The poison tree path is Shara's road home . . . if she and her companions can survive the journey. In the danger and darkness of the forest, her only respite is in the story unlocked in the Old Tongue book. In this vivid world, Shara finally discovers what she has longed for all her life: the key to the secrets of her past. Yet time is running out for Sharaand all of Tirragylas Lord Lucian, King Alexor, and the royal army attack the Guardian Grotto to claim the powerful Guardian Rock.
Unwilling to sit idly by as her kingdom is destroyed, Queen Nyla leaves her hiding place to recruit a most unlikely armythe Charab. But how can she win over the infamous assassins who have been oppressed by her family for generations?
About the Author
Joan Campbell is the author of Encounters: Life Changing Moments with Jesus, a collection of short stories, reflections, and prayers. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, with her husband, two daughters, and their Labrador, Tabeal, named after one of the characters in her novel.
Read an Excerpt
The Old Magic that had veiled the Guardian Grotto for four hundred years had failed.
Mikel must have spoken that ominous word aloud, for the scout standing in front of him looked up sharply.
"Nothing." The High Commander sank down on the stool behind the map table. "Proceed with your report, Jeru."
The young scout had ridden hard. His hair was disheveled, his cloak wrinkled and dirt stained. The sharp smell of heat, exertion, and horse sweat warned Mikel that the news was so dire that Jeru had not yet taken the time to wash.
"Sir. Ruan and I were patrolling the Outer Peaks, past the Cutter Crags. That would have been" — his brow furrowed in concentration — "ten days ago."
"From one of the high ridges to the west, you get a view past the Peaks."
"Yes." Mikel imagined exactly where his men had stood. He knew these mountains intimately, every crest and valley and slope of beloved hill. He had patrolled them once as a young Warrior and, even as High Commander, had led his men through them on more occasions than he could even remember.
"We saw movement, sir. Men on horseback at Two Plague Pass."
"On the pass?" Shock jarred through Mikel. This was worse than he had thought.
"Only a few men on the pass, but they have definitely found it."
"These men? Were they dressed in the colors of Gwyndorr's Lord?"
"No, Commander." Jeru looked down and swallowed. "They were dressed in the colors of Tirragyl. They were king's men."
By the abyss. Lord Lucian hadn't come alone. He had brought the royal army. And they had found the pass that had not been breached since the time of King Destaus, hundreds of years before.
"Did you get a sense of their number, Jeru?" Mikel's calm tone came from years of command.
"On the pass we counted about fifteen, sir. But ..." Jeru's hesitation warned Mikel of the bad news to follow, "we climbed the western peak for a better view of the low ground."
"Hundreds of men are massing there under the royal banner, sir. With more men and supplies arriving as we left to bring you the news."
"Thank you, Jeru." Mikel rose. "You and Ruan did well to bring the news so fast."
"Sir." The Warrior placed his fist on his heart and bowed slightly before turning to leave the war chamber.
When he was alone again, Mikel dropped back onto his seat, closed his eyes and imagined himself standing on the same windy western peak where Jeru had stood ten days earlier. Far below him the valley floor churned with the dark figures of soldiers, purple banners whipping above their heads. The Parashi's ancient enemy, the House of Taus, drew near.
He opened his eyes and leaned over the giant map stretched out on the table. His finger traced the line of the Outer Peaks until it came to rest on Two Plague Pass. A place of legend. Of victory. It was the pass that could not be found by the enemy, the pass that had kept them safe all these years. And on the single occasion in which it was breached, mythical foghounds had come to fight the enemy, or so the legends said. Even as a child Mikel had disbelieved the story. He knew that swords, not foghounds, fought Highborn invaders.
But the one thing Mikel had placed his faith in was the shielding power of the Guardian Rock. Until Shara had arrived. Fleeing Gwyndorr when Lord Lucian sought to bind her to his son in marriage, Shara had sought shelter at the Guardian Grotto. Her companions — the monk Andreo, the old man Eliad, and the groom Nicho — had not known that she carried with her a powerful and dangerous Cerulean Dusk Dreamer. Mikel had only realized it when Lord Lucian used the girl's dreams to briefly breach the Grotto's defenses. Although Mikel had confiscated the rock, he had not hidden it well enough, and its powerful allure had drawn Shara once more. In her final dream, Lord Lucian infiltrated the Guardian Grotto long enough to know exactly where it lay.
Mikel finally had to acknowledge with his heart what his head knew the day the Dusk Dreamer took full possession of Shara. Their Old Magic defense had been breached. They were no longer hidden, no longer safe. War was upon them.
Mikel's finger followed the Erridale River, the most likely route that the king and his army would take once they crossed the pass. At the confluence point, where the Feyn River split into the Erridale and Jabal Rivers, he stopped. Here the king could take two routes. One, the more direct route, followed the Feyn to Rogue's Neck, where the river cut through the Inner Peaks. From there it was mere days to the waterfall that veiled the Grotto. Mikel's eye fell on the other place where the Inner Peaks could be breached. Called Waif's Cleft, it had been discovered by a young Parashi boy at the time of the Hundred Year War. A narrow path winding between two tall mountains, it was even better hidden than Two Plague Pass. Once through Waif's Cleft, an enemy could make their way straight to the Elam Highlands. The Guardian Grotto had an opening onto this plateau.
Mikel had commanded the Parashi Warriors for many years. He had led raids on Highborn lands, fought royal troops in clashes when the old king's cruelty threatened the Parashi. He had protected his people, their ancient writings, and the Guardian Rock, here, in the depths of the earth. He had trained younger men to fight and protect. Yet Mikel knew that they were no match for the full force of the king's army. Had only Lord Lucian come with the men of Gwyndorr, they would have stood a chance against them. Even if they killed this army, thousands more would follow. The king could call every man in Tirragyl into service. The Parashi Warriors would be annihilated, the Old Writing destroyed, and the memory of the Parashi wiped from the face of the earth.
Mikel clenched his hand into a fist and smashed it down on the map over Two Plague Pass, wishing he had the power to crush the king's army with a single blow. If he could do that, he would not have to send his men to their deaths.
* * *
Pearce pushed open the door to the war chamber just as Mikel smashed his fist down on the map. Unease crept through Pearce. The High Commander was always in control and seldom vexed or angry. The scout's news must have been dire indeed.
"Sir?" he said quietly from the door. "I heard the scouts came with news?"
"Yes, Pearce." Mikel straightened, and instantly the control was back in his voice and posture. "Call the other commanders to the war chamber."
Pearce hastened to the barracks and dining hall to call the other commanders to the war chamber. They returned to find Mikel quietly studying the map.
"Sit, men." Mikel waited for the commanders to find a place at the long table before he continued. "I have just heard from a scout that the king's army was gathering at Two Plague Pass about ten days ago."
Two Plague Pass? Pearce felt a stab of fear. The pass had not been found for hundreds of years. He saw the collective dismay on the other commanders' faces.
"It will take them time to traverse the pass with their supplies and horses," the High Commander continued. "But we must assume the worst. They could be as far as the Cutter Crags by now."
By the abyss! Their enemy had breached the Outer Peaks. It was unthinkable.
Mikel pointed to the map. "If they follow the river through Rogue's Neck, they could be here within two weeks. We cannot let that happen."
"What do we do, Commander?" Pearce asked.
"We must delay them in the mountains like our forefathers did when the Highborn invaders first came all those hundreds of years ago. We know these mountains better than they do. We use that to our advantage."
"Skirmishes, you mean?" Pearce couldn't keep the skepticism from his voice.
"Yes. We attack and retreat. We worry them like a fly worrying a grubear. We draw them off their path and into the hills where we can pick them off, and then we slink away again. We might not be able to push them back, but we keep them at bay, busy chasing their own tails. At least till winter comes, when the snow will hopefully force them to retreat."
"With respect, sir, it's the way cowards fight," Pearce said. "Let's fight them face-to-face. Give them a battle they will never forget."
The other commanders stirred in agreement.
"There are too many," Mikel said. "We will be slaughtered. Then who will protect the Grotto?"
"But we would all die like true Warriors, courageous and unconquered!" Pearce was on his feet, his sword above his head as he cried the words. "If all we do is chase them away, they will be back again."
"Sit down, Pearce," Mikel said. "This is not a discussion. It is an order. I am putting you in charge of three of our five units. You will take them into the mountains and keep the king's army at bay by employing skirmish tactics. The remaining men will stay to guard the Grotto and Deep Caves."
"You are not leading the Warriors, sir?" It made no sense to Pearce. This was the greatest threat the Warriors had ever faced, and they needed the High Commander to lead them, not hide in the Grotto with the women and children.
"I will be in charge of the men guarding the caves," Mikel replied, lowering his gaze to the map.
Pearce tried one more time. "Sir, I really think you should ..."
"That's all," Mikel said sharply. "Ready yourself today. Tomorrow you lead the men into the mountains."
"And, Pearce, station some men at Waif's Cleft. It would be a dangerous place for them to breach."
"Of course, sir."
As they rose to leave, Mikel said, "There will be another meeting in the gathering hall tonight. You are invited to attend."
"Invited or commanded to come?" Pearce had never spoken to the High Commander in such a tone, but he still smarted from Mikel's sharp words. And — truth be told — the High Commander had just dropped in Pearce's estimation.
"Invited." The High Commander's gaze held his own, and there was a flicker of sadness in it, as if Pearce's words grieved him. "During the Hundred Year War, Warriors were sent off with words of encouragement and hope on the eve of great battles. We will rekindle the old tradition."
As he left the war chamber, Pearce thought that words of hope were a useless substitute for what Mikel should be giving them: his sword.
* * *
The horses were restless this morning although Nicho whispered to them that all would be well. He suspected the animals sensed if you did not believe the words yourself. The Grotto had been a place of unease from the day he arrived back here with Jed, Rosa, Simhew, and the liberated rifters. No wonder, for they prepared for war.
Earlier two scouts had ridden in. Nicho could tell they had set a particularly grueling pace because their mounts, heads down and nostrils flared, showed signs of extreme fatigue. As he grabbed one of the reins, the words of reprimand were already on his tongue. But just then he looked at the face of the man leaping from his horse's back. His expression was strained, his eyes filled with apprehension. Nicho said nothing. The news the men bore was obviously urgent. Urgent enough for them to push their treasured mounts to the limit.
"Easy, boy." Nicho tried to soothe Crypin, Pearce's large grey stallion, who was snorting and pawing the ground. "Easy. You're a leader, boy. You need to set a good example." He stroked the stallion's broad nose and, for a moment, the horse stilled. "Good. Good. You're a warhorse, remember? Fearless, that's you."
Nicho turned to see Jed standing against the stable wall, his serious face watchful and wary. How Nicho wished he could turn back time to when Derry was still alive. Then, Jed's face had lit up at the mere promise of a tickle from his father. Now, his father was dead and his mother lost in the backstreets of Gwyndorr. As much as Nicho and Rosa tried to fill the spaces in Jed's life, pain and mistrust were etched in those dark eyes.
"Jed." He bent down, fighting the urge to pull the boy into his arms. The boy did not like being held. "Do you want to give Crypin a stroke? I can lift you so you can reach."
Jed shook his head.
"I thought you were with Simhew this morning, learning your letters."
"Simhew is running arrows for Uncle Pearce."
"Errands, you mean?" Nicho smiled. "Did you find me all by yourself?" It was an impressive feat for a boy of less than five. The stables were far from the living area in the Grotto, near the back of the caves. "You've come such a long way, you might as well help me. Grab that bucket over there, and let me fill it with some feed."
The boy obeyed quietly, helping Nicho with the feeding. Nicho was pleased to see that he seemed unafraid of the horses looming above his head. They were gentle around him, responding to his innate stillness.
When they had done the rounds, Nicho sat on the ground and patted the straw next to him. "Time for us to have a little something too." He tore a piece of bread husk and gave it to Jed, who ate in silence. Nicho remembered sitting in the stable with Shara at Randin's house and eating bright-red apples, grown in the fertile land around Gwyndorr. He longed for fresh food and his mother, Marai's, aromatic cooking. The food in the Grotto was plain, unadorned, and seldom fresh. Food for soldiers.
"Do horses cry?" Jed's voice broke through Nicho's memories.
"Uh, no ... but they do get sad."
"Is the grey one sadder than the others?"
"Ah." Understanding dawned. "No, Crypin isn't called that because he cries. It's just an old Parashi name. Like Lian." He saw the boy stiffen and realized his mistake. Lian was the name Jed had given to the last toy his father had carved him before he left for good. The toy that Hildah had sold when they were desperate for food. Nicho quickly continued. "We Parashi have the bravest horses in the world because we train them and treat them so well."
"So we can beat the bad lord when he comes?" Jed's dark eyes looked intently into his own, older and wiser than such young eyes were meant to be.
"We will try, Jed. We will be very brave, and we will try."CHAPTER 2
Shara awoke. The dread that had been coiling inside her these last few days had tightened in her chest as she slept. Today they reached the Rif'twine, that forest whose evil darkness stole through Tirragyl. But they would do more than reach it. They would walk right into its heart, if Eliad was to be believed. The old man spoke of a path through the forest. He called it the poison tree path.
She lay a long time listening to his and Andreo's soft breathing. Nothing yet stirred to life, although a lightening on the horizon hinted that dawn was near. Shara rolled from under the blanket she shared with her companions and felt her way to the still-warm embers of the fire. She blew on them before carefully arranging some branches on the softly glowing coals. It took time, but finally small flames licked the dry wood.
She held her hands over the flames, trying to rub warmth back into her icy fingers. If it was this cold out of the forest, how would it be once they were trapped in that dark, shadowed world?
A flash of red and shimmer of gold caught the corner of her eye. Before she looked up, she knew what it meant. The Gold Breast had come. Trepidation and joy tangled uneasily within her as she hurried to Eliad's side and shook him by the shoulder.
"Eliad. Tabeal is here."
"Tabeal!" The old man sat up groggily, but his face lit into a smile as the bird came to settle on his shoulder. "You are just in time, my friend. Today we reach the path."
The majestic bird let out one pure note, and briefly joy broke through Shara's disquiet ... until she remembered. The last time the Gold Breast had come to her, she had been caught in the endless dark dream brought on by the Cerulean Dusk Dreamer. Even though the Gold Breast had freed her that day, the damage had been wrought. Through her and the power rock, the Guardian Grotto had been breached, perhaps even destined to destruction. A familiar shame washed over her as she stared at the bird.
"On time for what?" Andreo pushed himself onto one arm, yawning as he rubbed his eyes.
The Gold Breast flew from Eliad's shoulder to the place where the book lay encased in its oilskin wrapping.
"Time for the telling, I suspect." Eliad stretched out and lifted the book to his lap.
Shara had taken many a turn carrying that heavy book from the Guardian Grotto. At times she cursed the day she and Nicho had uncovered it in the Silver Birch Grove outside Gwyndorr's gates. Since that day the book, written in the Old Tongue, had been nothing but a heavy weight to add to their already burdensome packs.
Yet every time she voiced these thoughts, Eliad shook his head. "At the right time, you will realize these words are not heavy but light."
She watched Eliad unwrap the book. As the oilskin fell away, the fire's growing flames glinted on the golden symbol engraved in its leather cover. The Old Script's emblem of freedom, Eliad had told her once.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Guardian of Ajalon"
Copyright © 2018 Joan Campbell.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Where to begin... Guardian of Ajalon is one of those rare books that deeply stirs your emotions. You will find yourself wanting to cry, shout, and laugh. You will find yourself holding your breath as dangers grow. You will find yourself rooting for and encouraging the characters. Not only does Campbell create fallible and real characters, she weaves together incredible scenery, and an intense plot line. Guardian of Ajalon is not a book you want to miss out on. *I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley, with no requirements for a positive review.
"But the One with us is much greater that they are. That is what we need to trust in." This was an excellent and perfect conclusion to The Poison Tree Path Chronicles! The author brought back the characters I loved in books one and two while shining a new light on their backgrounds and overall story. (Plus, some interesting nuggets on a few side characters.) None of these books have been predictable by any means, but I was quite surprised by how unique this novel was. Truly it delivered in a way I didn't expect and had a few twists concerning some of the "legends" and stories we've heard since book one. One of those "twists" was how deeply allegorical Guardian of Ajalon was. Originally, I didn't know how I felt because the series hadn't been prior, but I found personally that Shara's ending journey is exactly what I needed. Her story encouraged me as I struggled with some issues of not feeling good enough and perfection. What she learns was a firm reminder to me that I am deeply loved just how I am and that will never change. The Poison Tree Path Chronicles is an excellent series for any fantasy readers with Guardian of Ajalon being more than "just an ending" to the characters I've come to care for. It’s an encourager and a reminder that trust in God is never misplaced and that His plan for our lives is so much bigger then we can ever imagine. *(Many thanks to the author and publisher for providing me an ARC. I was not required to write a review or positive one. All thoughts expressed are my own.)*