Ryou galloped past three armored men trying to haul a wagon out of a rut. Weapons had been propped up against a nearby stumpy olive tree. The symbol adorning their shields was a crudely painted moon, the same as the one Darius had on his bracers. Assyrian soldiers. But Ryou did not stop. These men didn't have horses, they couldn't help.
One of them shouted after him. He couldn't make out if it was a question, an order or a threat over the sound of hooves.
As he pushed his horse onward, Ryou methodically analyzed everything he could see. He'd paralleled the river at first, but then the waterway and the path had split, and he'd followed the latter. It led him through a muddy valley surrounded by gentle green hills. The path was getting wider and wider, trampled to three times its previous size by a lot of feet.
He spotted more soldiers, two dozen camped near a pond; still no riders. Then a larger gaggle of tents, women among them- no, not what he needed, but he was getting closer. A sparkle of sun on water caught his eye as the path led around a gentle bend. He'd found the river again, but much smaller here, snaking through a marshy fen over which loomed a large dome-shaped hill ringed by a series of crude palisades and trenches. An encampment had sprung up around its prominence- There! Horses!
At full gallop and his eyes on what had to be the Alliance army, Ryou didn't see the patrol on the path until it was almost too late. Fortunately his horse had more sense and ploughed the dirt beneath its hooves to stop before they impaled themselves on the spears pointed their way.
Panting like bellows, the horse skipped and staggered sideways, away from the group of five pikemen who'd barred the path through the array of trenches, posts and palissades. Ryou hauled hard on the reins with his single hand to keep his mount from prancing and throwing him off.
"What the fuck-" One of the soldiers moved forwards to grab the bridle, but darted back when the agitated animal stamped.
The first row of tents and fire-pits began twenty meters beyond the soldiers gaping at him. At the top of the hill was gathered a group of important-looking pavilions, each with a banner in front, hanging limply for lack of breeze. That was Ryou's destination. The distance between him and his goal: half a kilometer and a lot of explanations that Ryou did not have the time to give.
He slid down from his horse- and staggered as the jolt to his arm brought tears to his eyes and robbed him of breath. But he straightened up again in a second. He needed to talk to them face to face, and not give them the impression he was about to charge them or run away. "I have an urgent message for General Terentius. It's from Darius Bher Polenius," he said, addressing the soldier armed with a sword rather than a pike, the man who'd tried to grab his bridle.
The man stared at him owlishly. "Who?"
Goddamnit. Ryou had guessed that his companion was a little higher up the chain of command than his 'simple soldier' image projected, but he was not high enough for his name to be widely recognized, it seemed. Ryou swallowed his anxiety and impatience, because now above all was when he needed his self-discipline.
When he spoke, he sounded perfectly in control. "I need to talk to your leaders now. Or to anybody who can send out mounted troops to help an Assyrian soldier a few miles behind me. I was riding with one of Lord Ghan's men with an urgent message for General Terentius, but we were ambushed. I need- do you know if Rand the Khinite is here? Or can I speak with Lord Ghan directly?"
The patrolman's eyes got progressively wider. With the instinct of one who'd navigated through the line of PAs and middle managers surrounding CFOs before, Ryou knew he'd bypassed a lot of hassle with his name-dropping.
He repeated the same routine to the patrol's overseer, a hundred meters away from the large important-looking pavilions on top of the hill (but five more minutes had gone by.) Fortunately the commander was also impressionable, even though he'd never heard of Darius either.
"He has an urgent message? For the general?"
"What's the message?"
"It's on paper. Sealed. Darius has it, and I don't know the contents, I just know it's important. Can you send your men out to help him? He's fighting-"
"I can't put together a mounted patrol," the commander said as if offended that Ryou was trying to thrust such a responsibility onto him. He was cross, but he also looked worried and wouldn't meet Ryou's eyes. "The only cavalry we have is the General's heavy unit and the Hounds, and I can't order either of them out."
"Can you take me to Lord Ghan then?" Ryou asked tightly. "Darius is one of his men, he wanted to talk to him."
"I can't bother him over this." The officer pushed, pulled and settled the metal breastplate on his chest in a nervous gesture. The man was in his mid thirties, if Ryou were to guess, and he was almost certainly never going to be promoted to any more responsibility than he already had.
"What's your name?" he asked in a neutral way.
"My name? Okidis Par Lamanes."
Assyrian, Ryou noted, nodding to himself.
Okidis caught the gesture. "Why?" he asked suspiciously.
"If my friend Darius can't talk to Terentius, I will be talking to him myself eventually and I like to get my facts straight," said Ryou, and didn't bother masking the fact that this was a threat.
Okidis gave him a hostile look, and Ryou feared he'd overplayed his hand, but then the captain turned with a curt order to the soldiers surrounding them. "Mason, Je, bring him." Then he set off with a put-upon stomp in his step towards the emblazoned pavilions.
Ryou glanced around as Okidis led them through the camp, keeping an eye out for a cavalry unit with a more proactive officer. He had never been in a military camp before, but he doubted there'd be many points of comparison between the US airforce base near Tokyo and this encampment from much further back in history anyways. The place was abuzz with hundreds of men, but few were in uniform, they were dressed down to tunics or skirts and sandals in deference to the rising heat of the day. They were cooking, cleaning, mending clothes and standing around a sword-sharpener's stone wheel. A large group ringed a stretch of grass where four men were competing in an impromptu javelin throw to the accompaniment of shouts and whistles; others just sat around looking restive. Ryou's escort drew little interest other than a second glance at his features. The army had divided its soldiers into groups of twelve it seemed, each squad with a single tent and fire, and a fair amount of space between them and the next unit. They were more densely packed down the hill and near the river. The camp marched down the valley and over another hill, leaving one to only guess at their total numbers.
The breeze shifted and the smell of a lot of men living together gained the distinct tang of excrement. At first Ryou thought it was from the paddocks upwind of them, but then he figured it probably came from trenches covered by long boards near the water's edge. Probably the latrines, if the river itself wasn't used for the purpose. The rest of the camp was downstream, one could only imagine how bad it got further along.
As they climbed the hill, he could see further and further. To the east, beyond the hills and the straggling camp, was a town as large as the city of Palis. It looked destroyed, and for a moment Ryou wondered if the siege was already over. But it was only the outlying areas of the town that'd been attacked. The center was on an island between two arms of the river, heavily ringed with walls, and that part looked intact from a cursory glance. But at that juncture the river waters ran very low, and Ryou remembered someone mentioning the water had been dammed and diverted.
A returning patrol glanced curiously at their small group of four. Ryou knew he was getting close. Many of the men he'd seen so far had been dressed in disparate, incomplete armor, when they were dressed at all. But now the soldiers they passed were in uniform: identical breastplates, leather skirts and metal helms with gorgets to guard their neck. Veteran troops, or perhaps Terentius's well-trained units that had rivaled the Roman Legion itself.
Okidis stopped to ask for instructions from one of these men dressed in well-designed armor and with a long horsetail dyed red attached to his helmet. Fortunately the superior officer was too busy to deal with the matter himself. "The Assyrian commander is with the General and the rest of the leaders," he said, waving Okidis towards the top of the hill. Okidis looked even more put-upon and reluctant once the other officer had gone about his business, but he led Ryou and his two guards further up.
At the highest point of the camp, a long rectangular pavilion took precedence over the others surrounding it. It was made of the same crude stitched canvas, ugly and utilitarian, but it'd been draped with purple banners that stood out by contrast. A golden garland was nailed to an upright spear near the entrance. Okidis settled his armor one last time and marched towards the open flap, with a curt gesture at his men to keep Ryou back for now. Nearly thirty minutes had elapsed since he'd left Darius, Ryou's watch informed him. His heart was hammering and he felt very near to praying to Inder himself, or any god who might be likely to listen.
After what felt like an eternity - three minutes - Okidis came out and waved them forward. Ryou was barely holding himself back from breaking into a run, but one of the patrolmen thought it necessary to shove him forward anyway. As a result, Ryou half stumbled into the tent. He was stopped in the entrance by Okidis, who'd drawn his short sword.
Ryou knew full well, in an analytical way, that all this ruckus could get him into very hot water, but that was just a byproduct of failure and not worth considering until he'd used every single tactic at his disposal. Darius had asked him to go get help. Ryou was going to do his best.
"Who is it?" asked someone in a crotchety tone. "Who's got a message for me?"
There were a dozen men in the large pavilion. Ryou's eyes darted from one imposing uniformed man to another, but now his gaze fell onto a figure wrapped in a blue toga over a tunic trimmed in gold. The man was easy to overlook, seated as he was in a camp chair in front of a low table covered in maps. He was old, in his sixties at least, and visibly ill from the curdled-milk color on his face, with one sandaled foot propped up on a low stool.
Too old to be Ghan. "General Terentius?"
"Yes? What's this about a messenger getting waylaid? Who the hell are you and where are you from, anyway?" He looked dyspeptic and cross, like an old grandpa whose game of shogi had been interrupted by some young fool.
"From Ezo," Ryou replied shortly, since an answer however wrong was faster and less confusing than the true explanation. "I was traveling with an Assyrian soldier from your army - one of Lord Ghan's men - and we were ambushed not far from here. His name is Darius Bher Polenius. Can you please send someone to help him?"
Terentius's eyes were the wrinkled, heavily lidded eyes of a turtle. They narrowed in confusion as he said the one word Ryou had dreaded above all. "Who?"
Ryou's blood turned to ice and the watch around his right wrist felt as tight and painful as the leather straps around his splinted left forearm. He opened his mouth...but his tongue moved like papier-mâché, and a wave of dizziness overcame him. How...how was he going to persuade the general of an army from antiquity to send out help for some unknown soldier without a lot of time-consuming explanations...?
"Where's that guy who- where’s Ghan?" Terentius asked someone behind him. "He could sort this out. He was here a moment ago, did he go take a piss or something? Meromeidon, can you-"
"What name did you say?" someone asked from the back of the tent.
People shuffled and turned towards the source of the question. At the back of the tent was a long, thin table bearing scrolls, a basket of fruit and a few pitchers. A man was leaning against it, a cup in his hand but his gaze fixed on Ryou.
"Uh, Darius Bher Polenius."
The other put the cup down without looking and straightened away from the table. As he circled around the group, Ryou realized he was huge, half a head taller than anyone present. Unlike the others, he wasn't in armor or richly dressed, in nothing but a shapeless brown tunic reinforced with patches of leather, a short brown cloak over his shoulders and mud-encrusted shoes on his feet. His square heavily-weathered face was carved with deep downward crease lines, hair falling in sharp daggers down his forehead and into his cheeks as if they'd dug those ruts there themselves; they hid his eyes.
- Until he reached Ryou, grabbed him by the collar and hauled him up with one hard gesture to stare straight into Ryou's face. Ryou got a good look at his eyes then; they were grey and harder than stone.
The man studied him up close for three subjectively long seconds during which Ryou gaped back at him. Then he found himself lowered back down to the ground which his toes had been barely touching, and a hand fastened on his elbow. "I'll deal with this, General."
"What? What?" The old man leaned forward in his seat. "You know this fool, Rand? What the hell is going on?!"
The last was shouted after them. The man, Rand, had already half-manhandled Ryou out of the tent and away to the left, ignoring Terentius.
"Are- are you Rand the Khinite?" Ryou stuttered, following the other's long strides with some difficulty, not that he had much choice. The grip of fingers on his arm suggested that it was either that or be dragged.
The bangs had once more closed like a curtain over those hard eyes, but Ryou felt certain he'd just been gifted with a short, sharp glance. "Darius mentioned you," he found himself saying in pure kneejerk defensiveness. "He said you could help," he added a little more constructively. "We were ambushed on the way here, enemies from, uh, Kaides he said. Darius sent me to get help. He said he'd try to stay within a mile of the river. It took me- do you know what minutes are?"
"Yes," answered Rand without bothering to elaborate on why he was in the minority, when most people in these lands didn't bother dividing the day into more than four parts at most.
"It took me fifteen minutes to get from where I left him to the edge of camp. That was almost forty minutes ago."
"And who are you?" Rand glanced down at Ryou, face still hard.
"Ujiie Ryou, I was traveling with Darius, we met on the way," Ryou answered, once more choosing expediency and simplicity over a complex truth that would keep them mired down for too many minutes, and might lead his audience to conclude he was a nutcase. "Can you please send someone to help?"
Rand gave a grunted "Hmm," which could mean anything, but which Ryou just had to hope was assent.
They walked fifty circuitous meters away from Terentius’s pavilion in the direction of the river, weaving around smaller tents. Lower down the slope, Ryou spotted a makeshift paddock with two dozen horses, and there were more picketed near the individual tents surrounding them, so it certainly looked like they were heading in the right direction. Though they'd not gone that far, the mood was different here. They were no longer in the ranks of Terentius's crisp, professional pseudo-Legionaries. Amongst the dozens of men Ryou saw, he could not find two that matched when it came to shoes, helmets, tunics, skirts or trousers; the same was true for skin tone, hair color and features. The only thing that united these men were black scarves around their necks, worn like a badge. They also shared a certain lean, mean, hungry look, but that might be Ryou's knowledge coloring his perception of these troops known as the Assyrian Hounds.
Rand stopped so suddenly that Ryou staggered. "How many men did you say?"
"Jexen," Rand called out. "Where's Lord Ghan?"
A tow-headed man sitting on a box three meters away glanced up from where he was replacing the leather strap of a sandal. He looked at Rand in surprise, then jerked his thumb towards the pavilion at the center of the small circle of tents, a blood-red banner bearing the circle symbol planted before it.
"Is he available? I need to see him."
The question seemed to puzzle Jexen. "What? Oh, sure, go right ahead, sir, he's-"
"In the meantime, I want you to get a squadron on horseback."
Jexen's surprise turned to amazement, but he dropped his sandal, grabbed the javelin that'd been resting against the box and walked away with nothing more than a quick, "Yes sir."
"Thanks," said Ryou, almost giddy with relief as he turned back to Rand.
Those grey eyes were still lurking behind the bangs, and Ryou felt himself to be under scrutiny, even suspicion. He couldn't blame the man; he was ready to concede that his appearance here and his request must seem extraordinary.
"Let's go talk to Lord Ghan," said Rand.
Rand didn't move immediately, though; he stood there looking down at Ryou as if searching his face for something. Behind them Jexen was shouting, and people were pouring out of tents lower down the slope and saddling their horses. Just as Ryou was wondering what the hold up was, Rand made a short gesture indicating that Ryou could walk without getting dragged this time.
"Lord Ghan," he called out as they neared the canvas, but the rest of his words were buried in a sudden baying.
A man inside the pavilion cursed, there was some kind of commotion, and then the canvas bulged near ground level. Pegs pulled from the dirt and two huge mastiffs came surging out from under the cloth.
Ryou had never liked dogs all that much, and these two were huge and savage, mouths gaping wide as they charged at him. He staggered back and bumped into Rand.
The two dogs hurled themselves at him, and would have bowled him over if Rand hadn't steadied him with one hand and used the other to shove at the animals. "Down! Down!"
Ryou's heart started to beat again when he realized the dogs were sniffing and pawing at him, not tearing him limb from limb. They weren’t quite as big as he’d first thought, but the larger one reared up full length on its hind legs and managed to stuff its nose down his collar before Rand pushed it away again.
"What the plague is going on out there?" shouted a man emerging from the tent after the dogs.
Ryou got a shock on par with the dogs when he saw a familiar face.
"Darius?!" No, Ryou immediately realized, this newcomer wasn't Darius. But he was dressed much like his friend had been when they'd first met, and he had the same hairstyle and beard. The resemblance was striking. Could this be- "Are you his brother? Can someone help him?!"
"Darius?" said the man, glancing from Ryou to Rand. "Who in Hades is Darius?"
Oh no, not again.
Rand did not answer immediately, and there was some quality to his silence that sent echoes of itself spreading around him. One by one, the men stopped talking and shouting; there was only the whinny of horses and the snuffling of the dogs as all eyes were drawn to the tall man. He stood like a ship's mast in the middle of the camp, ignoring everybody and staring only at the dogs sniffing Ryou over. Then he looked back at Ryou, a look that drilled right through the latter's head.
"It's true, then," he said, almost to himself. "Jexen, get those horses. Now. One for me as well."
That broke the spell. Jexen started giving orders with intense rapidity that promised to get things done very quickly indeed. Four men were already astride their animals, and others were dragging their mounts into formation.
"What's going on?" asked the man who looked like Darius. "Who is this- this-" he gestured at Ryou, then made a move to get the dogs away from the latter.
Ryou was jerked to one side. Rand frog-marched him towards a horse. Ryou found himself clinging to the animal's hide while Rand swung himself up and into the saddle. Then a strong hand reached down and hauled Ryou up to sit in front of him. The horse snorted and splayed its legs, but it was an animal that matched Rand in sheer strength and size, and it shook its mane and straightened up as if not deigning to notice their combined weight.
"Hang on," said Rand in a voice that suggested Ryou would be unwise not to. "Jexen-"
"Wait!" The other man had gotten hold of the dogs, though they were straining their collars. "'Darius'? Does he mean-"
"I think so. We'll know shortly if it's really him or not."
Behind Rand, the man called Jexen stared at Ryou, one foot in the stirrup and his mouth wide open as if he'd just figured out something momentous.
"I'm coming with you!" Darius's ringer shouted.
"No," Rand answered. "It's not safe for you to hare off into the countryside on a wild report from some unknown." That would be me, thought Ryou.
"But- Gods damn it!" The dogs had slipped the man's hold and were crowding around the horse, who laid back its ears dangerously.
"Stay here. It could be a trap or a distraction. Let them come," Rand added as the man tried to get the dogs back again.
The man nodded. "Of course. Chamrosh, Zuru, go, boys!"
The dogs were so eager to go they were whining, sniffing the ground, running off a way and then doubling back to Rand and Ryou again. Jexen's horse gave them a wide berth as his rider maneuvered the animal forward. "Ready, sir."
The world broke into movement as Rand kicked at his horse's flanks. Ryou grabbed a hold of the man's arm with his good hand, clung to the horse's sides with his legs, put every equestrian lesson he'd learned these last few days into practice to avoid falling off, and finally, finally - forty minutes and counting but Ryou couldn't see his watch face with everything shaking - finally they were off.