Hope is such a fragile thing, Aleksandr thought to himself. I must nurture what little these men have left. It will not be easy. Perhaps Alaina has given me what I need.
He sat away from the fire, on a slab of stone that served as a sort of bench. He was watching the crowd. They had opened their rations to the Taraamites, and everyone was passing around a flask of spirits and some hard sausages. He could hear Bear mutter something, and he was met with a round of chuckles.
The spirits in the camp had certainly improved, when Alaina told the mercenaries that their captain had lived. No mention was being made of the man’s status other than that. Geoff, the man his brothers called Wallbreaker, had described a gruesome wound in the captain’s sword arm. He said it had gone septic.
From that, Aleksandr could surmise that Alaina had removed the arm. She had crippled the man. Their captain, this Olivenco, apparently had a reputation as a swordsman. Aleksandr had not heard of him, but then, Aleksandr was from the opposite end of the world. From the Ruskan fief of Pripia to the Spatalian city of Camarr might just be further than from where Aleksandr sat beneath the mountains to the moon in the sky.
Regardless, if the man was a famed swordsman, there was little chance he would take the loss of his sword-arm lightly. His days of dueling and battle were over. His days commanding a mercenary band were over.
Will he accept it gracefully? Aleksandr wondered. Retire to a farm in Spatalia, or the Midlands? Take a wife, raise some children, and live out the remainder of his days in peace? Or will he rage and rail against fate? Or, worse, against us?
Time would tell. For now, the captain was sleeping. Aleksandr saw someone approaching him. Not from the campfire, but further out. The spring that gave this fort fresh water.
It was Alaina. It appeared that she had cleaned the blood from her hands and arms, and was drying them on a cloth as she walked. When she reached Aleksandr, she sat beside him on the rough slab of stone.
He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
“How bad is he?” Aleksandr asked. He kept his voice low.
“Bad,” she said. “I won’t mince words with you, Aleksandr. I had to remove most of his right arm. I think I was able to get out all of the bad blood, but… time will tell.”
“Still, you think he will live?”
“I hope so,” she said. “For their sake, as much as his. He… I think he was ready to die, to some degree. I think the only reason he had held on this long was out of a sense of duty to his men.”
“He did not wish to abandon them,” Aleksandr said. “Not here, in so much danger.” Danger he led them into. I can surely understand that.
“Quite right.” Alaina sighed, absently rubbing the back of her neck with one hand.
“We cannot stay here too long,” Aleksandr said. “The domovoy…”
“How long? Before is safe to move him, I mean.”
Alaina pursed her lips, considering the question. “Before it’s safe? A week, at least.”
Aleksandr frowned. “We cannot. We—”
“Of course I know that,” Alaina interrupted. “But you asked. Anything we do will be dangerous. For him. For us. We should let him sleep through the ‘night,’ at least. Let him sleep until he wakes of his own accord. I’ll check the stitches, make sure they’re holding. And look for any sign that the poison has re-entered his blood.”
“And if stitches hold? If his blood is clean?”
“Then we let his men put him on a litter, and we get the hell out of here,” Alaina said.
Aleksandr nodded. “Good.”
“It’ll be dicey, any way we handle it. But it’s the best chance he’s got,” she said, rolling her head across her shoulders. Aleksandr could hear her neck crackle.
She nodded. “I’ve never performed a chirurgery in such conditions before,” she said. “Hunched over for so long. I suppose it took a toll.”
Aleksandr reached out a hand towards her shoulder, then stopped himself. What are you doing? He thought to himself, shocked at his own temerity. He’d been about to rub her shoulder, without even considering how inappropriate the act would be.
Alaina’s face brightened. “Oh, would you?” she said. “That would be incredible.”
“Uh…” Aleksandr froze, feeling acutely uncomfortable.
She cocked her head to the side. “Were you… I thought you were offering to rub my shoulders. Perhaps I misunderstood. My apologies.”
“No, no,” Aleksandr said. “I mean. Da. I was. But then I think—it is too forward. You are priestess, it—”
Alaina laughed. She slid off the stone bench and shuffled over, nudging at Aleksandr’s legs until she was sitting between them, her lower back pressing against the stone.
“Not inappropriate at all,” she said. “Truly, I would be very grateful.”
Aleksandr pulled off his leather gloves slowly, still feeling decidedly awkward. He laid them on the bench beside him. Alaina’s black hair fell in a cascade behind her. She ducked her head forward, letting most of it fall away, but several locks clung to the sweat on her neck.
Aleksandr very gingerly began sweeping them away. Alaina exhaled a faintly dismissive breath, reached behind her, and pulled the strands of hair away. Aleksandr placed his hands on her shoulders and begin to gently massage them. His hands were big, and callused from swordplay and tending horses. He was mindful not to be too rough.
“Mm,” she sighed. “Harder.”
Aleksandr obliged reluctantly, digging his thumbs into the knotted muscles of her shoulders. This time her sigh was long, and accompanied by moans that Aleksandr felt might be too unguarded to be entirely appropriate.
“Better?” he asked.
She jerked her head in a quick nod.
“Much!” she whispered. The word turned into another moan, this one bordering on pained, as Aleksandr began working through a particularly dense knot. He felt the fabric of her tunic bunch up around his fingers as he worked. Suddenly, Alaina straightened her back and shrugged him off.
For a moment, Aleksandr thought perhaps she had reconsidered the propriety of what they were doing. But she reached up to her chest, fumbled with something, and then reached up to pull the neck of her tunic down.
“There, that should make it easier,” she said.
She had bared her shoulders entirely. Even in the dim light of the cave, her skin was pale enough reflect the light. Aleksandr swallowed.
If I was unsure before, no longer. That can’t be appropriate.
“Uh.. are you sure… I mean...” Aleksandr trailed off, struggling to put his thoughts in order enough to speak in Middish.
She speaks Ruskan better than you speak Middish, he remembered.
“Is this proper?” he asked, switching to the mother tongue.
She craned her head a little, trying to look back at him. Even in profile, he could see her expression looked amused. Unworried.
“Why would it be improper?” she asked, responding in Ruskan.
“You are… well…” Perhaps the language barrier was not the problem. “You are exposing yourself to me.”
“I am most definitely not,” Alaina countered. “Judging by how much my shoulders make you blush, if I did that I think you might faint.”
A fair point.
“If you’re done, let me know so I can fix up my tunic. I don’t mean to pressure you,” Alaina said.
Aleksandr reached out and placed his hands on her bare shoulders. Her skin was cool and smooth beneath his fingers, slightly sticky from the sweat of the road and the chirurgery. She lowered her head again, relaxing her muscles. He dug his fingers into her flesh, and she sighed happily.
Even so, his conscience gnawed at him. He spoke, back to Middish now: “Is just—you are a priestess. I do not wish to…to harm your virtue.”
Alaina laughed. “And how exactly do you imagine that my virtue is in danger? Are your rough, strong hands going to massage it all away?”
“Is not what I meant. I just…”
“It’s fine, Aleksandr. I know you’re trying to show me proper respect.” Alaina said. She hissed out a breath as Aleksandr dug into a knotted muscle. “I’m sorry for the jests. You do understand that I don’t share your sense of propriety, though. Don’t you?”
“I suppose,” he said. “But—”
“But I am a priestess? A ‘Mother?’ God, I hate that honorific. You think my nonchalance is, perhaps, not becoming of a woman of my position?”
Yes. “No. I only thought—”
“You thought that laying your hands upon me was inappropriate, with you not my husband.”
Aleksandr paused. Finally, he said “Da. Yes.”
“Would it shock you, then, to learn that you are not the first man to touch me?”
Aleksandr frowned, but he focused on working the knots out of her back. “It should not,” he said.
“But it does, eh? At least a little. And if I told you that at least one of those other men touched me in places substantially more intimate than my shoulders?”
Aleksandr froze. He recovered quickly, and returned to massaging her shoulders.
“I thought so,” Alaina said. “Aleksandr, how much do you know about the Church?”
“I… uh. Not much.”
“No, I see that. We do not take vows of chastity. Not typically. There are many who do… those in monasteries, nunneries and the like. The Penitent Fellowship of the Most Devout is the most well known such monastic order. You’d know them as the Knights Serpentes.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said.
“But the regular priesthood has no such restrictions. We may wed, or take lovers, as we choose. As I have chosen.”
“Does that bother you? Change your perspective of me and my virtue? Have I lost your respect?”
Alaina sat up straight, shrugging off Aleksandr’s hands again. “Stop,” she interrupted. “Don’t just say ‘no’ and mean ‘yes.’ Think it through.”
She shifted her position, turning around so that she could look up and face him. Her tunic was still low around her shoulders. The shape of her collarbones stood out in a sharp contrast against her pale skin.
“I am not sure,” Aleksandr said honestly.
“Alright,” Alaina said. Her stare was intense. Her expression hard to read. But Aleksandr could not help but feel he was disappointing her.
“It will not matter, to our agreement,” Aleksandr said quickly. “We will protect you. Against all threats. With our lives, if it must be so.”
“I know,” Alaina said. She sounded regretful. “You swore to do so. And you’re a man of impeccable honor.”
“I have upset you,” Aleksandr said. “My apologies, Alaina. Am not used to… this. To Midlands. Is still strange, sometimes. I will try not to let this—”
“Aleksandr,” Alaina said, cutting him off. “Don’t force yourself to respect me on my account. Let me make this as clear as I can: I am not ashamed of the life I have led. Not remotely. If you have a problem with it, that is indeed your problem, not mine. I have lived my life following God’s precepts, and I feel his coils around me. Why would I fear your recrimination?”
Aleksandr hesitated. “I am sorry,” he said. “But these words… pre-cepts? Recrim… Re—”
Alaina laughed. The sound was abrupt, and loud. A sharp contrast from her stern tone a moment before. “How arrogant,” she said, switching to Ruskan. “I thought I’d moved you to silence with my sermon, but it was just the language barrier. Now I will apologize. That was rude of me.”
“It is fine,” Aleksandr replied, matching languages. “And… to clarify, Alaina: Yes, and no.”
She cocked her head to the side. “Hm?”
“Yes, you have changed my perspective of you. And no, I have not lost respect for you. You are a very wise and powerful woman. I think it’s clear I may yet learn a great deal from you.”
Alaina’s expression brightened into a grin. Aleksandr felt the warmth of her smile shine on him like sunbeams.
“Good,” she said, switching back to Middish. She turned around, presenting her back to him again. She shuffled her shoulders, and her tunic slipped further down, baring the blades of her shoulders.
Aleksandr felt heat on his cheeks. “Uh…”
“Could you go a little further?” she asked. “It felt heavenly.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. He placed his hands on her again, less hesitantly than before. He dug around until he’d found another knot. “Here?”
“Mm,” she moaned. “Yes, that’s perfect.”
He worked on her in silence for a time. The only sounds were her occasional gasps or moans as he found the troubled spots. He would be lying if he said he did not still feel a certain thrill as he touched the bare flesh of her back. But for the most part, he was able to focus on the task at hand.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when a shout interrupted his focus. “Oi! Ruskie!”
He looked up. One of the Taraamites was staring at them, an ugly grin on his face. “You could have some more privacy in one of the gobbo’s huts!” he called out, jabbing a thumb towards one of the crude buildings. “Unless you like undressing your wench in front of all of us!”
Aleksandr paused. This is exactly the sort of thing I was concerned about, he realized. Misconstruing things to slight the priestess.
“Aleksandr,” Alaina said. Her voice was soft and full of breath. “Stop if you’re finished. But not on his account.”
Aleksandr frowned. He decided to tell her his concern outright. “Is what I was afraid of,” he explained. “The men, soldiers, saying unseemly things about you.”
“Aleksandr,” Alaina said his name again. “I like you quite a bit.”
“And yet,” she continued. “I can spare not a single sliver of concern for how you perceive my virtue.”
“Da, I know,” he said. “You made very clear. I—”
“On the other hand,” she said, still continuing the same line of thought. The pauses in her speech, Aleksandr realized, were not because she was done talking. She was still catching her breath from the massage. “I don’t know that mercenary from anyone. I haven’t even learned most of their names.”
“So for what possible reason would you think that I give a fraction of a shit what he thinks of me?”
Aleksandr blinked. He had no idea what to say to that. It was, in fact, a very good question. He could not think of any proper reason. Not really.
“Oh,” was all Aleksandr said.
He put his hands back on her shoulders.