Pyrrho needed a drink.
Luckily, he had one in his slender handed grasp, so took a long gulp of the nutty flavoured mead, gasping as he slammed the wooden mug back down on to the wonky table. “Another!” he yelled to no one in particular, it was early in the day and the table servers hadn't started yet. From the other side of the large patchwork tent the old barman shook his head, but still flipped open the tap of the grimy barrel while grabbing another mottled old mug.
In front of Pyrrho the slumped form of Volk snored lightly. The big man had not quite been the same since the body that fell from the Skyway nearly hit him. It had taken almost an hour to convince him that it wasn't a Previous vendetta. Mind you, Pyrrho wasn't sure what it actually was. There'd been some inexplicable goings on for the last few days. Not that it had seemed to concern Niv much. She had happily disappeared a little while ago, having ensnared a soldier from the Stead's personal guard convalescing from a nasty sword slash received at an earlier skirmish. She'd spent the night complaining that all the good soldiers were on the front line, but had seen happy enough in the end.
The front line.
Just a mile or two away the Iron Stead led his troops into battle. A battle Pyrrho had an increasingly unpleasant feeling about. The three infiltrators had returned back to the Stead's camp late last night. The Stead had been angry to be awakened on the eve of battle by the sound of arguing between Pyrrho and the guards outside his lavish tented pavilion. Even angrier when he had heard Pyrrho's almost nonsensical story of the odd goings on at the Drakhan camp. Pyrrho could have happily strangled the Stead's attendant for the smile of mock sympathy as he ejected the infiltrators from the tent a mere 20 minutes later.
Ten minutes after the that, the three of them were in the drinking tent. Tetley's Inebriation Emporium wasn't officially employed by Stead's warband – indeed if rumours were to be believed, Tetley's sister had a similar operation on the Drakhan side – but it followed in close proximity. Soldiers were a thirsty lot, even more so close to battle, or immediately after. However, on the day of battle, it was far from heaving. Just a few camp labourers, or recovering invalids. And Pyrrho, wondering if his day could get any worse.
Aesara needed a drink.
No sign of Siro and no news either. They'd spent the last day fruitlessly searching. The enclosed nature of the valley had constricted the search area somewhat, but it was still a lot of ground to cover. Furthermore, with the inhabitants of the region long having fled from the imminent battle, there were no potential witnesses to ask.
She'd almost been relieved when they'd found the bloated, rotting, corpse on the road into the fourth small valley hamlet they'd been through. At least that would have ended the uncertainty. Although its nakedness would have raised other questions. Nevertheless, Onatas had discounted it after a few nervous glances, but not before he had turned a worrying shade of grey from what Aesara suspected was the apprentice’s first experience of a dead body.
They'd slowly looped back round to the Stead's side of the battle, Aesara occasionally grabbing hold of an old soldier acquaintance to ask after Siro. But none had heard or seen anything and all had their minds on the imminent battle. The final manoeuvres had begun, the Stead positioning most of his forces, including his elite guard, just below the tree line of a forested hill, opposite where he intended to break the Drakhan lines on a larger hill which rose up the other side of an expanse of farmland which gave clear lines of sight and generally flat surfaces. Stead wanted to close the distance down quickly, favouring close quarters battle where his strength of numbers would tell. It was what Aesara would have done, but that was of little surprise as she herself had served in the Stead's elite guard what seemed like a lifetime ago, before growing weary of what had become a near constant cycle of warfare, waxing and waning across the blighted lands. This time it looked like being different, a complete victory at hand. Aesara had a small pang of regret that she wouldn't be in the final attack, but shrugged it off as a washed up old soldier pining for their glory days.
She led Onatas through the hotch-potch community of the followers camp. It was located just down a rough and muddy cart track to the neat rows of soldiers tents, standing to attention much like their owners were up on the hill. It was quiet, most of the followers kept to themselves, a collection of various entrepreneurial business people – blacksmiths, weapons vendors and prostitutes the most numerous – as well as nervous looking family members that chose to follow their husbands and wives rather than hold up in a distant home, anxiously waiting for news of a loved one. Few wished to talk to Aesara, so she planned one last stop. A rough wooden sign hung outside the patchwork tent.
Tetley's Inebriation Emporium.
Aesara pushed through the canvas opening, a gust of wind and some leaves accompanying them into the drinking tent. Onatas excitedly looked round; he wasn't a frequent visitor to such establishments and was eager to take it all in. Not that there was much to take in, a ramshackle yet sparse collection of both furniture and clientèle. For her part Aesara headed straight for the squat pyramid of barrels that signified the bar, catching the old barman's eye and asking what he had on tap. Onatas joined her a few moments later.
“Quiet” the apprentice stated
“Always an odd atmosphere on the day of battle” replied Aesara, eyeing with some suspicion the dark brown liquid the barman was pouring her.
“You miss the front line?” Onatas queried, settling onto a stool which rocked to one side forcing him to put a foot down to steady himself. He looked down and tutted as Aesara replied.
“Not a single bit” the barman passed her the first mug and began to pour a second. Aesara took a tentative sip, then a longer draft.
“Damn peaceniks” muttered the barman.
“Excuse me?” Aesara raised an eyebrow from behind her mug
“Nuffin” he replied, gruffly
“You think me afraid of the fight?” the raised eyebrow remained in place
“I think there be a few too many healthy soldiers in 'er hiding from glory, t'day of all days”
“ANOTHER!” the voice cut through the tension building between Aeasra and the barman. Both of them turned towards the source of the barked demand. The barman's face hardened, Aesara's face dropped.
“What is it?” asked Onatas looking between Aesara and the figure in the opposite corner holding an empty mug in the air.
“Like the man says” Aesara nodded at the barman “Too many people hiding from the fight”. She drained her mug, rose from the stool and strode across the tent.
Pyrrho hadn't like the way the barman had been looking at him, so he'd turned his chair away. This meant he only really had Volk's snoring form to look at for entertainment in this corner of the tent, but that was still preferable to the barman's sneer. He would have taken his business elsewhere, but that just seemed like too much effort. He'd settle for giving the barman a surly attitude. That would show him.
“ANOTHER” he yelled again, slurring slightly. His arm was getting tired from holding the mug aloft, but he heard the muffled clump of approaching footsteps; further refreshment was imminent. The clump of the footsteps didn't sound like the barman, though. Good. Meant that the waiting staff were coming on shift, someone hopefully more engaging than Volk to talk to.
Pyrrho frowned. Did that clumping footstep sound slightly lopsided? Was the server limping? It sounded like one foot was heavier than the other. It sounded almost familiar. Pyrrho's eyes widened in alarm.
“Still not learnt your manners?” Aesara asked from behind him. Pyrrho turned slowly.
“Why hello, dearest sister” he attempted a grin, but it didn't really take. Aesara sneered, worse than the barman had yet managed.
“Unlike you to be so close to the front line” she rested her hands on her hips, looking down on her younger brother.
“I could say the same thing. Heard you couldn't take it any more, retired to the countryside” Pyrrho lent back on the rickety wooded chair, attempting to play it cool, but feeling no where near.
“Big words when you lack your henchmen” she nodded at Volk, then glanced around briefly for sign of any others.
“And you have taken on a new bodyguard I see” Pyrrho smirked as he nodded towards Onatas, lurking at Aesara's shoulder, looking even more awkward than usual.
Aesara ignored the jibe “What are you doing here” hands went from hips to cross in front of her
“Attempting to drink my self into oblivion. But it is proving alarmingly difficult to get service in a near empty bar” a sideways glance at the barman, himself far too absorbed in the brewing confrontation to move towards the brew in a barrel.
“You could try to get a drink on the Drakhan side, I'd always thought you were more comfortable there anyway”
“Funny you say that, Sara” Pyrrho's use of the short form of her name caused Aesara to bristle, and Onatas to shrink back, anticipating an imminent explosion of anger from the overseer. Pyrrho continued regardless, “don't you think it peculiar how well the honourable Senator Stead has progressed since you stomped away from his guard?”
“You question my honour?”
“You questioned mine first”
“That is because you are inherently dishonourable”
“You flatter me” Pyrrho smirked, although it still didn't feel quite comfortable to him
“I did not mean to” Aesara took an uninvited seat “but you may have some use to me for once, so considered yourself flattered for that”
“I am always eager to help you, sis, you know that”
“I'm looking for someone”
“A long lost brother? I might be able to help there”
“No, someone actually worth finding” Aesara leant forward “a resource locator from the university”
“A scavenger from your travelling circus? Why would I know about that?” an uneasy feeling sprouted in the pit of Pyrrho's stomach all the same
“You wouldn't. But I know of your work. Skulking in the shadows, poking at the flabby sides of the enemy. You see things, you hear things”
“That is true. But the battlefield is large, and I am but small” Pyrrho shrugged
“His name was Siro, about as tall as him” a nod at Onatas who was still nervously standing at the side of the table, “dark hair, blue eyes, small scar on the right of his forehead. He was, well, raw. Could have run across an enemy and panicked”
Pyrrho reddened “How would, er, you describe him to someone that hadn't seen him at his full height, or, you know, had a good look at his head? I mean face” how did she get under his skin like this? Always been the same; Pyrrho had withstood the worst torture the Drakhan, or anyone, could throw at him, but his big dumb lanky sister could have him giving the game away in seconds.
“Why must you always be so frustratingly evasive?” Aesara wondered out loud
“Your natural charm brings it out in me” Pyrrho squirmed
“Please sir, if you know anything at all I would be most grateful” Onatas decided that now was the time to try and break the building tension.
“I don't believe I've had the honour of introduction” Pyrrho wouldn't admit it, but he was glad that Sara's lackey had decided to speak up at the current juncture.
“I am Onatas, an appreciate from the university. And you would be?” He stuck out a hand, quivering slightly. Pyrrho left it just a second too long for what you could call a comfortable pause, but took the proffered hand eventually. Aesara sneered at the limpness of the shake from the sidelines, neither of the parties involved looking exactly like this is how they intended the introduction to go.
“Pyrrho. Rogue, spy, thief, infiltrator, errant brother. Take your pick” he effected a bow, but the smoothness of the move was lost when he banged into the table, causing Volk to stir.
“What? Who? I beg thee Previous to leave me be. Take Pyrrho!” the large man mumbled as he awakened. Before looking sheepishly at his assembled audience “Er, how'd do” he recovered to utter nervously.
“And this is my ever so loyal man at arms, Volk” Pyrrho scowled across the table “Who would never willingly give me up to The Previous without a fight, I'm sure” arms folded across his chest. Pyrrho paused for a second before continuing, this time directed at his ample sized ally, “I was just saying to my dear sister and her, er, friend, that we hadn't had sight nor sound of a young lost scavenger in recent days”
“Young scavenger? Er no sir, I mean ma'am, and er, her little sir too” Volk squirmed as he spoke, causing Aesara's frown to deepen even further. She would have probed were it not for a fresh interruption. The group turned in unison as the tent entrance erupted open and in charged a young man of perhaps 13 or 14.
“Uncle Tetley, uncle Tetely” the boy yelled towards the bar “It happens, the Stead makes his charge. Victory is at hand!”
The drinking tent, already sparsely populated, emptied further as its mixed bag of customers ran or limped out. Within seconds the rickety table at the far corner was the only one left. Pyrrho spotted an opportunity to redirect what had become a troubling conversation.
“What say we go marvel in the Stead's victory? I'm not sure we've ever stood side by side on a day of conflict before Sara”
“I'm sure I'd be dead If we did, I could never imagine you holding firm against a Drakhan charge”
“Well it matters not, it is the Stead doing the charging today” he stood “And I for one would like to witness the culmination of what has been at times a desperately hard campaign”
Aesara considered another prickly reply, but she paused, Pyrrho did at least have a point, this interminable conflict had dragged on for what felt like generations. “Ok” she replied, herself also standing “I know a good vantage point to view the charge from” she strode towards the entrance way, Onatas trailing in her wake.
Volk just stared in alarm at Pyrrho who smiled before saying, “she smells fear big man, at least try not to make it so easy for her”
“Sorry Pyrrho. But do you think they mean the same scavenger that, er, you know...?”
“It would be a horrid coincidence” Pyrrho made a move towards the exit “but one my current luck would dictate is true”
“And if she finds out?”
“I hope you like the appearance of you intestines at close hand”
“Pyrrhoooo, you know I prefer it when you lie to me in dire situations” he trailed after the shorter man
“I did” Pyrrho looked over his shoulder “If I was being brutally honest I'd have asked if you like the taste of your intestines at close hand”