The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 51
The Thief of Ashlon Part 2 (chapter 14)

The forest was dense and gloomy, pitch-black despite the Big Moon shining high in the clear night sky.  Darrukin, Talana and a host of trolls carrying loads of supplies – grain, fruit, cured meats and medicines -  moved forward together and over the edge into the thick stand of trees.  The trolls were marvellous, thought Darrukin, their strong bodies able to carry more weight than he, and their silence easing his worries about capture or surprise by the palace guard.  They were so good at hiding that when they stopped, he was not really able to see them, unless they wanted to be seen.  They were certainly very helpful.

Keer had told him that the troll-mother had seen a vision of her children fighting.  Darrukin could see how wonderful they would be at ambushing, if they had the discipline to stick to the task.  Keer had assured him that they would do whatever he asked of them.  He was just grateful that they were helping at all, and did not want to push the issue. He somehow could not ask too much of them, for though they were strong and seemed to be knowing, wise folk, a part of them did seem to be just children, and he did not want to involve them in his conflict any more than necessary. It would be wrong.

He spotted a sentinel as they entered the dark forest so close to his home; the silvery, shimmering form of a wolf.  The ghostly creature saw him and appeared to grin, then threw back its head and howled.  Darrukin smiled: for the wolves had kept the forest deserted for two weeks.  Their haunting of the black forest had confirmed what the locals had suspected of the area for years; the palace guards had quickly learned not to enter its depths, the swirling, agile figures of the wolves threatening attack if anyone stepped too far into its midst.  Ghost they may be, but no one was brave enough to test what they could and could not do.

Within moments the other wolves were there, rushing up to Darrukin and frolicking about him in general glee.  It was difficult to tell what the trolls thought or felt about the ghost wolves, but certainly they did not seem frightened.  The White and Wolf approached.

“It goes well with you.” Darrukin began.  The wolves greeted him by touching noses.

“Yes,” said Wolf, “the humans will not come near here. The green ones we have pursued.  We have been having fun.”

“You have been back to where they sleep?”

“Yes. Their horses are nervous, and the humans are easier to frighten.”

“Are you able to stay longer?”  Darrukin’s question was pertinent; if they had to leave his supply line would be that much more exposed.

“This forest is not our home, but it is good enough.  We can stay.” said the White. 

“I am grateful.  You have no problem with the lost children?”  They were vital for his plan, and if the trolls and wolves did not get along then he would be in difficulty.

“They are welcome to share this forest with us, as they do in the mountains. We don’t bother them, they don’t bother us.” came the White’s noncommittal reply.

“Good, then I can get moving. Thankyou for speaking with me, Wolf, White.  I appreciate what you are doing for me.”

“You are welcome, you are our brother.” they said in unison, before turning away.  Silently, the wolves followed their leaders away.

Darrukin waved the trolls onwards and they continued into the forest, travelling more easily now they were more certain of their security.   Every now and again they would catch a glimpse of a wolf, and know they were being looked after.  Darrukin found the darkness disconcerting, but still managed to navigate to the entrance of the tunnel, set in a small depression in the midst of the forest.  Pushing back the fallen leaves and small branches that helped disguise the doorway, it looked as thought it had not been used since Talana, Keer and Jeron had escaped into the forest many months before.

Silently, he opened the door, using sorcery.  The tunnel inside was even blacker than the forest at night, so as he entered the passage he raised his hand to let a golden glow shine forth.  The tunnel air was still and dank, and the walls of smoothly fitted stone gleamed faintly with water, strange fungi growing in places.  A tugging at his elbow brought his attention to a small troll.

“Your light, we can help.  Mother will light us.” The little troll said, cocking his head to one side.

“How?”

The troll put down his burden and moved to a wall.  He placed his hands on the stone and spoke something in a soft and unintelligible voice.  After a few moments, a soft glow sprang up under his stubby hands, spreading outwards.  The little troll ran further up the passage and repeated his actions, the glow following and spreading further.  Soon the whole tunnel was bathed in a gentle orange light.  Darrukin picked up the troll’s load and lead the rest of the party into the tunnel. 

“Thankyou.” he said to the troll as he caught up with him.  “You are of more help than I could ever imagine.  Please thank your mother.”

“She knows.” was all the reply he received.

It was very late when they emerged at the castle end of the tunnel.  Sentries challenged them, but on seeing who came through the wooden door and what they carried, fetched help. The trolls would venture out no further than to place their supplies just outside the entrance; they were very shy and could not be coaxed into doing more.  Accepting that, Darrukin asked the sentries to be careful not to notice the trolls, but to start moving the supplies into the castle proper for distribution. 

Only when the supplies were being looked after and the trolls thanked and released did he and Talana head for the private apartments of the Lord and his family. They were tired, and it was quite early in the morning, but by this time the castle staff were beginning to stir.  Pausing only long enough to clean themselves up and dress in fresh clothes, they went to the Lord’s suite to see his parents.

“Darrukin!” Lady Dana cried out as she met him in the drawing room of the apartment. She was carrying a tray with a mug of hot milk and what looked like a dose of medicine.  Quickly she put it aside.

“Mother!” Darrukin strode across the room to hug her.  He was so glad she was alright. “How’s father?” he asked, worried. His mother stepped back from him, one hand smoothing her hair as she looked at her son with tired eyes.

“Come through and see for yourself. He’s exhausted with worry, he has a fever, but that is not the worst of it.  It is as though there is something eating at him.  He will be happy to see you, though.  How did you get back? The tunnel?”

Darrukin nodded.  “The tunnel. I thought you would have used it more, but in any event, we now have supplies coming through to help the town.  I hope my messages reached you. We have been busy – no doubt as you have!”  He turned to include Talana in the conversation.

“Oh, Talana!” Lady Dana said, pausing as she looked at the younger woman, “Forgive me, I have been so rude in not greeting you.”  She did so then with a quick smile.

“Think nothing of it, my Lady. You have far more pressing needs and I am not in the least offended.” She looked at mother and son.  “Rather, with your permission, I’ll withdraw and go look after those supplies, sort them and get their distribution flowing.  Would Darrlani be willing to help me? I’m sure she would have knowledge of where there was most need here.”

“Yes, please, go ahead and do that.  You know where Darrlani’s rooms are, and I’m sure she’d be glad to see you in any case.” Lady Dana answered. 

“I’ll see you later in the day, perhaps at breakfast? Please give Lord Darrulan my love. I hope he is well.”  Talana left the room and the son looked at his mother.

“So, how ill is he?  You have not been that well either, by the look of you.” 

Lady Dana picked up the tray, smiling at him, but with a grey tinge of tiredness in her eyes.  “I’m just tired.  Your father is…come and see.”

Opening the heavy wooden door between the drawing room and the bedroom, he held it to allow his mother through with the tray.  The room was in semi-darkness, with only one lamp lit beside the bed.  Its flickering light did little to dispel the gloom. 

Darrukin was shocked.  His father lay in the bed, propped up on pillows and resting uneasily.  The covers were all rucked and messed up as if he’d been kicking and thrashing about.  He seemed to have shrunk –he had always been a powerfully built man, but now seemed only half his normal size, shrivelled and listless, with a weariness about him that dragged at his face and body.  Frowning in his sleep, he murmured and turned over.

“He’s been like this for some time now. I can’t feed him properly.  We are on the same rationed diet as the rest of the town, but he can’t even seem to eat that.  I am so worried about him.”  Lady Dana said softly.

She mixed the medicine with the milk, and gently shook her husband awake.  It took him a few moments to focus on her form and to realise that his son was standing with her, his vague and bleary eyes clearing a little as he beheld him.

“My boy!” he said weakly, raising himself up momentarily from the pillows.  His strength failed and he collapsed back, drawing in great gasping breaths.

Darrukin took the drink.  “Here, father. Drink this, it’s supposed to give you some energy.”  Offering the milk drink he watched carefully as the Lord accepted the drink.  Lord Darrulan pulled a face as he drank, eyes darting from wife to son, Lady Dana backing up Darrukin’s request with a firm look.

“Eeurgh, muck!” Lord Darrulan growled as he finished the drink. “I see you’re in cahoots with your mother.  I can’t win around here.”  He sank back into his pillows and turned his pale face to his son.  “But it is good to see you. I hope you’re not too disappointed with me.”

“Disappointed? What do you mean?” Darrukin asked, but his father’s eyes had closed and he appeared to slip back into sleep.

His mother answered.  “He believes that you’ll think him weak and unworthy of the Lordship.  I’ve told him that as rubbish, as all of his children love him dearly, but something seems to be affecting his brain.” She sighed. “He gets into the worst depressions I’ve ever seen. Nothing seems to make sense to him.  I don’t know if it is because of his illness that this happens or if it is the cause, either.”

Darrukin folded his arms and bit his lip.  “Mother, I’ve learned a lot about sorcery since I’ve been away.  Might I look at him for a moment?”

“You mean using sorcery?”

“Yes, I can search him, to see if he’s had a spell cast upon him to make him ill.  It has happened to me.  It might help.”

“Tafta did something like that, but couldn’t find anything.  You are welcome to, of course. Anything to help.  It won’t hurt him, will it?”

“No, not at all.  It won’t take long, either.”  He said, and began to concentrate, searching his father’s body for any signs of a spell.  Talana would probably be better – she seemed to have a talent for it – but he had faith in himself.

With a clear mind and the curious double vision he had experienced before, he continued his search.  He could see the health of his father, where it was breaking down, the stress and the pains within it. He could see, and almost feel as if it were his own, the blood coursing through his father’s veins,  see the blue flashes of fire in his father’s brain, as thoughts and actions were initiated there. It was his father’s life, the whole network that made up his life, and it was awe-inspiring.

Yet he could see nothing wrong, no spell at work.  His father was tired, so tired that he seemed not to be able to recover, the fatigue dragging him down.  The worry and stress within him aggravated it, but there was not one sign of a spell.  He looked to see if his father had suffered a mild heart-attack or any age-related illness, but could see nothing, no damage to any organs outside what he thought would be normal for a man of his age.  Nothing.  Reluctantly, he cleared his double-vision and turned back to his mother.

“I can’t find anything, either. The strange thing is, he doesn’t appear to be all that sick – tired, and a little feverish, yes, but nothing that would account for this.” He said, sweeping his hand over the bed. “What’s he been like lately?  When did he become so depressed?”

“I think it started when you were taken away as a prisoner. After the priests left.    The ultimatum seemed to sap the strength from him, though he tried for so long to be brave and strong. It really seemed to beat him.  When we heard from you that did give him some hope, and I even thought he turned for the better for a few days, but then the depression started again. He’s not himself; it seems as if he is giving up.  I am afraid he might give up, submit to the Queen, as if he’s too old and tired to fight her. It’s how he’s behaved, and it’s even what he’s said.”

“How can that be? He’d never give up defending his people against evil!” Darrukin replied, shaken.  That his father, always so strong, could even consider such a prospect indicated that there had to be a spell at work somewhere.

“I know. That’s why this is all so strange. I just don’t know what to do anymore.”

“Hmmm.  If I may, I will have a scout around. There’s something not right about all this, and I have to investigate it.  Do you mind?”

“Of course not, anything to help your father.  I’ll see you at breakfast in a few hours.”

“I’ll come to breakfast, but I must leave soon after.  I’ve got to get back to the Army.  We’re ready to fight: all we need is the right moment.  Talana will stay here, she’ll look after the supplies that come in.  They will keep coming, hopefully easing your problems.”

Kissing his mother gently on the cheek, he left her sitting on the bed holding her husband’s hand. 

Leaving the apartment, he strode through the quiet corridors of his home to the audience hall.  It was not guarded, as all the available house guards were either in relief or patrolling the perimeter of the castle, ensuring that the palace guards did not attempt to breach the walls.  Less necessary duties were not attended to.

The hall’s great emptiness echoed his footsteps as he walked to the centre of the room, a hand-held lamp providing all the light he needed.  Replaying the scene he had witnessed all that time ago, he remembered where the priest Angka stood, where everyone else sat or stood round them.  It was almost as if he could hear an echo of the scene; the slither of metal, the angry shouts, the threats.  Had something happened here that he had missed?  He remembered the look on the priest’s face, ugly and triumphantly smug.  Darrukin shuddered, turning from the great chairs where his parents would sit in audience.

Something flickered on the edge of his vision as he did so, and he snapped back round, instantly alert.  At first, he could see nothing in the darkened hall, except the shapes of the chairs on the dais and the dim finery around him.  Then it happened again.  Blackness, flickering and tiny, fluttering around his father’s seat.  Narrowing his eye, he looked hard, suspicious.  There.  A tiny spell, a hard complex knot of malice, occupied his father’s seat.  It was designed well; it was not obvious, nor did his eyes want to rest on the spot where it lay, but he forced himself to look at it, to see it and see through it.  Summoning his own power, he could see the web of despair, hopelessness and weakness used within the spell and knew that it was what entangled his father and made him ill.  Angka the priest must have placed the spell there on the day of his last audience with his father; there was no other way it could have been delivered so accurately to attack Lord Darrulan.  Taking a deep breath, Darrukin let the golden power flow through him, extending a hand towards the spell and his will towards destroying it. 

At the first touch of his power the spell seemed to slip out of the seat and flee; it surprised him so much that for a second, his will faltered.  In that instant the spell expanded, layers of complexity unfolding and changing, growing in malice.  Its blackness seemed to fill the hall, wanted to suffocate him, pushing the air from his lungs and squeezing at his chest.  Fighting for breath, he summoned his power again and tried to let the sorcery flow within him to beat the thing, shatter it, but it did not seem to be working.  Whatever was wrong with him, his power seemed stopped up, he could feel it building, but it would not be released, would not destroy the spell. The malicious blackness began to hiss with the same evil laugh as Angka himself; as if the priest were still alive and in the room instead of a shrivelled skeleton in a forest.  The thought of that gave Darrukin heart as he fought the spell.

“You’re dead, Angka, you can’t hurt me!” he called out, and his power began to glow and light the room, pushing back at the blackness hard.  It resisted, and threatened to swamp him.   The blackness seemed to enclose his vision, making it clouded and indistinct, as if the blood supply to his brain was being slowly cut off.  Again, the edge of his vision flickered with movement; two figures seemed to enter the great hall. He tried to see who they were, tried to look at them directly, but the spell seemed to hold him frozen.  There was a choked cry of pain from one, and an indignant expletive from the other as they walked in and were sucked into the blackness, attacked as well.  But he knew both voices.

 “You…are…dead…and so is this spell!” he shouted, throwing the force of his will behind the statement.  An explosion of power detonated through the castle, knocking him off his feet and clear across the room.

He landed with a thud against the wall, fortunately, the great tapestries that hung against the stone softened the thwack of his head.  Two voices at once shouted out for him, and through blurred and indistinct vision he saw two young women.  Both shouted his name at once – he could hardly hear it for the ringing in his ears.

“Talana, Darrlani!”  he responded, stunned.  “Ow! My head!”

The two reached him and bent down to help him up off the floor.  He hadn’t even known he’d lost his footing. 

“What happened?  Are you alright?” Talana asked, her face white with shock. 

Rubbing the back of his head with one hand, he grimaced.  “Yes, basically.  Just a last altercation with that damned priest, Angka.”

“Pardon? He’s dead!” Talana blinked in surprise.  “It was a sticky mess in here; we walked straight into it.  I couldn’t breathe! Was that what was happening to you?”

            “Well it was looking grim for a moment there.” seeing their uncomprehending faces he paused to explain.  “He’d cast a spell here in the audience hall, against my father – but when I tried to destroy it, it sort of grew and attacked me.  I thought I was finished.”

            “Well, I’m glad you’re not.” Darrlani said, putting her arm around him.  “Come on, let’s get some food into you and then let you rest. I gather you’ve both been up most of the night? It was certainly an early start for me!” she grinned cheekily at both her brother and Talana.

            Talana took to his other side and held his arm, supporting him, smiling back.  They walked out of the audience hall.  “We can’t lose you now, not when we’re about to fight for your home.”

 

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