coley_merrin: (Birds B&W)
[personal profile] coley_merrin
Title: The Thirteen Armies
Pairing: Zhou Mi/Kyuhyun
Rating: R
Genre: AU, war, time travel, pseudo-historical
Warning: war, background character death, injuries, wounds, brief torture

Summary: A single vacation takes Kyuhyun further than he could have ever known.



Note: Not intended in the very slightest to be true to any form of history. Just so no one goes out to try and find out what really happened.

***

* Part One * Part Two * Part Three * Part Four * Part Five *

***

For Kyuhyun, it was relaxing to travel alone. There were no opinions to wrangle, no one to bargain with. With one or two friends was okay, with a group it was continuous juggling. Kyuhyun picked the destination, the dates. He chose when his flight was, how much luggage he was taking, and he left. That was all. The only biggest hurdle was getting time off from work, but he’d had that arranged in advance. Stepping out of his hotel was the biggest pleasure, because the hard part was done. The traveling, the checking in, all of that was accomplished and all he had to do was enjoy. He had a restaurant on his list that he wanted to eat at that night, and a walking map so that he knock out a few of the closer items on his list for the afternoon.

The first was a place he had been to as a child with his parents. A shrine. He remembered the tightness of his father’s hand, the noise of the intersection. He’d been young, four or five, as his father had told him a watered down version of the tale. Once, there had been a battle of thirteen armies. It had lasted years, half a dozen at least, and some had fought and won, and others had lost. When the last army had been defeated, many men were dead, and the shrine had been built in their memory.

“Razed, and burned several times over the centuries, the shrine has always been rebuilt on the same foundation, to honor those lives lost for the safety of the people,” Kyuhyun read from the walking guide.

Of course, what might have been a rather lovely building in its time was instead a squat, square little stone building. Instead of standing with some ceremony, it was squeezed between everything else in the city, and lit occasionally by a blinking “Walk” sign. It stood out because of how much smaller it was than all the buildings around it, how plain and old it was with its little historical marker. It sat on a brick foundation, with the original brick still on the inside, protected by clear plastic. They were rough and eroded-looking next to the pristine concrete floor. Eventually they would give way, too. Kyuhyun actually felt sad for them, for how long they’d worked to keep the shrine standing.

It was empty, when he entered it. There was room for two, maybe three people inside, and there were informational graphics on the walls about the battles, the history of the place. It was hard to imagine that under their feet were the remnants of armies lost, life going on above without hardly noticing what had happened years before.

Above the altar, there was the text of a poem in several languages, from one of the few records of the battles written down that had survived the centuries.

“The ground is red,
The sky is red,
The men are weeping,
The sky will weep with us soon.”

It sent an uncomfortable tingle over his scalp to read it, words he’d read a dozen times or more in the collected works of the poet, a solider who had been there during the fighting.

“The record of a soldier,” Kyuhyun murmured, and his fingertip dipped into the first character of the poet’s name where it had been smoothed deep into the wood, and then the second.

Zhou. Mi.

Kyuhyun blinked at the light that glowed there deep in the grooves, looking back at the ugly plastic shielding that kept the weather out of the shrine to see if a light had shown in from outside. But no, the character was still illuminated, bleeding from line to curve, as though painted with a brush to the last stroke of the carved name.

Kyuhyun gasped, snatching back his finger as heat snapped against it, like the light he saw was hot. It had to be an illusion, a trick of light. He actually looked up, tried to find a hole in the ceiling.

A trick for tourists. It had to be.

Kyuhyun recoiled at a gust of wind, choked at the dust he half inhaled. He reached for the altar to steady himself, the wall, his ears as hollow as a drum as he heard every breath. His hands plunged into dry grass, his knees stinging as he landed hard. An earthquake. No. He swallowed back the queasy feeling, his finger burned, head spinning, and he gasped, opening his eyes to a mass of men dimly lit around him. Someone leaped over him, kicking him as they ran, and he fell over, grunting, his elbows, ribs aching. Static in his ears was replaced by the sounds of shouting. Metal on metal. People were running. Fighting. A battle. A battle?

Kyuhyun rolled again, bringing his hands up to protect himself as a man fell over his legs, and a sound left him seeing the blankness on the man’s face. Like he was—

The shrine was gone. The city was gone! He crawled without looking back, swords clanging. He wanted to scramble forward, away, but he froze, air backing in his lungs as the ground under him trembled and not a foot away a horse thundered by, hooves striking hard, throwing dirt back in its path. That was when he escaped, on his knees, stumbling to his feet and staying low. He tried to push at a hand that grabbed his coat, coming up short and off balance.

“No!” he shouted, raising his hands again against the club that threatened. But Kyuhyun fell to his knees again as the hand holding him released. Kyuhyun looked up, and saw why, saw the sword piercing the man’s throat. Kyuhyun panted, eyes on the withdrawing bloody sword as the man fell. The man with the sword said something short and rapid to him, grabbing him by the arm and dragging him to his feet and away. He was shoved at the base of a tree, and more was said, an order he took to mean to stay there.

His savior raced back toward the fighting, the red cloth at his hips like a flag as he directed men, killing another as Kyuhyun winced and tried to look away. It left Kyuhyun to shake, to gather in on himself as his skin slicked cool and damp. He searched for a weapon and found only sticks, but those would not protect him as he watched men fall, green armor, brown, riveted and dark. He gasped, flinching as limbs were struck, rent away, men on both sides falling. He’d lost sight of the man who’d helped him, and Kyuhyun’s clutched the bark of the tree, watching for someone to appear attacking him, curling into a tighter ball as another horse thundered nearby. It was a fucking battle, not some kind of play acting. Maybe he’d hit his head in the shrine. Maybe that was it. It was a dream. Maybe.

It was a shake in the small of his back as he pressed his face to the tree, and stared at his hand, at the smear, the droplets. He was dirty. He’d fallen. No. No, that was blood. The man who’d been attacking him. He scrubbed at blood with a leaf, winced at the tenderness of his finger where he’d burned it in the shrine. The leaf fell, shredded, dirty, and Kyuhyun looked up again. He didn’t want to watch, and yet he couldn’t look away as he tried to keep his heart from beating out of his chest.

Surely it was a dream. Five minutes. Ten. Twenty. Fighting slowed, whoever the opponents had been, falling away. He hadn’t just appeared on some movie set. His eyes closed hard for a moment as he saw again the man’s throat being pierced by a sword. He hadn’t heard the man die over the sound of fighting, but his brain filled it in for him. The gurgles. The glug of blood. Savage, and so quick. So quick, or Kyuhyun would have been concussed, or dead altogether. He blew out a breath, and looked around himself again. Trees. Light beyond it. He didn’t know who they were or why they fought, or what they would do to him. But to escape meant running. Running meant standing, and Kyuhyun used the tree, feeling weak as a newborn as he stood and hugged it. He felt cold. So cold. The shouts had slowed, and he watched men combing through the fallen, searching for those who lived.

There were few. He imagined once a man hit the earth, that was the end for most. It was— It wasn’t a game. Kyuhyun could see more beyond, the woods lightening even further. Day was breaking, he realized, but seeing more didn’t mean he wanted to. He licked his lips, recognizing his savior only by the red cloth dangling at his hip. He was alive, helping to lift a man injured onto some kind of litter.

When he looked to Kyuhyun, he fought not to cringe but failed, his legs tingling as he tried to step back, wanting to run as he was approached. Words were barked at him, and he shook his head.

“I don’t know. I’m sorry! I don’t know what you’re saying. Please— Please don’t—!”

Don’t kill him. Kyuhyun was dragged, stumbling. If he hadn’t been so weak, maybe he would have fought, or tried to run, but the man still held his sword. It was still streaked with blood. He’d have been cut down in a second, he realized, his jaw chattering. There was a stench of blood, of urine, and worse as they passed bodies and the dying, and Kyuhyun fought the urge to gag. Men alive, sobbing. His eyes fell on a man whose arm was being bound, his hand— His hand was gone. Kyuhyun kept his eyes high, gasping for air, for sanity. He had played so many games. It had been so sterile, so detached. He was wheezing by the time he was stopped beside a horse, and they all but lifted him onto it. A different man swung onto the horse behind him, and he was taken away from the bodies, the dead, and scattered limbs. The horse’s coarse mane was all he could hold onto as they followed the limping, the soldiers streaming from the battlefield.

Kyuhyun winced at the light as they rode out into the open. The sun should have warmed him, but his heart stuttered in disbelief. His lips moved, playing the poem from the shrine again in his head as he sagged back against the man behind him and stared to the horizon. It wasn’t possible. The ground was red with blood. The men were weeping. The sun was rising, and the sky above it was brilliant, bloody red heralding the coming rain.

***

The War

***

There was no time to deal with strangers, not when there were men bleeding and in need of leadership. After a battle, there had to be order, preparation, something to keep them together or else they had dealt themselves a blow. Zhou Mi’s father had taught him that, before succumbing to wounds in battle himself. There were part of three camps returning, and one of his right hand men was overseeing the living, getting the injured to tents, organizing what to do with the dead. It had been—

There was no battle that ended well enough. The men had fought well, and repelled what could have been a break into their lines. A dawn raid, like a finger probing a wound. They’d snapped at the finger, and it told their opponents something as well. They would either try it again very soon to search for complacency, or wait for some time for the same reason. They would have to be prepared for both instances.

His only instruction for the stranger had been to take him to a fire, before Zhou Mi had returned to see to his men. It had been for a reason, because the boy had been pale and shaking though the morning had not been cold. No matter the times he’d turned over the stranger’s appearance in his head, he couldn’t place it. There had been a flash, like a candle appearing in a dark room, and then a boy falling to the earth. Zhou Mi nearly had a hole in himself to show for it, how he had gawked at the bright blue cloth and the boy flopped like a fish on a bank in the middle of their fight. When he made his way to his own side of camp, he saw his recollection was not incorrect. Zhou Mi had thought him a boy, but though he was young, he was grown. The man was dressed as no one he had seen before, not emperor or peasant. Slick-looking blue cloth, long tapered pants, a bag set beside him. Someone had found him a cup and the man drank hot soup from it from the smell.

The eyes that rose at his approach were wary, wide, catching at the cloth on his hip with some recognition. There was fear there, as though he expected Zhou Mi to draw the sword at his hip and run him through. For all he was a man, he was not a threat, not then. But Zhou Mi stayed standing, using his height as his advantage. He needed information. He had not been able to answer before, babbling nonsense.

“What is your name?” Zhou Mi started with. When that got him no answer, just incomprehensible sounds that sounded like no language he knew, and a shaking head, he tried more. “Where is your home? How did you get here? Do you have a horse?”

The denials grew more demonstrative, the man’s head shaking, cutting motions with his hands. He knew he was being asked questions, but either knew nothing, or doing a good job pretending.

“You are a stranger to us. Where did you come from?”

The man blinked at him, and something seemed to dawn over his face.

“You are… You are? I am! I am Kyuhyun. Uh. I— I am Kuixian.”

Such hope, looking to him like he expected to be understood. He did know something. Zhou Mi nodded at him.

“And? Where do you come from? How did you arrive on that battlefield?”

This man, this Kuixian, shook his head again, not understanding. Then his words were limited. From nowhere nearby, and not from one of the armies unless he played ignorant to find a place to spy from.

“I would turn you into the forest, but I can’t take that risk, so you will be in our care,” Zhou Mi said, not caring if he was understood or not. Maybe the tone of his voice would be understood. “Give me your bag.”

Zhou Mi gestured, and the bag was pulled in.

“No, give it to me,” Zhou Mi commanded.

If it wouldn’t be given, he would take it. Zhou Mi grabbed for it, getting part of the bag, part of Kuixian’s hand and it was not determination that had him yanking the bag back but the sharp spark of heat that snapped against his fingertips where their skin met. He had the bag, but he felt even more unsettled as Kuixian cradled his own hand like he had felt that same pain.

“Keep him separate from the others,” Zhou Mi said, eyeing their “guest.” In truth, their prisoner, at least as long as the war lasted. He could loose no spy. Rubbing his smarting fingers against his armor, he thought of the flash in the forest. He went one way with the bag, and Kuixian was taken away in another. There were words said after him, but not ones that Zhou Mi understood, nor anything that made him stop. He felt the first of the raindrops as he ducked into his tent. There was much to do, before the storm was on them fully, and he shed his outer leather armor, feeling lighter just from that. But the bag called for him, and he rummaged, curious as he waited for the signal he was needed.

Men in strange clothing, carrying strange items, no, they did not just appear. Zhou Mi rooted through the bag the man had been carrying, the strange slick cloth of it, and found little of note. A clear vessel of some kind containing what looked like water, several packets that crinkled and that when sliced open seemed to contain food of some type. A small, flat, rectangular box that looked as though it was made of obsidian. A fold of leather that enclosed stiff rectangles and colorful pieces of paper. A sleek book of words and paintings. There were no weapons, not hidden on the man’s body or otherwise according to those who had searched him. Strange clothes. Not a soldier, nor a peasant.

A man of some foreign land, or magic. Though his magic could not be so strong for all that he fallen into the middle of a battle. Unless he had been sent by the others. A saboteur.

They would see.

***

The rain was falling by the time that Kyuhyun was pushed into his prison. It was as half as tall as he was high, some kind of cloth tied over tightly lashed wood, forming a cell that was rooted firmly in the ground. He got a bowl of water, like a dog, a pot to piss in, and a smelly blanket. The entrance was closed, the cloth lowered over it. He could hear outside conversations, and the sound of rain striking the cloth. It didn’t drip inside, small favors. But it was so close, it felt hard to breathe. It didn’t matter how much the blanket stank, he wrapped himself in it, huddling on the hard ground trying to make sense of things. He was a bird in a cage, alone, in a place where all he knew was how to say his own name. And he thought, thank you and I love you, the latter of which he didn’t think was going to help him.

The shelter, the soup, it had helped him feel like he wasn’t going to just claw his way out of his skin or fall unconscious. He was grateful for that, and that he hadn’t just been staked out in the rain somewhere to molder. The leader, the man with the red sash, he’d seen to that. People didn’t just lock up people who they thought were friendly. It meant that they thought he was a threat. Considering he’d fallen into the middle of a fight, he didn’t know what he’d have thought himself. He’d had no weapons, so at least they had no reason to fear him for that. And unless he could strangle someone with a blanket, that hadn’t changed.

It took hours to unwind enough to truly doze, jerking awake every so often at the sound of approaching steps, of words he couldn’t understand. No one ever stopped, and Kyuhyun stared blearily at the rivulet of water than ran across the bottom of a corner of his shelter. No. His cell. It continued through the night, the rain, jolting, cold and afraid as men walked with torches, patrolling. He was glanced in on, once, but he pretended to be asleep, curling up tight under his blanket to try and get warm.

Food was tossed in on his blanket sometime after the sun rose, some kind of cold roasted vegetables wrapped in what seemed like lettuce. His lack of sleep, the fear, it made him feel almost sick to think of eating, but he forced himself to. One bite, he bargained with himself. One more bite. He made it through half of it, the lettuce stringy and tough as he chewed, almost choking him. But still, he kept what was left close, as though they could take it from him. Even just that, and a few sips from his water bowl exhausted him, his eyelids drooping as his ears strained for the sound of men talking. Sleep fell on him violently, but his waking, his startling, was gentler. They brought him more soup toward noon, and filled his water bowl as he wrapped himself in his blanket and watched them like a wary cat in a cage.

The soup, that he ate and quickly, gulping it, reveling in the warmth of it until he had to force himself to slow. He gnawed meat off of the bone, not caring what animal it had originated from. He was not overly full, but he was warm, and not sick, and not shaking.

He slipped into shallow sleep, breathing in the scent of rain, and exhaling imagining fire, and warmth.

***

Zhou Mi sighed, his eyes heavy as he lifted his head from the low table. The sun after the storm had brightened the tent considerably and he peered to see he was not alone.

The prisoner.

Zhou Mi inhaled, fingers gripped on the hilt of his sword. But he did not draw it, watching the man peer at the walls, at Zhou Mi’s desk, with curiosity.

“It doesn’t seem like such a fancy tent,” Kuixian said, touching the fabric and one of the maps he had hung there. “I thought only rich men were officers, and you seemed to be leading. I thought it was going to be some kind of palace.”

Zhou Mi tensed as Kuixian stepped forward, but all he did was press his fingertips to the table. It rocked a little on the uneven stones that it rested on.

“I wish I could read the maps,” Kuixian said, kneeling down and peering at the various scrolls on the desk. “If this really is the period of the Battles, this stuff would be worth a fortu—“

Zhou Mi’s free hand shot out, trapping Kuixian’s hand before he could touch one of the folded papers.

“How did you get in here?” Zhou Mi barked. It got him a startled look, but it relaxed from Kuixian’s face too quickly.

“Oh. I don’t know. I guess it’s more interesting that my prison. You’d probably cut me up for dinner if I escaped and snuck in.”

What nonsense was he talking about? It was daylight. The guards had failed, or maybe been enchanted. They certainly had not brought Kuixian there on any orders.

“You must go back,” Zhou Mi said, but he was still, as Kuixian looked to his arm, looked all around him as though fascinated.

“I think I know when this is, but… Which camp’s army is this?”

He did not even know that. Zhou Mi huffed out a breath. “We fight to defend the East from invasion. But there are those even there who fight against us.”

“The Eastern army. There were thirteen?” Kuixian asked, and Zhou Mi’s nod was guarded. “And you are a general?”

“As was my father. All the Zhou men have gone to war.”

It was pride to say it, and it felt like a lull, the sun creating shadows, the cool of the wood as he pulled back his hand that had pinned Kuixian’s.

“Zhou,” Kuixian said, and his eyes widened. “Zhou…Mi?”

The question was on Zhou Mi’s lips to ask why the name surprised him, how Kuixian knew his name, but he started at the sound of feet on stone, and Zhou Mi’s eyes opened, the wood of the table hard against his cheekbone.

He’d been asleep. His head rose, taking in the whole of the tent. There was no man seated across from him, and the sun that had been bright had dimmed. Nothing was out of place, though his fingers were curled on his sword hilt. A dream. A dream of such reality, but just that. Kuixian could not have escaped his guard, not to wander in. And definitely not to speak as he had, when he could not put more than two words together.

The tension in Zhou Mi relaxed, though that did not mean he did not walk out to be sure the prisoner was still secure. The cage was small, and he did not see Kuixian’s face but assured himself that he was there.

“Let the prisoner out once daily if there is enough guard,” Zhou Mi ordered. “A few minutes to stretch and move, and to clean is enough.”

“Yes, General.”

It was not good to be too confined. He was still curious about the man. But there would be time after, when there was not a war to be won.

***

If there weren’t words Kyuhyun could understand, there were at least gestures. When the side of his cage was pulled open, Kyuhyun felt like a dog cowering away from a kick. The cage, in it’s horrifying way, was safety. He couldn’t get out, but no one also went in. In the middle of a war, he was a stranger, maybe even a threat. He’d already considered the possibility of torture, or maybe even death. But the man who opened his cage was not taking no for an answer, barking out an order and pointing in clear expectation that Kyuhyun exit immediately. But when he did that, standing with the help of the cage wall, he was ordered right back to pick up his toilet pot. Ah. Leaving had a function, then.

It made it a little easier to move, flexing his joints as he was led. The man had a sword, and Kyuhyun had a pot of piss, so it wasn’t like he had the upper hand. There wasn’t any question where he was being taken, because the smell from the hole almost made him want to pass out. It was easy enough to dispose of the contents into it, and his eyes were streaming as he was marched to the stream. He breathed through his mouth for a few moments as he crouched by the water. It looked clean at least, as wide as he was tall where he was anyway. He scooped up just enough water to rinse the pot out, tossing the water beside but not in the stream so it would at least have a chance to filter down through the soil. He was lucky he wasn’t in endless bouts of diarrhea already and hoped there wasn’t much upstream from him.

He had a brief hope that they got their water from a well. What a luxury to worry about that.

But he rinsed off his hands as best he could, washing his face, running his hands through his hair. His thighs ached, his shoulders. His whole body ached if he was honest, but he was alive. He grabbed a handful of leaves when his guard started talking and pointing back the way they had come. Kyuhyun picked up the pot with the leaves, his makeshift toilet paper, and kept his eyes to the ground. He didn’t want to look around too much. Be too curious.

But he was shuffled right back to hunch down in his cage and be shut back up. At least he could sit up in it. But he felt exhausted from just a few minutes of walking. At least it gave him something to focus on, patching together a mental map from his brief tour. He wrapped his blanket around him like a cape, tracing his path on the grass beneath him.

Sometimes his head lifted, thinking he heard the voice of the general, the one who’d saved him. Maybe that was what he should’ve been afraid of, that he’d changed his mind. It felt ungrateful to think he didn’t really feel saved. It didn’t keep him from worrying about what was next.

General. Zhou. It set off some vague recollection, filtered through conscious, wakefulness, and it would have sent him to his feet had he not been confined. He struggled to remember all of the council, but he could not remember another Zhou. Just Zhou Mi, the chronicler, the one who had written all of the poems including the one on the back of the shrine. Zhou Mi, a general of the Eastern army, an army that had absorbed several of the other twelve armies and fought to keep the invaders from the north and the west away. He’d arrived to a red sunrise, one like Zhou Mi had written about. The man he had seen was marching into battle.

Kyuhyun’s sound was frustration as he stilled himself, tried to relax his aching shoulders and to think. He didn’t remember all of the battles of the war. He’d been interested in it, interested in the strategy, but he’d mainly learned what he had to for exams and forgotten it over the years. He’d had to read “The Battle of Thirteen Armies” several times though, in fifth grade, in ninth. They’d learned what information there was on Zhou Mi’s life, about the poems he wrote, the battles the poems depicted, and the lonely life of a soldier. Why hadn’t he paid more attention?

There were mountains in the distance, ones he’d flown past a day or two before. He closed his eyes, and remembered when he’d been stumbling, or on the horse. Between where he could see and there, there was nothing, only hills. No smog, no high rises. Between being in the shrine, and arriving near the soldiers, he remembered no gaps. He hadn’t been drugged, or transported. He wasn’t on some sound stage. Kyuhyun heard the distant groans of men in pain, had seen soldiers milling, preparing. He didn’t want to believe it, but then again, he had found no other possible explanation.

If it was Zhou Mi, if he was to be interrogated again, he didn’t know how to make the general of an army who had fought years of battles to believe that Kyuhyun was not an enemy, but was from hundreds of years in the future.

***
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