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A Higher Form of War

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The sun hung bright and low in the sky, glaring in his eyes as he squinted at the horizon, dotted with jagged, rocky mountains. The heat was incredible out here, pushing down like a physical force, as if he was closer to it somehow. Time for the show to start, he thought dully.  He turned with a flourish, facing his generals and soldiers as they dotted the landscape behind him.  He had arranged for this little demonstration in one of the most remote spots in the kingdom, all the better to go unnoticed by Pierce’s forces.  Out here, in the barren, dry lands, with just a handful of his most loyal commanders, he could finally show them what he had cooked up in his workshop.  While it probably wouldn’t be enough to end the conflict once and for all, it would certainly go a long way towards putting Pierce’s forces on their heels.  Not to mention make the city virtually impenetrable. 

“Is it better to be feared or respected,” he asked rhetorically as everyone wisely stayed silent. “I say, is it too much to ask for both? With that in mind, I present what I like to think of as the crown jewel.  Certainly cost that much,” he huffed out as General Ross stared on placidly.  He knew Ross thought he was a bloviating weakling, a pale husk living in his father’s ever-diminishing shadow, but he thought Ross was an arrogant asshole, and he wore the crown, so he was pretty certain he was going to win that argument.  “They say the best weapon is one you never have to use.  I respectfully disagree.  I prefer the weapon you only have to use once.  That’s how my father did it. That’s how the Starks have always done it.  And it’s worked out pretty well so far,” he offered, as the soldiers blinked back at him.  Eh, speeches weren’t really his thing, but they were expected, after all.  “Find a reason to use one of these, and I guarantee you, the bad guys won’t even want to come out of their tents.” 

With that, he raised his arms wide in signal. A moment later, the soldiers released the trebuchets, their baskets filled with earthenware projectiles chocked full of that wonderful mixture of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal, all brilliantly aglow as they sailed across the hard desert sand.  Smaller clay cylinders mounted on stands and propelled by slow-burning wicks soon joined the carnage, spraying rocks and sand, digging huge holes into formerly sturdy and seemingly impenetrable mountainsides.  His new designs for the trebuchets and catapults were far more accurate and offered greater distance.

He couldn’t decide if the huge explosion was more fun or if he preferred Ross’s startled, high-pitched yelp as he peddled backwards and fell down rather spectacularly on his ass as one of the shells exploded rather near him.  Completely by accident, of course.  Once the clamor died down, he walked over to the covered tent where an attendant handed him a drink.  Thank the nonexistent, but still useful, gods. 

“To peace,” he said, lifting the cup to his lips and sipping the chilled wine. “Jarvis, send a runner with a message to Obie, and let him know the test was the success that I assured him it would be.”

“Of course, Your Grace. Will there be anything else?”  Jarvis asked.

“Just ready to get back home,” Tony replied, shucking his velvet doublet, embroidered in lines of Stark red and gold, off as he sat on the cushioned seat. He spared a glance at the handful of commanders who were cautiously examining the nearby cache of grenades and smirked, pleased with the day’s exhibition.   “I’ll throw in a casket of wine with all the shipments,” Tony offered to the obvious delight of the soldiers.  A little largesse with the men went a long way, he supposed.  He knew well enough that one of the problems Ross and others laid at his feet were the issues with the troops, too few of whom had answered the call when the banners were raised, too many of whom had shown up wearing Pierce’s own shield sigil and hoisting his flags across the battlefield.  He wisely left the inspiring speeches to Obie, far preferring his workshop with its chemical compounds, forge and tools.  Ross could hardly argue with the results of his efforts, though, considering the ruins still smoking outside. 

“I shall have the carriages prepared for departure, Your Grace,” Jarvis said with a bow as he left the tent.

“That was impressive,” Rhodey said as he knelt, rather half-heartedly, Tony thought.

“Of course it was. After all, I did it,” Tony said with a fond smile.  Rhodey managed to be one of his few commanders to actually seem to genuinely like him, rather than fighting for the Crown itself.  “To be fair, Ross and his sycophantic bunch would act impressed if I stood out there and took a shit.  Now get up. I hate it when you do that.”

Rhodey rose to his feet and returned Tony’s grin. “True, they’d probably clap politely,” Rhodey agreed, earning a grin from Tony.  “But still, quite the demonstration.  Can’t wait to see that at work out in the field.  We could certainly use some advantage, given our numbers.”

“Are we still having issues there? I sent extra supplies, not to mention enough of that shit mead Ross likes so much to drown half the army,” Tony groused. 

“We’ve had some desertions, I’m not going to lie,” Rhodey grimaced. “I’d like to think something like this will end this thing quickly, but I’ve learned not to be so optimistic,” Rhodey admitted.  “Pierce and his bunch are not what you’d call rational about this.  Somehow, I don’t think the threat of additional loss of his forces is exactly going to keep him up nights.”

“True. Doesn’t mean we can’t make them think twice about coming at us. Speaking of coming at us, any news on my least favorite annoyance?” Tony questioned, taking another drink from the attendant, who then offered one to Rhodey. 

“We’re not drinking. We’re working right now. Strategizing, remember?  I’m supposed to keep you informed and then report back to the Council that I’ve kept their king informed about the progress of his war?  Any of that sound familiar?” Rhodey admonished.  Of course, Rhodes would decline.  All responsible and crap.  Spoilsport. 

Rhodey grimaced before delivering what Tony assumed must be bad news. “We’ve had reports of them striking at a couple of our storage facilities, the armory down near the delta, two troop transports, and four bridges that we needed for the supply line, not to mention the problems with the Eastern fortifications and the reinforcements that were supposed to be coming from the southlands that ended up somehow rerouted to Gods know where, which I’m fairly sure I can blame on them as well, though damn me if I know how.  And I think they were behind the prisoner escapes three weeks ago. We lost a good number of Pierce’s forces that we could’ve traded for our own men.  Our teams have engaged them a couple of times, but…we were unsuccessful, let’s just say.  They’re good, I won’t lie.  Really good,” Rhodey informed him, the frustration evident in his voice.  “”And there’s another thing.  That’s why I came out here, to talk to Ross.  I couldn’t see it at first, but…if Pierce is planning a major assault against the city, they’ve been pretty successful at cutting off any chance a large number of our troops have of making it back quickly to the front lines, not to mention the lack of supplies making it to the city lately has left our stocks pretty low.  I don't know why Ross sent so many of our troops so far afield.  Hell, he's got May all the way down south to flank Pierce, which is fine if we're going to war, but I don't like having our troops spread out this much. And these Avengers keep attacking our convoys, destroying our bridges and keeping any messages from getting through, though I can't figure out how. Our supplies are dwindling as it is, because the Court continues to behave as if there isn't a war knocking on the castle gates. Lower than I’d like if we’re facing a possible siege, that’s for sure,” Rhodey admitted grudgingly. 

“Fantastic. I’m being outwitted by…what was that idiotic name they call themselves?” Tony asked.

“The Avengers, if you can believe it,” Rhodey responded, shaking his head in disdain. “We can’t get a good read on them, to be honest, though I’m pretty sure they’re working for Fury directly, not Pierce, though that amounts to the same thing these days.  Not even sure how many there are.  Reports from the battles say anywhere from twenty to forty of them.  One report even said one of them was a woman.  I think a couple are foreign.  Mercenaries, maybe.  We know Pierce has brought some of those in, anyway. That Batroc who hijacked part of the fleet off the Northern coast was one he hired out of the desert lands.  He’s rotting in a cell now, but it probably cost us more than he was worth to get him there.  As for these Avengers, they’re led by a Captain, but none of the prisoners we’ve questioned will say more than that, no matter what I offer them.  Damndest thing.  And since you won’t let me do more than make deals….”

“Offer them more,” Tony ordered, ignoring Rhodey’s implication. His position on the treatment of prisoners was yet another strike against him as far as most of his men were concerned, in no small part because he knew they, likely rightly, believed their own men weren’t exactly getting such consideration with Pierce.  “I want these Avengers handled.  They’ve been entirely too successful.  Not good for morale, and Ross and the council are already on my back about the issues with the troops, as if it’s my fault they don’t like me.  You like me.  What’s not to like?” Tony asked, waving off Rhodey’s raised eyebrow.  “Look,” Tony continued quieter now, “I know what they think about me.  The military.  The troops.  Too much drink, my bed’s entirely too crowded, too arrogant, think I know it all.  Not to mention that I suffer from the great failing of not being my father.  It isn’t like I haven’t heard the increasingly loud whispers, Rhodey.  I’m not like you,” Tony said, waving his hand vaguely in Rhodey’s direction. “I’m not cut out…”

“That’s not—you know how proud I am to serve under you. You know that.  When I put on my armor, head out into battle, I see every person that follows me out there.  Every one of them.  I know they will put everything on the line for me, for you, for the kingdom.  I think…I wish you had that.  People you could count on, other than me, Obie and Pepper,” Rhodey declared, entirely too solemnly for Tony.  “Your men…Their families have followed the Starks for generations.  They want to follow you now, I know they do.  You just have to give them a reason. You—You don’t have to be like me.  But…forgive me, Your Grace, but you are more than what you are. ”

“I wish that were true, but what you see is what you get, Rhodes. Sorry to disappoint,” Tony said heavily as Jarvis returned to the tent.  “Just…find this Captain and whatever of his little band of misfits you can round up.  The sooner he’s strung up in chains, the better.  The last thing I need is him killed anonymously in battle, all martyred and shit.  One thing I learned from dear old dad was that you never win fighting a symbol.  It does about as much good as fighting air.  I need this Captain of theirs for a nice, very public hanging, or I’ll end up with an enemy that won’t die no matter what we do.”

“We’ll put more men on the searches, of course. Maybe this new…” Rhodey waved his hand at the still smoldering ruins several hundred yards away, “…whatever it is will draw them out, make them make a mistake.  All I need is them to slip up once.  Everyone makes a mistake eventually,” he promised. 

“What about our maniacal friend in the mountains?” Tony asked, waving the attendant off and pouring himself another drink.

“Schmidt’s been pretty quiet, other than a few raids here and there. I think he’s waiting for you and Pierce to kill each other before he makes his move.  Or at least deplete yourselves so much that whatever is left at the end of this isn’t in any position to argue with his demands,” Rhodey warned quietly.  “He—Schmidt—I don’t know what it is about him…but he scares me more than Pierce’s whole army, to be honest,” Rhodey admitted.

“You’re not wrong,” Tony agreed. “I know Ross thinks I’m insane every time I try to tell him we need to send more spies to see what Schmidt’s up to.   Granted, every one we’ve sent so far has failed to make it back.  At least, not every piece of them,” Tony grimaced. 

“Ross thinks Schmidt can’t mount the kind of occupying force that Pierce has, so he isn’t too worried. Which, with our forces spread as thin as they are…well, I can’t disagree with that,” Rhodey responded grudgingly. 

“You worry about these ‘Avenger’ assholes. Leave Ross and Schmidt to me.   Tell you what, you bring me this Captain, and I’ll grant you a Lordship, how about?” Tony offered mildly.

“Don’t threaten me like that,” Rhodey said with a smile. “I’m a soldier.  Keep your castles and lands for your political friends.  I’d start a war out of sheer boredom.”

“Your carriage is…as you requested, Sire,” Jarvis interrupted archly from the entrance of the tent with a slight nod to Rhodey.

“Let’s get out of here then, J,” Tony said, rising from his seat and grabbing another drink as he walked toward the three carriages waiting to take him and his retinue on the long journey back to the castle. Rhodey followed behind, having picked up his helmet and sword along the way.  Someone opened the carriage door for Tony and he climbed inside, smiling at the two half-naked young women draped over a nicely built and bare-chested young man that waited for him inside. 

“Here, hold this,” he said, handing his drink to a very disapproving Rhodey.

 “Ah, come on, don’t be sour.  It would be irresponsible not to enjoy a bit of comfort on such a long journey.  Come on, get in.  There’s plenty to go around,” Tony chortled, leaning back against the padded interior of the carriage as one of the women slunk across the carriage to wind herself around his lap while the man dropped to his knees in front of Tony. 

“You are absolutely incapable of being responsible,” Rhodey said his voice full of censure that Tony decided to let slide, all things considered. Rhodey stared inside the carriage and shaking his head.  It was probably all he could do not to make clucking noises.

“Now, if you’re going to be like that…this is the fun carriage. That,” Tony pointed out the carriage door towards the other carriage parked behind it, “is the responsible carriage back there.”

“Nice,” Rhodey said with what Tony decided was a very stern frown that probably struck fear into the soldiers under Rhodey’s command, as he handed Tony back his drink and stepped back to close the carriage door. Rhodey thumped on the side to indicate to the driver it was time to go.  “See you back at the castle.”

Tony closed his eyes in the relative cool of the carriage. He let his head fall back against the cushioned interior as someone, he wasn’t sure which one of them, undid the tie to his breeches.  A moment later, a wet heat engulfed his cock, as soft hands deftly lifted his shirt to stroke up and down his chest, teasing at his nipples, and someone started licking and sucking a line across his jaw.  All in all, it was good to be King, he supposed.  The road back was worn and bumpy, not particularly well used out here where few even attempted to hash out some kind of life so far away from civilization.  He let the bump and jostle of the carriage move him, enjoying the languid thrill of someone else doing all the work as his hips swayed in sync with the carriage, his mind wandering back to the unfinished creations waiting for his attentions back in the workshop even as his hands drifted down to grip hair tighter, pulling slightly for more friction and earning a soft grunt in return. 

The abrupt halt of the carriage sent a jolt through him, as he, probably rather rudely, considering, nearly fell forward off the seat. The wet heat left his cock with a slurp and someone squealed, hands that had been toying with his nipples clenching and grabbing for his shirt as everything tilted.  It all happened so quickly, he had no time to do more than grab for the side of the carriage to steady himself before a loud boom echoed, close, too close, and he looked up and could see sky, how did that happen, he wondered with a detached calm. 

Then someone was screaming, or was it the horses, he couldn’t tell, and he was rolling and slamming into the floor of the carriage, landing in a heap on someone soft, but when he tried to grip and pull, his hand came back sticky and wet.  The door to the carriage was jerked open, allowing smoke to pour in.  There was another loud boom, right on top of him this time, it seemed.  His eyes watered, stinging and tearing, as his ears rang from the blast.  He looked up to see a soldier, one of his shouting at him, but he couldn’t understand what the man was saying, so he just sunk down, making himself as small of a target as possible. 

He choked on his own breath as thick, black smoke filled the carriage. He couldn’t stay here, trapped like this.  He needed out, needed air, needed to see…He stumbled out, hands reaching out to either help or simply grab onto him.  He tried to grab at the hands clutching at him, tried to form some kind of shout, but then someone was telling him to get down, pushing him down, and he dropped clumsily against the carriage wheel, part of which had been blown off.  He tried to see Rhodey, Jarvis, anyone, but the smoke was so think, like it had weight, and he could barely open his eyes, and then, only for a second or two. 

Something landed on the ground next to him, and he stared stupidly at the clay shell for a moment more than he needed to as the fuse burnt down to a nub, long enough to note the stamp on the side with the Stark crest before he was scrambling away on all fours, clawing through the dirt, debris and the soft, fleshy things he didn’t want to think about. The next blast hit, a scream echoing from somewhere close, and he was flying backwards, sent sprawling into the mud as bits and pieces of the carriage blew past him, sharp as knives now, he knew, trying to cover his head with his hands.

He tried to rise, found he couldn’t, something wasn’t right, something was…then he felt it, the searing pain, blinding him more effectively than the smoke. He felt bile rise in his throat as he looked down at the front of his shirt.  Deep red blotches began to appear against the fine cream silk, first one, then another, then another.  He choked on something, coughed, couldn’t get air in, and felt his head loll back against the dirt, fingers reaching out, scrabbling for something to hold onto. 

The silence around him was almost more concerning than the blasts. He tried to choke out some kind of call, but managed only a rasp of air.  He looked up as the smoke cleared enough for a patch of bright sky to peek through.  It was the last thing he saw before he passed out.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a voice echoed around him as he came slowly back to consciousness, some accent he couldn’t place, not exactly threatening, but he could find little comfort in it as his hands scrabbled over the metal disc embedded in his chest.

“What the hell did you do to me?” Tony asked harshly, breathing in and out in furious gulps of air, eyes trying to adjust to the darkness. He looked up and saw rock, triangular shapes of it jutting down from the ceiling, dripping onto the sandy floor beneath him.   A cave, then.  There was a torch perched in a holder embedded into the rock wall to his left.  It offered little illumination, but sent shadows dancing around the cave.  

“What I did? What I did is to save your life,” the man said simply, kneeling beside him with a cup of water that he offered.  Tony realized his throat was parched.  He tried to drink it down, but found himself coughing and sputtering as he tried to swallow and the cup was removed.  “I took out all the shrapnel I could. Your chest…you have quite an unfortunately large wound.  Not terribly deep though, thank the gods,” the man informed him, which was not at all comforting.  Tony looked down at his chest where an almost perfectly circular metal disc had been sewn, the skin stretched taunt around delicate holes at the edges. 

“I’ve seen many wounds like that in my village.  We call them the walking dead.  Soon, infection takes hold, the skin burns red, oozes and then…well. I had no way to seal it completely while you healed, so I covered it with what I could find around here. It is not much.  But I cleansed it in the fire first.  Better than the scraps of cloth around here to keep the blood sickness at bay,” the man offered, shrugging delicately.  Clearly, the man was not particularly confident in this whole idea. 

“You—what? You’re not serious?  You put…what the hell?” Tony stuttered, trying to pull himself to a sitting position and looking down at his chest to see what had been done to him.  He tried to piece together what he could remember…gods, the carriage…Rhodey?  Jarvis?  At attack?  There had been explosions.  His own work.  He’d seen the crest.  What the hell had happened? “Is there…anyone else here?” Tony asked, looking around and realizing for the first time that he was lying on a pile of moth-eaten blankets covering a mattress of mildewing brush in nothing but his breeches.  Even his shoes were gone.

“Just us and…well, them,” the man said as Tony’s head cocked to the right, hearing the sound of metal scraping rock as a door he hadn’t initially noticed was wrenched open, three men stepping inside the cave, one holding a large torch aloft while the other two brandished long, curved daggers. A moment later, another man, shorter and stockier than the first three, entered behind them. 

“Stand up, stand up,” the man kneeling at his side urged, pulling Tony at least partially upright by the elbow. He leaned against the wall of the cave for support, finding standing to be a bit of a tall order at the moment.  “Just do as I do,” the man told him.  “Come on, put your hands up,” he said, raising his own arms.  Tony stared at him agog, but raised his hands as high as he could manage under the circumstances.  The men who had entered the cave began shouting, speaking in harsh, guttural tones, some language Tony didn’t recognize, but he definitely recognized what they had in their hands. They were holding one of his own shells, the new ones that could be thrown or launched via a trebuchet using the short fuses, just like the ones he’d finished demonstrating to Ross and his band of idiots. 

“That’s mine,” Tony said, looking down at the shell, unblemished fuse hanging out the end. “How did they get that?” Tony asked, staring at the men uselessly. 

“Do you understand me?” the man asked and Tony nodded, still staring at the shell. “Do as I do,” the man ordered urgently.   The stocky, bearded man gesticulated as he spoke, pointing in Tony’s direction.  “Welcome Your Highness, the most famous mass murderer in history,” the man translated.  “He is honored.”

“I’ll bet he is,” Tony replied grimly, earning a sharp look from the man.

“He wants you to build this…this weapon,” the man said. “The one you just demonstrated. This one,” the man said, indicating the shell in their captor’s hands.

“I refuse,” Tony said indignantly, because really, he’d had just about enough of all of this and where the fuck were Rhodey and Jarvis and Ross and all the fucking idiots that were supposed to be his subjects for fucks’ sake?

As it turned out, refusing did not go so well.

When they dropped him back on the makeshift cot, wet and choking, clutching his chest, he managed only to roll over to his back before someone grabbed him and jerked him upright again, slamming him against the back of the cave making his head bounce off the rock. He cast a bleary gaze down at the man shaking him, willing himself to keep standing and not pass out directly on top of the man who’d spent the last few days trying to drown him like a witch.

“He says they have everything you need to build this,” the man said. “He says for you to start working immediately.  And when you are done, he will let you go,” the man translated, nodding as he did and not taking his eyes from their captor.

“No he won’t,” Tony replied, nodding in seeming agreement towards his captor.

“No he won’t,” the man agreed, his expression unreadable.

Yinsen, was the man’s name. Turned out, he was some kind of doctor, rather well known in scientific circles. While he hadn’t exactly risen to Tony’s attention, Tony had apparently met him at some banquet at the castle years ago, something Tony had been too drunk to remember, but Yinsen seemed not to hold it against him.

“I’m sure they are looking for you, Your Grace,” Yinsen said, as Tony placed the various materials on the table in front of him. “But they will never find you in these mountains.” 

Tony raised an eyebrow and grunted. “You don’t know…well, you don’t know Rhodey.  He—well, at least he---aw, fuck it.  Yeah,” Tony admitted bleakly, staring at the items laid out in neat rows before him. These mountains were virtually uncharted.  The cave system was impossible for anyone who hadn’t grown up here, and even then, it was constantly shifting as they dug out new areas or other areas caved in.  He wasn’t even sure who from the convoy had made it out, if anyone.  It was entirely possible that no one was looking for him, not having any idea he had survived. 

He found himself wondering idly who would mourn him.  Pepper, his scarily efficient steward, sure.  Probably a few of the wine merchants and no doubt, the various courtiers who enjoyed his parties and nocturnal activities, though he could hardly expect them to exactly rend their garments over his loss. He tried not to let that get to him, but it was the thing that skittered around his mind late at night in the silent darkness of the cave.  Not that no one was coming.  That no one was missing him.  Hell, Ross was probably beside himself with glee with Obie running things as Regent in his absence.  Wasn’t that what the council had been pushing for since practically the day he’d taken over upon his majority and started to immediately disappoint?

“Look at what you just saw,” Yinsen said evenly. “This…this is your legacy, your Highness. Is this the last act of defiance of the great King Anthony Stark?  To die in a cave, surrendering everything you’ve worked for to the hands of these murderers? Or are you going to do something about it?” Yinsen demanded.

“Why should I do anything? They’re going to kill me, you, either way,” Tony acknowledged, throwing the rag he’d been clenching in his fist on the table. “And if they don’t, I’ll probably be dead in a week,” he said, waving his hand over his chest where the skin around the metal plate was puckered and swollen with infection,  red lines spiraling out from it in a deadly spider web on his chest.

“Well, then,” Yinsen replied calmly. “This is a very important time for you then, isn’t it?”

Tony stared at him for a long moment. He braced the knuckles of his hands on the table in front of him.  He could sit here and wait for the rescue that wasn’t coming.  He could acquiesce to these assholes’ demands and build the damn weapon or whatever else they wanted and hopefully buy a bit of time.  Or he could make a different choice. 

He’d never had to fight for anything in his life. It had all just come as his due.  Now, there was nothing left here to fight for.  Maybe that meant that it was only the fight itself that mattered.

“If I’m going to do this…I’m going to need a few things,” Tony said, casting a sideways glance at Yinsen, willing him to understand.

“That doesn’t look like the thing our lying friend had in his hand,” Yinsen said a few days later, gazing down at what Tony held on the long ends of the tongs over the forge’s fire.

“This? This is our way out of here,” Tony responded, voice low and even as he worked, using the heat to meld the metal together, banging it into shape with the large, flat hammer. "Along with that," Tony continued, indicating the yellowish substance sitting in a bowl on table.

It didn’t work, of course. Well, it did.  The suit of armor he built, the tiny rockets he created, the small metal shells with short fuses that exploded on impact, and that wonderfully stable yellow mixture that exploded so beautifully, the thing he’d been idly toying with in the back of his mind for years, that all worked. 

It didn’t work for Yinsen though. Tony wasn’t quite good enough for that.  He made it out of the cave, bursting into the sunlight, the armored mask protecting his eyes from the glint of the sun, armor keeping the heat from the bright flashes of white-orange fire and huge chunks of debris and dust that appeared as he lobbed the metal shells, filled with his own special new mixture, the yellow substance that was so easy to pack tightly into the shells, at bay as he stalked through the camp.  

He wasn’t sure if it was fear or anger or both that fueled him at this point, just the desire to be gone from here, away from this cave, this place that held so many reminders of the things he’d done, the things he’d failed to do. Someone came at him with a sword, earning a glancing blow off the shoulder of the armor as he swiped at the man with an armored fist, sending him reeling backwards into a boulder.  Tony was running now, as best he could in the armor anyway, shouts and screams echoing in the valley behind him.

He shed the armor as he went.  It was too bulky to run and climb in effectively and now? Now he needed speed and stealth.  He darted through the rocky path, stumbling and rolling onto the soft, hot sand below. He could see the explosions continuing to ricochet behind him as one cache after another caught and sparked, dark, black smoke filling the camp, but he had to get up.  He couldn’t stay here, it was too open, too close.

Tony forced himself to his feet, heart pounding in his chest as he placed a hand over the metal plate in his chest. Even through the shirt, he could have sworn he could feel it hot against his palm. He ran on, not sure for how long, before finally collapsing behind a large rock, taking in deep gulps of air, sure the pounding in his heart was echoing throughout the canyon like a beacon. 

He forced himself to breathe quietly, leaning his head back against the hard stone and staring up at the sun blinking down at him. He’d made it out.  The plan, such as it was, had at least somewhat worked.  Enough to get him this far.  The problem was, he had no idea where here was, no idea which way to go that would take him in the direction of his kingdom or his forces.  Hell, Pierce could have his own people out here, scouting around, for all Tony knew.  He realized his throat was parched and dry, and he was incredibly thirsty all of a sudden, sand and grit and dust and smoke the only things he could taste.  He had a small ration of water he and Yinsen had carefully hoarded, but it wouldn’t be enough, it was never going to be enough and why hadn’t he thought this out more?  He’d escaped only to die in the desert, food for the vultures to pick apart. 

Tony struggled to stand again, putting one foot and then the other in front of him as he trudged down the path. He wasn’t sure how long he’d run from the camp, how far he’d gotten.  He couldn’t hear anything anymore, but he could still see the smoke rising in the distance.  At some point, he stopped, took a long swallow of water, that turned out to be so long that he’d drunk the entire contents of his bottle before realizing what he’d done.  He upended it above his mouth, draining the last drops, before putting the bottle back in his bag, in what he assumed was naive optimism at the prospect of finding drinkable water out here.  He took off the shirt he’d been given to wear, wrapping its ratty fabric around his head to try to shield himself from the oppressive heat as he walked.

It was night, the stars blinking brilliantly behind the mountains before he heard it. A shuffle.  A loose rock skittering down the side of the cliff.  A scratch of metal along stone.  They were coming.  He picked up his pace as best he could, breaking into a run as the sounds drew closer, and then there were dark shadows behind him, the bright glow of fire raised high, someone shouting and pointing.  He tried to find something big enough to work for cover, but it was useless, there was nothing here at the base of the mountain but sand and skinny scrub trees and the few rocks big enough to be called such, but hardly of a size to shield a man. 

So, this was it then, he thought as the shadows lengthened in front of him. This was how he died. The great Anthony Edward Stark, King of the realm, blah, blah, blah, was going to die in some gods-forsaken wasteland from that probably wasn’t even on any of the maps running from some half-rate kidnappers.  He wondered idly, as he fell behind the largest rock he could find, if Pepper would cover those hideous paintings she insisted line the castle walls with black drape, as would be traditional. That might make this all worth it, he thought with hysterical laughter threatening as he pounded his head back against the rock face in frustration. 

Well, fuck it, he thought.   If I die today, I die standing up. Iron Will, the Stark motto, not for nothing, see, Dad?

That worked for all of the few seconds it took for him to stand and turn before something hard and solid struck him on the side of the head, sending him stumbling to the side, falling to his knees as pain bloomed in his head. He touched two fingers to his temple, pulling them back carefully and studying the bright, red wetness in mute horror before looking up at his pursuers.  Two of them moved to either side of him, one holding a torch in one hand and grabbed a fistful of hair in the other.  The man pulled back sharply, saying something Tony assumed was fairly rude by the tone, and bringing a stinging pain to Tony’s eyes as he reached up to try to grab at the offending hand only to have a cold, steel blade pressed against his throat where he knelt. 

“Kill him,” one of them, a tall, bald man with sharp, hard eyes said in Tony’s own language. “We don’t need him anymore.  And he was supposed to be dead months ago.”  Well, that just plain hurt.

The man with the sword at Tony’s throat said something, and the other man holding his hair pushed him forward, sending Tony to all fours in the sand. Tony managed to raise his head enough to look at the tall man, bargains and prayers and all manner of pleadings running through his head.  He said nothing.  He was a Stark.  The King.  He would not beg.  It wasn’t much, out here in front of no one, at the end of all things, to have this, but when it was all you had…it was the only thing that mattered.  A fourth man came out of the darkness, having obviously come from in front of Tony, and gods, he’d never even really had a chance.  The fourth man pressed a long, wooden staff against the small of Tony’s back to keep him in place.

He looked straight at the robed man in front of him and opened his mouth to say something he was sure was going to be either profound or, at least, profoundly insulting, when an arrow whizzed past his head and lodged into the throat of the man holding the sword above him. The man swayed for a moment, gurgling and clutching desperately at the protrusion in his throat as he dropped his sword.  Well, if the sky is just dropping weapons in your lap, Tony thought, grabbing the handle of the sword and swinging it upwards towards asshole number two, who was busy pointing the torch here and there, glancing furtively around the rocks for any sign of where the arrow had come from. 

The sword opened the man’s stomach, emptying it onto the dry sand below.  The torch hit the sand next to Tony’s head as he rolled out of the way.  Tony tried to stand then, but the bald man brought the end of his curved sword around, knocking the pilfered sword from Tony’s hand.  The fourth man swiveled the staff in a wide arc, landing a solid blow to Tony’s stomach that knocked the breath from him, followed with a hard jolt to the underside of his jaw that sent him flying back landing heavily in the dirt again.  The pain spiked out from Tony’s head and jaw as he hit, white spots dancing in front of his eyes as he was momentarily paralyzed trying to swallow breath again. 

“Now, you die, in the dirt, like nothing. And no one will even know your name,” the tall man said, picking the sword that Tony had dropped up and raising it  above his head with both hands before bringing it down.  Tony could see the moonlight glint off the edges, everything thrown into sharp relief as he watched it happen.  He tried to force his body to move, to kick, to do something, but it was all so fast, and it was happening and it was there and it was—his vision darkened, the moon and stars blotted out and there was a loud clang, but his skull didn’t break open and there was no pain, and he realized he’d closed his eyes. 

He heard a solid grunt, something shifted in the sand behind his head and then he opened his eyes long enough to see the man with the sword was flying backwards, slamming against the wall of rock, sword dropping from his hand as he slid down, blood pouring from his nose.  A tall, broad figure was in front of the downed man, blocking Tony’s view. The taller man kicked the sword out of the way and stared down at the robed man as he lay slumped in the dirt.

Tony started to shift himself upright, moving his hands underneath him and trying to still the desperate pounding of his heart. It felt like it was going to burst through the metal plate in his chest.   He stilled as he felt a hard, cold point press against his throat.  He managed to look to the side long enough to see captor number three wheezing next to him, kneeling with an arm wrapped around Tony’s throat now, the other hand clasped around a long dagger, the tip drawing a thin bead of blood where it nestled under his jaw. 

The tall figure turned slowly, still hidden by the shadow of the rock wall. Tony wanted to stutter something out, some words to tell him not to let this asshole get away with this, whatever it took to fucking do something, to—Holy Shit! That was about all Tony’s mind managed as something large and round cut through the air and knocked asshole number four backwards a good several feet before ricocheting off the side of the rock wall to be deftly caught by the same tall figure, all in one seemingly easy motion.  Asshole number four moaned and started to roll over, groping blinding for the dagger in the sand.  Tony’s eyes darted back and forth between the two figures, not sure what the hell had just happened.

“Son,” the figure said, deep voice piercing the darkness, “Just don’t.”