“Put him down Volk” Pyrrho remonstrated
“You ‘erd what he called me”
“And I am sure he is very sorry, but we need to get moving”
“You promise that half the supplies stay here?”
“And we get to send the worst o’the sick into town?”
“Cos I made some promises”
“I assure you, the deal is done. The supplies stay, the sick go. Put him down”
Volk dropped the Fortunestone palace guard on his head. Two of his colleagues promptly dragged him away, moving quickly to stay out of Volk’s reach. Some of the surrounding crowd grumbled that there hadn’t been more of a show, but they dispersed all the same.
“Where we goin’ then? Volk asked, as he watched the guards make haste to assist in the evacuation of the refugee hospital towards the town gates.
“We are going to find out what secrets the Drakhan have uncovered” Pyrrho also looked back towards the town, but more out of relief to have escaped Virius’ threat to throw him off the wall.
“Does the ‘we’ include that scary lookin’ woman over there?” the big man nodded over to where Marcia stood, arms folded impatiently.
“I can hear you” she replied “And yes it does include me”
“Can’t wait” muttered Volk
“Excellent” Pyrrho chose to ignore his ally’s sarcasm “Then with this tricky situation negotiated, we can make our way” he was not going to be sad to see Fortunestone recede behind them.
The farmer, whose cart they had arrived in, had elected to stay in proximity to the town – one of his sons was among the few sickly refugees permitted entrance – but the former Steed loyalists were happy for an excuse to leave the huddled masses. As soldiers they were itching for action. Volk’s insurrection had given them a taste and Pyrrho promised them more.
Marcia’s group was similar in number – barley double digits – but were smarter in presentation. Virius had insisted that some of his more dependable guards were there to supervise, the faux drunken included, but Marcia had added one or two handpicked of her own.
The odd collective started to pick their way through the refugee encampment. It was faster progress moving away from Fortunestone than it was getting to the town and so it wasn’t before long that they were on open ground and making decent headway.
Pyrrho and Marcia were at the head of the group leading the way. Both had been vague with their respective parties as to their intended ultimate destination. The troops from Fortunestone were well disciplined enough to not ask questions, where as Pyrrho’s motley assortment were just glad to be getting away from the disease infested camp. Marcia had accepted Pyrrho’s desire to go via the hamlet he was to meet Aesara at – it didn’t require a significant detour and having an extra pair of hands would be welcome. Especially given that extra pair of hands belonged to a formidable warrior.
The route agreed and the journey underway the group lapsed into a subdued reverie, each absorbed in their own thoughts. The last few days and weeks had tested all of them, turning lives upside down. A fearsome enemy faced, friends lost. Life was not going to go back to normal any time soon. Old demons were still to be faced, a thought that made Pyrrho in particular wince.
Marcia too had old demons that she needed to face. Pyrrho was one of them. As they wound their way down through a small valley and alongside a tree fringed river she decided it was time to speak up.
“So you did not intend to find me in Fortunestone?” she glanced across at Pyrrho, who without his familiar dark red cloak that he had traded with the doctor in the camp to hide within looked younger, less mysterious.
“I would not have known what to say if I had” he replied
“You were not short of words in the cell”
“That concerned my freedom, or lack there of”
“So it would have been different had we met on equal terms”
Pyrrho sniffed “Like now” he repeated, paused, then said “I find myself unsure what to say to you”
“Sorry is not a big enough word to encompass all of my regrets” he was looking down at his feet as they walked, the gentle gurgling of the river preventing the group behind them from overhearing. Pyrrho would not wish to expose his deeper feelings any more than could be avoided. A life in the shadows had taught him that the hard way. “But I was not the only one at fault”
“We both made mistakes. It was how you reacted to mine that was the cruel part”
“I was young, dumb, and over estimated my abilities at subterfuge”
“And under estimated mine”
They returned to their own thoughts for a little while as the lane climbed back out of the valley and into open farmland, much of which was starting to look overgrown in the absence of the famers to tend to it. It would be a long and hungry winter for many, perhaps the mostly deadly cost of the recent war.
“We had been a good team” it was Marcia that again broke the silence.
“But we were reaching the limits of what Fortunestone’s underworld could offer us”
“So you chose to expand your horizons” Marcia said with an exuberant flourish
“And by the looks of it, you chose to explore the limits of Fortunestone’s overworld” Pyrrho smiled “How is it mixing among the elite of the richest town in the seven counties?”
“Not so much mixing among as ruling above”
“That would sound big headed coming from another” Pyrrho’s smile remained intact.
“But from me?”
“Scarily believable. Your choice of Virius as puppet makes sense, he was always more interested in the vestiges of power than the responsibilities. But he is unpredictable, makes him dangerous”
“Makes him interesting”
“So it was you that slammed the doors of Fortunestone shut then?” the smile was giving way to more of a frown.
“Were I the absolute leader, things would have been, how can I put it, more effectively managed. But that position is still a little way away. No, for now, it takes a balance of competing agendas”
“Virius’ agenda to release the fury of his guards on the unarmed masses versus yours to prolong the peace”
“But at the cost of being hemmed in, or starved out, while the Drakhan march on”
“Unless we can do something on that front”
“Hence you being here now. To protect your position in Fortunestone. And here I was thinking it was because of the promise of my company” the smile returned, the friendly jostling between them more like old times.
“Protect and promote my position. When we return..”
“When we return it might just be time for Virius to consider retirement”
“And for you to step out of the shadows. You fancy the limelight?”
“It will have its advantages. All sorts of rats lurk in the shadows” she gave him a playful nudge “But a lot remains to be done first”
“A family reunion for one” Pyrrho pointed to a fork in the road, then led them down the right prong before continuing “I just hope Aesara is making good progress herself”
Aesara was making good progress. The bounds on her wrists definitely felt looser this last hour of grinding them against the rock she’d pocketed during the struggle. If she could work a little more give into the rough rope that dug into her skin then she could start to attack the bindings that attached her to the wide oak pillar in the camp brig. Once free she would, well, she didn’t quite know what she would do. It just needed to be a better plan than before. She need to exert more caution, assess the mood first rather than just go charging in and attempting to expel the Drakhan single-handedly.
She was angry with herself, but more angry with the senior council. The depth of corruption that the Drakhan had been able to yield with promises of new knowledge disgusted her. For decades the university camp had bowed to no one. Their knowledge was to be shared and traded with all sides, for the greater good. Yet here they were now planning for a residency in the Drakhan heartlands. Aesara had seen the impact that the Drakhan’s dark new technology had on the battlefield, but the impact it had on the mind, and egos, of the academics was something more entirely.
If she had been at the camp all along then maybe she could have prevented the creeping influence of the Drakhan. Apparently they had turned up not long after she left on the failed hunt for the lost scavenger. A senior Drakhan delegation came baring gifts of Elder writings and fine wines. The academics were too short-sighted to see the bribery and flattery for what it was. Soon they were within the Drakhan’s grasp, the corruption combining with their academic curiosity to see them prepared to work on whatever abomination of dark technology the Drakhan intended to unleash on the seven counties next.
Aesara had explained this at great volume to the stunned council the morning after her return to camp. But even there the Drakhan influence was strong, a whisper here, a shared joke there. Aesara had demanded that they leave the council marquee, but the Pro-Vice Chancellor had smarmily informed her that they were “all friends here”. Her case had not been helped by her bedraggled appearance, or the sore heads of the council people after the hard night of celebrations. They just wanted an easy life. It had been all too easy for the Drakhan, in cahoots with Celcus, to outmanoeuvre her protestations, present her as overly emotional at the prospect of the superior Drakhan protection reducing the need for a simple camp overseer.
It had been all too easy to present her as more than emotional, rather downright unstable, when she had sought to expel the Drakhan herself by force. In another situation Aesara might have drawn some comfort that it eventually took seven heavily armed Drakhan to subdue her, but here in the lonely brig she just cursed herself again for being so easily played by her opponents.
Pyrrho would not have made such a tactical mistake. It was funny how in the past fifteen years she had barely considered her brother at all. But in the few days since their temporary reunion, he was a near constant presence in her thoughts. That slippery little slug was so much more at home surrounded in the intrigue that Aesara currently found herself drowning in. What would Pyrrho do now? She would have kicked herself for having such a weak-minded thought if she was able to move her legs, bound together as they were currently. Aesara struggled more to free herself, the strong new desire to kick herself combined with her need to be free, to be fighting the university’s move to the Drakhan homelands.
Then she realised what Pyrrho would do.
Why fight it when they are taking her to where she needs to be anyway? Struggling would only see the noose around her tighten. But if she could convince the council of her willingness to cooperate, then they’d take her right to the centre of the conspiracy, free reign to get to the bottom of the ever darkening mystery. Inner Pyrrho was a genius, not that Aesara would ever admit such a thing. She rest her head back against the oak pillar. And laughed.
“Pssst, Aesara, are you ok?”
The familiar voice interrupted her merriment and made Aesara’s head snap round “Onatas? That you?” she asked, as she could not see the questioner as the voice came from the entrance of the brig behind her.
“Uh-huh. Was that you laughing? What’s going on?”
“Get round her where I can see you” she instructed
“I don’t have long. Told the guard I needed to give you her medicine” he moved round in front of her, attempted to mop her brow before a savage look from Aesara saw him take a step back.
“What’s going on out there?” she urged
“They’re packing the camp up, we move out tonight”
“Any indication what they want to do with me?”
“Not sure. The council’s been in session all day” Onatas produced a water flask and held it to Aesara’s lips. She drank greedily.
“You need to tell them” she gasped
“I’ll cooperate. Whatever they want. I need to stay with the camp”
“That not what you were yelling last night, I could hear you from outside the camp!” Onatas next produced a small cut of meat, Aesara greedily wolfing it down.
“I’ve had time to think. I want to help with the move”
“Are you feeling ok?” Onatas looked concerned “People are saying you lost your mind”
“Celcus is happy to spread such a rumour” Aesara nearly let her new positive disposition slip, but just about held on “I’m ok Onatas, just tired. It was a long journey, you should know.”
“I do” he agreed
“Then you’ll explain to them?”
“I’ll try” he said “but now I’ve got to go” and with that Onatas was gone. New, clean robes swishing as he moved out the brig.
Aesara let a long breath escape, leaning her head back once again. Was Onatas capable of getting her message across? The apprentice was still wet behind the ears, but he had proved himself to be of hidden resilience during their recent time together. Surprisingly hardy in numerous instances.
Her hands fidgeted involuntarily as she tried to sleep, eager to be free. If she’d kept on sawing at the bounds then she’d have been free by now. Free from the ropes, but not free from the mystery, however. She attempted to convince herself that a wider freedom was at hand. Trust in Onatas, trust in whatever influence her memory still carried in the council. It was hard to sit back and let go for a woman of Aesara’s intensity. Sleep was impossible. Idle hands started picking at their restraints, almost involuntarily. Almost.
Wind howled round the brig tent, rain spat against the canvas. An occasional guard would pop his or her head in, placate themselves that she was still under rope and knot then disappear back to their warm fire as soon as possible.
Aesara’s head nodded forward as the temptation of sleep licked at her heavy eye lids, although the deeper anger still kept her awake. A new figure entered the brig. The light from the lamp at the door cast him in silhouette. Too tall and slim for Onatas, one free arm, the other missing. No, Aesara corrected herself, the other arm was in a sling. The Drakhan horse commander crouched down in front of her. Snarl on his face, but otherwise silent.
“Did you hitch-hike back then?” Aesara could not resist the chance to provoke.
The Drakhan smack her fall handed across the face, snapping her head right. She tasted blood inside her cheek.
“Big man when your opponent is bound tight. How about you cut me free and we try that again?” she spat a glob of blood onto his booted foot.
“Seven years I trained my dog, four years learning horse-faring” he seethed
“You do look a bit slow, it has to be said”
The next slap snapped her head back to the left
“My commander says you are crazy, but I don’t believe her. I think you are wilfully vindictive. You see nothing past your own self interest, whatever the cost.”
“I should hire you as my biographer”
“I would rather write your epitaph”
The shouted instruction caused the Drakhan to stand up and take a pace away from Aesara “Pro-vice chancellor” he said to the new figure in the room “I was just, er, talking with your overseer”
“We tend to talk with our mouths at the university, perhaps the Drakhan have a differing custom?” Celcus arched an eyebrow, scrutinising the young man before him. Aesara couldn’t help but smile in the background. She loathed the pro-vice chancellor, but would begrudgingly admit his talents at oration and intimidation.
“She goaded me, sir” the Drakhan replied
“A particular talent of our former overseer, it has to be said” Celsus’ emphasis on the word “former” was accompanied by a quick glance at Aesara. She was not the only one adept at goading. “However, as much as one might like, taking a swipe when she is unable to protect herself does not demonstrate the high standards of Drakhan honour you commander was telling me about just last night over a sumptuous bottle of red”
“No sir” he looked at his feet, any thoughts of further excuses forgotten.
“Then your business here is done. I am sure you are needed elsewhere to help with the camp’s imminent departure”
“Perhaps go feed your horse” Aesara’s suggestion was not gratefully received, the Drakhan hesitating, staring at her with hate filled eyes
“I believe I have already said that is enough, Aesara” then Celcus dismissed the Drakhan with a nod of his head.
“Lucky you came when you did” Aesara remarked as the canvas entrance swished closed.
“He certainly wished you harm” Celcus pondered
“No. Lucky for him” Aesara brought her previously bound hands round from behind her back, tattered ropes hanging off her wrists, brutal looking stone held tightly in her right hand. “There is only so much provocation I can take. I could have caved in his skull as I did that beast of his”
“I am amazed you resisted such temptation for as long as you did. Perhaps because you were doing much of the provocation?”
“Believe it or not, I have calmed down” she started picking at the ropes that still held her body fast to the oak pillar. Celcus took a step back on noticing.
“So a young apprentice tells me. Speaks very highly of you” Celcus began to pace a little, but well out of the reach of Aesara.
“Onatas understands that I only want what is best for the university”
“As do we all on the council. This decision was not taken lightly you know”
“But you have not seen what I have seen. The Drakhan are using this new technology for dark means”
“They are using it to stop a war that has plagued our lands for decades. With peace at hand we can properly catalogue the Elder learnings once and for all. We stand at the cusp of a new age Aesara, and the university will be at the forefront” Celcus spoke with passion, hands and arms dancing around in exposition.
“And what secrets you uncover will go completely to the Drakhan. The university was founded on the principle of sharing knowledge”
“Sharing knowledge with those that desire it. You forget that your mentor, Steed, was no friend of the university. He was never interested in our work, felt the young men and women studying in the archives should be out marching in his armies”
“You will not hear me claim that the Steed had no faults”
“And his fear of new knowledge has cost him dearly. Do not make the same mistake Aesara” Celcus’ tone had softened as he came to stand in front of her. He paused for a response, and when he got done, continued. “Onatas says you wish to stay with the camp”
“I do” her voice was low, uncertain.
“You can not continue as overseer, you understand”
“You trust our security entirely to the Drakhan?”
“I am not an idiot Aesara. No, we will maintain our own network of sentries, but the Drakhan high commander will not countenance you remaining in charge of it. Not after your previous encounter with him”
“That was a misunderstanding”
“That was unfortunate. But it happened. Malic will become overseer and you will serve him as a sentry”
“You may not be an idiot, but Malic is” Aesara’s anger spiked again, she fought to keep it in check.
“Then it will be easy for someone of your learnings to run rings around him. Do not be so dense as to miss the opportunity I present you Aesara” a glint in his eye caused Aesara to frown in concentration.
“As a mere sentry it will be easier for me to investigate the Drakhan’s ulterior motives” another taste of the intrigue that Pyrrho would be so enjoying in her position.
“If they have any such motives. But in any case, we have reached an understanding?” the eyebrow was arched once more.
“We have” Aesara concurred. An understanding not just of the plan at hand, but a wider understanding of how she had underestimated Celcus, like she had underestimated Onatas. Or Pyrrho. What other preconceptions did she still need to reappraise, she wondered as Celcus strode out of the brig.