“Goblins,” Prudence said. “Twenty at least, maybe thirty. Moving towards the walls of an outpost.”
Aleksandr frowned. “And Yorrin?”
“On the wall, I think. I lost sight of him.”
“Caught between two factions of the domovoy—the goblins?” Aleksandr corrected himself.
Prudence gave a curt nod. “Looks that way.”
“Then we have to get him out,” Dylan said.
“Da,” Aleksandr said. Yorrin, what have you gotten yourself into?
“Safer to slip by behind them once they start fighting,” Borthul observed. “Yorrin can likely get himself out. And anyway, he knew the risks.”
Aleksandr didn’t break eye contact with Prudence. “Do we know which are the aurin? The ones in the outpost, or the attackers?”
Prudence shook her head. “Didn’t get a good look at either.”
“Does matter?” Bear asked. “If they get in way, we kill!”
“If you go picking a fight with thirty goblins, aurin or not, you’re like to get us all killed!” Borthul complained.
Aleksandr glanced at Bear. “Is better not to break our truce with Voresh…” He said. He sighed, then nodded. “But Bear is right. We go hard and fast, until we find Yorrin. Da?”
“Agreed,” Dylan said.
Borthul sputtered. “You can’t just ig—”
“We can,” Aleksandr said calmly, speaking over the old man in a firm voice. “We do not leave our men behind. Is not an option. You dislike, you may end our contract and go rest of the way alone.”
Aleksandr gave Borthul a hard look. His eyes flickered to Alaina, as well, hoping she would not side with the old wizard.
Borthul blinked. “I—but—I can’t!”
Alaina glanced at Borthul. “Then perhaps you should let them handle this their way,” she said. She met Aleksandr’s gaze. “Do what you must, Sir Kerensky. We will follow.”
Aleksandr just jerked his jaw down in a quick nod, then wheeled Dascha around. “Come!” he said to the others, spurring Dascha on forward at a canter.
By the time they entered the wide cavern Prudence had described, the fighting was already underway. The cavern was lit by orange firelights along the wall, and an eerie blue glow from below. Aleksandr saw a seething mass of dark bodies amidst the blue, and realized that a few of the domovoy attacking the walls were carrying some sort of blue-glowing torches.
He heard shouting on the walls, and he was almost given pause when he heard the unmistakable sound of men shouting in Middish. He spared a glance up, and saw that the figures on the wall were men, not pygmies. The stood tall, clad in iron and cloth, fighting off the domovoy that began scrambling up the wall.
That settled things. They were in aurin territory, so it was safe to assume that if only one faction of domovoy were involved in this fight, they would be the aurin.
One of those on the ground shouted when he saw Aleksandr and the others riding in. Heads began to turn in Aleksandr’s direction. A couple of arrows streaked through the gloom towards him, and he raised his left arm to cover his face. He did not slow down his charge. He felt impacts against his chest, heard the scrape of iron on iron as arrows glanced off of his breastplate.
Then he was upon them. The nearest aurin carried a blue torch, and Aleksandr noted it was not a torch at all. The tip of the stick was not lit with blue flames, but was instead some sort of rock or lump of dirt covered in something that gave off a soft blue light. Strange.
Not the strangest thing about the aurin, however. The creature was the same general size and shape as the racharin, but the resemblance ended there. The racharin had the appearance of tribal barbarians, clad in hides and crude castoff metal and cloth stolen from the settled lands. But these aurin looked far closer to the monsters that the old stories of domovoy conjured in Aleksandr’s head when he was a boy.
The creature’s lips were pulled back in a grimace, sliced and scarred and pinned back with small metal studs. He wore little, just a short vest of woven bronze links that looked like it might have once been intricate, many generations ago. Where the greenish metal did not cover, his dark, leathery skin was bared. Every inch of it was covered in scars and brands, strange symbols permanently etched into his flesh.
In his right hand, he held a blade. It did not look like a castoff from Torathia, a rusty sword or a farm implement turned into a makeshift weapon. It was well-fitted to his hand, a bronze single-edged blade covered in a green patina. The other side of the blade was shaped with impractical but frightening hooks and jagged angles.
He looked quite a bit more dangerous than the racharin Aleksandr had faced so far. On the other hand, he was still a domovoy—a pygmy. Aleksandr swept Kholodny down at the creature as it snarled, jabbing its sword at Dascha’s legs.
Aleksandr was bigger, and his sword was considerably longer. The domovoy screamed in pain as the sword bit deep into his shoulder, fouling his attack. Aleksandr urged Dascha forward, and the horse smashed the wounded goblin out of his way.
The other aurin were similarly outfitted. Ritualized scars, bearing strange-looking weapons and armor. They screeched and howled as they attacked, many of them breaking away from the assault on the walls to charge at Aleksandr and his allies.
Bear roared right back. He leapt out of the saddle of his horse and onto the ground, swinging his broad axe around in a great sweeping motion. Blood sprayed, and bodies hit the ground. Behind him, Dylan had his spear out. He slowed his horse, covering Bear’s back, stabbing at any domovoy that got too close.
Aleksandr rode straight for the wall. Three of the domovoy rushed towards him. None of them held the blue-light torches. All three bore swords that looked over-sized for their small frames, gripping them two-handed. Aleksandr wheeled Dascha as he reached them, and he slashed down at them with his blade. They fought in gloom and shadow, the nearest sources of light some distance away.
One of the domovoy took advantage of the poor visibility and strength of numbers. He ducked under Aleksandr’s reach, driving his jagged sword for Dascha’s side and Aleksandr’s leg. Aleksandr heard the crunch of metal, and felt a sharp pain bloom in his calf. He wasn’t sure if the blow had found a gap in his mail chausses, or if the pain was just from the impact. But he winced regardless.
The domovoy surged even closer, well inside Aleksandr’s reach, and drove his sword up towards Aleksandr’s face. Aleksandr twisted in the saddle, dodging the blow. Then he choked up his grip on Kholodny, gripping the blade in his left hand. He drove the point down at the domovoy, piercing his neck just above the collarbone.
The domovoy stumbled back, gurgling as blood gushed from the wound. The other two came in on either side of him, trying to press their advantage against Aleksandr. He quickly lowered his grip on Kholodny, using its superior reach to try to keep them back. In the dim light, he grimly noted another small figure darting in on his periphery. He only hoped that this goblin would cross Dascha’s front, and take a bite or a hoof for his trouble.
No such luck. The newcomer darted past Dascha, coming upon the melee from an oblique angle. Aleksandr’s blade was busy fending off the two domovoy, but he tried to urge Dascha to pivot and get them out of here.
One of the two domovoy suddenly whimpered. His bronze sword clattered on the ground, and he crumpled on top of it. A pool of blood, almost black in the shadowed light, rapidly spread beneath him.
The remaining domovoy looked at his fallen comrade in confusion, and his small, beady eyes widened. Yorrin stood over the dead goblin, his sword blade dripping dark blood. The domovoy snarled, turning to strike at Yorrin.
He never got the attack off. Aleksandr struck him on his exposed side, and he dropped. His eyes met Yorrin’s.
“Are you alright?” He asked.
Yorrin smirked. “Well enough. Bastards are ferocious, though.”
Aleksandr nodded. Then he jerked his head in the direction of the wall. “Middish?”
“Yeah,” Yorrin said. “No friend to the goblins, that’s for sure.”
As if on cue, the gate to the goblin outpost was flung open. Several men emerged—eight or so. They bore shields, kept them linked up tightly to form a small shieldwall. It was only two men deep, but when the nearest domovoy charged into it, Aleksandr could not deny that the formation was effective. They battered into the shields, and the men in the back thrust spears through the gaps.
Aleksandr offered a hand down to Yorrin. Yorrin took it in a firm grip, and Aleksandr pulled him up behind him with a smooth motion. They wheeled around, rode back towards the others. Dylan and Bear were still fighting a handful of aurin, and behind them, Aleksandr saw a few of them sprawled dead on the ground. Prudence had her crossbow loaded and ready, with Alaina and Borthul saddled up behind her, kept safe from any harm.
They charged the back rank of the three aurin still tangling with Bear and Dylan. The pincer served its purpose, and ended the fight almost instantly. Bear looked up at Aleksandr and grinned. Spots of blood flecked his cheeks and bushy beard. The cloth on his left arm was soaked red, enough blood that Aleksandr suspected it was not only from his foes.
“Aleksandr!” Bear bellowed. His breathing came in heavy pants.
“Bear. Are you wounded?”
Bear’s grin widened. “Da!” he said proudly. “These domovoy more fightier than others! By much!”
If he keeps this up, he will not live to see Yerevan. Aleksandr sighed. “Come,” he said. Not just to Bear.
Dascha turned again, and Aleksandr headed for the last of the aurin. They were caught up in the fray at the gate, howling and screaming as they battered the shieldwall.
They howled louder when Aleksandr and the others reached them. The fight that remained was quick, and bloody.
Whent he last of the aurin fell, Aleksandr found himself staring at a row of haggard, pale Middish soldiers. Their tabards were caked with blood and grime, and from their posture it was clear that they were exhausted. They eyed him warily.
Aleksandr dismounted, Yorrin following close behind. He drew a rag out of a pouch at his side and wiped the blood from Kholodny before sliding it into its sheath.
“Who the hell’re you?” Called one of the soldiers.
Aleksandr smiled. “I am Aleksandr Kerensky. And you?”
The man that had spoken fell silent, shrinking back under Aleksandr’s direct attention. But one of his fellows stepped forward.
The man was broad and heavyset. His cheeks were covered in a dark beard. His eyes were dark, and looked small beneath his bushy eyebrows. He wore an iron cap, and tufts of dark hair stuck out beneath it, clinging to his sweat-soaked brow. Like the others, he wore a mail hauberk, a sword at his side, spear and shield in hand. In the torchlight, Aleksandr saw that the man’s tabard was split blue and gray, with a crude black tower sewn into the chest. He did not recognize the device.
“Emmett,” he said. His voice was gruff, and hoarse. “Though most everyone calls me Lefty.”
Aleksandr tilted his head at that. He held his spear in his right hand, shield in his left. His sword was belted on the left, angled forward for a cross-draw. Maybe he has to fight right-handed, to maintain the formation?
Emmett seemed to catch Aleksandr’s confusion. He rolled his eyes. “It’s ‘cause I’m the Captain’s right hand lieutenant. Lieutenant, Lefty.”
“Oh. Da, I see. Well met,” Aleksandr said.
Lefty leaned his spear in the crook of his left arm, and rubbed his beard with a gloved hand. “Reckon it might be. You lot sure turned up at a good time. Fuckin’ goblins won’t ease up.”
“They might now, hey?” Said one of the others, a lean man with a hook nose.
“More like they’ll spend a little while gathering an even bigger force,” chimed in another. He was a tall, well-built young man with a bit of light brown scruff growing on his cheeks. “Then they’ll hit us again, twice as hard.”
“You’re all sunshine, Perrin,” replied the hook nosed man.
“Stow it, lads,” Lefty barked. He turned back to Aleksandr and offered his free hand. “Your help was much appreciated, Aleksandr. We’ve been hard pressed ever since we entered this damnable place.”
Aleksandr shook the offered hand. “Da, is no problem. We did not expect to find men here. Only domovoy.”
Lefty squinted at him. “Domo what?”
“Goblins,” Yorrin offered.
“Oh. That accent… Ruskan?”
“But you’re not,” Lefty said to Yorrin.
“No, Torathian. I—”
“Sir?” One of the men, behind Lefty spoke. It was one of the men that had spoken already.
Perrin? Aleksandr thought. I think that’s right.
“Best we take this inside the walls, don’t you think?” Perrin asked, gesturing to the open gate.
Lefty nodded absently. He looked Yorrin and Aleksandr up and down, then his gaze drifted behind them. Aleksandr saw the man’s eyes flicker across each member of his small party, appraising them one by one.
“Reckon so,” he finally said. “Come on, Aleksandr. And the rest of your folk. There’s room enough inside the gobbo fort.”
Lefty didn’t wait for a reply. He turned and began moving back behind the wall. Aleksandr noted that the man moved with a noticeable limp. Nearly all of his men were visibly wounded in some way or another, in addition to looking tired and caked in grime.
This was no trap. These men were fighting for their lives. Aleksandr followed Lefty, trusting that his friends would do the same behind him.
The area beyond the wall was clearly crafted by the domovoy. There were a number of small hovels and crude structures scattered about. The men settled down around a large, low-burning fire in the center of the area. Aleksandr and his people followed suit. Lefty hunkered down, prodded the coals with a stick, and one of his men passed him a wineskin. He took a deep swig, and offered it to Aleksandr.
“What the hell brings you lot to this godforsaken hole, anyway?” Lefty asked.
Aleksandr tasted the wine. Sour and potent, not to his taste. He passed it on to Yorrin, who took a long pull.
“We are escorting Mother Alaina,” Aleksandr nodded in her direction. “To the city of Yerevan. In Rusk.”
Lefty nodded, studying Alaina in the orange glow of the firelight. “I know the place,” he said. “No offense, priestess, but you must really want to get there.”
“I do,” Alaina said.
“Uh huh. Enough to put all these folks lives at risk.” Lefty said, clearly annoyed.
Unsurpring to Aleksandr, Alaina took the harsh words in stride. “Indeed,” she agreed. “And mine too, I think. I don’t imagine the goblins would spare me just because I am a priestess. The contrary, from what I’ve seen.”
Lefty nodded. “True enough. So you’re just passin’ through, huh? In an all-fired rush to get to Yerevan, no matter whose life you put on the line.”
Bear took a swig of the wine, and offered it to Alaina. One of Lefty’s men reached for it, assuming the priestess would not accept the offer. Alaina intercepted it, put the skin to her lips, and drank deeply. Then she passed it along.
“Last I checked, the men of Fort Taraam pay homage to the Church,” she said. “Not the other way around.”
Taraam? Aleksandr felt the name ought to mean something, but he couldn’t place it.
Lefty gave a wry smile. “Aye, that’s the truth. Our tithe coins at work, then, eh boys? Frittered away hiring some two-bit foreign mercs to take a priestess on a suicide mission.”
“We’re not dead yet,” Yorrin said. There was no mistaking the acid in his tone. “You’re from Taraam, yeah? I’ve heard of you. Isn’t it your job to keep the Underpass safe for travelers?”
Lefty winced, and he was not alone. Yorrin’s words struck a nerve. Aleksandr didn’t feel much sympathy. They’d come to these men’s aid, and gotten little but recrimination in return.
Still, this back and forth bickering serves no one.
“What are you doing here, so deep in the caves?” Aleksandr asked. Taraam is the fort on the other side of the Underpass, he realized. Mercenaries paid by the local lords to maintain the road. Alaina and the others spoke of it earlier. “We didn’t think we were so close to the far side of the tunnel.”
“You’re not,” one of the Taraamite mercenaries said. Not the hook-nosed man, or the other one, Perrin. This fellow was big and broad, with close-cropped hair on his head and a bushy beard.
“What Geoff means to say is: the goblins were worse than any of us’d ever seen. So the Captain planned an expedition to clear the whole tunnel out. We’d go in force. Send the little bastards scurrying back into the depths.”
“Didn’t go as planned?” Dylan asked.
Lefty glared at him. “Not as such.”
“Sorry,” Dylan said, shrugging. “Just… you said ‘in force.’ But there’s not even a score of you.”
“We’ve lost a lot of men,” Lefty admitted.
“I am sorry,” Aleksandr said.
Lefty glanced at him skeptically, as if doubting the sentiment. After a moment, he nodded. “Well. Nothin’ for it now. We know the plan’s shot all to shit at this point. If I can get these men back to the fort alive, I’ll call that as much a win as we can hope for.”
“So you’re headed back to Taraam? Back west?” Dylan asked.
Lefty nodded. “We’ve been fighting a retreat for a while now. But it got bad, so when we took this shelter, well. We hunkered down. That was two days ago.”
“You could come with us,” Prudence said. “Safety in numbers.”
“Shut up, Prudence,” Yorrin snapped. “It’s not up to you.” He looked at Aleksandr.
I do not wish for it to be up to me either, Aleksandr thought.
“Don’t matter,” Lefty said. “Can’t move now anyway. Not with the Captain as he is.”
“He lives?” Aleksandr asked. The way Lefty was leading, he had almost thought…
“Of course he does,” Lefty said. “Don’t tell me you ain’t heard of the Captain, before.”
Aleksandr furrowed his brow. “I—”
“I have,” Alaina interrupted. “I wasn’t sure he still served at Fort Taraam. Even as far as Torathia, many know of him. A legendary man, if he is who I think he is. ”
Lefty grinned, and many of the others followed suit. It was clear that their Captain, whoever he was, was a point of great pride to his men.
“If this Cap-Man so strong, where he is?” Bear grumbled. “Why he not fight with you? With us? He hide? Not sound so strong.”
“Now look here, you big barbarian fu—” One of the men, the lean one with the hooked nose, started to get to his feet.
“Stow it, Connor,” Lefty snapped. The man settled back down in his seat.
“And you, Bear,” Aleksandr said. “Be courteous, da?” He did not snap. But he expected Bear would listen nonetheless.
“Anyway,” Lefty said. “Yeah, the Captain’s here. He’s the man your priestess is wet for, alright.”
Aleksandr frowned at the vulgarity, but Alaina just looked amused.
“He’s in there,” Lefty jerked a thumb towards the largest of the crude goblin structures. “Sleeping.”
Ah. Understanding dawned on Aleksandr.
Bear wrinkled his nose. “Sleeping? Bah! Is sleep during big fight? Man is big legend? What is legend, legend of sleeping man?”
“Bear,” Aleksandr said sternly. Bear fell silent.
“He’s hurt,” Dylan said, stating the obvious. Lefty nodded, his expression grim.
Hurt badly, I think. Aleksandr thought. But they will not leave his side. These men may be doomed, if that is the case.
“His sword arm, no less,” Lefty said. “It—it don’t look good.”
A rustle of cloth, as Alaina suddenly stood up. The Taraamites all looked at her in surprise.
“Take me to him,” she said. “At once.”