Thursday, 6 November 2014

Chapter five

Pyrrho merged into the Drakhan division when they crossed underneath The Previous skyway. The Drakhan tended to lapse into a melancholic reverie when close to Previous constructions, their superstitions causing many to quietly pray or grip various totems that entrepreneurial traders had conned them into buying. Pyrrho had made a good income from such a strategy as a teenager. With the majority of the division focused on their silly beliefs it was easy to join them unnoticed. When a mile or so had been put between the division and the skyway and conversations sprang back up it was like Pyrrho had been there all along.
The scout's attire hung a little loose on Pyrrho, but that it fit the much shorter man than the one they had taken it from at all was testament to Volk's ability with a needle and thread. Beneath the scruffy uniform he was at least able to wear his own underpants, a thought that took him back to the unfortunate incident back at the hamlet. However, that couldn't be changed now and there were more pressing matters to attend, like successfully infiltrated the Drakhan camp.
Had he arrived at the camp alone Pyrrho would have faced a grilling from the guards as to his name and division, questions he could probably bluff his way through but there was always a risk of a jobsworth guard prying a little too deep. Best to avoid the risk by turning up with an entire division, to be waved through by the guards. Also handy to be in good relations with the divisional commander, Pyrrho using the flagon of potato wine brewed recently by Niv to start a conversation. By the time they arrived at the camp gates Pyrrho had an invite to the officer's quarters and a wealth of information on the division's recent manoeuvres.
The atmosphere within the camp was dour. The rank and file Drakhan were well aware of the disadvantage they faced in being brought to battle by the Iron Stead at the current time, after a summer of dispiriting defeats. Pyrrho glided round the camp, listening to gossip, observing preparations and sowing dissent. Not that the dissent took much sowing, frequently he heard discussion of plans for after the imminent defeat, whilst other huddled groups discussed plans for desertion prior to the battle. The Drakhan leadership were often criticised for their decision to bring all of their remaining forces together, only to then order an impracticably stretched front line. The Stead would break it at will was the common opinion.
Pyrrho's shoulders slumped as he walked around the camp. Not just to blend in with the prevailing mood, but because his latest task from the Iron Stead himself was proving to be little challenge. Infiltrating a camp more preoccupied with preventing people leaving was too easy and sowing dissent in the massed ranks that were frequently more negative than he had attempted to be was a bizarre sensation. With a shrug he decided to abandon this phase of the mission early and move on to the next part.
Approaching the officers section of the camp, itself separated by jagged wooden staves and a full compliment of guards, Pyrrho consider using the invite of the divisional commander to gain entrance. However, he had cared not for the way the man had leered at him. Plus there was a fair chance that Niv's potato wine had already killed the lecherous old git; Niv's brewing ability was some way behind even her skills of tact and diplomacy. Instead Pyrrho chose to rely on using a dose of camp gossip, information gleaned from the march back to camp and his more than ample bluffing ability.
The guard was unimpressed.
"Who'd you say ya report to again? " the guard asked over crossed arms
"Dell, head of company beta"
"Never 'erd of ' im"
Pyrrho sighed, "like I said, you probably wouldn't have, he's over on the other flank, but I got cut off returning"
"Returning from where? It certainly weren't the tailors" this remark was accompanied by a guffaw from the other guard blocking Pyrrho's way.
Pyrrho looked down briefly at the loose jacket hanging limply off his shoulders, before deciding to attempt a different tack. “I have gleaned important information on the Stead's plans for tomorrow”
“That bastard plans to crush us” the first guard's partner decided that now was the time to join in the sarcasm.
“But we will show him, eh Hewlett?” the first guard replied
“If you say so, Panas” the jovial mood of the second guard dimmed a little.
“I say so” Pyrrho leapt at the opportunity “My knowledge could sway the course of the battle”. The first guard, Panas, squinted at Pyrrho, weighing up what this dishevelled little scout was telling him.
“Al'ight, Hewlett here will 'scort you” a nod to his companion, before standing aside for Pyrrho to squeeze past.
Great, thought Pyrrho as Hewlett shoved him toward a tent nestled at the read of the officers quarter, now all I need to do is come up with a convincing enough lie for the commandant. Not like me to over promise and under deliver.
A series of elaborate and ambitious tales drifted through his mind as they wound there way through the officer's section. He was so preoccupied that he almost missed the change in mood. Laughter. Jokes. Singing. Pyrrho knew enough officers to understand that they were a different species to most, often oblivious to the challenges faced, or odds stacked. But here the change was even more jarring. Were they so misguided as to believe victory was at hand?
Pyrrho's instinct for self-preservation was one he cherished, countless time his saviour for a man with more than his fare share of time spent behind enemy lines. This instinct was currently screaming that something was wrong here. Stay calm, a distant memory echoing in his head. He needed to find out what was wrong. The Stead would be unimpressed with gut feelings.
He lingered closer to a group spread around a roaring fire, trying to hear any snatches of relevant conversations, but all he got was jovial small talk before Hewlett nudged him along. On the plus side, he did catch sight of Niv, draped across an elderly officer's lap, whispering sweet nothings. She didn't show any signs of having seen him, she wouldn't even if she had, but it reassured Pyrrho that an ally was close. Volk would be around somewhere too, each of them well adept at infiltration, but all preferring different techniques. It would certainly be odd to see Volk charming his scantily clad ample frame into the embrace of a Drakhan commander. Mind you, knowing the deviant Drakhan, it would be a technique that might just work.
“Ere we go” the brusque tone of Hewlett shook the unpleasant mental picture from Pyrrho's mind
“This the commandant's quarters?” the tent in front of them was small if it was
“T'is his secretary's. Commandant ain't gonna wanna see some lost scout. Not tonight judgin' by the festivities” Hewlett disappeared into the tent to announce the scouts arrival. Pyrrho was tempted to use to opportunity to make an exit, but curiosity got the better of him. “E'll see ya now” Hewlett popped back out, holding the tent flap open for Pyrrho to enter.
Fat candles spread around the small space inside gave an eerie yellow light to the small woman scratching notations on a tatty sheet of paper at the desk in front of her. Pyrrho stood in front of the desk, trying to adopt the air of a nervous scout. The nerves were not false.
“Mmmm?” she did not look up
“Ma'am, I have word of the Stead's plan for tomorrow, where he intends to move the bulk of his force”
Pyrrho's statement elicited no response, so he attempted to up the stakes. “I have a contact in the Stead's midst, we may have an opportunity to strike in advance, remove the head of the serpent, so to speak”
Still nothing apart from the scratching of the frayed quill, Pyrrho grew impatient. “The Stead plans to ride a giant chicken into battle”.
“Mmmm, chicken? Just where did that silly boy from the kitchen get to?” for the first time, she looked up. Frowned when she saw Pyrrho still there, then struck by a recollection. “Hewlett said you were from company Beta?”
“Yes ma'am”
“Did old man Fisher say anything of the masked ball?”
“Masked, er, ball, ma'am?”
“Yes, it is his turn to host. Three days hence. The commandant is looking forward to it immensely. Says the last one was a riot. Were you there?” a twinkle in her eye, hungry for gossip.
“Er, I was, er, on manoeuvres at the time” Pyrrho was normally quick to think on his feet, but his mounting confusion was slowing his thoughts.
“Of course, of course. Probably not suitable for a mere scout in any event” her gaze had returned to the papers.
“And of my other news, ma'am?”
“I care not for the Stead, he will be an insignificant footnote in history after tomorrow. Him and his giant chicken”
Pyrrho frowned. Could the old hag really be that misguided? Yet the commandant's secretary was normally the best informed in the camp. A mine of useful information. Not this one however, who was back to her writings, dismissing him with a wave.
This is crazy thought Pyrrho the first part of the assignment was too easy, but here I am absolutely stumped. He was also outstaying his welcome in front of the secretary.
“You still here?” she enquired without looking up. “Ah, my chicken” but this aside was not to Pyrrho, rather to the serving boy who pushed his way into the tent holding a tray. A rather large serving boy.
Pyrrho immediately perked up, a backup plan forming. He scratched his shoulder, not to remedy any discomfort, but as a well practising signal; distraction.
Volk showed absolutely know confirmation that he understood, he was a professional after all, but within a few seconds had contrived to trip over and deposit a bowl of lumpy chicken soup over the secretary and her desk.
“STUPID BOY” cried the secretary, frantically trying to wipe soup from both herself and her papers. Pyrrho leapt forward to assist, hastily wiping a river of soup from its approach to the papers spread at one end of the desk. He then quickly piled the papers up to save them, handing them over to the secretary with a courteous “ma'am”.
All while subtly scrunching a couple of sheets up a sleeve.
“OUT, BOTH OF YOU” the secretary reddening, Pyrrho and Volk rushing to comply. Outside of the tent they stopped briefly, Pyrrho ran a hand through his hair before itching the crown; exit and reconvene. Volk strode off towards the kitchen tents.
Hewlett and Panas were both happy to see Pyrrho exit back into the regulars section of the camp, sniggering at the soup splattered scout as he skulked past. Getting out of the main camp was more of a challenge, with guards having been well briefed in the risk of desertion. However, the scout uniform, coupled with the official looking papers from the secretary's office he flapped in front of the illiterate guard's nose was enough to carry the argument, and Pyrrho trotted off down the cart track that led away from camp.
He was the last of the three to meet at their appointed spot in the small hollow created by a tree long fallen. Volk had a small fire on the go, cooking some of the supplies he had liberated from the camp.
Niv was the first to speak, “Well that was weird”
“How so?” Pyrrho want to to see if she had the same odd feeling that had confused him so much.
“Felt more like a victory party than the day before a final battle”
“Gallows humour?” Pyrrho may have agreed with Niv, but wanted to play the advocate to test the logic.
“Nah, t'was like they weren't even thinking about the battle, rather the days after. Three different blokes and one woman proposed to me. That's a record. Offered me gilded paper, Elder treasure, the lot. Wouldn't say what were going on though. Not even sure they totally knew themselves. Like I said, weird”, a shrug.
Pyrrho frowned. “What about you Volk? What was the kitchen gossip?”
“Nowt you'd believe”
“Try me”
“Well dis one fella reckoned that lord Drakhan has made a deal with The Previous” Niv and Pyrrho near simultaneously rolled their eyes. “Hey, I didn't say it. Like The Previous would ever be on his side. Plus the guy in the kitchen had been at tha cooking liqueur.”
“So what you make of it?” Niv looked towards Pyrrho.
“Same as you” he sighed “It's like the Stead isn't even a factor in their calculations. Look at this” he took out the papers from under his robes that he had paused to change into on the way back to the meeting point.
“What's it say?” asked the illiterate Niv, Volk only had a few words himself, but dutifully looked over at the papers.
“It's a section from a diary, plus an invite to some fancy meal or other”
“That all you could nick?” Niv thought Pyrrho to be a better thief than this “No orders, or secret plan for the battle?”
Pyrrho ignored her, “the dates are all for the coming weeks, balls, celebrations, meals, drinks. It's more the calendar of an Elder socialite than an army on the verge of defeat.
“So what we do next then?” Volk had returned to looking hungrily at the pair of pheasants on his makeshift spit.
“We go talk to the Iron Stead” but Pyrrho wasn't exactly sure what he would tell him.

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