Onatas scurried between the slow moving wagons and gossiping crowds. Mud spattered up his long cowl as he splashed through a puddle and between two of the small cluster of tents that were still standing. It was a little less crowded here towards the centre of the camp. A few of the labourers stood around, unsure of when they were to dismantle what remained, nervous that the delay was bringing the front line ever closer. Onatas skipped between them, apologising over his shoulder for banging into one of the men.
Outside of the high council tent he stopped to brush down his clothes, the sticky clay mud refusing to give up its grip on the lower reaches of his robes, however. He was about to push through the heavy cloth entrance when something in the mud court his eyes. Now Onatas was no where near what you could call a hunter, but some prey was easier to track than others. The most recent footprints in the soft mud came out and away from the high council, one foot the familar heavy boot favoured by the labourers or sentries, the other that familiar indent of the wooden leg, the foot studded with iron nails for grip.
Onatas frowned, he hadn't expected the council meeting to be over already, but here were Aesara's prints clearly heading away. And the length of stride spoke of the pace she had left at. Aesara didn't flee from anything, but she could certainly storm out with the best. Onatas gulped nervously, before setting off after the footprints. They led him to the western flank of the camp, on the edge of a copse of willow trees that swayed in the uneasy gusts that blew through the remnants of the university camp.
Here stood just one tent, patches of dead grass either side speaking of neighbours recently departed. However, Aesara's large circular tent remained, twin flags surrounding the entrance that Onatas hesitantly approached.
“Overseer Aesara?” he called at the flap of thick cloth that hung over the entrance opening. “It's me, Onatas”
“I know it's you, I could here the snivelling twenty paces away” the voice came from the depths of the tent. The venom of the words was mismatched by the gentle femininity of their tone, something that had unnerved many a person before Onatas.
"M...may I enter? " he stammered
" I'd prefer you just to shout through the canvas" exasperation
"oh, er, OK. Well the thing is.... " Onatas began
"Get in here you dithering simpleton" that unnerving tone again. With a nervous hesitation, Onatas pushed through the entrance sheet.
Inside he was immediately struck by the cloying heat pushed out from a small stove in the corner. Next to the stove was small stool, with a hammock strung above. These were the only indicators of comfort in a tent otherwise dominated by various trestle tables, each covered in an array of papers or weaponry. Onatas gasped, outside of the central archive, a series of tents under constant guard, he had never seem so much paper. It would be worth a small fortune, depending on what knowledge it contained. Onatas shuffled forward to try and get a glance at a small pile of documents on the table nearest to him, but was interrupted before he could satiate his curiosity.
"Well?" Aesara had put down the short blade that she had been polishing and locked her intimidating gaze on Onatas. Standing at full height she loomed over most, green grey eyes looking out from behind a ragged dirty blonde fringe of hair, the rest of which was tied in a tight ponytail that stretched down her back. She would not be described as pretty, not least because anyone making such a comment within earshot risked a beating, but also because of a square jaw and prominent nose. Broad shoulders tapering to a thin waste gave a formidable silhouette.
"I er, well it's, erm"
"You better not be here on the business of that snivelling weasel"
"Which, er, one? " Onatas was aware of numerous people to have fallen foul of Aesara recently.
Aesara snorted a half laugh in response, "Too many to count these days. You know the Pro-vice Chancellor insists we are to take the coast road? Regardless of whether it may cut the Drakhan rear guard or not. He insists that they'll respect the covenant" another snort "but let's see if they are so amenable when Senator Stead smashes them in the coming days" Aesara had instinctively walked towards a trestle in the centre of the tent. Onatas nervously joined her, albeit slightly invigorated by the fact Aesara's immediate anger was directed away from him.
"You, er, anticipate a decisive victory for the iron Stead?"
"Only a simpleton would predict otherwise " she cast a glance at her visitor, "which is why I will need to explain it to you"
Onatas ignored the jibe, concentration absorbed by the contents of the table, on which a the largest single sheet of paper he had ever seen. Almost as wide as the table, and overhanging the top and bottom edges, it was held down in the corners by various small blades.
"What is this?" he asked in awe, but with a hint at resentment at the damage the blades would be doing to the precious Elder paper.
"You have never seen a map? I thought you apprentices were familiar with all of The Elder arts?"
"Our training is indeed broad, but the archives have nothing like this. Where did you get it?" An imprudent question in retrospect, but Aesara seemed inclined to humour him.
"I did not find it, I made it myself." This was said as a matter of fact rather than with any great pride.
"You have the gift of Elder writings? " said an astonished Onatas, " I had assumed you were... er... "
"What?" eyebrow raised "Illiterate like the other camp followers you glorious academics deign to employ" the corner her mouth turned up in a muted smile.
"No, that isn't what, er"
"I have protected the university longer than you have been around to snivel for. Even someone as intellectually unworthy as a mere overseer will pick up a few words along the way. Anyway, maps are more about measuring the real world than being locked away in the archive with your kind" a disdainful glance at Onatas, who again missed the barb, adsorbed as he was in Aesara's representation of the lands around them.
“This could be of tremendous, er, intellectual value” he murmured to no-one in particular
“It would be if that damn high council would listen to me. Instead they send the university to untold danger. As if a broken and dispirited army will respect some ancient agreement to respect the sanctity of the academies.”
“You would protect us, though, overseer Aesara?” Onatas looked up at her “Your reputation is, er, fearsome”
“What with? A handful of sentries and, as the pro-vice chancellor put it, an unhelpful attitude?!” she strode from the table, again resonating anger. “Anyway, what was it you wanted?” she snapped.
“It is, er, a delicate matter” Onatas had hoped to have Aesara in a better mood before broaching the reason for his presence.
“Go on. I have little time for advising on matters of the heart, or on whatever pox you've contracted from those washer boys, mind you”. She began piling up some of the papers on another table, pushing some murderous looking weaponry to the side to make room.
“No, nothing of that sort. But what do you know of the washer boys?” he reddened, took a breath and pressed on with his concerns. “It is about, er, another friend of mine. Siro”
Aesara turned back to him “The scrawny wannabe scavenger?”, question accompanied by a frown.
“That's him. Well I can't find him” Onatas fidgeted under the overseer's gaze.
“T'is easy to lose someone in the tumult of a camp preparing to move” she sat back on the table, which creaked.
“He's not in the camp. I mean he was, but he hasn't come back these last two nights”
“Why did he leave the camp” the frown deepened as she strode to a different table, pushed some papers aside before finding the one she was looking. “As I thought”, she held the paper aloft, “he's not made it on to the roster yet. And even if he was, we stopped the scavenge runs to prepare for the move”
“I know” Onatas sighed, looked down to try and collect himself “It's my fault”
“It'll be your fault that you have one of my knives poking out of your arse in a minute” Aesara had little time for rambling monologues.
Onatas looked back up. “Sorry. Well, er, I've been on rotation in the medical facility this last cycle” Aesara picking up a frighteningly long knife interrupted his thought process “No, please, this is important. While there, I saw how low we were on equipment. Some...sometimes we apprentices can forget about the realities of camp life in the current, er, environment. Well I wanted to try and do something about it, I had a plan for a new way of making dressings last longer. But to prove it I would need supplies”
“So you needed a suggestible scavenger?” the conclusion to this tail was already forming in Aesara's mind.
“Siro wanted to help, wanted to, well, prove himself worthy of the roster. I could show my professors that I can apply my studies to the benefit of the camp, and Siro could prove himself as a Scavenger. We thought it worked for both of us” Onatas looked back down, the retelling of the story bringing back the mounting guilt.
“But it would only work if he got back safe” Aesara mused, then returned to the map table “Come here” the demand saw Onatas quick to scurry over. “Where did he go, show me” she banged the map with the heal of her hand.
“I, er...” Onatas screwed his face in concentration, “so if the camp is, er., here...” he pointed at a clump of tents drawn in the centre of the page with university camp written in a rough hand next to them “then, er, we, er....”
Aesara growled in frustration “you can't read a map”
Onatas was silent in response.
“Which side of the camp did he leave from?” a question greeted by more silence “can't have been across the river without a raft, so was it back past my tent and into the willows? No, you snivelling whelks wouldn't have risked that. So the main cart route, or down through the rock marsh?”
“Oh, a marsh, I remember Siro talking about that area being patrolled less” Onatas perked up at the memory.
Aesara frowned, no area of the camp should have been patrolled less. She'd need to check her sentries' schedules when she had a moment. But now for the task at hand. “Well he wouldn't have been dumb enough to head straight for the Drakhan lines, which would mean he'd need to curve out towards the large valley a few miles away” Aesara rested a hand on her chin as she contemplated the possibilities.
“I hope he didn't head for that giant swamp monster” Onatas nervously pointed at a blurry sketch on the map.
“That's an oak forest” Aesara replied with a look of disdain, before reaching a conclusion, “if we assume he was funnelled into the valley, then I might be able to track him. Assuming the Iron Stead doesn't rout the Drakhan in that direction tomorrow” another moment's pondering, “then I need to leave immediately”.
“You, you'll go after him?” hope was building in Onatas
“No one else is capable” said Aesara as she strode between various tables, fastening weapons about herself and packing a small leather holdall. “Tell Hierius to supervise the stowing of my tent, and remind him that I know it's entire contents. Any more of it ends in the local market and I'll have his hide” and with that she disappeared out of the tend in a swish of fabric.
Onatas stood alone for a second, took a breath then set of in pursuit of the tall overseer. He had to run hard to catch up, Aesara's long strides moving her at quite a pace despite the encumbrance of her disability. An ornate staff had been the last weapon she had fastened about her person, in this case across her back. Onatas was no warrior, but couldn't help but appreciate the intricate carving that ran up its side, culminating in a small metal club at either end, themselves the subject of a delicate engraving. A relic of a prior life Onatas supposed, certainly not that of an ordinary overseer, no matter how bad tempered.
“Aesara, there is......one....more thing” he panted once beside her
“What?” her eyes remained levelled on the path into the marsh she was headed for.
“Take me with you” this caused Aesara to halt and turn a withering gaze onto Onatas. He was just glad that she'd stopped and he could catch his breath.
“And why would I be stupid enough to do that?”
“I...could....help. Maybe carry.....your supplies?”
“You can barely carry your podgy arse. Get back to camp” she set off again
“P...please Aesara, I want …. to help. I owe....it ….to Siro”
“Help him by staying out of my way” she was beginning to draw ahead of the struggling Onatas.
“I have.....some of the..... Elder learning in....medicine. What if....you find Siro is...hurt?”
“I've patched up enough wounded on the battlefield to last two lifetimes”
“Of sword...thrusts or....hammer blows perhaps....But what if it....is a broken...leg.....or.....maybe poisoning? Siro always....struggled with his....mushroom identif...ication”
Aesara stopped once again, Onatas bent double as stitch gripped his torso. “If I say no again, will that make you stop?” a shake of the head from Onatas. “Will you instead seek to follow me?” A nod “And probably fall to some misfortune that I need to rescue you from whilst putting both of us in danger?” This nod was more tentative, but a nod all the same. “So we should cut out the intervening narrative and press on together” a vigorous nod, accompanied by some wheezed coughing.
“Then it is decided. But I will not keep marching so slowly” and with that Aesara disappeared into the overgrowth that marked the edge of the marsh. Onatas stumbled in pursuit.