The men of Fort Taraam were desperate.
That much was clear. They were low on food, low on bandages, and most of all low on morale. Their gear was filthy, bloodstained, and damaged.
If we hadn’t come along when we did, I don’t think they’d have lasted another night. Yorrin thought to himself.
They said they’d set out from Taraam with twoscore men, including their captain. It was hard to believe.
Two on the wall. The captain and the one named Perrin were in with Alaina and Prudence. And two more, the men that had come out to get a pot of water boiling, they were still in there too. That was four inside the hovel. One of the men, Geoff—called Wallbreaker because he seemed to have a bit of sapper’s training—was walking the perimeter of the goblin walls with Aleksandr. The rest of them were hunkered down around a sad little fire. Five here, Lefty included.
Twelve, all told. Out of forty. And of the twelve, only five of them were basically uninjured. Their expedition had been a complete and total disaster.
Their de facto commander, Lefty, had given a full report of their status to Aleksandr. The practiced way he rattled off the details spoke of a military man. All of them gave off that impression, really. Yorrin had heard most sellswords were barely a step above brigands. But he had also heard that the men of Taraam were a cut above normal mercenaries. He’d always scoffed at the claim as the sort of rumor they’d spread about to make people more inclined to trust them.
Seems true enough, though. Most of my ilk would have abandoned their crippled captain here to die days ago. These men are loyal.
The men were passing around small chunks of rock-hard bread flecked with mold. He knew that his friends had spare rations in their saddlebags, but… did they have enough to share with a dozen men?
Yorrin surveyed the faces of the men around him. The ones who’d seen the worst of the fighting wore haunted, empty expressions. They were down to one last fraying thread of hope, if it hadn’t been cut entirely. Those with a bit more vigor were sizing up Yorrin and his companions.
Well, not exactly,Yorrin corrected to himself. They’re not sizing me up. Perk of being short and unassuming.
They weren’t sparing much attention for Borthul, either. Only because they hadn’t seen what the old wizard could do. Most of them were sizing up Bear. A few were studying the Whip.
Why? Wondering if they can take us? If they’ll need to take us? As he looked them over, Yorrin realized that one of them actually was staring at him.
“Need something?” he asked Lefty, opting for the direct approach.
Lefty shrugged. “Sure,” he said. “We need a hell of a lot. Starting with some hope for our captain, which your priestess had better deliver.”
“Had better? Or what?” Yorrin asked. He tried to put an edge to his voice, to be menacing.
Lefty’s expression didn’t change in the slightest. Hard to be menacing when he’s got a hundred pounds and a foot on you. Yorrin thought to himself. Still, better work on that.
“She’d just better,” the lieutenant said stubbornly.
Oh. Realization dawned on Yorrin. It’s not bluster. Just desperation.
These men loved their captain, that much was obvious. If their morale seemed worn thin now, Yorrin could scarcely imagine how much worse it would be if he died.
“You were staring at me,” Yorrin said.
Lefty shrugged. “Just staring. You ain’t much, are you?”
Yorrin clenched his jaw, and sat up a little straighter. “I guess not,” he said. “Must make it sting that much more that I saved your ass, then, eh?”
Lefty actually laughed at that. It was a single breath of laughter, just an exhale and a slight quirk of his lip, but he was clearly amused.
“Got a mouth on you, at least. That’s good. The captain’ll like you.”
“Who is this captain of yours, anyway?” Yorrin asked.
That got the attention of the other men around the fire. Yorrin caught a fair number of glares. One of the men, the hook-nosed fellow they’d called Connor, spoke.
“You really never heard of the Cutter of Camarr?” He said, incredulous. “Olivenco? The duelist that slew a hundred men eleven years back, when the Loonies tried to take Camarr?”
Yorrin kept his expression neutral. He’d never even crossed the Midland Mountains before, much less traveled a thousand miles to the southwest into the city-states of Spatalia. But he’d heard of them. Camarr was a city of canals, resting on the western coast. And “Loonie” would of course refer to the Loranettes, the folk from the Isle of Lorraine. It didn’t take a mastermind to fill in the gaps.
“Can’t say as I have,” Yorrin said. “Maybe once in a tavern song or somesuch.”
“I have,” offered the Whip. “I mean, I’ve heard of him, anyway. Hadn’t heard much of his exploits back in Spatalia. But I heard of it when he signed on at Taraam. That was, what, five years ago?”
“Eight,” Lefty said.
“I take it he’s led you well,” Yorrin said.
“Better than well,” said another of the mercenaries. This fellow had dark hair hanging in ringlets, and looked like he’d been clean shaven before he was trapped down here for a few days. “He was a real leader, the captain was. He—”
“Don’t go sayin’ was, Lordling,” snapped Lefty. “Captain ain’t dead yet.”
“If is possible to save him, Alaina will save him,” said Aleksandr.
Lefty jumped at the sound of Aleksandr’s voice. He’d come up behind them, with Wallbreaker in tow. Aleksandr moved to sit beside Yorrin, and Yorrin passed him a waterskin and a piece of hard pork sausage.
“Ah, spasibo,” Aleksandr said, taking the food and drink.
He’s distracted, Yorrin thought. He only says “thanks” in Ruskan when he’s distracted.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
Aleksandr shook his head, gnawing on the tough meat. But he was staring out into the darkness, and the flickering torchlights of the two men Lefty had left watching on the wall.
“Trouble?” Yorrin lowered his voice to a murmur.
Aleksandr looked back at him, and the others. “No,” he said. “Not exactly. Is just… I am thinking about how we will escape. Domovoy will assail us at every turn, I think. Geoff, he says attacks have gotten worse, not better. More often.”
Lefty grunted loudly. Clearly, he was listening in. “Wallbreaker’s got the right of it. Not just more often. More, all around. More boggins. More attacks. They ain’t letting up.”
Boggins? Yorrin almost laughed. Never heard that one. I kind of like it.
Aleksandr nodded. “We must go. Sooner, not later.”
Yorrin could sense the men around them sag at the words, as if Aleksandr was deflating them.
“Can’t say I blame you,” Lefty said. “Appreciate what you did, either way. And whatever the priestess is doing for the captain. If you go as soon as she—”
“No, no,” Aleksandr waved a hand dismissively, cutting Lefty off. “Not us. All of us. Us and you, both. We must go.”
Lefty blinked. For half a heartbeat, Yorrin could almost swear the haggard man looked like he might be moved to tears. But then the moment passed, and he scowled. “We ain’t leavin’ the captain.”
“Da, of course,” Aleksandr said. “Is only reason we have not left already. But when Alaina is done, we go.”
“Look here, Ruskie,” said one of the soldiers. Lordling, Yorrin was pretty sure. Good nickname. Arrogant-looking man, with a strong Cassaline nose. “You’re not in command here. You’re—”
“Ah stuff it, Lordling!” growled the stocky man with the bushy beard. Wallbreaker. “Ain’t your place, neither.”
“Enough, lads,” Lefty said. “Kerensky’s right. We can’t stay. And you’ll all show him respect, yeah? Him and his men have made it this far, with less men and less casualties. They’ve earned it.”
They don’t realize that the goblins are divided, Yorrin realized. They think the entire caves are full of aurin. That’s good. Makes us look a hell of a lot better.
“Thank you,” Aleksandr said. “But… we have not faced threats like you have. There are two factions of domovoy—of goblins—fighting over Underpass. It seems you have been fighting worse group, of the two.”
Damn it, Aleksandr.
The men around the fire just shrugged, though. They didn’t have the frame of reference to distinguish between the aurin and the racharin, not right now anyway. It just sounded like Aleksandr was being modest.
Lefty opened his mouth to reply, but he was interrupted when a scream tore through the camp.
Everyone jumped, and most of them scrambled to their feet, going for weapons. The scream was torn from a ragged throat, a long, sustained sound that echoed through the caves.
Yorrin started with the rest of them, but he didn’t reach for his sword. He realized quickly what it was. He watched grimly as understanding dawned on the men of Taraam one by one. They turned and looked at the hovel where the sound came from.
“Merciful God,” whispered one of the soldiers.
Lefty shot Aleksandr a glare. “What the hell is she doing to him?” he snarled. He looked furious, and he held a naked blade in his hand.
Aleksandr was still sitting. He took a swallow from his waterskin, then passed it to Yorrin. He stood up. He was an inch or two taller than Lefty, and noticeably broader in the shoulders.
“You know,” he said. His voice was quiet. Somber. His hands did not so much as drift towards his sword.
Lefty’s jaw clenched and unclenched repeatedly. Finally, he gave a curt nod. He slammed his sword back into its sheath.
The scream had died down, but it began again a moment later. Lefty looked at his men. Like him, they stood around. Clutching weapons impotently. Wondering what they could do. How they could help. Knowing they could do nothing.
One of the men, Connor, started walking towards the hovel.
“Quickblade,” Lefty barked. “Stop.”
The hook-nosed man stopped. “They might need help,” he said.
“Then they’ll call for it, or send someone out. Elsewise you’ll just distract them.”
Connor—Quickblade, Yorrin noted for future—stood motionless for a long moment. Yorrin heard his teeth grinding from several feet away. He went back to the fire wordlessly, and thumped down on the ground. One by one, the other men of Taraam joined him.
Olivenco’s screams continued for what felt like a very long time. The worst part was that when they quieted. The way they sounded, it was clear they weren’t getting quieter because their captain was in less pain. Rather, they could hear as his voice gave out. His cries grew more desperate, more ragged, until they were little more than choked croaking sounds.
What little conversation had been going on died completely. The Taraamites were beyond somber. Their own pain was etched across their faces. These were men that loved their captain. Little wonder they followed him into the Underpass.
Would we have followed Aleksandr here, if we’d known what awaited us? Yorrin wondered.
He glanced at his own captain. Not that Aleksandr would ever accept such a title, of course. But even so, he commanded them.
Aleksandr had finished eating. He was sitting quietly, expression inscrutable. Beneath his beard, his lips with a thin line. His bushy brow was drawn, and he was staring at the hovel where Alaina was working. He shifted slightly, with the sound of metal scraping across metal. After a moment, his head turned to meet Yorrin’s gaze.
Aleksandr smiled. It wasn’t a broad grin, but it was an unguarded expression of simple emotion. Yorrin smiled back.
Of course we would, Yorrin realized. The thought, the conviction, unsettled him a little. How much have I changed, in just a few months? Do I truly trust someone so deeply that I’m that willing to put my life in his hands?
He did. He was pretty sure the others might, too. But even if they didn’t, he did. Aleksandr had saved his life in more ways than one, that fateful day in Nasarat. It seemed only right that he be willing to put his life in Aleksandr’s hands now.
A chorus of murmurs and expectant noises shook Yorrin from his thoughts. He looked up, and saw that the others were all staring in the same direction.
Alaina had emerged from the hovel. Her face was flushed, and glistened with sweat. Her hair stuck to her cheeks in places. Her clothes were spattered with blood, and her arms were red up to the elbows. She looked exhausted, and haggard.
Prudence and Perrin emerged behind her. They were also bloodstained, and their expressions looked even more haunted than Alaina’s.
Lefty stood. He took a hesitant step towards her. Alaina met his eyes. The silence that stretched out between them felt like it lasted an eternity, but was probably just a few seconds. Lefty broke it first.
“Is he…” He didn’t finish the sentence.
Alaina’s wan expression finally changed. She smiled, closing her eyes for a moment as she did. When she opened them, the smile faded. She took a deep breath.
“Yes,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but he lives.”
For the second time since they’d entered the goblin camp, the cavern was filled with noise. This time, instead of screams, it was shouts. Instead of a sound of pain, of unbearable agony, it was joy. Hours of pent up apprehension, released in a single chorus of cathartic cheers.
Yorrin didn’t know these men, really. He didn’t know Olivenco. But he knew how he’d feel, if it was Aleksandr in that hut.
He stood up and joined their celebrations.