“Twenty three goblins,” Yorrin reported. “Snoring peacefully. We’ve got nine of them bound, but to tie up the rest we’ll need to start cutting off sections of our ropes.”
Yorrin’s tone suggested he didn’t approve of the idea. Aleksandr could not blame him, of course. Long coils of sturdy rope were liable to of great use in these caves, especially if things took a turn for the worse.
“Borthul,” Aleksandr said.
The old man’s eyes snapped open. He’d been dozing while standing up. “Eh?”
“How long does this magic of yours last?”
Borthul sniffed. “Twenty three, you said?” he asked Yorrin. Yorrin gave him a curt nod. “Fifteen minutes at the most. More likely ten.”
Ten minutes to make a decision, then, Aleksandr thought to himself. He turned to face Voresh.
Thankfully, the shaman appeared to be the only one of the domovoy that Borthul’s magic had not touched. He glared at Aleksandr, looking sullen and dejected. Aleksandr dropped down to eye level with the small man, resting his arms on his knees.
“Voresh,” he said.
Voresh locked eyes with Aleksandr. If the shaman could kill with a glance, Aleksandr would be dead. Of that he had no doubt.
“Our time is short,” Aleksandr said. “We cannot proceed with you and your kin behind us. You know this, da?”
Voresh ducked his head in a faint glimmer of a nod.
“Yorrin suggests we rid ourselves of you and the other domovoy—the racharin.”
“He wants kill,” Voresh said.
Voresh glanced at Yorrin, giving him a more significant nod. “You fear us. Smart.”
“I don’t fear heathen devils,” Yorrin snapped. “But neither will I shed a tear for you. You’ve made your bloody bed, time to lie in it.”
Voresh bared his teeth in what Aleksandr was quite sure was not an intentional smile, though it looked like one.
“Voresh,” Aleksandr said. “Is simple. I do not wish to spill more blood than is needed. Truly. But what is needed remains unknown. Is in your hands.”
“My hands?” Voresh said. “No. Yours. His,” Voresh nodded towards Borthul. The old man looked to have nodded off again. That was somewhat concerning, but Aleksandr couldn’t spare the focus away from the shaman.
He sighed. “Da. Fine. We hold your life in our hands. So then, listen: We will pass through your land. One way or another. But we kill enough of your people for one day. Let this end. If it must be so that we kill more domovoy before we leave this tunnel, let them be your foes. The ‘aurin’ that follow the Old Ones.”
Voresh glared, but did not respond. Aleksandr could only hope he was contemplating the offer more seriously, now that he’d seen a new glimpse of what they could do. It was clear that Borthul’s spell had shaken Voresh’s understanding of the situation somewhat.
Him and me both, Aleksandr thought to himself. Borthul truly is a wizard, after all. Alaina was right. What else can he do?
Voresh’s sullen gaze drifted over the bodies of his men. He seemed to be deep in thought, and Aleksandr wondered if he saw a slight softening in the shaman’s expression. Finally Voresh looked back to Aleksandr.
“You not kill them?” he asked. He growled the words. It was clear he was reluctant to say them, angry at himself for even considering them.
“I give you my word,” Aleksandr said.
Voresh spat. “Man’s word? Worthless.”
Yorrin took a step towards Voresh, glaring at him. “See here, you little—”
“Yorrin,” Aleksandr said. Yorrin stopped midstride and glanced at Aleksandr. “Stand down, please.”
Yorrin frowned, but he did as he was asked.
Aleksandr looked back to Voresh. “My word is not worthless. Is most important thing. I tell you it will be so, it will be so. Is simple: Leave us alone. Do that, and you and your fellows may go.”
“I not control all racharin,” Voresh said.
Aleksandr sighed. “Perhaps not. But this attack was worst we have seen. They came because we took you, da?”
Voresh did not reply. He scowled, but beyond that his expression was inscrutable.
“I think it is so,” Aleksandr continued. “Your kin respect you. Honor you. Is the same in human lands. We respect and honor our priests and wise folk. If you tell them not to attack us, I think that they will not. Or, at the least, most will not.”
“Aurin not care what Racha’s shaman say,” Voresh said.
“Da.” Aleksandr shrugged. “You have made this clear. Is separate issue. We will face that problem when we come to it. For now, I care about what you will do.”
Aleksandr heard a distant sound echo up the cave. Voices, muttering in a guttural tongue. Dylan and Yorrin stepped forward, bows in hand.
“More incoming,” Dylan said. “Not sure how many.”
“I counted six,” Prudence said, ducking out of the shadows. Dylan started at the sound of her voice, but Yorrin just gave her a cool nod.
“We can take six,” Yorrin said. “Bear, you ready?”
“Is Bear ready!” Bear grumbled to himself. He hefted his axe, leaning it against his shoulder. “Is sun married to moon? Is storm angry at ground?”
Yorrin gave the barbarian a blank look. “How the hell should I know? What do those even mean?”
“Bah!” Bear growled. He moved to stand beside the others, facing the dark tunnel. “Bear is ready! If fighting is happen, Bear always ready!”
Aleksandr looked back to the shaman. “Make your choice, Voresh. The time has come. You will lose more men if you draw this folly out any longer.”
Voresh stared back at him, silent. The sounds of the domovoy grew closer. Borthul stood a few paces behind the others, flipping through one of his tomes. In the orange firelight he looked pale and tired, but clearly he understood the gravity of their situation here.
“Yorrin,” Aleksandr said. He rose up, no longer eye-to-eye with Voresh, and drew Kholodny from its sheath.
“If the domovoy reach us, fall back from the fighting. We cannot have the others wake up. Finish them quickly. It seems—”
The voice was low, and quiet. But unmistakable.
They looked to the shaman. Voresh met Aleksandr’s eyes. “Truce,” he said. “Do not kill.”
“You have more of your kin coming in fast,” Dylan pointed out. “They’ll be the ones doing the killing, if we don’t kill them first.”
Voresh opened his small mouth and shouted something. He spoke the language of the domovoy, and Aleksandr could not understand a bit of it. But he shouted out several words at a somewhat surprisingly high volume.
The sounds of the advancing domovoy ceased. A single voice sounded out from the darkness. Aleksandr was almost certain he heard an undercurrent of fear in the tone.
Voresh shouted back again, even more emphatically. He was answered by muffled sounds. Aleksandr squinted into the darkness and he thought perhaps he saw movement receding away from the dim edges of the lantern-light.
“Is done,” Voresh said. “They gone. Now you true to word? Let me go, let them go,” he gestured to his sleeping kinfolk. “And I tell others. Spread word quick. No more racharin attack you, not if I can stop.”
“Risky,” Yorrin said.
“I give my word, Yorrin,” Aleksandr said.
Yorrin nodded. “I know. Didn’t say we shouldn’t. I wouldn’t bother. You think I need a reminder that you’re a man of you word?”
Yorrin said this last with a wry smile, and Aleksandr returned it.
“Just saying: it’s risky. Let’s hope it works out, and be ready if it doesn’t.” Yorrin glanced at Dylan, Bear, and Prudence. “Right?”
The three of them nodded, and Bear grunted approval. Bear looked at Voresh with a hungry grin. “Bear ready for fighting, little man. You break deal, Bear break you. Da?”
Prudence was already unbinding the captive domovoy. Voresh just glared at Bear as he rose to his feet. He picked his staff up off the stone ground, and leaned on it. He examined one of his sleeping men, and looked at Borthul.
“He will wake?”
The old wizard nodded. “Soon, I expect. Very soon.”
“Not unless he banged his head when he fell, no,” Borthul confirmed. “They’ll all just feel a bit fatigued, disoriented. Like a bad afternoon nap on a full stomach.”
I do not think he understands this analogy, Aleksandr thought.
But the gist was clear enough. Voresh nodded. “Fine. Good. You go. I stay. When they wake, we go tell other racharin. Step careful, till then.”
“Sounds fair enough,” Aleksandr agreed. “Come”
He called Dascha to his side, and mounted his companion in a practiced motion. He gestured to the others to follow. They all climbed onto their own horses with various degrees of skill. Alaina was the first to join Aleksandr’s side. They both watched as the others got ready, and as Voresh moved between the prone forms of his warriors.
“That was well done,” she murmured.
“Hm?” Aleksandr glanced at her.
“The way you handled Voresh,” she said. “Very well done. An excellent mix of kindness and strength. You’d make a good diplomat.”
“Oh.” Aleksandr felt his brow furrow in surprise. He wasn’t quite sure how to respond.
Perhaps fortunately, he was saved the effort of figuring it out. The others formed up around him, ready to go. He spared one last look at Voresh.
The shaman had helped two of his fellows to their feet. They all glared in Aleksandr’s direction, but they had not drawn weapons or taken any aggressive actions. He could only hope that this was a good sign.
He urged Dascha forward, and they moved deeper into the Underpass. He let his horse take the lead, and Dascha broke into a trot as they put some distance between themselves and Voresh. Aleksandr could be as hopeful as he liked, but the reality was simple: Only time would tell if the domovoy—the racharin—would hold to their end of the deal.