Yorrin did not sleep well.
When he left the meeting with the Svardic priest, the air seemed to grow colder. That night, in his chamber, shadows danced across the walls. He wasn’t sure if it was his imagination or some accursed heathen black magic.
Either way, he knelt by his bed and prayed to Torath until the feelings passed. He slept fitfully, disturbing dreams rousing him throughout the night. He rose before dawn.
Might as well do something useful with the extra time, he decided.
He donned his gear, old and new. The sword and dagger felt comfortable on his belt by now, but he was still getting used to the armored jack. It was heavier than gambeson by a good bit. He’d been afraid of noise, but the pieces of iron plate were completely enveloped in layers of cloth and leather. It was as silent as the gambeson, silent as any bulky jacket would be. He’d grow accustomed to the weight and the stiffness the more he wore it, and so he wore it every day.
Last of all, he swept his new cloak over his shoulders. He treasured this bit of his garb more than the armor, though it had been many times less expensive. It bore the sigil of Steelshod, after all. Aleksandr’s company.
My company too, in a way, Yorrin thought. Our company, if Aleksandr keeps running it as he has.
Aleksandr would lead Steelshod to great things. Of that Yorrin had no doubt. And he would follow him. What else was there to do?
I don’t even know where I’d go, on my own. Aleksandr has shown me how to be a good man. Or at least given me the outline. There’s still plenty to learn from him in that regard.
Yorrin slipped out of the Silver Pine quietly, before the common room had begun to wake. The muddy streets of Yerevan were dark, with just a gray glimmer on the horizon to tell of the coming dawn. Still, it was enough light to walk by. Yorrin kept his head down as he made his way down to the docks.
I may still be learning the details of what it means to be a good man, he thought. But there are a few things I knew even when I was a guttersnipe. Like the dangers posed by heathen savages.
Hakon and his ilk were a threat. To the Midlands, or so they said. To Yerevan, Yorrin suspected. And to Alaina, which was the most concerning of all. They had to be thrown out, but Bayard Bogdanov seemed to lack the courage.
I bet I can find something that will change his mind, Yorrin thought. Before I was a mercenary, before I learned how to fight properly… I knew how to dig up dirt.
Dawn was breaking by the time Yorrin reached the docks. Hakon had bought room at a seedy dockside inn, and Yorrin kept his distance from there. He had no desire to draw the priest’s attention. Instead, he did some light carousing through some fo the folk of the docks just getting out into the streets. Taking their meals on the street or in the taverns, gathering by the piers to wait for ships and work to come in, and the like.
Yorrin greased a few dozen palms with copper gir and some of his new coins picked up in Yerevan. It seemed Middish copper pennies were more common than Ruskan coins in Yerevan, and Yorrin was accumulating a considerable number of them.
He didn’t learn much from the coin spent. Hakon’s guards kept to themselves. They all seemed highly disciplined, and not particularly interested in making acquaintance with the people of Yerevan. Hakon himself was friendly enough, for a foreigner. His Middish and Ruskan were both excellent, so he had no difficulty being understood. Even so, more than one man told Yorrin that the Svardic priest put them on edge a little. Something about him just didn’t sit right.
“They don’t do anything for fun, then?” Yorrin asked his latest contact. “None of them get a little drunk, flirt with the serving girls, anything like that?”
The man he was speaking with—a Ruskan fisherman with a craggy, weathered face—shrugged. “No, not that I see,” he said. “They not like the others, I think. Very serious.”
“Da,” the fisherman gestured out to the Ironblood.
No, not the river, Yorrin realized. The ship.
“Have others come on shore?” Yorrin felt a nervous prickle as the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. That would be good, though, if I could prove it. The bayard didn’t give his go ahead to that. Maybe—
“Nyet,” said the fisherman. “But I hear. All day and all night. Especially when I am fish, da? Out on water near Svard ship. Always shouting, always laughing. Always drinking, I am think.”
“Always drinking, are they?” Yorrin mused. A plan was forming in his mind. It wasn’t a particularly good plan, and Yorrin felt sure it was needlessly dangerous. Aleksandr would undoubtedly think it a terrible plan, and forbid it.
Aleksandr’s not here. Sometimes a terrible plan’s all you’ve got. Yorrin shook the fisherman’s hand, leaving a pair of coins behind. “Thanks, old man. You have a vessel of your own?”
“Da,” the fisherman said, grinning a mouth full of mostly empty gums. “Is good fish skiff, I have many years.”
“You taking it out for a swim today?” Yorrin asked.
The fisherman shrugged, casting his eyes skyward as in in thought. “Nyet,” he said finally. “No. Not today. I stay.”
“Don’t suppose I could rent it from you for the day,” Yorrin said. “I’ve got plenty more coins like those, and other types besides.”
The fisherman looked Yorrin up and down. Yorrin did his best to look like a fisherman, whatever that might mean. “You row? Current mostly easy here, but… not always.”
Yorrin nodded. “I’ll be fine,” he said. He cast his mind back to the docks in Nasarat, and how much using a small simple ship for the day might go for. He fished in his belt pouch and drew out a few silver shekels.
It was the right call. The fisherman’s eyes lit up. He snatched the coins out of Yorrin’s hand and immediately began ushering Yorrin down to where his fishing skiff had been pulled up onto a muddy bank.
It wasn’t much to look at. Still, Yorrin had been in a few boats back in Nasarat. He knew how to row and steer a small craft like this, so long as the current of the Ironblood wasn’t totally unmanageable. The fisherman gave him a hand shoving off, and then Yorrin was powering his oars through the gray water.
He set a good pace. The current was fine, much easier to fight than a windy day on the Encircled Sea. The little skiff cut through the river quite nicely, and before long he was growing close to Hakon’s ship.
It was even bigger up close. A proper ship, a galley of some kind. Seaworthy, at least by the standards of Nasarat and the inland sea. He’d heard the storms over the wide ocean were especially fierce, but he’d never seen them.
As he grew closer, he heard voices. Loud chatter, punctuated by laughter and bellowing. The fisherman was right. That’s the sound of hungover men doing their damnedest to get drunk before noon. Guess they haven’t got much to do, anchored here waiting for Hakon.
Yorrin could only hope that meant they would welcome a bit of interruption.
He heard a sudden shout, different in cadence than the boisterous sounds he’d been hearing so far. The words were unintelligible gibberish that Yorrin could only assume was Svardic. He looked up at the deck of the ship, squinting, trying to see who’d spotted him.
There. A man was leaning over the deck, staring at Yorrin. As Yorrin grew closer, the man came into focus: his hair and beard were long and wild, he wore furs over mail, and he held a shield in one hand and a horn in the other. For a moment Yorrin thought he was about to blow an alarm, until the man brought the wide end of the horn to his lips and took a long swig from it.
Then he shouted again, and more figures began coming to the edge. They looked much like Hakon and his guards: big, rough, dangerous looking men. Armored, and armed with a smattering of blades and axes and spears.
“Hail!” Yorrin called, once he judged he was in easy earshot. “I’ve come to parley. To talk. Talk! You know that word?”
One of the men laughed. “Ja!” he said. “We know this word, Middishman!”
Well, at least they speak Middish, Yorrin thought. He rowed himself closer. “Good,” he called up. “Let me come aboard, then?”
More laughter, but a long cord of knotted rope was dropped down the side. Yorrin rowed over to it. He tied the bottom off to the bow of his skiff, and then scurried up the rope. He did his best to keep his cool, and not let any worries or fears show on his face.
The deck of the ship wasn’t too shocking to Yorrin. It was crowded with Svardic warriors lounging about. Plenty of liquor was flowing, and Yorrin saw men engaging in rough, savage games—wrestling, knife throwing, and the like.
One man stepped forward, hand resting on the pommel of a sword sheathed at his side. He appraised Yorrin with dark, inscrutable eyes. He was ugly, missing an ear, but his hair was cut short and his beard was tightly braided. He looked more disciplined than most of the others.
“Who are you?” he asked. His accent was thick but still easily understood.
“Name’s Yorrin,” he said. “You?”
The man paused a moment. Then he spoke. “Geir,” he said. “Why do you come here, Yorrin?”
“Your man Hakon’s causing quite the stir in Yerevan,” Yorrin said.
“Ja,” Geir said. He shrugged. “This does not surprise. But… it is not an answer.”
“I came to see what you lot are about,” Yorrin said. “Svards. Heard about you before, but never seen you until now. Folk seem to fear you.”
“Middish are fearful,” Geir said.
Yorrin smirked. “Western Middish, maybe. I’m from Torathia. You have heard of Torathia, haven’t you? Even in your savage lands?”
“Well then. Torathia threw down the old Cassaline Empire. Our Knights Serpentes are the finest fighting force the world has ever seen. Why would we be fearful of some northern barbarians?”
“You come to mock us, then?” Geir asked.
He doesn’t sound offended, at least.
“In Svarden, mockery is answered,” Geir continued. “Maybe I open your belly and let the blood paint the deck of the Vlarrøk. Barbaric, ja?”
Alright, he might be offended, Yorrin thought. “Not necessary,” he said. He twitched his elbow, nudging his cloak back enough to clear the hilts of his sword and stiletto. “I’m not mocking you. You’re northern barbarians, that’s just a fact. Heathen devil worshipers, too.”
Yorrin was well aware that he and Geir had attracted an audience. The Svards were murmuring among themselves in their native tongue. A sound full of guttural noises, grunted vowels, and mushy consonants. He couldn’t understand a word of it, but he could tell from their tone that they weren’t amused.
“Just because you’re heathen barbarians doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other,” Yorrin said. “But you want to show me? Mash my face into the deck? Alright. Let’s do it. You!”
Yorrin pointed, not at Geir, but at a random Svard in the crowd. He held a skinning knife in his hand; he had been throwing it at a simple crude target sitting on a far side of the deck. He frowned, and said something in Svardic. Yorrin thought he heard “me” in there, or something like it, and the words ended with a questioning tone.
“Yes,” he said. “Or yeah or yah or whatever your word is for the affirmative. You. Let’s see that blade.”
The man glanced at Geir, who gave him a stiff nod. He approached Yorrin and offered up the knife.
“Thanks,” Yorrin said. He hefted the knife, feeling its weight and balance. He looked to Geir. “Well? How many throws you usually do? One? Best of five? Whatever your preference.”
“You want to throw knives?” Geir asked, unable to hide the surprise in his voice.
“Sure,” Yorrin said. “Unless you’re fearful, I suppose.”
“We will throw,” Geir said. “Best of five is fine. And if you lose, I… what was word? Mash your face into deck? Ja.”
“Good. And if I win…” Yorrin said. “You can pour me a horn of whatever they’re drinking, for a start.”
Geir smiled a mirthless smile. “Ja,” he said.
The knife was well balanced. Yorrin lost the first throw getting acquainted with it, to the delighted hoots of the Svards. He won the next three easily, and the ship was deathly silent by the final throw.
Geir barked an order in Svardic. Yorrin felt his muscles tensing, ready for a possible attack. He was acutely aware that he was essentially surrounded by sneering, savage faces. He tried to plot the clearest path he might be able to take, if he started cutting his way to the edge of the ship.
He exhaled when a man pushed his way through the crowd, and shoved a horn in Yorrin’s face.
“Take,” he said.
Yorrin took. It was a strong and bitter drink, closer to spirits than beer. No wonder they’re all drunk by noon. He swigged it nonetheless. Once the horn was empty, he tossed it to the deck of the ship. “Now then,” he said. “What else have you got to do here?”
Svards were heathens and savages, of course. But in some respects they were not so different from the rougher sorts of men that lived in the cracks between the civilized lands of Torathia.
They liked to drink, fight, and fuck. Yorrin was happy to join them in the first two, at least. He had a feeling they had slave women belowdeck for the third, but fortunately they did not bring any out. Yorrin felt he would have no choice but to try to free them.
It’s what Aleksandr would do.
Instead, they filled the next few hours with liquor and bravado. Wrestling and throwing knives or axes were just the start. As they grew more intoxicated, their games and tests grew more dangerous. Wrestling turned to all-out fistfights that would leave all involved bloody and at least one man senseless. Knife throwing became knife juggling, which then turned into a game where men would throw knives or axes at each other as a test of skill and courage. One had to catch the weapon, evade it, or stand their ground and hope for the best.
This game seemed singularly insane, but Yorrin was trying to get to know these savages. He played a round with a small, light axe. Mostly he just ducked out of the way, but that seemed to be the least acceptable method of survival. The Svards laughed and called him names he could only assume were unflattering.
Yorrin finally gritted his teeth and stood his ground. As the axe came flying towards him, he held his right hand open and low, below where he expected the weapon to strike. He trusted in his quick reflexes, and in the plates sewn into his coat. He reached up at the last possible moment, grabbing the haft of the axe as it connected with his chest.
The impact shocked him a little, but he caught it before its full momentum had transferred into his chest. The axehead had not even pierced the layers of cloth on his armored jack.
That got some shouted cheers. Without a moment of hesitation Yorrin brought the axe to his side and then whipped his arm forward, throwing the axe at his opponent. Not one to be outmatched, the Svard tried to catch it in return. Crimson blood splashed onto the deck, and he howled in pain as the axe fell to the ground.
That earned Yorrin a great many claps on the back, and another horn of strong spirits. The Svards seemed amused that a man of such small stature could be so fierce. They began talking to him more earnestly, then, in their broken Middish.
Not so different from working your way into a gang’s good graces, really, Yorrin thought. Just have to know what they’re going to respect.
For all that he’d earned the respect of many of the Svards, Yorrin noticed a few men that were entirely unamused. They stood off to one side of the ship, near the trapdoor that led below. They were tall, broad warriors that did not participate in the drink and festivities. Every one of them seemed to keep their kit polished, their hair and beards more tightly braided. Most of them had Svardic letters tattooed on their faces.
“What’s with them?” he asked one of the men nearby. They’d been sharing some kind of wine, and the fellow seemed amiably drunk. His name was Leaf or Loaf or somesuch. Leaf Yellow-Hair, that’s it. “Too good to drink with the rest of you?”
Leaf shrugged. “Ja,” he said. “They are Hakon’s huskarls.”
“Look here,” Yorrin said, letting the buzz he felt in his head lend a bit of friendly slur to his voice. “Pretend I’m a Middishman for just a minute, and that I haven’t a clue what a hoose girl is.”
“Hah!” Leaf took another swig of the drink and passed it back to Yorrin. “Ja, ja. Huskarl is… sworn man. Sworn not only to Hakon, but to High Priest. Vlari Huskarls, ja? They protect Hakon on shore. On Vlarrøk they watch us, make sure we do not trespass into High Priest’s quarters. That kind of thing.”
“Hakon doesn’t trust you?” Yorrin asked.
“Eh,” Leaf said, shrugging. “Little, maybe. Big army, we not all from same lands.”
“Wait, really? What do you mean? You’re not from Svarden?”
Leaf laughed. “Ja, from Svarden. Svarden is—like Midlands, ja? You not from Caedia.”
“Right right,” Yorrin said. “So you’re from different kingdoms in Svarden. When he came into town, Hakon said somewhat about that. Many clans, united under some Tarry Barn Son fellow.”
Leaf’s demeanor changed instantly. He frowned, and his voice lowered. “The Jarl of Jarls,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s him,” Yorrin said. Come on, we’re just two mates having a drink. Calm down.
“The Jarl of Jarls is great man,” Leaf said. “Greatest warrior to ever live. He has united the clans of Svarden and Kriegany under one banner.”
Kriegany? Yorrin suppressed a frown. Kriegany was a land just north of Caedia. Yorrin didn’t know a great deal about it—the kingdoms were more savage than the Middish kingdoms, of course. Godless clansmen, not unlike the Svards. Even so…
“Kriegany too? Seems like an awful lot of men for one Jarl to unite. How’d he manage that?”
“Many ways,” Leaf said. “Or at least, this is the stories I hear. Some he won by friendship, others by persuasion. Most… by force.”
“Once his army was big enough it was ‘join or die,’ eh?”
Leaf held up a hand and waved it back and forth in a noncommittal gesture. “Not his army,” he said. “Him. The Taerbjornsen, he is famous for his skill at holmgang.”
“Skill at what?” Yorrin asked. “Remember, Leaf, pretend I’m some civilized Middish fop that’s never heard of a Svard before, yeah?”
Leaf grinned. “Holmgang. It is… fight. One man against one man. Test of skill and strength.”
“Oh. Like everyone’s been doing here?”
Leaf shook his head immediately. “No, no. More, uh. What is Middish. Ritual? Special fight. Small area set aside, on a skin or a circle. Fight until one man leaves or dies. True fight, blood and iron.”
“Ah,” Yorrin said. “I think we call that a duel here.”
“Duel. Hm. Holmgang better word,” Leaf decided.
Yorrin shrugged. “So this holmgang, if it’s a one on one duel how does that account for Taerbjornsen bringing entire clans into the fold? He fight every one of them?”
“Hah! No. Just their Jarl, or his champion. And any other champions they send. No clan send more than a few. Taerbjornsen… he is huge. A mighty warrior. He is fearsome.”
I’m sure. Fearsome for a Svard. Aleksandr’s got heavy plate and a steel longsword, somehow I think he can handle a heathen barbarian king, however big he might be. Yorrin just nodded in understanding. “And just like that, an entire clan follows him?”
“Ja. Holmgang often fought for such thing. Is a good way to decide, ja? Better man win. Favored by the gods, or by fate.”
“Gods?” Yorrin asked. “I thought you just worshiped the squid thing. Flar or whatever.”
“Vlar,” Leaf said. “Ja, Vlar is greatest god of them all. God of the sea, of blood and fate and secrets. He is not the only god, though.”
“Huh. Fair enough,” Yorrin said with a disinterested shrug. There was only so much a man could pretend to be interested, and learning about backwards faith and false gods was where he drew the line. “So this Taerbjornsen fellow has never lost a holmgang?”
“And if he had, then the clan could have told him to piss off? Just like that?”
“Ja,” Leaf said. “Holmgang is sacred tradition. Very old. The Jarl of Jarls would honor it. High Priest would insist.”
“Would he now?” Yorrin mused. Leaf offered him the wineskin, and he took a slow sip. “Good to know.”
Leaf began rambling on about Svardic honor, but Yorrin was only barely listening. The sun had already climbed well past noon, and he was fairly sure he’d got what he came for. He slipped away from Leaf’s company and began making his way to the side of the ship. He’d nearly reached the place the knotted rope hung down when a man stepped in front of him.
“Geir, was it?” Yorrin asked.
“Ja. You are going?” Geir studied Yorrin with his dark eyes and inscrutably blank face. It was hard to look at him without staring at the gruesome scar across his scalp, where no hair grew. That and his missing ear told of a wound that ought to have killed him.
“I think so,” Yorrin said. “Thanks for the hospitality, of course. It was… quite the experience.”
Geir nodded slowly. “I see,” he said. “And you found what you came for?”
Careful now, Yorrin thought. This one hasn’t been drinking. And with that scar it’s easy to miss the tattoo beneath his beard. He’s one of those fellows Leaf was talking about. A servant of Hakon and his dark god.
Geir didn’t seem bothered by the long silence Yorrin let drag on. Finally, Yorrin shrugged. “I guess,” he said. “Just felt like seeing what you folk are like. Taking your measure, as it were. Your master says he plans to crush the Midlands beneath his boot. I figured it might be a good idea to know what us Middish are up against.”
“I see,” Geir said. “And now you will return to your people with this information?”
“That’s the idea.”
“Perhaps I do not wish you to,” Geir said. “Perhaps Hakon would be pleased if I sliced you open and painted the Vlarrøk’s hull in your blood.”
“Perhaps,” Yorrin said. He cleared his cloak from the hilts of his blades, as he had when he first boarded. “Lot of Svards on this ship. I’d bet they could do it. But perhaps it wouldn’t go so smooth. Perhaps you saw me in action today, saw how fast and careful I can throw a blade. Perhaps the first thing that would happen is I’d draw my dagger and plant it in the apple of your throat. At which point I don’t expect you’ll be in a position to care what happens to me, or how pleased Hakon is.”
Geir did not reply. Yorrin let his threat hang in the air. None of the other Svards were close enough to have noticed the exchange, and Geir did not try to get their attention. He just stared at Yorrin with blank eyes for a long, uncomfortable silence.
Then he took a slow, careful step to the side. “We will meet again, I think,” he said.
Yorrin kept a hand resting on the hilt of his stiletto as he crossed the deck and took hold of the rope.
“Yeah,” he said. He hopped over the edge, hanging from the rope. He met Geir’s eyes one last time. “I suppose you’re right.”