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"Who are they? The people after you?" Ryou asked nervously. His horse, picking up on his tension, snorted and put a hoof back, lowering its head and tugging on the reins.

"No. It's fine, I think," said Darius, relaxing a fraction. "They're soldiers from Aksum. They're on our side. Greetings, friend," Darius added to the man in the lead.

The approaching soldiers lost some of their tension as well, and stopped carrying their javelins in a way that suggested they were a scant second away from using them. They were not wearing uniforms, their armor was disparate, reminding Ryou of the deserters, but they all had the same round metal helmets tapering to a point and identical shields painted with a motif of highly stylized sheathes of wheat. The man at the front had a short cape made of sheep skin with the wool still on it, despite the rising heat of the day.

"Assyria?" he asked, looking over Darius in surprise. "What the hell are you doing coming through here?"

"I've traveled through from Tot," said Darius, an explanation that explained absolutely nothing, but he said it with a business-like assurance which made it hard to point that out. "Is Essin still under siege by the armies of the Alliance?"

"Last I heard, yeah, but we've been on patrol for the past four days. They blocked the river right before we left, so it'll be coming to a head any day now. Who are you? Which army do you belong to?"

"My name is Darius, my mother's name was Polenius. I'm one of Ghan's Hounds. And you are?"

The leader of the Aksum patrol had drawn his horse up side by side with Darius to talk. He was close enough for Ryou to note the widening of eyes when Darius mentioned his unit; the Hounds certainly struck fear, it seemed even their allies treated them with cautious respect.

"Huh, I'm Macedini from Daksosor, watchword officer. Um..." The patrol leader glanced from Darius to the crossing behind them and back again. He looked like he had a mighty big question to ask but was now unsure he really wanted to. Ryou felt for him. There were no papers in these Outland countries, no ID, no written and carbon-copied orders, not even a set of dogtags to back up Darius's claim of being an Assyrian soldier. Neither was there radio communication to their leaders, most of whom were several days away. Ryou briefly wondered how these ancient armies could function at all. Presumably they did, but Darius had never gone into those particular details with him.

"I have some important information for the General and Lord Ghan," Darius continued on briskly. "Can I get through? How are the lines?"

"Well, that's why we're here," said Macedini. "The lines are fast between Essin and Miribel, but there's been reports of small troop movements along the river road and around the Essin crossing. We're supposed to check anyone coming through Anwat who's obviously not a farmer, and detain anyone who's from the Imperium or from Kaides for interrogation."

"Kaides?" Darius's eyes narrowed. "Interrogation by whom? Who gave you that order?"

The patrol leader hesitated, but there was an air about Darius that did not invite the answer, "Why the hell should I tell you when I don't even know if I should be arresting you for being suspicious or not?"

"Um, it was an Assyrian freeman. I don't think he was a soldier. But he carried sealed orders from General Terentius, so my commander set up our patrols. He was one of King Leyam's men. Rand the Khinite, I think they call him-"

"Rand?! Rand is at Essin?" Darius leaned forward on his horse in sudden eagerness.

"Uh, yes-"

"I should have known he'd show up out of nowhere and take charge of this mess." A brilliant smile lit Darius's features. "Inder personally guides that man's footsteps. That's even better. Come on, Ryou, we need to get to Essin as soon as possible."

"Um-" said the patrol leader. He had his hand on his sword's hilt, but a very dubitative look on his face.

"If there's enemy patrols and scouts around, can you and your men ride with us to Essin?" asked Darius, turning on the man.

"What? Er, no, our orders- we're being relieved in two days, we could escort you then."

"That's too long. Never mind, we'll manage. If Rand's there, he'll have other patrols out. Come on, Ryou. Oh, how do I get to the Alliance headquarters? Are they still on the banks of the river?"

Macedini's mouth was open and a helpless look plastered over his face. The five men behind him were looking from him to Darius, equally uncertain. "Uh, yes."

"We'll just follow the river road, then, it's the only passable route from Anwat to Essin anyway, I remember from my maps. I was here less than a month ago," Darius added with a bemused shake of the head. "A lot's happened since. Carry on, Macedini from Daksosor, and next time I see Commander Zossen in Aksum, I'll mention your name."

Macedini made a sort of "Whu?" sound behind them. Darius had already kicked his horse into a trot and Ryou's had followed.

---

"We're nearly there," said Darius as they made their way past a broken-down wagon abandoned by the side of the road. The terrain between the two provinces was very rough, boggy and craggy in turn, but the ancient road that had been carved through that terrain centuries ago facilitated their progress. They hadn't seen a single fellow traveler since they'd crossed into Aksum yesterday morning. Anybody who was going to cut and run out of Essin had already done so. It was now mid afternoon, the rough terrain had given way to fields and meadows these past two hours, the river the road had paralleled for the past day and a half had slowed and broadened, and Ryou was looking forward to a future where he would not have to ride a horse or otherwise travel and camp out for a few days.

"So the Empire of Aksum is as large as Assyria, and Anwat and Essin are just two of its provinces," Ryou recapitulated. They were alternating stretches of trotting and walking the horses, the latter allowing for a modicum of conversation.

"Yeah. Like Assyria, Aksum started as a city-state built by refugees from an ancient Inland empire. Kush, if I recall. And like Assyria, Aksum eventually spread and engulfed its weaker neighbors. That was a thousand years ago. Most people can't remember where the lines of the old countries are anymore, except there's a Path starting in the center of each province that used to be an independent territory. Some do remember, though, when an Imperial snake infiltrates our lands and finds those satraps and lords who are ready to forget who their master really is, and who think they can break off of the father land and become their own country again with the Imperium's support."

"But why is it the Assyrian army and the Free City forces of Terentius who are attacking Essin if we're in Aksum?"

Darius gave Ryou an appraising look. "You caught that, huh? It's politics. Sezerena, the leader of Essin, is pro-Imperial to the hilt. He's been a major thorn in Leyam's side for ages because Essin is a powerful province, and the capital city is sitting near a crossing that's a major trade route through Zaratusra's Paths. But in the past ten years, Essin closed its borders to Alliance merchants. It´s also been a point of access into Aksum and then into Assyria for the Imperium these past twenty years. But the problem is that Lord Sezerena of Essin is the leader of an important faction of provincial lords, and he's also King Ka of Aksum's brother-in-law."

"Oh."

"So the Alliance sent an emissary bedecked in gold and purple, carrying gifts of gems and mhyrr, to officially ask Essin to let us take the trade Paths, and stop Imperial Legions taking the roads through any way they please and camp on his land. Lord Sezerena sent back a lyrical ten-page letter of refusal. So we asked King Ka if he didn't mind if we came in and trounced the bastard. King Ka said he deeply regretted the necessity, but he could see his precious allies had been pushed past all endurance by Essin's stubborn refusal to cooperate. The only thing that he asked was that Lord Sezerena be delivered to him alive, if the fortune of wars allowed it. That's political code for 'Slit that Roman arse-licker's throat for me, and I'll deal with my sister.' She's fortunately at the Imperial city of Aksum, so we won't even have to worry about her. Once Essin is down, that'll be the main line of troop and equipment supplies into Aksum broken. After that, we just have to take care of the pro-Roman provinces in Assyria and Aksum individually. They got complacent and quarrelsome these past few years, and didn't see the danger until it was too late. This is the result of King Leyam's overall plan. They said we could never be free of the Imperium in our lifetime, and now we could end this war in a year."

Ryou hadn't known a war in his lifetime, not one involving anyone he knew. Darius's intensity was fascinating and a little alarming. So this was what it was like to fight for one's sovereign and country...

The fierce light flickered and died in Darius's eyes. "Hey, Ryou..."

"Hmm?"

His friend was looking at him as if he had something difficult to say. "We'll be at the fork of the river pretty damn soon. It looks like I'll be able to get you home after all. But I should probably tell you a few things about my situation...I've not said a lot about myself. You never asked."

"You don't have to tell me now if you don't want to," said Ryou, while 'going home' echoed in his mind in a way that was not entirely comfortable.

"Yeah, well..." Darius scratched his beard, which had grown raggedy in the two weeks since Ryou had saved his life in a construction site with a Nissan. "Tell you the truth, I don't know why I didn't tell you before. It's been awhile now that I knew I could trust you, and you're going to find out sooner or later, but I guess I just liked-"

Later, Ryou would remember he heard a dry 'tack!' sound over the rush of the river and the clop of the horses' hooves.

Something swished by a handspan away from his horse´s nose. The animal snorted and reared. The ground, sky and river interchanged their respective positions, and Ryou crashed hard into the rocks and dirt of the road. His left arm took most of the impact. A wet crunch sent sick shockwaves throughout his body.

"Ryou!"

Ryou curled up around the pain in his arm.

"Ryou, get up!"

Tack....swish...thunk!

That noise! An image of Gex staggering back with an arrow in his throat came vividly to Ryou's mind and prompted him to focus in a hurry.

An arrow was quivering in the ground ten meters away. Ryou glanced around wildly, but he couldn't see the shooter. Darius, sword drawn, had swung his horse around and was interposed between Ryou and the river. The river. The shooter was on the other side of the river!

"Ryou-" Darius ducked. Ryou didn't see the arrow, but heard another thunk behind him, nearer this time. The river was high and very wide around here, almost two hundred meters from side to side, the archers were having a hard time adjusting their shots.

He scrambled to his feet. Darius had managed to snag his horse's reins. The animal was rolling its eyes, and danced away when Ryou staggered towards it. He used some of the words Darius had inadvertently taught him these past few days, and managed to catch the pommel with his right hand.

The pain was coming in waves, almost bearable at times, at others overwhelming. He didn't know how he managed to get onto his horse, but when he blinked away the darkness smothering his head, they were galloping away from the water and across the ruts of a fallow field, Darius still holding on to his reins, the spare gelding following out of herd instinct. There might have been more arrow impacts behind him, it was impossible to hear above the thud of hooves. Ryou clung to the horse for all he was worth and concentrated on not passing out.

After five minutes made of pain and darkness, Darius pulled on his reins and slowly brought the horses to a stop.

"Where are you injured?" he asked tersely, bringing his mount around.

Ryou held out his wrist, which was already swelling; the fingers were pale and useless. His whole arm was pulsing in pain that locked it into a twisted sort of flinch, but the fracture did not look compounded (was that the term? Shit, he had a broken arm and someone had tried to shoot him-) His right shoulder also hurt, but that was just bruises.

"Is it broken?"

"I-I don't know. Yes, I think."

"Shit." Darius leaned over and straightened out the arm with a smooth but undeniable motion. Ryou ground his teeth together and focused every ounce of his concentration and willpower on the pommel to avoid jerking the limb away reflexively. Darius unfastened and moved the scabbard of Ryou's dagger down from the forearm to cover the wrist, tying the flat leather straps around the swelling with two scabbards, Ryou's and the sheath of Darius's own short dagger, bound on either side to make a rough splint.

"That'll keep the bone from grinding too much." His eyes were flicking ceaselessly from what he was doing to the countryside around them.

"Who...why did they shoot at us?"

"I made a mistake. I should have pulled rank and gotten Macedini to escort us, and fuck discretion. I knew they were not going to let me live with what I know." Darius's face was frightening with intensity and a murderous aura he'd not had when facing those deserters over a week ago.

"They were on the other side of the river. We left them behind. Right?" Ryou slumped forward in his saddle, cradling his right arm with his left. It was already feeling a bit better now, the waves of pain muzzled by the strapping. He and Darius were going to be alright now. Right?

"There's no ford for miles, but they wouldn't have risked a pot shot if they didn't have a backup plan. That's what that signal was for. It'll bring more down on us."

"...Signal?"

"That horn blast. The kind that tells the main hunting party that the quarry's been sighted," said Darius with a humorless grin.

Ryou hadn't heard a horn, but then again the blood had been rushing through his ears at a volume that had threatened to drown him.

"What are we going to do?"

"For starters, we're going to pray to Inder that the idiot tootling away back there will alert some of the patrols Rand deployed, and bring an Assyrian squadron down on their heads like the wrath of Assur himself. Next..." Darius didn't say what he was going to do next, but he kicked his horse to turn him back around, reached for Ryou's dangling reins and tugged. His eyes were raking the countryside around them. He headed towards the third gelding, cut loose the packs from the saddle with his sword and then picked up the animal's long lead.

"Come on, let's get as far as the Furies and those shit-licking bastards let us."

Every jolt of the horse was a thud of pain for Ryou. He counted them, just to give his mind something to focus on. Darius found a farmer's path they could follow without losing sight of the river, and they broke into a gallop. It was actually easier on Ryou than the jagged trot that'd preceded it, though his horse didn't like it from the snorts and short complaining whicker.

Two thousand one hundred and forty two hoof beats later a horn blew, sudden, jarring and quite near.

Darius cursed and drew up, glancing around. Three fields away, what looked to Ryou like an entire army of mounted men were flowing over a hilly meadow.

"There they are. Fuck me, there's only five of them," Darius added, and that smile was back, that wicked cut of a grin that held no fear, no regrets. "Well, well, well, that's almost an insult. Ryou, I'm going to need your help one more time."

"What can I do?" Ryou asked immediately. He trusted Darius to know what was in his capabilities.

Darius gave him a crooked smile and there was a light that was both warm and pained in his eyes that Ryou had never seen there before. "Ready as always, heh? Ei, Ryou, what am I going to do with you..." And then Darius the soldier, the survivor, was jabbing an authoritative finger in the direction away from their attackers. "I'm going to lead them after me. Follow the river. Ride as fast as you can."

"You'll be a decoy?! But-"

"Don't worry!" Darius shouted, he was already five meters away, still leading the spare gelding. "You know by now I'm not the self-sacrificing kind! I have two horses, I can lead them on a merry chase. And when I get bored of that, I can fight! I'll stay within a mile of the river. Go get help! Ask for Rand the Khinite- Terrentius- fuck, anybody! Tell them-" the words were lost in a thunder of hoofbeats- "Hounds- Ghan- enemies from Kaides- out here-" Then he was out of range.

"But-"

Ryou bit his lip hard enough to draw blood and whipped his horse's head around. The riders behind him were closing in and they must also be armed with bows - but didn't they have to stop to adjust their shots? Snippets of talk ricocheted around in his head, Darius telling him about mounted tactics over their campfire. Heavy armored horses with a rider and an archer- but not in this case, and only some armies in this region had skilled archers who could shoot while riding at any effective distance. Not a lot of stability in these ancient saddles and stirrups to draw back correctly while in motion except up close. Unless these were Roman special units - specialized mounted archers that were occasionally deployed on battlefields - they could shoot from horseback. Right? What did a Roman special unit of mounted archers look like?!

Nobody shot him in the back. The horse galloped on.

The painful squeeze of his heart rivaled that of his arm, but Ryou's mind was clear and full of a cold concentration. He did not like this plan, but he had to admit it was probably their best option if they both wanted to survive.

The riders didn't follow or split up to send someone after him. Had they recognized Darius? He and Ryou were dressed much the same... but if this was the enemy that had attacked Darius before and somehow dropped him into the no man's land, they might have recognized him. Either way, they left Ryou alone and all went after Darius, and that left Ryou with the responsibility to go fetch help.

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Mal Chants

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