Darius looked around, gaze going without surprise over the men kneeling before him, but it stopped at Ryou. He looked away again before Ryou could read his expression.

There was a curse from the last unharmed enemy. He wasn't standing either, but only because he'd stepped back defensively from the half-circle of armed men and tripped over his horse's hind leg. He was now trying to get his feet under him again and away from the animal kicking weakly in the grass.

The two hounds, licking their chops, trotted up to Darius and slipped their large heads under his hand. Darius looked down and Ryou saw him smile.

"Did Rand bring you too, little brothers?" he said, rubbing a set of ears.

The biggest of the two, blood still on its muzzle, looked like it was going to drop down and roll around the grass in sheer happiness at its master's attention.

"I'd have had to kill them to stop them," said Rand in a tone that might have been intended as sardonic and exasperated with the fawning mutts, though it wasn't really trying that hard.

"So it was for the rest of us, my Lord," added Jexen with a fierce grin. "Shall I get rid of those other two?" He was referring to the two soldiers, one with an arrow in his leg, the other down with unknown injuries from the dogs.

"Just secure them for now. We'll see how cooperative the master is before we take it out on the curs."

"Ghan..." The man in question had finally managed to extricate himself from his horse. Gripping his sword, he staggered towards Darius. The kneeling men leapt to their feet and their hands fell onto hilts, but Darius waved them back, even though the man was staring at him with such murderous venom it looked like he might attack even if it cost him his life.

"Greetings, Yrmah." Darius's voice dripped with a heavy parody of courtesy. "I must beg your forgiveness. I know we were supposed to meet over a twelveday ago, but as it happens, I was ambushed on my journey to the talks you invited me to. Can you believe it? I was quite surprised myself. And here you are, in such a hurry to parley that you left Kaides and came all the way into neighboring Essin to pursue me. Will you ever forgive me?"

Yrmah glanced around the ring of hostile expressions, ranging from glares to derisive smirks, but it only made him angrier. He was holding himself straight, though he kept his right arm close to his body as if injured, his sword in his left hand. His high conical helmet had fallen off and there was a contusion slowly swelling up on the right side of his face, from the edge of his curled beard all the way up to the temple. He was dressed in a knee-length garment of small interlocking metal plates, slit at the thighs to allow him to ride; Ryou, with his budding knowledge of antiquity and ancient warfare, knew this sort of quality amor was very expensive, but to his modern eye, Yrmah still didn't look much like a prince.

"You-..." Yrmah struggled with his words, and then they came out like daggers. "We almost had you. I wanted to give Sezerena your head. We'd have had it varnished and put on a spear behind his throne, next to the spot we're saving for your fucking whore of a brother ."

Darius tsked, gesturing back into their scabbard some of the blades that had sprung free. "I'm no politician, I told you that ages ago, but I'm pretty sure that's not how you negotiate. And if you’re just trying to rile me, save your time. Better men than you have failed. The truth is, I don't give a bird's fart about you, Yrmah, or about any inch of that miserable rocky stretch of mountains you call the Kingdom of Kaides. I didn't even care when you threw in your lot with Essin, or when you gave me safe passage right into a trap."

"Safe passage only applies to free men, not to the bastard son of a slave-"

"The ones I'm really interested in," Darius continued as if nothing had been said, "are the people who jumped me and my men in that very interesting way right after crossing the border into Kaides."

Despite his mocking tone, he was watching Yrmah’s reaction carefully. Ryou, who was putting things together at speed, also looked at the man from Kaides. But Yrmah's expression of hostility and spite didn't change. Either he was too furious to really listen to what his enemy was saying, or he did not know that the ambush that had picked off Darius on the way to their parley had used magic to get him dropped an unimaginable distance away, almost to the Inlands itself.

"I have nothing to say to you, Ghan," Yrmah spat. "Crawl back into your kennel with the curs that you-"

Jexen was at his side before he finished speaking, kicking out Yrmah's knees from under him and his dagger at the man's throat. Rand was there a second later, his demeanor much calmer. He moved the blade away from Yrmah and shooed Jexen off. Jexen gave Darius an almost beseeching look, but obeyed the latter's nod and stepped back. Rand took his place without any sign of even the mildest irritation; though when Yrmah tried to get to his feet, a casual hand on his shoulder forced him back down.

"I trust that reminded you who has the upper hand here," Darius said, leveling his sword at Yrmah's chest. "Your last ditch attempt to intercept me today was either clever or desperate. I didn't think you would be looking for me from that direction. Somebody knows something of my movements these past twelve days, and it's obviously not you, you poor manipulated dunce. Now tell me, who's pulling your strings? Who put you up to that parley with this Essin emissary who almost certainly doesn't exist? Who set up a trap for me, and who informed you I escaped and would be most likely coming this way? You will tell me, Yrmah, or I'll have you ripped apart by my dogs."

"Keep your threats," sneered the man on his knees. "I'm the crown prince of Kaides."

Darius did not seem impressed. If anything, his crooked smile became more amused and the air of menace around him more pronounced. "Damn me to the abyss, you're right, I forgot. You're the designated heir to your kingdom and I'm just some Assyrian bastard. Rand, my good friend, be kind enough to hold out the prince's hand."

"What- ow!" Yrmah struggled, but it was quite hopeless. Rand reached down, grabbed his wrist and forced his arm out straight with enough force to make the tendons crack.

Darius smiled as he stepped forward.

His sword slashed out and Yrmah screamed. Ryou wrenched his gaze away from the ruined mess of a hand - blood surging - mangled and ugly misshapen with some- two fingers still attached but one hanging at a hideous angle- and - and red and pink pieces on the ground -... He stared hard at an empty spot over Rand's shoulder.

The prince gave another choked cry. Then all Ryou could hear was the pitter-patter of blood falling on trampled grass. It sounded like summer rain.

"Thank you, Rand. Pick up the prince's fingers and send the one with his signet ring to his father. Oh, let's be generous and send them all. That'll inform him he needs a new heir. Now, what do we do with the rest of him? Chamrosh, Zuru, are you hungry, boys?"

The two dogs beside him perked up. Someone in the back of the small group snickered. Ryou's stomach lurched.

"I'm afraid Prince Yrmah is no longer awake," Rand informed the company.

"After only losing a few fingers?" Darius sounded honestly surprised. Ryou glanced around without looking at the mess on the ground, to see his friend lean forward and grab Yrmah's chin. The prince's face was ghastly pale, the bruise on the temple a swollen red by contrast. "So he is. It doesn't take much to be a prince in Kaides, does it."

"It appears not, Lord Ghan," Rand said calmly, though Ryou noticed in the part of his mind where facts accumulated that the man had quickly knelt down behind Yrmah and gripped the unconscious man tightly by both wrists as soon as Darius had leaned forward.

That was what really drove it home, more than the violence. Darius had killed in Ryou's presence before, without mercy other than that of a quick death; with a cold efficiency that suggested that he could suspend even the latter if he had a really good reason to. But in their desperate circumstances, it was nothing more than a matter of survival.

This man who was watched by these fierce soldiers as loyally as his dogs...whose life was so important to them that they'd ridden off without hesitation into a potential ambush on the word of a who guarded him and who'd not chance even an injured enemy harming him, and who would torture and kill and probably die for him...this man was no longer the isolated foreigner back in Tokyo or the man Ryou had wandered the Outlands with.

Lord Ghan. Ghan the Beast.

Ryou turned away and took a few steps towards the horse that had brought him here.

"We won't get anything from him like this," he heard Darius say after a pause. "Let's get out of here."

Since sticking his head in the sand wasn't going to change anything whatsoever, Ryou turned around again. Rand was binding the prince's bleeding hand, staunching the bleeding somewhat, the other soldiers were heading back to their horses. Darius wiped his sword on a cloth one of his men provided. His eyes met Ryou's as he sheathed his sword.

Darius studied him briefly. Ryou did not frown, did not look askance, did not look away. Show them nothing. A constant mantra in his life that had somehow become a little too neglected and transparent this past fortnight with Darius, his friend, riding at his side. But that was the advantage of ingrained habits: they came back easily. Ryou knew his face was composed and unreadable. It would not be obvious that this was not to hide an expression, but to hide the fact that he had no idea what expression to make, or what to think or feel anymore.

Darius turned away and gestured at Jexen and another soldier to pick up the prince. He said a few words to Rand, who leaned forward to listen attentively. Then Darius slapped Rand on the shoulder in a way that said more clearly than words how glad he was to see the other man again, and went to help himself to Jexen's horse. He had what looked like a shallow cut down one arm, and the streaks of sweat down his face were testimony to the arduous ride followed by a fight he'd survived, but Darius jumped into the saddle as if he was fully rested, and raked his men with a look that seemed to sizzle in the quiet countryside.

"Have you all been taking good care of Essin while I was away?" he asked loudly.

The men around him laughed uproariously.

"Yes my Lord!"

"Kept them nice and warm for you!"

"Ripe for it!"

"Let's get back then," said Darius. "It's been days since I've killed anybody bar these poor sods. I need a goddamned war already!"

Soldiers cheered and leapt onto their horses, the dogs barked and made a nuisance of themselves beneath everyone's hooves. Ryou watched, mind blank and with a feeling he was a million miles away from all this. His head was heavy and the ground beneath him was swaying gently. He reached out blindly, found the side of the nearby horse to lean against. With the attitude all horses seemed to have adopted in his regard, the bloody animal snorted and sidestepped. He staggered and hooked his good arm over its withers, hoping it wouldn't bolt.

"You said your name was Ryou?"

Rand was at his side. Right, It was against the man's horse that he was leaning.

"My name? Yes, Ryou." Why the hell would he insist on Ujiie-san in the circumstances?

Rand examined him as if he was actually looking at him for the first time rather than gauging him as a walking and talking source of information for finding lost lords. "May I see?"


"Your injury, may I see it, please?"

He's being mighty polite all of a sudden, thought Ryou, extending his wounded arm. Around them, men had saddled up, Jexen doubling up with a colleague, the prince of Kaides slung over Darius’s gelding which had not been injured in its earlier tumble. The other two enemy soldiers were also tied and hoisted up like baggage with little regards to their injuries. Darius nudged his horse into a quick walk towards the exit to the dale, then he turned in the saddle to talk to Jexen.

Ryou jumped at a sudden sharp pain in his arm.

"My apologies. It's broken," said Rand, shifting the make-do splints.

"Yes, that much I managed to figure out."

Rand examined him once more through his bangs, as if intrigued by the absolute flatness of Ryou's tone and expression.

"The bone is not shifting, though. It is not too serious, as these things go. We'll have a priestess deal with it once we're back in camp." He gently pressed the arm against Ryou's side, then he unhooked his cloak from the two small metal spikes sown onto his tunic, and bundled and tucked the cloth around shoulder, elbow and forearm until the limb was supported. The pain let up a bit immediately.

"Thank you..." There was nobody else left in the dell now. The wind blew, rustling the churned grass. Yrmah's horse was dead, its tongue hanging out, its legs sticking out ridiculously. It'd taken an arrow in the haunch and the other one near the shoulder. The wounds didn't look immediately fatal. Ryou couldn't see too well from this angle, but it was possible one of the soldiers had put the beast out of its misery. The other two injured animals had been led back to camp.

Rand helped him up into the saddle, swung up behind him, took the reins and shook them once, getting the horse moving forward at a measured walk. Ryou watched the edges of the dell fall slowly away, a foreign countryside appearing around them by installments. He didn't say anything, and neither did the stranger riding behind him. The silence after the shouting and the hoof beats was deafening. The bird twitters and animal calls that eventually started up again sounded fake.


About the author

Mal Chants


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