The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 53
The Thief of Ashlon Part 2 (chapter 15)

Darrukin fought grimly.  With every cut and thrust he made, he thought of his home, his family, of pushing the palace guards away.  The soldiers around him fought as determinedly as he; they all knew what was at stake.   Pops had returned and had briefed him on the state of the battle – and that Talana had been working in the hospital. It gave him heart to know that she was near, put more energy into his movements.

The noise was incredible.  The clash of metal rang all around, as did the sickening sound of flesh and bone being cut or hit.  Screams from the injured and shouts and curses from those still fighting.  There was dust and smoke, and in the fading light he could hardly tell which direction he was facing, except for one great marker, the castle.

Darrsan must have lit the battlements, for atop the castle was light, small fires which outlined the bulk of the walled city as the darkness increased.  On the ground, it was much more difficult to see.  The sun was gone, its golden light fading from the sky. Neither moon had risen.

“Come on, let’s move!” Darrukin yelled, shouting encouragement to his soldiers.  They answered with a roar, a fresh push.  Pops fought beside him guarding his flank, wielding his sword as lightly as if he’d just begun the battle, not been at it for a full day.  They were attacking the main encampment of palace guards, or what was left of it – the cohesiveness of the palace guards was beginning to shatter, that much he could tell.  The ring around the castle had been broken at its weak points, and the Darr Army was rolling up the palace guards from those points, forcing them back. There was nothing that the palace guards could do but fight. They had no avenue for retreat, for the Darr force, however thinly spread, was still surrounding them, and whenever they came within arrow-shot of the castle they were shot.  They fought hard, but oft-times under compulsion, and this was not their home. Darrukin could sense that Darr was gaining the advantage rapidly.

A signal blew from palace guard horn.  At once the guards they were fighting disengaged and fell back abruptly.

“After them!” he yelled, and his unit gave chase, yelling and screaming at their foe as they ran, swords held high.  Darrukin did not stop to count the number of dead and wounded he had to dodge, he ran, getting closer to the castle in the pursuit, closer to the centre of the palace guard camp.  It looked as if that was where the palace guards were retreating to, the centre of camp where the trebuchets had been raised and were now nothing but ashes.  In the dim light, he could see a knot of guards collecting there, readying themselves.  There were more than his unit alone could take on. He would need to coordinate his attack, and called his own soldiers quickly into order.

Giving quick orders, he sent several of his soldiers off to find the adjoining units while his own watched and waited.  There was a lull in the noise of the battle; perhaps there had been a general disengagement?  He could not confirm it, so held his position, looking warily at the palace guards to his front. Their numbers were swelling, but so too were the numbers of Darr soldiers that gathered.  The sides looked about even, as far as he could tell in the almost

An idea struck him. He stepped forward, approaching as closely as he dared to the palace guards.

“Do you surrender?” he shouted, his voice strong and sure.  There was a buzz of excitement from his own men, and a murmur from the palace guards.  “If you surrender, you will not be harmed.  If you continue to fight, we will kill you all.”  He roared the statement with as much conviction and force as he could.  Murmuring could be heard from the palace guards, but no one in authority answered him.  A moment of stillness held all the combatants as the Big Moon began to rise into the almost full dark of night, sending silver light over the battlefield and the castle walls.  The vivid green of the palace guards uniforms was leached out by the moon light into something more colourless.  The palace guards looked like any other group of soldiers, and it struck Darrukin that that was all they were.  Taking advantage of the lull in the fighting, he searched those palace guards he could see for signs of spells or compulsions, to see if they were being forced to fight.  There were some spells upon some of the guards, mean tricks of minor sorcery that he removed with a light touch. 

A cry of rage went up from the rear of the mob of palace guards that broke the surreal stillness.  At once, both sides began to charge, yelling and shouting, the distance between them covered in an instant and the fighting began again.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Talana did not sleep at all during the night.  Kept awake by worry and the noise of battle, she did what work she could, making use of her meagre power to the best of her abilities.  The other healers took turns to work, taking breaks to give themselves time to rest, but although she tried to rest, her mind could not, and she knew that while her mind was active she may as well be useful to someone.  She knew she could not help Darrukin. 

Where was he? She knew only that his unit was out near the main encampment – the place where all the noise was coming from. Not that she could approach it – both sides were fully engaged once more, vicious fighting by moonlight that she felt sure would determine the outcome of the whole campaign.  Still the casualties came in, walking wounded and stretcher cases all heading into the makeshift hospital.  It kept her busy and to some extent took her mind off where Darrukin was and how much danger he was in.

Dawn broke with a ragged cheer from one side; she did not know which.  She heard it vaguely as she healed a man whose arm had been sliced from shoulder to elbow, and who had taken a slash across his belly as well. Slowly she wove him back together with her sorcery, completely closing both wounds until there was no more bleeding, no more risk of infection.  Satisfied with her patient, she turned to Madrim with a questioning look about the battle. The answer was written on the young healer’s face.

“Darr has won. It’s over!” Madrim exclaimed, beaming.

“Not for us, it’s not.” Talana replied soberly, but a smile stole over her features and it seemed as if a burden was lifted from her.  “We need to find out if it’s safe to get the wounded up to the castle. Will the gates be opened, do you think? She was desperate to find Darrukin, but kept the urge to herself as much as possible, knowing that for the moment, others had far more pressing needs than she.  Madrim nodded, and turned away.

“I’ll check with the command post and find out what their plans for movement and the containment of any prisoners. When it’s safe I’ll ask that the hospital be moved into the castle.  Back in a moment.”

Talana waved her away and turned back to her patients, wondering if she would see Darrukin amongst them. She thought not, hoped not; she did not feel that he had come to any harm, but would be relieved when she saw him in front of her.  That seemed an unlikely prospect in the short term, so she got back to work, looking after the wounded as best she could.

            *          *          *          *          *          *          *

            It was dark by the time Darrukin finally visited the hospital, still well outside the castle walls and well away from the battleground. He’d been unhurt, but was tired to the point of exhaustion by the demands of the day.  The prisoners had been rounded up, and Darrukin had seen to it that any spells remaining on them were lifted, giving them free choice.  His father had the prisoners housed outside the castle, rescuing what tents and infrastructure remained of the palace guard camp and setting them up some distance away. Darrukin had constructed a spell that would help the Darr Army keep control over the prisoners; a barrier that they could not pass through, but they were mostly orderly in any case. The fight had gone out of them the moment it had been clear that they would lose.  Still, Lord Darrulan was not about to take risks now, and the spell allowed the minimum number of soldiers be left on guard.  All of the officers were held within the castle, in comfort if not freedom.  The Lord had directed that all prisoners would be treated with respect and the Darr Army did its best to enforce that, but even so some of the palace guard officers felt the scorn of the Darr populace as they were marched through the town.  Darrsan had had a job keeping control of the crowds and it was only through respect for the Lord and his family that the angry crowds had dispersed and not mobbed the palace guard officers.

            The job was not complete.  Not all of the palace guards had been rounded up, but at least a start had been made.  The Army was wary, ready to fight again, but there was a general feeling of good-will now that the castle was free of the blockade.  The wounded were being attended to, and that was why Darrukin had finally arrived at the hospital.

            What he saw was a kind of organised pandemonium.  Casualties were still coming in.  Medics were busily assessing the urgency of each case.  Healers were working as quickly and thoroughly as possible, stitching, cleaning, bandaging, setting bones and giving pain killing medicines.  A golden glow caught drew his eye to one corner of the hospital ward: the glow he knew only came with sorcery.  Talana knelt beside the stretcher bed, her eyes open and focussed on the body of the soldier in front of her.  The glow came from her hands, outstretched over her patient, healing sorcery.  He waited, not wanting to interrupt her while she worked, watching with his own sorcerer’s sight as she mended the man and set him to rest.  As she finished she looked up, and her whole face lit up at the sight of him.

            “Darrukin! You’re alright!” she said, almost knocking over her patient in her haste to reach him.  She flung her arms around his neck and he held her to him, so happy to see her that all he could do was close his eyes and thank the Goddess that she was safe.  She leaned back, held his face between her hands and looked searchingly at him.  “You’re truly alright?” 

             He nodded happily, too relieved to say anything just yet. He had not realised how anxious he had been about her since Pops had told him she was working in the hospital, how much danger she could have been in if he had not pressed the attack, what the palace guards would have done if they had caught her.  His arms caught her again and held her close once more, she leaned into him, and together they breathed in unison, happy just to be. 

            But the moment had to pass.  Madrim came in, shouting for help as a new casualty was rushed through.  Talana broke away from Darrukin with a look of apology.

            “I have to get back to work.  But stay, I’ll try not to be too long.” She raced over to Madrim and even as the soldier was being moved, she was searching his body with her special sight.  The man was bleeding profusely, Madrim and a nurse were holding a pad over an upper leg wound.  Darrukin had never seen her so at ease with the power that she had; within an instant the glow had returned to her hands and she was healing the man, he could see the blood clot being forced to form and the fibres of the slashed artery being made to grow and repair the wound.  In a few short minutes she had saved the man from bleeding to death, repaired his wounds enough to step back from him and let the other healers take over.  

            “Has anyone ever told you how brilliant you are?” he said to her as she turned back to him. She was exhausted, he could see it in the dark circles under her eyes and the greyish tinge to her skin.  He felt a surge of energy flow through him as he realised that she was on the point of collapse.  “Have you slept at all? No? Well, you need to get back to the castle.  You need rest.  No arguments.”

            “No, none from me.” She responded, leaning into him. Together they left the hospital and she gladly rode double on the grey stallion back to the castle, where Darrlani immediately took over and told her brother to go and get himself cleaned up and rested.  With a parting look of gratitude to him, Talana went meekly with his sister, looking as fragile and tired as he’d ever seen her.  She looked like he felt. Turning on his heel, he went back to his own suite and took his sister’s advice.

            Once he was past the dead sleep of the exhausted, his night was disturbed by dreams of blood and disaster.  He was woken several times by the sound of his own voice crying out as nightmares gripped him, haunting him with images of the dead and maimed.  Keesha would wake, open one eye as she sat on her perch near his bedroom window, and peep a query at him before fluffing her feathers and resuming her own rest.  Restless, he stayed in his bed drifting in and out of sleep, worrying about the next phase of the campaign.

            He was under no illusions that there would be more to this war than the lifting of the siege. He’d always thought of his home as well defended, but the siege had helped him realise that the castle needed far more than just solid stone walls and tenacity to hold out against an enemy.  He could not help but think about the planning that was needed to keep the castle secure.  It was certain that the Queen would have to react to the breaking of the siege.  No doubt Darrsan and his father had that under control, but he would feel better knowing and helping where he could.

            When he finally got up, bathed and changed, he sought out Talana.  She was awake, just, and looked far better than she had the day before.

            “Thankyou for taking care of me.” she said, her voice still sounding tired.  “I was so worried about you I couldn’t sleep.”

            “Well, from what I’ve heard, you’ve saved many lives.  How did you know what to do?” he asked. He’d known she’d healed the sailor during the storm on the inland sea, seen her work on Keer. 

            “I had to do something. I knew I could heal a little, and do you know what? It was easy.  I very quickly got used to what I had to do, and it was simple. I just did it.  I’m glad I could help.”

            “Thankyou.” he said, taking her hand. The touch sent a frisson of electricity through them both, and she looked at him, startled. Struggling to remain focussed, Darrukin kept his voice steady.  “You’ll be needed again, I am sure.  The Queen will not be happy about what we’ve achieved here and will no doubt send another force.”

            “Do you think so?” Talana’s voice had a quaver in it.  It was plain that the thought of more dead and maimed was acutely distressing to her.

            “No doubt whatsoever.”

            “Well then, I’d better get back to the hospital.  I’ll need to mend all those soldiers to fighting fitness.”  She cast him a sideways glance.  “And you? What will you do next? Go after the Queen?  She won’t stop until you take away the evil, I suppose.”

            Darrukin sighed. He had thought about it, of course, but the truth was he did not know what to do.  He was the Guardian, and pledged to the Queen, Talana’s presence was a constant reminder of that.  At some stage he would have to face her.  But when would be right? He still had his home to protect.

            “I don’t know.” he replied quietly.

            Three weeks later, during an intensive flurry of reinforcement activity around the castle, Darrukin had word from Keer that the Queen was going to act.  Sources within Tashmar had found out that she was sending a huge force, and that it was not only the palace guards but some of the forces of Wal-Mai as well.

Lord Darrulan was furious when he heard the news, cursing the Lord of Wal-Mai and promising endless retribution.  He was in the audience hall, now converted into a hospital, as it was the largest space available for such a purpose.

            “That slimy whoreson!” he exclaimed, “I should have known he’d be sniffing for some crumbs as soon as the Queen trumped up the charges against me!”

            “Darrulan! Think of who is within earshot!” Lady Dana said sharply, glaring at him.  Talana, indeed within earshot, had the grace to blush.  Lord Darrulan and Lady Dana knew who she was, knew where she came from, and had never looked down at her because of it. 

            “It’s alright, he’s just angry.  I’m not offended.” She said to Lady Dana, raising a corner of her mouth in half-smile.  She looked down at the soldier she was treating: he raised his eyebrows in amused surprise at the Lord’s language.

            “I’m sorry, my dear, what I said was thoughtless.” Lord Darrulan quickly apologised.  “You are right though, I am angry.  Of all the cheek!”  He began fuming again.

            “I think we’ll cut short our visit now.” Lady Dana concluded, turning her husband around and walking back to their private apartments.  “We shall see you at dinner, Talana. Thankyou so much for all your work here, it’s really miraculous what you’ve been able to do.”

            Madrim sidled up to Talana, watching the Lord and Lady as they departed.  “What she doesn’t know is that you’ve not only been fixing the war wounds and a whole fresh set of injuries that the soldiers and civilians have received digging those new reinforcements, but that a considerable number of Darr’s population are now clear of sexually transmitted diseases and common colds.  Your healing powers are truly miraculous!”  She said in conscious imitation of Lady Dana, then chuckled, looking at her friend.  Together they laughed, and it was a good sound.

            Dinner that night was the scene of spirited discussion on the plans they had formulated to defend the castle and the province once more.  The focus naturally was the castle, but the defences that had been constructed around the great stone walls were far more comprehensive and with a greater emphasis on a more active defence.  It had taken some time to resupply the castle, given the summer harvests, if there were any to take in, were taken in by the less physically able of the villages and towns.  It was a slow process. The castle would not withstand a months-long siege and Darrukin was of the opinion that whatever their fate, they should not make the citizens of Darr endure starvation or hunger just to prop up the Lord.  The Queen, if she did win control, would still need the province to be productive: surely she would not be so stupid as to disenfranchise the entire population.  So they should fight to win, but not allow another siege to occur.  He would still be fighting for his home.  He and Darrsan had planned further defences, sited along where they judged best that the palace guards would approach from, ringing the castle once more with reinforcing berms and trenches.  Their object was to funnel the advancing palace guards into areas where they could be more easily controlled.  More easily killed, Darrukin reminded himself, grimly, as he looked across the dinner table at Talana.

            She was speaking with passion about her work in the hospital to his mother, taking no interest in any discussion of defending the castle.  She and the other healers had managed to get most cases up and walking: the hospital was turning into a billet for the out-of-town soldiers of Darr.

            Talana glanced at him, then turned to smile.  He couldn’t help but notice how lovely she looked in the soft light, how the fatigue that she had not quite erased did not marr her beauty in any way.  Why could he not stop thinking about her?  He knew it was wrong, but could not help himself.  She knew it was wrong, but her spirit protested, refusing to believe that the Goddess would really make something that felt so right be a cause of wrongness and tragedy.  They had been so restrained with each other since the siege was broken, he could not help but think that they were both waiting for something, but what?

            An aide came in, politely knocking on the door.  Lord Darrulan looked up sharply; dinner was not to be disturbed unless it was important news.  He was still recovering from his illness, and although he was up and about and making most of the decisions for the province, he had learned to lean on his wife and children far more.  In most cases he had not had a choice: his family had kept the day-to-day decisions away from him in any case, leaving the more difficult ones, where his experience and authority were needed, up to him.  It worked, giving him rest and allowing him to recover without straining himself.

            The aide approached the lord with a hint of anxiety in his expression. 

            “Speak.” Lord Darrulan prompted.

            “My Lord, intelligence has arrived in this past half hour that states that the High Priest of the Dragon Queen will be accompanying the palace guard force that is on its way to Darr.”

            “Is this intelligence from a good source?  Is the report confirmed in any way?”

            “Yes, and yes.  There are two reports from different and reliable sources which indicate the same.”

            “Very good. Thankyou, you may go.”

            “My Lord, Lady.” The aide saluted and backed out of the room as quickly as possible.  All conversation had stopped and all eyes were turned to Lord Darrulan.  Darrsan spoke up first.

            “Well, High Priest or no, there’s still the palace guards to contend with.  We have made preparations for that.” She stated.  Darrlani nodded, Nibs continued to eat as if unaware of the gravity of the situation.

            “High Priest indeed.” Growled Lord Darrulan.  “Is that supposed to scare us?”

            Talana shot Darrukin a look that was plainly in the affirmative.  They both knew what even lower ranking priests could turn in to.  Who knew the magical powers of the High Priest?

            Lord Darrulan looked down the table at his elder son.  “Well, I’m not scared. We have Darrukin on our side.  If he can’t stop the High Priest, I don’t know who will.  We’d fight anyway, but I’m sure you’ll be able to do something.” 

            Darrukin felt both gratified at his father’s trust in him, and horrified at the prospect of facing the High Priest.  Yet his father was essentially correct.

            “Well, Talana, I might just have to call upon you – you’re the demonslayer in the family.” He joked, and there was a smattering of laughter from the table. They had all heard what she had done to the three priests in the forest to the north.

            “Whatever you do, son, just do your best. I know you will, whatever happens.”  Lord Darrulan said.  Darrukin looked back at his father in silence, surprised to feel tears pricking the back of his eyes.

 

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