Aesara knelt at the side of the old well. It hadn’t been used in years, the bucket missing, the walls crumbling and weeds pushing through the surrounding cobbles. It was located in what was now a disused part of the complex, a ghost town of crumbling Elder single story buildings. She was supposed to be guarding the southern approach to where the university had set up its new home, but it had been easy to slip away as Malic became increasingly confused by the schedules he was attempting to set up. Idiot. Not that his idiocy would be shown up, it wasn’t as if the camp sentries served any real purpose, surrounded as they were by the greater Drakhan workings of the complex. High walls and well armed soldiers. The university was paying lip service to its independence, but no more.
The journey to the complex had been uneventful. Aesara’s new found cooperation drew suspicious glances from the Drakhan accompanying them, but not direct challenge. The Drakhan horse commander she’d injured had kept ample distance between them, instead spending his time forlornly watching his still horse-bound comrades.
Conversation amid the academics as they travelled had been muted. The previous excitement of their new endeavours giving way to trepidation as more fearsome looking Drakhan joined the convoy, hemming then in. They had snaked their way up the coast road, the distance too much and the guard too numerous for Aesara to slip away to the hamlet to look for word of Pyrrho. She consoled herself that her brother would eventually make the same journey that she was doing, although could think not of a way to find him. Instead she needed to trust that he would find her. Trust had never been much of a feature of Aesara’s personality since her childhood, however.
The work of the academics had begun in earnest almost as soon as the university had been assigned its new home. Their tents intermingled with squat, creeper strewn Elder buildings. The large archive had been set up anew at the centre, tight between some of the buildings, no room for their traditional open space in its vicinity. In fact there was little space for socialising at all, the cramped confines of their camp constricting movement as well as moods. Nor was their time for social pursuits, the high council, presumably urged on by their new overlords, pushing the academics for quick results on the technologies they were investigating. Aesara hadn’t seen Onatas since they had arrived.
Leaving the complex was impossible. Aesara had attempted to take a walk in the neighbouring country side early in their stay, but had been promptly rounded up by Drakhan outriders. She attempted subsequent sojourns, but each was met by a similar result. Security had certainly been tightened in the years since leaving the complex. She hoped getting in was easier for Pyrrho’s sake.
The only people permitted to leave the camp were members of the high council. They made frequent trips up a narrow path from the complex to the imposing Previous building at the crest of a hill overlooking them and out to the sea beyond. Aesara knew the building well, she’s spent seven years living in its bowels after all, but she enjoyed watching members of the council nervously fidgeting on the days of their visits. As senior academics they made protestations against silly superstitions, but Aesara smiled when watching what happened when they were directly challenged on this front. It would take years for them to become even slightly at ease with the building’s imposing façade and brooding, hunched, construction. Just as it had for her, and just as it had for the grizzled Drakhan that served as their jailers. The Drakhan were a superstitious lot, but this elite guard had been hardened by years of service. Made them all the more dangerous, more desperate, in Aesara’s embittered experience.
Aesara stood up, brushing dust from her sentry’s breaches. She couldn’t rationalise her now frequent visits to the old well. It gave her no closure on past misdeeds, just reopened old regrets. But she was still drawn here. Perhaps it was a form of self flagellation, or some kind of prayer to the innocents hurt by her actions. A pledge never to fall that deep into her anger again. She shook her head. Whimsical nonsense, she chided herself. A dangerous self indulgence, a waste of time when she should be preparing to seek the answers to a life’s riddle.
She picked her way back through the broken down buildings and out onto the cracked grey concrete path that led back to the university camp. If she timed it right, then she’d merge back into the sentry roster on the southern approach with no one the wiser as to her absence, thanks to the nonsensical patrol routes dreamt up by the incompetent Malic. If only the Drakhan security was as lax, she sighed.
Back at the well the rubble dust stirred up by Aesara’s exit gradually settle back onto the ground. Dappled sunlight fell across the weeds and grasses that had sprouted there. A gentle breeze lapped around a small stubby tree that clung to the side of a half collapsed wall.
A figure emerged from behind the wall, dark cloak drawn around its head. Walked to the side of the well and contemplated the disturbance in the dust and detritus that Aesara had left.
Back on patrol Aesara lapsed into a slow marching pace, memories of her early days in the Steed’s ranks as a young cadet. She’d dreaded the night patrols the worse. Cold, often wet and always lonely. Bleak hours spent attempting to give the impression of alertness, but instead time was spent in the dank confines of her troubled mind. At least the Steed had taken her, plenty of warlords at the time had scoffed at her disability, despite the often violent proof otherwise that she was a more than effective soldier.
The patrol pattern looped up and round the east side of the camp. Here the true nature of their captivity was more obvious as her route followed an imposing wire fence. Back in the confines of the camp the council could convince themselves that they chose to stay here voluntarily, but the fence told a different tale. Freshly installed, five metres tall, it was an impressive feet of engineering for the current age.
There was also a hole in the base of it.
Aesara frowned, pace slowly as she cast a furtive glance. Someone or thing had attempted to cover the hole up with some rocks and undergrowth, but the wind had knocked the top of the hastily erected disguise down. She then looked around, no sign of the trespasser. But more tellingly, no sign of other guards – there would be a couple of minutes blind spot here every hour if her recollection of Malic’s dismal presentation to the sentries this morning was anything to go by. Aesara stooped down to look at the hole. Could it be an animal? The cuts in the wire looked a little to clean for that. Plus it would be a big animal that needed a hole this large. And a clever animal that sought to hide their handy work afterwards. She worked quickly, looking at the edges of the hole for something. Ah-ha. She quickly grabbed it, stood up quickly, checked about for any witnesses. Still no one. She pulled some more rocks and netted ivy from a derelict building nearby and working fast, covered over the hole, making sure to have some heavier items at the top to prevent the wind from unmasking it again.
Long strides caught her back up to where she should be on the patrol, the route leaving the fence to follow a cliff top path. It was more open here, she could see another sentry on the headland across the way from her position, so she kept her evidence concealed in a jacket pocket. In another half a mile the path head back towards camp, low buildings crowded round the track way. Aesara slipped into one of them where a small fire burnt below a pot of thin looking stew. Trust sentries to find a way to keep warm on route, even if at the cost of camp security. It was an old trick that she would have clamped down on if still overseer, but as a mere sentry she fed the fire with a couple of sticks, took a small cup of stew, then topped it up with a nearby flask of water and a couple of withered vegetables she’d dug out of the ground near the headland. As she gratefully sipped the stew, she drew out the item she’d taken from the hold in the fence. A torn rag of clothing. Dark blue one side, a livid red the other. Aesara frowned, these were the colours of the Drakhan guard. Why would they be attempting to sneak into the university complex?
Taking a final sip of stew she put down the cup and went back to finish the patrol route, the Drakhan rag folded away insider her jacket. She was still considering this latest puzzle as she wound her way back through the university tents and commandeered Elder units. She was about to clomp into the overseer’s office, report nothing unusual to Malic, but a group over near the council marquee court her eye.
“That you Sara?” the voice from within the overseer’s tent. Malic use of her shortened name caused Aesara to grimace.
“Yes, sir” said through gritted teeth.
“Get in here then, stop messing about”
Aesara gave the Drakhan a final appraising glance before entering Malic’s tent. The new overseer looked up at his predecessor from behind a paper strewn desk. Aesara had been similarly messy when in charge, but she suspected that these papers were more for decoration than planning.
“Anything to report?” demanded Malic
“No, sir” Aesara’s use of “sir” always half a beat slow. Not enough to risk discipline – she had no desire for another stint in the brig – but just enough to hint at disrespect. Malic bristled at the repeated slight.
“You are back on duty tonight, don’t be late” he dismissed her with a wave of a quill in his hand, but Aesara remained. It was not the extra shift that was playing on her mind, rather something about the Drakhan.
“Malic, sir” she began “Who is on escort duty currently?”
“Escort?” Malic sounded unsure
“Yes, the Drakhan at the high council”
“Why would they need escorting?” Malic frowned
“They are on university grounds. The pro-vice chancellor was very specific about our independence. And they are at the council now. What if Celcus sees no sentry presence outside of his own domain. Could be embarrassing”
“Yes, er, I was about to appoint an, er, escort. In fact,” he selected a paper and started waving it “right here, I have you down for escort duty”
Aesara could see that the paper waved in her direction was blank, but said nothing other than “Yes, sir”
“Get going then. What have I said to you about tardiness?” Malic urged. Aesara couldn’t help but smirk as she turned on her heels and left the overseer’s tent.
Back outside and she momentarily thought that she had missed her opportunity, the Drakhan were nowhere to be seen. But then she heard Celcus, moaning about something or other, from the other side of the council marquee. Taking a shortcut, Aesara nipped between a row of tents and came out onto the path a few metres in front of the Drakhan party.
“Pro vice chancellor” she greeted Celcus, ignoring the Drakhan guard for the time being “Overseer Malic said that we are to provide an escort to all none university staff when on university grounds”
“Overseer Malic can suck my…” came the grizzled comment from one of the Drakhan.
“Yes, oh yes, so you should” Celcus looked at Aesara with the hint of a question in his eyes, but was happy to play along “You may escort us to the front gates, gallant sentry” he concluded, the part of Drakhan and council members moving off again.
Aesara marched alongside the group, surveying the Drakhan. The usual mishmash of reprobates and sociopaths she surmised. They varied in size and armament. Dress standards slipping Aesara noted to herself as she looked disdainfully at unkempt hair, un tucked undershirts and open laced boots.
That big fellow even had a rip in his trousers.
That big fellow who looked oddly familiar. Their gazes met for a split second, but neither said anything. Both were professionals. Instead Aesara slowly dropped to the rear of the group, making small talk with council members as she did so, a pretence of normality in this twisted landscape. After a while at the rear of the group the big Drakhan slowed his pace to march alongside her.
“You have friends at hand” Volk said under his breath.
“Friends may be stretching it” replied Aesara, “but I am glad all the same.”
“The sentries’ retreat, meet them there tonight at patrol changeover”
They were close to the gates, the head of the group surveyed by waiting Drakhan. Aesara feigned a trip, fell into Volk, shoved the rag into one of his pockets. “Might come in handy for patching your trousers up” she remarked, Volk reddening imperceptibly, before marching towards the gate.
Aesara stayed where she was for a little while, watching the group head back towards the house on the hill. A couple of the guards at the gate jeered her, but she just smiled in response. Revenge would soon be at hand.