The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 52
The Thief of Ashlon Part 2 (chapter 15)

            “We should attack just before dawn, before the palace guards start their morning routine and most are asleep.” Darrukin pointed to one section of a map which detailed the disposition of forces around the castle.  “If we attack from here, here and here, in a three-pronged approach, we should be able to push them towards the river. It will give them nowhere to run to, unless they cross.  If they try that, we will have a force of archers ready to harass them there.  They’ll have some support as well.  Does anyone have any suggestions or comments?” he asked, addressing the assembled commanders of the Darr Army.  He, and most of the higher-ranking officers, were assembled some miles back from the farmyard headquarters he had made use of up until this time.  Now Darr’s soldiers were deployed mainly in a loose ring around the castle, in touch with units but not completely encircling the town yet.  They were far enough away to not be noticed by the palace guards, but close enough that it would not take too long for them to move forward into battle positions.  They were resting as much as possible, readying themselves for war with the hated green-clad palace guards.  The only units that were not going to be directly involved in this battle were stationed along the major routes into and out of the province, ready to defend the province and alert their lord should the armies of Wal-Mai and Choresh decide to take advantage of the situation for their own gain.

            Darrukin looked around him at the earnest faces of the officers, searching for agreement, disagreement, ideas or suggestions.  He had been his father’s spokesperson since his arrival back at the castle – his father, though recovering well from the sorcery-inflicted illness, was still not quite up to the task of running a major battle.   Darrukin did not know if he was, either, but at least he was young and fit, and quite prepared to act as go-between for his father.

            It was a slightly strange situation for him.  Early on in his military career, he had been treated just as any other person of his own rank. Here, as he acted for his father, and although he was ranked only as high as the aides around him, he was accorded the respect that his other rank as the lord’s son and representative gave him. Not to mention that every person in the room knew that he was the Guardian, could see the Heart of the Dragon ring on his finger and knew what it meant. They listened to him.  It pushed him past any nervousness he may have felt and made him equal to the situation, acting as first-line decision maker for the campaign and ferrying the important information back to his father and his sister at the castle.

            “Let’s get Colonels Rullenne and Fiyan’s opinions on this. They’re both excellent tacticians” Danai put in.  The older man smiled at his cousin, quite over any disquiet he may have felt about him earlier on over a certain young woman.  He was not a man to stay down for long.  Darrukin returned the gesture, glad of the support.  The two colonels moved forward to take a good look the map, and consider the situation.

            It was serious.  The Darr Army was not fresh, many of the troops having travelled a long way to reach their holding positions, and having trained intensively beforehand.  Food was becoming a problem for the areas where they waited, and although the supplies to the castle were trickling in, there was not really a lot to spare and the siege was definitely beginning to bite inside the town walls.   Being back far enough to be overlooked by the palace guard force meant that although they were safer, they would have to travel further to meet them in battle. There was also the risk of discovery. Whilst the palace guards were not that interested in deep patrols into the countryside, and focussed their efforts on the siege, there was always the chance they would find them.  The two forces were of roughly equal size, but the palace guards were entrenched, in a defensive position, with all the inherent advantages that held.

            At least, thought Darrukin, the morale of his soldiers was high.  They may have been footsore and nursing a nagging hunger, but they appeared happy and determined.  A fiercely patriotic spirit stirred them; most were openly appalled and affronted that the palace guards had dared to enter their territory and threaten their lord.  The deep mistrust of the Queen and her palace guards, the anger generated by their actions, had ensured that there were thousands of volunteers for the Darr Army who were now ready to move. 

            Fiyan coughed, clearing his throat, his tanned face rough and aged but with a considered look in his eyes.

            “We must move quickly to preserve the element of surprise - tonight, tomorrow night at the latest.  It will be to our great advantage.  Lord Darrulan’s plan is sound in principle, however, I would suggest a few refinements…”

            The colonel continuted, detailing a plan which Rullenne considered workable and gaining the approval of the other officers.

            “That’s settled then.” Darrukin said with satisfaction.  Knowing that action was about to take place eased his racing mind allowing him to plan and think much more effectively.  He would send details of the plans to his father and Darrsan, both back at the castle, and would have to make sure that Talana remained there was well.  A small frown crosses his face as he realised that he would not have time to get back to see them personally before the battle was joined.  He’d had a difficult enough time convincing Talana to stay with the castle in any case, to see her would probably only make separating again even more difficult.  That thought brought a twitch of a smile to the corner of his mouth, erasing the frown.  Keesha would have to take the message to them; and just to make sure he’d pass it along by troll as well.

            He closed the meeting, knowing that the other officers were all eager to get back to their units to ready their troops.  He sighed inwardly as they all departed the headquarters tent, and went to its entrance, pulling the flap of canvas aside and looking out.  There was a soldier posted at the entrance, whom he greeted with a nod.  The night was warm with summer heat, and there was a tension in the air that he could feel emanating from the mass of soldiers around him.  They were expecting the call to battle at any moment, and would not be disappointed.  Looking into the sky, up at the clear, bright stars, Darrukin wondered what the battle would bring.  He felt a tingling sensation, whether anticipation the battle ahead or some kind of premonition, he did not know.  There was such a weight of expectation on him.  Shaking himself, he stamped off to his own tent to write the message for Keesha to courier to the castle.

                                    *          *          *          *

            “Goddess! Look at that!” Darrlani whispered in awe to Talana s they peeked over the battlements of the castle, looking down on the countryside below.  Talana stayed silent and as tense as the soldiers who patrolled alongside them, weapons at the ready, prepared to defend the walled city with their lives.  It was dark, so early it he morning that the sun was not yet up, and there was a stiff breeze blowing towards the castle and to the river.  The night air was refreshingly cool, but Darrlani and Talana were both dressed warmly, having been woken by Darrsan and told to prepare themselves.  They were aware of the plan that Darrukin had concocted at the headquarters – it had taken a week for the Darr Army to move forward to their battle positions, being careful not to alert the entrenched palace guards that they were coming.  They were ready for battle now, having marched forward during the night to take up their final positions.

            It was a week in which Talana had not been idle.  The trolls had kept the supplies moving forward to the castle at a steady trickle. She had spent her time running them to the castle, and with Darrlani, distributing them.   The younger woman had a great eye for detail and a memory that was incredibly accurate when it came to who had received what goods and which areas needed more.  Both women took a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that they were cheating the Dragon Queen of her prize, that the longer they kept the castle strong, the longer it would take for the palace guards to make it submit.  The people of Darr were not beaten.

            Nibs crept up behind them as they looked out over the walls.  The main camp looked as it usually did, sentries and patrols moving in the dim light of the few torches kept burning throughout the night.  From their vantage point, almost the entire ring around the castle could be seen, thickened where it sat astride the major routes into and out of the walled town.  

“What are you doing here, brother?” asked Darrlani, “You should be in bed asleep.”

He grinned and hugged her, then looked over the battlements.  They could see torches within the camp, most fixed, but others moving as guards carried them about.  It all seemed normal.

“Pretty lights!” Nibs said foolishly, his toothy grin unseen in the darkness.  He worked his way between the young women and put an arm around each, pulling them towards him with surprising strength.

In the distance they could see a small, glowing orange light, no more than a tiny sparkle.  It was some distance from the encampment, well away from their perimeter.  There was a flash and sparkle twinned, then very quickly a whole line of fire spread from the river, catching in the summer-dry grass.  There was a gentle wind, strong enough to push the flames up the bank and send them racing across the river flat towards the encampment.  Many cries went up from the palace guards, raising the alarm and swinging into action.  The thin line of fire swept up so quickly that most of the guards were not ready.

“The fire is getting into the camp!” Darrlani said excitedly, her voice kept low.  They watched the confusion below as palace guards poured out of their tents, the dim light from the line of fire illuminating one side the camp so that the small dim figures of palace guards could be seen, scurrying hither and thither and trying to put out the fire before it did too much damage.  Talana could smell the smoke, and hear the cries and shouts of confusion, but moved back when Darrsan ordered squads of archers forward.  The archers had with them pots of burning coals and arrows tipped with oil-soaked rags. The encampment was out of arrow-shot, barely, but it would still look like a fiery rain to the palace guards below and would create more confusion. 

“Fire!” Darrsan shouted the order, and a volley of burning arrows was loosed.  They streaked through the sky to land short of the encampment, but still igniting the grass around them.  Shouts and cries came were heard as flames gripped the camp, taking hold of the waxy canvas tents and hungrily devouring them with flame.  Once the grass had burned away soon it was only the tents that were on fire, looking like great bonfires, palace guards trying desperately to organise water to put out them out.  The fire was threatening one side of the camp only, but it drew palace guards from all over. Talana could see the movement of squads of guards sent from the far side of the castle as they were sent to battle the flames.

Then everyone, even up on the walls of the castle, could hear a thundering, drumming sound, louder than the roar of fire, more deliberate and more menacing.  It was coming closer and closer to the encampment.  The sound sent panic through an already frightened and unready force, and palace guards scrambled for their weapons as officers shouted for order.  The thundering sound increased, and now they could all hear the thousands of voices that made it up, hooting and baying.

A bugler sounded the charge, the voices roared in unison, and the Army of Darr surged towards the encampment.  Fire was no longer the danger for the palace guard; the Army pushed through and over the approaches to the camp, formed into fighting units.  Talana found herself cheering just as hard as any other Darrian as the Army broke through into the camp at several points of the circle; the palace guards were met with force equal to their own..

Fingers of pale light breached the darkness as dawn approached.  Talana could not tear her eyes away from the battle; she could see the sweep of the soldiers as they closed in on the palace guards and the pitched battles that were being fought.  Darrukin was down there, somewhere, it was all she could do to hope he was safe.  Not knowing where he was or what he was faced with was torture, but she tried not to speak of it to Darrlani – he was her brother after all, and she no doubt felt all the anxiety that she did.  The two women stayed together, out of the way of the archers, but keeping watch on the battle as it raged around the castle, moving from point to point to see how the Darr Army was faring.  Darrsan often joined them, looking at the disposition of the two forces and making decisions on the spot as to how best support the soldiers below.  The palace guards were not attacking the castle, there was no thought on their part to even attempt to breach its walls.  Darrsan ordered several platoons through the tunnel and back out to the battle, making sure that she left enough soldiers inside to defend the walls should the palace guards decide to counter-attack.

“There’s a lot of wounded down there.” Talana said to Darrlani as the morning stretched on.  She could see that the palace guards were being pushed back within arrow-shot of the castle walls, herded slowly and surely into the killing zone.  The archers were all ready, firing at will whenever a palace guard strayed too close.  The noise of the battle, the smoke and dust that it raised, reached as high as the battlements as the sun rose high into the clear sky.  “I can’t stand this. I’ve got to help somehow.” Talana continued, looking out at the bloody scene.

“We need to get out there. The Army has its own field hospitals but I’m not sure if they are set up right now.  I’m going to ask Darrsan if we can go and at least start helping the wounded.”

“I’ll come with you.”

Darrsan was not far away, still atop the battlements.

“Darrsan!” her younger sister interrupted.  “There are wounded out there. What is being done, and how can we help?”

Darrsan turned to the young women and gave them a measured look.  “Each unit has its own medics, and can withdraw the injured to behind the battle.  They are already doing that – to the west, there’s a hospital station set up well behind the battle lines.  You, little sister, cannot help. I won’t risk letting you out of the castle to become a high-value hostage.  If Talana wants to get out, she can go via the northern entrance, but it’s a long way round to the hospital.”

“I still need to go there and do what I can.  I didn’t think; I should have let you know that I could help out with healing. I’m sorry!” Talana looked out over the battlements westward.

“Take a horse and take a body guard, and your own sword.  Get moving, if you really can help.” Darrsan said, summarily dismissing her and Darrlani.  Nodding, Talana raced down to the stables to organise a horse. She stocked up with bandages and dressings as much as she was able, hoping that the field hospital would have more supplies.  A bodyguard was next on her list.  Who was available? She searched quickly, asking those soldiers if anyone would volunteer to go with her, but all seemed quite busy and the officers were unwilling, even when she said she had the order from Darrsan.  Frustrated, she went back to the stable.  The groom handed to her the reins of a small bay horse; Talana was not sure but her black mare was probably outside. She had no time to ask, but was filled with the urgency of getting out there to the hospital to help.  The horse was quite unwilling to leave the safety of the castle, but she kicked it on under cover of the smoke and a small protective action that Darrsan had organised for her.  Cursing at the wasted time, she skirted out through and around the battle as quickly as she could, her sweat foaming off her horse’s flanks.

The hospital was ferociously busy.  Berating herself for her lack of forethought, Talana abandoned her horse outside and raced in, eager to offer her help.  Harried medics were busy everywhere as casualties were brought in, and the officer in charge was up to his arms in blood as he packed a man’s intestines back inside him and dressed the wound as best he could.

“Let me help; I have some sorcery that can heal.” Talana pleaded.  The officer glanced up at her, annoyed, but motioned for her to grab an apron and get started. He was not going to quibble when help was offered willingly, however unlikely.

Once garbed in protective clothing, Talana forced herself to calm down and think clearly.  She looked at the incoming patients, grabbed a nurse and asked who was a priority.  The nurse gave her a quick run-down on the system they used to indicate who was urgent and who was not, and left her to it. 

She got straight into it.  Lined up as if on parade, soldiers and palace guards lay in various states of agony within the confines of a large tent.  Wounds were roughly dressed and bleeding staunched as well as could be expected in the field, but they all needed further help. Momentarily at a loss over the volume of patients, Talana walked down the aisle of wounded and looked quickly for the urgent cases.

There. A man who looked as if he were almost dead already, his pale face turning greyish blue. He had taken a sword to his chest; it was a wonder he had not been killed outright by the blow.  A quick glance at his tag showed that they did not expect him to live.  Listless eyes turned to her as she approached.

“I’m here to help. Let me look at you.” Talana said reassuringly.  Being so urgently needed, she had no trouble flicking into the vision that allowed her to see what was wrong.  Stretching out her hands to him, she saw the wound, where the sword has pierced his lung.  Blood was pooling within, but he had been set up to let it drain as much as possible. Without thinking she flexed her will, using her sorcery to make him sleep and heal him.  Mending the torn flesh within layer by layer, she flushed out the pooled blood, closed the lung and then repaired the flesh and bone around it until he was whole again.  She could see the pain leaving his body.

Turning to a passing nurse, she pointed at the man she’d just healed.  “Please check I haven’t missed anything on him.” She requested.  The man nodded, gave the patient a quick check.  His face was amazed as he looked at the tag and then the soldier.  

“No injuries, ma’am.  He’s fine….How???” he was baffled.

“I’m a healer, I can fix people. Who’s next?”

Grabbing her, the nurse almost dragged her over to another stretcher where another soldier lay, moaning in pain.  Without waiting to be told she searched the wounded man with her sorcery, found the wound and began to work on it.  Another healer approached, one of three others.

“You’re a healer?” he asked, wiping bloodied hands on a cloth. He’d just finished stitching a wound back together.

Talana nodded, looking up from where she crouched by the patient’s stretcher.  “My name is Talana. I have some talent with healing sorcery; I hope I can be of use to your team.”

“All help is welcome. I’m Junos. The old man over there,” he said, pointing to another healer, “is Fillon, and Madrim is the young woman out the front assessing the casualties as they come in.  You’re a sorcerer? That’s not very common, especially when it comes to healing.  The rest of us do it the old-fashioned way.  Well, Talana, you’re welcome.”

The day passed in a blur of blood and damaged bodies.  She heard the sounds of battle but it did not go as far as the hospital.  Casualties kept coming in; mostly Darr Army, but some palace guards as well.  She did not care whom she treated, they were all the same, broken people in pain.  Pushing herself past exhaustion, she kept on working into the night along with the other healers; they worked as a team. Her skills were so honed by the end of the day that her speed increased dramatically. No one seemed to notice or comment on the golden glow that would emanate from her hands as she worked; if the other healers or nurses looked at her with wonder on their faces, they were too busy to stop for long, and just accepted what was happening.  Sorcerers were not common at all, generally restricted to the priesthoods – of the Goddess and Eshtan.  But Talana’s work spoke for itself.  Her patients were left comfortably mended, resting quietly, and out of danger.

“You will put us out of a job, Talana.” Madrim said, handing her a hot drink as she finished up with a patient. 

She looked up at the young healer gratefully and sipped the drink.  It was very sweet and the hot liquid seemed to give her strength.  Smiling, she stood up and thanked the healer.

“You know, it’s not that hard. You could probably do it if you were taught how.”  The hospital was set up with a triage at the entry, a holding area and then a surgery, then the nurses would take patients to a separate tent to recover.  Together the two healers walked through to the ward, looking at all the resting patients.  Talana had not seen every one – the other three healers had been working hard as well. There were a few restless bodies and muffled moans as recovering patients experienced pain.

“Hmmm, I don’t know. But I do appreciate what you’ve done here. You’ve helped us so much.”

“If you don’t mind, I’ll just see if I can help these people sleep and take away some of their pain.” Talana said, raising a hand so that the gesture encompassed the ward.  She summoned her power, let it radiate from her to the patients, easing them into sleep, blocking the pain they felt, speeding up the healing processes which the other healers had begun.  It took her a few long minutes to accomplish but once done, she turned with satisfaction to Madrim.  “They’ll probably wake up really hungry.”

“You’re looking hungry yourself.” said Madrim, awed and sounding a little frustrated that she could not heal with such ease and efficiency.  “If you’re not careful, you’ll collapse.  Have you eaten anything today?”

Pausing to think, Talana had to shake her head.  “Not that I remember.  Come to think of it, I am hungry.”

“Let’s take a break.  Fillon and Junos can take care of any emergencies.”

Being back from the fighting they were able to find some food supplies with relative ease.  The hospital was not far from a command post; Talana headed towards it, determined to find out what she could about Darrukin. He would either be there or fighting.

The fading light told her just how late it was.  She had not realised that it had been quite so long a day, but although tired, she could not rest without finding something out about the battle.  The command post was guarded quite heavily and she could see messengers running to and fro, carrying information and orders.    Madrim stayed with her, but even accompanied by a recognised member of the Darr Army she was not allowed in. Despite her pleading those soldiers guarding the command centre held her back.  Reluctantly she acquiesced without too much fuss, and fortunately, she had not been there more than a few minutes before Pops stuck his head out of the main command tent.

“Talana, I thought I heard your dulcet tones hectoring these poor soldiers.  How are you?”

Grinning, Talana took a few steps towards him, but he came outside instead.   “I don’t want to upset these boys too much.” he said, steering her and Madrim away from the tent.

“Pops, it’s great to see you!  I’ve been helping the healers at the hospital, but I need to find out what’s happening.  How is…”

“Darrukin?” said Pops with an answering smile. “He was fine last time I saw him, which was only about two hours ago. I left him attacking the main palace guard camp.  I won’t say he’s not in danger, but he’s a remarkable fighter and I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

“Are we winning?”

“The truth? At this stage, it’s difficult to tell.” Pops replied, a worried frown creasing his brow.  “It’s so difficult to get the palace guards out of their positions, and they have so much more cover than we do.  If you’ve been working in the hospital I daresay you’ve seen the results – there are many more injured out there who have not been brought back yet as we can’t spare the personnel.”

“How long before you’ll know either way who won?”

“Not sure. I know that doesn’t really give you any information, but I really don’t know any more at this stage.”

“Will you be heading back out to the battle?”

“Yes, in fact I’ll be heading back now. I’ve got my orders and the latest intelligence. I’ll go back to Darrukin’s unit.”

“Look after him, won’t you?” Talana said earnestly.

“Of course!” the old soldier replied.

Talana bid him farewell and turned back to Madrim.  “Shall we get back? There’s not much else we can do here.” 

Through the night the four healers took turns to work, rest and eat.  The hospital was in danger of being overwhelmed but for Talana’s abilities to heal the patients completely, enabling them to be released as soon as they woke up from the rest she imposed on them.

 

 

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