arm.  She hopped quickly from arm to shoulder, excited and chattering in her odd, whistle-cheep way.  Her blue-grey feathers ruffled and fluffed contentedly as he stroked her, welcoming her back. “What have you been up to, you silly bird? We’ve missed you!” he said softly.  Keesha looked at him, blinked, cocked her head to one side and gave a piteous squawk.  Pecking at her jesses, she fussed until he took the hint and lifted her off his shoulder and back to his arm so that he could look at them properly.  Tucked into the leathers was a note.

            “What does it say?”  Talana asked, a hint of excitement coming into her voice.    Darrukin gave her a quick, hopeful glance as he pulled out the note.  No names were mentioned, but he could tell that it had been written by his father. 

            “It begins, “Keesha has been out and back several times now in search of you both, unsuccessfully.  Should this find you, know that we are in good health and that all is well inside, and that we thank you for your messages of support and for the supplies that have been organised.  We were very worried when we got Keesha’s first note, but glad to hear from our son not too long afterwards, with such good news.  Love all.”   Well, it’s something. I’m glad they are all alright.”

            Talana looked at him, blushing as she remembered the desperation with which she first sent Keesha back to Darr.   “I’m glad.”

            “At least we have Keesha back”

            “Yes.  I am glad that they’ve heard from you since my note.  Is this part of what you want to tell us back at the cave?” she asked, her blue eyes regarding him with a combination of warmth and feigned innocence.

            “Let’s get moving.  I’ll give you the details there.”  Darrukin said.  “I’ve got too much to tell to do it out here, where we’re vulnerable.”

            It was quite late when they reached the cave.  Keesha was sent back to the castle, a note attached to her jesses to let Darrukin’s parents know they had received their message.  The rest of the journey had been uneventful, but had taken a long time. 

            After a quick meal, Darrukin told them all that had been happening with the castle, the campaign, and the reactions they had discerned from the palace. 

            “Keer and Jeron have been working hard to raise the levels of awareness within the neighbouring provinces that what is happening in Darr could happen to them – they’ve been quite successful in fomenting sympathy for us and rebelliousness against the palace guards especially.”

Pops and Talana listened intently; Cern stood watch, keeping half an ear on the conversation inside as she looked and listened to the blackness of the night. 

            “Danai’s been intercepting more communications between the siege forces and their headquarters in Tashmar.  We are gaining useful intelligence in that our strategies appear to be working, unsettling the palace guards.  The trebuchet attack has put their campaign back significantly – I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that, Cern; well done, all of you.  The reports that the camp is haunted – things and people disappearing, the damage done by you three and the other raiding parties around the encampment – it’s all working towards undermining the palace guard chain of command.   Their commanders keep sending back for help and further orders on how to handle the situation, are getting increasingly desperate and worried. Morale is waning, and desertions have increased.  We can tell this by the orders that have come through for them – it started with orders to increase punishments for misdemeanours and increasing discipline, but has ended up with something of much more significance.” He paused for breath, looking at the faces around him in the dim light of the rising Big moon that filtered through the narrow slot through which they could observe the camp.  “Danai has not been able to intercept every set of orders that has gone through, but we have taken some important ones.  We do know that reinforcements are coming – it appears the commanders in Tashmar have had enough of the local commander’s whinging and a force about half as big as that entrenched is on its way.   It will arrive shortly.  And it will be followed shortly by the high priest of the Dragon Queen.”

            “Why send the high priest? It’s not a matter for him. This is a military encounter, not a religious one.”  Cern spat, momentarily turning away from her post.  The older woman puffed up with indignation.

            “On the contrary, I think his arrival is timed to coincide with a victory for the palace guards.  I believe he will come in order to accept the defeat from my father, humiliate my family, and take possession of the castle for the Queen.  Danai suggested that this shows that the Queen does not trust her senior palace guard officers completely, and to reinforce the power of the priests within the force.  The burning of the trebuchets they half suspect was done by disaffected palace guards – how else could they explain how it was done so easily? The priests need to reassert their control over the troops.  Not all are fanatically devoted to the Queen, it would seem, once the bonds of coercive spells are broken.”

            “So, if extra palace guards are on their way, that will mean extra patrols, extra vigilance, more activity – it won’t leave us much scope to work.” Pops commented.  Cern signalled her agreement and displeasure.

            “Yes, it will be difficult.  But there’s time yet to do some damage.  The force won’t get here for some weeks, and by that time, the main body of the Darr Army will be ready to engage. We have been bringing them forward slowly, keeping the palace guards in the dark as much as possible. We can’t assume it, but I don’t think that the commanders here know that Darr’s army is in the process of circumvallating them.  We’re not as big, but we are fighting for our homes.  If we can draw them into battle before the reinforcements arrive, we may be able to force at least a stalemate.”

            “How much can we do?”  Pops asked, his face pale in the filtered light, lines of care and worry scored deeply in shadow. 

            “Thanks to Keer and Jeron we’ve got fabulous communications now, and we’ve already ordered the southern units to move up.   The trolls have been really helpful, and - ”

            Talana interrupted.  “Trolls?”  Brows furrowed, she sat down on the hard floor of the cave, leaning against the wolf-skin on Darrukin’s pack.  “What do you mean, trolls?”

            “Oh, that’s right, you’ve not heard.” The young man outlined Keer and Jeron’s extraordinary journey and their befriending of the trolls.  Although the three listening could hardly credit it, they listened in silence as he explained the system of communications that the two churchmen had set up and the help that the trolls had been in the campaign.

            “That’s truly incredible. I would never have thought that this world had so many wonders in it.” reflected Pops.  Talana looked merely baffled, but accepting. Shaking her head, she changed the subject.

            “How’s the wolf cub?”

            Darrukin had to stifle a laugh.  “Danai is not very happy with us for leaving him in the barracks.  They couldn’t keep him under control, and sent him to me at the forward headquarters.  I had to speak sternly to him to keep him behaving. He misses us, but that’s to be expected; he’s just a baby after all.”

            Talana leaned back into the wolf skin.  “I miss him.  I missed you.  Don’t go abandoning us in that way again!” she said in a low voice, though she did not really mind if Pops or Cern heard her.  Darrukin sat down next to her and she leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder, letting weariness flow through her.  It was as if she could let herself relax just that little bit more now he was back; and she was grateful for it.   “Is that it?” she asked, unable to stifle a yawn.  “I’m rostered for watch after Pops – will you wake me?” she addressed the older man, after waiting a moment to see if any of the group had anything else to say.  Cuddling the wolf-skin around her, she snuggled down.  “I’ll get some sleep now – I have the feeling it’s going to be a big day tomorrow.” 

            She was woken by a gentle shake from Pops when her turn came to stand watch.  Quietly she thanked him and sat up, stretched quickly and heaved herself up to the observation post.  “Anything special to see?” she asked, listening intently to the old soldier’s quick report.  Nothing unusual; the piquet had been a little late, but otherwise the palace guard camp was behaving as normal.  Nodding, she looked out over the moonlit vista, eyes methodically moving from one side to the other, pausing to see if anything unusual moved or was out there.  Pops was right. The palace guards were doing nothing out of the ordinary; she could just make them out in the darkness.

            Pops settled down to sleep and Talana glanced into the dark cave.  The moonlight was angling in so that a shaft hit Darrukin as he slept; he was half-on and half-off his bedding and his blanket had been tossed off. Lips pressed together, Talana quietly pulled the blanket back over him, then, seeing that he was still cold, took the wolf-skin she had snuggled against and laid it over him. The thick white fur was magnificent, and covered him easily, for the White had been an enormous wolf.  Sadness touched her as she thought of the White and of Wolf and their deaths.  Blinking rapidly, she took up her post once more, the clear night sky with the silvery light of the setting Big Moon giving a clean, sharp cast to the river and the encampment beyond.  A soft breeze blew, sending a little shiver of fresh air through the small cave, the smell of the trees and the river wafting through.

            Time seemed to slow, though she was aware that the Big Moon dropped lower and lower, changing the silvery shadows as they danced in the breeze.  Movement from within the cave distracted her, and she quickly checked her companions.  Cern and Pops were deeply asleep, still and virtually silent, but Darrukin was moving restlessly.  He was not awake, that she could see in the dim light.  Peering harder at him, she smothered a cry of alarm.  Despite his restlessness, the wolf skin had not been kicked off, but rather seemed to be sticking to him, melding to his body, the thick fur looking like it was growing from his own skin.  Looking intently at him, Talana took a deep breath and decided that it was trick of the light.  Her eyes must be tired and playing tricks on her.  Turning back to the small fissure through which she could see the palace guard camp, she let her heart-rate settle and went back to work.

            Silvery shapes ran amongst the trees and flowed along the river bank, turned and raced up towards her, their fluid movement rushing over and around the gap from which Talana watched.  The wolves!  She stood frozen, blood rushing in her ears, before she dashed to Darrukin’s side.

            He sat with his eyes open, but she could see that he was not awake.  From outside the cave’s small entrance, she could hear the yips and growls of the ghostly wolves, calling to him. And he answered.  The unearthly howl that came from Darrukin’s throat did not seem human, and the earsplitting reply voiced by the ghost wolves shattered the peace of the night.  Pops and Cern woke instantly, weapons drawn and ready, the older man racing to the observation post while Cern took up a position next to the narrow cave entrance, ready to fight.  They recoiled when they saw ghostly shapes moving outside.

            “It’s alright, it’s only wolves, and they mean no harm!” Talana hastily assured them, her voice low and urgent.  “They will not hurt us, and they are already dead. They are ghosts.”  The two soldiers dropped back slightly but retained a tight grip on their weapons, looking on the scene with great mistrust.  Talana breathed a grateful sigh; this would take some explaining in the morning.  Then her thoughts were diverted as she saw two wolves approach, and she smiled in recognition.

            The White Wolf and Wolf herself, their ghostly forms shimmering, stepped into the cave.  They seemed to smile, and went forward to Darrukin.  Try though she might, Talana could not catch all of the meaning as the pair conversed with him.  With a friendly yip, both wolves stepped back outside, joined their pack.  Darrukin continued to sit up, completely unaware of his surroundings, looking as if he saw through a different set of eyes.

            Stepping back to the fissure to follow the flight of the wolves, Talana watched as the pack raced down the bank and across the river, their silvery forms reaching the other side in moments.  Once there, they stopped, and as one began to howl, heads tossed back towards the moon, the noise reaching back across the river.  It was also clearly heard by the palace guards in the camp.  Shouts could be heard, and lights began to show, guards emerging in confusion and alarm at the sound of the wolves.  The howling abruptly cut off – the pack raced through the camp, swirling silver forms snarling and growling, snapping at and running through the palace guards, making the penned animals stampede with terror.  They leapt and jumped amongst screaming horses, terrorised guards into upsetting equipment and tents. Then once more moving as one, the wolves loped away from the camp and to the north, the shadows of the moon quickly swallowing them up.

            Darrukin, who had raised himself onto his knees in his trance-like state, slumped back onto his heels. The wolf-skin slid off onto the floor.  Talana rushed to him, motioning for Cern to take her place at the observation post; but he was still asleep.  Gently, she pushed his shoulder, guiding him back down to the floor so that he could rest properly.  Cushioning his head with a pillow and throwing the blanket and the wolf-skin back over him to keep him warm, she stroked his head for a moment and listened, waiting for his breathing to steady.  He did not wake at all.

            “He’s asleep.  I don’t believe it.”  She whispered to Pops as he shuffled over to check for himself that the young man was alright.

“I’m …I’m sure he’s fine.  He’s a strong lad, from a strong family.” the soldier replied.

  Talana could not quite see the expression on his face, but knew from his voice that Pops had found the episode terrifying and incomprehensible.  She was having trouble herself.  In an effort to reassure him, she reached across and lightly touched him on the shoulder.

“Pops, I’ve seen so many unbelievable things since meeting this man that I’ve given up keeping count.  Tonight is just one more example.  You’re right – he’s fine, and whatever we’ve witnessed here, it’s nothing evil or bad in any way.  Not if Darrukin is behind it – or those wolves.”

“Right, well, I’ll trust you – and him- on that.” Pops replied softly, nodding.  Seemingly satisfied, he went back to his corner and settled down to sleep once more.

“I’ll keep watch now, Talana, you get some sleep.  It was close enough to my watch anyway.” Cern offered, her silhouette clear against the crack of open sky.  “We’ll talk in the morning.”

 

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