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Akihito's Knightmare

Chapter Text

The muddy battlefield was filled with the sounds of war: the clashing of weapons, the bang-smashing of heavy blows on curved shields and helmets, the hoarse shouts and screams of men and animals; a discordant Symphony of Death to the ear.

It was a tune that the Warlord, General Asami Ryuichi, knew all too well and he relished it. The battlefield was where one found out who one's comrade was and who was a coward. It separated the real men who had fire in their veins and iron in their bones from the scared little boys and those who were only out to scavenge for scraps.

As he towered over the men on foot, he cut down any enemy soldier who dared rush him in an attempt to either end his life or maim his steed. His ever watchful golden eyes spotted a large soldier approaching from offside, gravely injured, but paying it no mind as most men on the battlefield were known to do as the high from blood lust sometimes made them temporarily oblivious to the damage done to their own bodies. Plus, this one looked like he was more than just Human, far taller and broader than all the others in the skirmish. Asami simply grunted as he sheathed his sword and dismounted, facing away from the approached attacker. The enemy soldier grinned wickedly as his pace quickened, targeting the General's back, thinking he'd be the one to end the great Warlord Asami's life. He'd be rewarded beyond his wildest dreams when he brought his leader this general's head.

"NOW YOU DIE, BASTARD!" The soldier roared. But before he could attack, something odd happened. His feet were rooted to the spot, and he was unable to move his legs. He felt his blood run cold as Asami's golden eyes took him in with a glint of sadism.

General Asami sneered and held up his open hand, palm facing the man. His gauntlet glowed bright red and yellow as a spark leapt forward, first becoming a tiny comet, then growing into a stream of fire before finally forming into a fiery shrieking dragon, no bigger than a blackbird, zeroed in on the soldier. The enemy rocked where he stood as it struck his torso and melted through the metal rings of the hauberk shirt protecting his chest. It passed through the layers of cloth and wool beneath it and entered the man's body. He stared in horror as he felt his innards start to scorch until his eyeballs began to steam inside his head. His screams elevated in pitch to an almost ear-splitting level as he was boiled alive within his own armor.

The howls caught a few men's attention for a moment before they continued with their fighting. Asami Ryuichi - also known as the Lord Warlock, a rare and imposing title both within Sion and beyond - took off his dragon's head-shaped helmet and held it by the leather strap. Observing the few fights that were still being waged, he knew his men were winning, all he needed to do now was take down the enemy commander. Said coward "led" his troops by sitting atop his fat horse with his entourage on a hilltop away from the actual battle. He would take great pleasure in ending the disgusting pig once his was pulled down off his perch.

"Kirishima." Asami called out. Even over the last loud battle cries and noises of scuffles, his dutiful and loyal subordinate heard his call. Throwing knives suddenly stuck out of enemy soldiers' exposed necks that stood between him and his lord. Kirishima Kei stepped up next to his general, still playing with a spare knife in hand.

"Yes, General?" Kirishima asked, making sure his reading lenses were still secured by their frame to the thong around his neck.

"I'd say we've played with these children long enough. Tell Suoh to take a squad 'round to the west to block their escape back towards the sea. Kill the rest, but bring me their leader alive. Which doesn't mean "unharmed", if need be." Asami ordered as he simply walked through the dieing fray, taking no notice of the swords and other weapons that danced around him. After picking up the Warlord's discarded helmet, Kirishima followed behind, striking out at any enemy who got too close to his general's perimeter.

Once they emerged from the battle, mostly unharmed, Asami whistled for his warhorse. Following close behind it was Kirishima's own chestnut mount. As they mounted their horses, a familiar hulking knight wearing a helmet with bull horns ran toward them, swinging a massive war hammer, knocking away anything in his path away in a fluid, barbaric way.

"Suoh, what are you doing here! You should be closing up the southern end of the battle, cleaning up any escapees and pushing the rest into our men waiting in the west." Kirishima scolded sternly. He worked hard on these battle strategies and he didn't need this oaf messing them up. "Also, this army is bigger than it should be. Have our archer battalion and longbow men fallen asleep on the job?"

"That's just it." Suoh panted slightly, removing his helm to reveal his signature closely cropped blond hair under the cowl. "Something's happened. I think someone betrayed us."

"Say what?" Asami growled angrily. All who knew him knew he didn't take betrayal kindly nor was he lenient to it. To say he was surprised by the thought that one of his was brave - or foolish - enough to consider it was an understatement.

"Battalion Leader Sakazaki and a squad leader was with me just a few minutes ago, along with the body of one of his archers. The rest of their battalion was ambushed; somehow, the enemy knew where they were waiting and sent a mounted troop to slaughter them all", Suoh explained. "They didn't stand a chance; most of them were trampled under the heavy warhorses' hooves."

As the General absorbed this information, Kirishima took the bigger blond aside and asked, concerned, "Why did you run here? What happened to Silme?", referring to Suoh's prized stallion.

 

"That fucking brat, the archers's squad leader stole her!" Suoh fumed. "Probably to desert, the coward. He'll come back on his own for sure, though. Hopefully, he kicks the runt first."

There was a sudden war cry that caught the attention of the entire battle field. They turned toward the sound and Asami later swore he stopped breathing at that instant. He couldn't believe what he was seeing: an enraged, ragged little thing riding Suoh's elegant mount. Blood spattered from the rider onto the horse below as he screamed at the top of his lungs,"DIE!!"

The rider wasn't much older than a boy, his silver blond hair whipped around his head as tears flowed from his eyes. The boy knew no fear nor did the stallion he rode, almost as if the spirits of Death and War had a son who was barreling toward the enemy horde at full speed, the thunder of the hooves beneath him the beating of his own heart. Like an avenging angel, his eyes blazed with rage. This boy didn't even have a sword, just a short bow on his back and less than a half dozen arrows left in his quiver. What on Earth possessed this boy to charge right through the middle of a fucking battlefield?!

"Kirishima!" Asami yelled to his assistant, not taking his eyes off the lad for an instant. "Who is that!" His second in command tightened his hands on his reins, opened his mouth a few times only to close it again. For once in his life, the knight didn't have an answer. They ignored Suoh's complaints of that being his precious Silme getting so befouled. That must mean that the boy riding him was the archer's squad leader. He was a sight to behold, fierce, beautiful and deadly. And while it was a rare occasion for Asami to be taken by surprise by anything, the boy stole his breath away.

He surprised them further by dropping the reins as he got closer to the panicking routed fighters - anyone with a functioning instinct for self preservation would know better than to not fear the runaway rider. The lad suddenly pulled his legs and feet up onto the saddle and was then crouched side on to his target. Now they knew this boy had to be insane! No one, not even the most skilled trick riders seen at the fairs, stood on a moving horse's saddle at full speed. He pulled his bow from his back and nocked one arrow as he held another at hand alongside the bow . He gingerly leaned forward and whispered into the horse's ear. The horse slowed to a collected gallop, but didn't stop as the squad leader aimed at the opposing general.

With that the boy let fly the arrow, hitting the other man so fast that it took a moment for the men surrounding their leader to register the sound of breaking bone before the second arrow struck him in the breastbone below the first. The sheer force knocked the man backwards over his horse's rump, startling the spoiled beast into a fast waddle away. Seeing their commander fall, the rest of the enemy soldiers stopped trying to fight and started trying to scatter. They'd already learned that General Asami's men were insane, they didn't need to risk facing a mounted archer that was possessed by a demon too.

Asami's soldiers howled, pumped with adrenaline after witnessing the little archer's bravery. "Kill them all! Take no prisioners!" Asami bellowed above the din, smirking a bit in spite of himself at what had transpired.

Now victorious, Sion's soldiers began to sweep the field with newly found vigor. As his army cut down the remaining enemies, Asami, along with his second and third in command, made their way toward the boy. Silme snorted and pawed the earth before falling in with Suoh, having thoroughly enjoyed his mad little adventure. The boy merely stood above the fallen general as he lay there, gasping like a hooked fish, his unseeing hazel eyes staring up into the stormy sky as the first drops of rain hit the ground.

 

------------------------ Earlier that day

 

The dark clouds were still gathering on the horizon. Akihito squinted his eyes to look at them; dark grey and heavy, they took up a big chunk of the morning sky. He could only hope it wasn't a foreshadow for a defeat. They couldn't afford to lose this battle in particular, since they weren't all that far away from the Capital, and the lives of a thousand civilians depended on them. Even the General, that famous dark warrior, the Lord Warlock Asami Ryuichi had joined them with his unbeatable force.

"Oh my. I feel so -" Akihito turned to his left, catching Takato staring at him, all blushing cheeks and bright eyes. He sighed. Not. Again. "Hey, Takato..?"

"Uh.. yes?"

Takato was an old friend, in his young twenties like him, young, handsome, and full of life. He was positive and easy going, fair-haired and tall, and the ladies all loved him. It was beyond Aki why he was still single.

"You're staring at me."

"I am not!"

"And... you're blushing."

"I am not!"

Aki shook his head and sighed louder. There Takato went, acting all weird again. 'If he was feeling ill, why didn't he just say so?', Akihito thought, reaching out to touch his friend's forehead to see if he was perhaps feverish. Takato stepped back, tripping over a stone and almost fell on his ass.

"Aki! I said I'm okay!"

"If you think so..." Akihito shrugged. "Just go drink some water, will ya?"

One of the saddled horses on the line on their hidden plateau whinnied nervously, drawing the archers' squad leader's attention. Looking around, Akihito noticed for the first time how strangely quiet the place was. The horses were restless, milling about with ears flicking nervously or cocked back, some nipping at each other to keep away. He knew there was still time before the enemy would be spotted, marching towards their own forces not far from here, but there was something weird with the static air that had nothing to do with the storm in the distance; he could feel it.

"Aki? What's wrong?" Takato murmured with some slight trepidation to his voice; he too could feel the strange atmosphere. Then... it happened. The birds in the tree line below the lip of the hill exploded in a rush of wings, startled by the sudden thunder of heavy hooves. As far as the mounted archer unit was concerned, the end of the world was upon them.

They came up the hill on their heavy warhorses, huge beasts, some bleeding from the nostrils and foaming at the mouth from the huge strain of charging the hill while bearing their armoured riders, trampling archers and grooms and the small, fleet horses who didn't even have time to react. Their little world was shaken asunder under those terrible hooves; flesh, bones, everything was trampled and crushed.

It took him a little to register the horror that he saw. The terrible screams, all the agony, fear, rage, pain... It was insanity. Whoever was lucky to survive the trampling wouldn't escape the assailants swords, clubs and maces, the horsemen's pikes and much worse.

Kurono, a seventeen year old boy who had just joined them a little while ago, doing his best to keep up, still fresh from childhood with dreams to gather just enough gold to buy his own tavern someday... Part of his head was knocked several meters away, the mace that killed him already drenched in blood and bits of brain. At least he died fast.

Akihito saw it all in slow motion, his brain taking its time to register everything. No one could ever expect something like this. This wasn't a battle... "This is...a massacre", he breathed. This wasn't supposed to happen. Things like this didn't occur. None of this made any sense. Archers were expensive because of their effectiveness; they were supposed to be protected. Their location was kept a secret. They had no way to defend themselves against heavy horsemen.

In a trance, Akihito didn't see the swordsman ride at him, huge and strong, swinging a broadsword, manic look in his yellowed eyes and an insane smile on his broken face as drool dripping down his chin like a rabid dog.

"Akihito!" He heard Takato's scream and suddenly his body was pushed aside, tumbling along the hard ground before he hit his head in a rock. The pain scrambled his thinking as his vision blurred for a minute, but it wasn't enough to hide the details of the moment the blade took his best friend through the chest and his blood splattered him like rain.

This couldn't be happening.

Out of his mind, Akihito stood up, grabbing the rock he had just hit his head on and threw it with all his strength, hitting the soldier in the back of the head, making the crazed bastard fall from his mount to the ground. Finding another stone, he ran up to the stunned man and started pounding the other's face with it until it was a soggy, unrecognizable mess. He wouldn't remember any of it later, just the image of Takato's blood sprinkling him like a warm Spring shower.

The heavy clouds continued closing in. By now, he could almost taste the rain in the air. 'Takato had feared storms as a child', Akihito thought with a sad smile. His friend wouldn't fear anything anymore.

"Hey, Archer! Hey!"

Akihito looked up. Earl Sakazaki rode up, surrounded by a cadre of soldiers that turned to engage the heavy horsemen. Stunned at the carnage, he just gaped about as a larger companion rode up wearing a higher quality of chainmail then any of this force had been supplied with. He cut an imposing figure on his foreign-bred horse with his horned headgear, and his angered expression said it all. "What the hell happened here!?"

"They knew exactly where we were... Their heavy cavalry came in before we knew it... trampling everything... they knew... where..." The archer and the commander didn't say anything further, but in their minds there wasn't any other answer: someone had betrayed them. As the howls of the wounded men and cries of their horses rose then diminished as the invaders were summarily dispatched and slaughtered, Sakazaki stared at something on the ground. "Is that Takato?", his shocked voice trembled out. Akihito nodded dumbly as the big man dismounted to see if the other boy yet lived. One look at the wound told him all he needed to know.

"His attacker's over there", the blond pointed listlessly to another pile on the ground. Several strides took the commander over to the body of the invader. Between the shape the dead man's head was in, and the nearby bloody stone, the story of what occurred was pretty clear to see. The design of the chainmail shirt and the helmet was enough to confirm who was coming this way to attack the Capital from the sea: this was a Baishe force leader.

Even as he mulled over this information, Akihito turned and made his way slowly over to the great horse standing patiently nearby. Picking up a random bow and a pair of scattered, half filled quivers on the way, he walked up the beast's shoulder to show he was no threat, and as its head turned to look at him, he it offered his cupped hand, palm up. Placing it's muzzle into the boy's hand, the horse took but a moment before it blew out a soft welcoming snort through its nostrils. Aki answered by softly blowing on the creature's nose himself and patting the high shoulder before he stepped back and took hold of the hanging stirrup. Clearly speaking the command he hoped the horse was schooled in, he was rewarded when the big head swung around further to look at him, then turned back and the big animal shifted its weight onto its hind legs, slightly splayed them and, balancing on the canons of its back legs, settled back into a controlled rearing, or levade, with its forelegs held curled in close to its chest. Since it was maintaining a near 45° angle from the ground, the blond was able the grab hold of the rising stirrup with both hands and swing himself up onto the magnificent animal's back. Seating himself in the saddle even as the horse's owner shouted in dismay, he shifted his weight forward to signal his mount to release its stance and land, then, eschewing the stirrups (‘who has legs this ridiculously long anyways?'), he gripped with his thighs even as he signalled with his heels and the horse leapt away to begin their dash down the hill to the battlefield beyond. Someone would pay for eradicating Takato and his other lads, and he was going hunting as far up the fucking enemy's chain of command as he could get.

Chapter Text

General Asami's command tent lorded over all the other tents surrounding it. It was grander, more comfortable and far more well equipped than even the Supply Master's own, and was the army's makeshift HQ set in the middle of the military camp. Inside, the Lord Warlock was looking over a map of the day's skirmish lines. A golden goblet of wine was in hand as he listened to Lord Kirishima reporting the various battle results in detail when a commotion outside pulled his attention away, making him frown.

"Go check on it, Kei." Asami interrupted. Kirishima bowed promptly and left, only to return a minute later holding a boy by his worn out shirt like someone might hold a puppy by the scruff of its neck. Older boys fighting in wars wasn't all that unusual, unfortunately, but this one was far too young to be away from home and the general's frown deepened. The lad was dark hued and darker haired, and his wild eyes showed nothing but angry distrust. A moment later, from behind them entered Suoh and Earl Sakazaki. The boy started struggling when he caught sight of who had come in, whether to get away from, or to get at the man in question was at the moment, unclear.

Asami's hard golden gaze fixed on the young lad long enough for the boy to stop struggling and lower his head, cheeks flushed in anger, looking like he was trying hard not to cry.

"This child supposedly attacked him." Suoh dispassionately informed them, notably disregarding any title or hint of status of the man he'd indicated had. Only the hard line of his eyes let on about any personal opinions he had on the so-called "noble" with him.

Sakazaki stepped around him quickly, making like he was about to take his sword pommel in hand when Suoh grabbed his arm - hard - until he winced and dropped his hand. Kirishima frowned, matching Suoh's look: any fool should know better than come into the presence of their General with a blade buckled on unbidden. "This little pest should be sentenced to death for aiding the enemy by treachery against his superior. Don't pay any mind to a minor nuisance like this, m'lord General; let me deal with this. I promise, it will be dealt with quite promptly." Asami watched the boy's eyes glow with bitter fury before lowering his head further and hiding his expression under his thick dirty bangs.

"Leave us." Asami dismissed.

Sakazaki hesitated - enough for Asami's suspicions to be aroused, and for Kirishima to get more than a little annoyed. The assistant was less then subtle with a "cough" into his fist before Suoh placed his hand on the commander's shoulder this time, prepared to haul him away.

"A-ah, as you wish, my Lord." The greasy little noble bowed and scraped, wiggling to try and escape before the giant blonde let go of him, fleeing with the bare minimum of courtesy that would be considered unpardonable in the newest untrained page.

"Suoh, make sure that... man..." he qualified with a curled lip, "is followed closely wherever he goes from now on." Suoh bowed quietly and left to make arrangements. Focusing back on the boy, he took a sip of wine. "Come here", Asami rumbled. Kirishima let go of the boy and assumed a position in a corner of the tent where shadows had gathered, giving enough of an impression of privacy to his lord and the boy while still staying nearby for whatever may be needed, knife readily at hand.

The boy came and stood before the general, no doubt feeling rather small before the imposing man, and probably more than a little cowed. The man tipped the boy's chin up with a curled hand and the lad had no choice but to look him in the eye, seeming almost as if he was caught in a trance.

"What is your name, boy?"

"Takaba... Kou."

"What's this about then, Kou?"

The boy hesitated, but knowing he had no choice, he vehemently muttered "That evil, hateful excuse of a prick! I hated the way he treated the horse archers, I hate how he despises me, and I especially hate the way he looks at him..."

"At whom?"

"My brother."

"This is why you "attacked" him?"

Kou tried to remain quiet and looked away, probably just now realizing why discretion could be the better part of valour, but Asami was nothing if not a patient man. He knew he wouldn't get the whole picture if he tried to push the boy too hard, but he could wait him out. After a bit, Kou's eyes met his straight on once more.

"My brother told me not to let that man touch me, ever, and to never ever let him him get me alone. And every time something bad happened to a mounted archer in camp, that prick'd always be there. I don't know what happened during the last battle, but, he, Sakazaki... I overheard him say he thought he'd finally broken my brother. I can't take it anymore; he can't ever hurt Aki nee-chan again!"

"He said he broke your brother?"

The boy nodded angrily.

"And your brother's name?"

"Takaba Akihito, Sir." Seemed the lad finally sensed he might be talking to someone who would listen to him and could do something to help the situation.

"The mounted archers' squad leader. He was hand-picked for this assignment by Sakazaki himself to form this experimental division, and was directly under his command." Kirishima intoned from the shadows. The two men exchanged a ook over this Kou's head. Something unsavoury was brewing beneath the surface here in camp. Something that would require the General's men to clean out and purge it before the real battle out there could be joined as a united front.

"Where do you bed down at night, boy?" Asami asked after dropping his hand.

Kou hung his head again, hiding his expression as he tried hard not to sniffle. "Either with my brother or his friend Takato, in their tent, with the mounted squad." Asami shared another look with Kirishima. Any of the dead archers's goods were being gathered up and dispatched back to wherever that person was from, to be returned to any family they might have with their last pay from the King. The tents and remaining supplies, such as they were, would be absorbed back into the army. The living would be needing them more than the dead.

“Has this Takaba cleared his tent and been told to report here yet?"

"No, m'lord. He said he needed some time to himself before he went back to face what had been his squad. He said he was going 'down to the pond', if he was needed.” Asami could commensurate; a young man, losing his first command, through no fault of his own, many under him no doubt thought of as friends and comrades. It would be hard to get over, as it seemed certain that they were indeed lost through betrayal. And from what early gossip he’d caught on the way to his command tent through the established ranks, the now-dead horses had been cared for better than the ones who had rode them. He weighed the waiting boy once more and came to a decision.

“Kirishima, have you found a suitable replacement for your former squire who went to serve at court as a herald?” Kirishima came forward into the light, guessing at which direction his lord’s thoughts were headed.

“No, m’lord Asami. None of the candidates so far were suitable for the tasks of a page at their tender ages.”

“Kou, can you learn new things easily and ride well yet?”

“Aye, well enough, Sir. I learned to read and write some from Pa and Akihito before we left home, and I can stick to a horse like a burr on a saddle blanket.” Asami’s amused look as he took another sip told Kirishima his fate was sealed. He was getting himself a new page to train, whether he liked it or not.

“Kirishima, try Kou here out as a private messenger between you and Suoh for a spell. If he suits and is trainable, he’ll be your new page, and Suoh’s new trainee for squire later.” Kirishima nodded in understanding, then went to summon a servant outside to find and alter some shifts into more suitable clothing for the boy after he was cleaned up some and fed. Asami barely kept a chuckle back at the lad’s gaping mouth and wide eyes. But first…”Now then, where is this pond I can find the elder Takaba at?”

 

Akihito sat bare on a log as he waited for his clothes to dry. He’d already tried to wash his pain away along with Takato’s blood and the mess of the battlefield, but it had taken him submerging himself completely time and again before the screams and din of the massacre cleared from his head. He should go back and gather his and Kou’s belongings from their tent, make sure his brother was alright, then go report to General Asami and find out what his new posting would be, if he was even allowed to stay with the forces now that he’d lost his squad. Refusing to even think about Takato or any of the others from before the surprise attack, he knew he would be hard pressed to fit in anywhere in the army now, much less with his little brother in tow. Maybe he could stay and be a groom, or just look after a picket of horses, or act as a scout… But no matter what, he wouldn’t crawl to Earl Sakazaki and plead to be his “camp follower”, as the bastard had mockingly predicted time and again he’d end up doing, just to feed his brother. He’d abandon the Sion army altogether and make their way to the Capital ahead of winter before that. Hell, they’d spend the winter out here if need be. He’d never submit to the Earl, leaving Kou to the whims of that squire of his.

Surely their father’s reputation still held some merit within the city. Any reputable stable master should count themselves lucky if he negotiated clothing, room and board for the two of them for just his apprenticeship alone. Not one, but both sons of the King's former Master of Horses? That should be quite the prize for any lord or land owner...

His thoughts were interrupted as he heard two men's voices coming through the trees, down the path from the camp he had left earlier. Looks like his time peacefully alone was at an end. He should probably head back and see to Kou, and Takato's remains, as well as their tent. Besides, those voices were coming closer, and it was never wise for the younger ones to be caught, alone and unclothed, too far outside the camp. But as he was about to move, something made him freeze where he was. Something was moving, almost silently, through the reeds on the far side of the pond. Whatever it was, it was big. The deer the lads had hunted to feed themselves wouldn't come to the water by way of the reeds, not wanting to give themselves away during the daytime. Something slithered among the green stalks once more, pin-pointing where the sounds was coming from for the boy.

Moving nothing but his eyes, he allowed them to roam over the moving wall of green before something caught them: a shadow was sliding against the direction of the sunlight. Now that he'd marked it, he couldn't unsee the shape. It looked like one of his hunters had, clothed in different shades of green and brown to blend into the woods and fields around them. And this shape was definately hunting something.

Slowly, steadily, it settled down where it was, close to where the path lead out of the trees by the waterside before becoming a twisting mass of game trails beyond. From there, anyone or thing coming out of the treeline would stand out against the streaming sunlight at this time of day. Perfect targets. Meanwhile, the voices were that much closer, and they were discernably different from each other now. One was rather quiet, carefully modulated, while the other one, when he spoke, was more of a deep baritone that drove tiny shivers up Akihito's uncovered spine. And they were coming closer still.

The shadow, whomever it was, was now carefully moving, an arm slowly bringing a camouflaged rod upright, then a leg making quiet movements to step in around of the rod and slowly, gently, bending it back gradually in a practiced movemnt that Aki recognized without even seeing the attached cord needed to string a bow: this was an archer before him, and they were hunting whoever was coming down the trail.

Without even waiting to see if the archer was going to nock an arrow, the boy slowly, carefully, leaned over to one side and felt around on the ground for something to use as a distraction even as he kept his eyes on the bow, not the arm that held it, nor the body it was attached to. Nothing made a target nervous faster then feeling eyes directly on it. So far, no luck; just sticks and twigs. Damn. And those voices were getting progressively closer all the time. Easing himself a little more over, he finally found what he was looking for: a stone. Nothing amazing or magical about it, just a stone that fit comfortably in his palm. A boring, dull, everyday piece of rock that would save one, if not both lives coming towards them. Slowly moving his posture and getting his arm and hand in position while getting used to the feel of the stone, he carefully shifted it about in his hand until it felt right. Then, cocking his arm, he waited, breathing slowly and quietly, marking where the arrow was now sitting ready against the bow, pulled back, ready to let fly. And just as the pair of men stepped out of the trees, Akihito threw the stone with his whole focus on his target, striking the bow hard enough to knock it off its line-of-sight and sent the silent arrow flying away into the trees. Before he could move, the archer was falling backwards, a knife sticking out of the neck.

Letting his tense muscles sag and reflax, Akihito sighed in relief as his head fell forward until he tensed up once more as a deep, rumbling chuckle sounded right behind him. Refusing to turn around as his face became warm, he stuttered out "A-are you both well, sirs?", knowing that without his squad, he was now less than nothing in the army. Even a squire had status over him, and someone to protect him as well, so if he was going to provide for little Kou, he needed to mind his manners.

"We are, thanks to you." Fuck, that voice...

"I'm releived, sir. If you give me a moment, I'll collect my things and be off to the camp for help."

"Why are you not out here right now, accepting the thanks of General Asami and myself?" came the other voice, sounding rather suspicious.

Aki gulped and called out "Begging your pardon, Sirs, but my clothes are closer to you then they are to me..."

Silence reigned for a moment before one man huffed in disapproval while the other rumbled in laughter.

 

Akihito finally reached the camp while the sun was still above the horizon. His dead squad members weren't there any longer, save for one. Takato had been wrapped respectfully with a now blood-stained cloth with the mounted archers' banner covering him, as befitted Akihito's second in command. Kou sat down beside him, red faced and teary-eyed. Commander Suoh waited a few steps behind him, silent and still as a rock.

As soon his black eyes noticed Akihito's approach, Kou ran to him, and Akihito lowered himself to the ground as small arms went 'round his neck. Now, at least, he didn't feel quite so alone anymore.

"Aki nee-chan...", came a quiet sob.

"Shhh.. I know. I know."

Kou looked up to his brother's caring expression and nodded. "He died like a soldier, protecting his leader. I'm proud of him."

How fast had this child must of grown up to be able to say such a thing? The archer patted his little brother's head and kissed his temple before answering softly, "Me too."

"Aki-chan? Once, Ta... Once, he told me if he had to leave this word first, taking care of you would then be my responsibility." Akihito forced himself to swallow the lump in his throat and hugged the boy once more. The Commander continued to wait for them patiently, but he wouldn't push his luck with his superiors any more this day.

"I'll be back soon. Keep watch with... him for me, will you?"

Kou nodded. Saying their beloved friend's name was still too painful. Clearing his throat as he stood, he wiped his eyes after making sure Kou wasn't watching before approaching the large, imposing man. "Commander Suoh. I'm ready to report."

Kazumi continued to observe the small boy talking quietly to the body for a moment before turning his eyes to the young archer in front of him. Now cleaned of all the day's blood, he regarder the serious expression that somehow seemed ill-suited on such a young, expressive face. He had watched the boy ride his aloof warhorse with beautiful dexterity, and shoot an arrow while in mid-stride with impeccable aim. He certainly wasn't an average person, being far too young to be burdened as a squad leader, yet still successfully leading them from one victory to the next, he was indeed something else. Yet, he was still respectful and seemed friendly to others of any status, and Suoh could respect that.

"You don't need to say anything. Allow me to tell you what I've gathered from my own observations, and from what others have reposrted as well, and then you tell me if I am right or wrong, aggreed? It will be faster", ('and easier', he thought) "that way."

Akihito nodded his assent, silently relieved, and steeled himself to relive the day's events.

 

Takato was buried at twilight, overlooking the bloody, churned up battlefield where, just hours earlier that same day, their friends and comrades had camped and their horses had grazed. The rest of his squad was cremated as the military tradition of their kingdom dictated.

Akihito couldn't blame the other soldiers for having their fun. Even though so many people had died so violently not far from there, it was okay: they were alive, they all had the right to celebrate their life and their victory. They had sung to their dead already, to honor their sacrifices and their past battles won, and then after that, the celebrating started. There was music and laughter, extra food rations to replace their reserves and cheap wine to help them forget the day's horrors. Akihito listened to the songs, like he did after every battle, wondering if the spirits stayed near to hear them.

He let Kou roam free, the only child now in the military camp. Doubtlessly he would hear ithe mproper stories the soldiers made up to impress each other of their sexual adventures or of the marvelous, vicious battles that had won them glory. With so many strangers now in camp, he kept his eyes on his brother, following his travels around the fire pit, until the boy stopped and talked to... wait, was that the Lord Kirishima? A movement behind them caught Akihito's attention: the golden eyes of General Asami were studying him quite intently.

Chapter Text

The man across the fire was tall and robust-looking, the jet black hair still damp from a recent wash, and his amber eyes reflected the warm glow of the flames. The stories about his fighting prowess, his magic skills, his presence alone didn't do him justice. He was greater, stronger, and far more impressive up close then whispered about in rumors. And he was looking at Akihito like he could not only read his thoughts, but see further down inside him. The archer's heart started to thump hard in his chest.

As for the Warlord, he wasn't only taking in the former squad leader's fair looks by firelight, he also kept watch on what was going on beyond everyone else's sight. After the funeral pyres had burned low, he watched the shades of those who had died slowly take shape and draw near the camp fires among their old comrades, to hear the familiar songs and all the old drinking stories one last time. Those specters who were survived by kin, or friends close enough to be considered family, said their farewells to the living one last time before they faded into the gathering darkness. Asami had witnessed this scene so many times now, he simply used it as a gauge to his company's cohesiveness, of loyalty between those from Beyond and those still living. Most of the ghosts came in singles or pairs, and soon departed after they arrived, their good-byes completed.

As the last of his rugged warriors faded away, his attention was drawn to the young leader of the mounted archers. There was a number of younger souls gathered in the empty space surrounding the lad, close to thirty if he hazarded a guess. They drew near to the blonde en masse, jostling and elbowing each other as they no doubt had when they were alive. One by one, they approached their former leader, and either clapped him on the shoulder, or a few even gave him half hugs across his back before they reformed as a troupe facing him. Finally, a lone shade, tall and fair-haired, sat down beside Takaba and embraced him fully, resting his forehead against the blonde's shaggy head for a short while before standing, bending over to give a last caress of the young leader's cheek before giving it a fleeting kiss, then joined his comrades by the bonfire. Together, instead of fading out, all the boys became bright points of lights, like fireflies, before they joined the stream of sparks rising up from the bonfire and disappearing into the starry sky.

It was a chilly night breeze that made him shiver, or at least that's what Akihito told himself. Wearing his old worn cotton shirt from earlier in the day, he wasn't close enough to the fire to warm himself. The General, meanwhile, wore a leather cuirass over a new shirt, lighter and more mobile than his metal war armor, but still useful protection in case of emergency, even in the heart of his camp.

'That man was born for battle', Akihito thought distractedly; his willingness to enter the fray himself did not surprise the youth at all.

Only the strongest and most determined that rose to power, after all, and if he was the King's son, he had a long line of men and women with such drive behind him. Aki thought of the differences between them, yet here they were, fighting the same war; such close proximity, yet so far apart. How did life unwind in such a way that a prince was more himself leading warriors into battle than as a nobleman of leisure at the capital; and a simple freeman's son, who had learned under his father about being a horseman, had once been the leader of mounted archers, and was now without arrows, men or mounts once more.

He nodded once to the General, acknowledging him, not minding at all if that wasn't exactly correct protocol for a superior, and got up, turning his back to the fire, the warmth and light of the gathering, and to the General's eyes.

The music and conversations slowly dwindled down as everyone noted the Warlock General and his trusted brigadiers arrival among them. It was as if a great brooding dragon had left its keep to choose a resting spot in the middle of a sleepy village: the only sound left was the pop and crackle of burning logs. Asami strode into the middle of the crowd and stood. Turning about in a circle, those bright golden eyes took in all the men around the fire, appraising the injuries of each one.

"Today's battle was a difficult one. I'm sure you've all heard by now the tragedy of the mounted archer division. We have lost brothers in arms. I ask that the spirits of this place and gods of our lands guide them to their rest. Tonight is not only a celebration of our victory, but a mourning for our dead. They fought valiantly and died bravely, but I find myself questioning how an entire squad of men and horses was discovered and brutally murdered?" Asami's eyes seemed to glow with his magic as small streams of cool red flames danced around his finger tips. "The archer division's position was well planned and thoroughly thought out. There was no way the enemy could've found them unless someone here betrayed them. Betrayed your brothers. Betrayed us. When I find this traitor, I will make them endure a day of hellish torture before allowing them to die a terrible death." The men visibly paled at the dark promise of their general. His punishments, and rewards, always fitted the action that lead to them, and were always memorable for their lavishness.

Asami reigned in his magic as he signaled his lieutenant Kirishima forward. "On another note, I wish to present a reward to the man who helped end the fighting that much quicker this day and saved many of our lives for doing so. Mounted Archer Commander Takaba Akihito, come forward."

Aki froze where he was, never having been addressed as anything before but "you, boy!". Unsure what to do momentarily, he steeled his nerves as he stood. He felt the eyes of the gathered men on him as he stepped forth, probably all wondering what a mere kid could've done to end the fighting, as most of them had arrived from elsewhere by the time his charge was over. He felt his heart beat harder in his chest as he approached the golden-eyed man. It was like willingly walking up to a fire drake that could immolate him as a sacrifice without warning. He stopped a few feet from the man; looking up, his eyes focused on the molten orbs that bored into his. Kou quietly walked up beside him and grasped his hand with his tiny one.

"Takaba Akihito, I wish to reward you for the seizure of the late enemy general today." Aki flinched at the collective muttering that passed among the men. Asami wondered what the lad would think if he knew that their foe had lived long enough to answer some rather... painful questions before being dismembered and then put into several travel chests, all for easier delivery back to his forces and family, of course. Stepping closer to the boy, he lowered his voice to a more intimate level. "I know it was hard for you to lose not only your best friend, but the rest of your squad." Stepping back, his deep voice rumbled over the crowd. "You are now the captain of the archer division and will attend my war meetings along with your own staff." Turning to Kirishima, he picked something up that had been laying across his assistant's arms. "As well, I wish to gift you this bow, crafted by the elves. It has been enchanted to hit whatever its master intends to target, and provides its owner with unlimited arrows, without the need of a quiver to hold them, by simply drawing back on the bow."

Aki was speechless as he looked at the beautifully crafted bow. It was made of a single piece of pure white yew wood, with silver inlay of vines. The string looked to be made from a single thread of silver the thickness of a hair.

"I- Thank you, General Asami, but I can't accept a gift like this." Aki shook his head. "Nor can I accept the title you're giving me. I mean, it seems kind of useless, since I'm the only mounted archer left. Sir."

"Nonsense. The bow is yours. Also, in light of the many successes your squad had managed, despite the disgraceful negligence on the part of their superior officer, I plan on recruiting more young archers and horsemen, like those that gave their lives today, once we return to the capital. In fact, this experiment has been so successful, I will be championing the expansion of the mounted archer division to the war council and the King himself." Asami stated, pressing the bow into Aki's hands.

Recruit? Didn't he mean "replace"? Aki felt his temper suddenly flare. Replace his team. His comrades. Takato, who'd died in his arms? Raymond, the young boy who'd just enlisted, only to be murdered during his first battle? Goran, who had joined to help support his family more than his king? Faoran, Alex, Samwell, John, Torand, Mytharin, Cale? Eiji, with his nervous twitch and steady aim? All the young men who'd died this day had been coerced to join the war as tribute forces for the Sion army by their lords; to be so easily discarded, then replaced... Akihito knew this was war, but that didn't mean he'd be willing to lead several new batches of strangers that had been picked out for him.

Aki shoved the bow back at Asami, surprising the man while the others around them stared in shock. "As I said, Sir, I do not want the bow, and I do not want the title. I refuse to just move on from the men I considered my family so quickly. Without them, those "victories" wouldn't have taken place, and I won't step on their cold bodies to help climb the ranks of an army I don't belong in. Thank you, Sir, but I will remain as I am." Aki turned, thinking to walk away toward his tent, which he knew would be cold and empty without his best friend there. The men parted, whispering among themselves as they let the boy pass, disbelieving eyes following him until the night swallowed him.

Kou watched his brother leave, his youthful face sad. He turned to look at the large general and his new master, then bowed in apology. "I'm sorry, Sir, my brother wears his heart on his sleeve. It may take him more time than just a single night to get back to normal." With another quick bow, the boy hurried off after his brother, leaving the general standing in the middle of his men.

"Kirishima." Said man blinked as his name was called unexpectedly.

"Yes, Sir?" He was surprised to see his master grinning widely.

"Did you see that?"

"Yes, Sir. That cheeky brat was unforgivably, unutterably rude. You offered him your thanks, a gracious gift, and a great honour, and he refused it all like a petulant child." Kirishima sniffed, pushing his spectacles up the bridge of his nose.

"No, not that. Did you see the fire in his eyes? The way he refused my wishes, so confident in his beliefs, caring not for any consequences?"

"I- Yes, I did, Sir. Why..."

"We're going back to my tent. I wish to think on this further, in comfort. You and Suoh, join me for some wine." Asami turned on his heels with a billow of his cape. As he made to leave, he called out: "You may all resume your revels for tonight. Just be ready to travel come morning." With that final declaration, he left his men, flanked by Kirishima and Suoh. As they departed, none of the trio noticed a certain young man with a beauty mark watching intently, his eyes burning with equal amounts of desire and jealousy.

 

Kou would be fine, the boy knew better than to be alone with strangers, and knew which of Sakazaki's men to avoid, drunk or sober. Besides, he had their father's knife with him, which, thanks to some of the lads, the boy knew how to use. Instead of heading to their assigned tent, Akihito veered off to the armory tent instead, further back in the camp, now poorly attended by drunken guards. Sakazaki's men, no doubt. He somehow figured the General's own men wouldn't let things be this lax, no matter what the circumstances. Akihito scowled when he heard them catcalling him; but, there really was nothing new in this, it was just annoying, is all. But, not for much longer, most likely.

At the back of the dark, cavernous tent, Aki sat down on a barrel for a moment. He'd left a bag with some of his stuff here earlier, wondering if he could get a chance to make some makeshift arrows for himself because he didn't know what was going to happen to his brother and himself come the morrow. They would've been allotted to his squad anyway, had they survived, so he didn't feel the least bit guilty in taking some for himself. He saw it as a type of severance pay.

As he selected shafts, he tried hard not to think about Takato, whose father was an arrow maker. It called to mind the scorn of some of the other older, more permanent longbow men had of the thought of crafting their own shafts, saying that real archers don't make their own arrows. 'Of course not,' he chuckled, the crafting of a shaft, then fletching the feathers properly and affixing the arrow head in of itself was an art form. And while any idiot could chuck an arrow about, not everyone could make a decent one. Arrow makers commanded the prices they did because of this, and the armed dummies didn't realize that the life of a craftsman was a hell of a lot better than dying in a field somewhere for someone else's fight. Well, an archer's pay wasn't really that bad either, so long as one stayed alive long enough to spend it, so in the end, he guessed it really didn't matter.

"You smile by yourself, alone in the dark, but never spare one for me? How rude." Mused a familiar despised voice coming from the entrance. The voice that always makes him feel goosebumps of disgust, like cockroaches or millipedes were crawling over his bare skin. He didn't lift his eyes from the arrow he was holding now in a vice-like grip.

"Hey there, hot stuff." Sakazaki spoke again, coming closer. "I'm talking to you."

Akihito closed his eyes for a moment. None of this would matter in the morning; he had to look out for Kou and himself. Come the dawn, Sakazaki would still be with the army to face his own enquiries, if the General's comments were anything to go by, while they would most likely be long down the road, headed elsewhere. The repulsive man would be in his past, together with his brief career filled with arrows and horses, and the current feelings of being a failure and a loser. He got up and looked at the man straight in the eye, contemptuous hazel green eyes clashing with arrogant slate-coloured ones.

"Give it up, Sack-a-shit. If you were the last man alive, I still wouldn't come near you, cuz everyone knows you're. no. man. Now, let me pass, I'm leaving." He tried to push his commander aside and exit the tent, but the infuriated lord grabbed his arm so tight it hurt.

"Don't you dare disrespect me like that, you dirty little runt." With his other hand he grabbed Akihito's butt and squeezed hard, causing the lad to spit in his unsavory face. "You're gonna regret that so bad, you ungrateful brat." The Earl snarled as he tried to grab the boy by his throat, only to have the arm attached to the hand gripping the blonde twisted sharply as the other flung himself aside and about, breaking the older man's hold. His attempt to make a break for freedom died though, when the nobleman kicked out and tripped the boy up.

Falling on top of Akihito, they struggled for a moment. The older man was taller and heavier, but Akihito was so angry and desperate to escape, he got a shoulder between him and his attacker and shoved upwards, nearly toppling the slimy lord off of him completely. Suddenly having a vision of his little brother trapped alone with this man, Aki pushed against him with all the force of his desperate rage, when he felt it: warmth spilling over his fist. Sakazaki let go of him suddenly and slumped back, his face blanched with shock.

Looking down, Akihito saw blood dripping from his hand, but he didn't feel any pain. Realization hit them both at the same time, like a thrown brick: the arrow he'd been grasping, forgotten until now, was sticking out of Sakazaki's soft, leaking belly as they both stared at it.

Chapter Text

Akihiko stood in silent shock at what he'd just done. He'd stabbed Sakazaki, a piece of shit who dearly deserved it, sure, but the man was also a commanding officer within the Sion army, and a nobleman. Both men stared down at the arrow sticking out of his slowly bleeding gut. Sakazaki looked up at him, his eyes full of incredulous rage.

"You stupid little bitch!", he hissed, taking hold of the arrow as if to support it. The movement caught Aki's attention enough to bring him out of his stupor.

"Don't pull it out!" he exclaimed, trying to think fast about the best way to handle the situation.

"Don't you dare try to order me around, brat! You're the cause of this!" Sakazaki growled as he started to pull the wooden shaft out, only to be stopped by the pain and Akihito taking hold of his wrist to stay his hand. The Earl grunted and glared at the young man.

"Listen, I apologize that I did this, though it was your fault to begin with. But if you pull the arrow out here, you'll bleed to death." Aki tried to explain, lots of experience hunting for dinner behind his words, only to feel a sharp sting on his cheek as he was backhanded aside.

"I don't take orders from you! And you're not a healer, you don't know what your talking about!" Sakazaki snarled, still on his knees, slightly lightheaded from the burgeoning pain in his guts. "I'm going straight to the Warlord with this and he's likely going to take off that pretty head off your shoulders himself for this offence to his authority!"

Aki glarred up at him, gently touching his bruised cheek. 'Fine. If the bastard is so eager to kill himself, then be my guest', Aki thought angrily.

"It's a shame I'd lose such a pretty thing." Sakazaki grimaced as he began trying to get his legs under him to rise without moving the projectile too much. "Thankfully though, there's another little Takaba running around the camp, almost as pretty as you. He's young enough too to be easily broken in and trained to my liking."

Akihiko felt his blood boil at the thought of this disgusting fuck putting his hands on Kou. He rose slowly, palming a small dagger from his boot top with a snarl on his lips. "You go anywhere near my brother and I'll kill you for sure." Aki growled. Sakazaki only grinned wider.

"Brave words, but what can you do if you're already dead for the crime of insubordination?" Sakazaki laughed, managing to painfully get to his shaky feet.

"I could ask the same of you, traitor", a venomous voice spat from nearby before the injured man was knocked to his knees by a well aimed kick to his thigh. Standing there was the one person Aki had actually been hoping to avoid coming across any time soon.

"Mitarai." Akihiko whispered unhappily, lowering his head in shame. Mitarai was Takato's older brother by several years. He was serving in General Kirishima's division as a colonel, using his instincts for people and a knack for gathering and sorting through information that contributed to building division battle strategies rather then actually fighting himself.

"Are you alright, Aki-chan?" Mitarai asked as he made his way to stand between the man he despised and his little brother's best friend. Akihito nodded miserably, keeping his eyes on the ground, not seeing who else entered the tent. A large hand startled him as it entered his peripheral vision before it caught his chin in a gentle but firm hold. His head was lifted up to meet the golden gaze of Lord Asami himself.

"General, I- it-" Akihiko tried to explain himself while looking into those eyes, only for his injured commander to interupt.

"Prince Asami, this good for nothing lowlife stabbed me! He tried to murder me! I came in to comfort the surviving member of my mounted archers, and he turned on me like a mad dog!" Sakazaki spat, one hand still around the shaft, trying to keep it from knocking against the hard earth. "I believe him to be the traitor in our midst!"

Asami remained quiet, keeping his gaze locked on Akihito; more specifically, the mark that would soon mar his fair skin. Akihiko felt himself go slightly weak in the knees at the molten anger he saw roiling in those golden depths.

"Oh? You say he's the traitor? Then tell me, my dear earl, if he's the traitor, how could he possibly have known about any of General Kirishima's stratagem before you shared his company's part in it with him?" Asami questioned softly as he released Akihiko's chin. With a nod from his master, Mitarai grabbed Sakazaki by his hair as Kirishima and Suoh entered the tent with a contingent of loyal officers. "We had the tent completely guarded and it was only the highest commanding officers permitted in there."

"Not to mention, one of my scouts confirms they saw you flee from your post just before the enemy arrived in that area." Kirishima stated with distaste as he adjusted his lenses.

"But I- n-no! M'lord, you've got it wrong!" Sakazaki shook his head as best he could, trying his hardest not to hurt himself further.

"Aki-chan," Mitarai called quietly, looking over at the young man by Lord Asami. "You might want to leave for this. Kou is awaiting you by the fire at the end of this aisle. It would be best to stay there with him until this is sorted out."

Not needing to be told twice, Akihito jerked his head in a nod then moved to go around the general and his men, headed for the tent flap and parts beyond. Just as he passed the warlock, though, his arm was seized in that same powerful, tender grip. "Don't go too far, Takaba. We need to have a private chat afterwards." Asami stated, that sultry voice making Aki's blush brighten. The boy looked away and nodded once, showing he understood, and when Asami released him, he fled the tent in a quiet panic as the nearness of what had almost happened caught up with him. Once the little archer was gone, the dragon turned and zeroed in on his prey.

"Shall we continue then, Sakazaki?" The mere sight of Asami's feral grin nearly made the injured man faint dead away. He would soon wish he had.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

For once, the blonde did as he was told without question. Aside from the odd stumble in his haste to get away from what was sure to be a nasty turn of events for his former commander, he made straight for the spot where his little brother awaited him along with several guards. Nearly collapsing, he sat down beside Kou and gave him a tight squeeze. The younger Takaba, arms trapped against him from what he was holding, quietly waited until his big brother's shaking fit had passed before offering him some warm broth in a clay mug along with a plate of roasted meat and a small loaf of bread. Ogling the wealth of food he and his squad had never known, the blonde was about to offer Kou first choice when the young lad picked up his own plate and resumed tucking into it. A pair of apples and a water skin by the boy's feet completed the unlikely scene.

As he ate, he noticed his brother looked cleaner and neater than he had for quite a while, and noted a new warm tunic to boot. The fact that he was also eating carefully so as not to stain his improved attire made Aki wonder what exactly had happened while he was outside of camp today. Upon asking, the answer he received was "Well, as the lords Suoh and Kirishima's newest messenger-in-training, I now have my masters' reputations to uphold. I can't just let my newest piece of clothing get dirty for no reason now, can I?"

'"Newest?"', Aki thought. 'Dammit. I can't leave the army and take Kou with me now. He's accepted a position with that bastard's brigadiers, which is the same as working for the prince himself. There's no walking away from that.' Somehow, the thought of those few touches and looks he'd received from the man now infuriated him. The general couldn't foist a stupid gift and a rank on him that he didn't want, but he wasn't above using Kou to make him stay put. That meant to him then the only difference between this Asami and Sakazaki was that the bigger man hadn't made any plays for him, yet. But if he tried to use Kou to manipulate him too, he would come to regret it.

 

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Mitarai left the tent, the back of his hand pressed against his mouth, trying to control his urge to be sick. He wasn't used to these "information gathering" trials yet, but he wasn't about to lose face in front of the others and possibly cause any doubts about Lord Kirishima's choice of men serving under him. Stepping to the side of another tent a little ways away, he closed his eyes and tried to breathe clean air through his nostrils to cleanse the stink of fear, sweat, piss and bile left there from the soon-to-be late nobleman.

Despite how the man had suffered as the prince and his men took turns forcing confessions out of him, using the arrow shaft still in the man's guts, Mitarai knew from the few messages Takato had managed to get out to him that the disgusting brute in there deserved no better. Physically abusing the lads in his charge, forcefully taking some of them, making them all have to hunt and scrounge for their own food and clothing where they could... The General seemed less concerned with the money that had been earmarked for this army that Sakazaki had pilfered for his own vault then the treatment of the men and boys in it that weren't the earl's own. A list of men and officers of Sakazaki's had been drawn up, and the names on it would be arranged in such a way that the old punishment of decimation would be visited upon those in the ranks of the earl's troops that deserved it before the rest marched out in the morning. Truly, one in every ten of his men would die for their perfidious parts in their lord's schemes come the morrow.

Restored once more to his usual self, Mitarai set off towards the campfire where he'd find both Takabas. There was still a long evening ahead, and much had to be settled before turning in for the night. Tomorrow was going to be a long day for everyone.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The prince and his two top men were seated in his tent, leisurely sipping wine once more when the summoned mounted archer commander that had been the centre of their discussion was announced and shown in. The blonde, far from being shaken by this day's events being piled on him, appeared to be trying very hard not to bristle in their company. This certainly promised to be an entertaining end to a otherwise brutal day.

Unsurprisingly, Takaba started off the discussion. "Why am I the last one to know that my little brother's going to be your flunkies' messenger boy?"

Brigadier Kirishima spluttered and reacted like he was hit in the back of the head by a thrown brick while brigadier Suoh seemed to be hiding what might have been a snicker behind a drink from his goblet. The prince was amused, eyes alight as he regarded the spirited young man before him, so different from the saddened or restrained personality he had seen early. "I thought it would be best to offer your sibling the protection of my two best men when you were being instructed on your new duties, which will hopefully also keep him out of trouble; "idle hands do the Devil's work", and all."

The little blonde scowled, reminding two of the men present of the bigger blonde when he was far younger and much less world weary. "And how is treating him like a servant or a serf of benefit to him? He's a Freeman's son, with his own rights and privileges, as am I."

"I had thought to have Lord Kirishima try the boy's hand at being a messenger to see if he was a suitable candidate for training as a page."

That stopped the archer in his tracks. Training for knighthood? After a moment, he quietly continued. "You know he's not 'noble'."

"Neither is a lot of the nobility, as you have seen firsthand."

"Then why...?"

"Because I surround myself with experienced people I know and can trust. With any of my men, he'll be well looked after. I can promise you that, and I mean what I promise, for I rarely make one. Besides, in my army, he'll have opportunities to learn many skills, and he'd be protected should the unlikely happen and the invaders try to overrun the camp, like this morning. At the very least, he'll be clothed and fed and provided for."

Akihito mulled this over in his mind, looking at the three men seated before him. He was bargaining for more than just his life here, after all. The prince sat there patiently, sipping wine, casually comfortable, in furniture, in the middle of an armed camp. Lord Suoh, the great solid warrior, was calmly observing, listening without comment or judgement, holding his proverbial cards close to his chest. Lord Kirishima, however, was eyeing him critically, like a buyer at a butcher's stall evaluating a plucked chicken, cataloging its flaws to use when he went to haggle for a lower price.

"I've heard from your brother that aside from your unique insights in the care of horses, you can read and write. Can you tell me what this says?", the man with the perpetual frown asked as he set down his drink and picked up a piece of parchment with writing on it. He held it out to the boy, waiting for him to take it in hand and look at it. The boy glanced down at the proffered piece without touching it then glanced back up at the prince's man. Kirishima's frown deepened. "Well, what is it? Can you not read it then?"

Hazel eyes looked him up and down, unimpressed by his rank, titles, or who he worked for. "It's a letter to Earl Sakazaki's retainers, telling them that he died from a wound in battle. It has the prince's seal attached to it, making it an official document. There's at least one more copy around here somewhere, for the King, his Court's official notice and the archives."

Asami chuckled as he shared a look with Suoh. Seldom had either man seen Kei so caught off guard. Very few educated clerics could both read silently and grasp the meaning of a message that quickly; the fact that this lad had read it without sounding out the words aloud and upside down to boot? None of them had never seen the likes of it before.

"Alright then, we'll stay for Kou's sake, seeing as how's he's already accepted your food and clothing for his apprenticeship. So what am I to do to earn my keep? That whole promotion to captain idea was outright ridiculous; what ranked commanders in this army would listen to an untitled nobody who was probably younger than their own sons?"

"I was going to propose you stay on as the prince's personal knave." With eyes the size of silver coins, Aki turned to stare at the big blonde as he stirred in his chair, causing the poor thing to creak as if it were near to collapse under the sturdy man's weight. Suoh paused to take a drink, making sure he had everyone's attention before he continued. "You would become familiar to the military men of Sion, they would see how the prince or one of us would weigh your opinions and how we'd take your advice, and there would be no questions about why Lord Kirishima or I'd be training you as if you were a squire at court." The smaller blonde by now had recovered somewhat, and was working his jaw, trying to figure a way out of this, when Souh continued. "As for me, I saw the way my Silme responded to you today, and I would be happy to have you care for my horse. He's tempermental, and if he likes you as much as he seemed to, perhaps continued interactions with you will help his disposition somewhat."

"And what about my archery?" Akihito spluttered, grasping at straws, still somewhat flummoxed by the whole absurd notion.

Suoh shrugged. "I'm sure I'm not the only one here that tires of dried meat and salted fish for every meal. If you hunted once or twice a week for us, would that keep you skills sharp?" Outwitted and out of excuses, Akihito muttered and growled, but finally accepted his new lot in life; poorly, but he accepted it.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

"You both can see it, yes? He's different from all the others before", the general murmured, looking at the entrance of the tent flapping loosely where the ungrateful brat had stormed out just moments before, loosening ties as he shoved the canvas aside. Somehow, the atmosphere within the shelter was different. The general's attention had been on the boy's words, and the way he fed off their exchanged looks had made Kirishima more attentive to the boy's presence.

"He surely has neither manners, nor a sense of self-preservation", the second in command replied. Suoh nodded in agreement, reserving his opinion until he was directly asked, his recent participation in Sakazaki's Trial of Truth by Pain not bothering him in the least. That he'd pinned down the prone, screaming, begging man with his foot on his torso, judiciouosly applying his weight as needed to make the man talk affecting him not at all. Asami chuckled and Kirishima eyes widened a little. One wouldn't expect Sion's Prince Ryuichi to find outright insubordination amusing, considering how he'd mercilessly "questioned" the corrupt Earl earlier. The way he'd jerked the blunt wooden shaft back and forth, tearing open the man's stomach wound and made it gape until bile, blood and intestinal juices had leaked out of the fool had been especially brutal. Then again, he couldn't talk much either as he'd "assisted" the traitor's memory and confession along with his knives to get all of his confederates' names that had stolen from the army of the King. In the end, they had broken the arrow shaft off outside of the man's sweaty body and shoved it further into the wound with the stomp of a booted heel, then had the man moved into the woods and left there without food or water. After the army left, it would take days for him to die, either from dehydration, fever and madness from the contents of his bowels getting into his bloodstream and poisoning his organs, or the boars and wild pigs coming to scavenge the abandonned campsite and finding him there, helpless and alone, ripping him apart.

"It's his eyes... " Asami spoke musingly. "They burn, like fire. He will bend only with the greatest reluctance, yet he won't break. It's not like he doesn't know any better, he just welcomes the challenge. He's simply unafraid." The general stood up and reached toward the flame of a nearby candle; his fingers were far too close to the fire, yet he remained unharmed, unburned by the heat.

"As I was mastering my powers, years were spent dealing with the elemantal entities that serve our gods and live among us." The flame burned more intensely, burning first green then turquoise, then bleeding into a shade of royal purple, feeding on the warlock's deep spiritual force, burning high, licking at the man's fingers, but not burning them; the fire acted like his friend, wrapping about his wrist like an exotic pet serpent. "I've learned that the inner stregnth of the will is the real strength of a person, Kei. And I can see a wild fire in this Akihito's eyes, like a force of nature. And just like any wild fire, you can attempt to divert its course, flee from it, or try to put it out, but you can't simply tame it." He smirked, his golden eyes gleaming like molten gold as the flames returned to their true shade as it slowly slid down his hand, diminished its size, and returned to the candle's wick. "It will consume whatever is in its path until it burns itself to ashes. And I want to play with this particular fire before it goes out."

Chapter Text

Understandably, Kou went to sleep rather early that night. And Akihito, uncharacteristically, went mute, staring at the flames of the fire until he couldn't take the brightness anymore and had to close his eyes. He heard Mitarai's movements when the man stood up from the log opposite him that he was using as a seat and came to sit right beside him.

They had never been really close, and until recently, Akihito thought the older man detested him. He could see it now, though, that Mitarai didn't blame him for his little brother's death; there was no hate, no accusation, just sadness.

"Remember that time you brats stole my clothes and left me naked in that fucking freezing cold lake? The old lady who found me there screamed so loud, thinking I was a water sprite come to seduce her to a watery grave, the king himself probably heard it from his throne."

That was the last thing Akihito ever expected to hear from Mitarai. A second later he was laughing until the tears burned his eyes when the story continued. "Well, that old hag screamed even louder when I assured her that I was indeed human, and seducing her, then, was the furthest thing from my mind. She came after me, set on robbing me of my virtue..., well, let's just say I ran for more than just my life! Naked, desperate, running through the woods with this shameless old strumpet after me every step of the way... It was all I could do to protect myself from getting whacked down there by brambles and branches."

When Aki finally stopped snorting and guffawing enough to draw air, he wiped his eyes and quipped "At least you didn't get into a patch of poison oak!", thinking of the unbearable itching and burning irritation that any contact with that plant could cause on arms or legs.

Mitarai grimaced in horror as he whispered "I almost sat in that stuff, finally finding a patch of shrubs to hide in...", and they both howled with laughter, not caring if they slapped their own thighs or the others. Throughout the evening, they both reminisced about all of Akihito and Takato's antics, - some of which Mitarai was the chosen target of; most of the really bad ideas were Takato's, Aki swore - stories and adventures he had forgotten about until that very moment. That night both young men laughed and cried, happy to be alive and having known the best brother and friend that had ever lived. Takato would be forever remembered now for how he'd lived, rather than how he had died.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Odd noises nudged him from his sleep. Distant cries and pleas for mercy...? The blonde half sat up, listening, but nothing more was to be heard. Maybe it was the tail end of one of his battle nightmares, then. Crisp morning air tinged with wood smoke filtered through the camp, awakening Akihito fully. Sitting up with a stretch and a yawn, he crawled out of his bed roll, glancing over to his side, expecting Kou to still be asleep in Takato's spot from last night, only to find him gone. Though he felt a bit better about their situation now, he was still worried for his little brother, especially after just losing his command second, best friend and kin in all but blood. Quickly, he dressed in his pale blue civilian tunic and brown breeches. Finished with pulling on his boots, he rushed out of the tent, looking frantically for the small boy.

From the looks of things, the others were getting ready to move camp: tents were coming down, horses were being hitched to wagons or saddled for the higher ranking officers. Akihito left, searching for Kou, asking everyone if they'd seen him. When he kept coming up short, he began to worry. He didn't meet any of the Duke's men; they seemed to have already departed. What if someone took him? With all the strangers and bustle going on, it'd be so easy to do. He couldn't help the dark thoughts that started to plague his worried mind, knowing plenty about what could happen to pretty young boys in army camps...

"Hey, Aki-nee! Good morning!" The bright, happy voice broke through his thoughts. Akihiko looked up with a relived sigh, only for it to be cut short at what Kou was wearing. His little brother had exchanged his normal ratty clothing for new, well-tailored, comfortable ones. His slacks fit him perfectly without having to be held up by a piece of rope, his normally bare feet were wrapped in well-made brown leather short boots. A bright green soft tunic peeked from beneath an apple red cloak. And he was squeaky clean with a fresh haircut to boot.

"Kou, where did you get off to?" Akihiko asked, pulling the boy into a tight hug once he was close enough. "Don't you ever run off like that again without waking me! It's too chaotic for anyone to watch out for you. What if someone had snatched you up while you were alone?"

"But he wasn't alone, sir." A young voice calmly stated. Akihiko looked up again, startled, to see a boy a few years older than Kou, wearing the same outfit (though the edge of his cloak had bright golden stitching on it). Just above his heart was an embroidered white dove, the sigil of messengers for the Crown. His eyes were a deep forest green, his shiny black hair about sholder length. "I came and got him earlier this morning. Lord Kirishima asked me to show the new junior messenger his duties and to have him outfitted in a uniform."

"Aki-nee, this is Tristan. He is one of Lord Kirishima's page boys." Kou stated happily as he wriggled out of his brother's arms to stand next to the older youth. "He's taught me so much already."

"I see. Thank you, Tristan, but the next times, at least wake me before you take off like that for your new master." Akihiko asked.

"Come now, Akihiko. Surely you wouldn't hinder your little brother's responsibilities already, would you?" That familiar annoyingly sensual voice spoke from behind his shoulder. With a silent groan, Akihiko turned to face the Prince General, who was dressed in a silken tunic, leather pants and knee high riding boots. His top men followed to his left, while on his right he was leading a beautiful well-bred white mare. Equipped with a flowing mane and tail, the carefully brushed coat picked out glints of golden hairs from the early morning sun.

"If it means I don't know where he is during a camp break down, then yes, Sir." Akihiko said, crossing his arms. Nodding to the nervous mare with the whites showing around her eyes, he asked "What's with the palfrey? Did some fine Lady leave her steed behind when she fled being discovered in a tent in the night, perhaps?"

As lord Kirishima huffed, Asami smiled, amused, as he came to a stop before the young man. "Actually, Akihiko, I bought this horse just this morning. For you." The widening of Akihiko's eyes made Asami's own smile widen a little more too.

"You bought me a horse?" Akihiko asked with quite a bit of surprise, a fair amount of disbelief, and not a little suspicion, either.

"Of course." Asami stated, rather proudly. "With your new position, you should have an appropriate mount. My buyer assured me she is well trained and responds to commands perfectly."

Akihiko felt a bit deflated at that. A buyer. The prince had gone through a buyer. Not knowing why he was disappointed, he took a hard look at the horse before him. She had good legs and both sides were in balance with each other. Approaching her with his hand palm up, though, she tried to shy away. As he cupped his hand under her nostrils, offering it to be sniffed, she again attempted to pull back. As he reached up slowly to scratch her forehead between the eyes, he felt her flinch under his touch. These actions made his eyes narrow. He stroked both hands along her neck, feeling as he made his way to her withers them down to her side. He could feel his temper rising as he felt welt marks from a heavy whip under her hide. He came back to stand by her shoulder, gently pulling her head around to the side to see him. Meeting her marble blue eyes, he saw and felt her trembling fear.

Taking a deep breath, he looked at the Prince, who, in turn, was looking expectantly at him, awaiting his verdict. "This lovely creature is truly my horse, Sir?" he asked in a low voice, not wanting to stir up the mare any more. With a gracious smile, Asami nodded and said "Truly, she is yours to do with as you please."

"Then, thank you, Sir." And with that, he took the reins from Asami's hand, who looked rather pleased that Akihiko had finally accepted at least one of his gifts. That is, until Akihiko gently wrapped his arm under her neck, slid off the bridle and the bit from her mouth that was too severe for the animal, and brought her head down far enough to whisper into her ear: "You're free, beautiful lady. Now, run. Find a herd with a stallion that will fight for you and protect your foals, graze beneath the open sky, and never let another man capture or harm you again." He let go of her head, bridle and reins in hand, and stood back. At first, she stood still, head down, nearly breaking Aki's heart, before the mare threw back her head with a snort. Shaking her mane, she half leapt off to the side of the men, kicking and prancing around in a large circle before coming back to Akihito. She nuzzled his cheek with her soft lips, softly snorted down his neck, then nibbled at the ends of his blonde hair before giving it a playful tug. With a whinny, the mare then made off, mane and tail like unfurled banners, trotting past several startled men, causing a few to drop what they carried. The group remained silent as the expensive prized mare made its way to the open field beyond the tent city and galloped off down the hillside out of sight.

Kirishima was the first to react. In outrage, he turned on the smaller blonde. "Do you have any idea how much Prince Asami spent on that horse for you?" he demanded, shocked and angry at what he saw as a waste of resources. He then tried not to step back at the blazing glare he got from the young man.

"That mare has been horribly abused. Her spirit was all but broken, and she was almost at that point. She was a wild horse that had been captured, brutalized and beaten into submission and obedience, probably just this week, and needed to be set free. She'd be a danger to herself and anyone around her who set her off, and I won't have such a one anywhere near Kou. Whoever your purchaser bought her from needs to have that whip used on him while his head's yanked about with this damned bit in his mouth for harming such a sweet girl." Akihiko growled. "Then you can punish him for taking money under false pretenses if you want to." He turned his gaze to the still surprised Asami. "From now on, if it pleases the Prince, I'll pick my own horse. When I find one I like, I'll let you know. Now please, don't throw any more money away; it'll save Lord Kirishima from having any more fits since you seem so keen on tossing unwanted gifts at me. Now, if everyone doesn't mind, I'm going to go hunt, since I don't know where we're going, or when I'll have another chance to do so, and I don't want Lord Suoh to be vexed at me for breaking our bargain so soon." So saying, he nodded his head at the trio, spun on his heels and walked back toward his tent. A few steps away, he turned his head and shot back over his shoulder "And I'm NOT taking that stupid bow you tried to give me either. Sir!"

The remaining group stood in stunned silence for a moment before Suoh's chortle broke it. "Ryuichi, I must say, you have your work cut out for you with that one." Suoh then laughed, earning an unimpressed look from Kirishima. "Kazumi, this is no laughing matter. That ungrateful cur just cost the Prince a lot of money! I saw nothing wrong with that horse; they're supposed to be broken in and tamed, complying with their owner's wishes." Kirishima sniffed as he crossed his arms this time.

"Really, Kei? Have you ever met Souh's Silme, or my own stallion Frost?" the prince asked in a teasing tone, thinking of their warhorses' infamous reputations among the stable hands at the castle.

"If I may, Lord Kirishima..." Kou's small voice caught all their attention, and the men turned to look at the pair of boys, Kou standing in front of his new companion. "My brother has always had a strong connection with horses. Even at home, where our father raised and trained them, Akihito always treated them with kindness and regard. They always did whatever he asked, once they understood what he wanted, with hardly any prompting. Whenever father had a stubborn horse that didn't take to being saddled, instead of beating it to make it comply, he'd get Aki on it and let him ride it until it stopped throwing him, no matter how many times he got bucked off. Even dirty and bruised, when it would finally give in and let him stay on, he'd give the horse an oat cake, carrots, or an apple as a reward." Asami arched a brow at the boy in impressed surprise. "Also, My Prince, with respect, when you offered Aki-nee, a squad leader of archers, a magic bow that never missed its target, that was basically the same as saying his shooting was for shit." Suoh and Asami both tried not to grin at the language, even as Tristan worriedly plucked at his arm. Kou explained: "Aki-nee's never liked getting gifts, even from father and mother, me, or Takato. He's extremely modest, and always felt he needed to prove his worth by looking out for us." He shrugged, which both men found charming in so serious a youth. "That's all, m'lords."

"I see." Asami nodded. "Thank you for the insights, little one. You and Tristan may continue with the chores Kei gave you earlier, and then pack up you and your brother's tent and goods. We'll be leaving soon." The boys bowed and departed, the older no doubt chastising Kou for talking out of turn as the camp continued to be dismantled around them. Asami smiled to himself: it would seem there was more to the brothers than he had originally thought.

Kirishima finally puffed out some air and observed "I can see we'll never have to worm out of either Takaba what's really bothering them..." Suoh clapped a hand on the serious one's shoulder and chuckled as the prince was lost in his own thoughts. Asami had once again been set back on his heels, being far more used to people bending over... backwards... to get his regard and gifts from him, not trying to discourage his attention. He thought that perhaps, the next town they came to, he should find a way to get Akihito some money to buy his brother and himself whatever items they wanted on his own, and see how that worked out instead.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Akihito had retrieved his bow and quiver of arrows, then headed out to the familiar pond, possibly for the last time. Neither turning left nor right, or stopping to decide which path to take, his feet chose at random and went down one of the many game trials that split up on the far side of the trees past the water. So much had happened here and taken place around the area: so many tales of harassment and abuse before he came to the camp and made the ragtag band of youths a unit that watched out for each other, so many trials and tribulations to prove what his team was capable of while trying to provide the basics for them all... So much pain and hardship, yet so many good times, too. He didn't know how he felt about leaving here to move on with the Prince's forces. He was so wrapped up in his own thoughts and feelings that he didn't know which all trails he took until he finally noticed that the light was, in fact, getting dimmer with the day instead of getting brighter. Looking around himself, he realized that he must have wandered far afield in his daze of thoughts as he had only ever been as far away from the camp as the ruined stone mill with the silted in canal, and that was almost two hours of walking from the camp...! Shit, how long had he been out here?! Was the army still being torn down, or had they started to head out already. Fuck, Kou...! The blonde sighed, disheartened. Some "nee-chan" he was.

Aki wiped the sweat off his brow as he looked about to see what his situation actually was. The dark grey surroundings from where he stood to the not-so-distant shadows of massive trees trunks and dank green water pools here and yon gave him the impression that the fields and light brush where he was used to hunting was not anywhere near where he was now. Hidden insects buzzed loudly out of sight as dragonflies the size of sparrows (or possibly actual baby dragons!) flew heavily in the moist heat under the canopy hiding the sky. Aki was about to turn right around and head back the way he came, pretty sure he could at least trace his own tracks back to familiar territory, when he heard a wet snort and a splashing close by. Closing his eyes, vaguely fearing what he thought he'd just heard, he stood still several heartbeats to see if the sounds repeated; if not, he was gone.

Unfortunately, it did. Something big was in the water, probably deeper than it had intended to go in this terrain, and was likely in trouble. The former squad commander wished he could pretend he hadn't heard anything and just go, but he knew his conscience would bother him long afterwards if he did that. Really, as if being such a "nice young man" had ever worked out for him, anyway.

Now, It had known the boy was coming from a ways off, just like the others of its kind gathered in this swampland. They were all adolescents, too old to stay with their mothers anymore, too young to find their own territories, clustered together until they were ready to begin their lives of solitude. They all knew the young human was there, and some, feeling either bored or perhaps a bit peckish, had thought to have some amusement at the blonde's expense, and made splashing noises to see if he would come further into their home. If the boy wasn't at least be a bit of entertainment for a while, then one or more of them would simply do what their kind had done with the lost for centuries; that was, after all, what they were made for.

Aki noticed deeper pools in among the boggy edges and sick green reed beds, and saw some dark, indistinct shapes sweeping in and out of the shadows lurking about the bottom. Assuming they were large fish, like the catfish that fed among the silt and weeds in the ponds of his old home, he paid them no mind, concentrating on finding safe passage through the treacherous footing. Seeing what he thought were the two white halves of a clam shell lying a little ways apart, broken open by something wanting the meat inside, he dismissed them from his mind, not noticing the others that were littered around in the mud; if he'd have lingered a moment more, he might have seen that instead of shells, they were really white, dead eyes that occasionally blinked as they followed he passage.

One of the creatures had Its interest piqued by something about this youth, whether it was his risking life and limb because something seemed to be in trouble, or he simply was intriguing, It shadowed his movements from behind a patch of weeds, over to a floating mat of last Fall's dead leaves, then moving in closer still to peer out at the blonde from under the cover of some lily pads. At some point, It finally surfaced, just allowing the broad diamond of the very top of Its head to surface, hidden within a hollow floating log, all the better to get a clearer sniff of its target. Based on what It learned from this experiment, It sank down below the water once more, trying to determine whether It wanted to eat the boy, or choose him as a companion instead. Humans could be very bright and entertaining, easily trained, or so It had heard from its elders, and if one was chosen carefully, they could be endlessly amusing to tease and play tricks on.

When another of its kind sought to stalk closer to the boy, It laid its ears back against its neck and bared its fearsome, toothy maw and snapped at the interloper. With a toss of its head and a swirl of weed-infested tail, the other gave way and moved off. By this point, It realized it had made its decision, and moved to position itself to intercept the boy cautiously heading that way.

Aki finally spied the oddest looking thing in this strangest of places: a horse, stuck deep in a pool, with just the very flat of its face and a patch of the top of its rump visible above the surface, like an alligator floating below the water, but instead of being wary, scared, or even of running away to save his own fool self - after all, it was a creepy looking beast in a horrible, dangerous place - Aki carefully approached, then slowly crouched down on a somewhat solid piece of "ground" to stroke what he could of its head in a soothing manner. Aki was, if nothing else, brave and kind, and he used his patient, calm voice to try to rescue the "horse" after it had quieted down. The creature could feel the timbre of this youth's inner strength and spirit, and it felt like this was someone worthy of being a companion of its own. Intuitively, It knew that Aki really meant to try and rescue what he thought was a poor, dumb animal without wanting anything back in exchange; he had no agenda, he just wanted to calm the poor scared "horse" to help it out of its situation. ...And It could respect that.

After a bit of pretending to shift itself from side to side and toss its head about, snorting out water when its head "accidently" went under and spraying the boy, It was shocked when the blonde shed his clothes and weapons and slipped into the water, diving under to see if the legs were trapped in something, or not. Seeing the legs were free and barely touching the mud, Aki then swam around, letting the animal know he was still near by his voice, as he searched for a shallower, firmer place for the "horse" to use to get itself out. Just as the water was starting to sap the warmth from his body, the archer found a good spot not too far away that would allow the animal to pull itself up and out of its trap. Now, to coax it over here...

Akihito turned about in the water and almost screamed, finding himself nose to nose with the one he was trying to save; the "horse" had paddled over to spy on what he was up to, and seeing that the boy had found a way out of the water for It, let itself be cajoled, urged and pushed a few times it accidentally (on purpose) went astray, It finally heaved itself out of the water onto dry land. Aki cheered, then quickly got out too and stood clutching himself, then crouched down once more to try and warm himself up as he looked the animal over. Dripping wet with weeds in its mane and tail, the horse looked like it was tired, head and neck down with ears flopped loosely and standing on trembling legs (not from overworked muscles and nerves, as Aki thought, but because it was upright and out of the water for the first time in its life). Its colouring was like a white horse that had splashed through puddles of red clay and gotten some patches stuck on itself; not one for the wealthy's solid colouring fashion trends nor the commoners' superstitions about a horse's coat colour being linked to its temperament, Aki thought these unusual "paint" markings were quite distinguished and was taken with them and the animal that bore them together. Now, to dress and see if this fellow had ever had a rider before, once its shaking had stilled...

It didn't take very long for the beast to get used to "land legs" and carrying its full weight around on dry ground. After the boy had dressed, retrieved his weapons and started out of the swamp, it followed him, curious to see where he was headed. Soon, boy and beast were walking along side by side, then with an arm slung over its back companionably, then trotting out of the olive gloom into the sunlight with the on board. It picked up speed in the direction the lad's legs were pointing it. Soon, the exhilaration of galloping through the grass with the wind tossing its mane and tail about made it/him want go faster and faster as the laughing youth laying against his/its neck urged him to.

When they came by a creek, the blonds asked him to slow down and stop finally, then slid off his back and patted his shoulder then neck as he lead the horse to the water. Thinking that the human likely offered him to drink, the horse lowered his mouth and nose to the water, inhaling some into its nose and mouth to relieve the unusual dryness there within. His human sat down aside him, weapon at hand, thinking to give the horse a break before continuing on their way, when a young deer stepped out of the grass further up from them, aware of the lone horse rather than the hidden archer beside him...

As it turned out, once out of the swamp and back across the woodlands into familiar territory, the day hadn't even approached midmorning yet, and on the back of his swift ride, Aki was still able to spend a bit of time taking a buck, which his mount had sniffed and licked the fresh blood of (odd, that) before allowing it to be put onto its back in front of the where the boy would be seated there. Even so, the bulk of the armed forces had already departed, and only the Prince's men, the Prince himself and Lord Suoh were still there, packed up and ready to head out. Unbeknown to the blonde, Lord Kirishima had been sent ahead with Kou and the main body of men earlier, when Asami had sensed his new knave was in mortal danger. Preparing to take some of his men that had volunteered to accompany him, most having witnessed yesterday's wild dash across the battlefield and the capture of the enemy by the archer leader, they heard shouts of welcome and congratulations from their brothers in arms and watched the Prince's boy arrive back in camp with venison astride a singular horse.

Fluctuating between relief that his mounted archer squad leader was safe, and the desire to punish his boy in some way for making him worry so, he stopped dead in his tracks as he caught sight of Akihito's new steed. That a kelpie might change its appearance at will to mislead unwary humans and lure them to their doom wasn't anything new, but Asami, as Warlock, could see right through any magic glamour to see what it really looked like and what it actually was, and upon seeing his knave arrive, several worrying hours late, on the back of such a fiend, he forgot himself and demanded not in a worried ttone "Where have you been?!", but roared "Takaba Akihito, what in the Five Hells have you brought amongst my men!!"

Aki, of course, being rather pleased with how things had turned out this day, all in all, when greeted with that kind of attitude, felt himself get a bit prickly once more with his self-appointed "master". "What; it's a horse. Are you having problems with your sight, Sir, or perhaps you're tired, cranky and in need of a nap, as one tends to with age...?" Not finding any amusement that his snark usually seemed to provoke in the man, the blonde rethought his approach and regrouped. "Look, Sir. It's a good, sturdy young colt, of age and temperament to start training properly. After I found it in a spot of trouble, I helped it out, and it followed me after that. I wouldn't have been able to carry this venison back here by myself, and this boy's swiftness and stamina got us back here in good time to leave with you, when walking back otherwise would never have. So, my lord Prince, Sir, please: can I keep him?"

And, of course, seeing that wide-eyed, earnest, hopeful look on the lad's face, that most fearsome warlord, the Warlock General, Prince of Sion, Heir to the Throne and ruthless leader of his own army of men, did what any other in his position would have done for their boy in that situation. Despite knowing better, he buckled; and with a mutter of disgust at himself, the mighty Asami turned and stalked off, and Akihito had himself a mount. Suoh, looking the horse over, approved of it, even if its coat made it stick out like a sore thumb, and walked over to the blonde lad he was forming a soft spot for as he dismounted then put an arm up under the horse's cheek and around the back of the ears to lead it away after handing off the deer carcass. "He was worried for you, you know." Solemn hazel eyes turned to him as he spoke, attentive without saying a word. "He sent your brother on ahead with Kirishima and the army, and was readying to go after you alone when he sensed you were in danger. If we had arrived too late to help you, he would have been beside himself with regret and rage." Aki stood a moment without comment, then gravely nodded to the bigger man as he turned his horse away to find some rope to use as a halter and lead before they all departed his first home away from home.

Later on that night, after keeping the odd pair in sight all day, Asami and the kelpie had a little heart-to-heart chat under the cover of darkness, when the early day's start and travel had tired the men, and almost all had sought an early bed. It felt the Warlock's power coming from a long ways off, and was waiting for him, ears back, head up, teeth and hooves at the ready, at the end of the tether that his boy had put him on. The Prince approached the beast, a fist sized fireball floating before and behind him as he walked, both coming to rest between it and him when he stopped. "We know what the other is. If you so much as snort the wrong way at my men, drown and devour any of the horses or oxen, or anything at all happens to Akihito or his brother Kou because of you, I'll steam you alive like a lobster until you're boiled inside your own hide. Do we have an understanding between us?”, he growled, as the twin fireballs became one and roared into blazing life. The kelpie's white, pupil-less eyes watched it for a moment or so, then stamped the ground with a foreleg, causing a spray of water to spring up into the air and dowse the flames. Asami and beast eyed each other, until at last, a hand was held out, palm up, and a damp, whiskered nose was extended to rest on it. Asami looked into those bottomless dead eyes and murmured "A truce then, for him; well met." The kelpie snorted back softly in agreement.