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The Killing Edge
They moved as fast as Sano was able, avoiding the road, heading north east of the village. The darkness was cover from easy pursuit and Kenshin could only hope that it might be an hour or more before the English Captain either regained consciousness or was discovered and pursuit began. Sano, which Sano was proud to boast, was very good at ignoring pain and physical injury when expediency demanded it of him. Oh, he'd moan and beg pity if there was no dire need and a soft bed and someone to wait on him hand and foot while he recovered, but in a pinch, he was better than Kenshin at pushing the pain aside and powering through.
They found a spot near dawn, well away from any road, a little rocky alcove near a stream within the shelter of woods. After poking around to make sure nothing else had claimed the spot, Sano tossed his blanket down and fell upon it, the taut way he clenched his jaw the only indication of just how sore he was. Kenshin pulled his own blanket from his pack and gave it to Sano.
"Sleep while you can. I'll take first watch."
Sano didn't complain over that. He bunched Kenshin's blanket into a ball, stuffed it under his head and didn't open his eyes thereafter.
Kenshin sat with his back to a tree outside the little shelter and listened to the sounds of the forest as it stirred with dawn's approach. Listened for any disturbance of it, that might indicate the movement of men near the wood. They'd put hours between themselves and the village, but still determined pursuit might close that distance.
He clenched his right fist, watching the pale scar tissue of a wound long healed flex. His sword hand, that hadn't gripped the hilt of a sword since he'd thrown the sakabatou into the sea. The night he'd truly understood that Kaoru and Kenji were dead. The night he'd gone dead inside. And remained that way since, walking, eating, breathing, skimming the surface of the world without ever truly caring what transpired around him in it.
Tonight, seeing Sano's battered face - - the anger that had welled had been the first real emotion that had pierced that shell since Madras. Since before Madras - - since he'd heard the news that her ship had gone down a day out from the city. That's when things had stopped mattering. That's when he'd let part of himself drown.
He looked at Sano, legs curled up to accommodate his long form in the little nook, bruising beginning to darken to its full glory, blood and grime streaking his skin. Still swollen and red around the cuts. He'd donned his shirt, so it was hard to see the damage on his torso.
He'd gone into that fight for the sake of a man he didn't know, without hesitation. And Kenshin had to wonder, if it had been him who had passed by a casual beating in the privacy of a dark alley, if he would have cared enough to intercede. He thought not. He would have before - - but now, during the months they had wondered India - - he wasn't so sure. How many times during the past year had he passed blithely by, encased in his shell of numb as injustices happened? Nothing, not even Sano, strong enough to rouse enough interest in him to simply care.
He took a breath, looking away from Sano, feeling a shudder of unease. He wasn't even sure how long they'd been here. Many months surely, but the seasonal changes where they'd traveled were minimal, hot year round. He had nothing to go by, and there had been times early on when weeks or more may have passed with him barely aware.
He rose, unease turning to an urgent need to simply move. He made his way down to the little stream, clear water cheerily burbling around rocks and sticks in the stream bed. He stared down at his rippled reflection. Thinner than he had been the last time he'd bothered to glance at a reflection of himself. The tail of hair over his shoulder was as long as it had ever been. Dark and lank though, with weeks gone by without more than water spilled over his head.
He took another deep breath, calming a pulse that wanted to race. Crouched down and shed his shirt, wetting it in the stream and using it to wipe away dirt and grime from his skin. Sano, he thought had a sliver of soap in his pack. He tread back up the bank and quietly rifled through Sano's bag until he found it, then went back down to the creek and did a more thorough job of it.
Which put him an hour or so into morning and nothing to do but sit there, while his clothing and his hair dried, listening to the soft sounds of Sano's breath as he slept. He sat so long, so quietly, that a hare across the stream crept out, unawares, rustling in the young greenery. The notion of meat for dinner crossed his mind. He could toss the little knife he'd been given by the Indian woman who had sheltered them when they'd first come here, and take it out from here. Perhaps even with a small round river rock if his aim was up to par. Only there were none within his reach and moving to get one would only frighten the animal away. A fire would be a risk in the light of day regardless. The smoke drifting up out of the wood a sure sign for anyone on their trail.
So he sat and watched it come and go. Watched a lizard scurry down to the stream and sun itself on a flat rock. The birds chattered in the branches, a great variety of them. A pair of small spotted deer ventured out, further down, dipping their delicate noses in the water, ears twitching.
It would have been easy to drowse, but he feared discovery and Sano had taken enough abuse for the present. Sano's mistreatment spurred him to more concern for his own safety than he'd felt for some while and made him wonder what had gone unnoticed by him these past months. He felt some guilt for it, now that he dwelled on it, his own lack of appreciation for Sano and Sano's companionship. Surely he had been no great company these long months.
He let Sano sleep far longer than the time they would normally have split their watches when they slept in uncertain places. Finally when the afternoon had melted away and dusk again approached, he shook Sano awake. Sano started, jerking up defensively, eyes darting, fists balled, until he realized it was only Kenshin. Then he groaned, easing himself onto an elbow. The swelling of the one eye had gone down while he slept, and almost he could open it fully. He gave Kenshin a look that seemed baleful, considering the state of his face, but probably wasn't, and complained.
"You didn't wake me for my turn at watch."
"No," Kenshin agreed. "I'll take a few hours now, until it's dark enough to move again."
Sano grunted and pushed himself up, crawling out of the alcove and holding out a hand to Kenshin to help gain his feet. One could imagine a body gone very, very stiff and sore.
A few curses ensued as he staggered off to the side and peed in the leaves. Then he went down the bank to the stream and sat ungracefully on the rocks at the bank, feet in the water as he bent over, dragging handfuls of water up to his face.
"Wait," Kenshin cautioned, and followed him down with a rag he'd rinsed earlier. "Let me see, Sano."
Sano grimaced and turned his face for Kenshin to take closer account of. He dipped the rag and wiped blood and dirt away from the cuts. Sano sighed, closing his eyes, leaning back while Kenshin cleaned the wounds. He pushed the collar of Sano's shirt aside, baring a nasty bruise on his shoulder. More on his torso. They had not been kind.
His fingers lingered on the taut muscle over Sano's ribs. Sano could take a hit well. Sano prided himself on it. From the shape of these bruises, they'd used batons.
"I'll be fine in a couple of days," Sano said and Kenshin tore his gaze away from the discoloration of Sano's flesh to his eyes. Realized his fingers had lingered, brushing skin that he hadn't touched for a very long time and drew them away.
Sano canted his head a little, that look in his eyes that speculated things better left unspeculated. No less aware than Kenshin how long it had been since they had been anything but casual companions.
Kenshin wrung the rag out, lying in on a rock next to Sano, and rose. "Just give me a few hours, then wake me. I will not feel comfortable until we have at least another full night's travel between us and them."
Sano shrugged, comfortably sprawled on his flat rock with his feet in cool water.
"A few hours," he agreed.
Captain Robert Worthington II had been born in India. The son of a career military man of some repute he had been commissioned into the Queen's Royal Regiment as a Lieutenant after graduating from the Royal Military Collage in Sandhurst. Like his father before him, he had served with distinction throughout India and Burma. His father, the right honorable Lt. Col Robert Worthington Senior, had died during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 when the sepoys under his command had mutinied in Gwalior. That had been the death knoll for Company rule in India and control of the colonies had been turned over to the Crown and all the resources of Victoria's military.
To this day, Worthington believed his father had practiced too much leniency with his native troops. He believed that his father, who had, according to his mother, held a great fondness for the people of India, might have avoided the mutiny that had taken his life, if he'd looked upon the dark skinned natives of this land as the savages they were. Worthington had little tolerance for the varied heathen faiths, the superstitions, the sullen resentment of the native populace towards the civilized rule of Anglo Saxons.
When the stirrings of insurrections began in the form of attacks on British convoys, south of Amjhera, he had jumped at the chance to volunteer for the duty of chasing down rumors of insurrection and squashing them. The 49th Royal Light Infantry had developed no small reputation as a squad to be reckoned with.
He'd been following the trail of rumors and the reports of local constabularies for the last several months, of murders on the road, and whispers of renewed stirrings of the notorious Thugee cult spreading unrest among the peasantry. He was not sure he believed that particular rumor, the British army having gone a long way to wiping out the vicious Thugee's some while back, but one never knew what might be stirring in the back country and the hills where clans and tribes dwelled that seldom if ever had contact with the English speaking natives of more civilized India.
He had been on his way to meet with the regional military commander at the home of the provincial magistrate Sir Porter, when the situation with the foreigners had occurred. Chinese, if he were any judge, but then his service had been restricted to India and Burma and he had little familiarity with the Chinese provinces to the east. General Fletcher, the regional commander did, having served during the last Opium War with China, and having spent a great deal of time in the eastern orient before his tour here in India. There were even rumors that General Fletcher had taken an Asian wife that he'd introduced to European society in both their youths. Worthington frowned upon the mixing of races, but a man of Fletcher's standing, with his long and distinguished career in the service of her Majesty, might be due his occasional eccentricity.
If he had believed in the remote possibility that Chinese spies might be involved in some uprising of the Thugee cult, he might have steeled himself to report the embarrassing incident to Fletcher in his meeting. But fanatical Indian seditionists, much less zealous Thugee's had issues with foreigners of any sort, Anglo or East Asian, and would be unlikely to be in cahoots. Worthington's pride, which had taken no small blow, rather insisted he keep the incident that had found him waking at the crack of dawn in a dirty alley, to himself. He still found himself amazed that they'd gotten the drop on him. Thinking about it, and he found himself dwelling on it all too often, trying to wrap his mind around how he'd had the tip of blade at the throat of the shorter one, one moment, and the next, he'd been blinking himself awake, head pounding.
He'd had a word or two with the local constable, who'd been frankly amazed that the cell they'd had their prisoner in was empty. He'd sent a patrol out, but it had been hours after the fact. Still, the two were Asian in a land full of Indians, and might not be hard to find, if descriptions were passed thoroughly enough. He'd find them and see justice done.
The estate of Sir Porter was a sprawling, stone affair that would have looked perfectly at ease in the pastoral English countryside. The grounds were immaculate, the gardens lush and well tended. When Worthington and his young British aide, Corporal Culpepper rode up, they were escorted to the gardens at the back, where Sir Porter and his wife were taking lunch with General Fletcher. Mrs. Porter directed her native servant to fetch tea settings for both Worthington and his aide, but young Culpepper politely refused, and went to stand by the garden doors, while Worthington sat with the gentry.
Manners dictated he take his tea and wait until the lady had retired, before settling down to speak of matters suited for male ears. He gave his report to Fletcher, and spoke of the unrest he had routed in the village outside Porter's estate.
"It was a shoddily done job," Porter said, upon hearing of the villager's complaints. "If I rewarded them for it, they'd only be encouraged to more shoddy work. They should be grateful I don't raise taxes to make up for it."
"As you say, Sir Porter." Worthington's respect for the man rose. A firm hand was what these people needed. Coddling would only make them lazy and unproductive.
"Do the waters flow to your fields from this aqueduct?" Fletcher sipped at his tea, holding the china cup with a certain delicacy in large, blunt fingers.
Porter raised a bristle brow. "Yes. But that's hardly the point. A weeklong job took ten days, and my overseer had no end of problems with worker complaints. Good English workers would have had it done properly in a handful of days."
"Good English workers would have demanded ten times the pay and howled bloody murder if they didn't have their lunch breaks and their pay in a timely manner."
Porter snorted, laughing, very likely not perceiving the underlying hint of scorn in Fletcher's voice. "God help us, if the scent of unionization ever crops up here, eh, old man?"
Fletcher didn't seem to find the notion amusing. In fact Fletcher didn't seem to find much at all amusing, his craggy face like stone. He turned his attention from Porter to Worthington, and began a more in depth discussion of regional troop deployment.
Worthington left the estate with orders little changed from when he'd come. Fletcher might have had issue with Porter's disregard of his native workforce, but he had little sympathy for those that threatened the interests of the crown. Whatever means necessary, to curb a possible repeat of the riots that had taken so many British lives during the last rebellion, had been his order and Worthington had silently reveled in it. If he could prevent what his father could not, it would be fitting tribute.
Two days of traveling at night, sleeping during the day and living off the land. Berries and tuberous roots made up their diet, since Kenshin was damned and determined to avoid even the chance of discovery until he was comfortable that they'd shaken any pursuit. Which meant even though the streams were plentiful and they might have caught fish, no fire to cook them over. And though Sano liked sashimi as well as the next man, he wasn't so sure he wanted it of the minnow variety.
But on the third day, when the worst of Sano's aches had began to fade and his bruises to yellow, Kenshin finally let up, and conceded that maybe, they might risk traveling again during daytime, long as they kept from the main roads. Perhaps even, if Sano wanted, they might stop and do a bit of fishing, set up camp and make a small fire to cook it by.
Sano figured Kenshin was as tired of eating raw roots as he was. And traveling in the Indian forest at night was damned treacherous, there being a lot more things in the lush, tropical forests here that might put a man in peril than there were at home in the forests of Japan.
They'd been skirting the edge of a decent sized stream for the last night of travel. Slow moving and placid, with a rise of forest-covered hills on the far side, and grassy, flat land on the shore they walked. There were enough trees for ample cover, should cover be needed, but they'd stayed far from roads and it was doubtful any army patrol would happen upon them here.
Sano had a net that he'd picked up from an old man in a village outside Surai. A small net, that was only good for the shallows near a stream or a river shore, but he'd gotten half good at fishing with it and he'd never been particularly good at fishing before. He'd never had the patience for it.
He made a haul of small silvery fish with red tipped scales. Hand length mostly, but fat enough that they promised a decent bit of meat. He'd done the fishing, so it was only fair Kenshin to the gutting and the scaling. So Sano sat back against a smooth rock under a tree not too far from the stream shore and relaxed in the warm late afternoon heat. He watched Kenshin make short work of the six fish he'd netted, then prepare them for cooking.
Kenshin was a better cook by far than Sano, better than Kaoru used to be by a long shot. Sano would have skewered the fish on sticks and charred them over the flames. Kenshin took out their dwindling supply of spices and sparingly dressed the fish before wrapping them in leaves and lying them carefully near the edges of the small fire he'd built, to steam. It had been a while since he'd taken the initiative, food seeming to have little interest for him this last year or more. He ate because he had to survive and took none of the pleasure Sano did out of t he process. Which meant Sano hadn't had a lot of particularly palatable meals on the road. It made the need to find the odd job or two and gain a little coin in his pocket to buy decent meals all the more vital.
He shut his eyes, happily drowsing as the smell of steaming fish began to permeate the air. For a long while Kenshin sat silently across from him, only occasionally poking the fire with a stick to shift coals.
Then, quietly, "I have not been good company of late."
Sano cracked an eye, studying Kenshin as Kenshin studied the dancing flames. "Yeah, you've sucked."
Kenshin looked up at him from under the fall of bangs, a dappled patch of sunlight catching the odd color of his eyes. Pretty color, when the light hit them right, like the darkest part of violet petals. "Why have you stayed?"
Sano almost laughed, but there was a level seriousness in Kenshin's gaze that stopped him from a flippant answer. This was Kenshin asking and Kenshin hadn't seemed to particularly care up until now. Something had shifted and Sano thought maybe it had been triggered by his getting his ass kicked. Worth the pain maybe if it pierced the shell Kenshin had erected around himself.
"I figured sooner or later, you'd get better. It's not like I need your good mood to enjoy myself, anyway."
Kenshin kept staring, hands very still on his knees, like he was trying to get inside Sano's head. Kenshin understood people better than he let on. He read them like books and then he pretended obliviousness. But Sano thought, he'd always been able - - not that he actively tried - - to confound Kenshin, now and then.
He could have said something like 'I don't abandon the people I love,' but that would have sounded womanish and Sano balked at that embarrassment. Besides, he'd already said it and once ought to be enough, damnit.
Kenshin seemed to maybe understand though, because he hunched his shoulders a little, before letting out a breath and casting Sano the ghost of a wry smile. "No, you enjoy yourself very well, without any help from me. Too much, in fact. I would have liked to explore the temple at Durobi more thoroughly."
"Ha," Sano laughed, remembering the hurried trek out of that particular town well, even if he had been staggeringly drunk. "At least I didn't knock the head of the local regiment on his ass. After a couple of miles, villagers get tired and go back home."
Kenshin sighed. "It seemed the thing to do at the time."
"So - - that fish ready yet?"
It was and after days of nothing but berries and tubers, it was as tasty a meal as Sano could recall having. There was nothing left but very neat skeletons when they were done. Still they buried the leaves and the bones to avoid attracting curious predators at night, and sat well after dusk, allowing themselves the luxury of simply relaxing.
Sano hesitated to start a conversation that Kenshin would retreat from, but it had been a damned long time since he'd brought up the subject of home and people they'd left behind.
"So - - you think the kid's doing okay? With the dojo and all?"
Almost, Sano thought Kenshin was going to shut down, refusing to even acknowledge talk of home and the things that mattered there, so twisted up inside with pain over what he'd lost that he couldn't deal with the memories of it. Part of Sano thought it was cowardice on Kenshin's part, the refusal to deal with the past, because of the pain it caused. Hell, the whole trek through India was him running from memories the best he knew how and here Sano was on his heels. But then, with all the other things that Kenshin delved head on into, putting his life on the line with out a shed of hesitation - - well, maybe he was due that one weakness. Maybe Sano wasn't one to judge, having weaknesses of his own. Didn't every man?
But Kenshin surprised him finally, running a hand through his hair, raking it off his forehead for a moment before it fell back down. "I think Yahiko will thrive. He was courting Tsubame - -perhaps by now, he's even asked her to marry him."
"No shit? I can't even imagine the kid married."
"He's not a kid - - he's eighteen - - or is it nineteen? - - now. He'll be a good master for the dojo. He'll uphold the honor of her name and her father's name. Better than I would have - -"
Kenshin broke off, stared out at the glint of moonlight rippling the water of the stream, swallowing.
"Why? Because you would have run?"
Kenshin cast him a glance, but Sano couldn't see if it were guilt or accusation in his eyes. Finally though. "Yes. Without her there - -them, there - - the walls hold nothing for me. Even if I had been there - -in Tokyo - - I would not have stayed."
"Yeah." Sano lay back in the grass and stared at the sky, clear and sparkling with stars. "Sometimes running's what you have to do to survive."
Kenshin took a breath, lay back finally on the grass an arms length from Sano. Safe distance, but still there was a sense of camaraderie - - of them being closer than they had in a long time that made Sano's pulse race a little. He didn't do anything but lie there though, and silently share the sky.
Sometimes silence spoke more than all the words in the world anyway.
Two weeks meandering their way northeast, careful to avoid notice on the few roads they walked. Mostly they kept to the edges of the forest, where hunting small game was easy and shelter was plentiful. Not too deep into the forests, which had gradually become greener and denser than the dryer woodlands of the south, because things lurked there that a man who didn't know the nature of all the predators that dwelled in these lands, held great respect for.
Kenshin had spotted a tiger yesterday, padding down to drink at the same stream he and Sano had stopped at, some ways down on the other side of the water. He'd seen one before, at a greater distance, and been duly impressed. Thirty yards distant and this one was more impressive still. He had frozen and Sano had, when he tugged on his sleeve to alert him of her presence, and they'd stared, mesmerized while she drank her fill, then languidly padded back into the cover of trees.
He'd heard tales in the villages they'd passed, of the occasional beast that developed a taste for human flesh, but for the most part, tigers avoided men. Just as well, for the notion of killing one - - if he were lucky enough to be on the winning side of such a conflict - - was abhorrent.
They'd veered sharply east from her territory and after another day or two of walking, come upon a dirt road with forest on one side and a rough-hewn irrigation canal on the other. It was no unusual sight, even in the remotest of areas. Agriculture was the life's blood of this country, and every village and town farmed something. They kept to the road, which seemed little traveled, and eventually came to pockets of crops amidst the forests. Sugar Cane mostly, young and green.
A boy with a straw basket over his shoulder came out of the forest from a footpath, onto the road ahead of them and Sano hailed him, asking what villages lay ahead. The boy eyed them warily, but weaponless as they were, they must have seemed little threat, because he shrugged and listed off a few names as he trudged along. Mostly small villages and farming outposts, the largest being a town four days walk away, where the women, the boy claimed, were famed for the quality of their weaving and their dyes.
They walked with him down the road, the boy having grown comfortable in their company, and glad for the security of two grown men. The roads were questionable in their safety, he said. Though no one in his village of twenty related farmers had been robbed, they'd heard tales from travelers of bandits on the roads.
And as if to justify the rumors, perhaps a half-mile further down, they came upon a flock of scavenger birds, fighting amongst themselves for some feast off the forested side of the road. The boy, as boys tended to do, ran ahead, waving his arms to chase away the birds and see what gory treasure they'd been pecking at. But he stopped, frozen and gagging as he stood at the edge of trampled grasses, and when Sano came up behind him, he swore and caught the boy's thin shoulder and propelled him back onto the road and away from the sight.
Kenshin took stock of it himself in their wake. A body in the brush. The stench of it this close near to overwhelming. He clenched his teeth and drew air through his mouth, casting a glance back to Sano, who was keeping himself between the body and the boy. Small enough protection since the boy had already seen the bloated remains. The birds had been well about their work, and there was little recognizable left of what had been a man. He hesitated to ask the boy to look again and see if he knew the man.
"He's been dead more than a day," Kenshin guessed. "Has anyone been missing from your village since yesterday?"
The boy shook his head. "I don't know. I don't think so. I came this way yesterday, but stayed with farmer Dipu over night - - I didn't see him then."
Likely the boy hadn't, if the corpse had been fresher and not yet discovered by the scavenger birds.
"We can't leave him for the birds," Kenshin said and Sano groaned a little, not happy with the prospect of going too near a body that had its insides dribbling out. But it was the decent thing to do, until the boy could summon the adults of his village to come and deal with it properly. So they piled grass upon the body, and then covered it with rocks to keep the birds away and mark the place it rested.
"Do you think bandits did this?" the boy asked, when they'd done.
"I don't know," Kenshin admitted. Hard to tell without looking and he had gone out of his way not to look too closely.
By late afternoon they reached the path that diverged off the road and led to the boy's village. They parted with him there, having no desire to be remembered by the villagers when and if they reported the discovery of the body to the local authorities.
"He didn't have a purse," Sano said once the boy was well down his own path. "Or a pack. A man traveling these parts would have one or the other, don't you think?"
"I would think," Kenshin agreed.
"Do you think it was bandits?"
"I don't know. If he'd been killed by an animal, likely it would have dragged him further into the jungle, I would think."
"I'd think, too. Man doesn't just drop dead on the side of the road for nothing."
"It's not entirely beyond belief."
Sano snorted, glancing into the shadows of the forest to their left warily, convincing himself that there were thieves lying in wait.
They made camp without incident, though they traded watches throughout the night, neither one of them trusting to good fortune to see them through.
It rained the next morning. A misting drizzle that made the leaves glisten and the road muddy. Clothes became sodden, and packs heavier with added moisture, but there was nothing for it, but to walk.
They broke their fast on mango, which Sano had stuffed their packs with, after finding a tree of ripe fruit. The rain kept up, creating a mist low to the ground as it competed with the heat. The forest was quiet and still with it, animals having the sense to go to ground someplace warm and dry. One might question why they still trudged through it, having no particular destination in mind. But men often exhibited less common sense than animals in such regards.
The gray afternoon revealed the dark shape of a wagon ahead on the road, stalled in its progress. A tall covered vargo, with faded paint on the wooden sides and all manner of objects, from metal harness pieces, to pots and pans to mysterious pieces of metalwork that Kenshin had no notion what they might be used for hanging from hooks off its sides. They all jangled, swinging precariously as the pair of mules hitched to the wagon's front strained to pull it forward.
It wasn't the wagon itself that caused the delay, but the smaller cart with what looked to be a traveling forge, attached behind it, one wheel stuck securely in a muddy rut. The old man sitting perched on the tall seat at the front of the van cursed in several languages, urging the animals on.
"Need a hand?" Sano called up, standing in the rain beside the front wheel.
The old man cursed again, hand going for the knife at his side.
"Damn you for coming upon a man unannounced," he glared down at them. "What do you want?"
Sano held out his hands, and Kenshin made sure the old man could plainly see his own, the both of them unarmed.
"We don't want anything," Sano said. "Just offered a little help. We're just as fine heading on our way."
The old man narrowed one eye, the other seemed a little opaque. His face was broad, his shoulders were. His arms, despite his age, thick with muscle. "Just a pair of travelers enjoying the fine day, are you?"
Sano shrugged. "We're not bandits, if that's what you're thinking."
"As if a pair of bandits would announce themselves as such."
"Sure. We'll be on our way then. Good luck to you."
The old man snorted, then waved a hand sharply towards the rear of his little caravan.
"Damned forge is stuck. Get behind her, if you want and give her a push."
The forge was a solid chunk of metal, a traveling furnace that weighed no small amount. It was muddy, hard work getting behind it and helping to rock it out of the pit the wheel was stuck in. The old man cursed at the mules and cursed at them and at his gods on every breath, until finally, with a suckling plop, the mud gave up its hold on the wheel and the little cart lurched out of the rut.
Sano went down on one knee in the mud behind it, but they were both already brown with it up to their chests, so it hardly mattered. He crouched there, one hand in the mud, breathing hard from the exertion. Kenshin did the same, bent over his knees, hair and mud and water streaming across his face.
The wagon shuddered to a halt and the old man leaned around the corner to glare at them. The one pale eye, next to the dark one, in the midst of his craggy face gave him an unsettling demeanor. He worked his mouth, as if he were struggling to get out words of gratitude. Finally he nodded briskly and said. "Can't be too careful on the road now days."
It was not exactly thanks, but one got the feeling that this particular old man did not often practice social niceties.
He slapped the reins and the mules slowly lurched into motion, pulling the creaking wagon along. A man afoot was hardly slower than the plodding pace of the smith's caravan. Short of falling back and resting off the side of the road to let the old man gain distance on them, there was nothing to do but walk along behind the wagon.
Finally, the old man looked back around the edge of the wooden van and asked.
"The two of you headed for Dhannagiri?"
"That the village where the women are known for their weaving?" Sano asked.
The old man narrowed his one good eye and nodded. "It is. Never been there?"
"This is the first time we've traveled this road." Kenshin said. "The first we've been this far north."
"Is it?" The old man turned back around, watching the road and the broad backs of his mules. "Foreigners, are you?"
"We are." Kenshin agreed.
"What gave us away?" Sano asked and the old man glanced back around with a scowl, before he shook his head and returned his eyes to the road.
"Been all the way to Peking, myself. I've seen a Chinaman or two."
"Yeah, well, you haven't seen two more today," Sano said.
"We're Japanese," Kenshin said, moving off the road to walk in the grass at the side of it, keeping pace with the wagon and the old man.
"Long way from home then. Never been that far myself. I'm not fond of ships."
A sentiment Kenshin could agree with. If he never boarded another sea going vessel again, he would feel no regret.
The day wore on, and eventually the rain stopped, leaving a road not much less treacherous with caked, drying mud. The old man wasn't much for small talk, and spent most of the day ignoring their presence.
Come late afternoon, they passed a bisecting road and a trio of ragged, weary seeming travelers. Two men and a teenaged boy, w ho waved them down, and asked how many days travel it was to Dhannagiri.
The old man begrudgingly slowed his mules and replied another day and a half.
"We've heard of bandits on the roads, especially after dark. Might we travel with you to Dhannagiri for the sake of safety?" the eldest seeming of the lot asked.
The two older men wore turbans, one sporting a full beard, the other a scruffy growth of whiskers. The boy, who might have been sixteen, was bare headed and skinny. The lot of them were as mud spattered and road weary as Kenshin suspected he and Sano were. They seemed harmless enough, poor travelers with a single pack among them, and weaponless as far as Kenshin could tell. Still, something about them made the skin on the back of his arms prickle. Perhaps it was the boy's eyes. The men wore nothing but honest weariness on their faces, but the boy's eyes flicked here and there, taking in the wagon, taking in Sano and himself in an attempt at furtiveness that he was too young to have perfected.
Of course, it might as well have been a boy, wary of strangers and frightened by too many tales of bandit butchery to trust them not to be predators themselves.
"I've no control over who walks the road," the old man snorted, slapping the reins and his team into motion again. "Travel where you want."
So the little group moved out onto the road with them, taking the wooded side, while Kenshin and Sano walked on the grass bordering the canal. Kenshin slowed his pace a little, dropping behind so he could watch the strangers and Sano accommodatingly shortened his strides to match him.
Sano seemed little concerned, chewing on a stem of young, wild sugar cane that he'd found sprouted on this side of the canal.
"A great many travelers to converge at once, on such a back road," Kenshin remarked quietly.
Sano canted his head, glancing at him, then ahead at the backs of the three men. "You don't trust them?"
Kenshin shrugged. "I don't know them."
During certain times and places in his life, that alone would have been enough to suspect. At times, even a decade and more after the fact, he still found himself drifting back into the mindset of a hitokiri. Trust nothing and no one. He took a breath, trying to shake off the feeling. Not at all sure it was not ingrained paranoia creating concern where there was no cause.
"So we take turns at watch tonight," Sano said. "None of them look like they'd be much trouble in a fight."
"Hnn." Kenshin didn't bother to disagree. He'd known no few assassins that had seemed as inept and innocent as newborn babes. He'd used that tactic himself a time or two to gain advantage.
Come dusk, when the road became difficult to navigate for a team of mules hauling a top heavy wagon and an ungainly forge, the old man pulled off to a clearing on the side, with a surly warning to all concerned that he wanted no beggars round his fire asking for a taste of his supper. He unhitched his team and tethered them near the tall grass where they could graze to their hearts content, then went about building a little campfire where he proceeded to cook simple fare of boiled rice.
Sano and Kenshin could have traveled on, not so picky about traveling the road at night, but Kenshin balked, that uncertainty still making the hairs stand up on his skin. He hesitated at leaving the old man, surly and unsocial as he was, alone in the company of the three travelers.
So they laid out their own bedrolls at the edge of the wood, not far from the mules, where there was a clear view of the spot that the three travelers had settled.
Though the old man was stingy with his food, he did relent with his tea, and added water to the pot, offering weak, watered down brew to the group at large. Sano and Kenshin ate the last of their fruit, and drank tea from their own battered cups, while the three travelers did the same, the lot of them gathered around the old man's fire.
"You're a blacksmith?" Sano asked, after he'd tossed the pit of his second mango into the fire.
The old man gave him a narrow look and asked dryly. "What gave me away, boy?"
Sano grinned, pleased no doubt that the old man had recalled his earlier insolence. "I didn't think you hauled that hunk of metal around for good luck."
"It's brought me my share. Aye, I'm a smith."
"Honest profession," Sano said. "I've known a few here and there. Good men. Great to have at your back in a brawl."
The old man gave Sano a closer look. His mouth twitched slightly in a smile.
Kenshin looked across the fire at the travelers and asked quietly. "What is it that you travel to Dhannagiri for?"
The boy blinked at him, surprised that he'd asked. But the oldest of the men, the one with the full, grey speckled beard smiled and said. "The wedding of my niece. It will be a fine celebration."
"I wish her good fortune." Kenshin inclined his head slightly. "From where do you hail?"
"Chagahri, a small village to the west. Do you know it?" the man asked.
"I've heard of it," the smith said. "Farmers, mostly."
"Yes," the man nodded, still smiling, yellowed teeth against dark beard. He looked back to Kenshin. "And you? You come from a greater distance yet, no?"
"A great distance, yes," Kenshin agreed, not smiling back.
The talk dwindled as the fire crackled low. The old man retired to the back of his wagon to sleep, while the rest of them retreated to their separate spots.
Kenshin urged Sano to take his sleep, having no inclination to find his own. He settled though, in his blankets next to Sano, in the pretense of sleep, and lay listening to the sounds of nightlife in the forest, the croak and splash of the occasional frog in the canal, the soft sounds of Sano's breath. The three travelers lay quiet and still in their own spot, a cluster of dark forms near the forest edge.
The fire died down to nothing, and even the mules quieted their rustling, dark shadows standing with their head down, dozing. There was a quiet in the forest. An unnatural silence that Kenshin almost missed entirely until one of the mules twitched an ear and lifted its head to look towards the wood. Then he heard the faint rustle of underbrush disturbed.
He nudged Sano. Saw the white of his eye as he blinked himself awake, and jerked his own head towards the woods. There were multiple bodies out there - - he could distinguish the sound of men trying to tread quietly through uncooperative underbrush. Two, three - - maybe another approaching from the right. If they'd been watching them, they'd go for he and Sano first - - the two of them the more dangerous threat. They could take the old man and his wagon full of possessions with more ease then.
He pushed himself up, quieter by far in the darkness than the converging predators, and heard a yell. The boy across the clearing, who'd been no more sleeping than he had, screaming warning, now that the surprise was lost, and men spilled out of the forest.
He spun on a dark shadow hurtling towards him. A man with a dagger, that he blocked on the way down, snaring the man's wrist even as he kicked his knee in, using his other hand to help him down, a palm in his face slamming his head into the ground. He tumbled forward as another rushed at him, trying to snare him with the thin wire of a garrote the man held between his hands. Heard the grunt and thud of Sano taking on his own opponents and couldn't spare the time to look and see. Trusting Sano to handle his own affairs.
They were screaming like devils, men spilling out of the darkness, more than the three or four that he'd first assumed stalking the forest and that not even counting the three they had taken into their company. But none of them armed with more than daggers and clubs and none of them proficient with the use of them. Clumsy, desperate men who'd reckoned surprise and numbers would win the day. Not reckoning at all on encountering men who knew a thing or two about fighting.
It was a jumbled confusion in the darkness, and he took down anything that wasn't Sano shaped, until he heard the creak of the wagon and the old man's cry, and the old man at the back door of the van, struggling with the boy, who had a rope around his neck, trying to strangle him. He left the stragglers to Sano then, the ones that hadn't turned tail and run into the woods already, and stalked the boy, who was struggling to keep control of an old man five times his age. The boy gave up the fight, before Kenshin reached him and ran, pelting into the darkness, leaving the old man gasping for air on the ground at the foot of his wagon.
Kenshin looked over his shoulder, seeking more enemies and found only Sano, dusting his hands and casually prodding a moaning shape on the ground with his foot.
Four unconscious, or barely conscious men on the ground, others fled into the darkness. A dangerous lot on the loose, responsible perhaps for the body they'd found days back on the road, if not a good many more. An inept lot though, and poorly prepared for men who made a career of robbing other men. Surely these men were not the same band responsible for attacking army supply trains and well-guarded caravans.
"Are you all right?" He held out a hand to the old man, who grimaced and accepted it, holding his other arm close to his side.
"Threw my shoulder out," the old smith complained, swearing and rotating the arm stiffly. "Damned filthy thieves - -"
Sano sauntered over, looking none the worse for wear, save for the slightly bloodied knuckles of one hand. He jerked his chin towards the sprawled bodies. "What do we do with them?"
"What they planned for us," the old smith groused. "Slit their throats and leave them for forest scavengers."
"No," Kenshin had no taste for execution. They might well deserve it, but he was not inclined to decide that fate, nor carry it out, himself. "Is there a constable in Dhannagiri?"
"I won't be hauling the bastards alongside my wagon," the old smith declared, then added. "But I've a notion - -"
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