The five Drakhan deserters slowed when they saw Aesara clamber on top of The Previous carriage in front of them. She could see them animatedly talking among themselves, but could not make out the words. It mattered not, there mere fact that they were obviously uncertain about her was good enough. She pulled out her elegant metal-ended staff and twirled it whilst she considered her plan of action.
Onatas was right of course – not that she would tell the cowering apprentice – one person taking on five even moderately trained soldiers in a fair fight was the stuff of outlandish legend and no more. But she had no intention of letting it become a fair fight. Set your advantages against their weaknesses a motto she had regularly drilled into her recruits at the camp. In this case, stood on the carriage with a staff almost as tall as she was the advantage was reach. As the Drakhan neared her suspicions as to their armaments had been confirmed. Running away had left them no time to carry spears or bows. Each either a small sword or axe slung from their belts. Fearsome weapons in close combat, but a weakness at distance.
Before it came to combat, however, Aesara intended to use another of her strengths, a lack of heed for childish fears of The Previous, against the Drakhan weakness for superstition. It was a long shot, but would cost her nothing to try.
“GREETINGS WARY TRAVELLERS” she shouted as they came within earshot. “I HAVE BEEN APPOINTED BY OUR PREVIOUS OVERLORDS TO WELCOME YOU TO THEIR REALM” this caused the Drakhan to slow their pace even further as they traded nervous glances. “OUR OVERLORDS ARE IN GENEROUS MOOD. THEY SHALL LET YOU TRAVERSE THEIR MAGNIFICENT SKYWAY FOR JUST THE COST OF A PRAYER IN THEIR HONOUR”, Aeasra was tempted to set the cost of passage at any food they had given that she had only packed for one on leaving the camp and so feeding the two of them was set to be a challenge. However, she wanted to maintain the Previous mystique rather than risk making this sound any more like an elaborate shakedown.
For a few moments she thought her long shot was going to pass off. The group continued to approach, but had moved across the road to give her a wide berth on the carriage. But there was always one that had to make it difficult, whether it was her recruits back at the camp, or the deserters here. In this case a squat young man gave her an appraising glance.
“Why'd a previous sprite take human form as a cripple?” he remarked in a mischievous tone.
Aesara's eyes narrowed, “The Previous take pleasure in all human form”
“Well I'd take pleasure from liberating some of those gems on your fancy leg” he'd stopped around five paces away, his compatriots nervously grouping behind.
“Come join me in The Previous realm and you'll have all the gems you could desire” Aesara kept up the pretence, but could feel this stage of the battle slipping away from her.
“Come join me in the bushes and you'll have all the man that you could desire” a lecherous grin from big mouth was accompanied by a snigger or two from his compatriots.
“You risk my wrath?” staff swung and span in her hands, the silvery ends tracing glimmering arcs in the pale sunlight that filtered through the overcast haze above them.
“Reckon we might just do that. Think you can handle five at once?” the deserters began to spread out, each resting a hand on their chosen weapon.
“Maybe, maybe not” the staff stopped spinning, Aesara crouched into a battle-stance. “Why don't we find out?”
Big mouth smirked, “This gonna be fun” he produced a mid size blade in one hand, and with the other made a brief signal to his fellow Drakhan. They began to encircle her position.
“You try to surround me, to rush my position” Aesara didn't need to interpret the hand signal to recognise the tactic. “But ask yourself, do you trust your fellows to rush at the same time? For I guarantee that the first one to enter my reach will regret it. Any hesitation from your deserter friends will result in your punishment. Do you think those left standing will share their spoils with an injured comrade? Or will they simply throw you off the skyway and keep more for themselves?” some frowns and nervous glances told Aesara that one or two of them could see she made a valid point. It didn't stop the encirclement, but any small seed of doubt in their minds could be exploited.
“Ignore her pleas” said big mouth “And we'll have her gutted within moments”
“Will you lead the charge then, my new friend?” she asked of him, but with only half an eye in his direction. The end of the staff preoccupied most of her concentration. The engraved and polished metal weight at the end was not just ornamental. As well as giving the staff a hefty kick in combat, one of the highly polished faces was angled in such a way that when the staff was held just so, it reflected the scene immediately behind her. The scene that encompassed the approach of the Drakhan. Just a couple more steps she silently urged.
In a near instant Aesara had thrust the staff backwards into the face of the Drakhan at her rear, then straight ahead into the one at the front, before a side swipe into the temple of a third. All three went down. They weren't killing blows, but fighting with a broken nose or smashed teeth and watering eyes was a distinct weakness to her strength with the staff. The three must have made a similar calculation as none made a move to get back up.
Two versus one, much more like the odds Aesara favoured. Big mouth bared his teeth, but had lost his tongue for now. The other deserter, a slight woman little more than a teenager looked fearful. Aesara smiled.
“How does my wrath taste? Sweet as the mead on your hip?” she had spied the flask at big mouth's side “Drop your drink, your weapon, your chainmail and run” she instructed him.
Big mouth looked as if he was weighing up the option, but a yell from Aesara's other side interrupted. The teenager charged, sword thrust out ahead. Aesara had never fully understood why anyone would shout as they charged in to battle, it exerted your breath and gave away your position. In a flick of the staff she parried the first thrust, then brought round the other end to sweep out her attacker's legs. A thrust down into the midriff of the fallen Drakhan drew not a yell, but a winded “omph”.
Aesara span back to the final adversary who had used the doomed charge of his comrade to launch his own attack. Aesara didn't have time to parry with a metal end of her staff, instead the axe blow bit into the wooden staff, levering out a chunk of oak as it came free. Big mouth swung again, this time aimed at her legs as she stood on the carriage, but she was able to jump over the swing. However, the roof of the Previous carriage was uneven, and she lost balance on landing, toppling down onto the road. I was never especially graceful in combat, the inopportune thought making her grimace as she got back to her feet. Big mouth attempted to press home his advantage, sprinting round the carriage to launch a fresh flurry of axe blows on the recovering Aesara.
Her initial advantage in range was now a weakness, she just couldn't put enough distance between herself and Big mouth. The Drakhan was also stronger, the parrying of his repeated blows becoming more laboured. She was forced back to the edge of the skyway, back pressed against a corroded barrier that sagged as she lent on it.
Two more blows and the staff was ripped out of her grip, splinters of wood scattered over her face. Aesara sunk down on to one knee, panting hard, waiting for Big mouth's next move. A final blow.
Big mouth's next move was to suddenly jerk forward as he was shoved from behind, legs smacking into the crouched form of Aesara, before toppling over her, clearing the barrier behind and plummeting to his demise.
“Told you that you couldn't take on five at once” said Onatas, standing where Big mouth had been a moment before. Aesara 's mouth fell open, surprise turning into amusement. She gave a wheezing laugh as she rest her head on the barrier. “Four's not bad though. What should we do with them?” he asked, nodding back towards the carriage where the prone forms still lay, a couple gently whimpering, the others out cold.
“Throw their weapons over the side, then take half their supplies and leave them be” Aesara struggled up on to her feet and plodded over to the damaged staff. It was still in one piece, but the gashes down its length and damage to the ornate carving would take many hours of repair. She sighed.
A few hours later, and a few miles from the scene of their unlikely triumph, Aesara directed them to the mangled skeleton of what appeared to be various Previous carriages almost fused together. It looked especially unnatural, even for The Previous, but would serve as an unconventional shelter for the night ahead. Aesara appraised there supplies while Onatas hunted around the imminent vicinity for windswept branches and other burnable fodder.
While Onatas would never describe camping in the broken bowels of a Previous construction comfortable, the compensation – as Aesara referred to it as – they had taken from the Drakhan proved at least palatable, in particular a small skin of berry wine that they passed between themselves. While the alcohol made Aesara somewhat melancholic, for Onatas it gave him a little more confidence.
“So you think we'll reach the end of the valley tomorrow?” he asked and was greeted by a small nod “and when we get there?”
“We look for signs, maybe ask around once we are back on Senator Stead's line of the battlefield.”
“Do you think we'll find Siro?” Onatas took another sip, the skin almost empty now.
“Hard to say. Maybe he's lying low after the changing battle-lines cut him off. Maybe he was caught by the Drakhan. Maybe kidnapped by Previous” a shrug finished the reply. Aesara took the skin back.
Onatas decided to risk a change of subject. “Aesara, just why are your staff and foot carved so ornately?”
“You grow bold with a drink inside you” she replied, but a small smile indicated he had not caused Aesara any great offence.
“Sorry. It just struck me today. They don't seem to fit with, a, er...”
“Brutish warrior? Reclusive camp overseer? You can't lose your tongue now Onatas!” She laughed, Onatas held up his hands in mock surrender.
“But you understand my curiosity?”
“Noesyness is what I would call it, but yes, I do” she said “there is little great secret though, I just, well, had much spare time as a child. Taught myself wood carving as an escape”, the smile fell from her face.
“It is impressive”
“In the case of my foot it became tactical”
“How so?” Onatas frowned at the thought of the jewel encrusted false leg yielding some hidden advantage on the bloody field of war.
“First let me tell you a camp fire story. It would seem apt after a day's hard slog and pitched battle”
Onatas nodded an eager consent, Aesara continued. “There was once two armies, contesting an island linked to the mainland by two bridges from opposite sides. The island wasn't especially valuable and neither army really had much desire to risk heavy losses to secure it. But neither wanted their enemy to have it either. The first army had crossed the bridge on its side and took the island by surprise one morning. The other decided that it must launch a counter attack from its side. Now the island offered little tactical advantage to the defender, and with other battles to be fought the first army's commander knew he would need to retreat if attacked. The second commander realised this and so expected to retake the island with few casualties as a result. With me so far?”
“Seems like a pretty silly island to fight over, but yes, I follow” Onatas had settle back on a rolled up mat he had taken from one of the Drakhan.
“These days I think we would fight over a puddle, never mind an island” Aesara's tone was disdainful “But I digress. The first commander had to come up with a way to keep the island under his army's control. Then he worked out how.” She paused, squeezing the final drops from the wine skin.
“How?” Onatas had lent forward
“He burnt the bridge behind him”
“It is quite simple, even for a bookish academic” one of Aesara's barbs finally got through and Onatas harrumphed. “You see, with no means of retreat for the first army” she continued, “the second knew they would have to fight for the island, a fight they lacked the stomach to risk”
“So the first army kept the island”
“And that army is, er, like your foot?” Onatas puzzled
“Sort of. It is my burnt bridge, my lack of retreat. I can march at a decent pace, but I'll never be able to run away. The carving and the gems draw their attention. It's amazing how many loose the stomach for the fight when they see I have no means of backing down. ”
“Wish those fellas today had”
“It's a burnt bridge, not an Elder war machine, the psychological effect is only so strong” Aesara tipped the wine skin upside down, not even a drip threatened to fall. She sighed again, then looked curiously at Onatas. He was holding the flask that had been on Big mouth's waist. “How on Earth...?” Onatas simply smiled in return. “I can see I underestimate you, apprentice” she smiled, grabbed the proffered flask and take a deep swig.
“Indeed you do” muttered Onatas.