“It’s been three nights Pyrrho, I don’t think she’s coming” Marcia lay across part of the tumbledown wall that led to the barn in the old hamlet. She enjoyed the rare outbreak of sunshine on her face, the warmth radiating through her body.
“I know. It was always a long shot, but I just thought…” Pyrrho’s voice wafted down from the rafters of the barn where he kept vigil on the approaching roads”
“That the sibling connection would bring her to you?”
“Something like that”
“Sounds like mumbo jumbo to me”
“Me too, but it’s weird”
“I hadn’t thought of her for years, but since we met up again, it’s like she’s a constant companion in my mind”
“And you take comfort from that?”
“Not really as she mainly spends her habitation of my thoughts criticising me!” he gave a resigned laugh
“There is so much to criticise, after all” Marcia goaded him
Pyrrho pulled away from the gap in the roof of the barn and swung down off the rafter to land with a small thud on the ground floor. The barn was untidy, a mix of sleeping covers, cooking pots and other detritus from their habitation. The time spent in the hamlet, while failing to yield Aesara’s arrival, had at least given them opportunity to better integrate the two groups. All were soldiers by background, but from a variety of schools of combat. Neither Pyrrho or Marcia were in a position to school them, coming from a background of infiltration rather than face to face combat, so the first day of inactivity in the hamlet had been spent with the soldiers sizing each other up, looking for an advantage.
Volk had, once again, come to the forefront. With the Steed’s former soldiers close to blows with those of Fortunestone the big man had strode to the middle of the dust up, grabbed one from each side and smashed them together like a set of symbols. Not a subtle approach by any stretch, but effective. He then sat down with them all, suggested that they all talked about their feelings.
Each, to a man or woman, had burst out laughing at him.
The larger man had pressed on, urging them to talk about their hopes and fears. The laughter continued unabated. He suggested some role play, try to see the issue from the other side. Both sides wept with laughter, slapping each other on the backs and sharing impressions of Volk, effecting deep voices and barrel chests. With the hilarity showing no signs of abating, Volk retired from the group, shoulder hunched low. Pyrrho had been watching, then followed Volk to offer his commiserations – he had clearly tried his best to integrate the groups, but it was not to be.
Pyrrho had caught up with Volk at the well, near to the centre of the hamlet, in a small square of broken cobbles, surrounded by collapsed buildings and abundant weeds. Volk’s heart was in the right place. Indeed, since the unfortunate incident with the scavenger in this very hamlet, the big man had obviously been reassessing his approach in life. Just this time the more hands on, feelings heavy approach had not worked.
Apart from the fact that it had totally worked.
By the time Pyrrho and Volk returned from the well, the entire group of soldiers were still laughing and joking with each other. United in their mockery of Volk, but united all the same. Another couple of days training together, coupled with Volk occasional “motivational” speeches and Pyrrho had remarked to Marica that they almost had a semi-useful unit on their hands.
All that Pyrrho needed to do now was work out if this had all been deliberate on Volk’s part or not.
He was still considering his man-at-arms as he left the note for Aesara. Volk had produced the scrap of paper from about his large person and Marcia had a stubby charcoal stick that he was now scrawling in. He was still also concerned for his sister. It hadn’t quite been the month they’d agreed as the time period to denote their reconvening, but part of him had still expected some word from her. She had always been the impatient one waiting on his arrival in their childhood, the roles reversed felt uncomfortable.
No great scribe, Pyrrho gave a rough approximation of the situation at hand. His destination, the force at his disposition. What he didn’t add were his fears of what lay ahead of them. Of his concern at what they may discover if they kept on looking.
The short note complete, he piled up a small pyramid of stones in the centre of the barn for Aesara to find. Folding the note at the centre of the pile, he topped it off with the broken telescope that had still lay in the barn when they returned to the hamlet. No scavenger had dared venture this far into the warzone again.
“Done?” Marcia asked as Pyrrho came blinking into the sunlight.
“Uh-huh. Where are the others?” he glanced about, but it appeared the two of them were alone in the hamlet.
“Volk’s taken them up onto the heath-land for some exercises” Marcia swung her legs round and down from the wall
“Something about reaching inner peace. He always like this?” Marcia came to walk alongside Pyrrho as they wandered out of the hamlet.
“No. He’s always been a bit, well, soft headed. His conscience nags at him, scars of previous misdemeanours I think. But since he accidentally came to lead the, how would you put it? The Fortunestone insurrection?” Pyrrho gave a short laugh “Since then he’s changed. Becoming more of a leader”
“That going to be a problem?”
“What? For me? Nah, he’s his own man”
“Not quite true, he’s been your man for years”
“But things change”
“That they do” Marcia solemnly conceded.
The two of them met up with the others, who were sitting in a circle animatedly chatting, on the Hamlet’s northern approach. A sarcastic turn of phrase found its way on to Pyrrho’s tongue, but he resisted uttering it. Volk’s earnest face, as the big man stood at the centre of the circle, looked serious. Now was not to undermine his new found confidence, calculated Pyrrho. Instead he beckoned Volk over and informed him that they needed to depart. Volk nodded his acquiescence and rushed back to the group of soldiers to make preparations.
It didn’t take long, no one had much in the way of baggage, and so they set off once again. The clouds turning grey above them. Marcia shivered, then wrapped her long coat around herself more tightly instinctively.
“Do you worry for your sister?” she asked Pyrrho after a while.
“She will be alright”
“But that is not what I asked”
“You will think me weak minded, sentimental”
“Ha! Sentimental is not something I would associate with you of all people”
“I know, but as we approach this cursed place, where it all began for Aesara and I…” Pyrrho trailed off
“You grow more concerned for her” Marcia finished the sentence
“It’s funny, because as kids she was the one who looked after me. Even after her, her opperation”
“She was lucky to survive such a procedure, most don’t”
“Lucky is a relative term. Most don’t grow up in the cells beneath a mad man’s layer”
“A layer we now find ourselves returning to”
It was Pyrrho’s turn to shiver, but he lacked a cloak to pull about himself as a comforter. Instead he spoke, “How much do you know of it?”
“A little, rumour and hearsay mainly. It is a long way from Fortunestone and so is not, was not, an immediate concern. But I did look into it a little when….”
“I left town” it was Pyrrho’s turn to finish an incomplete sentence. “You tried to find me?”
“No, I was too angry to try and find where you had gone, but did try and work out where you had come from. What may drive your disappearance, what drove your actions towards me”
“The skeletons in my cupboard?”
“Maybe one or two, I have a feeling that were I to find all of them I would need a whole cemetery to accommodate them”
“So what did you discover?”
“Nothing I could substantiate from so far away in Fortunestone. But I spoke to traders from the area, noble people coming to the feasts, servants, soldiers.”
“Tell me what you could not substantiate and I shall tell you if you’re close”
Marcia briefly stopped walking in surprise. Head tilted as she looked at Pyrrho pacing ahead of her. “What is this madness? The ever mysterious Pyrrho is actually prepared to share his tales with me?”
“Like I feared, perhaps I am getting weak willed as we approach our destination?” Pyrrho shrugged his shoulders.
“Then I must take advantage at once” Marcia trotted to catch up with Pyrrho. “There was talk of a far off war”
“There is always war”
“I have not finished. There was a war, a refugee caravan found itself in the middle of it. They were slaughtered.”
“Unfortunately nothing too unusual in that also”
“A mother defended her two children. Fought like a demon, armed with only a cleaver she dispatched countless foes. But eventually the numbers worked against her, she was overwhelmed.”
“Sounds like a poor fire side legend to me”
“Then care to correct me?”
“Mum was blind drunk. It wasn’t a caravan, she’d heard of a travelling mead merchant had been knocked over in the fighting, took her kids scavenging”
“But she fought hard?”
“Because she suspected them of trying to steal her rightful booty. When she got knocked down her daughter attempted to defend her. Aesara was what, ten or eleven? But she was the one with the cleaver. Then one of the soldiers, a Drakhan, overpower her guard, shattered her shin with an axe blow. He would have finished her off, if it wasn’t for a comrade remarking that Aesara was sort of pretty, making some joke that if their master could patch her up she wouldn’t be able to run from him” Pyrrho shuddered at the distasteful memory.
“And what did the other child do?”
“He hid, like a rat in the shadows”
“He maintained his freedom though?” asked Marcia. Talking about Pyrrho indirectly made it easier for both of them to discuss his past.
“For a while. Attempted to get to his sister, found his way past the sentries, into the gaol, to her door”
“He couldn’t get the door open. Managed to pick pocket some keys, but couldn’t find the right one. Took too long. Got caught.”
“Imprisoned?” Marcia’s responses were getting shorter, eager to leave Pyrrho the space he needed to tell his story.
“After the torturing, yes. They were keen to discover how he’d made his way into the depths of their hellish installation. Who he was working for. They were reluctant to believe that a simple child could have outwitted their defences. It took a long time for them to be convinced of the boy’s story.”
Marcia stopped again in surprise. But then quickly caught up again, wanting to hear more, but unsure how hard to push. “Seven years of torture?”
“Off and on. Mainly on.”
“What did he….what did you do?” she lent a hand on his shoulder, left it there for a second or two. A wolf whistle from the group behind them drawing an angry glance.
“Hid. Both up here” Pyrrho tapped his head “And in the warrens of their lair. Sometimes it took them a few hours to find me, some a few days.”
“Why didn’t you escape properly?”
“I couldn’t leave Aesara behind. Couldn’t abandon her to defend herself again”
“What was happening to here during this time?”
“We didn’t get opportunity to talk all that much, but from what I could work out, by day she watched the soldiers train in the square below her cell, learning their techniques, practising. I think she took up carving as well, honing her new leg.”
“And at night?” Marcia almost dare not ask
“She honed her defensive skills” was all Pyrrho was prepared to say, memories of the sound of the night time visitors to her cell down the hall from his. The sound of struggle. The sound of his sister crying.
“Your ultimate captor, did you meet him?” Marcia spoke quickly to change the subject as she felt Pyrrho recede into himself.
“Did he strike you as capable of achieving the technology we’ve seen the Drakhan using?”
“He was capable of anything and everything”
“What drives someone to delve into these dark technologies?”
“Simple. Power. At first I think he was almost as much of a captive as we were. But as his knowledge deepened, so did his influence. Progress no matter the cost became his motto”
“The stories I heard of the region painted him as a mad man, an eccentric. But how would such a person operate in these dark days without something to trade? Simple economics. I should have investigated sooner” Marcia’s shoulders shrank lower.
“There was no way you could conceive the threat, not from so far away” Pyrrho attempted to soothe, almost grateful for the focus to be taken from him.
“But now the threat laps at my town’s walls” her head bowed, but then came back up, she looked at Pyrrho. “Tell me one more thing”
“How did the both of you escape in the end?”
Pyrrho gave an uneasy laugh, “we finally tried working together. Only took seven years to realise. We’d each become more introverted under the conditions. But when we came together, we clicked”
“That simple, uh-huh?”
“The planning took time, but the execution went almost to plan”
“I’d scoped the route out, but it had to traverse a guards post. Had only expected one to be on duty at the time, but there were three.”
“You were discovered then?”
“No, that bit actually went smoothly. Aesara destroyed them, no other word for it. She unleashed something that day” he paused “a rage she could no longer contain. It scared me.”
“But it got you out of a tight corner?”
“At a cost. Aesara was still not herself as we made our way out of the complex, the rage still coursed through her veins. The route out went via a small well, much like the one back at the hamlet. Aesara stopped to wash the blood from her hands, to splash it on her face. I urged her on. We were still on enemy territory. But she ignored me, just scrubbing at her hands. We were discovered”
“If only it had been. No. It was a young boy, seven or eight, no older than I had been when we were first captured.”
“What happened to him?”
“Aesara happened to him. We could have just left then, fled. But she wanted no witnesses, no way of following us. After what she’d been through, Aesara was not going to take a risk with her freedom”
“Oh” Marcia could think of no other response.
They walked on in silence for a while, but Pyrrho was compelled to finished his story. “Aesara calmed in the following days as we trekked south. But if anything, that made things worse. She could make no more sense of her depth of her actions than I could. We both pulled back into ourselves, became near strangers again. At the first fork in the road we went our separate ways.”
“Until the dawn of the Steed’s final charge?”
“Yes. And now we come back together to finish our story once and for all. One way or another.”