The mercenaries didn’t look like much.
Alaina almost turned around right then. Is God testing me? She wondered, before dismissing the thought as blasphemy. God was not in the business of testing men. The world was dark and difficult enough.
Torath helps those who help themselves. Alaina thought to herself. That’s why you’re meeting these men in the first place.
She forced herself to cross the packed dirt floor of the common room, and stopped in front of the mercenary commander.
He was a tall man. Broad, with short dark hair, trimmed dark beard, and dark eyes. She’d been told he was Ruskan, but even if she hadn’t, she would have recognized the features. He wore a hauberk of dull gray mail, his leggings and cloak in muted earth-tones. The hilt of a sword rose up from his side, its long handle marking it as a blade of considerable size.
She shook his hand, and addressed him in his mother tongue.
“Pleased to meet you,” Alaina said. “Aleksandr, right?”
The man seemed taken aback. His jaw opened, but he did not reply for several long moments. One of his companions nudged him.
“Yes!” he said finally. “Your Ruskan is quite good. I am pleased to meet you as well. Mother Alaina, yes?”
Of course it’s good, I’ve been practicing nonstop for the last year, she thought. “Just Alaina will do,” was all she said.
“Care to share with the rest of us?” Asked the fellow that had nudged Aleksandr.
Alaina glanced at him. He didn’t look like much. If anything, he reminded her less of a mercenary, and more of the sneak thieves one learned to avoid in the worst parts of the city. He was dressed in scuffed leathers and simple roughspun, with a sword at his side. Short, much shorter even than Alaina. His skin was weathered and creased. She wasn’t sure if he was a youthful forty or a hard-lived thirty, but she suspected the latter. His hair was tangled and cut unevenly. Dirty blond, both in color and in cleanliness. His eyes were the color of iron blades, and just as sharp.
She disliked the way he looked at her. Not lecherously. She was used to that, being young and unmarried. Her vows had not included any pledges of chastity, and she found it easy enough to accept or spurn such advances as she liked. No, this fellow sized her up as if deciding how much she was worth. How much coin, how much time, how much trouble.
“Yorrin, show courtesy to the priestess, da?” Aleksandr chided.
The little man shrugged, but he held out a hand to shake. She took it. She half expected it to feel grimy or clammy or otherwise distasteful. It was rough with calluses, but dry and reasonably clean.
“Charmed, Mother,” he said. “The name’s Yorrin.”
From his accent he was Torathian. It almost sounded like the cadence of the nobility, or at least the merchant class. But his look and garb gave the lie to his mannerism. An affectation, perhaps?
“It's a pleasure, Yorrin. Please, call me Alaina. The honorific ‘Mother’ may be technically correct, but it’s never felt right.”
Yorrin nodded. “As you like, Alaina. Good to meet you.”
Definitely an affectation, Alaina thought. His accent slipped on the “as you like.” Lowborn, aping the tones and accents of the upper class?
Aleksandr gestured past Yorrin, to another of his mercenaries. This fellow was tall, much taller than Aleksandr. Or… no, Alaina realized he was only a little taller than Aleksandr. It was just that he was whipcord thin, almost to the point of looking emaciated. Where Aleksandr was well-built, this man was narrow and angular, so he seemed taller than he really was. His hair was a short mop the color of walnuts, with eyes to match. He wore a mail habergeon that seemed to hang a bit loose from his shoulders. She saw a small blade on his belt, and an unstrung bow slung over his shoulder.
“Dylan the Whip,” Aleksandr introduced. “Formerly of the Victorian Free Spears.”
The lean man, Dylan, winced. The expression passed across his face and was gone in an instant, but Alaina saw it nonetheless. Something about his old company, she thought. Some unpleasantness there.
She shook his hand.
“A pleasure,” he said. “We’ll keep you safe. I promise you that, priestess.” His flat Victorian accent sounded odd to her ear, but the tone was friendly enough.
Alaina looked at the next man. Nearly as tall as Dylan, and broader than Aleksandr. His eyes were almost black. His hair and beard were both bushy and dark, untamed and tangled in small natural ringlets. He wore furs over mail, and a large bearded axe hung from his belt.
“This is Bear,” Aleksandr said. “From the Steppes.”
“I have heard that your people are very strong,” Alaina said She held out her hand.
Bear grabbed it in a huge meaty fist, shaking her vigorously. He grinned at her, a look that was as much feral hunger as it was friendly. He gripped her hand hard, almost painfully.
“Is true!” he declared. “None is stronger. You very weak. Is why you hire us, da?”
She heard Aleksandr sigh, but Alaina just laughed. “I suppose so,” she admitted.
Bear nodded, a single decisive jerk of his head.
“And Prudence, you have met,” Aleksandr said, gesturing to the last member of his little band.
Alaina smiled at the small young woman. Even shorter than Yorrin, Prudence had mousy hair, pale eyes, and a girlish face and figure. She was dressed in simple, unassuming garb. Alaina felt like she could have easily mistaken Prudence for a common woman, or even a child.
She is more dangerous than she looks, Alaina reminded herself.
“Good to see you again, Prudence.”
“Likewise. Glad you made it.”
Alaina felt her brow quirk in momentary confusion. “Was that in doubt?”
“Prudence was not sure you believe her,” Aleksandr said. In Ruskan, the man was calm, confident, and well-spoken. In Middish, he sounded like a nervous boy. He spoke haltingly, choosing each word with care, and even so he clearly sometimes failed to pick the right one.
“Not sure that I believed her about what?” Alaina slightly stressed the correct tense of the word. In all honesty, she hadn’t even done it intentionally. Just habit, from her time spent tutoring young acolytes. “That you would be willing to help with my mission?”
“Or able,” Aleksandr said. “But I tell her to be faithful. You would give us a chance.”
Alaina smiled. “Of course. Prudence said you were the best men for the job.”
And I’m desperate, of course. But that need not be said.
Aleksandr motioned for them to take their seats. The roadside inn Prudence had chosen for the meeting was, perhaps unintentionally, perfectly emblematic of Alaina’s mission: It was a big building, and had clearly been built with care and dedication. But now it was run-down, in dire need of repairs. Just a few miles north of the great city of Nahash, the jewel of Torathia, and yet it had somehow managed to fall upon hard times.
Alaina took her seat. A tankard of warm beer waited for her, same as everyone. She took a taste: bitter and hoppy, not to her liking. The kindest thing she could think of it was that it seemed far too strong to be watered down. She sipped her drink slowly, and watched the mercenaries.
Yorrin and Bear swigged their drinks, clearly unperturbed by the quality. Dylan took a sip, grimaced, but then went back for another. Prudence didn’t touch hers. She just sat quietly, waiting for everyone to settle in. Aleksandr took a sip, frowned, and pushed the drink away. That surprised Alaina, somehow. He was a big, strong man from Rusk. She imagined all such men liked their brew strong and bitter.
“So,” Aleksandr said. “Prudence tells us you wish to go to Yerevan.”
Alaina nodded. “So I do. Has she told you any more than that?”
“A little,” Aleksandr said gesturing his hand, palm up, in an acquiescing shrug. “But I think you tell us, in your own voice. So that nothing is missed, da?”
“Of course,” Alaina said. “I guess we should start at the beginning: Have any of you been to Yerevan?”
A chorus of negatives. Even Aleksandr shook his head, though he added: “I hear of it, of course. A Ruskan trade city in the south of the motherland. It grows quickly.”
“What you’ve heard is all true,” Alaina said. “It rests on the banks of the Ironblood River. What your people call the Zhelezkrov.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “The Zhelezkrov is border between Midlands and Rusk.”
“Indeed it is, and in recent days Yerevan has benefited from substantial trade with the Middish kingdoms nearby, and along the Ironblood. As I understand it, the city is nearly half-Middish at this point.”
“Is likely,” Aleksandr agreed. “My father, he always tell me that Bayard Bogdanov's line is soon more Middish than Ruskan.”
“An exaggeration, but only just,” Alaina said. “And with so many Middish, of course, came their Faith.”
“Torathi?” Yorrin asked. He leaned forward. “Aleksandr doesn’t follow Torath especially, but he said the Faith isn’t uncommon in Rusk.”
Alaina chose her next words carefully. It would not do to offend the man she may soon hire. “The Torathi Faith has spread into Rusk, for certain. In great part due to the Tsar himself, and his advisor. But in many places it is… changed.”
“Bastardized?” Dylan offered.
“Bettered!” Bear said. “Torathmen worship little snake. What is sense in this? Where Bear come from, we worship strong gods. God of Winter. God of Mountains. God of Bears.”
Alaina smiled at the friendly barbarian’s interjection. But she looked past Bear, to Dylan, and she nodded. “In a sense. Torath is an understanding God, and the customs always vary considerably the further you go from Torathia. But in many parts of Rusk, it is almost unrecognizable. The local folk traditions drown it out.”
“But not in Yerevan?” Yorrin asked.
“Indeed not. In fact, Bayard Bogdanov of Yerevan has officially adopted the faith. He allowed for the establishment of a sizable cathedral in the city. I knew the priest that was overseeing it, Father Iosif.”
“A Ruskie himself, by that name,” Yorrin said.
“He was,” Alaina said. She tried to keep her voice calm.
Aleksandr did not miss her choice of words. Surprising, given his own apparent struggles with past and present tense. “Was?” he said.
“He is dead. Murdered. We only just learned of it, but it would have happened some months ago.”
“Someone doesn’t want your church?” Prudence said.
Brutally murdered, the report had said. His skin partially flayed from his body. And strange heathen sigils were carved into what flesh remained.
“Perhaps,” she said. “It’s unclear.”
“So the church building is on hold?” Yorrin asked. He seemed genuinely interested, which somehow surprised Alaina.
“Yes, until a new priest arrives to oversee it.”
“Is where we come in, da?” Aleksandr said. “You wish for us to take you over the Midland Mountains. All the way to Yerevan.”
“Yes,” Alaina said. “But for one detail.”
Aleksandr cocked his head to the side.
“I do not wish to cross over the Midland Mountains,” Alaina said.
She met Aleksandr’s gaze, keeping hers level and calm. The Ruskan mercenary’s dark eyes gleamed widely, as his brow furrowed in confusion.
They’re desperate, Alaina told herself. Why do you think they’re hearing you out in the first place? Because a ragtag band like this can’t find work with anyone else.
Alaina took a deep breath before forging ahead. “I want us to go through them.”