Aesara's leg was trapped under the body of the horse. In an option not available to most, she disattached the leg in question, then hopped over to a broken branch which she used to lever the flank of the horse up and free the false leg. She was reattaching it as Onatas moaned softly. He had not been knocked unconscious in the fall, Aesara had checked for signs of head trauma as he lay crumpled next to her, rather she surmised that he had somehow fainted during their cross country adventure.
Above them stretched up the craggy cliff face. It was not especially tall, and the trees that clung to its rocky outcrops had broken their decent somewhat. The much heavier horse was not so lucky, its neck now twisted at an unnatural angle, flies starting to descend. After moving Onatas a little way away to collect his wits, Aesara returned to the horse. About its saddle bags she discovered a small knife and a water skin, which she greedily drank from. Much better than the brackish rain water they'd boiled over the fire in recent nights. There was no food in the bags, Aesara's gaze surveying the horse, then down to the knife in her hand. Years of combat meant she was far from squeamish, but it still took a few moments to brace herself to begin an amateur butchery.
“Aesara! You are hurt?” Onatas was greeted by a bloody overseer looming over him as he opened his eyes
“It is nothing” her blood splattered face showed amusement. “How are you feeling? We need to get moving”
“Are the Drakhan near?” Onatas looked around for threats
“Not that I can see. They came to the edge of the cliff a little while ago, but could not find a way down. I presume they head back to from where they came” she wiped blood stained hands on her well worn trousers.
“You mean the university camp?”
“Precisely. We will not be able to beat them back without transport, but we have kept our freedom at least. If we can get to the camp undetected then perhaps we can free some of my men for a counter attack”
“You think the university held captive?”
“I trust no Drakhan word otherwise. The fact they were out searching for me implies they want to secure their control of the camp by removing a potential hindrance before it could get back to cause trouble” she held out a newly clean hand and pulled Onatas to his feet.
“I see” said Onatas, unsure, before he continued, “Aesara, why is the sack you are carrying dripping red? And what did happen to our horse? Such a rare animal”
“Never mind that” Aesara did not want to explain “We leave at once, this way” she indicated away from the remains of the horse. Onatas moved forward reluctantly.
With the sun weakly peaking through the clouds, Aesara was able to navigate them in the direction the camp was supposed to be. Life on the march in the Steed's guard had honed her wayfaring skills, while time on the battlefield called for a good awareness of the surrounding environment. She was satisfied with her days work when, as night began to fall, a number of small fires could be seen lit on the horizon.
“The camp?” Onatas queried as they perch on a small hill.
“Most likely. But they burn many fires this evening, perhaps to detect our approach”
“So what will we do?”
“First we eat” Aesara beginning to back down the hill, away from the camp so as to hide their own fire. “Then I will go to assess our options”
“You intend to infiltrate the camp defences?”
“Don't look so surprised Onatas, anything my idiot brother can do, I can surely match. Plus, I designed the camp defences” and with that she was gone into the gloom.
Onatas surveyed the distant camp for a few moments “at least we will soon be back among friends” he muttered to himself, before setting off after Aesara.
The horse was a hundred times better than the frog. Aesara almost laughed with satisfaction as the rich juices ran down her chin to further decorate her ragged clothes. Washed down with the remains of the cool, clear water that the horse had carried, it felt like a king's feast. Onatas appeared less happy to be eating such a rare animal, even if it tasted this good. Aesara put it down to the apprentice's nerves about their next move. But she was beginning to relish the new challenge. Soon she would regain her rightful place at the head of the camp, as its saviour and protector. Let the senior pro-vice chancellor attempt to call her attitude unhelpful then. Aesara smiled to herself.
After the meal they took it in turns to grab a fitful couple of hours sleep while the other kept watch. Then in the final hours before dawn Aesara began her approach towards the camp. Onatas stayed back, attempting to draw what little heat remained in the embers of their fire. Aesara had cautioned against adding any further fuel to it lest the smoke be visible when dawn finally broke.
The university had set up camp on a patch of scrub land on the edge of a small fishing settlement. Aesara stayed off the cart track that wound its way to and then past the camp, instead negotiation the neighbouring fenland that was spotted with prickly gauze bushes. She would periodically stop, crouch low and listen for the sound of guards on patrol, but she encountered no one. Curious. She had expected an increase in Drakhan security once word of her escape made it back. Fearing another trap, she slowed her progress once the perimeter of the camp, marked by the shabby tents of the labourers and camp attendants, came into view in the dim moonlight.
Still no sign of anyone as she came within a few metres of the nearest tent. She could smell the smoke from extinguished cooking fires, and there was still a note of the musky odour she associated with the academics, their long days in the dusty archives yielding a tell-tale fragrance.
Aesara moved to kneel at the rear of a small, patched up, tent. For a few minutes she placed her ear close to the fabric, listening for an occupant. Confident it was empty, Aesara unsheathed the small knife she'd gained from the Drakhan's horse and ripped a small gash in the canvas, crawling through. Inside was messy, but that was common. Three or more labourers would share this small space, sleeping on the single camp bed in shifts. That none of them were here now would normally be odd, but would make sense if the Drakhan had the prisoners grouped together to keep them from escaping.
The sentries under her command had their tents surrounding the entrance on the other side of the camp, so she wouldn't be able to find any proper weapons near by. However, with a little searching she had turned up a mallet and a small wood cutters axe. She hung both on her belt then moved to the tent's entrance, pulling open a small gap through which to survey the immediate vicinity. Again, nothing. No movement, no sound. She edged out into the moonlight, slowly making her way through the disorganised spread of tents, stepping over the odd cooking pot or upturned stool. Signs of a struggle perhaps, or just the general level of chaos that reigned at this end of the camp. She randomly checked the odd tent, but all were empty.
Having traversed part of the tents at the camp perimeter to no avail, Aesara started to move towards the centre. The tents steadily got more well kept, more neatly arranged and as she got into the professors area, more large, incorporating their writing desks and personal archives. Here again she looked for signs of life, but found none. It seemed that the Drakhan kept their prisoners right at the centre, most likely in the large open sided dining tent, or perhaps the high council marquee. The other prime construction at the centre of the camp was the archives, but it would be too cramped to keep the prisoners, full as it was with Elder writings and academic study equipment.
Around the last bunch of the professors' tents Aesara could see the rear of the archive, the dull green canvas looked almost steel-like in the moon's meagre light. She crept up behind it and contemplated her next move. She could gain entrance to the archive in a similar way to that first labourer’s tent. But it would be next to pitch black inside and she didn’t know her way around it all that well. Creeping around the perimeter of the archive would be a less stealthy route to the centre of the camp, but as least she could make out the way ahead. It would also be quicker, and Aesara was aware of a slight lightening at the edges of the horizon. Dawn was on its way.
This rear side of the archive was shorter than its flanks, so she came to the first corner relatively quickly. On the next long side she would be exposed to her right flank, but given that direction was the latrines she figured that anyone that did see her would assume she was a guard returning from a call of nature. But a guard would not attempt to stealthily creep, so she made a more forthright approach down the side of the archive, before slowing as she came to the next corner.
Around the other side of the corner was the centre of the camp, usually left as an unadorned circle of earth for the camp members of all walks to mill around in. Flanked by the archive, council marquee and dining area, it was always fairly busy, even at night as different shifts came and went across the camp. But this time it was dead quiet, aside from a low and periodic rumble that made Aesara’s face screw up in consternation. More and more curious, she peaked around the corner.
They were sprawled everywhere, across the open ground of the centre and over the tables and upturned chairs of the dining area. Camp sentries, labourers, professors intermingled with that now all too familiar Drakhan uniform. It had obviously been a pitched close quarters battle, many of the bodies lay on top of each other, or in each other’s arms. Aesara frowned. Something wasn’t quite right. Other than the slaughter that was. Something was missing. And there was still that low rumble.
Aesara back off behind the corner of the archive, into the shadows. Across the centre a figure stumbled out of the council marquee. Drakhan uniform briefly highlighted by the light from inside the grand tent. The decorations on the shoulders indicated it was a Drakhan commander. A Drakhan commander headed her way. Thinking quickly Aesara dropped down to lay on her front, arms and legs sprawled. In the dark she would easily stand up to a passing inspection, fitting in well with the other prone bodies. Indeed, the officer walked unevenly straight past her and towards the latrines. Aesara let a slow relieved breath out. An idea came to her. She waited a moment or two to see if any guard came in pursuit of the office, but the council tent entrance remained closed. She quietly got up and used her knife to quickly cut a section of guide rope from the side of the archive. Rope in hand, she quickly paced over to the latrine. One more glance round to satisfy herself that no one else was about, and she went inside.
The latrine was about a large tent, ten metres to a side, which inside was divided into small canvas walled sections, each with a small wooden box, hole in top, lined up over an amply sized bit below. When the camp moved on, the sight of the latrine would be dug over and often subsequently sold back to local farmers for a higher price with its “enriched, nutrient dense soils”. As enriched as the ground below was, it certainly stank. Various bundles of fragrant herbs were nailed to the tent posts, but did little, even this early in the camp’s tenure at its new location. Aesara grimaced as she entered, confused that the smell was this bad already. As her eyes adjusted to the stingy light provided by sporadic candles, each in a lamp housing to prevent the fire risk, she surveyed the scene in horror. Faeces and vomit were splattered over almost every surface she could see. There were also more bodies in here, slumped on or over the wooden boxes. Had the Drakhan used poison?
A tuneless whistling interrupted Aesara’s racing mind. It was the other conscious occupant of the latrine, the Drakhan officer over in a compartment on the other side. Aesara looped around the inside edge of the latrine, treading carefully to both maintain her stealth and avoid getting anything undesirable on her boot or wooden leg. The caution wasn’t enough to prevent her from slipping over at one juncture, splatting down in some unfortunate brown puddle. She inwardly cursed as she regained her feet, the gloopy substance now coating her right side glistening in the candle light. Luckily the Drakhan officer had not heard her tumble, but he was making his unsteady way to the exit.
Approaching from behind, Aesara closed the remaining distance between them quickly. Just as the officer was reaching for the exit flap she through the rope around his torso and yanked him back. Startled an off balance the office tumbled down, Aesara darting out of the way, before jumping back down on top of him.
“WHAT THE….” the officer began, before Aesara stuffed a piece of rag she’d previously torn off her shawl into his gaping mouth. He continued to struggle, but the fight left him as Aesara flashed her blade in front of his eyes. Flipping him over onto his front – and into a mess of vomit – Aesara finished restraining his arms with the rope, before seizing him fast to one of the tent poles nearby. Not a perfect incarceration by any means, but now she had some collateral were she forced to flee from her continuing investigations of the council marquee and dining area. With a satisfied glance at her captive, Aesara turned and left the latrine, gloop still dripping down her side.
The unfortunate staining of her clothes meant that the latrine smell followed Aesara across the open space at the centre of the camp. She was soon amid the bodies, stepping over or around the various sprawled forms. The soft humming noise had grown louder. It seemed to be emanating from a fat Drakhan slumped on his back just outside the dining tent. She made her way over to him and crouched down.
He was snoring.
Aesara was startled, she instinctively brought her knife out, ready to finish him off. But then a thought struck her. She went over to the nearby body of one of the kitchen porters, flipped in onto his back and checked for a pulse. He was alive. As was the next body, and the next. They weren't dead, they were sleeping. Perhaps it had been some kind of poisoning after all? The answer looked like it would be found in the high council. Now that she was closer to it Aesara could hear muffled conversation and the occasional laugh through the thick canvas walls. Light crept out from a crack at the bottom of the doorway. She drew closer, trading her small knife for the mallet and axe she's purloined earlier. Would enable her to take more Drakhan on at once if it came to that.
“Overseer Aesara, that you?” the voice from behind made Aesara jump round, axe raised. Then, recognition.
“Noki?” it was one of her sentries, emerging from behind some bushes at the other side of the council marquee, but he had his arm firmly held by a Drakhan soldier. “Unhand him or I will strike you down” Aesara's firm tone and raised axe made the young Drakhan squeak in alarm.
“No Overseer, I'm not on duty, honest. Me an' Ellisa 'ere were just foolin' 'round!” Noki held both hands up pleadingly, well aware of his commanders stance on dereliction of duty.
“Fooling? Around?” Aesara was confused.
“Yeah, after the celebrations, deputy overseer Malic gave us all t'evenin' off. Ellisa 'ere” a sheepish nod at his companion “we got talkin' and one fing led to 'nother, y'know” he trailed off uncertainly.
“Celebrations?” the word felt odd for Aesara to say, but the slumbering bodies now made more sense. A poison of sorts, but the home brewed alcohol was self inflicted.
“Uh-huh. Oh right! You weren’t around for t’news. We’re settlin’ down!” Noki perked up
“Under the new peace, init. We can go use the Drakhan archives. Pro-vice chancellor Celcus was proper excited, almost wet ‘imself I ‘erd” Noki’s gossip caused the Drakhan, Ellisa, to giggle.
“He treatied with the Drakhan?” Aesara was aghast, the anger washed over Noki and Ellisa who stepped back in surprise. “Where is he?” she demanded.
“Right behind you” it was Aesara that now stepped back in surprise, turning quickly to the marquee entrance where the Pro-Vice Chancellor now stood. Noki and Ellisa used the opportunity to scarper.
“What is going on here Celcus?” Aesara was not caught off guard for long, the sight of the Pro-Vice Chancellor sparking old animosity
“You’re little man summed it up well. Except I can assure you that I did not wet myself” Celcus smirked, alcohol on his breath.
“You bargained with, with them?” Aesara spat
“We will further the reach of our knowledge” he crossed his arms
“And plumb new depths of our morality”
Celcus’ eyes went wide “Just who are you to preach morality?!” he almost shouted “You disappear from the camp at the height of the instability with no notice. You return to us blood splattered and” he sniffed “shit stained. News of your arrival in the area is accompanied by unprovoked attacks on those sent to aid you. Tales soon follow of the slaughter of horses and dogs, rare and precious beings in the new age, and yet here you now are preaching morality to me?!” he seethed, Aesara wilted slightly under the onslaught. “I am struggling” he continued “to think of a worse return back to camp life” Aesara had no response, it was all too much. She struggled to comprehend the night’s events, what she was hearing, what she had done. This was beyond a farce.
Behind them a figure hopped out of the latrine, bound and gagged.
“Please tell me that isn’t the Drakhan High Commander” said Celcus in a resigned voice.