“Are you sure it is this way? Agh” Onatas splashed through another muddy puddle, the hems of his robes were now sodden, his old boots leaking from multiple holes.
“It's been a while since I've seen the sun, but I am sure south is still this direction” Aesara pulled the shawl a little tighter round her head as the driving rain found yet another gap to push through. She was using her damaged staff as a crutch, had been since they'd passed through the Drakhan line. But then it had been to play the role of fleeing refugee, where as now it was to take some of the strain off her painful stump following two days of unrelenting hiking.
“I thought we needed to go east?”
“That was before we came upon that Previous town, we need to move round it. Unless you happen to have suddenly found the courage to go through it?”
“Do not jest Aesara. Even if you insist on believing the Previous themselves are gone, you must surely recognise how dangerous the towns and cities are”
“No one has set foot in them for so long. Perhaps the dangers have passed now?”
“Previous sprites may or may not inhabit them, but I am confident the disease and savage animals they left behind still lurk”
“Pah! More superstitious nonsense from a man I thought to be better educated than that”
“My studies emphasise how dangerous the Previous can be. Must be, to have wiped out the Elders, then attempted to wipe away the Elder's writings”
“How dangerous they were, past tense Onatas. Must I teach you language as well?”
They'd been getting increasingly agitated with each other with each treacherous mile that passed. It hadn’t helped that they had been in disagreement back at the Steed’s redoubt. With the Steed set to surrender, the camp had been sent into turmoil. The noise, crowding and raw emotion made it hard for the small group that had arrived just an hour earlier to find any space, both physical and mental, to weigh up their options.
With the Drakhan set to sweep through in the coming day Pyrrho was adamant that he needed to make himself scarce, while Aesara was keen to get back to the university camp and make preparations to defend it. While this left some common ground – both brother and sister wanted to get away – Onatas was adamant that Volk needed to stay and rest. For his part, Volk would follow Pyrrho to the edge of the world, although he was clearly unwell, a growing fever evident.
Niv had been a different matter altogether. She’d kept quiet during the initial debate, but looking nervous. Aesara had tried to catch her eyes a couple of times, but Niv’s gaze slid away like the sloppy mud Aesara and Onatas were currently hiking through. It soon became apparent why.
Niv wanted to take up the Drakhan offer of employment.
Aesara had been aghast, but Pyrrho more pragmatic. He was a hunted man by more than one Drakhan commander, but Niv didn’t have that sort of profile, unless she kept following him. She could go her separate way, leaving the battlefield altogether, but as a refugee with few other skills outside of brawling and sneaking, her prospects would not be favourable. She owed no firm allegiance to the Steed, let alone the memory of the Steed. Pyrrho reluctantly accepted her decision and wished her well. Aesara could offer no such solstice at an act of what she viewed as treachery.
This had caused a renewed tension between the siblings. Both wanted to get to the bottom of how the Drakhan had accessed the technology brutally demonstrated over the last few days, but neither could agree on how best to solve that particular riddle. Pyrrho was already reluctant to traipse to the university camp in what he saw as a waste of time, but Aesara refused to abandon her protectorate.
Onatas was split. He desperately wanted to see how his friends at the university fared. But he had little stomach for another hard march, especially if it meant leaving Volk behind, a man who’s welfare he had increasingly come to judge his own achievements in the studies of medicine by. Plus, he would admit to himself if no one else, he wanted to find out how the Drakhan had the magic they had. He wanted to try it for himself.
A good compromise leaves no one happy, a sentiment shown true by their eventual agreement. Aesara and Onatas would return to the university camp. Pyrrho and Volk would leave to visit an old acquaintance - an information peddler - two counties over. Onatas had been given a little time to help prepare Volk for the journey. With the matron, Sams, distracted by the disruption of the Steed’s intentions Pyrrho had slipped into the stores to purloin the items Onatas had initially been thwarted in obtaining. They would reconvene one month hence, back at The Previous building in the small hamlet, a meeting place that seemed apt after the events of recent days.
The farewells had been brisk, awkward even. Pyrrho and Aesara said little to one another, other than vague platitudes that each kicked themselves for making as they went their separate ways. Niv kept her weapons, as well as a dagger gifted by Pyrrho, but the others left theirs behind as rumours of Drakhan infantry closing in to enforce the terms of surrender at pain of death circulated around the beleaguered camp.
Aesara was able to pass the staff of as a crutch when they met the Drakhan party a mile outside of the camp. She had also wrapped her feet in old rags, to both complete the image of a broken refugee, but also to disguise her unusually adorned wooden leg. They had joined with a small group of other refugees formally of the Steed’s guard, including Nex. However, he had departed them a few miles further on, seeking to return to the family farm where a wife and child waited for news. Indeed, there was a sense of some relief in the refugee convoy that they had avoided a near certain slaughter, even if it meant having to walk past the grinning ranks of Drakhan to leave the scene of their defeat.
Surprise that the Drakhan had kept their word at let them go prevented Aesara from enjoying any sense of relief at passing through the inspection. Letting battle hardy soldiers of a vanquished, and with it resentful, army just wander away confused her. Yes, they had been forced to give up their weapons, but still, it would not be unusual, indeed would be expected, to either imprison them or, well, or worse. It implied the Drakhan were so confident of their superiority that they feared no backlash from their former foe and no repercussion from their use of dark technology. Just what sort of a bargain had they made with the supplier of that technology?
Pyrrho perhaps had a point that she would find few answers in the dusty archives of the travelling university, but in the people who worked at the university she may glean ideas from. The university traded in information after all. The Elder knowledge that the academics managed to glean from the torn pages, or half eaten books that the scavengers and traders brought to them was then filtered and traded in turn to the villages and towns that the travelling university passed through. But it wasn’t just Elder learnings that they traded in. News of a new settlement, or a region with a bountiful harvest to trade were all key in keeping the university going. Perhaps Aesara could uncover some other useful gossip. Well, that was if they ever got back.
The rain had been near relentless since they had set off. Skies darkening, a reflection of Aesara’s mood if she had been more narcissistic. Their clothes clung to them, chaffing at every stride. Cold bit like the creatures that so spooked Onatas from venturing through a Previous town, even if it would save them hours or even days.
They stopped when whatever meagre daylight there had been turned to blustery evening and bleak night. Aesara struggled to build or maintain fires. She’d had to use small sections of her precious map as kindling on more than one occasion, Onatas almost pushed to tears at the destruction, but then welcoming whatever warmth the fire could bring.
Food was becoming more of a pressing issue with each day that passed. Neither traveller was even close to being a competent hunter, especially without possession of a blade between them. For the previous day they’d passed a small slice of dried meat between each other that Pyrrho had shared among the group at departure.
Cold, wet, hungry. Plus she might just strangle Onatas. What a lovely time Aesara was having. Her forlorn thoughts drifted to her brother. Knowing Pyrrho’s luck he was being carried to his destination while being fed delicacies by some attractive attendant. The ridiculous image gave Aesara a brief smile, before another drip of rain down the back of her neck washed it away again.
Pyrrho was being carried to his destination while being fed delicacies by a rather attractive young farm hand. He stretched out in the hay on the back of the cart, the patter of rain on the tarpaulin above his head a relaxing accompaniment to a rather pleasant journey. Finding an animal drawn cart was difficult at the best of times; animal husbandry was not a widespread skill – Elder writings on the subject were rare – demand for the skill further restricted by a lack of animals, most hunted to near extinction in the decades following the demise of The Previous. Finding an animal drawn cart prepared to accept passengers in the midst of a refugee exodus was even more difficult. A challenge Pyrrho was happy to tackle. He told himself that it was because Volk needed the assistance, but if he was honest it was more to do with the strong dislike for hiking he’d developed during the long distances covered on foot in recent days.
Almost all of the Steed’s guard had refused to enter into Drakhan service, but those from the other companies at the redoubt had proven less loyal. Scuffles had broken out as Pyrrho and Volk made their way slowly out of the area, so Pyrrho had ingratiated them with some of the meaner looking Steed loyalists, in order to dissuade any of the newly converted Drakhan from molesting them. For their part, the loyalists were happy to accept someone as imposing as Volk, even if the big man was still labouring under the pain from his wounds.
They were headed towards Fortunestone, an old Elder village untainted by the curse of Previous architecture, and so also untainted by the superstitions that prevented most from inhabiting old settlements in the current age. The village had expanded under the auspices of an ambitious overseer, becoming a hub of regional commerce. This in turn had attracted unwanted attention, raiding bands frequently sacking the village in its early years. Subsequent generations of the overseer had built up the defences, using some of the riches earned through trade to buy Elder learnings on wall building and trap setting. In the current day Fortunestone was a vibrant town, home to many skilled artisans and traders, selling almost anything available. It was also home to a few of Pyrrho’s best contacts. And some of his worst enemies, but he glossed over that in his mind.
The band of loyalists eventually came upon a snaking column of civilian refugees headed in the same direction. Pyrrho’s breath was taken away by the sheer number of people, pressed together on the narrow lane through the rain swept countryside. It was as if the seven counties were emptying of their populations, and all headed to Fortunestone. News of the Drakhan’s victory must have spread fast.
The amount of people slowed down the progress even further, but gave Pyrrho a ready source of new contacts to trade information and rumour with. Leaving Volk with the other loyalists, Pyrrho moved about the refugee caravan, a word here, a small traded trinket there; a rumour set here, a secret traded there. Within a few hours the bedraggled and weaponless gaggle of Steed loyalists were looked upon as a fearsome mercenary brigade to be treated with fear and respect. In return for a ride and sustenance, a farmer was glad of the new found protection for his cart of belongings and the safety of his children. There was only room in the cart for Pyrrho, Volk and the spritely young farm hand to look after them, but the other loyalists were happy to carry on walking while munching on the various apples and vegetables offered by the farmer and his scruffy looking children.
It was a pleasant journey, but did not last for quite as long as Pyrrho would have liked. Just over two miles outside of Fortunestone they bumped to a halt. With a grumble and a frown, Pyrrho climbed out onto the top of the cart to survey the scene ahead of them.
Fortunestone, already known for its elaborate and fearsome defences, had gained a new moat, a moat of humankind. The town was completely surrounded by a refugee camp as far as Pyrrho could peer into the distance. Pyrrho once again submerged himself in the sea of humanity in order to look for answers, or an advantage. It did not take long to find the issue; Fortunestone had closed its heavy stone gates this last week past against the inflow. Refugees had been funnelled towards the city by the stretched lines of the Drakhan as they prepared for the showdown with the Steed.
The situation in the refugee camp was becoming increasingly desperate. The incessant rain mean that there was little shortage of water currently, but food and sanitation was few and far between. Disease had started to lap at the edges of the camp, people becoming increasingly desperate. Fortunestone was under siege.
Pyrrho returned to the cart, deep in thought. He needed a way into the town, but there was ten thousand people in the way. He had a slightly grumpy farmer and a small group of washed up soldiers at his disposal. More than enough. Pyrrho smiled in anticipation of the challenge ahead of him. Part of his mind drifted towards Aesarsa, they’d faced a number of impossible looking challenges in their childhood and surmounted them. He wondered what sort of challenges she was currently facing. Knowing her ability to get into trouble, probably fighting a pitched life or death battle against some terrible swamp beast.
It had been a pitched battle, at times Aesara had been worried that she wouldn’t make it, but at last the terrible swap beast lay vanquished before her.
“Are you sure we can eat that?” Onatas wondered from off to the side of the battlefield.
“It’s made of meat, isn’t it?” Aesara found her staff a couple of metres away and used it to push up from the muddy swamp, legs sticking in the gloopy ground. “So get it on the fire and let’s eat for once” she waded towards the slightly firmer ground that Onatas had perched on, then flung the beast at the apprentice. It hit his robes with a wet slap, before sliding down them onto the ground.
Onatas looked down suspiciously at the dead frog.
Squirrels, rabbits, various birds and a deformed vole had all outran them during the course of the previous day as their hunger became more pressing. But the chubby frog had not been quite as elusive. It may have avoided Aesara’s initial swipe, but her subsequent sustained attack had eventually wearied the frog and she’d caused it a glancing blow. While disorientated, the frog was far from defeated, evading Aesara’s clumsy attempt to grab hold of it, causing her to over balance and plunge into the boggy ground head first. Aesara lost grip on her staff, needing both hands as she attempted to get her face out of the freezing cold water. As she broke back above the surface, her nemesis sat on a rock a metre away. She would swear that it gave her an dirty look.
Aesara punched the frog with all her might.
It tasted goooood. Admittedly their sense of taste had been dulled by the days without food, but both relished their unusual meal in the meagre shelter yielded by a long fallen tree, rain spattering into large puddles all around them. Aesara wore only Onatas’s cowl, wrapped tight around while her soggy clothes dried above the small fire. The apprentice shivered in his remaining robes, so moved a little closer to the fire. Juices from the half of the frog he was gnawing on sizzling as they splashed down into the heat.
“Another good day’s hike and we’ll be on the coast road” Aesara wiped her mouth with the back of a hand, fingers still creased from the time in the water. “Then maybe another half day to the university”.
“Nothing good about a day’s hiking” Onatas replied between mouthfuls “But it sure will be good to see the camp again”
“True” Aesara began picking at a leg bone “So long as they have avoided the Drakhan advance”
“You still think the Drakhan would break the covenant regarding the university’s sanctuary?”
“They broke countless covenants in using the Elder war technology”
“Were there even any covenants about that?” Onatas pondered “I didn’t think anyone was close enough to perfecting that stuff for there to be a covenant on it?”
“So you hadn’t come across that sort of technology during your studies?” Aesara looked at Onatas over the fire, the flames casting moving shadows across his face.
“Nothing like it. Of course my studies have been more in the field of medicine. But even when I help in the archiving of new materials that we acquire, there is nothing”
Aesara fell silent in response, but her gaze remained on the young apprentice. Some nagging thought scratched at the back of her mind. “No Previous writings on it either?” she eventually said
“Previous?” Onatas looked confused “of course not, they committed nothing to paper. We don’t know how they recorded their knowledge, if they did even” a wry thought popped into his head “Professor Timon had the theory that they had the ability to write in the very air around us, committing their knowledge to the clouds” he smirked at the ridiculous thought.
“I see” Aesara took her gaze from Onatas and sat back, one hand reaching up to see how damp her clothes were strung out above them. Mildly soggy rather than outright soaked, an improvement of sorts. “We should try to grab some sleep” she announced “it will be a long day tomorrow”.