“We have a problem,” was all Gunnar said to them.
It was enough. Gunnar had been with them for less than a day, and already he had taken the initiative to raise a concern. So Kyril, Giancarlo, Aleksandr, and Yorrin all gathered to speak with Steelshod’s newest recruit.
He already looks more like a warrior than a slave, Aleksandr noted. All of the Svard’s captives had ransacked the dead for clothes and gear to replace their rags, but of them only Gunnar truly looked like an entirely different man.
He wore boots, leggings, gloves, and a thick woolen tunic. He’d acquired a razor-edged knife to hack away some of his tangled beard and hair. His beard was more trimmed, squaring off his jaw, and his hair stopped at his shoulders.
Gunnar had scavenged the old captain’s sword, shield, and hauberk. Aleksandr knew that he could handle the sword well enough. Their sparring the previous night had been short and to the point, and the unarmored man had proven his mettle by holding Aleksandr back for several tense moments. Aleksandr had finally stepped back and lowered his blade before things got out of hand.
In the morning Gunnar had borrowed some kit and spent a few hours cleaning and oiling his new armor. He was leaner than Gorm had been, so it hung a bit loose where it wasn’t belted to him. Even so, with freshly blued mail and sheathed sword at his side he looked ready for the coming war.
In addition to the armor, Aleksandr saw the simple brown cloak hanging from Gunnar’s shoulders, clasped across his throat. It was not of Svardic make, but it complemented the rest of his gear nonetheless.
It’s good Yorrin bought so many extra cloaks, Aleksandr thought. I wonder how long it will take for us to need even more.
All five of them were crowded into Kyril’s captain’s quarters, what essentially amounted to a small hovel built onto the deck of the barge. It was standing room only, and they gathered around a table scattered with maps. The map on the top of the stack appeared to be a simple drawing of the Ironblood and the surrounding area, with the major settlements marked in Middish script. It appeared Kyril was literate—a rare thing for Ruskans outside the nobility. But given he was not just a yeoman, but a merchant captain was well, it was not entirely unusual.
Given Yerevan’s main source of trade, I would bet he is literate only in Middish, Aleksandr thought. And I only in Ruskan. Unfortunate.
Though Aleksandr could not read the names, he could glean much from the map itself. That is the Zeleznaya Krovnaya, of course. That is Yerevan, and that must be Torva, which means we are somewhere between the two. There’s a considerable stretch of river after that, past Torva. More than I’d realized.
There were two other river crossings marked on the map, further down than Torva. Aleksandr knew one of them was seasonal, a shallow stretch that could be forded when the river was low enough. The other, almost at the mouth where the river reached the sea, was a ferry. Aleksandr had heard Giancarlo and Kyril discussing it a day or two ago, but he could not quite recall the name. Salt Ferry, perhaps?
“We are here, ja?” Gunnar asked Kyril in Middish. He pointed to a spot fairly close to what Aleksandr had imagined. It appeared that the village they’d left behind this morning was not significant enough to appear on the map.
“Da,” Kyril agreed. “The bend, just so. You know this river?”
“I know rivers,” Gunnar said. “We will stop at Torva, here, ja?”
Aleksandr nodded. “Giancarlo wished to spend a day in the markets there. And I hope it will be a good place to let the former slaves—thralls—off of the ship.”
“I think we should get off as well,” Gunnar said.
Giancarlo frowned. “That was not the plan.”
“Plans change,” Gunnar said.
“Si,” Giancarlo agreed. “But not without reason. I take it, what, you think we will be met with more reavers between here and Arcadia?”
Gunnar gave a slow nod.
“That is why I have hired on Steelshod, si? And you are apparently one of them, so yet another sword-arm to defend my goods. What is the problem?”
“Gorm was a fat fool,” Gunnar said. “He was told to stay on the other side of the arched bridge city. Torva, ja? He did not. He has died for his mistake. But most of the others, they will do as they were told.”
“You’re saying there are more reavers beyond Torva,” said Aleksandr. “We expect this. Giancarlo already said—”
“No.” Gunnar interrupted, and Aleksandr could see Yorrin rankle at it. But the Svard’s voice was flat and unthreatening. “I am saying there are a great many reavers beyond Torva. In the river, but even more on the coast. A barge like this will be a ripe target. You are good fighters, but if the numbers are bad enough…”
“Then they are all that will matter,” Aleksandr said, frowning. “Da.”
Kyril, the barge captain, had been silent for most of the meeting. Now, he scratched at his beard thoughtfully. “I see,” he said. “That is… da. That is a little worse than we had bargained for.”
“Of course I will not insist,” Giancarlo said. “If you wish to return to Yerevan after we reach Torva, Kyril, I understand. Although… the journey by land is not easy either,” he observed. “Either we take the coastal road, which is likely almost as dangerous as the sea… or we take the Wncari Hills.”
From his tone, Aleksandr could tell this last option was also unappealing. But Aleksandr had never been to Caedia before. It was not a name he knew. “The what?” he asked.
“The Wncari Hills,” Giancarlo repeated. “Home of the Wncar.”
“Caedian barbarians, yeah?” Yorrin asked. “Name sounds familiar.”
“Si. A rough and wild place. Dense woodland of steep hills, along the border of Caedia and Kirkworth. The savage clans there are quite untamed, quite territorial. Well known to rob merchants and outsiders. I have lost goods to them more than once in my years.”
“Under the circumstances, probably still better,” Gunnar said. “Than facing hordes of reavers.”
“Just how many Svards are out there, Gunnar?” Yorrin asked. “You’ve been with them for a while now. Do you have a count? Some hard numbers?”
“It is not just Svards,” Gunnar reminded them. “Taerbjornsen has many clans of Kriegar warriors as well.”
“Yes, yes. Same thing, isn’t it? How many?” Yorrin repeated.
Gunnar frowned. “Gorm trailed a fleet as it descended upon the Caedian Loheim. Before we entered the river. It looked like… hundreds of longships. Six hundred, maybe? I could not get a clear count. And I am not sure it was Taerbjornsen’s only fleet.”
A silence followed the words.
Six hundred ships? Each with at least a score of fighters. Likely more. Aleksandr’s throat felt dry, and he swallowed involuntarily. And he thinks there is more than one fleet. This Taerbjornsen has truly brought a horde to the Midlands, then.
Aleksandr wondered if he knew what he was doing, leading these people to war.
Giancarlo cleared his throat. “Si. Well.” He, too, gulped audibly. “Perhaps we will take the hills.”
Torva rose in the distance, visible well before they reached it. The city, as far as Aleksandr could tell, was comprised of three parts. On the northern and southern shores, he saw sprawling towns not unlike Yerevan. Wooden walls, simple docks, crowded markets, row upon row of hovels, and the nicest buildings no more than four stories at the tallest.
Both townships were built by the Middish. They were shabbier than finest parts of Torathia he’d seen, but larger and more sweeping than Aleksandr’s home in rural Rusk. Aleksandr imagined he could smell the city from where he sat, though he knew that was unlikely given that he was well upriver.
Between the two halves of the city lay the part of Torva that predated the Middish architecture. Indeed, it predated the kingdom of Caedia itself. In the center of the sprawling waters of the Ironblood lay a rocky island with high cliffs and no visible portage. Upon that island the Cassalines of the old Empire had built their citadel. High walls, towers, and huge arched bridges that spanned out from either side of the island. The bridges were protected on each shore by fortified barbicans.
Torva’s bridges and inner keep were all stonework. Old stonework, of the exceptional quality that marked most Cassaline ruins. They were mottled with lichen and moss, weathered by centuries, but the Middish had done their best to keep it all in functional repair. Aleksandr doubted there were any stonemasons or engineers in Caedia capable of building a keep as fine as Torva, but there were undoubtedly quite a few that were at least able to maintain it.
As they grew closer, Aleksandr saw a row of archers lining each of the arched bridges, and he saw small formations of footmen standing on the docks. The Torvans eyed the barge warily as Kyril’s men poled closer. Once they were close enough to shout, Kyril moved to the front of the ship and announced himself as a Ruskan merchant.
A voice called back, directing him to dock on the southern shore. The moment they moored onto a large pier they were given a cool welcome. Men swept onto the barge, demanding to see the crew and passengers.
They brandished spears and wore sheathed sidearms, and each of them was clad in gambeson and iron helms. A few men in the lead wore mail as well. All of them bore tabards in Torva’s sigil—two arched white bridges and a citadel, on a field of gray-blue.
“Mi scuzi, signori,” Giancarlo said smoothly. “This welcome, it is not what I expected.”
One of the men in mail turned to face the merchant. He was the only one not carrying a spear, just a sword at his side. He had a well-groomed mustache and dark eyes. He studied Giancarlo for a moment, frowning, before he finally spoke.
“We’ve seen a few Svardic longships hanging about, and at least one slipped past us north,” he said. “And now you come in with one of them trailing behind you. Looked like a skeleton crew, but even so… had to be sure it wasn’t a trick of some sort. Can’t be too careful. ”
“Si, I understand. We are just simple merchants, and mercenary guards, signore. On our way to sell goods in Arcadia. And as for the Svards…” Giancarlo glanced at Aleksandr.
“We found the longship upriver,” Aleksandr said. “Its crew was burning out a small village. We killed the raiders, seized the ship, and have freed the slaves.”
The man—a knight of Torva, Aleksandr suspected—widened his eyes. “Oh,” he said. He looked Aleksandr and the rest of Steelshod over again.
“Sir Ayers!” said one of the others. He roughly shoved Gunnar forward. “This one looks like a Svard, sir! There were a few others, but this one’s the only that’s properly armed and armored.”
The knight stepped forward and looked Gunnar up and down, then cast a skeptical glance at Aleksandr.
“Many of the slaves on the ship were Svards themselves,” Aleksandr said. “Gunnar is armed because he has chosen to join with us and fight against the raiders.”
The knight, Sir Ayers, frowned again. “A Svard fighting his kin? How can you trust him?”
“They are not my kin,” Gunnar said. Ayers turned to face him, and he met the knight’s eyes with a cold stare.
Sir Ayers sniffed. “Hm. Well. One Svard can’t cause much harm I suppose.” He looked back to Aleksandr. “You said you killed every raider on that ship?”
Aleksandr nodded. “We have promised to let the freed slaves—those that are themselves Svards and Kriegars—take the ship from here.”
Ayers frowned at that. “We’ve got enough Svards in our waters as it is, Ruskan. We—”
Aleksand raised a hand. “They mean you no harm, Sir Ayers. They wish only to return home. They are not raiders. And… my name is Aleksandr Kerensky.”
Ayers gnawed on his lower lip for a moment. Finally, he nodded. “Alright, Sir Kerensky. Here’s what we’ll do. You’re free to dock here for the night. If your merchant wants to trade in the markets, that’s fine. But you’ll be needing to speak with Lord Fortinbrass about the rest of it.”
“Understood,” Aleksandr said.
“We’ll take you to him presently, I think,” Ayers added.
Aleksandr simply nodded, then turned to confer with his companions.
“He seems like a prat,” Yorrin muttered.
Dylan snorted. Aleksandr felt a smile come to his lips.
“He is just doing his job,” Aleksandr said. “Trying to keep his city safe from Svards.”
“Sure,” Yorrin said with a shrug. “I wouldn’t trust a longship full of ‘reformed’ savages either. No offense Gunnar.”
Gunnar’s brow furrowed in a look of mild annoyance.
“So how should we proceed, Aleksandr?” Dylan asked.
“Usual way, I am thinking,” Aleksandr said. “Yorrin and I will go with Ayers to speak to his lord. Giancarlo, did you wish to spend time in the markets here?”
Giancarlo ran a hand down his cheek, stroking the narrowly sculpted beard on his chin. “Si,” he said. “A day only, I think. I have what I need, but it does not hurt to browse.”
“Dylan, you will take the others with Giancarlo to keep him safe.”
Dylan nodded. “Understood.”
Aleksandr noticed Yorrin give Prudence a pointed look. She nodded as well, then melted away into the rest of Steelshod that stood in a circle around them.
It took a while longer for Aleksandr to say a short goodbye to Kyril and to unload Dascha and Yorrin’s horse—Hollyhock, a name Yorrin had never bothered to change or learn, instead opting to simply call her Horse—but Sir Ayers waited patiently for them the entire time. He and six of his men had horses on the shore, and soon enough they departed from the docks together.
“Sir Ayers,” Aleksandr said as they trotted through the town.
“These men… they have been through a great deal. They were enslaved in their homeland and forced to row the longship this way. I believe them, and I promised them I would ensure their freedom.”
“Tell it to his lordship,” Ayers said blandly.
“Da, I will. Only… do you think your lord will force me to go back on my word? Will you imprison these men, for no crime other than speaking the wrong tongue?”
Ayers spat onto the street. “We don’t usually see too much trouble with Svards, Sir Kerensky,” he said. “Not this far upriver, and us on the very edge of the Loheim. The northern lords of Loheim and the coastal towns have a lot of bad blood with the Svards and Kriegars. A lot more than us.”
Ayers slowed his horse, and turned to face Aleksandr. “Lord Fortinbrass, he fancies Torva a trading city, not a warring one. So no. We won’t throw someone in irons for speaking Svardish, I can promise you that much. The rest… like I said: talk to his lordship.”
Aleksandr nodded. “Very well,” he said, and spurred Dascha on.
The streets of Torva looked much the same up close as they had from afar. Dirty, smelly, brimming with life and activity. The Svards might be raiding the river, but they had not had either the numbers, bravery, or stupidity to strike here.
They rose up from the markets as the street wound up a domed hill. The streets here were lined with close-together houses, most of them two or three stories high. With the switchback layout of the street it was hard to see very far ahead. It felt claustrophobic, and the air was thick with the smell of humanity.
The bridge was something else entirely. Its fortified entrance lay at the top of the hill, a cleared open square before it. They crossed through the stone gatehouse with crenellated towers above, its gate and portcullis open. Then they crossed onto the arched bridge itself.
Somehow, Aleksandr had expected the bridge to show some of its pronounced arch up here. As if the surface should be sloped to match the shape beneath. But the bridge was straight and sturdy, made of huge mortared stones. The river lay at least fifty feet below. On the far side they crossed through another gatehouse, and then they were on the central island. They made their way up an open causeway that Aleksandr knew would be hell to try to cross under arrows from the walls and towers that lay ahead and behind them.
Finally they were admitted into the inner keep. It sat atop the craggy island hill, seemingly impossible to access from the river below. They were ushered through the keep and into the great hall.
It was much like any other Middish hall. Tapestries lined the walls, rugs lined the floor, and a low fire crackled in the hearth. A large hound was sleeping near the fire, and the hall was filled with maybe a dozen random nobles that Aleksandr had no luck—nor interest —in identifying.
A man-at-arms rapped his spear against the floor as they entered. It echoed nicely, and silence followed it. Sir Ayers stepped forward.
“My Lord, I present Sir Aleksandr Kerensky and his man—” Ayers paused, obviously realizing he’d never asked Yorrin’s name.
“Yorrin,” Yorrin cut in. Ayers gave him a thin smile.
“Sir Kerensky, may I introduce his lordship: Edmund Fortinbrass, Lord of Torva, Duke of the Ironlands—”
“Yes yes yes, we know,” Fortinbrass bellowed. “Well met, and welcome to my hall!” His voice was deep and exuberant, and Lord Fortinbrass looked to be a man to match it.
He was prodigiously fat. That was the first thing Aleksandr noticed. For a moment, it was impossible to notice anything else.
When he looked further, Fortinbrass seemed to be of middle age. His curly hair was short where it wasn’t balding, and his smoothly shaved chin was framed by gray muttonchops and an oiled mustache. He was dressed in finely tailored clothes of rich colors and skillful cuts—sumptuous, but not quite extravagant. They were stained with food and drink. His chins spilled out over his collar.
“It is good to meet you, Lord Fortinbrass,” Aleksandr said.
“Yes, a delight to make your acquaintance! Kerensky, is it? From Yerevan, then?”
“We come from that way, but—ah, no. Not in the way you mean. House Kerensky’s seat is in Pripia. The distant north.”
“Oooh,” Fortinbrass pursed his lips in anexpression of surprised delight. It looked comical, given his excessively round face and chubby cheeks. “You must tell me about it!”
“My lord…” Intruded a thin, unamused voice.
The man that spoke up was standing beside Lord Fortinbrass, hands clasped neatly behind him. He wore simple clothes, too simple for a noble courtier, but still elegantly tailored. A well-regarded servant, Aleksandr suspected. He was of middling height and build. Perhaps a similar age to Fortinbrass, but he carried it better. His dark hair was pulled back in an austere widow’s peak and a short ponytail that barely reached the nape of his neck.
“Of course, Vernon, of course,” Fortinbrass spoke in the tone of a henpecked husband. “Vernon here keeps me on track, gentlemen. A good man. The very best! But he can be a tad stuffy on occasion.”
“Vernon Cleaver,” the man introduced himself with a shallow bow that was barely more than a nod. “Though… Cleaver will do. His Lordship’s Steward.”
“My pennypincher!” Fortinbrass declared. “The man that tells me if I’m allowed to throw a feast.”
“Well met,” Aleksandr said, nodding back to Cleaver.
“Sir Ayers, if you could tell us why you’ve brought these guests? I suspect not just to enjoy our hospitality,” Cleaver said.
“Yes, of course,” said Ayers. “My lord, as you may have heard: these men came to Torva in a Ruskan trade barge, but they had a Svardic longship trailing them. It caused some alarm amongst the sentries and the townsfolk. They say they caught the Svards raiding a fishing village upriver.”
“Oh dear!” Fortinbrass’s mouth frowned deep enough to set his jowls to quivering.
“They say they set upon the Svards and slew them all,” Ayers continued.
“All that we saw, da,” Aleksandr said. “Is possible some escaped our notice and fled into the night. But we killed their captain, and took their ship.”
“Well, that’s not so bad then, is it?” Fortinbrass said, brightening considerably. “Good show, gentlemen. Good show!”
“We also freed a number of slaves,” Aleksandr said. “Men captured by the Svards along their voyage, forced to row.”
“Even better!” Fortinbrass said. “Nasty business, slavery! Against God and all. I thought it was done with, if I’m honest. Even those heathens to the south, in Spatalia and whatnot, have given it up.”
“The Svards aren’t much for fearing God,” Yorrin interjected. “They worship a pagan squid and bathe in blood.”
Aleksandr shot Yorrin a pointed look. One he hoped conveyed his feeling that such interjections were not helpful.
Fortinbrass, for his part, looked horrified at the idea. His eyes widened, his mouth opened again to a small O, and his chins jiggled.
“It’s these slaves that he’s here to talk about, my lord,” Ayers said.
“Da, thank you,” said Aleksandr. “Some of the thralls—slaves—were Middish. A couple of them stayed behind with the village, but the rest of them have come with us.”
“We’ll take them in, of course!” Fortinbrass declared. “Poor souls. God knows what horrors they’ve endured. Ayers, your men will see to it that they’re given food and clothes and shelter. We can find work for them soon enough. Planting season’s here, more serfs will not go to waste.”
Is there truly that much difference between a serf and a thrall? Aleksandr wondered. Something about it did not sit well with him. Either way, these men will not have true freedom. To go their own way, make their own life.
“You said some of the thralls were Middish,” Cleaver said to Aleksandr. “The rest?”
“Svards and Kriegars,” Aleksandr said.
“They enslave their own countrymen?” Fortinbrass asked. “Despicable!”
“Da. Men that would not fight for them against the Midlands, or offended jarls—lords—in some way. They mean you no harm.”
“They’re Svards,” Sir Ayers cut in.
“They are men,” Aleksandr said. “Innocent men, same as the Middish. Just men that do not speak the Middish tongue.”
Fortinbrass scratched one side of his muttonchops. “Oh dear,” he said. “I’m not entirely sure what we’re supposed to do with Svards and Kriegars, Sir Kerensky. Vernon, what do you think?”
“It would be difficult to integrate them, my lord,” Cleaver said. “Men that speak no Middish? Kin to those that are burning their way across Caedia? No.”
Fortinbrass nodded. “Well, there you have it then! We can’t keep them! Sorry, Sir Kerensky, it just won’t do.”
Sir Ayers grimaced. “Uh, my lord… that’s not exactly—”
Aleksandr cleared his throat. “Forgive me, Lord Fortinbrass. I was not asking that you let them stay here in Torva.”
“Oh?” Fortinbrass furrowed his brow.
“I told them that once we reached Torva, and could acquire fresh supplies, I would give them the longship. They can row it down the Ironblood and up the coast—hopefully avoiding notice of the other Svards, since they will look as countrymen—and make their way home. To Kriegany and Svarden beyond, if they can.”
“Oh!” Fortinbrass broke into another wide grin. “Delightful! An excellent plan, Sir Kerensky!”
“My lord,” Ayers said. “I was concerned… what if they aren’t so trustworthy? If they turn against us? If they take up the arms from the fallen raiders—”
“To defend themselves on their journey home, only,” Aleksandr interrupted.
“It’s a risk!” Ayers said.
“Hmmm,” Fortinbrass said, scratching is jaw again. “Well. Quite the conundrum you’ve put me in, Brian.” Fortinbrass gave Ayers a displeased look. “You do raise a good point, I suppose. And you are the captain of my guard. Vernon, what do you think?”
Cleaver moved his hands out from behind his back and wrung them in front of him for a moment, clearly deep in thought. Finally, he spoke.
“It is Sir Ayers’s job to look out for the security of Torva, of course,” he said, with a nod toward Ayers. “But in this case, I am inclined to think we may wish to honor Sir Kerensky’s promise to these men. We can’t keep them here, and it would be unjust to simply imprison them.”
“Indeed, indeed,” Fortinbrass said, nodding. “But what of Brian’s worry?”
Cleaver sighed. “Let me see. Sir Kerensky, you said you wished to help them resupply?”
“You have already done Torva a service by slaying those raiders, I would say. Wouldn’t you agree, my lord?”
“Oh! Quite, quite!” Fortinbrass said enthusiastically.
“As a show of our appreciation, Torva shall resupply these men for you,” Cleaver said. “It might be good anyway, to extend a hand of friendship to Svards and Kriegars not bent on our destruction. I will head down to the docks and meet with these men myself, and equip them with what they need. It will also give me a chance to take their measure, perhaps get some additional assurances.”
“Excellent idea, Vernon!” Fortinbrass said. “As always! Good enough for you, Brian?”
Ayers clenched his teeth, but he gave a nod and a bow. “If it pleases you, my lord. Yes, of course.”
“Thank you,” Aleksandr said. “Your kindness is good, and I don’t want to dissuade you from it. But if you hope to meet these men… they speak only Svardic, or Kriegar. Little else. There is one man that can translate, he—”
Cleaver smiled thinly. “It won’t be a problem,” he said. “I have a fair bit of Kriegar, and enough Svardic to get by.”
That is surprising. I suppose Kriegany isn’t so very far, but even so. Aleksandr could not quite fathom why a steward spoke those tongues.
“Well then!” Fortinbrass declared. “Now that’s settled, Sir Kerensky, on to the more important business!”
Aleksandr blinked. “Uh. More important? I am not sure—”
“Come now! You slew a ship full of invaders, my good man! We can’t just show our appreciation by helping out some poor souls, now, can we?”
Aleksandr and Yorrin glanced at each other. Aleksandr felt sure he could tell the unspoken words that passed between them. A Middish expression he’d learned from Yorrin seemed particularly appropriate: Is he for real?
“Um. I suppose… not?” Aleksandr said.
“Exactly! Vernon, make the preparations! Ayers, see that their men are fetched posthaste! Sir Kerensky, please, make yourself at home until dusk.”
“Uh, pardon me… what’s at dusk?” Yorrin asked.
Fortinbrass grinned. “Why, the obvious, good man!” He held up his hands, fat fingers like small sausages grasping in triumphant fists. “We feast!”