“How about Aleksandr’s Army?” asked Dylan.
“That’s bloody awful,” Robin said. “And I’d know, having named a company of my own. If you’d been in charge of the Songbirds you’d have named them Robin’s Rapscallions.”
“Shut it, Rotten,” Yorrin said.
“What, so you liked it? Seiously?” Robin asked.
“Maybe not, but that’s not the point. You didn’t name a company, you named a group of thugs and brigands.”
Point, Robin thought. He didn’t acknowledge it aloud, instead just shrugging and leaning back in his seat.
His seat was little more than a bench, but it was better than nothing. They were in the bayard’s training yard, which was mostly just packed dirt. A few areas were covered to keep out most rain and snow, and under the those coverings were benches, troughs of water, and racks for placing weapons during training bouts. On the far side of the yard Robin saw some archery targets.
Closer, the hopeful recruits were mostly milling about to one side. In the center of the yard, Bear was putting one of the mercs—Conrad—through his paces in a sparring match. The barbarian had been asked to go easy on the merc, on account of his injury. At the moment, Conrad was backpedaling and holding up his shield as Bear hammered on it mercilessly.
“Maybe… the Black Blade?” Dylan said. “Sounds intimidating, and I know some of the folk have been—”
“I do not think so,” Aleksandr interrupted. He was listening, but his eyes were on the sparring match. His expression was neutral. Unreadable.
Isn’t it always? The man’s a fucking statue.
“Bear!” Aleksandr called out. “Enough! Stop.”
Bear froze midswing, halting his attack. Conrad tripped as he faltered on a backwards step and fell on his ass in the dirt. Bear grinned and offered a hand, hauling the man back to his feet. They trudged over to Aleksandr.
“You fought well, at first,” Aleksandr said. “But… once you give Bear upper hand, you could not recover.”
Conrad nodded breathlessly. He splashed water from a trough into his face. “Yeah, fair,” he agreed. “He fights like—well, like a bear!”
Bear grinned. “Da,” he said.
“Is fine,” Aleksandr said. “Sit. You did well.”
Conrad thumped down nearby, panting. “Thanks,” he said.
Aleksandr glanced at Bear. “Would you like to rest, or face another?” he asked.
“Another,” Bear said. He was still grinning widely.
He enjoys this more than gambling or drinking, Robin mused. The absolute madman.
Sparring was safer than a genuine fight, of course, but even in a practice bout something could still go wrong. One was still risking death or injury. Robin was happy to lounge, hopeful that Aleksandr wouldn’t feel the need to press him to join in.
“Another, then,” Aleksandr said. He looked to the rest of the mercs. “Who would like to go next?”
“Hey,” said one of the mercs. Nathan, Robin recalled. Nathan didn’t care for dicing, which meant Robin didn’t much care for Nathan. “What’s the point of all this, eh? You’ve seen us fight, haven’t you?”
Aleksandr nodded. “Da,” he said. “I have. But even so, is good to see it up close.”
“You haven’t made him spar with one of you,” Nathan said, pointing at Anatoly. “We rode alongside you for longer than he has. I don’t get it.”
Aleksandr was silent for a long moment, seeming to consider Nathan’s words. “Anatoly and I crossed blades after I slew Garin,” he said. “I have seen his skill. Up close, as I say.”
Robin snorted. I guess, when you put it that way, he’s seen my skill up close too. God damn if I didn’t nearly shit myself, going toe-to-toe with him and that monstrous sword of his. Yielding before he thrashed me was the best decision I’ve made in years.
Nathan frowned. “Guess I didn’t think of it that way,” he said. “Suppose I can go next.”
“Bear will not hurt you,” Aleksandr said. “Is just a friendly test bout.”
Nathan grudgingly walked further into the yard. He swung his weapon—a blunted sword the locals had given them—in front of him in a few experimental swishes.
I’m no master swordsman, but even so, his form is no great shakes, is it? Robin thought. He almost said it aloud, but thought better of it. Most likely Yorrin just tells me to shut it. Best case, Aleksandr agrees and suggests I take the next one to show Nathan how it’s done. Thanks but no thanks, Aleksandr. I’m happy right where I am.
Before he commanded the Songbirds, Robin had spent many years as a subordinate. He’d long since learned every trick out there for evading the notice of his betters. Shirking duty is my duty. Robin smirked as he watched Bear trounce the young mercenary.
“The Bayard’s Battalion,” Yorrin offered.
“Nyet. Definitely not,” Aleksandr said immediately. “I am no bayard, Yorrin. I am third son—not even an heir. I will never be bayard.”
Yorrin shrugged. “Sure, not in Rusk. We’re not in Rusk. Mercenary companies make their own rules, Aleksandr. You’re our bayard, aren’t you?”
“No,” Aleksandr said. “I am a commander. A captain, maybe.”
“Not just a commander,” Yorrin insisted. “You’re something more. You are loyal to us, and us to you. You treat us more as trusted vassals than, what, employees. You’re a lord—a bayard—of sorts.”
“I am not a bayard.” Aleksandr’s face was set in stone. Robin wouldn’t argue with him for a purse of gold, not with his jaw clenched like that. Yorrin didn’t seem to share Robin’s sense of self-preservation.
“We’ll drop the name,” Yorrin conceded. “But… Aleksandr, when we’re out there on the road, you’re our bayard. What we have runs deeper than normal mercenaries. You’re our bayard of the trails, whether you like it or not.”
Aleksandr’s expression softened. “I understand what you mean, Yorrin,” he said. “But—”
“You’re not an actual bayard. I get it.”
Aleksandr gave a single nod.
Torath’s fangs, Yorrin’s got a lot of balls for such a little man, Robin thought. He couldn’t help but admire it. And contrary to Robin’s fears, Aleksandr had responded positively to Yorrin’s obstinate insistence. I guess they know each other better than I do.
Nathan yielded unceremoniously after Bear had put him through a few minutes of pain. Aleksandr glanced at the others.
“Who is next? Cam, perhaps? Are you ready for a bout?”
The Hurstie shrugged. “Aye,” he said. “Reckon so. I fightin’ the Bear, then?”
“Da!” Bear growled. His face was red, sweat poured down his temples, and his breath came in heavy pants. He thumped a first on his chest.
“Take a breath, Bear,” Aleksandr said. “Yorrin, would you like to test his mettle?”
“Sure,” Yorrin said. He sounded as disinterested as Cam had. He stood and stretched his arms. He flexed his hands into each other, crackling his knuckles in a ripple of audible pops. He unbuckled his swordbelt, leaving his steel sword and dagger behind. Then he grabbed a smallish blunted blade and strode out into the yard until he was faced off against Cam.
“None to sure about this,” the merc grumbled.
“What’s that?” Yorrin asked. “Second thoughts? I thought you were fine with it.”
“Fine with facin’ off against the Bear, aye.”
“You’d rather fight Bear than me?” Yorrin cocked his head, obviously caught off guard. He recovered quickly, playing it cool.
“Aye, he’s a big one and he hits hard enough. But he’s got some weaknesses, I ken. You…”
“What? I haven’t got any weaknesses? Don’t make me laugh.”
“Dinnae say that,” the Hurstie replied. “Just none I ken how to counter at the moment. I’ve seen ye fight, a little. Quick and unpredictable.”
Yorrin smirked. “Ah. That, I’ll accept.”
With that, Yorrin lashed out in a sudden strike. Cam barely got his blade up in time, and Yorrin fell into a rapid sequence of blows. Each one flowed into the next, a chain of strikes along several different lines.
That training he’s done with the Spit is really paying off, Robin had to acknowledge. He almost looks like a real duelist.
In a way, Yorrin fought similar to Bear after all. He kept Cam on the defensive, anyway. After the poor Hurstie had backpedaled halfway across Yerevan he finally tried to force his way back into Yorrin’s guard. It worked poorly, and in moments his sword was in the dirt and Yorrin had his practice blade pressed up near his throat.
“I suppose we’re done,” Yorrin said. Cam nodded awkwardly until Yorrin lowered the sword. “Well fought.”
“Knew it,” Cam muttered as he made his way back to his friends.
Yorrin glanced towards Aleksandr, though he didn’t say anything. Aleksandr gave a slow nod, and Yorrin started walking back.
It’s like they can speak directly into each others’ minds, Robin thought. There must be some trick to it, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what it is.
“I’ll take a turn,” said the Whip. He hopped up on his gangly legs. He and Yorrin crossed paths, and he accepted the blade from Yorrin as he passed.
“Little more comfortable with spears,” Dylan mused aloud. “Though it’ll be good to get in some practice I suppose.”
He turned towards the mercs, and saw Levin striding over.
That one will be no good for us, Robin thought. Arrogant fucker, irritable. Even harder to read than Aleksandr, and with none of that Ruskan charm.
The Whip gave Levin a cool nod and a vague salute with his sword. Levin didn’t break his stride—he raised his own sword to match the salute as he grew close, then went straight from the salute into a probing strike at Dylan.
Dishonorable to boot! Robin thought. When Yorrin did it, he was playing with Cam’s remarks. This sour-faced bugger is just dirty.
Dylan was a tall, whip-thin man with long arms to match. Levin was a bit shorter, but he was made of lean muscle just like the Whip, and more of it. Moreover, it was obvious he was the most competent fighter of all the mercs Giancarlo employed.
The Whip gave made a good show of it, but after he’d been clocked several times by the blunted blade he finally fell back, holding up an open hand in defeat.
“Alright, alright,” he said. “Yield. Yield, for God’s sake!”
Levin held a blow midstroke. He sniffed, dropped the sword on the dirt, turned around, and stalked away. From the moment he walked on to the moment he walked off, he had not spoken a word.
“He’s not very likable,” Prudence observed.
Yorrin opened his mouth, looking for all the world like he was about to snap at her. He hesitated a moment, then spoke. “No, he’s not,” he agreed. “Seems to be alright in a scrape, though.”
Levin stopped, standing between Orson and Cam. He crossed his arms over his chest.
“My turn?” Orson called out. Aleksandr nodded. Levin reached out to hold Orson back, and murmured a quiet word to him. Orson laughed, then jogged out into the yard.
“Yorrin is right,” Aleksandr said, eyeing Levin. “Levin is good fighter. Also, he is loyal to his companions.”
The Whip was stretching, rubbing a few sore spots where Levin had gotten the better of him. He smiled at Orson, who smiled back. This next bout was considerably friendlier. Even with the Whip winded already, he was clearly the better warrior. Still, Orson and Dylan seemed to chatter amiably with each other as they traded blows.
“I like him,” Robin said.
“As do I,” Aleksandr agreed.
“Not much of a duelist, though,” said Robin.
“Even so, his herbalism could come in handy,” Yorrin said. “He knows how to treat wounds.”
“Da,” Aleksandr nodded. “Is no problem if he cannot stand up to Dylan. Every man brings his own skills to the company.”
“What skill does he bring?” Anatoly asked, nodding in Robin’s direction.
“First of all, shove it up your ass,” Robin said. “Second of all, I’m a people person.”
Anatoly snorted, and muttered something in Ruskie.
“He somehow managed to convince a large group of men to follow him,” Aleksandr said. “I am not sure how this happens, but I see with my own eyes.”
“You’ve just got to know how to talk to people, Aleksandr,” Robin said. “You said every man brings his own skills? Sure, probably true. What I know is that every man also brings his own quirks and foibles.”
“I do not know this word,” Aleksandr said.
“And there’s one of yours,” Robin said with a smirk.
Yorrin rolled his eyes and supplied Aleksandr with a few murmured words of explanation. Robin liked to think Yorrin’s definition of foible was riddled with errors, but since he didn’t truly know the definition himself he couldn’t say for sure.
Before long, the Whip and Orson finished their sparring. Orson seemed cheerful enough as he rejoined his companions.
Aleksandr stood and walked a few steps closer to them. “Well done,” he said. “Thank you for indulging me. These bouts have shown what I already knew: you are brave men, and capable.”
The mercs stared at Aleksandr with a mixture of expressions, but the unifying theme Robin saw was one he had to admit he’d seen infrequently in the Songbirds. Respect.
“We will be happy to have you travel with us. We are still discussing payment, but this much I know: You will be paid a fair share of whatever contract we take. We are partners, together.”
That garnered a few nods and smiles. Plenty of merc companies paid a simple flat wage, especially to new members. This shares system would mean less coin in Robin’s pocket. I bet he gives ‘em all half shares at least, while I’m getting a sixth. Robin tried not to let his bitterness show. That wouldn’t help him any.
“Feel free to sit, relax,” Aleksandr said. “We will break for a meal soon. But first…” Aleksandr glanced past them, to a lone figure standing a few paces away from the rest. “I have one more bout, I think.”
It was the Taraamite, Perrin. He was clad in mail, with his hand resting on the pommel of his sword. For once he wasn’t wearing the bloodstained and threadbare tabard bearing his fort’s colors, though. Robin felt its lack considerably improved his appearance.
“Perrin,” Aleksandr said. “You have considered my words.”
“I have,” Perrin said. “I won’t deny that I’d like to stay close to the friends I’ve made.”
Friends, he says. I’d be her friend too if she spread her legs for me, Robin mused. Prudence wasn’t really his type—tits and hips so small she practically looks like a boy—but still, a cunt was a cunt.
“Is fine,”Aleksandr said. “But if you join us—”
“I know,” Perrin interrupted. “I have to mean it. Be in it for the company, not for one person. I learned that at Taraam, sir. And if you let me… I’ll prove it’s not a lesson I’ve forgotten.”
Aleksandr smiled “Very well,” he said. “Dylan, pass me that sword?”
Dylan tossed the practice blade, and Aleksandr caught it one handed. One of the mercs passed another one to Perrin. To his credit, the Taraamite didn’t seem too intimidated to go toe-to-toe with Aleksandr.
He ought to be, Robin thought. This is gonna be good.
The fight was as entertaining as Robin had hoped. Aleksandr’s knightly training was painfully obvious. Taraam taught their men well, and Perrin clearly knew his way around a blade better than most. As good as Levin, probably. But Aleksandr was the sort to have grown up with his own personal armsmaster.
I like to think it was the steel sword that scared me shitless, Robin thought. But it wasn’t. God’s scales, I don’t envy that Taraamite son-of-a-bitch.
It didn’t take long for Aleksandr to close with Perrin, batting the sword out of his hand entirely and tumbling him to the dirt. Before Perrin could rise, Aleksandr pressed his sword down on the man’s chest. Perrin knew when he was finished.
After that, they broke out the bayard’s real gift to them: a cask of good Ruskan dark. Everyone had a few, and they bonded as true brothers-in-arms. Soon enough, talk turned back towards this company of theirs. More specifically, it turned to what to call it.
“I had a thought,” Aleksandr said. He was still nursing his first tankard of ale. He didn’t seem to like it much.
“Go ahead, don’t leave us in suspense,” Robin said.
“A name should catch attention,” Aleksandr said. “Olivenco keeps telling you this, Yorrin. Da?”
“Sure,” Yorrin said.
“Something unusual. Not easily forgotten. Well, this thought I had, and another. When I was working with Piotr—Bayard Bogdanov’s smith—he told me a story. His mentor, an old man named Oleg that knew steelsmithing well. This mentor, he said that steel as we call it is poorly named. He said that all hard tempered iron was steel, in a way.”
“We’d be sitting on a wealth of steel if that was true!” said the Whip.
“Da. Is strange claim. But I am thinking… all men know of steel, and all warriors wish to possess steel arms and armor. I have steel sword. Yorrin does as well.”
“Is this a brag?” Robin heckled. Aleksandr shot him a stern look, and Robin shut his mouth. Not worth it, dummy, he told himself.
“You thinking we name the company after your sword after all?” Yorrin asked. “Not Black blade, of course. But… what? Steel?”
Aleksandr wiggled his hand in a noncommittal gesture. “Not sword,” he said. “I am thinking… entire company. Steel Company. No. Steelshod Company.”
“Steel shod? Really?” Perrin this time. “So much steel we’re using it on our horses now? That’s an outright lie.”
Aleksandr frowned. “Is not a lie to Oleg,” he said.
“Besides, it’s certainly memorable,” Yorrin said. “Lie or not. Folk hear of a company called Steelshod and they’ll pay attention. Sounds like an elite group, if they’re so well outfitted.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “I am thinking this as well. Do not think of it as a lie. Is…” he paused, seeking a word. Finally it seemed to dawn on him. “Aspirational, I think. Perhaps one day will be true. And not by Oleg’s measure, but by the common man.”
“Steelshod,” Yorrin said, as if testing the name on his tongue. “Yeah. That’s got a good ring.”
A moment of silence fell on them as the name rippled across each of them in turn.
“Alright,” Robin said. “I’ll admit it. I know good names, and this one isn’t half bad. Speaking as a thoroughly reformed rapscallion, if I heard a company called Steelshod was coming after my bandits I’d recommend we head for the hills.”
“I like it,” Anatoly said.
“No one ask you,” growled Bear. After a pause, he added “But—da. Is good.”
“It’s not up to us,” said the Whip. “But for whatever it’s worth, I think you’ve won us over Aleksandr.”
Aleksandr smiled. “Is worth a great deal, Dylan,” he said.
He stood, draining his tankard in a long pull.
“Steelshod,” Aleksandr said again. “Da. One day, I will outfit you all to match.”