For once, Micah was not worth robbing. In spite of the oppressive heat, that fact brought a spring to his step.
The floor of the wadi was cracked and sizzling, the sky in one of its dry-season moodss–clear and blue as the season demanded, but dully so. Underneath it, the world held nothing but golden dust and heat-gnarled vegetation. It was a day over which the sun ruled like a tyrant, to worship or shake a fist at, as inclination dictated.
But Micah already had a God to worship, and he had never been much of a fist-shaker. He trotted along the wadi floor in happy oblivion, kicking up dust that stained his coat, swishing his tail at imagined flies.
Thieves’ Valley was not a popular road–or, really, a road at all. He liked it for its very loneliness. Soldiers and tax officers avoided it because of the lions and robbers; for his part, Micah preferred the lions and the robbers. They, at least, only bothered you when they were hungry.
Micah was close to home, and glad of it, but there was enough daylight left to take his time in getting there.
As a point of fact, there was a little too much daylight. It was blindingly bright, and when Micah saw a stand of wind-weathered trees ahead large enough to promise a patch of shade, he made for them. A moment’s rest, a drink from his water-skin, a moment of thought and leisure away from the midday glare before being on his way again.
He would be home before sunset.
* * *
Aureus fought to keep his eyes open to the blinding, hellish light. Take one painful breath in. One painful breath out. Focus on the faintly waving branches over his head. Every lungful of air was like a stab in his side.
Flies zithered around his head, crawled on his side to feed off the blood that was drying on his fur. He brushed them away angrily.
Wait until I’m dead.
In this heat, it wouldn’t be long.
The fire in his veins might have been rage or a spreading sickness. He fostered it, whichever it was–the rage might keep him alive. The sickness would help him finally die.
A light skritching of small hooves across the thirsty ground made Aureus go still. Waiting.
Had they decided to finish him? Gathered what scraps of barbaric honor this country held to give him a soldier’s death, after all?
Pulling his fingers to a tighter grip on his sword, he bit his tongue as he gathered his legs to stand. He’d killed one of their kind before. He’d kill another before they were able to finish him.
He would die fighting.
The hooves came closer, and he waited for the stranger to round the scrub.
* * *
The waterless heat had yet to kill the trees. Light green leaves hung like defeated flags from the grey branches, and Micah reached up to brush his fingers against them, wondering at the spark of color in the faded white-grey world.
Unbidden, a patch of the tree’s shade took form and lurched at him with a gutteral growl.
Startled half out of his skin, Micah stumbled back and heard the sharp hiss of a swung blade as it missed his throat. He scrambled away from the shadow-beast and into the sunlight, slipping on the dusty ground.
The beast gurgled, towered over him briefly, and collapsed into the dirt, landing hard mere feet from where it had leapt up.
Micah’s skin was still prickling with fear, hearts pounding hard, but he didn’t run. He snorted and stamped a hoof as the thing made another low noise of pain.
It was a soldier. Slick with sweat, stained with dirt and blood, but with a military cut to his tail and a short sword gripped in his fist. His legs had twisted under him oddly in the fall, and he glared up at Micah, making no attempt to rise again. Belatedly, Micah saw the dark sprays of red soaking the ground, hidden in the shadows of the trees and dripping in discomfiting amounts from a nasty-looking wound in the soldier’s belly. A thick scent of gore hung in the air, and Micah felt ill.
“Come to finish me?” the soldier’s accent was thick and foreign, but easily recognizable. Hermean. The conquerors of the world, pompous even when they were bleeding half to death.
“Do it,” his voice was dry, and it cracked into a snarl. The blade he held was wavering, but sticky with congealing blood that Micah guessed was not the soldier’s. “Do it if you dare!”
“Ai, calm down. Calm down,” he raised his hands, placating. “I didn’t see you.”
The soldier looked skeptical, but the bloody blade lowered, a fraction less ready to hack him limb from limb.
“Ach, what happened to you?” Micah took a step forward–gingerly due to the sword still held ready to take off his head. The soldier watched him, equally wary. Kneeling uneasily at the man’s side, Micah peered at the wound. It was long, running the length of the soldier’s stomach, and bleeding badly. “Get attacked by a pack of lions?”
The soldier snorted. “Just a Jackal.”
“You’re lucky your guts didn’t spill out. This is deep.”
A deeper wound than any jackal could have managed, but that was no business of Micah’s. He rifled half-helplessly through his bag for something to staunch the bleeding, there was only his water-skin, half-empty, and the cloth satchel itself. It was dirt-ridden and rough, but it would have to do. With a calculating glance at the wound, he began to tear the satchel into strips.
The soldier watched him as he worked, eyeing the bandaging as though to judge it.
“You’re a healer?” he asked, as Micah carefully laid the makeshift bandage over the worst of the wound. Concentrating on his task, he shook his head.
The soldier grimaced. “Ah.”
Blood was already seeping through the bandage, but Micah fancied that it was flowing more slowly as he tied off the last strips of cloth. Not as slowly as he would have liked, though.
“We should get you to a healer as soon as we can.” He looked uncertainly at the man’s legs, twisted and eerily still. The soldier laughed without any hint of humor.
“Broken,” he said. Micah’s stomach twisted.
“Ah,” eying the soldier’s bulk, Micah wondered if he was up to the weary task of carrying it.
“The name’s Aureus, by the way,” the soldier said, interrupting his thoughts. Leaning his head back on the scrubbish tree-trunks, he gave Micah an appraising look.
The blazingly Hermean name shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It wasn’t a surprise, exactly–but Micah still looked up at the soldier with new eyes, considering the fact that he was one of the ten thousand marching swords who had come to conquer and to kill, one of the arrogant red-cloaked penny-pinchers who had chopped the land into counties and sub-counties, building their traffic-heavy tax-racked roads and sitting petty governors in the seats of kings.
A flare of fiery and not unfamiliar anger stole into his heart, and Micah stuffed it down with practiced ease.
“Micah,” he offered, stretching out a hand. “And I may not be a medic, but I do know a bit about splinting broken limbs.”
He looked up at the spreading tree above them both. “There’s a tree like this outside my forge, and there’s always some young rapscallion or other trying to climb it–and falling out of it, more often than not. Sometimes I think I make more splints than chalices.”
Catching a glimpse of what he wanted in the midst of the tree leaves, he jumped for it. The dead branch jostled drily, but did not come loose, and he tugged at it, willing the thing to break free.
Aureus watched him.
“Why not cut the tree down?”
There was a resounding snap as the tree branch finally gave way, and Micah caught it before it fell on the soldier’s skull.
“Cut it down.” Aureus repeated, brushing a wayward leaf from his hair. “No tree, no climbing. No climbing, no broken bones. No broken bones–more chalices.”
“I never thought of that,” he said with a shrug, managing to make it sound as though the soldier had had a novel and intelligent idea. In truth, Micah had no more thought of that solution than he would have seriously considered killing the birds that woke him five minutes too early every morning. Working the fallen branch into a usable splint, he quietly reveled in the utter coldness of the over-logicked mind of Hermeans. They were the type of men who cut down trees for the sick sake of convenience, who probably would kill a bird that dared interfere with their strict schedule. They were not the kind of men Micah wanted ruling the world–whatever their emperor’s ambitions.
“Which legs did they break?” he asked, splints ready. Aureus’s gaze had been wandering feverishly, and he blinked, seeming to shake himself into a dizzy kind of alertness. He gestured silently to one of his forelegs and one of his back legs, and Micah felt his stomach twist again.
Aureus hadn’t been attacked by some wandering robbers, and Micah suspected that he hadn’t been left alive by accident. The soldier’s wounds were calculated and methodical–the wide slash across the stomach that would never knit on its own, sure to sour, poison and kill within a day or two of exposure to the heat, the legs crippled so there was no hope of getting to safety. Someone had wanted him to die alone and slowly.
Robbers were one thing, but an attempted assassination such as this could hardly be ignored by the Hermean garrison. There would be a hunt for the attackers, and, failing to find them, the Hermeans would take their libation of blood from any one of Micah’s countrymen that came to hand.
Micah could see it clearly playing out in his mind, and his fingers were unusually clumsy as he attempted to tie the splint.
“You could easily have left me here,” Aureus noted, watching him. “There would have been no ill for you. My body would be found in three days or a week–another poor deserter, fallen to robbers–and you could have made your chalices in peace.”
It was as though the soldier had pulled Micah’s own thoughts out of his mind and read them aloud–but he wasn’t about to admit it. He pulled the knot tight on the first splint, and Aureus sucked in a breath, letting it out through his teeth. The pain, though, failed to quiet him as Micah moved on to the second limb.
“So why do you continue to help?” he asked, eyes over-bright. “I would not, had it been you lying there. Our peoples are not of the sort to help each other.”
“I’m not my people,” he said sharply. “And neither are you, try as you might to pretend that you are. And peoples aside, it’s nothing short of a sin to leave a wounded man to die, so drink some water and shut up.” He tossed the water-skin in the general direction of Aureus’s head, and was annoyed when the soldier caught it instinctively out of the air, still giving him that curious, fever-eyed look. Aureus opened his mouth, intending to say something which Micah intended to ignore, but there was no time for either of their intentions to come to fruition.
Another voice boomed out over the wadi, startling them both.
“Hermean!” it cried. “I’ve decided to end your suffering after all.”
Micah looked up, recognizing the accent of his own people, and then to Aureus. By the sudden hardening of the soldier’s face, Micah guessed that he had recognized the voice.
The assassin had returned.
* * *
Aureus had almost hoped to escape the day alive. Fool. Fool to think that a well-meaning silver merchant could make any difference in the course of fate. Fool to think that that rabid dog of a rebel, the self-proclaimed Jackal, would be deprived of blood so easily. He twisted, a curse and a prayer held under his tongue as he tried to see beyond the shielding screen of trees.
“That’s the man who attacked you?” the silver merchant asked, half-whispering, hands halted midway through tying the second splint. He was right to be afraid, Aureus thought with a bitter taste on his tongue; the Jackal and his pack would kill him too for daring to help him.
“Those are the men who will kill me.” Aureus said, straining his eyes to catch an over-shoulder glimpse of the Jackal at the head of his pack of devotees. “They’re ill-armed, but many and bloodthirsty. They want me–they need not have you.”
Using the thin trees for support, he was struggling to get to his feet, not much wanting to face death lying down.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Micah hissed, trying to get him to lie still. In truth, Aureus was not sure he could stand, but he was determined to try. Javelin-sharp pains shot through his legs and dug their barbs into the gash on his side, and he halted mid-rise, feeling the impossibility of the situation like a brick in his chest. But if he stood, if he fought, he could get the silver merchant away safe. He could set something in this ugly, barren world right, and if that was all the glory his death was to afford him–it was better than none at all.
Micah was still trying to get him to lie down.
“Just–hold on–” he was saying, a layman’s understanding of war prompting him to hesitation, but Aureus knew better. He struggled again, forcing his angry limbs to hold him and hearing the steady drip of his blood into the sand. The ground would be scarlet with more blood than his when this was over, he thought with vicious pride as Micah continued his protests.
“If you’d just calm down for one–”
“When they attack–” Aureus began.
“When they attack,” Aureus repeated, slowly so the man could understand. “You run.”
Micah only shook his head, not listening.
“Hallo to the hiders-in-the-brush!” the Jackal called, cutting off the merchant’s words. “Having a banquet back there, or only deaf?”
The sword was beginning to slip from Aureus’s sweat-stained fingers, and he adjusted his grip uselessly, tightening it until the whole sword, and not only his hold on it, wavered. He should have rubbed his palms with sand before he stood; he did not dare kneel to do it now.
“I advise the Hermean to pray his gods for peace in the afterlife,” the Jackal roared, to the accompaniment of faint laughter. “But to my misguided countryman, I offer a chance to live, traitor though he is. Leave within the minute, and your life will be spared.”
This was a surprise. Aureus glanced up, watching for the silver merchant’s answer.
He didn’t know exactly what it was he expected. For an unarmed, peaceful citizen to offer to die beside him like a warrior, on the virtue of ten minute’s acquaintance? A word of reluctance, a single moment of hesitation when time was of the essence?
“I’m coming!” the merchant shouted almost at once, going against every one of Aureus’s unexpected expectations in the space of a second. “Just a moment.”
Aureus blinked as Micah bent to pick up his water-skin from where Aureus had dropped it, and wondered why he was surprised.
The merchant turned, his expression unreadable.
“Listen–” he began, sounding pained, and the half-started apology brought Aureus to his senses. What right had he to expect anything more than he’d already been given? The brief respite, the attempted healing he had been offered was more than enough mercy from one whose people were enemies and slaves in the eyes of Aureus’s kind. He shook his head, cutting off whatever the merchant had been about to say.
“No. My thanks for your aid, and may the gods repay you for your kindness.”
The merchant frowned slightly, and without another word, turned and walked out from the protection of the scrub-trees, raising his hands peacefully.
“I’m coming!” he yelled to the Jackal, and Aureus was left alone.
* * *
Micah was met with silence and scornful glares as he walked out from behind the trees. The assassins were masked, and Micah watched their eyes with a twinge in his gut, afraid he would recognize someone–a neighbor, a friend. These were his people. But the only thing he recognized in any of their faces was a feeling–anger. Anger stoked to the point of bloodlust.
Someone lifted his mask to spit at Micah as he walked by, and then as one the group turned to ignore him, beginning to talk amongst themselves. Plotting, perhaps, the best way to heroically vanquish the man they’d left crippled and dying in the middle of the desert.
Pack of jackals, Micah thought, realizing that Aureus’s description had been apt.
The thought gave him a very ridiculous, utterly idiotic, idea. In a moment’s consideration, he was determined to carry it out. He grinned back at the tree-scrub and the arrogant Hermean behind it, then broke out across the wadi at a gallop.
The jackals were so intent on pointedly ignoring him that they did not realize that he had set off in the exact opposite direction of home.
* * *
Aureus could hear the zealots murmuring amongst themselves and a faint breeze beginning to rustle the leaves of his tree.
Even the small honor of one life saved was taken from him. He would not run–he could not–but he also could not fight for long. He could barely stand. As the dim voices murmured on the other side of the scrub-trees, he fought to keep the world from spinning before his eyes.
He wanted desperately to close his eyes like a martyr, but he was a warrior. He would die fighting, unresigned to any fate but the one he made himself.
The Jackal was shouting again.
“Who’s the conqueror now, Hermean?” he roared. “Where are your armies? Where are your gods? Can’t they save you?”
Aureus tried shifting his weight. In a white flash of searing pain, his legs gave way, and he dropped like a corpse to the ground.
“Oh, Zairus,” he cursed through his teeth, biting down a scream. “Just shut up.”
He was weak–helplessly weak–and only getting weaker. With a soft, surrendering shudder, he closed his eyes, wondering how long the Jackal would keep boasting after he was dead.
A sound like thunder shook the air.
Aureus’s eyes opened of their own accord, the sound spurring his heart to race even before he recognized it. When heard behind the walls of a fort, the sound was quixotic. Out in the unprotected open, it was terrifying.
There was a man’s scream from beyond the tree-scrub as the lions, wherever they had come from, attacked.
Aureus could run from lions no more than he could from jackals. Was he to be torn apart by wild beasts now? Raising his eyes to the sky, he wondered which god he’d offended to deserve a death like this.
Something crashed through the brush behind him, and Aureus twisted to face it, vision blurry and hands tight on the slippery sword.
It was Micah, bleeding from a few long slashes on his flanks and grinning like a fool.
“What did you do?” Aureus shouted, above the screaming of the Jackals.
“Stole a cub,” Micah panted. “Made a gift of it to our friends over there. Those lionesses are faster than they look.”
“Need to get out of here. As do you. Come on.” The merchant ducked, pulling Aureus’s foreleg over his withers and hefting with all his might to help him to stand.
“Hopefully, the jackals and the lions will keep each other occupied long enough to get us out of here,” he said, helping Aureus to hobble one step, then another. Every step was blinding pain, but the corner of Aureus’s mind that mattered couldn’t find the energy to care. It was pain with hope beyond it, pain with the helping shoulder of a friend to get him through, pain that meant he was alive.
There was another roar, another scream, behind them. Aureus was still hung up on a smallish detail, which his rattled mind would not allow him to skip over easily.
“You came back,” he said, half to himself. “For me. And I’m a–a-”
“A cursed slow walker is what you are. Pick up the pace or I’ll have saved neither of us.” Micah snapped.
Laughing hurt, but Aureus did it anyway, shaking and almost falling over as he struggled to go faster.
“You brought a pride of lions,” he said, half-choking on his own amusement.
“They were closer than the garrison.”
Aureus coughed unable to stand, and Micah scowled as he stumbled under his weight.
“I don’t generally rile up lions on anyone’s behalf, either, so you’d better live to appreciate it.”
Aureus swallowed his choking laughter. Tasting the tang of blood, he took another excruciating step forward and made a promise.
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