Darius stirred on his cot: rubbed sinewy hands over his scarred face: sat up, smoothing his unkempt beard and hair back into place with crude raking motions. He had a feeling he’d been through this before. A rise in the volume of chatter had woken him, he decided. Or was it a difference in the intensity? Then he decided it didn’t matter that much. Nothing mattered unless it brought him closer to his goal, he reminded himself. In a fashion typical for him Darius decided to do something about it, get up and find out about it.
“Here – Zekias!” Darius called, choosing to exercise his facility with the Aquilonian tongue. “Something’s happening – what is it?”
Zekias Miclas paused in the careful work he was putting in on the chain shirt and smiled back happily.
“There’s an argument about what to do next, cap’n. I stole away to get this done in peace and quiet. Sorry if I disturbed you!”
“If you disturbed me, I’d tell you, kid. So the bosses are arguing again?”
Zekias shook his unruly curls: “I think it’s more between the nomads. A little ugly woman is telling everyone off. The Khan doesn’t like it, I think, but she won’t listen to him. The other little ugly women are standing behind her, most of them. Cap’n Vorel is looking worried and Friar Edric is saying something about Ladies. Cap’n Bardic is saying something about his village. Cap’n Celo is just grinning to himself. I haven’t seen Morath. I mean, cap’n Morath.”
Darius rose and automatically, one sun-darkened hand slid his hatchet from where it had rested under the thin bolster. Casually checking the leather cover over its blade he eased the helve into its belt-loop. It was good to have it back: he’d had to sort through half a dozen scattered about to find it again after Bardic’s efforts. He glanced along the barrack-room, along the other cots. Only one was full: Hod was taking the chance for real bed-rest. He’d cornered spare blankets and bolsters and was snoring contentedly. His new Longbow was stacked right alongside.
As he took the few paces needed to reach the door, Darius noted that both Theodora and Kuruk were absent. He thought through what traveling further with Theodora might mean. He reached the same conclusion as the other times he’d thought about it: that it was best not to think about it too much. Follow your nose at all times was a good rule. Right now, his nose was leading him to the nearest hot food.
Crossing the inner ward towards the empty kennels, Darius stopped, drew his hatchet, leaned over and used the blade to hook a spit up off the little fire some children had going. He slid a hot strip of meat off, placed the spit back, and accepted the wineskin a solemn-faced brat offered. Then he looked around appraisingly.
The chatter was coming from the gate-ward end. Most of it was in Hyrkanian, and some in Aquilonian. Darius decided that listening to bad Aquilonian, trying to work out what it might mean to him, was even more boring than trying to speak it. Someone would eventually tell him; or more probably, not. His gaze moved along the hoardings atop the curtain wall, towards the sharp black-white of the late sun against the western gate-tower. He thought for a bit: then found the steps leading up the curtain wall, walked along through the hoarded gallery to the western gate-tower, and made his way up. The hatch was closed. He began to push it open, when a muffled voice called from above in Nemedian:
“It sticks a little.”
Darius stopped part-way through his motion. Then he got it, and laughed.
“Good thing you told me – I was about to really shove it. Then where would we be?”
“Probably killing each other.”
“Probably,” Darius agreed, and took his time walking over to the sunlit western side behind Theodora. She stepped out beyond the turret-top back into the sun, and leaned against the crenellated wall. Theodora was in profile and Darius suddenly felt as though he’d been punched over the heart. He shook his head. Theodora caught the movement.
“Nothing. Just saw my own ending.”
“I know your ending.”
“You find your sister, rescue her, take her back home and live happily ever after.”
Darius stirred uncomfortably:
“That sounds like a kid’s story, when you just lay it out there like that.”
Theodora turned her finely-molded head to look directly at Darius. Her dark eyes were unreadable with the sun full behind her.
“Maybe I like kid’s stories.”
“They’ve got their good points, all right. The handsome prince gets the beauty; he rides off with her…”
“The prince can go f*** himself and the horse he rode in on.”
“Oh, right, I forgot. You don’t like nobles much.”
“So what’s your story now, Darius? Do you have a more grown-up version?”
“Well… this didn’t pan out for me. The disputed lands sound a lot like the region I once heard about, where barons and such are a law to themselves. It could be Jessica’s with one of them. So if the top table are riding south with those fine ladies I’ll head along with them, try my luck.”
“Is that the only story you know?”
“You’re not too bright, are you, Darius? Maybe Hod can tell me a better story.”
“That nob-head?! Uh, anyway I thought you had a little crush on Morath?”
“Commitment issues there. Plus, all that black. No, I’m afraid I’ll have to pine and dream about Morath as I get old and fat and pop out children for some nob-head of a husband.”
“You’re teasing me!”
“But Theodora! Exactly! You – are – having – fun!”
Darius stepped closer to Theodora. She had found somewhere to wash up after the battle, and her face was amused, and a little wicked, and quite lovely. She’d missed a splash of blood high up on her temple from one of the men she’d hacked apart. Darius reached up and wiped it clean, and left his hand there. It felt like a whole new story was beginning.