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 three hours ago. The sun was sinking towards 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 crossing. Another five minutes and we'll be at the Paths of Everywhere."
With such a grandiose name, the primitive stone-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.
"At least this region hasn't so far 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's someone. 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 Ryou thought was a disparaging look, but followed him as he 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 neck, 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, does he?"
"No, of course not. We ran into some bandits, he got beat up. It was yesterday, so he's still woozy."
"Oh, fine. 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 dipping 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, waist and knee under a butcher's apron.
"No, boy," she answered without looking up, "I'm the passer."
"Oh," said Darius, visibly 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 dream of 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 the back country of Palis. From there on, you can travel south on horseback or with a convoy to the crossing 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."
"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 crossing's inn 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 crossings Darius had told him about, the Paths that punctured the layers of the onion to link one distant country to another.
"What if you ignored the crossing 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 crossings, 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 for any distance in that manner; 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 crossings and their passers strategic targets for attack and 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- though-" 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."