They’d had to drag Volk there.
He couldn’t fight them off in his current state, but even in peaceful protest he took some moving. Especially with Niv and Onatas loathe to help in an endeavour neither was in favour of. However, the arguments put across by Aesara and Pyrrho, coupled with a range of unpleasant sounding threats, eventually saw the small group ensconced in the bowels of The Previous dwelling.
Volk had eventually been settled in one of the upper rear rooms. He’d insisted on having most of their meagre supplies of candles lit around him to ward off the sprites. However, after much griping, coupled with a rather convincing exorcism from Pyrrho and a swig or two from Niv’s special brew flask, the big man had drifted off into a deep sleep – something Onatas had insisted was the best medicine currently available to them.
The apprentice and Niv had then gone to sit in the front room with the fractured hole in the wall, putting a desire for daylight ahead of any repulsion at the level of bird dirt encrusted on all of its surfaces. Aesara had protested to start with, given that they could be seen from outside. However, the room was big enough for them to stay out of sight towards the back of it, while still enjoying the daylight that Niv claimed was needed to ward off The Previous sprites.
This left Pyrrho and Aesara. They moved down to the ground floor and picked their way to the back of the building using a lone candle that they’d managed to stop Volk from grabbing. Once settled down into positions of at least too much discomfort, Pyrrho had extinguished the flame in order to conserve at least a small part of their supply.
The darkness also made it easier for him to broach some difficult subjects with his sister.
"The Drakhan didn't come up with that stuff themselves" he said
"I know" Aesara replied from over to his right
"So who did? "
"I suspect you have the same suspicions as I do"
"Quite possibly. But the tech they had was orders of magnitude from what we saw"
"What we saw was a long time ago. When there was a we"
Silence fell between them, each lost in thoughts of their childhood together.
"We made a good team back then" Pyrrho eventually mused
"Forged by necessity" Aesara was dismissive
"It was more than that, sister"
"Blood ties meant little back then "
" Aesara... " Pyrrho began
" Quiet Pyrrho, now is not the time for debating the merits of our childhood together. " Aesara interupted, frustrated in tone, but sad rather than angry. Silence returned, eventually broken by the sporadic wheeze of Pyrrho's quiet snoring.
And Aesara's crying.
At dusk the group reconvened in the entrance way of the building. Volk was moving gingerly, but under his own power. The others looked a mix of tired and nervous. Pyrrho led them out into the moonlight, always a few metres ahead, checking for potential trouble then signalling the others to follow. Niv had instinctively fallen to the rear of the group, watching behind them. Volk and Onatas moved together, the apprentice occasionally offering a hand of support, more a gesture than any realistic prospect of him supporting the much bigger man's weight.
This left Aesara alone, an isolation she was glad for. Sleep had been impossible to grab at the Previous dwelling. Her mind a turmoil of thoughts and worry that refused to be diminished by tiredness from the recent exertions. The brief talk with Pyrrho coupled with the pitch black of the room also brought back a litany of painful memories. She knew that she needed to compose herself for the likely challenges ahead, but that was proving difficult, so she was glad to be walking alone now.
A couple of hours later they crested a small rise, the group bunching back up underneath a sagging willow tree. Pyrrho was intently peering ahead as Aesara came up beside him.
“Trouble?” she asked quietly
“That look like torchlight on the horizon to you?” he indicated a spot just below the horizon between starlit sky and dark countryside.
Aesara peered into the gloom, squinting, then replied “Yes, just then, behind, what is that? A building?”
“The redoubt was to be an old Elder farm building”
“That could well be it then. Well navigated” although the praise was half hearted.
“Thanks” the reply was equally unfeeling
“Something wrong?” Aesara looked at her brother
“We should have encountered the Steed's sentries by now, don't you think?”
“We're still a way away” Aesara mused, although was failing to convince herself, “but the Steed was always so careful”
“So the torchlight could be someone else?”
“That is my fear” Pyrrho turned and sat on the hard ground. He produced a stick of dried meat from a fold in his cloak, snapped it in two and held half out to his sister. Aesara took it tentatively and sat next to him.
“We need to know, one way or another” Aesara began to gnaw on the stick, its smoky flavour a welcome distraction.
“I will press on, but will not be able to get there and back before dawn”
“Which leaves the rest of us exposed” Aesara completed her brother's train of thought
“So we continue to move together”
Aesara nodded in response, a hand moving unconsciously to an axe on her belt.
With the others briefed on the potential danger that lay ahead, the small group once again moved off into the night, but this time without any murmur of chatter. Progress was even slower than previously, now under Pyrrho's extra caution. More than once he appeared to disappear, only to near-silently jump down from a nearby tree having attempted to gain a better view.
A while later he signalled the others to stop. Crouching behind a small thicket he beckoned Aesara and Niv to join him.
“Trouble” Pyrrho whispered to the women, before indicating over the thicket, “there's a clearing, two soldiers posted”
“Drakhan?” Niv asked, hand reaching to her club
“Could be, I don't recognise the uniforms”
Aesara said nothing, instead dropping to a crawl and edging forward. She wanted to see for herself.
“Reckon we should just go at 'em anyway?” Niv would never be called subtle.
“Let's see what Sara makes of it” Pyrrho hated himself for bowing to his sister's judgement, but her tactical appraisal would be important here. He looked back to the thicket, to see if Aesara had come back. No sign. Just the elongated divot in the soft earth that her false leg had left behind as she crawled.
Harsh voices yelled, then a clash of metal sang out
For a split second Pyrrho and Niv stared at each other in wide eyed alarm. For once it was the usually cautious Pyrrho who then made the first move to sprint into battle, a slightly confused Niv trailing in his wake.
On the other side of the ticket Aesara was locked in a close grip with one of the soldiers, the weapons on their hips banging together as they struggled. Pyrrho, daggers in hand, checked his stride at the sight. Niv bustled past him, targeting the remaining soldier, who looked surprised, then horrified, then in pain as she struck him a fearsome blow to the abdomen with her club. Niv then raised her weapon high over the crumpled soldier for a finishing blow.
“NIV, STOP” cried Pyrrho.
Meanwhile Aesara and the first soldier had disentangled themselves, not from a life and death struggle as Pyrrho had first thought.
But rather from a hug.
“What the...?” the first soldier began.
“Nex, please let me introduce you to my long lost brother, Pyrrho” Aesara was smirking, one arm still draped round the shoulder of the soldier “and his lovely assistant, Niv” she indicated the confused looking infiltrator, club still raised in the air.
“Er, hello” said the first soldier. The second just whimpered from his position on the ground.
“Pyrrho” said Aesara “this is Nex, a good friend of mine from the Steed's guard” she nodded at the soldier, who stood nearly as tall as Aesara, his uniform tattered and bloody; unrecognisable as the Steed's elite force.
“My pleasure” Pyrrho bowed, although a little uncertainly.
“The Steed lives” Aesara announced excitedly “he'd held back from the initial attack”
“How so?” puzzled Pyrrho; the Steed was well known for being at the forefront of any attacks he ordered
“Said he'd had a strange visitation the night before” Nex replied “some little gremlin came to warn him of a trap”
It was Pyrrho's turn to smile
“So who did lead the attack?” Aesara wondered
“The Steed gave the honour to his brother-in-law, Enix” said Nex
Pyrrho's smile broke into a laugh “The Steed hated Enix, always has, ever since his sister left the household for him” then more serious thoughts intervened “So the Steed maintains his guard?”
Nex's face dropped a little “Barely, we've been skirmishing with the Drakhan this past day. Taken heavy losses. The Drakhan they have, well, dark magics”
“We've seen” said Aesara, sombrely “one of our party was injured by some of it”
“He can count himself lucky to still be alive to tell the tale” replied Nex “We've had many units slaughtered in the face of it. Others have routed. The Steed barely has three companies left under his command, including the guard”
“Hence the lack of sentries further afield” Pyrrho realised
“We've done the best we can to secure the perimeter while at the same time prepare for the conflict to come” Nex
“The Drakhan know you are here?” Aesara asked
“A messenger with their surrender terms visited not this hour past. To be honest, when you came barrelling out of the bushes I wondered if it was the start of an attack”
“Then you need to work on your defensive stance” Aesara chided.
“Not been the same without you to keep us in shape” Nex looked down at his feet
“We need to see the Steed” Pyrrho interrupted Nex's introspection
“And get Volk to the medical facility” Aesara added
“Maybe this fella too” Niv nodded at the still crumpled soldier “I though the Steed's guard were tougher than this, mind”
“Stanley weren't ever supposed to be in the guard” Nex said as he wondered over to his fallen comrade. “He was a standard bearer in a company that fled, the only one to stay. So the Steed promoted him” Nex grabbed Stanley's arm and levered him upright.
“The Steed often valued loyalty over ability” Aesara's mood darkened slightly, trepidation over the upcoming meeting with her former leader building.
It took another half an hour for the group, now accompanied by the two soldiers, to wind their way to the derelict farm buildings that now served as Senator Steed's high command. It was a pitiful sight. Injured soldiers lay where ever space could be found in a small courtyard, leaving those still on their feet to pick a path among them. Harried looking medics flittered around, attempting to treat those hurt as best they could.
Once they had managed to settle Volk and Stanley in a small patch of open ground against an old crumbling stone wall, Onatas set off to try and locate some supplies and medical advice. The others followed Hex towards a small building at the edge of the courtyard. Inside sporadic candles and torches played a flickering light over a press of people, some sleeping, some eating what meagre rations could be found, but most talking agitatedly. Hex pushed a way through the press of people and to a rickety stair case at the back of the building.
Upstairs was much less crowded, just a few men and women standing about a small mezzanine landing. A ragged hole had been torn in the roof, surrounded by ancient charred timbers that spoke of a long dead fire. Next to the gap was a battered looking old trestle table. Peering over the table stood a man with his back to them. Short grey hair could be made out in the torchlight, slender shoulders and a thin body, all encased in a battered looking chain-mail.
“Senator Steed” Hex said timidly. The man at the table did not acknowledge him.
“Senator Steed” Aesara spoke more forthrightly, even if she did not feel it. The man at the table stretched to stand at his full height, but did not turn round.
“The tide of war washes up all kinds of detritus” the Steed stated
“And some gremlins” Pyrrho spoke up
“Goodness me” said the Steed, still without turning “It seems that the spawn of The Previous are in full strength this night. Have you come to gloat at my predicament?”
“The Previous be dammed” Aesara had always disliked the Steed's tolerance for the camp rumours about her mysterious background. It didn't help that Pyrrho would play up to it. “We are here to offer our assistance”
“The warrior and the spy, when what I need is a good clerk” the Steed turned to them, thick and bushy eyebrows clamped into a harsh frown. In his hand was grasped a single sheet of paper, which he thrust above him. “As it seems all of my aides” a disparaging glance around the few others on the landing “have suddenly lost the ability to read. An unfortunate turn of events when the letter at hand could have such serious implications”
“The Drakhan's terms?” Aesara stepped forward “may I have a look?”
“Certainly” the Steed handed over the document “perhaps the time spent hiding at the university has imparted in you a new found academic ability?”
Aesara frowned, partially at the Steed's rebuke, but more so at the contents of the Drakhan letter. She only had a limited grasp of writings, certainly, but usually enough to make out the meaning. However, this was like nothing she had seen before. The words seemed oddly curtailed, some mixed with numbers, others with odd symbols.
“I, er...” she was about to admit her ignorance, when a clumping up the stairs interrupted.
Onatas strode in, look of anger on his face. “Senator Steed, I must make a formal complaint about your head matron, she...” he stopped when he became aware that everyone in the room was staring at him. “I, er, am interrupting, I see” his vitriol subsiding and with it his confidence born from anger.
“Is Volk ok?” Aesara was probably the only glad of the interruption, she used the opportunity to lower the Drakhan letter
“He would be if I could use at least some of the medical supplies here. But when I just tried to get a fresh bandage, the matron physically and verbally assaulted me! She used words that were very unbecoming of a medical professional”
The Steed laughed, grateful for a brief interlude of levity. “Old Sams certainly has a tongue on her, especially if faced by a stranger in her precious stores. Who are you anyway?” the laughing subsided, frown returning.
“This is Onatas” said Aesara “an apprentice from the university”
“Sir” Onatas bowed briefly
“An apprentice you say. Can he read better than you?” Senator Steed raised an enquiring eyebrow. Aesara scowled, but handed the paper over to Onatas.
“It's from the Drakhan” Onatas was wide eyed as he looked at the contents,
“We had established that, what with it being delivered by a Drakhan outrider” Steed answered impatiently
“They make a number of demands”
“That too we were aware of”
"It is written in an odd language. A mixture of Elder and Previous." Onatas looked up, then cowered slightly under the impatient gaze of Senator Steed "but I shall do my best to translate it" the apprentice continued, "they demand your personal surrender Senator Steed” Onatas risked another tentative glance up. The Steed just scowled.
“If you act as their hostage they will let your force disperse unhindered, provided they give up their weapons”
“Generous terms” mused Pyrrho
“There is more” replied Onatas “Any soldier that wishes to serve, as the letter puts it, the Drakhan's interests, will enter into paid service with immediate effect. They give 12 hours to reach a decision” Onatas finished reading the letter.
“They invite treason?” Steed was stunned
“They have a country to conquer, that needs manpower” Aesara had spotted the perverse logic in the Drakhan's demands.
“Fight to your doom, run away, turn traitor. No option is appealing” Pyrrho said.
“I though the latter two would suit you, my little gremlin” Steed had a similar opinion of Pyrrho as Aesara, one of their few shared beliefs.
“I would not be here now if either was my intention” Pyrrho usually shrugged off the barbs, but the current situation magnified the stress.
“Maybe” Steed was uncommitted, then turned back to the table before saying “But it seems my options are even more limited”
“You will fight on?” Aesara asked
“Not in vain as it would surely be. And not at the cost of even more of my soldiers”
“Senator Steed...” Aesara was shocked; another of their few shared opinions was on not backing down.
“Do not Senator me Aesara. Perhaps I should have retired when you did after all” he rest his knuckles on the table, which creaked in response. “Having seen what the Drakhan are capable of, it would seem prudent to take them up on an offer that would save further bloodshed”
“You trust their word?”
“I trust their ability to destroy all of us tomorrow if I do not”
“We can counter-attack” Aesara's plea felt limp even as she uttered it
“And have them remove the ground from under us once more?” the Steed turned back to them, held Aesara's gaze “No, Aesara, this will not be ended by a front on attack. I am finished, but you can fight on more cleverly than a simple Steed was ever capable of” a rare smile “Wasn't that part of the reason you left my company in any case?”
“I...I was tired of the cycle of bloodshed” Aesara couldn't return the gaze and looked down.
“Well now I have it in my power to end it”