Even godless heathens can keep their word.
Yorrin wasn’t sure he’d have ever believed it, if you’d told him. As much as he and other urchins in Nasarat had scoffed at the simple, gullible morality of men like Aleksandr, they still believed in some sort of honor. They still believed in Torath, in Right and Wrong. And even the most dastardly cutthroat wasn’t as untrustworthy as a heathen.
But there they were, hunkered down in a rough cavern that joined the main Underpass tunnel. The horses were clustered about, noses in feedbags. They didn’t have a fire, but they were huddled together with blankets. They gnawed on smoked meat, hard bread, and dried apples. The Whip passed Yorrin a waterskin, and he took a swig. Bear and Borthul had already dozed off. Soon enough everyone else would catch a bit of sleep as well, and Yorrin would take first watch.
Yorrin had no idea if it was night outside the Underpass. It had been hours since the last goblin attack. Their energy had been flagging for some time. When they passed this alcove, Aleksandr had suggested they pause to catch their breath and some sleep. A good plan—the Underpass was said to take about three days of travel to cross by caravan. Riding light, they expected to cross faster. But they’d need a rest at some point, and now seemed as good a time as any.
It seemed Voresh was a man—goblin—of his word. No attacks since they’d parted ways. But any time now, Yorrin figured, they were like to cross into the “aurin” controlled parts of the Underpass. Better that they rest up now, so that they could push hard for the rest of the road.
Aleksandr trusted in the goblin’s honor. I didn’t think they had any. Yorrin couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. Why so hard to believe? He trusted in my honor, too. And for some reason, I proved him right.
He was a strange man, Aleksandr was. He lived honor and nobility, as if it was no stranger than breathing. And somehow, in doing so, he breathed it into everyone around him. Even Nasaratian cutpurses. Even murderous heathens squatting in dark caves.
Aleksandr rose from his bedroll and went to detach the feed from the horses. Yorrin joined him.
“How long before we run into more trouble, you think?” Yorrin asked. He kept his voice low, hoping it wouldn’t carry far. The acoustics in this place were unpredictable, to say the least.
“The aurin, you mean?” Aleksandr said. Yorrin nodded. “Soon, I expect. If what Voresh says is true, they control much of the tunnel.”
“Think we’ll be able to strike a bargain with them, too?”
Aleksandr met Yorrin’s eyes, and frowned. “I do not know,” he admitted. “From what Voresh said, they are…” He hesitated.
“Violent and pointlessly aggressive,” Yorrin finished the sentence for him. “And coming from a goblin that’s really saying something.”
“Da. My thought, too.”
One of the horses lipped at Yorrin’s sleeve when he took the food away. He scratched it on the nose. “So we kill them,” he said, shrugging.
Aleksandr nodded. “Da. Is not something I will object to. If they cannot be reasoned with, we do as we must. Only… Voresh’s people are driven out by these aurin. That is truth in front of us, Yorrin: The racharin are losing.”
“You’re afraid it’ll be harder, from here on out. The aurin will be more dangerous.” A sobering thought. Voresh’s goblins were outclassed by hardened, armored knights like Aleksandr, but they hadn’t exactly been pushovers. Without Borthul’s magic, the last attack would’ve probably done for them all.
Aleksandr stowed the last of the feed in silence. Yorrin’s statement hung in the air unanswered. The answer was obvious, and unpleasant. Finally, they turned to head back to where they were bunked down. But they went no more than a few steps when Aleksandr paused.
“Thank you, Yorrin,” he said.
Yorrin cocked his head to the side. For what? He wondered to himself. When Aleksandr didn’t elaborate, he gave voice to the question. “For what?”
“Is possible you saved all of us, with the plan to capture Voresh. But… is more than that. You have been a good friend. You are becoming good man. I am glad you came with me, after Nasarat.”
Yorrin swallowed. How the hell am I supposed to respond to that? The urge to be flippant was strong, and yet… this was Aleksandr. He was not a flippant man. He said what he meant. Should I not do the same?
Yorrin was silent long enough that Aleksandr turned and took another step towards his bedroll.
“It’s been an honor,” Yorrin said finally. “Truly. If I’m improved… well, it’s thanks to you.”
Aleksandr turned back, frowning. He shook his head. “No. Is your accomplishment. I offer advice, only.”
“Advice only? Psh. You are a… a…” Yorrin fumbled for words. His voice caught in his throat. Expressing feelings such as these were not something he was accustomed to. Not by a long shot. He forged ahead nonetheless. “An idol. An exemplar. Someone to look up to, to emulate. You… you realize that, don’t you?”
Aleksandr’s frown did not change. “I am not.”
Yorrin rolled his eyes. Foolish modesty? This, I can deal with. “Are so,” he said. “Not just to me, either. The Whip was a mess when he joined up. You know that.”
“Da,” Aleksandr allowed that one, at least. “You know he had a difficult time. In his old company.”
“Sure. Doesn’t change the fact that he’s been looking up to you like a mentor since we got off the Crimson Serpent.”
“And then there’s Bear.”
Aleksandr snorted. “Bear? Bear does not see me as—as man to emulate.”
“Bear sees you as strong,” Yorrin said. “And he respects that. He may not emulate you, but he listens to you, yeah? You’ve been pointing him in, uh, let’s say more productive directions.”
“I suppose,” Aleksandr said.
“Want me to go on?”
“No. Is clear, I see your point. Only… Yorrin, is not intentional. I am not asking you to look up to me in this way.”
“You’re asking me to be a better person. A good person.”
Yorrin almost hesitated with the next words, but somehow he found the courage to speak the plain truth about his life. “How am I supposed to do that? How many good folk you think I’ve known?”
Aleksandr fell silent. It was obvious that wasn’t a question he had considered. “I am sorry, Yorrin,” was all he said.
“I’m not,” Yorrin said. “That’s life. Men like you aren’t as common as you seem to think.”
Aleksandr sighed. “Perhaps you are right,” he said. “But… they should be.”
That’s such an Aleksandr thing to say, Yorrin thought. He couldn’t help it: he laughed out loud.
Only for a moment, before he stifled it. He searched Aleksandr’s eyes, wondering if he’d given offense to his friend. But Aleksandr just smiled. It seemed he saw the humor in it, too.
Still, Yorrin sobered himself. It was funny, in a way. But it was also sad. And, he realized, it was also true. What would this world be like, if there were more men of honor and decency. Men who spoke the plain truth, and stood for their principles no matter the cost? He didn’t know. But he wanted to find out.
“There should be,” Yorrin agreed. And there will be. Starting with me.
They walked back to camp together.