The Thief of Ashlon
Author: Jocelyn Drewe

Chapter 55
The Thief of Ashlon - Part 2 (chapter 16)

Talana and Darrlani took a break from their work in the hospital. Now that the battle had begun again, they were set to bring the wounded back inside the castle.  Talana had decided to travel out to the field medic posts, behind the fighting, where the wounded were first brought. She would heal as many soldiers there as she could and bring back others. But she had learned from her previous experience to keep her strength up and not to let exhaustion mar her healing powers.  She would be very, very busy in the hospital once the wounded started to come in.  Coming up to the battlements with Darrlani was a last gasp of freedom before the hard slog of work would hit.

It was an incredible scene from so high up.  The vast expanse of fields surrounding the castle beyond the Sapphire River seemed to be crawling with soldiers.  Cracks and bangs could be heard, unexplained and non-stop, though from what they could find out from the garrison on the battlements, it was somehow working in their favour.  The obstacles seemed to do their job, funneling the palace guards into killing grounds controlled by the Darr Army.  Darrukin’s spells seemed to hold as well. She could see where palace guards came up against the magical barriers, were stopped and left confused.  Those that tried flanking the spells were often caught by ambushes. Yet despite the piles of bodies, creating even more obstacles for the green-clad guards, they kept coming.

Talana watched in fascinated horror as in the distance she saw palace guards attacking the bridge.  She heard the dull thumps and sharp cracks, watched as wave after wave of palace guards went down never to rise again.  Her voice raised with the others on the battlements as the detachment of palace guards broke off the engagement, retreated helter-skelter under a barrage of burning arrow fire.

Scanning the battlements, she could see that the palace guards had broken through somewhere further up the river and were engaging Darr forces to the north.  Shouts of anger and pain wafted up on the gentle breeze that touched the high towers, making her anxious for Darrukin, but she did not move.  She hoped he was alright. Had he broken that unnatural storm? At what cost?

“Time to get to work, I suppose.” She said to Darrlani.  They could both see stretcher bearers coming back towards the castle, to the holding areas they had set up that afforded some safety within arrow shot from the battlements.  The main gate was not open, but there were ways in that were more hidden through which the wounded were brought.  Back down in the Great Hall, a far more usable hospital than the tent set-up she had worked in at the first battle, Talana set to work in the triage area as the casualties began to trickle in.  Her sorcery was not a slow process; she worked so quickly and naturally now that she could completely healed a patient who had been thought only to have minutes to live.  Her confidence was high and she was matter-of-fact about her work; never did the other healers feel that they were doing less than she, for they saved as many lives as she did but with their traditional methods. The only concession to her skills that the other healers made was if they could not find the source of a patient’s problem.  They would call Talana over to use her sorcery: she would identify if there was internal bleeding or other unseen injuries, and heal them on the spot.  It had also been decided that the wounded of both sides would be taken in, and despite her initial revulsion at the thought of being so close to palace guards, Talana found that deep down it did not make a difference. Soldiers and guards alike would be muddied, bloodied and hurt.  They needed her help.

                        *          *          *          *

The fighting did not completely stop with nightfall, though it did slow down with the darkness.  Throughout the night, the thumps of the rifles could still be heard. Darrukin was impressed with the efficiency of the weapon, and somewhat appalled as well. The trolls had saved the bridge with their invention and quick deployment, and he was very, very grateful.  All in all, the battle was progressing well. Darr had not surrendered any ground, and although a small force of palace guards had flanked the defences and crossed the river up stream, they had met with Darrian forces that ringed the castle and had not made any further headway.

A messenger came in with the latest news.  A small party of palace guards was forming up to attack the prisoner camp where palace guards were still being held. 

“Sir, do you want us to abandon the camp, as you’d ordered before?” a captain asked.  Darrukin snorted.

“Yes. Leave it. The sentries there are just for show, they can withdraw if they haven’t already. If the palace guards go in to release the prisoners, they’ll only find that they’ve captured themselves.  I expect the prison camp to be much fuller by morning if they try.” He said with a short laugh. He’d reinforced the spell holding the palace guards to allow palace guards in, but not out.  Leaving the prison camp virtually unguarded – so the palace guards thought – was a calculated move to draw them in, and it looked as if it was going to work.

Situation reports kept coming in.  The palace guards did have priests with them, and he could feel when someone attacked his spells.  He would have to stop what he was doing in order to concentrate and reinforce the spell, repel the attack and send it back against its author. It was hard, draining work, and he was thankful that despite his position as second-in-command, Darrsan was really the one running the battle. 

The fighting resumed with more intensity as the dawn’s early light suffused colour into the landscape.  Darrukin had snatched a few hours sleep during the night, and had eaten, ensuring that his sister did the same.  Both felt reasonably refreshed.  Reports indicated that the Palace Guards were continuing to assault the bridge, but were being consistently repelled by the trolls.  The battle wore on throughout the day without any decisive action eventuating, the Darr Army held its ground, and the Palace Guards kept moving forward. 

Time flew by for the young commander.  Days melded into one another with almost no distinguishing features, marked only by the necessity to reinforce one area, shore up the defences in another, repair and strengthen the spells that had been set.  Darrukin was surprised that the Palace Guards took so long to figure out that spells were being used to aid the defences – it was well into the third day that he felt consistent attacks upon the spells happening.  Intelligence reports told him that priests were being brought forward to the front line, sometimes rather unwillingly.    Of the High Priest there had been no sign since the storm. Whatever he was doing, it was not supporting the Palace Guard effort that Darrukin could see.

Most satisfying was that the Darr Army held.  Between snatches of sleep and food, battling the attempts to break his spells and moving through the battle lines to see first hand what was going on, Darrukin could sense that his soldiers, though tired, were not going to fail.  They kept fighting hard, their spirits were buoyant and they could sense a change in the Palace Guards.  The attackers would give up more easily, fight with less heart, strengthening the resolve of the soldiers of Darr.  It was a good feeling for Darrukin and Darrsan, as they moved along the battle lines to give their Army encouragement.

It was still a surprise when the next morning, ten days after the battle had begun, when a party of Palace Guards approached the front line under a flag of truce.  They were not allowed through the lines of defence, but were held under careful watch until Darrsan and Darrukin were ready to meet them.  The brother and sister approached carefully, under guard themselves, Darrukin alert to any twitch of sorcery that the Palace Guards might use.

They found a small force of Palace Guards surrounding a commander of high rank, and a tall, thin, balding man whom Darrukin instantly recognised as the High Priest.  The commander shouldered her way through to the front of the group when she saw their approach.

“We do not intend any harm” she said loudly.

“We will give you none, should you attempt none.” Darrukin replied, coming to a halt with his sister.  They stood far enough apart for their respective guards to protect them, but close enough to talk without shouting.  Darrukin studied the Palace Guard commander, knowing as he did so that she was studying him and Darrsan.  She looked as tired as he felt, and as harried.  There was a resentment on her face which he could see not only included him, but the High Priest, making him wonder who really was running their battle, and what politics she had to play whilst trying to defeat the Darrian Army.  He was suddenly glad that Darrsan had no ‘higher authority’ to interfere with her plans – Lord Darrulan was confident of his daughter’s command to leave her to it.

“What do you want?” Darrsan said, folding her arms across her chest and holding her head high.  Darrukin stood slightly to one side of her, and behind, making it clear where the authority lay.

“To treat with you, of course.”  The High Priest spoke for the first time.  At the sound of his voice, Darrukin knew that this was one of the most evil men he had ever met.  The voice was almost oily; it oozed with subliminal violence and a confidence that immediately raised the young man’s hackles.  Nevertheless Darrukin remained outwardly calm and relaxed, noting that Darrsan’s confident body language did not falter for a moment.

“To treat with me?” Darrsan replied not to the High Priest, but to the commander.  “You accept your defeat, then?”

A spark of annoyance flashed across the High Priest’s face, though the Palace Guard commander’s expression remained stony. 

“No.  Yours.” The High Priest continued as if Darrsan had spoken to him.  “You face impossible odds.  Reinforcements are arriving.  Her Highness will not stop until the surrender of this province.” A thin smile spread like a cancer across the High Priest’s face.

The commander interrupted abruptly.  “Save all the bloodshed, and surrender now.  You cannot win.”  She flicked a quick glance towards the High Priest, who licked his lips at the mention of blood.

“No. We will never give up.  You can do what you like.  We will not surrender.”  Darrsan said simply.

“If you defeat me, another will take my place. We will wear you down. Think of-”  The commander’s voice was abruptly cut off midsentence as the High Priest shut her up with a spell.  Darrukin’s eyes narrowed. Why should the priest gag his commander? Could it be that he was not entirely sure of her loyalty?  He began to see how fragile the Queen’s hold was over her own Guard; her higher officers of necessity having to have the ability to think for themselves, made them something of a risk; able to question her dictates and orders.  Interesting. Because he took an instant dislike to the High Priest, and resented the way he had gagged the commander, he broke the spell with a negligent flick.  He did want to hear what she had to say.  Darrukin raised an eyebrow, expecting her to speak, but although he could see she knew the gag was off, she resolutely stayed silent.  He caught her looking at him strangely.

If the High Priest noted what he had just done, he did not react in any way, looking at them both with the same oily smile.  He spoke.

“My Queen will win, little lords.  If you will not surrender, we have no choice but to continue this war.  And your head will be on a pike in the capital, come the end of it, rest assured.”

“We shall see, Priest.”  Darrsan said, sounding ever so slightly bored.  The High Priest locked eyes with Darrukin for a long moment, before dropping his gaze and turning away with a sneer.  Darrukin and Darrsan watched them march off, wondering if they had missed anything.  Surely they had gained no extra intelligence, other than meeting their opposition?  They were not allowed very far inside the defences and Darrukin made sure there were no spells cast. 

“Do they really think we would surrender?” Darrsan asked her brother, looking at him as they both finally turned back to headquarters.  Darrukin glanced over his shoulder, his expression perplexed.

“I don’t know. I don’t see how, it’s ridiculous!  What do they think we are, craven cowards?  This battle is going to be long, I can feel it.  If the Palace Guards have to fight, but don’t really want to – it won’t do much for them. Our Army can sense a victory, and are fighting all the harder for it.  This won’t end well, whatever.”

Darrsan shook her head, looking about her forces sharply as they passed by.  They both knew it would not end without a lot more bloodshed.

                        *          *          *          *

Talana crept out of her room and went silently down the empty corridors of the Castle and outside. It was still dark, but she had dressed warmly.  She was not noticed, doing her best with a haphazard invisibility spell, upset and restless.  The young woman had woken from a dead sleep with a great feeling of unease such as she had not experienced for a long time.  Fear gripped at her vitals with an intensity that surprised her.  She kept looking over her shoulder as she walked, as if at any moment she would be swallowed up by some thing. Of course, nothing was ever there.

Rugged up against the chilly night air, she slipped out among the streets of the walled town in search of some kind of peace, if she could find it.

She didn’t. The fear grew within her, blinding her as she moved along the darkened streets until she found herself back at the Castle, wandering amongst the gardens. What was she doing? She didn’t know, but something drove her to enter the one of the gates which led inside the thick stone wall that surrounded the Castle and the town.  There were levels running inside the wall and quickly she found an embrasure to look out.  A soldier on duty nodded to her as she looked out at the battlefield.

There was something wrong. She could feel it.  The sounds of battle did not stop with the night; that she understood.  But there was more.  The fear that gripped her resolved itself into the touch of ice on her spine, and she shuddered violently, almost crying out.  With a fearful glance at the soldier, she fled.  Talana knew whose touch that was.  Here? Now?  She did not understand.

Stumbling back through the Castle, she raced down to the concealed exits that allowed her out into the battlefield, pushing past the guards with a hurried explanation. She had been in and out of the Castle so often that they knew her, and presumed she was hurrying out to some medical emergency. It had happened before.

The fear grew within her, making her cry out as she tripped and sprawled into the dirt. Her senses were overloaded with stress; tears flowed as she righted herself and went on, ignoring everyone around her. Blinded by her fear, all she knew was that she needed Darrukin, and needed him now.  Her father was near.

Talana tripped again as the first blaze of green light flashed across the battlefield.  Something seemed to slow her down and weigh at her legs as she struggled to get up again.  The light was sorcery; that much she knew.  The howl that ripped through the air almost sent her back to the ground, but with it came knowledge.  She knew what was happening.  A demon.

Darrukin’s own shout of defiance echoed across the battlefield.  She had to reach him!  Looking about her, she could see that the Darr soldiers were trying to run to his aid, trying to reach him, but were slowed by the sorcery that was affecting her.  It was like running through treacle, their legs did not seem to work; those that stumbled stayed down. Gritting her teeth, Talana fought her way forward.

Her fear returned as she saw Darrukin in the distance, ablaze with the golden light of his sorcery.  Whatever had happened, he was fighting, and fighting hard.  Even at this distance, she could see the effort he was making, attacking the beast, trying to stop it as it raged over the battlefield, stomping on defences and killing Darr soldiers. 

The beast was a huge, red demon.  Darrukin seemed to have it contained, for it pushed at the air around it and roared in frustration. Green light lanced the night sky.

Anger blazed within Talana and she shook off the spell that slowed her down.  Picking up a sword from a dead soldier, she dearly wished she had her ironwood spear, but she had left it in her room.  It was not like she had expected to be fighting demons, she thought. Racing towards the demon with a hoarse cry, she felt her blood sing in her ears, all fear forgotten.

As she approached she could tell that Darrukin was fighting the demon on some plane that she could not fathom. His golden light seemed to blast at the creature and take effect, but the red monster kept recovering, coming back for more.

“Nice try, little man!” the demon’s voice roared, “But you’ll need to do more than that to stop me!”  It howled, the hideous, slavering jaws slashing around wildly as it spoke.  Talana could tell that this demon was someone powerful, more powerful than the ones she had killed in the forest.  It must be the High Priest. 

Darrukin did not answer with words, but sent a bolt of power that toppled the beast over.  The demon, its red skin seeming to glow duly in the darkness, picked itself up, dusted itself off and advanced menacingly upon him.  Coming to a standstill, the demon reverted back to human form, shimmering into the High Priest.  The thin man’s frame seemed to throb with hot, red power; his evil eyes still laval and red like the demon’s.

“So, Guardian, you challenge me with your puny, unlearned powers.”  The High Priest said in a voice that Talana could hear, even though she was still some distance away.  Skirting around, she came up on the priest’s blind side.  She could see Darrukin, concentrating so much on the battle with the priest that he was unaware of anything else.  Talana slowed down so as not to alert the priest to her presence, flattening herself onto the ground as Darrukin threw a bolt of power at the man. The High Priest laughed, and returned with a bolt of green that sent Darrukin to his knees. He struggled mutely, unable to stand up.  Snorting with fury he looked up at the High Priest, sparks of golden power flashing and erupting around him.

“That’s right, on your knees, little man! On your knees to the Queen!  To me!”  the evil man mocked.  From his white priest’s robe, he pulled a short, double-bladed axe, a vicious weapon which had a look of antiquity about it.  Talana crept closer, unseen by either combatant.

“I will send you to the Queen, perhaps not quite in the way she would like to see you, but still…” he gloated, “you will be less dangerous to her when you are dead, Guardian.”

He raised the axe, letting it hover above his head for a moment.  Darrukin seemed paralysed, his eyes comprehending but his body unable to move.  The blade began to fall, swinging swiftly down towards Darrukin’s exposed neck.

Talana took the force of the blade with her sword, deflecting the blow before it could reach its target and knocking the axe from his hand.  Resolutely she put herself between the High Priest and Darrukin.

“No.” she said softly, her eyes locked on the priest’s.

The High Priest looked at her with an expression of total surprise. Then his face clouded, turning apoplectic with rage.  At once she felt the icy tingle down her spine and recognised the man for who he was – her father, not this pallid, bald stranger.  The familiar chill terrified her.

“What are you? Who are you?” she screamed out in confusion, raising her sword only to find that it had been broken.

“YOU!” the High Priest screamed at her, his visage turning to the short, darkly ugly and hairy Akel, flickering back between that form and his true self, the thin, pallid, balding man.  “You! Eshtan will destroy you!” he shouted, working himself up into a murderous frenzy.

Talana could not look at anything else but him, her father, she knew it, here before her after all this time.  Raging, and ready to kill her.  She fought for motion, fought for movement.  Her own anger grew.  “Get away from me, Akel!” she spat out the name as if it were poison in her mouth. Her frozen muscles began to work, and she struggled to raise her broken sword.

“You’re coming with me! You’re coming back to Tashmar, back to the Palace this time1” The High Priest lunged at her, but she fended him off, cutting his arm deeply with her broken sword.

“You aren’t taking me anywhere!” she screamed defiantly, “I’m staying here with Darrukin!  There’s nothing you can do about it! Leave me alone!”

“Eshtan!” the High Priest roared. “You will die before I let that happen!”  Akel lunged to the side and retrieved his axe, raising it once more, but this time he brought it rushing down at Talana.

A blast of pure gold blew the weapon to pieces in his hands.  For an instant, Talana did not understand what had happened, then she saw Darrukin, suffused with golden light.  He pointed at the priest and another bolt struck the evil man, burning a huge hole in his body.  The High Priest tried to screamed in terror, tried to raise his own power, but his green light dwindled as the Darrukin blasted him once more with golden light.  Talana turned away as the golden light consumed the man.  A great yell from around the battlefield went up as the spell that slowed the soldiers shattered and released them.  In the confusion of noise and light, Talana turned back to where the High Priest, her father, had been. 

A small pile of ashes was all that was left of him.  A breeze caught at them and blew them, swirling, away.  He was dead.  Dumbfounded, she looked up at Darrukin.  She could not believe it. Her father was dead. The man who had put her through so much pain and terror, who had humiliated her so many times, was dead.  She felt sick and lightheaded all at once.  Pale and trembling, she spoke uncertainly, stumbling forward and clinging to Darrukin desperately.

“I think I’m going to be sick.” she blurted out, turning quickly away from him and vomiting thoroughly. 

As dawn breached the horizon, she walked back to the Castle with him, the battle raging once more behind them, but for once, neither of them cared.

 

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