"Talk or I start cutting."
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 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- don't- 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 something, possibly 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 was 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, though shallow, 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.
The movement gave him 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, and spun around while Gaius was still staggering. He pulled 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 staggered back, arms covering the sudden wash of blood staining his coarse clothes. 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.
The latter 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 an aureus by the looks of you," he added, giving Darius's face, stance and bracers a calculating look.
"Isn't bounty hunting falling a bit low for a Praetorian?" Ryou could hear the cutting smirk in Darius's 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 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." Darius leapt forward, closing some of the distance. 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 before darting in again.
Like a hound baiting a bear, he 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. To Ryou, heart in his mouth, it 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?" Gains shot at him, a little breathless, as Darius circled again. "You dickless cowards are only good for riding and shooting-"
Darius darted in. Gaius had the shield between them once more. 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. Gaius wasn't moving as much as his opponent, 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 the Roman, 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; spun 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 unarmored 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 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. He 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 his companion walked around the rest of the camp and made sure of the other deserters.
Then a pair of bare feet stopped in his blurred field of vision. Ryou put on his glasses as Darius crouched down before him, sword propped between them like a staff. The latter'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.
The other 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 the latter'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 excuse 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 the 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. The latter wished he could say 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." He tilted 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."
He 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 honour, 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-previous-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 senpais 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 his companion 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 prescriptions," 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. His friend 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 the man 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. He 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.
He 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.