Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Chapter twelve

It had taken two days of cajoling, negotiation, bribery and intimidation, but Pyrrho and his new found motley crew had reached the base of one of Fortunestones’ imposing walls. Few refugees had taken kindly to their efforts to press through the gathered throng and so it had been a slow process. Along the way Pyrrho had learnt a number of worrying things. The impact of an emerging pox was one, a problem exacerbated by there being little way to remove the dead bodies. The growing anger with those inside of the town was also of concern. Talk of an assault on the front gates was gathering momentum. But the most concerning nugget of information picked up by Pyrrho was just how co-ordinated the Drakhan had been. Refugees had been funnelled towards Fortunestone for weeks, well before the last battle with the Steed. This implied a broader plan, not just focussed on defeating the erstwhile Senator Steed, but on taking over the wider lands. This wasn’t an isolated conflict, the Drakhan were aiming to expand their rule throughout the seven counties. Maybe even beyond.
Changes in power structures like this usually provided ample opportunity for people like Pyrrho, but not if they had spent the past three years as a near constant thorn in the side of their new overlords. Perhaps Pyrrho’s role would get lost in the greater turmoil, but it wasn’t a risk he especially wanted to take. Plus there was something about the pace and style of the Drakhan’s new found ascendency that troubled him deeply. A shared uneasy feeling with his sister that they both had an idea as to the root of the new power dynamic. But they needed to find out more. Which was why Pyrrho now stood at a small iron gate that had been placed in this part of the wall on Fortunestone’s east side.
He banged on the gate with a rock, attempting to attract the attention of the guards post that lay behind the gate. However, the only attention he’s succeeded in gaining was that of the refugees around him. Eager eyes watched this small stranger; had he a way to gain entry? The press of refugees around him grew in anticipation. Pyrrho grew uneasy at both the lack of success in front of him and the growing unrest behind him. He banged the gate again. Nothing.
“Er, hello?” his meek enquiry echoed through the small hole in the wall behind the gate. “I’ve important business inside the town”
“Me n’all” came the waggish call from the mass of people behind him, followed by some tittering laughter.
Pyrrho reddened slightly, he was much better suited to life in the shadows than life on the stage. He tried to block out the noises behind him. “I’m an old acquaintance of Councillor Decker” his voice again echoing. He banged the gate another time. This time, something.
A slow clumping from inside the wall, then a voice. “Must be a very old acquaintance” the sound grew closer “seeing as the ‘onorable councillor has been dead two winter’s past”. A gruff old guard strode up behind the inside of the iron gate. “What you want with ‘im in any case” a suspicious eye glanced Pyrrho up and down. Not impressed with what he was seeing, the guard sneered.
“Information to impart. If the councillor is, er, indisposed, how about lady Fox?”
“The Fox is not currently in our magnificent Congressman’s good books at the moment, so she ain’t receiving visitors” the sneer developed into a scowl. “You got any more names to throw at me, or can I get back to my stew?” the mention of food saw the crowd behind Pyrrho press forward that little bit more. The guard must have seen this as he instinctively edged back.
“The, er, Congressman. Is it still Florus?” Pyrrho hoped not. The only thing that could be worse than that was…
“Nah, his brother acceded ‘im, it’s Virius now”
“Ok, er, thanks” Pyrrho slumped, the guard stomped away.
“That was rubbish” the wag in the crowd was adamant “I seen better attempts to get in by me old Ma, like when she tried to seduce that fat guard. She’ll be 68 next fall”
More laughter from the crowd as Pyrrho slunk off, mentally plotting acts of unspeakable evil against the wag when he should have been coming up with other ideas to gain entrance to Fortunestone. Well, ideas other than his backup plan; something he hadn’t so far been prepared to countenance as an option at all.
Once back with Volk and the others a little way round the wall from the gate he slumped down against the wheel of the cart.
“No luck?” Volk stated the obvious, but avoided a cutting response from Pyrrho by offering him a cup of the broth he’d been brewing with the farmer’s daughter.
“Need another way” he said after taking a sip of the hot, flavoursome liquid.
“There’s that talk of an attempt on the main gate, maybe we could get in with that?” Volk suggested
“Nah, not yet. We don’t want to destroy the town, there’s stuff, and people in there that I need”
“No one wants to destroy the town” Volk sounded a little defensive “Just share a bit of their stores. People out here are in real trouble”
“Your conscience getting the better of you again?” Pyrrho looked up at the big man. “Thing is, even with the best intentions, you suddenly introduce ten thousand people into Fortunestone, stuff will get trashed. Can’t be helped”
“There must be a better way than this” Volk surveyed the mass of humanity crowded around them.
“There is. We get me inside, I figure out what the hell the Drakhan are up to and a result of that, these poor sods can go home” Pyrrho waved an arm vaguely in front of him at the refugees.
“Your plans rarely turn out that simple” Volk took a seat on the ground next to Pyrrho, with an “oomph” as he settled his weight down.
“Wouldn’t be so much fun otherwise” Pyrrho rested his head back, closed his eyes as he took another sip of the broth.
“And what fun have you got in store this time?” Volk asked with trepidation
“Don’t sound so nervous. All you need to do this time is create a distraction. It’s me that’s gonna end up in deep muck”
“Please don’t say you’re being all literal again” worried Volk
“Unfortunately I am” Pyrrho sighed.
That evening dark figures crept along under the wall, following a drainage channel that encircled much of the town. The steep sides of the channel, plus the foul smelling effluent that sat in the bottom of it meant the route was relatively free of refugees or their belongings. At the south side of the town the ditch opened out into a small river that came to the surface in the centre of Fortunestone, before passing through the town, via a large iron portcullis that now loomed above them.
Next to the river the density of the refugees was even higher. The river washed away the town’s detritus and sewage, but with the rain halting a day ago, was now the prime source of water for the camp. Even this time of night, the river edge bustled with activity. People washing, filling flasks and skins, or attempting to fish out anything useful thrown away in the city. A small market had built up around the trading of Fortunestone’s waste, something that made Volk bristle with injustice.
 The current of the river would make swimming upstream and into the town impossible, even if the portcullis had enough space for a man to squeeze between its rusty pillars. But Pyrrho didn’t intend on swimming. Well, not the river at least.
At one side of the portcullis, imbedded in the wall a few metres high, was an outflow pipe from the town’s rudimentary sewage system that served the houses of the richer residents. The poorer residents had to make do with outdoor plumbing or throwing their waste directly into the river, but those with more means actually enjoyed some indoor facilities.
The outflow pipe was too high for one man alone to reach. Even if he could, iron bars just a little way in from the edge of the pipe would prevent access.  Unless that man had an accomplice of much greater than average height to balance upon, and knew of very specific weakness in one of the bars. Still, even with access potentially at hand, Pyrrho did not want to risk detection from outside of the camp lest he trigger a potentially ruinous stampede of people attempting to follow him. Hence the need for distraction.
The farm hand punched the Steed loyalist full in the face. 
Pyrrho's plan had called for some good acting,  but there was more to it in this particular scrap. The farmer and his retinue had become increasingly alarmed at the supplies that Pyrrho's men had got through in recent days.  The Steed loyalists had,  on the other hand,  been feeling underappreciated for their efforts in keeping the cart,  not to mention the farmer's two daughters,  from unwanted attention.  Pyrrho hadn't paid much attention to start with,  mind on other matters,  but then spotted the opportunity that a public airing of the grievances could bring. 
Unless it got out of hand.
The refugees in the vicinity were rushing to watch the fight as Pyrrho and Volk struggled to move in the opposite direction.  Once at the wall and underneath the outflow pipe,  Pyrrho cast a glance back to a rapidly expanding explosion of violence. 
"Reckon you'll be able to calm it down while I'm inside? " he asked of Volk. 
" Yeah.  Knock a couple of heads together.  Plead tolerance.  The usual" Volk scratched at his chest. A small medical facility had sprung up near their section of the camp,  medics in the refugee horde trading their skills for supplies or favours.  Pyrrho had got new dressings and a pungent smelling salve to apply Volk's wounds at the cost of his long treasured cloak,  but it would be worth it to keep such a useful ally – a friend even - around.  Volk was still weakened by his injuries,  but even at 50% Volk was more than a physical match for most.  And oddly adept at getting people onside.  A skill Pyrrho could have used in previous years if he were to avoid his current undesirable plan.  But that was not to be.  He looked up at the pipe with no little trepidation as effluent splashed down onto the ground in front of him,  before oozing into the river.
"OK then big man,  time for you to fulfil your life's ambition of being a ladder" Pyrrho attempted levity as a distraction from his fears.  It didn't work.  Volk obediently took a knee and Pyrrho scrambled onto his shoulders.  The bigger man then stood to his full height,  allowing Pyrrho to scramble onto the lip of the pipe.  From his perch, Pyrrho called down, “Thanks Volk. Now you just need to go sort out the riot over there” he pointed at the building turmoil near the river’s edge.
“Fun times” the delivery from Volk sounded sarcastic, but there was a smile clawing at the edges of his mouth. The big man did enjoy a challenge, especially if that challenge involved a bit of intrigue and a lot of violence. 
Pyrrho turned back to the pipe entrance. The effluent continued to pour out, lapping at his ankles, occasional suspicious lump bumping against his feet. The less said about the smell, the better. Pyrrho grimaced and moved forward. A metre into the pipe he came up against the iron bars. Here is where his last gamble at gaining entrance to Fortunestone would play out. Third bar from the right, he rested a hand against it, hoping it was the same bar that had been his ticket into, and more often out of, Forturnestone on numerous occasions in his younger days, rather than a more permanent recent replacement. Grab hold, push it up into the roof of the pipe. Nothing, then a slight movement, then a click. Push the bar forward, then slide to the right. The bar came away in his hand. Success, depending on whether anything achieved in a rancid sewage pipe could be described as a success.
Pyrrho squeezed through the gap, then reversed the movements with the bar to reinstall it. Those drunken nights with the head builder all those years past once again proving themselves to be worth the terrible hangovers and blurry memories. The pipe turned upwards a few metres further on, up into the higher part of the town where the merchant’s quarter nestled. The flow remained fairly constant, aside from the occasional rush of a bath – or worse – emptied in the town.
A couple of slips, accompanied by a lot of swearing, later and Pyrrho arrive at the first grating. If memory served correctly, this was in the ornate gardens of an old architect, probably long dead by now. However, the heavy stone statue that prevented the grate from opening was still there. Pyrrho pressed on. The next grate was in an alley that ran behind the small court used for addressing the minor grievances of the local gentry. Never underestimate the ability of Fortunestone’s wealthy residents to fall out over various petty misdemeanours. The court was consequently always busy, and so near impossible to make a covert entrance from the grate. Once again, Pyrrho moved forwards.
Pyrrho smiled when he came to peer through the third grate. An unconscious woman, snoring loudly, flagon of wine still clutched at her chest, dripping a stain onto a lurid blue dress. Never underestimate the ability of Fortunestone’s wealthy residents to spend their evenings drinking themselves silly.  Pyrrho had first discovered this grate from the position the woman was in now. He’d woken up in the drunk’s dungeon once again, except this time with his blurred vision trying to focus on a mysterious iron grate. Possibilities forming in his half addled mind. His smile widened a little further at the memories of his younger days as he set to work on the rusty lock holding the grate closed. Lock picking wasn’t one of his specialities, coming up against a lock was rare, even in the richer quarters that he frequently inhabited in search of fortune or information. But they were also fairly rudimentary if you understood their quirks as Pyrrho did. The lock dropped into Pyrrho’s hand and he pushed the grate up and open. He clambered into the small room, cautiously stepping over its slumbering occupant. He looked down at her, pretty enough if you looked past the smeared makeup and spittle dripping from the corner of her mouth. Instinctively Pyrrho checked her jewellery, not bad, but not top tier. Tallied with his suspicion that if she’d been of one of the wealthier families, some lackey or other would have dragged her home. Probably new money, unfamiliar with the potent brews that this particular establishment specialised in.
Curiosity over his roommate satiated, Pyrrho moved to the heavy wooden door. It was rare for it to be locked – if the incumbent was capable of standing to open the door, then they didn’t need the hospitality of the hard stone floor any more. More of concern was the creaky hinge. Pyrrho pressed an ear to the door. He could hear conversations and the occasional burst of laughter, but tonight was not one of the raucous evenings he fondly remembered. Not enough to disguise the sound of the door opening. He took a step back, hand on his chin as possibilities whirled in his mind. 
The door opened in front of him.
The woman on the floor got up.

A knife was pressed against Pyrrho’s throat. 

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