Halfway through the fourth day of their travels, the countryside around them changed abruptly. They were still traveling through highlands dotted with occasional clumps of trees, but now it stretched out to the horizon the way a decent landscape should.
"Praise Inder and Seraosa for leading us out of that bloody puzzlebox," Darius said, looking with grim satisfaction at the uninterrupted scenery spreading around their hillock.
Ryou sank down into the grass nearby. It smelled wonderful when crushed beneath their feet, like sunshine, water and green, growing things; a smell Ryou was getting heartily sick of by now.
"Do you know where we are?"
"Not a clue. We'll figure it out sooner or later, let's just head east for now and see if we can hit a settlement, or even better, a road or a crossing. The sooner we get back to Assyria, the better."
Ryou stared at the great wide and totally empty sweep of hills around them with only the occasional rocky outcropping or tree to break up the uninterrupted greenery. "A settlement? Out here?"
"Yes. There's summering camps for herders, and way stations and inns on the roads. Some brave fools come all the way out to the Broken Lands to hunt, trap animals for fur and collect bark and herbs for nostrums."
"How do we find them?" Ryou asked, fearing the answer was 'walk around, looking'. His feet were still blistered and raw, while the sneakers were showing signs of wear. And it'd only been four days. He'd not complained once. Neither had Darius made any comment when Ryou had peeled off his footwear and socks and washed the bloody mess in another stream last night. The fact of the matter was, they had to get out of here, and to do that they had to walk. Whining about it was not going to get them anywhere. It might be presumptuous of him, but he did not think Darius would abandon him, even though it was obvious in a hundred little ways that his companion was in a great hurry to get home. But that very fact created a deep obligation for Ryou to in no way hold him up. He was responsible for this situation after all. And on a less important level, Darius already knew he was a weak, unexercised gay business man whose lack of control in his maths had inconceivably stranded them here; he was not going to add the adjectives 'whiny' and 'pathetic' to that list if he could help it.
"If we can spot a stone marker, we'll know roughly where we are. There should be one every three miles around the Broken Lands. It's considered a border of sorts." Darius glanced around, then down at Ryou. "Come on, let's try to move onwards before it gets too late in the day."
"A stone marker?"
"Yes. It will give us directions to the nearest road."
"Is it rectangular and about this high with signs carved on it?"
Darius stared at the height Ryou was indicating, then the direction in which Ryou pointed. "Where?"
"That hill over there. The one with the three trees on it." It was about two hundred meters away.
"...You can see it that clearly?"
"You can't?" Ryou stared in surprise at his companion. Then he did a mental double-take. From the first time they'd met Ryou had been impressed with Darius's tough expression, those brown eyes always narrowed in a way that felt a little threatening even when he smiled; indeed, especially when he smiled. But now a different interpretation presented itself.
"Darius...do you need glasses?"
Darius moved his hands away from where they were shading and focusing his vision. "Glasses? Those things you wear on your eyes? Of course not. I'm not a magian who spends all his days with his nose in a book."
"Is that so?"
"You may have just seen a tree stump," said Darius, already striding off towards the hill.
Ryou got to his feet in painful stages and followed. "If ever you come back to my world, I'll recommend you to my ophta- my eye doctor. He makes glasses, and he'll love you. You two share the notion of what someone is supposed to do to not stress one's eyes."
"I told you I do not need spectacles," groused his companion over his shoulder.
"Does it still look like a tree stump to you now?" He had to raise his voice since Darius had accelerated. "Because at this distance, that would be cause for concern."
The word he got in return was not Japanese, or rather it was sufficiently untranslatable where the mysterious power that broke the Curse of Babel wasn't willing to take a stab at it.
"What does it say?" Ryou asked as he eventually crested the hill, trying not to limp. The stone marker had symbols carved into it; he recognized the sun and not much else, but it looked more like a pictogram than language.
Darius was standing a few yards away, shielding his eyes from the sun and squinting (Ryou smiled inwardly). "There should be some place to stay not too far from here. A camp two miles to the south near a river. Then a path will lead us to the road, ten miles after that."
Ryou's feet throbbed, but paying it more attention than it merited would not get him anywhere. "Let's go, then." Two miles. That'd be another half hour. He could easily walk another half hour. No- no wait, miles, not kilometers. "Um, did you say mile? Like the English mile?"
"English?" Darius gave him a puzzled look, already a few steps down the slope. "It's the Roman mile, a thousand paces."
"Oh." How long was it going to take them to walk two thousand paces? Ryou realized grimly he was about to find out.
His Seiko clocked it at forty nine minutes, and it was to be noted that 'paces' were not actual steps because he counted his mechanically and reached four thousand, one hundred and eighty before Darius, ten meters up ahead, made an abrupt gesture to stop and stay where he was.
They'd been catching glimpses of the river for the past ten minutes, slate grey beneath the cloudy sky. They'd also been following faint tracks in the long grass and heather, which made their progress easier. Ryou walked towards Darius, trying to hide his limp, and saw the path wind around a hillock to reveal a long, low wooden house.
Or rather, what was left of it.
"It's burnt," said Ryou, fatigue making him redundant.
His friend didn't respond. His eyes had narrowed to slits, and not because he was trying to make something out in the distance.
"...It's deserted. No smell of horses or smoke. It happened awhile back, I'd say."
Ryou glanced around the very small settlement. There was an outbuilding next to the house, a one-walled stable that had a jut of roof over it. It wasn't going to be as good a shelter as the building would have been, but since the latter had been gutted by flame, the stables were better than nothing. By the looks of the sky, it was going to rain again.
"Just a moment." Darius put a hand on Ryou's shoulder, eyes on the settlement, his primitive spear tight in his hand. "Anybody there?" he shouted.
"We're stranded travelers. We mean you no harm!"
"I thought you said it was empty," interjected Ryou.
"I've been known to be wrong," answered Darius, eyes still on the remains of the low house. "People around here are not fighters, but they can nail us both to the ground with bear arrows before we could do anything about it."
"...There are bears around here?"
"Anyone there?" shouted Darius again. "We ask for one night of shelter in the name of the Path Maker. We'll leave tomorrow morning."
Still nothing. Darius didn't look satisfied, but resumed his walk towards the house at a brisk pace. Ryou followed him but, with his legs in their state, the distance between them grew.
The house had been partially dug into the ground, a short wall of slate and stone giving it a bit of extra height and holding up the now-gone flat roof of logs. Even the damage from the fire couldn't hide the fact that it'd been a crude shelter at best. Darius went down the incline to the entrance, still framed by two stout wooden posts. He glanced around the gutted interior, then he leapt back up to the ground level and walked around the house. Even from some distance away, Ryou could tell his traveling companion was scowling.
Ryou, who just wanted to sit down, made his way to the stables. Something clinked beneath his feet as he neared the shelter. He bent down to examine a red and black pot that had been smashed into the dirt, broken when its owners evacuated their belongings from the fire presumably. There was more debris strewn around, now that he was looking; moldy and frayed old ropes hanging in the stable, bones from small animals, possibly sheep, dumped near the wall along with other nameless rubbish that was too old to smell ripe. A smashed-in wooden barrel, pewter shards, rags stiffened by exposure to dirt, rot and rain, more pottery, gnawed bones, ripped-up woven baskets, nameless pieces of wood that could have once been anything. A large fire had been lit not too far away from where he stood. Ryou rubbed his shoulders. Even with his winter coat, it was chilly.
He stared straight ahead at nothing, and then he slowly turned back towards the refuse heap as a few details of the previous picture leapt out and slotted together.
... Ryou had never hoped for much in his life, but he found himself hoping he was wrong as he walked forward.
There was a line around the rubbish that his feet would not cross, an almost visible perimeter that instinctively felt dangerous, contaminating. He paused, then circled around, keeping the same distance until he could see what he'd thought were a few pots from another angle.
Then he turned and stared at the stables, gripping his arms through his coat, fighting the feeling that if he hadn't looked, then it wouldn't have been. An irrational feeling. It was what it was.
The sound of approaching footsteps made him jump and spin around. But it was only Darius.
"Ryou? What-" Darius glanced down and frowned. "Shit. I had a feeling."
A crunch of footsteps as he strode up to the nearest skull, unfortunately not yet bare of skin and flesh. The rest of the bones had been pulled apart by wild animals, or at least that's what Ryou hoped.
"What happened?" he asked, and then, since there really was only one way these four people could have died all together out here, away from the burning house, "Who did this to them?"
"Who knows. Bandits, or worse." Darius leaned down to pick up a broken arrow shaft, just the tail end left, but he barely glanced at it and was scrutinizing their surroundings instead. "About two months ago. Damn, this used to be a fairly safe place. People too poor to bother with, and the Praetorian patrols kept the roads safe. The Imperium is cracking. This is the downside of the wars...Fuck." The arrow snapped in his hands and he threw it away. "Come on, let's move out of here."
He was five steps away before Ryou reacted. "But- but what about-...?" He gestured at the heap behind him when Darius turned around.
"What were you thinking of doing, burying them?" Darius asked curtly. "If there's predators in this region, then places like this are nothing more than targets we need to get away from. We're sitting ducks here. I don't fancy getting tortured to death as campfire entertainment and I bet neither do you, so move it."
The last words whipped Ryou into motion. He'd not been thinking of burying the remains. He'd never even seen a corpse before today, the closest he'd ever been to death were the pictures of the deceased at a funeral, the idea of picking up a shovel and hacking away at the sod to bury victims of a massacre - that was beyond what he'd imagined. He'd just thought they should try and warn somebody, the authorities for starters.
Darius was already halfway to the river. Ryou didn't look back as he ran to catch up. His feet hurt, but that really didn't matter.
They didn't speak much that afternoon, and not at all for the last two hours of their trek when rain like teardrops started to fall from the grey, worn sky. Darius followed the river, along the shore thick with rushes and brush. Ryou did not think they were making for the road anymore. He wasn't sure where they were going, and didn't want to ask.
An hour after the rain finally let up, the two of them stopped and made camp for the night. They could have walked on further, the wet, anemic sun that'd poked through the clouds was a good way from the horizon yet, but Darius said he liked the look of this place. It was a large crescent of clay carved out of a bluff by the river ages ago. The retreat of the water had left it dry and protected from the late afternoon wind. Darius built a small fire with the wood he'd carried from last night's camp, then he piled so many stones around it that it almost guttered. He didn't say much, and he would glance around each time a bird sang or an animal scurried away.
Darius had been knotting together several rotten leather thongs taken from the stables while he walked earlier. He now had a long sling in his hand. "I'm going to try and find us something to eat, or we won't get far tomorrow. Stay around here and go look for more wood. Get branches and such out from the underbrush where it will be dry. Don't toss on anything wet and send up a smoke column."
"Okay," said Ryou to his receding back. He stood up and staggered towards the nearest thicket. Hunger, exposure and exhaustion were taking their cumulative toll, but even if his body felt nearer to the brink of collapse with every step, it was good to have something to do.
He eventually dropped a small bundle of twigs and branches near the fire. The stones were starting to warm up, heating the air around them a little. Ryou put his fingers on them until he felt warmth again. Around him night was falling, and Darius was still not back.
He had had time to think, to dissect his feelings. It was normal in the circumstances to feel shock, but it'd been further poisoned by a deeper, more personal sense of unease. He'd pinned it down. It was, of all things, guilt.
Ryou had, for the first time since he was a child, acted on a wild and selfish impulse. He'd abandoned his family and his duties to throw himself to the winds on an insane undertaking that wasn't even any of his business. These past four days, even though he was hungry and sore, he was challenged, awake, alive in a way he hadn't felt in...ever, really. He was doing something that a straight-jacketed, insignificant person like himself could never have imagined doing this time last week. It wasn't that he was having fun, Ryou noted as he took off his improvised sandals and saw the mess in the last rays of sunset. But he was...he was out, he was living something extraordinary. Those Broken Lands had challenged his intellect as it hadn't been since university. Walking through them at Darius's side had been like nothing before in his life.
He'd been naïve. Downright idiotic. Despite the Rajin and the attack by the border dwellers, he'd not realized at a visceral level just how dangerous his position was here, in this strange, savage land. Life had certainly turned around and showed him in ugly detail just what kind of place this was. As a result, a deep part of Ryou that did not abide by logic, the last bastion of superstition within him, was telling him that those deaths were somehow his fault, as if Life had had to arrange them just to educate him.
It was a stupid notion, and once he pinned it down, he dealt with it summarily. But another thought came with it that he could not eliminate. The dangers of a strange, savage land...huh? But he had seen scenes like this before. Mass graves being dug up on the ten o'clock news, women shrieking and crying while Ryou drunk his tea and thought fugitive comments about the state of the world, before turning on his laptop. He was damned certain there were places in his civilized world where people stumbled upon the site of massacres and carried on walking with just a note to be careful the same fate did not befall them; places where even the news cameras and the eyes of the world did not go. Ryou had known this in a removed way every time he'd picked up a newspaper and didn't immediately skip to the financial section. What was the difference between those truths back in his world and what he'd seen today, except that he, Ujiie Ryou, had been forced to confront it in person? That this is what it took to make it real, to shock him, maybe that was what he should be feeling guilty about.
He shook his head sharply and looked around the gathering evening for Darius. He'd known this endeavor was dangerous when the border crossers had shot at them, busting the Honda's back window. Or before, when he'd seen the Bher Rajin. He had taken this path anyway. This made him a fool and a triple fool, but he'd done it, he'd followed nothing more than a wild impulse and a smile with no regrets or remorse, and now he was here and recriminations would wait until he was-...
Back home? It felt unreal.
Ryou faced the fact that there was a chance he was not going to make it back home. His skull might be turning white at some point in the near future. The fact that his family would not know what had become of him bothered him more than the thought of death itself.
Glancing around, still in thought, he started with surprise. Darius was back. He was standing at the top of the bluff, barely visible in his grey jogging attire in the deepening twilight. He was standing straight as a spear, staring out into the night, with no food at hand. It was the stance that caught Ryou's attention. Something wary, guarded. Ryou frowned.
A minute later, he'd joined his companion. "Darius?" he spoke instinctively in a low voice. Darius didn't turn towards him, didn't blink. With such focus in his eyes, face grim and intent, he looked like a hunting hawk made human.
"There's someone out there," said Darius before Ryou could ask him a question. "And not travelers."
The way he said that told Ryou all he needed to know. He turned to scrutinize the gathering darkness. "How can you tell?"
"I heard horses bickering. A stallion and a gelding, I'd wager. Praetorian patrols ride well-disciplined mares, trappers and herders use mules; anybody else sticks to the road and its protection. I could be wrong," Darius added grimly, "but I know I'm not."
"Do you think it's the same ones who-..."
"No, those shits will be long gone. But it's more of the same, I'm ready to bet."
"Oh. Shall I go douse our fire?"
"Use dirt," said Darius, still staring out into the evening. "Then come back up here. Leave our things. One way or another, we won't need them anymore."
"Follow me when you're done," was all Darius said, striding off down the side of the bluff.
Ryou's only option was to hurry and comply.