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The Killing Edge
The jarring of the wagon woke Sano. He blinked, the dappled light flickering through the canopy of branches and leaves overhead enough to make a throbbing head, all the more perilous. The pain was this thick, pulsing thing that made his skull feel twice its normal size. Thoughts came sluggish and disjointed. He lay on his back on what felt like a cushion of straw, in the bed of a wagon, bouncing down an uneven, forested trail.
Even turning his head hurt, but he managed, finding the warmth at his side a familiar one. Kenshin, still and pale. And at the foot of the wagon, an old woman sat, tending other supine forms. A woman and an old man and a child with dirty, blood stained bandages leaning against the old woman, drowsing.
The simple shifting of his gaze made his stomach churn. The rocking of the wagon did. Nausea rose and with an effort of will he pulled himself up by the edge of the wagon - - no small feat - - and hung across the rail, vomiting. He collasped afterwards, exhausted, everything throbbing. Kenshin didn't move. The old woman simply stared at him, weary eyed.
It was a blessing when darkness came back and relieved him of the pain.
# # #
He came awake again, still dizzy, still that sick feeling that permeated the whole of him. The light was still yellow and dappled, the forest still thick and green about them. An hour might have passed or a day. The parchment feeling in the back of his throat suggested more than an hour. He was dimly aware of Kenshin, sitting next to him now. Another figure, smallish and stooped, crawled next to him in the wagon bed, and lifted his head, pressing the mouth of cup to his lips. The water was warm and tasted of blood. Or perhaps it was just him.
Kenshin said nothing. Made no move, and when Sano finally risked moving his head to look, he sat with drawn knees and head down, the whole of his face hidden by hair half out of the tail at the back of his neck, one hand, stained with dried blood resting on the sheath of the sword that leaned between his knees.
Sano didn't know what to make of that. His head spun from contemplating it. He shut his eyes hard, trying to will away the pain and the dizziness. Lifted his hand gingerly and touched the bandages wrapping his head. Even through the padding he felt the throb of injury. It was exhausting, even that small movement.
"What happened?" he asked and his voice creaked like old leather, as if he hadn’t spoken for ages.
Kenshin didn't answer. The old woman who'd given him water, brown skinned and weathered, looked at him from where she sat with her other injured.
"We flee and hope they won't find us."
He didn't understand. He half recalled images of violence, flashes of terror on the faces of villagers. The memory of gunfire made his head throb the more.
The old woman looked at him, questioningly.
"The old smith we came to town with?"
She shook her head and he shut his eyes, regretting that old man.
"And the village - -? The army - -?"
The old woman looked past him to Kenshin. She made a sign of some sort, her eyes wary. "Dead. All but the one that will bring the Raj down upon us. He's doomed us all, with that one mercy."
She spat over the side of the wagon and the injured folk who were conscious enough to pay heed to the conversation, made signs of their own, edged as far away from he and Kenshin as they could in the small wagon bed.
It was staggering, the implications of what she said. The sword in Kenshin's hand. An army regiment dead. Sano shut his eyes and let his head swim, trying not to think of anything and after a while succeeding. Drifting under dappled sunlight, until it dimmed and he woke again in darkness. The wagon not moving at all, the smell of campfire, the quiet rustling of people shifting in the night.
"Sano," Kenshin's soft voice and as Sano's eyes adjusted, slower than they ought to, Kenshin's shadowy figure, with a cup in his hand. "Can you take some soup?"
He helped Sano sit up, held the cup when Sano's hands shook, and it was embarassing needing that support. One shoulder was dense with the deep ache of a wound. He brought a hand up in the darkness, prodding the bandages there.
"Shot?" he asked. He honestly couldn't recall.
Kenshin avoided that answer, tipping the cup for Sano to drink. He sucked it down, hating feeling the invalid. But not so much, perhaps, Kenshin's arm at his back and Kenshin concerned enough to press close and take care for him. He leaned on that support, which Kenshin wouldn't withdraw, him being gravely wounded and all.
"What happened back there?"
Kenshin sat there next to him, pale sliver of profile below his hair. "I thought you were dead."
Damned frustrating when a man wanted details and all Kenshin gave were whispered fragments of explanation. But Sano could piece things together. That sword that had been Ayog's and a man already teetering on the edge of broken from the deaths of wife and child - - all it might take was one supposed death more to push him well over the edge.
There was only Kenshin and him in the wagon bed. He could just see the silhouetted figures of others around a fire beyond. Not that many. Perhaps ten folks all told, out of a village of over forty. Unless there were others, ranging on watch, there had been a great toll taken of Gheta.
"Was it us?" he asked softly, taking full advantage and leaning on Kenshin's shoulder as he sat. "Did we cause this?"
They might have. Rash acts on both their parts bringing the army on their trail.
"I don't know," Kenshin finally said, very softly. Unsure.
There were looks towards them now and then from the people around that fire, family most of them, one way or another and the two of them outsiders in every way that had come with trouble on their heels. Whether it was their fault or not, they'd blame them for it. Even if those ten survivors owed their lives to Kenshin, who'd bloodied his hands stopping a mad massacre - - they'd still need to place blame. And it was easier to do that with the living than the dead.
"You okay?" Sano asked.
Kenshin was quiet a long time. Long enough that Sano thought he wouldn't answer. Then finally, “They were not honorable men fighting a war. They were butchers, slaughtering weaponless, desperate people that by all rights they should have protected."
The way Kenshin said it, Sano figured he'd already told himself that a few times, trying to convince himself.
"Damned right," Sano said. But Kenshin really hadn't answered him.
He shut his eyes again. It hurt to keep them open. Kenshin helped him ease back down, and the world spun when he was flat on his back again. But Kenshin stayed next to him, shoulder to shoulder, until it eased and he fell asleep of his own accord.
Voices woke him the next time. Low and urgent. Angry. He tensed, rolling to his side, and regretted the rapid movement. He clenched his teeth, fighting the wave of dizziness, and the way his vision wanted to blacken around the edges, looking towards the end of the wagon where a handful of villagers stood speaking to Kenshin.
"You're ill-luck," one of them was saying. "You will bring us nothing but grief if you stay."
"Any that pass us will remember foreign faces and the Raj will find us all the faster."
"They'll kill us all for what you did to them." The old man spat on the ground at Kenshin's feet, uttering a curse and the others made signs against evil and ill-fate.
Kenshin stood there silently and took it. He had the sword through his belt. The light coming though the foliage was wan and white, hinting at early morning.
"We will leave," Kenshin finally said. "When he is able."
The old man cursed again, an insult regarding the lineage of Kenshin's mother.
"I can walk. Better than staying here in the company of you lot of ungrateful bastards," Sano said, pushing himself up to a sitting position, drawing attention to himself. Kenshin gave him a wary glance over his shoulder.
Sano waved a hand, narrow eyed from as much annoyance with the villagers standing there gawking at him, as to keep his vision from wavering. He'd been hit in the head hard enough to make him see double for days before, but this was the worst.
Kenshin tightened his jaw, hand going to the hilt of the sword, gauging Sano and Sano's fitness. Sano scooted forward, to the end of the wagon and pushed himself off the bed, damned and determined not to make a fool of himself. With a hand on the edge of the wagon and one on Kenshin's shoulder he managed to stay upright while the world tilted.
Kenshin stared at him a moment longer, then nodded.
"We'll take the horse and supplies for two days travel," he said shortly and when the old man started to complain, Kenshin gave him that level, cold eyed look that made braver men than he quaver. "Be thankful I don't ask for more."
The horse was a long legged bay that Sano hadn't noticed before, tethered at the back of the cart on the road ahead of them. It had English tack, obviously the animal of one of the army officers. Now that he was coherent enough to look, he saw the haphazard collection of carts piled high with hastily gathered belongings. Two donkey carts, this wagon pulled by a pair of oxen. Ayog's pair of mules were hitched to another wagon stacked high with the collected belongings of the village.
It was a sullen parting. These people, that had never particularly welcomed them to begin with and had more reason now than ever to resent ever seeing them, stood silently staring as Sano used the wagon to mount a horse that he could not, at the moment, have climbed onto from the ground. As it was, once he was seated on its back, the world spun alarmingly and he clutched the black mane, arms rigid to keep from toppling off the other side. It wasn't until Kenshin mounted behind him, and he had that stability to lean against, that he felt secure enough to unclench.
There was no word spoken as they rode off. Just a flutter of warding signs, of amulets touched before the villagers were left behind on the narrow forest road. Still road it was, and the most likely path of pursuit, so an hour later, when they passed a trail leading off of it, Kenshin took it. Not much of a trail, but traveled enough, by men on foot or animals, that the horse could navigate it. It was uneven passage though, and Sano shut his eyes, head and stomach rebelling against the movement, leaning more heavily against Kenshin.
"Sano?" Kenshin asked, concerned.
"’m okay," Sano murmured, automatic denial of weakness.
After a moment of silence Kenshin swore and said softly. "We should have stayed another day at least and damn their wishes."
"Told you, I’m okay. Head's just complaining, is all. How long was I asleep anyway, after the attack?"
"Two days." Kenshin said tightly. "I feared - - I feared you wouldn't wake at all."
"Hnn. I've slept off binges longer than that.”
Kenshin said nothing, maybe not believing that. God knew Sano didn’t feel it, everything hurting, everything hot, vision this unstable, wavery thing. Sano let his head droop, shutting his eyes, eaiser with no vision at all. With Kenshin's arm around his middle, holding him steady, he could almost drowse. And did.
He stirred when Kenshin called his name. Started awake with a groan and Kenshin gripped his arm to keep him steady when he floundered, disoriented.
"We need to stop for a while," Kenshin said, an underlying strain in his voice.
The light coming through the trees was dimmer. There was the smell of rain in the air and already the leaves and ferns of the underbrush were shiny with the mist that made its way past the foliage above.
Sano figured, if he'd been asleep for hours, Kenshin had been shoring up his not inconsiderable dead weight. Kenshin slid down first and hovered as Sano swung a leg over and eased himself down. The horse shifted nervously, very much aware, as horses tended to be, when their riders were utter novices. Sano had never had much use for horses and vice versa, he was sure. Kenshin held the bridle of this one, keeping it from sidestepping and depriving Sano of his support while his feet grew used to the feel of solid ground under them again.
It was all he could do after, but sit down against the trunk of an aged tree, while Kenshin tethered the horse and pulled packs from the saddle. He pulled out the oiled canvas tarp they used for wet weather and sat next to Sano. Not a moment to soon, for the sky let loose its bounty and rain began to fall in earnest, making its way in huge droplets through the thick foliage.
"An hour, no more," Kenshin said. "They were right that the English will make their way back to that village with all haste and be on our trail soon after."
The sword lay on the ground at his side, the one thing he wouldn't leave on the horse and risk losing. Just like old times. Only this sword hadn't been forged with mercy in mind, not like the sakabatou. A killing blade that Kenshin had been forced to take up again. And thinking of Ayog and all those dead villagers, Sano felt no remorse that he had. They'd all be likely dead otherwise. Or be closer to capture than they were now, if he'd left them living, because live men held grudges, and bruised, angry men in positions of perilous power would be damned and determined to regain lost face.
"A couple of days at least though, right?" Sano surmised. "A day or two to reach Dhannagiri if there are more of them even stationed there. A couple of days back if they're infantry and on foot."
Kenshin didn't bother to conjecture, leaning heavily against Sano, the tarp over both their heads. There was a warmth that Sano hadn't noticed before, perhaps due to a fever of his own, that permeated Kenshin's damp clothing. And though his concentration had been scattered at best, now that he thought about it, Kenshin had been moving carefully, as though he were as stiff and sore as Sano. It occurred to him that he might not have been the only one of them injured.
There was no answer, Kenshin already out, damned adept at taking sleep when he could find it and not wasting precious time about it. Sano didn't disturb him further, just shifted minutely to get an arm behind him, trying to find as much comfort as he could sitting miserably in the rain under a tarp. There was damned little to be had. His body throbbed. He wasn’t even sure where the center of it was. He lifted a hand a touched the bandage at his chest, a thick padding of cloth that wound around his shoulder, high on his torso. It was wet, but he wasn’t sure if it were blood or rain. He clenched his fist and cursed, low under his breath.
One of the two of them ought to stay awake to keep watch, there being things in the thick of the forest more perilous than men, but Sano couldn't and drifted off, misory chasing him into oblivion.
It was considerably darker when Kenshin woke him. Not night yet, but deep into the late afternoon. The rain had turned to mist and Kenshin's hair was dark with wet. His clothing was and there was no help for it. He held out a canteen and Sano took it, drinking deep.
"I don't suppose," he said, squinting up at Kenshin’s wavering form. "We have any of that liquor from Dhannagiri?"
Kenshin shook his head, held out a hand and Sano sighed, gripping it and letting Kenshin help him up. The world spun and he leaned for a moment with his back to the tree, testing the length and girth of his equilibrium. It took a handful of breaths before the ground stopped tilting under his feet. His head pounded, the worst ache behind his eyes he'd ever had. The side of his skull, under the bandages, throbbed rhythmically with the pulse of his blood.
Sano mounted behind this time, feeling less likely to pass out without warning and topple off. He still had Kenshin's back to lean on and Kenshin's shoulder to rest his head when he needed to shut his eyes and let unruly waves of faint headedness pass.
They rode well into dark, the forest alive with night sounds, with the steady thump of their mount's shod hooves in soft earth, occasionally clipping stone or hard root. The trail became less of a trail and hard to navigate in the shadows, limbs and trailing vines becoming problematic. When they came to a stream and an area free of bramble with small smooth rocks at its ford, it seemed a reasonable place to stop for the night. Water for the horse and a few sparse tufts of grass growing in the larger patches of sunlight the clearing around the stream would afford.
They both eased down like old men, and Sano struggled almost blindly with the straps to the packs, until Kenshin brushed his hands away and more deftly loosened the bindings. Neither of them had the strength to go about building a fire, even if they'd felt safe risking it. So it was water and stale bread and dried fish, and the both of them collapsing into a hastily made nest of blankets and tarp, the horse tethered a dozen feet away and as good of a night watchmen as either of them would have been, exhausted as they were.
He awoke to birdcalls and the chittering of some sort of monkey high in the branches overhead. Kenshin pressed close, cheek against the curve of Sano's neck, damp and warm still with that hint of fever that they both seemed to radiate. The horse had pulled free of its tether, but had wandered only as far as the stream and stood lazily grazing tufts of grass in the sunlight.
Sano slid a hand down Kenshin's back, seeking the feel of bandages, finding finally the thickness of wound cloth at his hip. He shut his eyes, bemoaning the fact that they never seemed to have the leisure, when they were sorely injured and hurting, to simply laze about and let themselves properly heal. It was always a rush to get somewhere and do something vital or a headlong flight away from trouble when all a body really needed was a little precious time to recoup.
He sighed, bladder urgently pressing him to get up and relieve it. There was no graceful way of rising and not rousing Kenshin, who slept lightly at the best of times. Kenshin blinked wearily, groaning as Sano pushed up, watching him from under half lowered lashes to make sure he kept his feet as he staggered towards the tree line and leaned there, voiding his bladder.
His head pounded as if he'd been drinking non-stop for the last few days instead of passing them in a painful daze. He gingerly touched the bandages and the throb intensified, turning vision black around the edges. His stomach lurched with a sudden onslaught of lightheadedness and he felt his legs give out from under him. The last thought to flitter across his mind as he blacked out, was how utterly embarrasing to faint like a woman with his dick still in hand. He’d never live it down.
# # #
Sano wasn’t out long. He came around when Kenshin scrambled to his side, bleary eyed and muttering obsenities. Warm to the touch. Warmer than he’d been, Kenshin thought, than when they’d stopped to rest. It was the rain, the constant damp and the exertion of pushing a body past its limits when it needed time and rest to heal. Kenshin was an old hand at that - - ignoring pain and injury and forging on. It was second nature to push past the hurt and the exhaustion no matter the cost. Instinct. And now, with his own pain screaming through his bones, with his own weakness making his limbs shake, all he could think about was putting distance between them and the pursuit that would make him draw the killing blade at his hip again.
The days since the village, he couldn’t keep the flashes of memory at bay. The arc of blood trailing from the end of a gleaming katana. The sibulant feel of steel slicing through flesh and bone. Familiar feel, as if it hadn’t been almost decade and a half since he’d cut his way through a battlefeild, sowing human beings like stalks of wheat. Worse than that, he’d imagined her dissapointiment a hundred times, the dismay on her face, her faith in him shattered, if she had been alive to discover what he’d done. And he mourned that betrayal of her, more than he did the one he’d dealt her with Sano. Sano had been out of need and love, but this - - the copious amounts of blood on his hands that had come so easy, once he let himself take up that sword - - that was something else entirely. He was awash in it. The acrid taste of it filling his mouth, his mind, and it felt like he was drowning.
What made it worse, was that, weakened as he was, in defense of a weaker Sano, if they found them, he’d do it again in desperation. Shed their blood to protect what he loved. So pushing past the pain, pushing them both past their limits to get as far afeild from pursuit as they could, while they could, became a dire need.
That focus was sharp as the blade at his hip and he urged a listing Sano to the horse. Helped him up and taking the majority of Sano’s not inconsiderable weight made the bullet hole through his own hip throb like evil-spirits were hammering at him from the inside out. He got up him though and pulled himself up after, in front, the both of them wavering in the saddle as the horse side stepped.
Down what could only be loosely called a trail then, a narrow break in the forest so covered in twined roots and low hanging branches that even the horse had to dip its head now and then to avoid them. Sano listed against his back, breathing harsh and uneven and more than once, Kenshin had to twist an arm back and clutch at the sweat dampened cloth of his shirt to keep him from toppling off. He might have dozed himself, hands tangled in the horse’s mane, his balance so refined a thing that even asleep he was able to keep his seat.
A jerk of the horse’s head, the snort of concern from the animal and he roused, heart thudding, shaking his head to dispell the whispery cobwebs of the fever that had settled in and taken hold, making his hands shake and his vision waver. There was movement in the sun dappled foliage ahead. A pair of figures frozen on the narrow trail ahead, a flash of colorful cloth, a glimpse of brown faces and wide, startled eyes, before they melted into the forest. No soldiers certainly, but a pair of girls.
Desperation made him risk what he might not have if they had been in marginally better shape. They needed help and urgently.
“Wait. Please - -“
He could hear them rustling, none too stealthy and thought he saw the glimpse of faces peering out past the foliage, before a man stepped out onto the trail. An old man, though stout, with a head devoid of hair. A red bindi stained his forehead and his robes were threadbare. The hand that clutched the staff was large though and thick knuckled and the way he carried himself suggested he might be very adept at weilding it.
“There is nothing for you this way,” the man said softly. “Turn about and you will reach an easier road eventually.”
“We mean no harm - -“ Kenshin said, trying to stretch his senses, trying to discover if others lurked in the wood, but the effort made his head reel, made the ground seem to tilt, as if the horse were swaying precariously on water instead of solid earth. “My friend - - he’s badly hurt - - I beg you - -“
He leaned over the horse’s neck, clutching Sano’s limp arm with one hand and the bristly mane with the other while the world spun. If he fell now and took Sano with him, he wasn’t sure he could get back up. And an old man and a pair of girls might just as well kill them while they were down and helpless than risk bringing dangerous men into their midst. And that just might be the wisest course of action for them to take, considering the turmoil that followed them. That followed him.
“Not just him, I think.” The man observed, dark eyes scrutinizing and somber. Then he nodded his head and turned, beckoning to the girls in the brush. “Come if you will, then.”
The girls, willowy young women in mid drift baring sari’s, with bracelets on their wrists and brass earings dangling from their ears, edged out onto the narrow trail, casting wary looks back towards Kenshin and Sano as they moved ahead of the old man on the trail. The old man didn’t look back to see if they were following, but strolled ahead, stepping over roots and using the staff to ease his way.
Kenshin urged the horse forward and the beast willingly enough moved to follow the lead of the strangers. An easy walk, hooves occassionally clicking on the patch work stone of an ancient paved path. Eventually the forest opened, the trail spilling out into a mist shrouded glade. It took a moment, wavery as his vision was, for Kenshin to make out the lines of stone overgrown by a webwork of vines and foliage and tree roots as thick as a man’s waist. A temple - - an ancient and overgrown jumble of abandoned stone left at the mercy of the jungle. So weathered and moss covered that parts of it seemed as if it had sprung from the earth itself, instead of being constructed by the hands of men. The stone pavement of a courtyard peeked out from under thick rolling moss, and the stone façade of buildings crouched on either side, carven, weather worn figures leering out from beneath the greenery and the twining roots.
Figures moved out from the shadows of the structures, a handful of women, to whom the two from the trail ran ahead to meet, whispering urgently. No other men appeared to meet them, or challenger the arrival of strangers. Just a group of wary females and the old man.
The old man called something and one of the girls nodded and scampered down the trail between buildings.
“Come. Come,” the old man said, catching the horse’s bridle. “Down with you. Help them.”
Easier said than done, with Sano’s dead weight behind him and a group of women converging, chattering with curiosity. He tried to swing down and half managed to untangled himself from Sano before Sano’s weight unbalenced him and they both went down amidst soft female cries and soft female bodies. Moss covered stone was still stone and when he hit, with Sano’s weight coming down atop him, it drove the air from his lungs and made the wound above his hip sream with fiery rage. Darkness crowded around the edges of his vision.
They were all just blurred faces then, and meaningless voices whispering around him, unseen hands pulling Sano off, the faint scent of perfumes as soft bodies brushed close. All he could do was lie there, the world rocking under him, while someone slid the sword from his belt. And spirits help them in these people had malice in their hearts, for even if he’d been inclined to use a naked blade against women and old men, he’d have been too weak to weild it.
# # #
For a bit the world went away, but it came back in the company of pain. Kaoru’s pale face leaning over him, her usually soft eyes hard and unforgiving. Her voice this distant murmer that he could not quite understand. She hurt him, her hands pulling at the grimy, blood crusted bandage at his hip. He jerked despite himself and she said something sharply, and hands pressed him down. A blurry square face, that at first held no recognition for him, until it morphed into Master Hiko’s scowling visage. Moron, Hito’s voice echoed in his head, this is the least of what you deserve.
Blood on your hands, Kaoru’s whisper echoed after, all your vows shattered. And she stabbed a red hot poker into the wound at his hip. He screamed at the burn of it, eating away at his flesh and Hiko pressed down harder, big hands biting into his shoulders, until the fire ate him up from the inside and everything plunged into darkness yet again.
When he came around again, the fire was banked low, sweat on his brow, but his mind was clear. He lay on a soft palet, under a light blanket. He blinked up at the shadows of a dark ceiling, following the path of cords that held thin, gauzy veils of netting from the ceiling that draped down, forming almost a cacoon. Dappled, wan light filtered in from some opening beyond it. The faint sounds of forest life drifted in from outside, the chatter of monkeys, birdsong, the mating call of crickets. Louder still the steady sound of snoring and he turned his head to find Sano, not that far away, asleep on a palet similar to his own. A clean, white bandage circled his head, stark against the black of his hair. Someone had changed the one on his shoulder as well.
Kenshin pushed the cover aside and found, to his dismay, that he was naked beneath it. But the wound at his hip, the through and through bullet hole that he had taken little care for since the old woman from the village had initially wrapped it for him, had fresh linin protecting it. It still radiated heat and some bit of throbbing ache, but not so much as it had that last day. It was from that untended wound that the fever had sprung and more the fool he was for ignoring it. Sano would have been the one to pay the price had he succombed to it, stranded alone, wounded and lost in the vast Indian wilderness.
“Sano?” he said softly, but Sano didn’t stir. Other than the snoring, which Sano had a tendency towards, his breathing was strong and even and no sheen of perspiration marked his skin. Whoever had cared for them - - certainly not the ghost of Kaoru and master Hiko, had a skillful hand at it. He vaguely recalled the old hindu man and a gathering of women. There was still the faintest aroma of some alluring perfume in the air, the scent of it on his skin and hair, and he realized with another wave of embarassment, that someone that taken care to clean the blood and grime away as well as tend the wounds.
There was a robe, folded near the head of the pallet. Soft, fine linin. No sign of his own clothing. Gingerly he pulled it on, feeling the pull of the wound at his hip, pushing past the complaints of his body. The sword was not here and he could not fault his hosts for removing it safely from their presense. He knelt by Sano, putting a hand to his face to feel for fever, but his skin was cool enough. He did not wake him, sleep being a rare medicine.
He stood with effort, the whole of his body protesting. It always hit him harder when he’d had the chance to stop and rest, than when he plunged headlong in pursuit of some goal. He shut his eyes for a moment, trying to find his balance, then moved towards the light filtering in through the gauzy curtains. The stone was dense over his head, low ceilings, dark with age. But there were the signs of life, of dwelling about the place. Baskets along the wall, rolled mats, bolts of cloth, dried herbs and the supplies. There were no doors, just an opening where they might have existed decades or centuries ago, leading out to the courtyard to which they had first entered the temple grounds.
Cautiously he moved to the edge of the stone entrance, half in shadow, taking stock of what lay outside. Across the way was the weathered, jungle camoflauged façade of another building and at the end of the moss covered courtyard what appeared to be a shrine with the remnants of a great statue, that might have been a Budha. Most of it had been chipped away, ravaged by time, headless, armless, with only the sitting torso remaining. There was a mossy jumble of fallen stone at its foot and upon one flat perch, sat the old man, cross legged, eyes shut, as if he were dozing, taking in the sunlight that warmed the glade through the break in the foliage above. A group of young woman sat on the stone steps of the building across the way, talking among themselves as they busied themselves with various tasks.
There seemed little threat, so he moved, with somewhat less stealth further into the light. The old man opened his eyes and looked his way, the girls all still oblivious. Kenshin inclined his head marginally, respect due to a man that had taken in armed strangers with no explantion and tended to their wounds. The old man returned the jesture and unfolded, his movement drawing the attention of the girls, who then took note of Kenshin at the edge of the courtyard.
With a flurry of jingling bracelets and exclamations he found himself descended upon. This horde was scented with perfumes and clad in colorful silk and jewlery.
“Laasya. Laasya,” one of them called, while the others ventured near, the old man slowly making his way towards Kenshin in their wake. You are awake. We thought you’d sleep forever. Is there pain? Who are you? Does your friend still sleep? What happened to you? Are you Chinese? I’ve never seen a Chinese with hair like yours . . .
A flurry of querries bombarded him. He blinked, taking in a half dozen sets of dark eyes and curious faces. They were all exceedingly pretty, these girls. Their saris brilliantly colored and rich, considering they were living in the ruins of a temple in the midst of a jungle.
He found himself at no small loss, in the face of their simultanious inquiries. The old man stood at the edge of them, leaning on what might have been a simple walking stick, or just as well a weapon, watching him quietly. Taking his measure.
“Thank you,” Kenshin didn’t know what else to say, feeling beset. “For taking us in.” He inclined his head again, feeling helpless as they exploded into a flood of more questions. He was saved by the approach of another handful of women.
“You’ve all seen a man before, silly girls. Let this one breathe.” The girls parted before the woman who approached. She was older than most of them, but it hardly mattered, so ageless was her beauty. Flawless face, flawless black hair that she had draped across one bare shoulder. The other was graced with a fall of silk that was wrapped with artful elegance around a suppily rounded figure. The way she moved, the tenor of her voice, made a man think of sex, pure and simple. Unnerving.
The others deferred to her, even the old man, who made way for her, dipping his head. She canted her head, taking him in and remarked. “You seem well, considering the state of your wound.”
“How long have we been here?” he jerked his mind back to vital things. If they had wasted too much time, the English and their native soldiers might be close on their trail.
“You’ve slept for a day and half. You both were in dire need, it seems.”
So long. He was appalled. “You have my gratitude. But I fear we may bring trouble upon you.”
“Do you?” She lifted a brow and cast a glance to the old man. “The path to this place is not easily found. I assume from the nature of your wounds that the trouble that follows you carries English guns?”
He did not want to embroil innocents in this turmoil that had attached itself to he and Sano. He shook his head, hand drifting to the ache at his hip. “It is not trouble I wish to burden you with. We will be on our way.”
“More the fool you, then,” the old man finally said. “To die in the jungle, when sanctuary offers itself. Will your friend feel the same?”
He didn’t know, the overwhelming instinct to outdistance the blood still strong upon him. But Sano had seemed to rest easy in the soft bed they’d provided. Easier than he would on a harsh trail. He didn’t understand why these people would wish to shelter them when it was obvious violence stalked in their wake.
“Who are you? What is this place?”
The woman shrugged, waving a graceful hand. “I am Laasya. This is my sanctuary. My exile. Yaj thinks you are less dangerous than the blood you were covered with and the blade you carried with you might suggest and his instincts have never failed me. So I extend my welcome.”
Almost Kenshin laughed. If only she knew. He blew out a helpless breath and looked up at the old man from under the sheild of his hair and said softly. “I hope you do not regret it.”
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