"Tell me where," said Rand, and then he and Ryou were hurtling through the camp, past tents, men, and horses and heading towards the river.

"Th-th-th-" Ryou couldn't even talk for the mad pounding rush, but he pointed in the direction in which he'd arrived. Rand twitched the reins and the horse veered that way, still at a dead run. To either side of them, stern-faced armed men followed their course.

After several minutes of full-on gallop, Rand made a gesture. Ryou craned his neck and saw two soldiers from the column of twelve peel away and turn their back to the river as they rode off. A few minutes later, the same happened again. They were spreading out in a search pattern, he realized with sudden relief, they were not only relying on his directions. A good thing; his memory of where he'd left Darius was precise, but in the time elapsed, his friend could have gone anywhere. Or be -... No, Darius was not suicidal. He knew what he was doing. If he made Ryou go on ahead, it must have been the best solution to avoid both of them getting run down by a larger group of armed men.

"Here!" he shouted. He was getting used to the jarring rhythm, and his arm had gone mostly numb around the large ache. Now that things were finally happening, now that he was bringing help to his friend, he could bear with the pain.

Rand pulled the horse up hard, gesturing sharply for the others to stay back. Ryou briefly wondered where this man was situated in the Alliance army chain of command. He was dressed plainly and wore nothing more than the usual belt-knife which was the Assyrian utility tool and eating utensil that everyone wore. Outside of his height, there was nothing about him that would have made Ryou look at him twice, yet these men obeyed him without hesitation.

Rand shortened the horse’s free rein, forcing the temperamental animal to circle around the stretch of meadow Ryou had indicated. He was leaning forward, staring at the ground.

"This way," he finally said, and the world dissolved once more into shakes and jerks as the horse surged forward at a tangent to the river, in the direction of rolling hills.

It took them only a few minutes to find the body.

Ryou's heart stopped when his jumbled vision coalesced into the picture of a horse up ahead, forefoot folded back in obvious pain, a few feet away from a man sprawled in the grass. He instinctively leaned forward and nearly got shaken off for his troubles, but Rand's hand on his shoulder kept him in place until he reined in his horse.

"Looks like he's blazed the trail for us," the tall man commented in a tone that suggested finding a dead man on his path was an everyday occurrence. "This one of them?"

"I- I didn't get that good a look- yes, yes, he's got a horn with him. He's one of them." The man also had a cut across the upper chest near the throat like an obscene second smile. Flies buzzed around the face and the staring eyes, the dogs were sniffing at him and making muffled yapping sounds. Ryou didn't bother registering that this was now the sixth dead body he'd seen in the entirety of his previously peaceful life. All that mattered to him right here and now was that this wasn't Darius.

"If these addle-brains don't know enough about their quarry to hunt him in a pack instead of straggling out, they'll all be dead by the time we get to the field of battle," said Rand with grim satisfaction. He kicked the large horse into motion again, and Ryou went back to hanging on single-handedly again.

The ride became a succession of still shots for Ryou. Fields, many gone to seed; a sheepherder path; the grass ahead of them ploughed up by hooves, the tracks Rand was following. The men behind them rode in complete silence, as did the two dogs that still kept up with them, racing low to the ground, tongues hanging out with what looked like the same determination. For people who hadn't known Darius's name, they seemed intent on finding him now to the point of single-mindedness.

Ride, ride, ride...Ryou kept his gaze fixed on the horizon, hoping to see his friend up ahead, fearing to see another dead body, recognizable this time. How long had it been now? He'd lost track. How long could Darius hold out?

A twinkling of sunlight on water caught his attention. The river was to his right again, a couple of kilometers away, glimpsed between trees and fields. That meant they were heading back towards the large sprawling camp. But from the way Rand was leaning forward and scrutinizing the ground, they were still following the tracks the enemy's horses had left in soft earth and meadows.

Above the sound of pounding hooves and the singular way the blood was beating in Ryou's ears, he heard the ululating note of a blown horn.

Rand pulled the horse up so hard that it sat nearly back on its haunches, hurling Ryou back against the man's chest. He heard Rand grunt, but the arm that caught and steadied him could have been hewed out of oak for all the give it had in it. The large man looked around as if he could track through the air the sound that had already faded. Then he gestured at the men behind him. "Jexen, follow the tracks. You and you, come with me."

The group split apart as smoothly as that. Rand's horse huffed and ploughed up an incline, away from the tracks which had so far stuck to the path of least resistance between fields and valleys. Three men followed Jexen, two men followed Rand. Their forces had dwindled as other pairs of riders had broken off to search. Ryou hoped they'd be able to help once they met up with Darius.

Three minutes later they crested a rise and the so-far desperately empty landscape finally revealed their objective.

Ryou caught it all in a glance. Their rescue party was at the top of a steep valley plunging down, too abrupt for horses to negotiate at any speed. At the bottom of the abrupt grade the ground flattened out into a vale. Darius was eighty meters away, sword drawn, holding his seat bareback on the baggage gelding and facing two other riders. A third man sat on his animal further away, a horn in one hand, a drawn weapon in the other, but he wasn't joining the fray. There was no sign of Darius's original horse or of the fourth man who'd been after him.

Even from this distance, Ryou could see the faces of the two men who were trying to corner his friend. They looked furious and frustrated. One of them surged forward to cut him off, but Darius plunged away at a tangent and slid past him, angling to keep from getting caught in a pincher movement. The man pulled abruptly on his reins and circled again, obviously wary of his target's drawn sword. Ryou realized with some amazement that his friend must have deliberately turned to fight, and he was trying to get at the two men one by one.

Then Rand's horse whinnied, the two hounds bayed. A click of wood on wood made Ryou twist around in the saddle. The two soldiers at their side had whipped their bows off their backs and notched arrows.

In the valley below, the tableau froze. The three attackers stared up at the crest. Darius, though, did not turn around. It was as if he already knew who was there. He said nothing, just lifted his sword and pointed it at the third attacker some distance away.

"Shoot the horse," Rand ordered curtly.

Clack, the distinctive noise of wooden arrows leaving the bow.

Down in the valley, the observer's steed staggered, arrows protruding from haunch and chest. It jerked once, a full body spasm, and fell over on its side, pinning its rider as it writhed convulsively.

"Shit- get the Prince away!" shouted one of the other two men. His companion whirled his horse around in the direction of the fallen man.

Darius struck. He kicked the gelding into motion, surging forward. The first man saw him coming, but he was awkwardly oriented to defend, and he hesitated, pulling back on his reins. Darius didn't bother with him, he cut at the horse's face. The animal screamed and reared, throwing its rider to the ground. Darius reached the second man and ran his horse full tilt at him. His mount checked and tried to stop- but it had too much inertia. It buffeted the second animal's flank with its chest, stumbled and fell, taking the other horse with it. Both men leapt clear.

Darius got to his feet and walked towards the man with the horn who was still struggling to clear himself from his dying animal. But the soldier Darius had just unhorsed shot to his feet and ran to intercept him, sword at the ready as he placed himself between the advancing enemy and the man he'd called their prince.

Darius went right on walking as if the armed enemy three sword's length ahead of him wasn't even there.

Two black shapes rushed over the ground of the dell. The dogs leapt past him and took the soldier by the arm and the throat, bearing the man down. Darius didn't stop, didn't even glance down.

"Hamado, stay here and keep watch," Rand ordered, turning his horse to take the slope at an angle.

"Yes sir," said the soldier. His dark brown skin and features looked Aksumite, he must be a foreigner like Jexen and others in the Hounds. All of the same mold though: the same mismatched armor, the same black scarf around his throat, the same hard, intent look on his face other than a short flash of white teeth as he loosed a second volley from his bow. Down in the valley, the first soldier who'd picked himself up to run after Darius staggered and fell with an arrow in his thigh.

Rand and the second archer made their way down, shouting at their horses to force them to take the steep incline. The horses picked their way carefully, and snorted when their hooves were on flat ground again.

Darius had stopped a few meters away from the prince, who'd managed to get to his feet and draw his sword. The man looked helplessly at Darius, at Rand and the other archer, then he twisted around at a thud of hooves on sod. If he was hoping for reinforcements drawn by the sound of his horn, then he was going to be disappointed; it was Jexen and the other three men coming down the easier slope of the dell, following the tracks that had led to this battlefield.

Rand drew his horse up with a hard jerk of the reins. Ryou gasped and fell right off, but his fall became a dismount as Rand slid to the ground alongside him, an arm around Ryou keeping him from landing in a heap. The other archer had dismounted as well, so had Jexen and the other three. They stepped away from their horses and immediately knelt, head bowed.

Ryou, barely standing on trembling legs, looked at them uncomprehending. Then he glanced around in surprise as he registered the absence of Rand's towering presence beside him. Rand had also sunk to one knee, one hand extended flat before him on the turf cropped by sheep and goats, head lowered.

"My Lord Ghan."

In the sudden deferential silence throughout the dell, the only man still standing was Darius, straight as a sword. And a stunned Ryou, of course.

A note from Mal Chants

Wait, wait, wait, who was that guy back at the camp, then? And why was 'Darius' sneaking around the countryside in the first place when he's an important Assyrian general? And just how is Ryou going to feel about all this when he puts all the pieces together...?

About the author

Mal Chants


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