Not that you'll feel all that better at the end of this chapter, mind you.
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"Tell me where," said Rand, and then he and Ryou were hurtling through the camp, past tents, men, and horses and heading towards the river.
"Th-th-th-" Ryou couldn't even talk for the mad pounding rush, but pointed in the direction in which he'd arrived. Rand twitched the reins and the horse veered that way, still at a dead run. To either side of them, stern-faced armed men followed their course.
They'd galloped for a few minutes when Rand made a gesture. Ryou craned his neck and saw two soldiers from the column of twelve peel away and head away from the river. A few minutes later, the same happened again. Spreading out in a search pattern, Ryou realized with sudden relief. They were not only relying on Ryou's directions, which was good. Ryou's memory of where he'd left Darius was precise, but in the time elapsed, Darius could have gone anywhere. Or be-...No, Darius was not suicidal. He knew what he was doing. If he'd made Ryou go on ahead, it must have been the best solution to avoid both of them getting run down by a larger group of armed men.
"Here!" he shouted. He was getting used to the jarring rhythm, and by now his arm had gone mostly numb around the large ache. Now that things were finally happening, now that he was bringing help to his friend, the pain was ignorable.
Rand pulled the horse up hard, gesturing sharply for the others to stay back. Ryou briefly wondered where this man was situated in the Alliance army chain of command. He was dressed plainly and wore nothing more than the usual belt-knife which was the Assyrian utility tool and eating utensil that every man wore. Outside of his height, there was nothing about him that would have made Ryou look at him twice, yet these men obeyed him without hesitation.
Rand shortened the horse’s free rein, forcing the temperamental animal to circle around the stretch of meadow Ryou had indicated. He was leaning forward, staring at the ground.
"This way," he finally said, and the world dissolved once more into shakes and jerks as the horse surged forward, at a tangent to the river, in the direction of rolling hills.
It took them only a few minutes to find the body.
Ryou's heart stopped when his jumbled vision coalesced into the picture of a horse up ahead, forefoot folded back in obvious pain, a few feet away from a man sprawled in the grass. He instinctively leaned forward and nearly got shaken off for his troubles, but Rand's hand on his shoulder kept him in place.
"Looks like he's blazed the trail for us," Rand commented in a tone that suggested finding a dead man on his path was an everyday occurrence. "This one of them?" he added, reining in his horse right at the foot of the corpse.
"Er- I- I didn't get that good a look- yes, he's got a horn with him." The man also had a cut across the upper chest near the throat like an obscene second smile, flies buzzing around the face and the staring eyes. The dogs were sniffing at him and making muffled yapping sounds. Ryou didn't bother registering that this was now the sixth dead body he'd seen in the entirety of his previously peaceful life. All that mattered to him right here and now was that this wasn't Darius.
"If these addle-brains don't know enough about their quarry to hunt him in a pack instead of straggling out, they'll all be dead by the time we get to the field of battle," said Rand with grim satisfaction.
Ryou twisted around to look at Rand's face and see if the man really meant that, but Rand shouted and kicked the large horse into motion again, and then Ryou's job was to hang on one-handedly again.
The ride became a succession of still shots for Ryou. Fields, many gone to seed; a sheepherder path; the grass ahead of them ploughed up by hooves, the tracks Rand was following. The men behind Rand and Ryou rode in complete silence, as did the two dogs that still kept up with them, racing low to the ground, tongues hanging out with what looked like the same determination. For people who hadn't known Darius's name, they seemed intent on finding him now to the point of single-mindedness.
Ride, ride, ride...Ryou kept his gaze fixed on the horizon, hoping to see Darius up ahead, fearing to see another dead body, recognizable this time. How long had it been now? He'd lost track. How long could Darius hold out?
A twinkling of sunlight on water caught his attention. The river was to his right again, a couple of kilometers away, glimpsed between trees and fields. That meant they were heading back towards the large sprawling camp. But from the way Rand was leaning forward and scrutinizing the ground, they were still following the tracks the enemy's horses had left in soft earth and meadows.
Above the sound of pounding hooves and the singular way the blood was beating in Ryou's ears, he heard the ululating note of a blown horn.
Rand pulled the horse up so hard that it sat nearly back on its haunches, hurling Ryou back against the man's chest. He heard Rand grunt, but the arm that caught and steadied him could have been hewed out of oak for all the give it had in it.
Rand looked around as if he could track through the air the sound that had already faded. Then he gestured at the men behind him. "Jexen, follow the tracks. You and you, come with me."
The group split apart as smoothly as that. Rand's horse huffed and ploughed up an incline, away from the tracks which had so far stuck to the path of least resistance between fields and valleys. Three men followed Jexen, two men followed Rand; their forces had dwindled as other pairs of riders had broken off to search. Ryou hoped they'd be able to help once they met up with Darius.
Three minutes later they crested a rise and the so-far desperately empty landscape finally revealed their objective.
Ryou caught it all in a glance. Their rescue party was at the top of a steep valley plunging down, too abrupt for horses to negotiate at any speed. At the bottom of the abrupt grade the ground flattened out into a vale. Darius was eighty meters away, sword drawn, holding his seat bareback on the baggage gelding and facing two other riders. A third man sat on his animal twenty meters further away, a horn in one hand, a drawn weapon in the other, but he wasn't joining the fray. There was no sign of Darius's original horse or of the fourth man who'd been after him.
Even from this distance, Ryou could see the faces of the two men who were trying to corner his friend. They looked furious and frustrated. One of them surged forward to cut Darius off, but Darius plunged away at a tangent and slid past him, angling to keep from getting caught in a pincher movement. The man pulled abruptly on his reins and circled again, obviously wary of Darius's drawn sword. Ryou realized with some amazement that his friend must have deliberately turned to fight, and he was trying to get at the two men one by one.
Then Rand's horse whinnied, the two hounds bayed. A click of wood on wood made Ryou twist around in the saddle. The two men who'd followed Rand had whipped their bows off their backs and notched arrows.
In the valley below, the tableau had frozen. The three attackers were staring up at the lip of the valley. Darius, though, did not turn around. It was as if he already knew who was there. He said nothing, just lifted his sword and pointed it at the third attacker some distance away.
"Shoot the horse," Rand ordered curtly.
Clack - the distinctive noise of wooden arrows leaving the bow.
Down in the valley, the observer's steed staggered, arrows protruding from haunch and chest, and fell over on his side, pinning its rider.
"Shit- get the Prince away!" ordered one of the other two men. His companion immediately whirled his horse around in the direction of the fallen man.
Darius struck. He kicked the gelding into motion, surging forward. The first man saw him coming but he was awkwardly oriented to defend, and he hesitated, pulling back on his reins. Darius didn't bother with him, he cut at the horse's face. The animal screamed and reared, throwing his rider to the ground. Darius had already reached the second man, and ran his horse full tilt at the other. His mount checked and tried to stop- but it had too much inertia. It buffeted the second animal's flank with its chest, stumbled and fell, taking the other horse with it. Both men leapt clear.
Darius got to his feet and headed towards the man with the horn who was still struggling to clear himself from the stirrup of his injured animal. But the soldier Darius had just unhorsed shot to his feet and ran to intercept him, putting himself between Darius and the man they'd called a prince. The soldier lifted his sword. Darius, however, did not; he went right on walking as if the armed enemy three sword's length ahead of him wasn't even there.
Two black shapes rushed over the ground of the dell. The dogs leapt past Darius and took the soldier by the arm and the throat, bearing the man down. Darius did not stop.
"Hamado, stay here and keep watch," Rand ordered, turning his horse to take the slope at an angle.
"Yes sir," said the soldier. His brown skin and features looked Aksumite, he must be a foreigner like Jexen and others Ryou had seen. All of the same mold though: the same hauberk, the same black scarf around his throat, the same hard, intent look on his face other than a short flash of white teeth as he loosed a second volley from his bow. Down in the valley, the first soldier who'd picked himself up to run after Darius staggered and fell with an arrow in his thigh.
Rand and the second archer made their way down, shouting at their horses to force them to take the steep incline. The horses picked their way carefully, and snorted when their hooves were on flat ground again.
Darius had stopped a few meters away from the prince, who'd managed to get to his feet and draw his sword. The man looked helplessly at Darius, at Rand and the other archer, then he twisted around at a thud of hooves on sod. If he was hoping for reinforcements drawn by the sound of his horn, then he was going to be disappointed; it was Jexen and the other three men coming down the easier slope of the dell, following the tracks that had led to this battlefield.
Rand drew his horse up with a hard jerk of the reins. Ryou gasped and fell right off, but his fall became a dismount as Rand slid to the ground alongside him, an arm around Ryou keeping him from landing in a heap. The other archer had dismounted as well, so had Jexen and the other three. They stepped away from their horses and immediately knelt, head bowed.
Ryou, barely standing on trembling legs, looked at them uncomprehending. Then he glanced around in surprise as he registered the absence of Rand's towering presence beside him. Rand had also sunk to one knee, one hand extended flat before him on the turf cropped by sheep and goats, head lowered.
"My Lord Ghan," he said.
In the sudden deferential silence throughout the dell, the only man still standing was Darius, straight as a sword. And a stunned Ryou, of course.
Darius looked around, gaze going without surprise at the men kneeling before him, but it stopped at Ryou. He looked away again before Ryou could read his expression.
There was a curse from the last unharmed enemy. He wasn't standing either, though that was only because he'd stepped back defensively from the half-circle of armed men and tripped over his horse's hind leg. He was now trying to get his feet under him again and away from the animal kicking weakly in the grass.
The two hounds, licking their chops, trotted up to Darius and slipped their large heads under his hand. Darius looked down and Ryou saw him smile.
"Did Rand bring you too, little brothers?" he said, rubbing a set of ears.
The biggest of the two, blood still on its muzzle, looked like it was going to drop down and roll around the grass in sheer happiness at its master's attention.
"I'd have had to kill them to stop them," said Rand, in a tone that might have been intended as sardonic and exasperated with the fawning mutts, though it wasn't really trying that hard.
"So it was for the rest of us, my Lord," said Jexen with a fierce grin. "Shall I get rid of those other two?" He was referring to the two soldiers, one with an arrow in his leg, the other down with unknown injuries from the dogs.
"Just secure them for now. We'll see how cooperative the master is before we take it out on the curs."
"Ghan..." The man in question had finally managed to extricate himself from his horse. Gripping his sword, he staggered towards Darius. The kneeling men leapt to their feet and their hands fell onto hilts, but Darius waved them back, even though the man was staring at him with such murderous venom that it seemed he would attack even though it'd cost him his life.
"Greetings, Yrmah," said Darius replied, voice dripping with a heavy parody of courtesy. "I must beg your forgiveness; I know we were supposed to meet over a twelveday ago, but as it happens I was ambushed on my journey to the talks you'd invited me to. Can you believe it? I was quite surprised myself. And here you are, in such a hurry to finally parley with me that you left Kaides and came all the way into neighboring Essin to pursue me. Will you ever forgive me?"
Yrmah glanced around at the ring of hostile expressions, ranging from glares to derisive smirks, but it only made him angrier. He was holding himself straight, though he kept his right arm close to his body, his sword in his left hand. His high conical helmet had fallen off and there was a contusion slowly swelling up on the right side of his face, from the edge of his curled beard all the way up to the temple. He was dressed in a knee-length garment of small interlocking metal plates, slit at the thighs to allow him to ride; Ryou, with his budding knowledge of antiquity and ancient warfare, knew this sort of quality armor was expensive, but to his modern eye, Yrmah still didn't look much like a prince.
"You-..." Yrmah struggled with the words, and then they came out like daggers. "We almost had you. I wanted to give Sezerena your head. We'd have had it varnished and put on a spear behind his throne, next to the spot we're saving for your fucking whore of a brother's."
Darius tsked, gesturing back into their scabbard some of the blades that had sprung free. "I'm no politician, I told you that ages ago, but I'm pretty sure that's not how you negotiate. And if you’re just trying to rile me, save your time. Better men than you have failed. The truth is, I don't give a bird's fart about you, Yrmah, or about any inch of that miserable rocky stretch of mountains you call the Kingdom of Kaides. I didn't even care when you threw in your lot with Essin, or when you gave me safe passage right into a trap."
"Safe passage only applies to free men, not to the bastard son of a slave-"
"The ones I'm really interested in," Darius continued as if nothing had been said, "are the people who jumped me and my men in that very, very interesting way right after crossing the border into Kaides."
Despite his mocking tone, Darius was watching Yrmah’s reaction carefully. Ryou, who was putting things together at speed, also looked at the man from Kaides. But Yrmah's face didn't change from its expression of hostility and spite. Either he was too furious to really listen to what Darius was saying, or he did not know that the ambush that had picked off Darius on the way to their parley had used magic to get Darius dropped an unimaginable distance away, almost to the Inlands itself.
"I have nothing to say to you, Ghan," Yrmah spat. "Crawl back into your kennel with the rest of the curs-"
Jexen was at his side before he finished speaking. In an instant he'd kicked out Yrmah's knees from under him and had his dagger at the man's throat. Rand was there a second later, his demeanor much calmer. He moved the blade away from Yrmah and shooed Jexen away. Jexen gave Darius an almost beseeching look, but obeyed Darius's nod and stepped back. Rand took his place without any sign of even the mildest irritation; though when Yrmah tried to get to his feet, a casual hand on his shoulder forced him back down.
"I trust that reminded you who has the upper hand here," Darius said, leveling his sword at Yrmah's chest. "Your last ditch attempt to intercept me today was either clever or desperate; I didn't think you guys would be looking for me from that direction. Somebody knows something of my movements these past twelve days, and it's obviously not you, you poor manipulated sap. Now tell me who's pulling your strings. Who put you up to that parley with you and this Essin emissary who almost certainly doesn't exist? Who set up a trap for me, and who informed you I escaped and would be most likely coming this way? You will tell me, Yrmah, or I'll have you ripped apart by my dogs."
"Keep your threats," sneered the man on his knees. "I'm the crown prince of Kaides."
Darius did not seem impressed. If anything, his crooked smile became more amused and the air of menace around him more pronounced. "Damn, you're right, I forgot. You're the designated heir to your kingdom and I'm just some Assyrian bastard. Rand, my good friend, be kind enough to hold out His Highness's hand."
"What- ow!" Yrmah struggled but it was quite hopeless; Rand had reached down, grabbed his wrist and forced his arm out straight with enough force to make the tendons crack.
Darius smiled as he stepped forward.
His sword slashed out and Yrmah screamed. Ryou twitched his gaze away from the red and pink lumps on the ground and stared at an empty spot over Rand's shoulder. The prince gave another choked cry. Then all Ryou could hear was the pitter-patter of blood falling on the trampled grass. It sounded like summer rain.
"Thank you, Rand. Pick up the prince's fingers and send the one with his signet ring to his father. Oh, let's be generous and send them all. That'll inform him he needs a new heir. Now, what do we do with the rest of him? Chamrosh, Zuru, are you hungry, boys?"
The two dogs beside him perked up. Someone in the back of the small group snickered. Ryou's stomach lurched.
"I'm afraid Prince Yrmah is no longer awake," Rand informed the company.
"After only losing a few fingers?" Darius sounded honestly surprised. Ryou glanced around without looking at the mess on the ground, to see his friend lean forward and grab Yrmah's chin. The prince's face was ghastly pale, the bruise on the temple a swollen red by contrast. "So he is. It doesn't take much to be a prince in Kaides, does it."
"It appears not, Lord Ghan," Rand said calmly, though Ryou had noticed in the part of his mind where facts accumulated that Rand had quickly knelt down behind Yrmah and gripped the unconscious man tightly by both wrists as soon as Darius had leaned forward.
That's what really drove it home, more than the violence. Darius had killed in Ryou's presence before, without mercy other than that of a quick death; with a cold efficiency that suggested that he could suspend even the latter if he had a really good reason to. But in their desperate circumstances, it was nothing more than a matter of survival.
This man who was watched by these fierce soldiers as loyally as his dogs...whose life was so important to them that they'd ridden off without hesitation into a potential ambush on the word of a stranger...men who guarded him and who'd not chance even an injured enemy could harm him, and who would kill and probably die for him...this man was no longer the isolated foreigner back in Tokyo or the man Ryou had wandered the Outlands with.
Lord Ghan. Ghan the Beast.
Ryou turned away and took a few steps towards the horse that had brought him here.
"We won't get anything from him like this," he heard Darius say after a pause. "Let's get out of here."
Since sticking his head in the sand wasn't going to change anything whatsoever, Ryou turned around again. Rand was binding the prince's bleeding hand, the other soldiers were heading back to their horses. Darius wiped his sword on a cloth one of his men provided. His eyes met Ryou's as he sheathed his sword.
Darius studied him briefly. Ryou did not frown, did not look askance, did not look away. Show them nothing...a constant mantra in his life that had somehow become a little too neglected and transparent these past two weeks with Darius, his friend, riding at his side. But that was the advantage of ingrained habits: they came back easily. Ryou knew his face was composed and unreadable. It would not be obvious that this was not to hide an expression, but to hide the fact that he had no idea what expression to make, or what to think or feel anymore.
Darius turned away and gestured at Jexen and another soldier to pick up the prince. He said a few words to Rand, who leaned forward to listen attentively. Then Darius slapped Rand on the shoulder in a way that said more clearly than any words how glad he was to see the other man again, and went to help himself to Jexen's horse. He had a few cuts on his arm and one on his thigh, and the streaks of sweat down his face were testimony to the arduous ride followed by a fight he'd survived, but Darius jumped into the saddle as if he was fully rested, and raked his men with a look that seemed to sizzle in the quiet countryside.
"Have you all been taking good care of Essin while I was away?" he asked loudly.
The men around him laughed uproariously.
"Yes my Lord!"
"Kept them nice and warm for you!"
"Ripe for it!"
"Let's get back then," said Darius. "It's been a twelveday since I've killed anybody bar these poor sods. I need a goddamned war already!"
Soldiers cheered and leapt onto their horses, the dogs barked and made a nuisance of themselves beneath everyone's hooves. Ryou watched, mind blank and with a feeling he was a million miles away from all this. His head was heavy and the ground beneath him was swaying gently. He reached out blindly, found the side of the nearby horse to lean against. With the attitude all horses seemed to have adopted in his regard, the bloody animal snorted and sidestepped. Ryou staggered and hooked his good arm over its withers, hoping it wouldn't bolt.
"You said your name was Ryou?"
Ryou glanced up and focused on Rand. It was against the man's horse he was leaning, Ryou remembered.
"My name? Yes, Ryou." Why the hell would he insist on Ujiie-san in the circumstances?
Rand examined him as if he was actually looking at Ryou for the first time rather than gauging him as a walking and talking source of information for finding lost Lords. "May I see?"
"Your injury, may I see it please."
He's being mighty polite all of a sudden, thought Ryou, extending his wounded arm. Around them, men had saddled up, Jexen sharing with a colleague, the prince of Kaides slung over Darius’s gelding which had not been injured in its earlier tumble. The other two enemy soldiers were also tied and hoisted up like baggage with little regards to their injuries. Darius nudged his horse into a quick walk towards the exit to the dale, then he turned in the saddle to talk to Jexen.
Ryou jumped at a sudden sharp pain in his arm.
"My apologies. It's broken," said Rand, shifting the make-do splints.
"Yes, that much I had managed to figure out."
Rand examined him once more through his bangs, as if intrigued by the absolute flatness of Ryou's tone and expression.
"We'll have a priest of Hygeia deal with this once we're back in camp," he finally said, gently pressing the arm against Ryou's side. Then Rand unhooked his cloak from the two small metal spikes sown onto his tunic, and bundled the cloth around Ryou until the latter's arm was supported. The pain let up a bit immediately.
"Thanks," said Ryou. There was nobody else left in the dell now. The wind blew, rustling the churned grass. Yrmah's horse was dead, its tongue hanging out, its legs sticking out ridiculously. It'd taken an arrow in the haunch and the other one near the shoulder. The wounds didn't look immediately fatal. Ryou couldn't see too well from this angle, but it was possible one of the soldiers had put the beast out of its misery. The other two injured animals had been led back to camp.
Rand helped him up into the saddle, swung up behind him, took the reins and shook them once, getting the horse moving forward at a measured pace. Ryou watched the edges of the dell fall slowly away, a foreign countryside appearing around them by installments. He didn't say anything, and neither did the stranger riding behind him. The silence after the shouting and the hoof beats was deafening. The bird twitters and animal calls that eventually started up again sounded fake.