On the road out of camp the dishevelled figure of Niv jogged to Pyrrho's side, “I presume there aren't two one legged hell-bitches which plague your life?” she asked with a smirk as she looked Aesara ahead of them
“I was drunk when I told you about Aesara” he didn't break stride, nor look Niv's way
“But still pretty accurate given by the look of her”
“So why are we following her? How about we just slope off back to the drinking tent?” Niv asked conspiratorially
“Family reunion on the day of victory. Kinda marks a neat end to a break up precipitated by the start of hostilities”
“Not like you to be sentimental”
“Maybe I'm mellowing” Pyrrho suggested, but Niv just sniggered in response
“We need to make more haste” Aesara barked from the front of the ramshackle group without looking back “Towards those trees” she nodded at a small copse at the top of the hill they were currently embarking.
“She's...only...got one leg” puffed Volk at Pyrrho's other side “but I don't... think I could...keep up....if I had....eight legs” he stopped to gasp for breath.
By the time Volk caught up the others were sat under the shade of an old lopsided oak, sunlight dappled through gaps in the canopy. They were silent, all absorbed by the progress of the Stead's forces a few miles distant.
Silent that was till Niv hollored “WOOOOO, GO STEAD-IE, WRECK THOSE DRAKHAN SCUMLORDS”
“You keep good company as always” Aesara remarked to the slumped and heavy breathing form of Pyrrho next to her
“None of the women in my life can quite match up to you, it is true my precious Sara” false sincerity was always an easy way to rile his sister.
“You mix in undesirable circles, that is certain. This is too easy” but this latter aside wasn't describing the verbal joust that she'd embarked upon with her brother
“The Drakhan do seem somewhat reluctant to engage” Pyrrho shared his sister's emerging wariness. “Perhaps they concede?”
“There is no white flag. And their weapons remain raised. But why do they not attempt to meet the Stead's charge?” Aesara leant forward, squinting at the distant vista “The Stead will take that hill unopposed. And from there the Drakhan flank is for the taking” she had begun to talk more quickly, soldiers instinct screaming that something was wrong.
“Something is wrong” the remark from Pyrrho caused Aesara to shake her her head, it was some time since she and her brother had shared thoughts quite so closely.
“YEAH, GO KILL THOSE DRAKHAN BASTA.....” Niv was cut off mid curse. The Stead's vanguard had crested the first hill.
But then the hill wasn't there any more.
In its place a rolling turmoil of dust and confusion.
“What the...” Pyrrho had lent forward, mirroring the pose of his sister
Then came the sound.
The crack and boom shook the ground beneath them, oak tree dropping leaves, infant acorns shed prematurely on the late summer afternoon. Volk and Onatas yelped, while the others gaped in awe. What had been an amply size hill, covered in the Stead's men was now a lumpy expanse of brown and singed earth, smoke eddying, filtering out the sunlight that had dappled the five stunned figures on the hill across the way.
The silence that struck the group neatly mirrored the noise that had rolled past them. It would have persisted were it not for the sight of the long Drakhan line descending like a locust on a wheat field.
“The counter attack” Aesara's voice sounded distant, automatic almost.
“That's why their lines were so thin” Pyrrho spoke as if to himself “they never expected the attack to get to them”. He glanced towards his sister, managed to hold her gaze for once.
“It was a trap” they stated together, eyes fixed on one another
“It was stinkin Previous magic, that's what it was!” an alarmed Volk had both hands on his head “how'd they make the Stead just disappear like that?! We're cursed, CURSED!”
“The Previous had nothing to do with this betrayal” Pyrrho stated
“He is right for once” Aesara agreed with a shrug
“Well great time for the heartfelt family reunion 'n all that” Niv had stood “but how about we save it f'later. Maybe make ourselves scarce in front of the, y'know, rampant Drakhan horde?”
“Per'chance the, er, lady speaks sense” Onatas followed Niv's lead in standing, himself unsettled by the tense silence now emanating from between Aesara and Pyrrho.
“Y'mean we should make a run f'it?” Volk didn't totally understand Onatas' fancy language, but certainly followed the sentiment.
“Where to?” wondered Niv aloud
“Opposite direction to 'em?” Volk pointed towards the Drakhan, who were making ground fast.
“The redoubt” stated Pyrrho
“The Stead actually nominated one?” Aesara replied
“He always does, no matter what the odds. Looks like he was, is, wiser than you thought?”
“We can establish that when we get there. Lead on, dearest brother” copying Pyrrho's mocking tone, without quite the conviction.
With the Drakhan snapping at their rear, no-one felt like complaining about the pace set by Pyrrho and Aesara this time. Thankfully the early part of the journey was mostly downhill, Pyrrho weaving them through marshy farmland and more stony fenland. Aesara suspected it wasn't the most direct route, but keeping the group out of sight line from the Drakhan was a tactic she approved of in her younger brother.
“You got some nice knives in that robe of yours then?” Niv had matched pace with Onatas at the rear of the group
“Excuse me?” Onatas wasn't quite sure why this scary woman had descended upon him
“Well you ain't go no proper weaponry on ya, I can see that, so I assume you're the more close quarters sort of fella. No my style o'course, but each to his own.”
“Yeah, approach from behind 'em, slit throat, dagger to the belly, tha sort o'thing” Niv miming the vicious attacks unknowingly; Onatas shrinking away from her
“I ain't judgin' ya or anything, just cos close quarters is the cowards way, we all gotta fight how we can, a dead Drakhan is a dead Drakhan after all. Just wanna know how we stand if push comes to shove”
“I'm not really an, er, fighter”
“Al'right, assassin, ninja, however you wanna call it mate. I know your sort. The quiet ones” she gave him a playful nudge, which seemed incongruous in the current situation as they fled.
“Quiet” Pyrrho rarely gave direct orders, but the stress was felt among them. He'd stopped and crouched by a ragged hedge, the others following suit.
“What is it?” Aesara strained to see between the hedge, but it was too overgrown to get a good view.
“The other side. It's flat ground, open until a small hamlet at the bottom of the valley. We need to get across the open ground quickly, as it's in view of the Drakhan approach.”
“How defensible is the hamlet?” Aesara was still looking around, the area seemed familiar
“Not much in the way of strong positions, but there is a small barn still standing. We can make it there, then maybe reappraise the situation?”
Volk stiffened, he too had been trying to work out where they were, a sense of direction never his strongest asset.
“Ok, we move quickly then” Aesara used her damaged staff to wedge open a gap in the hedge. Onatas, you first, she nodded at the nervous looking apprentice.
“Because as the time you've finished moaning the others will have a nice warm fire and a flaggan of tea going at the barn. Move” the last word said through gritted teeth.
They sprinted over the open ground in turn, vigilant for approaching Drakhan. At the barn they paused to catch their breaths, Pyrrho climbing into the rafters in order to peer out of a broken hole in the roof. Sawdust gently fell into the main space of the barn as Pyrrho moved about above them, Onatas sneezing, then apologising for making a noise, then for speaking. A glance from Aesara saw him finally clam up.
"Company" Pyrrho dropped back down into their midst "about five of them coming down the lane"
"Five? That it? " Niv brightened up, " I ever tell you the story of when I took five on at once? " Volk rolled his eyes, the big man having heard it plenty of times. Onatas was equally sceptical having more recent first hand experience of what five on one combat looked like. Or at least what it sounded like from inside the belly of a Previous construction while Aesara did the hard work.
"We'll stay low, hope they pass through" Aesara stated
"Who you think you're ordering round? " Niv had taken out her club and was moving towards the barn's entrance way. " Let's take em down, for the Stead, see how they fight without any of that Previous magic to sucker punch with"
"Aesara is right, we hold up here " Pyrrho rarely gave direct orders, his leadership style was more unconventional, he needed his team to think for themselves when out behind enemy lines. But in this case his sister was right, too much weird stuff happening to risk a frontal assault. Niv looked downbeat at the decision, but nevertheless moved back into the barn in compliance.
Under Aesara's direction the group moved towards the rear of the barn, hiding amongst fallen masonry and other detritus that had gathered over the years. Silence descended, enveloping them like the dust in the barn's gloomy atmosphere.
“YOU IN THE BARN, EXIT IMMEDIATELY” the voice boomed, echoing around the confines of their, apparently insufficient, hiding place.
No one inside the barn made a sound, but a series of increasingly alarmed glances were traded.
“DO NOT THINK YOU CAN DECIEVE US, WE SAW YOUR SCOUT POKE HIS HEAD OUT OF THE UPPER STORIE” the voice had a slightly odd characteristic, one that Aesara could not quite work out
Pyrrho was less concerned with the tone of the voice and more how he had been detected. “No way” he whispered, “they were silhouettes on the horizon when I made them out. I know how to stay hidden when on reconnaissance, it's what's kept me alive so long”
“More Previous magic” muttered Volk, his lumpish form slump behind the rotten carcass of an old barrel.
“DO NOT THINK US SHY OF COMING IN TO GET YOU. BETTER TO GIVE UP YOURSELVES NOW”
“Well this hiding plan ain't workin' out so well. How about we go with my first idea?” Niv had once again drawn her fearsome looking club, but had instinctively looked to Aesara for confirmation.
The overseer gave a slow nod, “We'll try and tempt them in here, attack while their eyes aren't adjusted. Pyrrho, think you can go take a look without being spotted this time?” she asked in a hushed tone “Pyrrho? Pyrrho!” now less of a whisper and more a husky urging. “Where's he gone?!”
“Yeah, he does this” Niv replied sardonically
“Disappears right when t'is about to get tasty.”
“He runs away?” Aesara was incredulous, her opinion of her brother was low, but was rapidly becoming subterranean.
“Says that it ain't his style. That he'll leave it to me n' Volk” a shrug “suits us fine, more skulls for me to crack” a devious smirk had emerged.
“Plus...” Volk spoke up “He does sometimes turn up to finish the last one off and make some clever comment 'bout it”
Aesara shook her head in exasperation, not for the first time today and probably not the last. “Ok, we can still hold the entrance way. You two on that side” a nod at Niv and Volk “and I'll hold this one” she moved towards the right of the door.
“What 'bout him?” Niv indicated the nervous Onatas, the apprentice was visibly shaking
“He'll just stay out of trouble”. But then an idea struck Aesara, “actually, Onantas, see if you can climb into the rafters where Pyrrho was. Keep an eye out for anything unusual”
“But everything today seems unusual” Onatas whimpered
“More unusual. Now get your tubby arse moving” and with that she retired to the gloom on the right side of the entrance way. Niv and Volk followed suit on the opposite side, while Onatas attempted to scramble up into the rafters.
A few minutes past, the silence once again came surrounded them.
“Pssst, Aesara” it was an unusual sound, but not the one from outside. The overseer looked back into the barn, then upwards. Onatas dangled above her.
“What is it?” she demanded through gritted teeth; the adrenalin that was now coursing through her veins was making her irritable.
“I can see them, just over the other side of the hamlet”
“What are they doing?”
“Talking I think. I'm not sure. They carry, er, devices”
“Yeah, two long staffs, like yours with metal at the ends, except one of those ends looks hollow.”
“Hollow staffs?” Aesara screwed up her face in confusion.
“Yeah, but another has something else. Looks like a tube, but maybe has glass in it? He's pointing it at me now”
“Previous magic, be careful” the voice wafted over from the other side of the barn
“Shut up Volk” Aesara barked across the entrance way, although was lacking any better ideas to what the devices were. “Any sign of Pyrrho?” this directed up to the roof of the barn.
“No, the others, they move. Heading our way”
“ENOUGH PROCASTINATION, WE WILL SHOW NO MERCY”
“About 'ruddy time” Niv was impatient for the action to begin. Far too much talking for her taste so far.
“Two with swords are coming first, then the two with the funny looking staffs” the keen eyed Onatas was proving some ability as a spotter
“And the remaining one?” Aesara wanted to build a complete a mental picture as possible.
“At the rear. Think he's the one been shouting at us. He's got the glass ended tube, but also has this other thing. He's holding it to his mouth now”
“I THOUGHT BETTER OF THE STEAD'S GRUNTS TO SPEND THEIR FINAL MOMENTS COWERING IN AN ELDER BARN”
Aesara gripped an axe in each hand, her damaged staff stowed away at the rear of the barn. Wait she mouthed across the entrance way at Pyrrho's lackeys. She caught Niv's eye, the other woman sneering in reply. Aesara needed them to hold the line here if they were to surprise the Drakhan, to pit their slim strength against the Drakhans odd devices – whatever they actually were – but she had little faith that Niv would heed her tactical advice.
But it was Volk that charged.
The big man leapt forward with considerable speed, closing the gap with the sword wielding enemies in just three strides. The flash of his long blade was even quicker, the first Drakhan's tatty tunic slashed open in a burst of scarlet. Next was the first of the staff bearers, the young man looking terrified in the path of Volk's rapid charge.
“Save some for me!” Niv was off in pursuit, but before she could enter the fray a crack and bang echoed around the small hamlet. Smoke enveloped Volk and the staff wielding Drakhan, but was blown away quickly by a freshening evening breeze.
Volk lay face first on the ground.
Niv only broke stride to leap her fallen comrade, club brought down in a crashing over head swipe onto the young Drakhan's startled face with an unsettling crunching sound that too echoed off the derelict buildings.
The remaining Drakhan had spread out, Niv snarling as she whirled round to choose her next target. The other staff bearer held up his device, towards Niv.
“WATCH OUT” cried Aesara, although not quite sure what they should be looking out for. She wasn't quick enough to cover the ground as fast as the other two, so instead flung one of her axes. It wasn't a skill that she had practised as much as she now wished she had done, but the axe still hit home, albeit with the hilt rather than blade, and into the staff bearer's flank rather than head. But this was enough to cause the Drakhan to drop the staff. Niv was on him in a flash.
The other sword wielding Drakhan charged at Aesara, yelling. Her disdain for those that yelled when running into battle was almost as much as her disdain for the young Drakhan's guard as she parried his sword swipe then buried he axe up and into his arm pit. No missing from this range.
“Bloody work” the two women turned from their fallen foes and looked across the narrow lane to the Drakhan lieutenant. But the voice had not come from the Drakhan. All that came from him was a slight wheezing noise.
And a thin trickle of blood from a line across his throat.
The dead eyed lieutenant slumped to the floor. Pyrrho stood in his place, wiping the garrotte on a silken handkerchief. He smiled towards his sister.
Aesara shook her head as she clumped over to the prone body of Volk. Niv had turned him over onto his back, with no small exertion on her behalf, before recoiling from the sight. Volk's belly and chest was ripped to shreds, blood oozing from the mess. Aesara knelt beside him, feeling for a pulse in a pudgy wrist.
“He alive?” Pyrrho had joined them
“Barely. Perhaps if you prioritised teamwork over dramatic entrances this might have been different”
“He should have listened to your orders”
“How did you know what my orders were?” Aesara briefly caught her brother's eye, before ripping off Volk's sleeve to dab at the wounds, investigate the damage. “You were long gone by then, as always when a little adversity comes your way”
“Stay calm, stay quiet, pit your strength against their weakness” Pyrrho parroted his sister's mottoes. “You expect little old me to fight head on? Where is the tactical advantage you were forever extorting in that?”
“Well you could have stuck around to discuss it”
“War isn't a committee” another motto as Pyrrho angrily stalked away, almost colliding with the panting Onatas jogging across from the barn.
“C...can I help?” a mix of moderate exercise, fear and nervousness causing him to stutter.
“Need to stop the bleeding” Aesara spoke quickly, but without making eye contact, instead watching the retreating form of her brother.
“W...we also n..need to clean him. The Elders wrote f...frequently about in..infection”
“So you do learn some actually useful knowledge while locked away in the archives?” Aesarsa watched Onatas redden, before turning to Niv. “Can you get us some clean water, and start a fire?”
“Sure” Niv was quick to comply with a request for once, still shocked by Volk's appearance.
Now with just the unconscious Volk within earshot, Onatas looked towards Aesara, “what was that that did this?”
“You're supposed to be the clever one”
“The Elders spoke of an invention that spat fire and hot lead. But The Previous, it is said, preferred even darker technologies, so left little trace of the Elder's knowledge when they rose to ascendency”
“Depends how hard you look for it” Aesara did not look up, her tone did not invite further questions.