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The road through the moorlands went on and on. Ryou was nodding on his horse and at real risk of falling both asleep and off the animal altogether. They hadn't seen a tree since the way station four hours ago. The sun was setting on the horizon, sending shadows to wash around the far side of the highland's hillocks like an ever-frozen sea full of billows.
The stone marker on the side of a road was sheer relief, not least because its upright angles were a welcome break in all these soft, flowing lines.
"Finally," Darius muttered, touching his heels to the flanks of his horse to spur it on.
Whatever he read on the milestone made him smile when Ryou and his dispirited horse had caught up. "Hang in there, my friend. We're nearly at the border. Another five minutes and we'll be at the Paths of Everywhere."
With such a grandiose name, the primitive wood-and-wattle building was a letdown. Crushed by the vastness of the moors, it skulked at the center of a circle delimited by shoulder-high stones.
"I hope this region hasn't so gone to the dogs that they pulled their passer out," Darius muttered mostly to himself, leading their horses around the large circle. "Oh, Ryou, be careful not to go between the stelae."
"Why?" asked Ryou, not that he had an option when his horse was sticking close to Darius's anyway. He looked curiously at the stones. They were large chunks of grey granite without carvings or anything other than moss and weather damage; they didn't seem particularly interesting.
"You might get lost. If it's you, you'll definitely get lost. This is where the Paths start. You- oh, there is someone here. Look, Ryou, don't say anything odd and whatever you do, don't do anything. No magic, I mean." Darius spoke in a muted hiss, craning back on his horse. Then he turned and waved in the direction of the building. "Greetings! Can we come in?"
An old man was sitting on a bench near the entrance thirty meters away, smoking a crude pipe and plucking the feathers from a chicken. "Sure thing," was the prosaic answer that drifted through the evening air. "Go down two stones. Welcome in the name of the Traveler."
"The Path he walked is three times praised," answered Darius in the same formulaic way. He nudged the horse onwards. Ryou bit back a groan as his own horse took a larger step, jolting his aching body.
They dismounted near the indicated stone, which had nothing particular about is as far as Ryou could see. Darius led his horse forward a step on a short rein, then he turned as if on an afterthought and ducked under the head of the animal to stand on its other side, near Ryou, who was scrabbling off his mount as best he could.
"We're coming in," said Darius, stepping into the circle.
Ryou clicked his tongue dubiously, the way he'd heard Darius do. The horse gave him what he thought was a disparaging look, but followed him as Ryou stepped past the marker.
Then he yelped as the ground disappeared beneath him.
He staggered and clung to the reins. His horse snorted and immediately lowered its head, dumping Ryou into the dirt. Then it jerked its head up again. Ryou had wrapped the reins around his hand the way Darius had. He found himself being pulled sideways half a step as the animal yanked at his arm again. Ryou decided off the top of his head that he didn't particularly like horses, or any vehicle that had a mind of its own.
"Ryou?!" Darius was there, gripping his arm hard enough to hurt, every line in his body tense.
"I'm okay, I'm okay," Ryou said, scrambling to sit up. "I just tripped."
"On what?" Darius asked pointedly, raking his gaze across the ground behind them which was made up of ancient sod so flattened by countless hooves that it could have been used as a bowling lane.
"I-...my legs must be tired." Ryou gave the ground an incredulous look as he let Darius help him to his feet. It had felt like he'd missed a step, a large one, but he couldn't have. Deep inside, Ryou had the oddest feeling that he was still moving somehow. But every other sense he possessed told him this was nonsense.
"Ai, what's wrong with him?" came the creaky voice from the porch.
"Nothing, he's fine," Darius replied.
"He's not sick, is he? Hell and damnation, what's wrong with his face? He's not got the steppes fevers-"
"No, of course not. We ran into some bandits, he got beat up. It was yesterday, so he's still woozy."
"Oh, okay. Bring him in, then. Hurry up, young man; the waters of the river are getting choppy, what with evening falling."
A river...? Ryou stopped dusting himself off to give the circle of stones another look. There was a tiny little rill winding its way through the area, on the other side of the house. Ryou could have crossed it in three steps. He did not see how it could get choppy and why this would be a cause for concern...
He was brought back to more immediate concerns when Darius's grip transferred from his elbow to his hand. "I'm fine, really," he said, but Darius did not let go as he lead Ryou and the horses forward. The gelding and the baggage animal fell into step behind him, Ryou's horse followed suit without much self-contemplation by the looks of it, almost knocking Ryou over as it brushed past him. Their shadows, elongated by the setting sun, had already reached the walls of mud and wattle.
The ground rose imperceptibly to a flattened area where the building squatted. By the time they reached it, the odd feeling that'd tripped Ryou up had definitely left him.
"Stable's that way," said the antique on the bench, hands still busy sending up small geysers of feathers.
"Thanks. Is your man the passer?" asked Darius, the first indication Ryou had that the elderly cook was a woman. She was so withered and stooped he'd not been able to tell; her thinning white hair was cropped short, and she was wearing trousers knotted by strips of cloth at ankle and knee under a butcher's apron.
"No, boy," she answered without looking up, "I'm the passer."
"Oh," said Darius, apparently reorganizing his thoughts. "When can we take a route to Aksum?"
"Hoy, I can get you on your way as soon as I finish with this chicken."
There was a heartbeat of a pause, and then Darius said, "Without going through any part of the Imperium."
"That's where they say all the roads lead to, my boys. And Aksum is one long path to travel if you don't want to go through any Imperial province or protectorate. I can only get you part of the way, and you're lucky I've been walking this Path for as long as I have or I wouldn't have a clue how to get you there. But I know the ins and outs of all these countries, I've been trudging through them long enough. Tomorrow morning at dawn, a road will open to Palis. From there on, you can travel south on horseback or with a convoy, to the border in the province of Kazanstar. I happen to know there's an infrequent Path to Aksum that starts there at times. It won't take you to the capital, though, but to some southern province or other, and if you're lucky, you won't have to wait a month for the Path to open. Now, if you're not in any hurry..." She had eyes like hard, brown walnuts beneath bushy white brows, fixed inquisitively on Darius's face even as the feathers flew.
Darius frowned, but all he said was, "We'll do that. Can you put us up in your inn for the night? My friend and I could use a safe bed to sleep in."
"Yeah, I can see that," she cackled with a glance at Ryou's face. "I got a bed for you, if you have a brass sestertius. I’ll throw in some food for a couple of dupondii, and a silver a man for the passer, of course."
"Of course," said Darius. After some haggling, he handed over a number of coins and then pulled the horses towards the stables.
The stable was not too far off from the outhouse, and Ryou could have found them both with his eyes blindfolded, by smell alone. It made him wonder what the inn was going to be like. He still felt itchy every time he thought of the state of the packs they'd ransacked this morning, an irrational and annoying failure of his usually disciplined mind (or at least he hoped it was irrational).
Ryou stopped scratching at the skin beneath his collar. "I'm fine, just an itch. Sweat, probably."
Darius gave him a heavy look. "I was talking about your stumble earlier."
"Oh. I don't know what that was, I just felt dizzy."
"Hmph. Just don't do anything. Not here."
"Here, help me take care of the horses."
Horses required considerably more maintenance than cars, and these creatures had been somewhat neglected according to Darius. Ryou learned to loosen their gear and walk them to cool them down, then groom, water and feed them, something else he'd never been taught in university. The manual labor chased away the memory of that inexplicable feeling he'd had when stepping through the stone circle.
With a diffuse sense of satisfaction he'd never felt when stopping at a gas station, Ryou watched his cleaned horse plunge its nose into the hayrack. They'd been at the border for just about an hour, and the evening had almost entirely given way to the night. Ryou stretched, trying to work out the kinks from riding, and looked around. The moors and the circle of stone had all gone grey in the twilight. The tiny stream winding its way between two stones and across the clearing must provide the inn with fresh water. At the back of the inn, chickens perched in boxes around a dozing goat, half sheltered by a crude lean-to barn Ryou would have to stoop to enter. Other than that, Ryou did not see how this place was provisioned. It was hard to believe this was one of the famous borders Darius had told him about, the Paths that punctured the layers of the onion to link one distant country to the next.
"What if you ignored the border and just went on riding?" Ryou had asked a couple of days earlier, when Darius had first explained all this. "Wouldn't you get to somewhere else eventually?"
"Oh sure, you'd get to the next country after a few days or weeks. It's hard traveling, though; people settle near cities, rivers and borders, where the commerce is. The land between countries is empty, you can't get provisions. It's also dry, or mountainous, or marshy and nigh-on impassable without a road."
"How long would it take you to get home that way?"
Darius had snorted. "Who knows, not many people travel that way for any distance; months, maybe. And I'm damned if I'd know which direction to go. I'll use the Paths, if that's okay with you. The only ones who march through the countryside are smugglers, bandits and invading armies."
Seeing this tiny inn, the elderly passer and this circle of stones, Ryou now understood why an entire army could not march through here. More importantly, the Per Gathas would not allow this, and with good reason; if their Paths could be the route to an invasion, it would make their borders and their passers strategic targets for defense.
"All done?" Darius asked, coming up behind him. He'd taken care of two of the horses for Ryou's one, and had finished ahead of him. He had a pack in his hands, a selection of items from the saddlebags.
"Yes. I was thinking, the Per Gathas must hold considerable amount of power in your Outlands."
Darius stopped settling a blanket over his shoulder to give Ryou the look of one who'd had to abruptly change mental gears. "Uh, yeah, they do. But they stay mostly out of our affairs. Oh, they keep a heavy hand on what gets traded along the Paths, but they stay neutral in our wars, and nobody tries to drag them in." Darius looked like he was about to add something, but then he glanced over his shoulder at the inn. "Come on, let's go see if that passer managed to make some halfway decent food out of that old egg-layer."
"Don't blame me if dinner's late, I keep getting interrupted," the passer informed them tartly as she stirred a pot bubbling over the fire. Apparently this was going to be old egg-layer stew night. A few amorphous blobs of what were presumably vegetables floated to the surface as she jerked the ladle around. Dried, withered roots and other legumes hung in bunches from the low rafters, forcing Ryou and Darius to duck frequently. A large ham joint and another dead chicken were suspended from hooks near the far door, with a few flies paying worship.
"There's a lot of people traveling from here?" Darius asked, tone casual but eyes fixed on the passer's back.
"As thickly as locusts, boys. There's rumor that the Eighteenth Legion is pulling out of Tortora; Imperial citizens and people who can afford to are leaving this province and heading to Roma Praetorium, or to Assyria or the Maurya Empire or even further beyond if that's where they think they'll be safest. Hell, last week I even had a couple of scribes who were going all the way to the Empire of Sung; may Zaratusra bless their shoes because they'll be traveling quite awhile."
"But there's nobody here now," Darius pointed out, eyes traveling over the interior of the inn once again; he'd been scrutinizing shadows from the moment they'd entered.
"No, they all move on in a day or so. I'm the only passer here, and there aren't that many Paths going through here. I drop them off at one of the larger circles where they travel on from there. Of course, board and bread cost more there, and they might not get away any sooner; the Praised One didn't make tracks through the Veil for anyone's convenience, the Paths are what they are. But they preferred to wait elsewhere, it seems."
When Ryou eventually had the chance to sit at the rustic table and taste old egg-layer stew, he had to concede those other travelers had a point...
After supper, the old woman grabbed a pail of slops and headed out to the barn. Ryou was astoundingly tired considering he'd let the horse do the walking today; he must be used to going to bed with the chickens now. He let Darius lead him to a corner of the inn, and watched his companion put blankets down on a straw mattress before he reacted.
"We're sharing the same bed?"
Darius looked up in surprise. "Of course."
It'd been no question when they were camping rough. Now, however...It would have been less of a problem if Ryou did not have good cause to know that Darius slept naked if it wasn't too cold. From the way he was stripping off his belt and shirt now, the inn was quite warm enough.
"It's a sestertius a bed," Darius said dryly, interpreting Ryou's silence. "That means we're sharing, though I'm sure there's room in the stables if you prefer. I'll not join you; a passer's house is sacrosanct, which means this is the last good night's sleep we'll get for the next twelveday. But don't be bothered on my behalf; maybe you and your horse will get along better if you spend the night together."
"I'll pass," said Ryou, loosening the strap over his forearm to remove the knife.
"Everything as you wish it, my fine young sirs?" asked the passer as she walked in, dumping the pail down near the door.
"Yes, we're okay," said Ryou automatically.
"Good, then I'm turning in. I'll wake you boys up before dawn." She walked over to the fire, took a sip from a beer mug that'd been left on the lintel, smacked her toothless gums in appreciation and then arthritically struggled out of her shirt.
Ryou had been taking off his shoes at that point and happened to glance up and then away very quickly, but not fast enough to have missed seeing a gnarled torso. There were more rustling noises. Ryou couldn't guess if she was taking off the breeches or not, and didn't want to know. When he heard her mutter, he glanced up almost reluctantly, to see her slip into a bundle of blankets on a pallet a couple of meters away from the fire. She muttered to herself for another minute, was silent a minute more (Ryou took off his shoes as quietly as possible) then started to snore.
"Ryou, you heard the woman, we're getting up early. Come to bed." Darius was already under the blankets, his eyes closed.
Ryou slipped in beside him. His discomfort was nothing more than a reflex by now; he knew he was in a different world with different values. He was going to save up all his shock for the way those thugs last night were going to torture and possibly kill him out of hand.
Darius shifted in bed and turned around. Ryou opened his eyes to see what his friend was doing and started as he realized Darius was leaning over him.
The fire in the hearth was the only light left; the innkeeper had removed the smelly bowl of tallow that had illuminated their late-night supper. In the uncertain light, Darius's face was cast in tones of bronze and shadows, his eyes picked out by glints of gold. His face was so close to Ryou's now that the latter had instinctively hitched up onto his elbows that he could feel the fall of Darius's hair against his cheek.
"I forgot to tell you, stick close to me when we pass the river tomorrow; follow in my footsteps as much as you can, and don't do anything that will send us to the Void and back."
Ryou focused on the words and nodded.
"Don't ask any questions she might find suspicious. Passers are charged with keeping an eye out on the movement of people and merchandise. And I think she's naturally curious anyway." The old woman had peppered them with questions over dinner, which Darius had mostly fended off. "If she gets any idea you're from Inland...that will make things complicated."
Darius patted Ryou on the bare skin of his shoulder. "Just stay close to me and you'll be fine. It's not that big a deal, I've passed dozens of borders in my lifetime."
Ryou nodded again, trying to hide the fact that the skin-to-skin contact had been unexpected and a little troubling.
There was a breath of silence. A log in the fireplace crackled and sparked.
In the firelight, Darius's mouth quirked. "We'll be riding hard the next twelveday, camping out rough if we have to. I've got to get to Essin as quickly as I can."
"Yes, you said that."
"Outside of a passer's house, there's no guarantees. We'll be sleeping in turns until we get where we're going, particularly through Kazanstar. War's ploughed that field until it's only pebbles, it's not safe."
"If that's what you think is best."
"...Our last full night in a safe bed, with a warm body for company; such a pity to waste it entirely on sleep."
Ryou shook his head minimally. "Darius, this habit of yours, of trying to get under my skin, is a little annoying."
The lips quirked even more. "Oh? What if I'm serious?"
Ryou gave the passer near the hearth a pointed look.
Darius followed Ryou's gaze, puzzled. "What?"
"She might wake up," said Ryou and then bit his tongue. That almost made it sound like he wouldn't object to-
"What if she does?" Darius sounded honestly mystified.
...Apparently nakedness was not the only social stigma these ancient countries had not bothered with.
Ryou's heart went into overdrive when Darius's hand beneath the blanket settled on his thigh.
"These would be more of a problem," said Darius, referring to the pants that Ryou had decisively worn to bed.
The moment tipped in balance, still mostly a joke but suddenly Ryou wasn't sure that was the only thing it was. The way his body was tingling, he also wasn't sure he'd be able or even willing to stop this, even if there was a woman who could be his grandmother snoring by the fire.
Darius's hand left Ryou's thigh, ghosted up, tipped his face to one side so the left was turned towards the firelight. "Your bruises are doing better. You heal fast; the sign of a strong life force." The finger lingered, tapped Ryou's lips lightly a couple of times...a gesture that was nowhere near a joke and more a self-directed admonition, a reminder of what could not be. Then Darius turned away, the blanket moving about them as he settled back down. "Go to sleep," he muttered.
Darius's breathing eventually softened and deepened; a rhythm Ryou was already familiar with. The passer snorted and snored in the background. Ryou stared at the rafters until they disappeared with the death of the fire.
He's a friend- no, not even a friend, we just got thrown together by the most random and strangest circumstances imaginable, Ryou reasoned. I like to approach people who are similar to myself; he's so different he's from another epoch. He kills for a living, he's got very dangerous people after him, and he's involved in some sort of plot. He also doesn't trust me enough to give me any facts about it despite my life being on the line too, or tell me anything more concrete about himself other than his name and a few other minor details. If he manages to get me back home, something he hasn't even promised to do, then I'll never see him again, and considering everything I've gone through since I met him, that can only be for the best. So what the hell-
...what the hell am I feeling regret over...?
Spawnlet teething...waking us up constantly...so tired...I probably missed a ton of typos and potential nonsensical phrasing, sorry...