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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?" 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 much. It was only the cramping ache of a stomach that had not seen much food these past five days that stopped him from saying, "Neither do I want to."

"Know how to wash clothes?" His friend 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 the other man 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 biscuits so hard 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?"

"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 two travelers going to the local crossing. 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?" Ryou looked up from the 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. Ryou could put less than half his weight on this arrangement 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, but his friend 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 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 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.

They reached a paved road an hour after breaking camp. At that point, Ryou had already fallen off his horse twice, which Darius assured him was not that bad for a first time rider.

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A note from Mal Chants

A short chapter, but it would have been too long stuck together with the next one, in which we finally get a little background on this warped version of Ancient Mesopotamia. Hint: it involves war, murder and Darius hating on Romans.


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Mal Chants

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