General Nabb sat astride a dappled grey horse, which was almost as thin and gaunt as himself, and stared grimly around the deserted courtyard of Lady Wyshell’s fortified mansion. His North Division had arrived ahead of time and, rather than wait for General Riddick’s army to join him from the south, Nabb had pre-empted the plan by sending soldiers disguised as peasants into the city to scope out the Pashrian defences.
The entire city was deserted, just as his scouts had reported. His soldiers were combing its streets, searching for someone, anyone, who could explain to him what had happened here and, as luck would have it, a shout from the courtyard gate brought news of a survivor.
Nabb swung down from his horse and hung the reins over a stone balustrade. He tucked his helmet under his arm, and wiped his hand over the sweating, spreading bald patch on his grey tonsured head. He walked to the gate and met them there, two of his infantrymen, with swords drawn, flanking a withered old man who could barely walk.
Nabb frowned. “Put up your swords,” he ordered, “I see no threat here.”
The soldiers sheathed their swords and the old man immediately kicked at the one on his right and spat at the other. The one on his left punched him in the throat and the old man crumpled to the ground, choking and coughing.
“Enough!” Nabb yelled, his voice reverberating around the empty walls. “If that man cannot speak to me, how will I find out what has happened here? Perhaps I might divine it from your seething entrails, idiot? I might just have to try.”
The red-faced soldier lifted the old man to his feet. Nabb unslung his water-skin from his shoulder, took out the stopper and offered it to the Pashrian. “Here,” he said, “and please accept my apologies for my men, they have marched many miles hoping for a battle and, I’m afraid, they are still itching for a fight, no matter how small.”
The old man glared at Nabb but took the skin and drank deeply. As he tipped back his head further, lifting the skin higher, Nabb slipped a knife out of his belt and held the blade against the old man’s throat. The man’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down against the sharp blade as he swallowed, scraping dry skin from his scrawny neck. He stopped drinking and tried not to keep swallowing. His eyes were wide and full of fear.
“Better?” Nabb asked with a cruel smile. “Good! Now. I would really like to know where all your countrymen have disappeared to and, in particular, the old cunt, Wyshell. Do you think I might remove this knife from your throat so you might enlighten me?” With difficulty, the old man managed a nod, wincing as the knife grazed his neck a little more. Nabb stuck the knife away and took back his water then led the old man by the arm into the courtyard and sat him on a low wall that surrounded the well in the centre of the open space.
“So,” Nabb raised his brow in expectation, “where are they?”
“Gone,” the old man croaked, “all gone.”
“You don’t say?” Nabb sneered. “I admit I had not noticed.” He moved his face up close to the old man’s and wrinkled his nose instinctively at the whiff of the man’s breath. “Where have they gone to?”
“To Tal’on,” the old man wheezed.
“All of them? The entire city?” Nabb pressed.
“’Cept for me, aye,” the man replied, “too old to bother, too stuck in me ways.”
“Tell me more. What is in Tal’on that made Wyshell take all her people there?”
The old man gave a snort. “What she always wanted. A throne.”
“She has gone to lay siege to Tal’on,” Nabb said, more to himself than the old man, “just as we came to do the same.”
“Not to lay siege,” the old man said, “to rebuild. Tal’on is dead, eaten, they say.”
“Eaten?” Nabb shook his head, smiling, “What could eat a city?”
“Beasts, I heard,” the old man was trembling as he spoke, “hundreds of ‘em, feeding on the city.”
“And these beasts are still in Tal’on? Wyshell hopes to drive them out?”
“Beasts are gone.”
“Gone? Do I detect a trend? The entire Gahr’oni nation appears to have gone,” he tilted his head, staring into the old man’s grey eyes, “’cept for you.”
The old man nodded grimly. “’Cept for me. I was born in Pashria and I lived in Pashria all my life. Never been outside the city walls and I plan to end my days in Pashria.”
“And so you shall,” Nabb’s knife was back in his hand in an instant and the blade sliced across the old man’s neck. The grey eyes widened in horror and his trembling fingers rose to touch his opened throat. “and so you shall,” Nabb repeated as he gave the old man the slightest of nudges and tipped him into the well. His thin, frail body hardly made a splash. Nabb inspected the bloody knife and looked around for something to clean it. There was nothing to hand so, with a shrug, he tossed it into the well after the old man.