Link to all chapters
The river wound and curved its way through the grasslands, marked by occasional clumps of trees like beads on a string. The strangers had elected to camp by its bank about a kilometer away from where Ryou and Darius had stopped. Darius led Ryou through the darkness with such caution that it took them over an hour to creep nearer. For the last twenty minutes, Ryou could also hear horses snort, stamp and whicker, and sporadic shouts and laughs. Ryou had grown used to how dark the nights were in this land, and his eyes could lead him without too much stumbling and falling by the light of the quarter moon and stars; by contrast the pinpoint yellow light of a fire looked as alien in the distance as neon.
At one point Darius gestured at Ryou to stop and hunker down in the shadow of a dense thicket, then he crept away. He took nearly an hour to get back, stretching Ryou's nerves at every shout and outburst of laughter from the other camp.
Then Darius appeared at his side like a phantom and sat down, making Ryou jump.
"Well?" whispered Ryou. "Are they bandits?"
Darius was staring blindly ahead in the direction of the campfire and appeared to be chewing something over. "No, worse. Deserters. Five of them. The three doing all the talking are not Imperials or Assyirian. From their Latin and the way they're drinking, my best guess is Jiroh."
"Oh. What are we going to do?"
Darius scratched his chin. Then he looked at Ryou. "We need horses, weapons and food, or we are not going to make it very far. Besides, I don't like knowing these guys are roaming around the same countryside we are. If they ride us down in daylight, we're dead meat. It's better to take the fight to them now. They can't harm us once they're dead."
Ryou had had the feeling this was where all this was going, but Darius's curt outline of a plan to murder five people in cold blood before they could do the same to them still sent shockwaves through Ryou's mind. To think he'd once considered Darius's handling of the policeman back in Tokyo to be excessive...Ryou really was far from home, far from law and order. But this was a fact, and one he had to deal with. So, "There's five of them," was all he said.
Darius was watching the distant fire again. "Yeah. Five bandits I could take; that kind of scumbag can't fight anything harder than helpless peasants. Five trained soldiers is a different matter. There's two standing watch, and the guy stationed at the horses knows what he's doing, at any rate. I can't get near him."
And then Darius smiled, the same smile that had haunted Ryou and dragged him to the Outlands in its wake. "It's going to be a gamble, but hell, it's a better way to go than slowly starving to death or rotting in an Imperial cell. Listen up, Ryou. Stay here and keep an ear peeled. If I beat them, I'll be back to fetch you."
"If I'm not, it'll be your turn to gamble; use your powers to get out of here."
"The powers you specifically told me were too dangerous to use?" Ryou said, keeping his voice down with an effort. "Why are you saying you'll do this all by yourself? There's five of them. And you're still injured."
"Do you know how to fight?"
"That's why I'm going in by myself. And yeah, I'll be straight with you, you might end up on the outside of the world with the Furies all around you if you use your magic. But those fuckers will send you to much the same place, only it'll be longer and a lot more painful. Might as well take a shortcut. Hopefully you'll pull a real trick out of your hat and get back to your country. It could happen; you did it once before, even if it was only from the no man's land. The homing instinct is strong. Now stay here and-"
Darius broke off as Ryou grabbed him by the wrist and stopped him from getting to his feet. "Wait, there's got to be another way to deal with these people."
"Deal? Did you not see what they did to that summering camp back there?"
"You said it wasn't them."
"It'll be more of the same. Soldiers are dangerous men, magian. I've been in the army since I was fifteen, I've learned to order them, discipline them and earn their respect, and even I can't stop the occasional infighting and unsanctioned looting. Soldiers who've deserted and lost whatever control their leaders had over them are lower than dogs and more dangerous than rabid wolves."
"You were ready to cut a deal with the border crossers," Ryou reminded him.
Darius frowned. "Yeah, because if they hadn't taken it, I could have beaten the shit out of them. They weren't fighters, just scrappers. At five against one, these guys are going to kill me if I don't get the drop on them. I'm good, but I'm not that damned good."
"So you're just going to attack them like that? Charge in and hack at them?"
"No," answered Darius with a heavy look, "I'm going to crawl nearer, wait until some of them are asleep, and then I'll try to creep in, score a weapon and slit a few throats before things get noisy."
Ryou pushed down the instinctive recoil of a civilized man at the notion of cutting anyone's throat in real life, and focused on more practical concerns. "How easy will that be? Didn't you just say you couldn't get near the one guarding the horses?"
"Not easy at all, which is why I'm telling you to get ready to run for it any way you can," answered Darius in a quiet yet steely voice.
"In the interest of both our safeties, can I offer another suggestion?" Ryou countered just as firmly.
They stared at each other for a few tense seconds, then Darius settled back down in the thicket. "I got some time to kill while I wait for them to get drunk and sleepy, so go ahead."
Darius told Ryou his plan was perfectly stupid; so stupid it might even work, which was what Ryou was counting on. In his experience gleaned from dealing with the sales forces of multinational corporations, the bigger, bolder and more appealing the misdirection, the easier it was to get people to swallow it.
So instead of creeping towards the campfire, he stopped fifty yards away and shouted: "Help! Can you hear me? Help me!"
The sound of men getting ready to settle down for the night abruptly ceased. Then Ryou heard a succession of weapons being drawn.
"No, you stay here," someone barked in the camp up ahead. "You and you, come with me."
Ryou felt a flash of relief that he'd understood the harsh order. Darius was the only person he'd spoken to so far in this strange world, and though his traveling companion assured him that Ryou had somehow broken the Curse of Babel, it was hard to believe. When Darius spoke, his lips moved in time with his words, yet Ryou could swear he was hearing Japanese. Hopefully the reverse was true too, and these men would not notice anything odd about Ryou's speech.
"Here, over here!" Ryou shouted helpfully, directing towards his position the feet finding their way through long grass and bracken in the dark.
Three men surrounded him a moment later. Two of them did no more than glance at him, then they turned away, eyes darting to the night around them. They were armed with strongly curved bows no longer than their arm, arrows already notched. The third man stopped in front of Ryou. He had a large chest like a barrel encased in boiled leather armor, but something about him reminded Ryou of the suit-and-tie VIPs he frequently dealt with; an air of self-assurance and command.
"Who the fuck are you?" he asked. He had a short sword pointed at Ryou's chest.
"Please- I'm unarmed." Ryou stayed kneeling, though he leaned away from the blade. "I- I'm lost, I've not eaten in days. Can you please help me? Just a bit of food..."
The large man split his time between staring suspiciously out into the night and giving Ryou a disbelieving look.
"Gex?" someone back at the camp shouted, making the horses whiny and stamp. "Don't stay out there, regroup."
Gex, if this was him, gave Ryou a piercing look. Ryou met his gaze, trying to look pitiful. Finally Gex reached down and grabbed him by the shoulder. "Coming."
"What you got?"
"Fuck if I know."
Ryou made pained noises and exaggerated his limp as he was half walked, half dragged back to camp.
Gex shoved him forward. Ryou staggered and almost fell into the campfire. The heat didn't dispel the chill he felt as he remembered four bodies near a smear of ashes in a pile of rubbish...
"Gex?" A man spoke tightly from off to Ryou's right, near where the horses were tethered. "If there's more, the fire makes us a target."
"I don't think there's more. Come look at this, Gaius. It's an odd one."
"Get him talking. I'm going to take a look around. Chozz, watch the horses."
One of the men grunted and marched off towards the animals without a backward glance, an arrow still notched in his bow. The last two were at the edge of where the campfire threw its light, looking dutifully out into the night. Ryou's heart was tight with tension. These men were more disciplined than he'd thought. Darius was right, this was a stupid plan. Too late to worry about it now though.
"Are you soldiers?" Ryou asked, looking around. Three rolls of blankets were laid out around the fire, much more comfortable than the ground Ryou had been sleeping on for four nights now. The camp was littered with sacks, hobnailed sandals, a javelin resting against a stunted tree off to one side, a large uncorked jug, and some flat tin squares with scrapes of food on them, dropped near a pot blackened by the fire.
Ryou's question didn't earn him any friends. Gex acted as if Ryou had never opened his mouth, but the two men at the edge of the camp glanced back at Ryou with scowls. One of them didn't have any front teeth left, it made the grimace he threw at Ryou even more sinister. These were certainly deserters, then, and did not like to be reminded of the fact. But it'd been a logical question to ask for someone who had not known about their camp beforehand.
"Who are you?" Gex asked Ryou. In the light of the fire, his face and hair were filthy and he hadn't shaved in days. A huge pinkish wart, the size of Ryou's thumb, hung from the side of one eye, twisting it out of shape. He stank as he leaned forward. In the light of the fire, Ryou guessed that this frightening fat man was around thirty.
"Um, my name is Ujiie Ryou," answered Ryou, looking him straight in the face and not letting his eyes stray to the wart or to the other men around them. "I was traveling with an escort when we were attacked by enemies of my family. My guards were killed, but I managed to escape. I couldn't find the road again, my horse got away on the first night, um, I've been walking for days. My shoes disintegrated this morning...I didn't think I could go on, but then I saw your fire..."
Gex's gaze fell to Ryou's bare feet, the state of which did indeed bolster his claim. Ryou looked appropriately wan and tired, and if Gex listened closely he'd hear the rumblings of Ryou's stomach at the smell of food from the pot, despite the clench of tension in his gut. But Gex seemed awfully intrigued by Ryou's outfit, too. Ryou had ditched the tie and jacket, but he'd kept the coat and shirt, and there wasn't much he could do about his pants. He didn't think he looked much like a native, especially compared to these men. There was not one piece of armor that matched another amongst these soldiers, but they definitely had more in common with the way Darius was dressed the first time Ryou had met him rather than with Tokyo salarymen.
"Look..." Ryou licked his lips, his tension not at all faked, though he was deliberate in letting it show. "My family is rich. I don't have any money on me, I can't pay for food, but if you can- if you can escort me back to my country, my father will give you a rich reward."
"How much?" said one of the guards instantly, turning Ryou's way. Ryou felt a flutter of hope. He was here as a distraction, but the venal question itself might be a way of getting out of this without risk or bloodshed.
"Oh, my father is a rich merchant and I'm his oldest son. He'll pay one hundred aurei to get me back safely," said Ryou. It was the sum Darius had suggested when Ryou had asked what kind of bribe would be both appealing yet believable. Ryou didn't know if this was pocket money and change he was talking about, or if it would hit the considerable limit of his visa card in local currency.
"Keep a watch out, there," Gex told the deserter who'd taken a couple of steps in towards the fire, eyes shining with sudden greed. The command was given absently, and Gex didn't repeat it when the man merely stopped where he was and only half turned back to his lookout. "Where you from?" he asked Ryou.
"Assyria," answered Ryou. It was a gamble, but if these men could be bribed to get him and Darius back...
"Fuck," muttered the man near the horses. He'd drifted a little closer too.
Gex scratched his thick jowl, a rasping noise louder than the fire's crackle. "Hm."
"Maybe more than a hundred," said Ryou, a chill spreading through him as he felt the wisps of a chance slipping out of his hands. He didn't try to appeal to Gex's kindness. Gex had been staring at him all along, but he hadn't once looked at Ryou in any way that suggested he thought of Ryou as a person in need of help, or a fellow human being at all. If Ryou could not convince him, or if Gex thought he was in any way a danger, the man would slit Ryou's throat with less thought than he would eat a meal. Ryou had known, from the way Darius had talked about them, that these men were dangerous and callous, but now that he was the focus of Gex's attention, he felt the truth of it.
"Gex?" said the toothless man. "You think he's telling the truth?"
"Does it matter?" Gex answered, eyes still moodily pinning Ryou where he sat.
"Huh? But, man, a hundred , Gex. A hundred hard ones!"
"Yeah, as long as we get him home to daddy," sneered Chozz, now standing near the rump of the nearest horse, facing outwards with a notched arrow in his bow but his attention towards the fire. "A hundred Emperors to get him back to Assyria and a nice clean rope thrown in by the Bitch King's men to go with it. We can get one aureus for him down the road, that's shorter."
"Did I hear that fucker right? Did he say he was from Assyria?" growled the fifth man, appearing out of the night near the end of the line of tethered horses. He patted one of them on the muzzle as he passed, then grabbed Chozz and shoved him off towards the back of the camp. "Stay at your post, asshole."
"Sorry, Gaius," said Chozz, cringing. He gripped his weapon and marched off towards the last horse in line.
Chozz and the two other unnamed soldiers were thin, stooped and had the fidgety movements of vermin; Gaius was more like Gex, someone used to giving orders as well as receiving them. His square face was deeply lined, though he was probably in his late twenties, like Ryou. The right side of his face was a deeply ridged mess of pink scarring where his ear should have been. Over a long tunic he wore a chest-plate of leather enforced with crudely decorated metal circles over chest and belly, a belt with leather bands hanging to his knees, and sandals strapped up the ankle. He was giving Ryou a look that suggested he instantly mistrusted and disliked him, but Ryou had seen him give Chozz the same, so it might not signify much.
"Says he's some rich bastard's son from Assyria." Gex straightened up and stepped back. "That buddy of yours, Aurelius Vibius Arvina, he'll pay twenty denarii for Alliance soldiers and one aureus for Assyrian and Aksumite, right? Think we can give him this one?"
It'd been decided so offhandedly, without even a glance his way, that Ryou took a second to figure out that Plan B had failed. This meant his life now depended on Plan A working...
Gaius came to a stop before Ryou and looked down at him. "Aurelius'd take any Assyrian, man, woman or child; he won't be picky as long as he and the Tribune get their cut."
"Works for me," said one of the others with a snicker, which he abruptly interrupted when Gaius tossed his short bow at him to hold with a bit more force than necessary.
Then Gaius took a step forward and punched Ryou square in the face.
Ryou hit the earth with a thump, stunned.
Strong hands grasped his coat's collar and pulled him up again. Ryou twitched, mind lucid but his body unable to respond.
"If you bastards didn't have oysters for eyes, you'd see this fucker is as Assyrian as I am," said Gaius. "We ain't getting squat except for a reason why he's here. Talk. Who are you?"
Pain was unfurling from the left side of Ryou's face and radiating all the way down to his neck and shoulders. He couldn't open one of his eyes fully, and he couldn't bring Gaius's face into focus. Concussion? No, he'd lost his glasses, that's why everything looked a little fuzzy. That notched up his panic even more than the vicious punch.
He did see, in a blur, that hard fist drawing back again. Ryou flinched and threw up his hands to protect his face. His legs were too rubbery to run away, or even let him stand; he was dangling from Gaius's hold. Every gasp of air through his mouth tasted of copper, and he could feel drops of blood trickle down from his nose and fall off his chin.
"Please-" the blow wasn't falling yet. "Please- I can pay you- just get me to-"
He didn't even see it this time, the world just jerked and went dark. When Ryou blinked it back again, he was a foot away from the nearest burning branch, face in the cinders. Then the pain came galloping back, a second behind consciousness but gaining fast. Ryou wondered what Gaius had broken; the pain was too broad to tell, spreading from his jaw where the second punch had landed and over the whole left side of his face. He scrabbled in the dirt, trying to shove himself away-
The world turned right side up again as he was once more hauled up by the coat.
Gaius waited until Ryou had blinked away the sparkles of darkness and was focusing on him again. "Are there more of you out there?" he asked in a voice as menacing as another raised fist.
With every ounce of considerable self-control Ryou possessed, he kept his shortsighted eyes riveted on Gaius's. His gaze did not twitch away to see if help was coming. It would come, or it would not. Pain would come, or it would not. Fear was happening to his body, shaking in Gaius's grasp. It felt miles away from Ryou's mind, still clear and focused on what he had to do. Only the pain had breached the distance, and Ryou was doing his best to conquer that too. Despite the casual brutality, he felt instinctively that Gaius was not doing this randomly; Gaius would be watching Ryou's expression and particularly his eyes right now, looking for the betraying flicker of a glance searching for outside intervention. Ryou did not look away. Beyond that, he didn't try to do any acting. He'd never been good at it. He showed Gaius what he'd showed the last bully who'd punched him in the face like that, almost fifteen years ago. Absolutely nothing.
Gaius did not find that off-putting, but then again he was doing this for business, not for fun. He dropped Ryou, and then his foot shot out and caught Ryou in the stomach as the latter fell forward. Ryou hit the ground with a thud, fighting the pain and a surging rise of nausea. He was still in possession of his faculties, but the pain was gaining on that now, he was afraid he might slip up. He could not slip up.
He lay panting in the dirt, muscles clenching in anticipation. A footstep near his shoulder made him flinch and roll into a ball on instinct. Somebody nearby laughed.
Gaius didn't kick him again. He took three steps around Ryou and crouched near the fire. Then he went back to his previous position. Ryou waited, still hunched over, but when nothing was said, and the men around him fell silent, he finally looked up.
"These yours?" said Gaius. He was holding out Ryou's glasses.
If Ryou had ever been an optimist, he'd have hoped at that point that his helplessness had convinced these men he was in earnest. As it were, he was not an optimist, but he still couldn't see what Gaius was getting at.
"Here, put them on." Gaius tossed them to the ground in front of Ryou.
Ryou licked his lips, tasted blood. He slowly reached towards his glasses, expecting a sandal to come crashing down on them or on his fingers, or on both. But Gaius didn't move. Ryou put on his glasses, his hands shaking so hard in reaction that it took him two tries. When he looked up, Gaius was watching him with an unreadable expression.
"Can you see better now?" Gaius asked.
The simulacrum of consideration in his voice made Ryou's skin crawl. He tried to move his lips to once more repeat that he could pay, but Gaius reached out and caught his aching jaw in his fingers. Then there was a ching and Ryou was looking at a short knife hovering in front of his eyes; the wooden handle was crude and it'd been sharpened so many times the blade looked like whittled bamboo, but it was undoubtedly sharp. It was in front of his eyes long enough for him to get a good look at it, and then it was placed against his cheek. The metal was cold in the night air.
"Talk or I start cutting," said Gaius.
Ryou stared at him, but peripherally he was aware they had an audience now. He couldn't take the risk of looking around, but he thought everyone except for Chozz was gathered around to see this bit.
"Guy's frozen stiff," one of them laughed.
"Like a rabbit starin' at a weasel," said the toothless man. "Heeey, look at those eyes, so narrow. Ever seen the like? Gaius is right, Assyrian my ass."
"Wait-" Ryou whispered, eyes still fastened on his tormentor's. His jaw ached but he kept on speaking, a soft thread of words. "Please- believe me- can pay-"
Gaius's eyes narrowed. Ryou couldn't tell if it was anger or doubt...
"Don't damage him too much. Don't want him croaking before we can get our twenty denarii," said Gex. Ryou could see him over Gaius's shoulder; the large soldier had sat down near the cooking pot a few feet away and was chewing on a strip of jerky. Though it was obvious the three rodents were followers, it was less clear who, of Gex or Gaius, was the actual leader of this band.
"We're not getting anything for this wimp," Gaius sneered.
"Hit him in the face a few more times. He'll be so bruised, we can say he's from one of the Free Cities; that'll count as Alliance. And by then he'll be ready to swear he's from the moon just to get away from you. Your buddy Aurelius will take him off our hands."
Ryou's face was only a foot away from Gaius's; close enough to see an ugly light go through the other man's eyes. "He's not my buddy."
A sharp pain. Ryou flinched away from the knife that had cut into his right cheek.
"Aurelius can look down at you for what you are, Gaius, but what we all are, are guys who can use twenty denarii, so don't kill him," said Gex philosophically before cleaning a gap between his teeth with his finger.
"I won't kill him," Gaius said, clearly irritated by both the words and the suggestion he was about to lose his temper and cost them a source of revenue. The knife was resting against Ryou's cheek once more. The first cut was starting to sting in pulsing waves. The men around them were snickering. It sounded like even more of them now- no, that was the horses whinnying in the background, a noise of alarm.
In Ryou's field of vision, Gaius suddenly looked up and over his shoulder, eyes narrowed.
Gaius's move gave Ryou a clear view of the back of the camp, so he saw Darius stepping into the light, an arrow notched on Chozz's recurve bow, two others held in the hand pulling back the string.
The arrow left the bow with a clack. One of the men standing two feet away from Ryou jerked and fell to the ground.
Gaius dropped Ryou and spun around, reaching for the sword hanging from his belt. Suddenly bereft of support, Ryou slumped forward. He managed to catch himself on his forearms before he took a painful nosedive into the dirt.
When he looked up, the first thing he saw was Gex staggering away from the pot, hands grasping an arrow protruding from his thick neck. Blood poured out of the wound and from his mouth. If he was making a sound, Ryou couldn't hear it over the scream of horses in the background.
Darius flicked the last arrow around his fingers and fitted it to the bowstring in one fluid, rapid movement. But Gaius was already on him. Darius fired at close range, missed - without skipping a beat he raised the bow and caught a thrust from Gaius's short blade on the upper curve. He then shoved bow, weapon and soldier away with one hard thrust. Darius spun around while Gaius was still staggering, pulling a short sword from the belt he'd not had half an hour before. Three long strides brought him over to the deserter standing on the other side of the fire, toothless mouth still gaping wide. The man had a bow and arrow too, but he was still fitting the two together, movements ragged with shock, when Darius lunged at him. The deserter lifted his weapon in an attempt to shield himself. Darius's hand dipped and punched the blade into the man's belly from beneath the bow. The deserter doubled over, coughed wetly and fell. Darius spun to face Gaius, stance low, drawing a dagger from the back of his sword belt and holding it in his left hand.
Gaius had made no move to help his fellow soldier. He'd taken advantage of the other man's demise to go grab a helmet and a high, rectangular shield from where it'd been leaning against a backpack.
One of the horses ripped out its picket and bolted, followed by another; the others pulled helplessly at their ropes.
Arm fitted through the strap of the shield, Gaius stared at Darius in the firelight. Then he glanced around...at Ryou.
Ryou reacted as quickly as he could. He staggered to his feet and fell forward more than ran to a spot behind Darius.
Gaius grimaced. "So that's how it is. You should've shot me first, asshole. If you'd missed and hit your little friend, you'd have been giving him a better death than I will. As for you, you're Assyrian without a doubt. And I think I'll be getting more than one aureus by the looks of you," he added, giving Darius's face, stance and braces a calculating look.
"Isn't bounty hunting falling a bit low for a Praetorian?" asked Darius, and Ryou could hear the cutting smirk in his voice. "Who's this Aurelius I heard you mention, your one-time Centurion? Deserters from the Legion are traditionally dragged behind their leader's chariot, but he gives you odd jobs and money instead. You must have been a good man once. He must feel so very sorry for you."
Gaius had that ugly look in his face again. "You-...I fought a lot of your kind, I've got ten years of campaign behind me-"
"Yeah, they're behind you alright," said Darius, leaping forward. He circled Gaius, who turned to face him with the shield. Gaius shouted, a rough holler as he charged forward, shield punching out- then he stopped and turned as Darius evaded it and dodged around him, trying to come in from the side.
"Fuck, you're one of the Beast's curs, aren't you," Gaius spat.
"And proud of it," said Darius, darting in again.
Like a hound baiting a bear, Darius dodged from one side to the other, nipping in with his sword. Gaius had to turn violently this way and that to keep the shield between them.
Then Darius stopped and glanced quickly behind him, checking his position in relation to the fire. In that split second Gaius surged forward and tried to ram him. The short sword drew back sharply to dart forward the moment Darius was knocked back or down-
Darius threw himself to the right to stay away from that killing thrust, and also out of reach of what was in essence a battering weapon. A danger and an obstacle for an unarmored fighter; well-honed defense and offense combined which to Ryou, heart in his mouth, looked impregnable. He prudently moved away, to the other side of the fire so that he could use it as a barrier against Gaius if the Roman attacked him. But so far nobody was paying him any attention.
"What's wrong, Assyrian, can't do it without your horse?" Gaius said, a little breathless, as Darius circled him again. "You dickless cowards are only good for riding and shooting-"
Darius darted in. Gaius had the shield between them again. It bashed out and the short sword stabbed forward, but it'd just been a feint. Darius had immediately moved back again.
The horses were whickering worriedly, but other than that the only noise in the camp was the stomp of feet and both men breathing heavily. Particularly the Roman...Ryou licked his lips, then took a swipe at the blood caking them, eyes fixed on the fighters. The Roman wasn't moving as much as Darius, but he was fully armored and carrying that big shield, and he was a heavier man to start with. If Darius could wear him out-
Darius was certainly trying to do something. Ryou could feel it, see it in the way his moves - go in, feint, get out quickly - looked rehearsed. As for Gaius, each bash-and-stab gesture was rigorously identical to the next; he must have repeated that sequence a hundred - a thousand times before.
Darius dodged in one more time-
- and this time he ducked, body low.
Gaius lashed out with the shield- but Darius had stopped just out of reach and at an angle where the bulk of the shield was obstructing Gaius's immediate line of sight.
The instant the shield was out - a bare two inches from Darius's position, that must have been a calculated move born of observation - Darius hurled himself forward to Gaius's left, away from the short sword jabbing thin air. Darius slammed full-bodied into the shield as it was being drawn back; rolled against it and turned and struck at Gaius's head with the sword and the full force of his spin behind it. He continued to turn and brought the dagger to bear, stepping forward and stabbing at Gaius's back near the neck as the Roman staggered forward.
Gaius fell to the ground with a thud Ryou felt through his bare feet, the shield caught beneath him. His legs spasmed once and then he didn't move again. The round helmet he'd worn had fallen, the flap of metal covering the back of his neck dented with the force of Darius's blow. Blood was flowing and starting to drip down his throat into the dirt.
Darius crouched over the body, breathing heavily. Ryou heard him mutter between gasps for air, "...A ten year veteran...but so am I...loser..."
Ryou found he'd sunk down to the ground as well as the release of tension turned his legs to water.
The horses were snorting and rolling their eyes, white in the darkness. Darius wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and then spat at the ground. As far as Ryou could see, he hadn't been injured, but he was holding his side now in a way that suggested he was in pain. It was a good thing he'd gotten Gaius when he had...
Darius shook himself like a dog getting out of a stream. Then he stood and walked over to Gex. The large man had both hands around the arrow, which was shaking, Ryou could see it from where he was. Darius looked down at him, dispassionate, then he lifted his sword straight up, both hands on the hilt, and-
Ryou managed to twitch his gaze away, but he couldn't do anything about the meaty sound, the bloodied gargle and the threshing noise of a body jerking in bloodied ash and mud. Ryou took off his glasses with a hand that was shaking, felt gingerly at the left side of his face, and let the pain of his examination distract him as Darius walked around the rest of the camp and made sure of the other deserters.
Then a pair of bare feet stopped in Ryou's blurred field of vision. Ryou put on his glasses as Darius crouched down before him, sword propped between them like a staff. Darius's face was hard, eyes unblinking.
"That's done, and we're safe. But I have to ask you something."
"You do know that it'd have been safer for me to kill the guard, free the horses, scatter them and make off on one of them in the confusion, leaving you to get tortured to death. Right?"
"I guess so," Ryou answered.
Darius clenched his teeth. Then he said, "Now, I know you're not dumb. Why did you suggest this stupid plan of yours? I never bound myself at any time to keeping you safe; in fact I damn well told you I could not promise to take you home four days ago. Why did you take the risk of trusting me like that?"
Ryou felt at his sore jaw. "Hm. 'Cause you didn't promise."
Darius looked confused.
"Besides, you'd rather fight than run away," Ryou added.
Darius let out a snort that sounded almost amused. "You got me figured out. I guess I'm not that hard to read. Unlike you."
He shoved against his thighs to stand up. Ryou craned his neck to find his friend looking down at him.
"I just don't get you. I've been a commander in the Assyrian army for years, I thought I could read men by now, but I just don't get you. If you're after something, I'm damned if I know what. If you're not, then you're either brave, crazy or selfless, and I just can't decide. But I do know one thing now, Uchee Ryou."
"Ujiie," said Ryou, tentatively taking the hand extended before him.
Darius pulled him to his feet. Ryou staggered, his legs still weak, and Darius caught him against his chest as if he'd expected it.
"I know you're damn tough," said Darius, face inches away from Ryou's. "That big Praetorian was knocking you all about the camp and you didn't squeal, cry for my help or even look away. You're definitely built like a magian rather than a soldier, but you could teach a whole phalanx the meaning of a backbone."
Ryou had the horrible certainty he was blushing, an unparalleled slip of his composure; the bruises and the firelight probably covered for him as he turned his face away and muttered dismissively, "It would have killed us both if I'd let them know you were there."
"Well yeah, but that's hard to remember when the guy's threatening to cut bits off your face," said Darius nonchalantly, turning and looping Ryou's arm over his shoulder. If he felt Ryou's shudder, he hopefully attributed it to the pain. "Come on, let's get away from this charnel house. I'll put you down near the river and go make sure of the remaining horses."
Ryou mumbled something indistinct, glad to get away from the fire and the corpses. He'd perpetrated that, or at least helped bring it about. Those men weren't anonymous extras in a movie drama; they'd had faces, scars, names, they'd been brutal and murderous, and now they were dead and would never eat from that pot or warm themselves by a fire again. What they were going to do to him did not in any way correct that fact; it just made it easier to deal with. Ryou knew he was going to feel torn about all this in the days to come, as reason and necessity battled with the knowledge that five men were dead with his help. Right now, though, shock and a few blows to the head were numbing everything. The only thing Ryou was glad of was to get away from the camp where one of the bodies, that of the nameless deserter who'd been felled by Darius's first arrow, was still twitching spastically and voiding itself with a windy gurgle that left nothing to the imagination.
"Here, sit here." Darius helped him down onto a half-rotted tree trunk near the river, then he disappeared and returned a moment later with a red scarf in his hands. He dipped it into the water and applied it to Ryou's face. Ryou wished he could tell Darius that this was not necessary and that even if it was, it hurt more than he liked, but all that would involve talking, and Darius's hand on his shoulder stopped him from leaning away.
"The cut is shallow. The rest doesn't look too bad, nothing broken at any rate," said Darius, tilting Ryou's head to get a better view of his face in the moonlight. "He was just warming you up, you know that, right?"
Ryou made an affirmative noise that did not involve moving his jaw or mouth.
"'Course, they weren't going to kill you outright. Nobody ever got anything from a dead body. I suppose that was a bit reassuring."
Ryou hadn't been thinking in quite those terms...
"They said they wanted to sell me...to..."
"Yeah, to some Roman. They get people from Assyria, Aksum or the Free Cities, and present them to Roma Praetorium as conquests even if the poor bastards have never been near a battlefield. They're not supposed to, of course, but the Tribunes let it slide. It's not just that they get a cut, and a morsel of honor. It's part of the war. Disrupts our lines of trade, makes Alliance merchants afraid of venturing out of their safe zones. Here, hold it here." Darius slipped off Ryou's glasses and held the cold cloth higher up near his temple where the first blow had landed. "You're going to be a sight tomorrow."
Ryou shrugged using only his right side. He knew what he looked like with a black eye. After the incident with the president back when Ryou was thirteen, he'd somehow lost the ability to make friends or fit in. His reputation for being a stuck up loner earned him some bullying from his peers. In his exclusive boy's school whose education principles had stayed firmly stuck at turn-of-the-century, such things were seen as character forming. When someone had somehow guessed his inclinations, the notion that here was some stuck up loner girly boy who could be further isolated, terrified and made to cry had attracted larger predators...Though really, the efforts of his one-time sempais were child's play next to what had happened and what could have happened tonight. Maybe it was the near-concussion from Gaius's ministrations, but Ryou felt like he was reaching back over the years to that fifteen year old self battling pain and humiliation, and a worse sense that he deserved them both, his only pride being that he wasn't going to let the bastards see any of this. He felt like he was holding that young boy in his arms the way Darius had held him earlier and telling him, "Don't worry, those kids have no idea what a real beating is; a man who makes them look like toddlers thinks you're tough rather than a geeky faggot, so don't let them get to you."
Ryou blinked as he realized he was drifting off, the cloth nearly slipping from his face. Darius was nearby. Ryou had been peripherally aware that Darius was checking his glasses for damage, but now they were on Darius's nose, and he was squinting and giving the world around him puzzled looks.
He removed them when he realized Ryou was watching. "I can't see how you can wear the damned things, everything is warped."
"That's because we don't have the same eyesight; we'd need different glasses," said Ryou, face aching all over again as an expression battled to make it onto his bruised features.
"I don't need spectacles," Darius groused, leaning over to put them back on Ryou's nose.
Ryou started to chuckle helplessly, even though it hurt. It was like something inside him was slowly unwinding.
"And it's now of all times that I get to see you laugh." Darius's look was a blend of exasperated amusement. "I just don't get you. Oh well, stay here. I'm going to take care of things." He made a vague gesture back at the camp before disappearing once more into the night.
Ryou's laugh drained away, leaving him breathing easily for what felt like the first time in hours. He stared out at the river, caught a little fleck of light where a fish had flashed a fin in the moonlight. The night was cold, the grass-scented air fresh in his mouth and on his bruised face. He was in some pain, and immensely happy to be alive right at this moment.
That night, Ryou rested near the embers of the fire. Darius had not wanted to take a chance other predators out there might see a blaze. But Ryou was warm, wrapped as he was in a dead man's horse blanket. Darius did not sleep near him; he was resting against a tree, a javelin, sword and bow at hand. When Ryou looked over, he'd see his friend nodding at times, but any small noise in the underbrush brought Darius's head up immediately.
Ryou wasn't sleeping much either; the pain in the jaw and leftover adrenaline were banishing sleep. Darius had dragged the bodies away to a spot away from both the camp and the river; Ryou could hear creatures growling and yapping at each other in that direction, and the sound of tugging and ripping. It didn't make him feel anything.
Ryou watched the stars wheel above him. It was as if he'd stumbled headlong into this strange world a week ago, and was now running full speed ahead because he'd fall if he tried to stop. Every step was taking him further away from his former life and self, and Ryou wondered when it would be too late for him to ever get back, assuming that time was not already well and truly past...
Nothing gets Mal's lil' heart beating like action, male bonding and bloodshed. Does this make me weird?