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Dawn woke Ryou from a light doze. While drifting in a somnolent state, he heard Darius yawn, stand up and move off into the bushes for a few minutes.
"You awake, Ryou?" Darius asked as he returned, fitting the jogging pants back under the buckle of his sword belt.
"Yes." Ryou sat up and felt gingerly at the left side of his face. It was swollen, his left eye couldn't open more than a crack, but it was hurting less already.
Darius stretched, rolled his shoulders and then nodded at the fireplace. "Know how to make a meal out of hard tack, soaked jerky and lard?"
"No," answered Ryou without having to ponder the question too much. It was only the cramping ache of a stomach that had not seen much food the past five days that stopped him from saying, "Neither do I want to."
"Know how to wash clothes?" Darius was in a good mood this morning, if the undertone of teasing was any indication.
"I believe I can manage that," replied Ryou with a good ladle of reserved dignity, since Darius was undoubtedly expecting something along those lines. He wondered how that looked, coming out of his puffy, black-and-blue face. Pretty funny, from the way Darius chuckled.
"You do that, then. Here, I'll pick them out for you. Scrub them against a rock and then keep them in the water for a good while, it'll drown the vermin."
"I'll do my best," Ryou muttered, giving the nearest pack an unenthusiastic look.
Breakfast was as disgusting as Ryou had surmised, but he ate two bowls without pause. It was amazing what one could swallow if one was hungry enough. Darius then left with the mare to try to find the missing horses. When he eventually came back with the two that had gotten away, he built a new fire, as smokeless as possible, and put a plump rabbit he'd shot with the bow to roast. Then he went systematically through the dead men's belongings, taking out anything valuable. In the meantime, Ryou had washed the clothes as well as he could without soap, and spread them out to dry on the bracken.
After some roast rabbit and hard biscuits they had to dip in a mixture of river water and vinegary wine to eat, they dressed in the damp clothes. These were worn, non-descript, with patches and bald spots where armor had rubbed. The short woolen pants and shirt were itchy (it could have been psychosomatic, due to Darius's former mention of vermin); the long-sleeved tunic of thick linen felt stiff and odd, especially where it was reinforced with leather patches across the chest. Ryou's feet were too small for the thick boots Darius first had him try; he had to make do with a pair of shoes made from one piece of leather wrapping up over his foot, laced up and around the ankle, with a thicker sole of leather attached with hobnails that made a clatter when he walked across pebbles near the river. They were not warm, even after Darius showed him how to wrap his feet in woolen tubes beneath the shoe. Seeing Darius pulling on a pair of open-toed sandals made Ryou's feet feel even colder.
It felt wonderful to ditch the suit Ryou had worn for the last five days, most of them spent hiking and sweating, but he did wonder, as he looked down at himself in bemusement, what his subordinates would say if they could see him now.
Darius for his part had pulled on a long tunic which, from the bagginess around the middle, probably belonged to Gex. He was still wearing the jogging pants beneath that.
"They're comfortable," he said with a shrug when he caught Ryou looking askance at them. Then he gestured at the packs he'd ransacked, contents laid out all over the campground. "We'll take essentials and leave the rest. Above all, don't take anything belonging to that Roman."
"Isn't that his top you're pulling on?" Ryou asked.
"This thing?" Darius settled the heavy tunic over his other one with a couple of tugs and then patted the metal reinforcements. "This isn't his, not originally; he must have stolen it from some dead soldier on the battlefield when he ran for it. Better than walking around in his segmented mail for the first patrol to find him and drag him back. Just don't take any spoils without checking with me first, though. The last thing we want is to have anything of his on us if we get stopped by the Praetorians. The less we look like soldiers or bandits, the better. We'll say we're just two travelers going to the local border Path. I'll do the talking; you just keep quiet and try to look dumb."
"Are we likely to meet any?"
"I have no idea. Esma Deva has driven His chariot through this land, and his children have laid waste to men and cattle," said Darius; Ryou had by now figured out his friend was partially quoting from some text when he used that tone and formal words. "Who knows what's left anymore. The patrols aren't straying far from the road if these bastards were here, bold as daylight, that's for sure. Now, I've got an important question for you, Ryou."
"Yes?" said Ryou, looking up from the long knife Darius had insisted he carry in a scabbard tied to his forearm.
"Have you ever ridden a horse?"
Movie actors made it look easy. Then again, they had blue screen projections behind them to simulate speed, when they weren't just bouncing up and down on a prop. Even when they did ride for real, they probably had better equipment.
Ryou had never ridden before, but he did know what a proper saddle was supposed to look like. Here he was supposed to make do with a blanket and a rectangular leather padding thrown over the horse's back and held in place by cinches. The one around the horse's withers strapped down a wooden attachment that served as pommel and from which dangled two ropes with hoops at the end. They gave only minimum stability, and Ryou found he could put less than half his weight on this arrangement to get into the saddle before the whole thing moved under foot, the horse sidestepped towards him and Ryou either hopped up and down frantically to keep his balance or landed in the dirt.
In the end, Darius had to help him into the saddle. Ryou thought the whole getup was rickety and primitive; Darius was ecstatic that the Roman - the most likely originator - had had the good taste to provide his looters with such up-to-date arrangements instead of leaving them to make do with a pad and surcingle. Ryou didn't know what a pad and surcingle were, but decided to count his blessings without inquiring further.
They reached a paved road an hour after breaking camp. Ryou had only fallen off his horse twice, which Darius assured him was quite good for a first time rider. They'd let the stallion and the mare run free; "A gift to the herders, if they ever come this way again," Darius said philosophically. The extra gelding carried the baggage they'd kept from the campsite, packed into two satchels; the horse followed them obediently at the prompt of a long lead Darius tied to his own animal's rear cinch. The day was cool, even with the sun overhead; the wind blew in the tall grass and sparse trees. The road, when they reached it, evened out the horses' pace. It was well-paved, almost three meters wide, and totally deserted. Darius picked a direction at random and they rode for another half hour before spotting a stone marker. Darius looked pleased at what the pictograms told him.
"There's a way station not too far. They'll know how far the border is, and we can get some rations. I also need information."
"Won't it have suffered the same fate as that trappers' camp?"
"On an Imperial road? Don't bring bad luck by saying such things," Darius muttered with conviction, as if Ryou's words could really bring death and destruction in their wake. "If the Praetorians have lost their grip on this province that badly, then I definitely want to know about it sooner rather than later. Come on."
"What about the patrols on the road?" Ryou asked, voice choppy as his horse decided to suddenly pick up the pace for no discernable reason. "Did you hear what Gaius said last night?"
"About the bounty for Assyrian soldiers? Yeah, his voice carried."
Ryou pulled tentatively on the reins so that he wouldn't outpace Darius. He half expected the horse to abruptly stop and shake itself like last time - that’d been Ryou's second spill - but no, this time the bloody animal cooperated. Ryou had the feeling it was more for the company of Darius's horse than due to his own powers of persuasion.
"The Assyrians are at war with the Romans, right?" he asked, attention still mostly on his balance.
"At war with the most powerful Empire ever seen? Hell no, that'd be insane," said Darius, riding as easily as if he were sitting in an armchair.
That wasn't what Ryou had expected. "You aren't?"
"No. To start with, our countries are too far from each other. The Per Gathas don't allow armies to march through the Paths of Zaratusra; troops have to walk hundreds of miles across country to get anywhere. For centuries, Assyria, Aksum, Hatti-Ulep and other large countries were at peace and even friendly with the Imperium; we'd send envoys, trade when we could, and join forces hunting down bandit tribes hiding in the barbarian lands too far from any of us to be properly civilized. Or so my tutors taught me. It was long ago. I was supposed to read about it from some moldy old text at one point - I can read, I was taught when I was still young," he added, as if Ryou might have been in any doubt about it. "It was all about boring treaties instead of warfare. I lost the damned thing at the first opportunity and went out riding instead. My father hammered me for that, but it was well worth it. I cared more about learning to fight than worrying about dead peace pacts; by age six all us children knew that my generation would be the one to fight the Romans openly, whatever the tutors said."
Ryou looked at him curiously. So far Darius had always brushed off Ryou's questions about himself and his country whenever Ryou had had the energy to ask. But something had changed between them last night; there was no constraint in Darius's words now, and he seemed happy to wile away the time with talk and let the horses do the walking.
"Why? What happened?" Ryou prompted.
"The Imperium built roads," Darius said with a sharp gesture towards the one they were riding on. "As well as aqueducts, theaters, schools and baths. I'm not stupid enough to deny the Romans did a lot of good things throughout the Imperium and beyond, but the roads were the real problem. Defying the order of nature and the Paths of Zaratusra, say priests and passers alike. And they're probably right, but that doesn't concern me half as much as troop movement over thousands of miles. Smaller nations who didn't belong to anyone would go to bed thinking 'wouldn't it be nice to have great stone buildings like those Imperial provinces', and then they'd wake up next morning with a thousand legionaries camped by their well. That was just the start. After a couple of generations, those countries were as Roman as the Romans themselves, and then their young men joined the army, formed a locally based Legion that had both a home to defend and the hunger to expand, and suddenly the new neighbors of the Imperium realized that Roma Praetorium wasn't as far away as they thought. Some countries started aping the Romans in the hope that'd make them bigger and smarter and tough enough to resist; others voluntarily joined the Protectorate rather than become conquests. Nowadays, hell, when you look at it one way, outside of a few barbarian nations and some Empires so far from here I don't know their names, the whole world is Roman..."
"Is that what happened to Assyria?"
"In a way." Darius's expression became somber, gaze turned inward. "All this happened over many, many years, more than a man can count. We were so far from Praetorium, we didn't think it mattered. And hell, we took a liking to aqueducts and baths and whatever else I mentioned. Some people worried, but you see, Roma Praetorium is a weird place. It's like a pot constantly on the boil. Every twelve score years they have a revolution that slaughters half the population until the three rivers run red with blood. Then half their provinces revolt. It's easy to get complacent about a place like that. What some wiser people noticed, particularly those smart Ionians in the Free Cities, was that every revolution ended with a new Emperor, usually some fast-rising general or consul, taking over and starting a wave of conquests to get a better grip on his power and find a place far away from the capital to send the more hot-headed of their military. And every single time, the Imperium ended up bigger than before. They tried to warn us, those Ionians...we failed to listen until it was too late.
"Some time ago, before I was born, that fucking animal Appius Nautius Galeo took control, did the usual number on the senate, and since then blood has spread out like a tide over the lands. He's dead now, the Furies can pick their teeth with his bones, but his son, Vibius Galeo Cassianus, calling himself 'Chosen Shield', is just as bad. They were the ones who decided to expand in our direction, and they knew we wouldn't take that without resistance. By now, we'd figured out their game. We Assyrians had our day as conquerors too, I have to say; we're a hell of a lot bigger now than when Zaratusra first led us here, but now we content ourselves with our country and our provinces. Alone, we were vulnerable. So we formed the Alliance with our one-time enemy, Aksum, and the Free Cities and other neighbors. That was too big for even Arrius Galeo to break.
"We thought we were safe," Darius said, glaring at his horse's ears. "We weren't. Arrius Galeo turned to treachery when might didn't work. Roman gold started flowing into the Alliance, corrupting those whose heads didn't quite fit their shoulders. From one flood year to the next, Assyria was looking at troubles all over the provinces. So was Aksum and our other allies. And that was only the beginning. They...those jackals murdered our king. Seventeen years ago. Already...Sometimes I can barely believe that it's been so long. His son was too young to hold the country through the troubles we were facing. In the turmoil and the infighting, a Roman-loving piece of shit became the regent and took over our homeland, rot his heart." Darius spat on the side of the road. There was a dangerous, vindictive light in his eyes, abruptly reminding Ryou that all this was not ancient history, however much it might sound like it. Darius had lived through these terrible times and from the sound of it, he remembered them all too well.
"What happened?" he asked, when Darius was silent.
Darius had been deep in thought, not pleasant ones by the look on his face. Ryou's question reminded him he was in the middle of a story; he gestured as if shooing away the flies that were buzzing around the horses and continued, back to his usual casual style.
"The whore-get son of goats is dead now; been so for well over ten years. Still, the harm was done. Assyria became one more country in the string of lands that Roma Praetorium calls their Protectorates. We were too strong to be conquered and dragged into the Imperium, but we're supposed to be one of their faithful allies; send tribute and support troops, build an Imperial road, and allow Legions to use it to march right through our lands. Mind you, we did build the road in the past ten years," Darius added with a smirk. "We found it really useful to send our forces to attack the armies stationed on our soil, as well as quell those Roman-loving rebels who, seeing which way the wind is blowing, are still trying to start a civil war that will tear us apart and give us piece by piece over to the Imperium. It helps that the Imperium has problems of its own these past few years, internal and external. They want to appear strong, they can't afford to admit we're not under their thumb, so they pretend not to notice that we've kicked out anyone who even looks like a Roman, including their troops, their tax collectors and even their bath slaves. On our side, we pretend not to notice that there are a hell of a lot of Legions in the neighboring pro-Roman kingdoms, and that their advisors are training local troops to resist us. So to end my tale by answering your question, no, we’re not at war with the Imperium Romanum, both sides pretend we're still old friends and allies, sending each other flowery words and pretty gifts with each lying sack-of-shit emissary going back and forth while we attack each other's allies."
"You do?" Darius asked drily. "That's right, you're a magian, you're used to thinking in spirals."
"My own world has wars by proxy like that."
Darius rolled his shoulders beneath his armor. "Personally I like it better when it's just the likes of me and Gaius with nothing but steel between us. Though I shouldn't say that lightly, just in case Inder decides to take me up on that some more," he added with the superstitious gesture to deflect bad luck that he'd used several times before. "Legionaries are not to be taken lightly. They're well trained, well disciplined, well armed. I got Gaius because he was alone, bar the riffraff. If he'd just had one other proper foot soldier with him, I'd never have taken them, not without injury." He was speaking with open esteem. Gaius's stock had definitely gone up after the discovery of the stirrups.
"So the Romans are good fighters?" Ryou had sat through several years of history lessons, but it'd been centered on Japan and other Asian countries and it hadn't left an imperishable memory anyway. His adult life had revolved around investment futures rather than details of the past. If only he'd known...
"'Good fighters'?" Darius snorted. "Are you teasing me? There's nothing that'll make a seasoned soldier want to soil himself like a baby than seeing a cohort advance on his position. They're the most effective fighting force in the Outlands. Or at least they used to be." Darius gave Ryou a particularly evil smile. "At Thessolia, we faced six thousand picked men, and five hundred of these were actual triarii. I'm talking real Imperials here, not just local sheepherders trained by a centurion to hold a pike over a twelveday. Listen to these words and see them appear before you, Ryou: a line of steel shields half a mile long marching through the clouds of dust in precision formations that could fend off and punch through anything, supported by cavalry, javelin and archery units. A force that can take on an army three times its size. Except the Alliance made some friends and allies these past few years. Even a solid formation can be beat with a few rounds from a cannon."
Ryou turned towards Darius in surprise. The cantankerous animal beneath him chose that moment to pull on the bridle, nearly spilling him for the third time. "Whoa, you stupid-...Did you say cannons?" Ryou finally asked, after getting a renewed grip on the reins.
"Yes. Do you have them in your world?"
"Well...yes. But I'm surprised you do."
"So are the Per Gathas, I bet," Darius said dryly. "They restrict new kinds of goods and weapons even more than troop movements. They want the lands along the Paths to stay where they are, to stay standing still. A lot of countries do just that; change is seen as a sign you've been invaded, that the ways of your fathers weren't good enough and gave way to those of another. Most of us, we just want to stay the same. Hell, even the Imperium wants to stay the same, and not change from being rampant invaders of other countries."
"But you fight with a sword," Ryou pointed out, unable to leave this whole 'cannon' thing to go back to the moral shortfalls of the expansionist Roman Empire.
"Sure do. Kills a man much more reliably, especially if I'm on horseback." Darius gave the horse a pat, a rough clap that Ryou would have sworn would have sent the animal running like a hare. But the horse just snorted and flicked its tail contentedly. "My unit is cavalry, though we do more than that; we’ve learned to fight the Legions down and dirty and in any way we can. We're few, but we're fast, we're trained and we're versatile. We can raid supply lines, set fire to camps, attack walls, cut and run and draw enemies into traps, and harass them any way we can. Behind us, the main Alliance forces has Assyrian bowmen, the best of all our Lands, as well as infantry trained by Terentius himself and a unit of cannons under the direction of some Genoese mercenary who knows what he's doing. We have five of them in all; it's difficult to cast the iron pieces properly. Not very big ones, not like they have in the Empire of Sung Ch'ao. A single horse can carry one and three men can set it down and use it. When you get right down to it, those toys kill fewer men than a good volley of arrows, but the noise and the explosion will send a Roman heavy cavalry running for cover, and turn a tortoise formation upside down. The only ones left in the end were the most disciplined, the triarii, but we whittled them down with pikes, trenches, cavalry charges on the side and by keeping the high ground."
Ryou was still trying to get his mind around the concept. 'But you're all stuck in the Iron Age, how can you have cannons?' was not a polite argument to make.
"Why don't the Romans have cannons?"
Darius's smile became positively rabid. "Because they've been the greatest army in the known world for as many years as there are drops in their three rivers, and they don't expect anyone to cut them down to size whatever the weapons. We Assyrians have been doing our best to educate them."
"Yes, and what if they learn?"
Darius looked at him quizzically, which, on reflection, didn't surprise Ryou. Darius wasn't dumb...for a soldier from the dawn of history. Ryou had gathered from the small discussions he and Darius had shared before now, between all the walking and the keeling over with fatigue, that the two of them did not think alike on some topics. Notions that were long established in Ryou's world were unknown here.
"I mean, what if the Romans decide to use cannons as well?" he elaborated.
"We'll just use bigger and better ones."
"That's great," said Ryou, while thinking that his plans for the future had never included being caught up in an Age of Antiquity arms race.
If there's one thing I hate in ofic and even a lot of published fiction, it's heavy-ass exposition. Hopefully the above didn't feel like that too much :P The downside of the bamf type fics is that sooner or later (hopefully later and not in the first bloody chapter) the main character is going to demand that info dump. I liked my exposition in Freeport better than this one, but that was a longer fic and had more latitude.