Progress was slow. Not purely because of Onatas’ lack of physical conditioning – at almost every step the apprentice silently cursing the hours spent in the archive instead of outside training once in a while – but because of Aesara’s caution. The rock marsh was in itself dangerous enough, boggy peat interspersed by rough limestone protrusions that they were force to leap between in the boggier sections, a slip or tumble risked each time. But more than that Aesara paused frequently, looking out for the tell tale signs of an army having recently passed or, worse, heading their way. Senator Stead would lead his charge in the coming days, Aesara was sure of it, and the Drakhan forces opposing him had been spotted manoeuvring near the university camp in recent weeks.
Onatas would never complain at the frequent stops, but he grew more fearful that they wouldn’t be able to track Siro in time before the armies came together, then likely broke apart into the surrounding regions. Camp gossip had been rife with how this was to be the decisive battle, the Iron Stead finally pressing home the advantage he had steadily built in the summer months. The High Council of the travelling university had themselves been following developments closely, raucously debating the likely outcome at the frequent lavish meals that Onatas and other select apprentices had been required to serve their senior professors and other camp leadership at. If the Drakhan did break it would open up a new swathe of the countryside, both to search for Elder writings and trade knowledge and training in return for supplies from the towns and villages freed from the Drakhan’s tyranny.
Aesara had stopped again, Onatas nearly bumping into her deep amid his thoughts.
“What is it?” he asked, trying to follow Aesara’s gaze.
“Can’t you smell it?”
“Camp fires mixed with hot pitch, when the breeze blows from that direction” she indicated a hill to their left. “The Drakhan prepare their defences nearby”.
“But I thought you said the valley was that direction?” this question was greeted by silence for a few moments.
“If we travel by… conventional means, yes” Aesara spoke slowly, as if still weighing the options in her mind.
“There is an, er, alternative?” a low level of dread began to make itself known in Onatas’ stomach.
Aesara pulled out her map from the leather hold-all, spreading it on a rock, causing Onatas an involuntary shiver when a corner of the precious paper briefly dipped into a puddle at the base of the rock. Aesara didn’t notice, instead pointing at a line that wound itself across the centre of the map.
“This is a Previous skyway not far from here. It curves around that hill” a nod towards where the smoky smell emanated “and then past the bottom of the valley” she followed the line with her finger.
“B…but the skyways are cursed” Onatas stammered “littered with monuments to The Previous. You can’t really suggest we go that way?”
“It wasn’t a suggestion, this isn’t a committee” Aesara began to move, away from the hill towards a denser patch of thicket. Onatas crashed through the undergrowth behind her.
“Please Aesara, don’t you yourself tell recruits not to travel the skyways? Agh” a swinging bramble from Aesara’s passage slapped into Onatas’ cheek who then yelped in surprise.
“Only because those idiots are likely to fall off. Come Onatas, you are supposed to be educated, a bright light the Dean of Elder writings told me once. Although he was drunk” the later as an aside as she pressed on.
“No matter how educated, we can not make sense of The Previous. You know that Aesara. The Elders, yes, they left behind their writings, albeit scattered to the seven counties. But The Previous are different. We know not of their capabilities”
“This sounds suspiciously like you are about to try and intellectualise childhood legend of sprites and curses” Aesara cast a sceptical glance back to the trailing Onatas.
“Of course not. But you must admit that the edifices left behind by them are certainly curious”
“I don’t know about that” Aesara came to a halt, Onatas drawing alongside “I find them sort of beautiful” stretching above and in front of them was a skyway. Enormous concrete legs spaced a few hundred metres between each pair supported a snaking road, some fifty metres above their heads.
“Oh my” gasped Onatas “How ever did they build on such a scale. You can almost see why people claim they used dark magics”
“Just because we can’t comprehend it, doesn’t mean we need to invent magic to explain it” Aesara began to move towards one of the legs.
“Don’t we?” muttered Onatas before setting off after her.
At the base of the leg the scale was even more impressive, or daunting, depending on your viewpoint. Aesara followed the circumfrance of the leg round until she was directly underneath the skyway. Here there were rusty steel ladder rungs, fused into the concrete. The overseer put her wooden foot on a lower one and pushed. Rust flaked off, but it held her weight.
“You can’t suggest we climb that?” exclaimed Onatas in alarm
“There you go again thinking I make suggestions for your approval. I am travelling the skyway. You can follow or pick your way through the Drakhan, it is entirely up to you” and with that she commenced climbing, flecks of rust falling down onto the reluctant apprentice below her. Onatas steeled himself, and once again trailed after Aesara, grunting with exertion.
By the time Onatas lumbered up to the small passage way that led onto the road, Aesara was away over on the opposite side, hand held above her eyes as she squinted into the distance. Between them were The Previous manifestations that had worried Onatas so much at ground level. Twisted metal and decaying plastics merged together in small lumps scattered around the skyway. Onatas had read Elder writings on self powered carriages, but it seemed that The Previous took their worship of the cursed machines to a new level, building the immense skyways almost as a means of praising them. A monument to movement.
Onatas gave them a wide berth as he threaded his way over to Aesara. “Do we have anything else to fear?” other than The Previous harvesting our souls was the end of the sentence he daren’t finish in Aesara's company.
“The Drakhan line stretches further than I anticipated” her practised eye appraised the pattern of fires and siege engines spread out below them.
“A trap for the iron Stead?”
“Unlikely, they are stretched thin, too thin. Senator Stead will likely break their lines there” she pointed to some tactical element of the distant geography that was lost on Onatas. “But the length of their lines mean will need to stay on the the skyway for longer than I initially anticipated.”
“We'll have to spend the night up here” the tone was matter of fact
“Nooooo” the tone was whimpering
“Maybe two if we don't get a move on. Come” and with that she was away again, the pace much quicker on the smooth asphalt.
Onatas felt he was about to vomit his lungs by the time Aesara next halted. His heels had been chaffed raw by a set of boots more suited to treading lightly around the quiet archives than a double time march. After a couple of minutes of catching his breath while bent double, he raised enough energy to look up and immediately wished he hadn't. As if being on this damn Previous construction wasn't bad enough, Aesara was insisting on angering their spirits even further by sitting brazenly on one of the derelict carriages.
“Ae....Aesara, perhaps we could r...rest on the floor?” he ventured
“Shut up” she commanded “and pass me that bandage from my bag”
Onatas almost began to protest, this was a provocative move too far after all, but his response was choked off as he took in the wider scene. Aesara had sat on The Previous carriage to remove her false leg. It rested on the rusted roof of the long forgotten vehicle. He winced as his gaze moved down her leg, the stump below the knee rendered ragged and bloody by the fast pace she had maintained. Suddenly his chaffed feet didn't hurt quite as much.
“You are hurt?” he asked as he moved to her bag and retrieved the bandage, stains implying that this wasn't to be its first use.
“You speak the obvious” she grunted
“May I take a look? Do you have any oinment?” their sudden departure from the camp had prevented Onatas from collecting any supplies.
“It's fine, just need to change the dressing. Stop staring” she snatched the bandage from him with a muttered “thanks”.
Onatas forced his gaze away. But the image of Aesara hunkered over her damaged leg stuck in his minds eye, his impression of her as an invulnerable warrior slipping to make room. He tried to distract himself by looking at the false leg. It was, well...
He was familiar with the iron studded sole from his amateur tracking, but that nod to practicality gave way to elegant carving as foot melded with ankle. Like the staff on her back, the design was complex and intricate. Onatas could make out human like carvings wrapped with and merging into animals and other beings more, well, ethereal. Gemstones circled the calf, catching the evening light and reflecting various colours across the roof of the carriage.
“What are you doing?” Aesara's indignation snapped Onatas back to reality. With sheepish half smile he snatched away the hand that had instinctively made its way towards the false leg. Aesara grabbed the leg and set to reattaching it via a web of leather straps tied around her knee.
“Sorry” Onatas muttered, before looking absent-mindedly down the skyway.
“We move on then” and with that Aesara returned to the march, no outward sign of discomfort, although Onatas was sure there must still be pain without any ointment on the stump and it wrapped in a far form clean bandage.
Periodically they would pause to survey the ground below them. Signs of human activity increased each time, the pair actually passing over a Drakhan division at one point, Onatas silently thanking the overseeer for avoiding direct contact. Perhaps the skyway was not so bad after all? It was almost peaceful, each of them in their own thoughts, the miles passing steadily, the birds singing above. The five figures approaching from down the road.
Before the recognition could register in Onatas' head, Aesara had dragged him down behind a ruined carriage.
“Shush” Aesara held a hand up to him as she peeped around the far edge of the carriage. “Drakhan, light infantry, double pace, be here in, seven, seven and a half minutes” she voiced a mental checklist.
“What are they doing up here?” Onatas asked almost frantically.
“Not enough of them to be a battle manouvre. They look ragged. Most likely deserters” Aesara maintained her covert visual.
“Deserters? Aware of their impending defeat? Perhaps they will not be interested in us? Or we could negotiate passage? Maybe for you map, to aid their escape?” the words tumbled out.
“The Drakhan fear The Previous more than your stupid self” Aesara sat back down on the ground next to Onatas. “If they are up here, then they are desperate. If they are desperate then negotiations would likely be tricky. Plus I would not give up my map so easily when there is a better option”
“Which is?” Onatas urged
“I beat the tar out of them”
“What? Five of them? This isn't one of those exaggerated camp fire stories you know. This is real”
“Get inside the carriage” Aesara instructed
“This is getting more ridiculous. I must insist...”
A hand across his throat, a mouth at his ear “You will get inside the vehicle, you will stay quiet and with that you will stay safe. Either that or you lead the charge on the Drakhan yourself”
Onatas scrabbled into a hollow rear compartment of the vehicle, pulling what turned our to be a corroded metal door down on top of him. It was not dark inside, light peaked through numerous rusty holes, but it was cramped, sharp corners digging into his flanks. The carriage creaked ominously and wobbled, Onatas whimpered, had he willingly clambered into a Previous beast's mouth?
Or, another part of his brain spoke up, had the creak bean caused by Aesara climbing onto the vehicle's roof? Onatas was not sure which thought was the craziest.