Long Road 2: Escort Service

“I want us to go through them.”

The priestess said the words with an ominous tone. Aleksandr wasn’t entirely sure why. He quirked his brow at her. “Ah,” he said. “There is pass beneath the mountains, da? I hear something of this before.”

“Indeed,” Alaina said. The moment he’d met her, Aleksandr had noticed that Alaina had a striking face: dark hair down past her shoulders, piercing blue eyes, sharp cheekbones, strong Cassaline nose. Aleksandr suspected she could be either beautiful or terrifying, depending on her mood. But she kept her expression neutral as he spoke.

Yorrin, on the other hand, frowned. “The Underpass,” he muttered. Aleksandr glanced at his small companion. Yorrin looked more troubled than usual. Perhaps he knew something Aleksandr did not.

“Is a dangerous pass, da?” Aleksandr said. “I think I hear that raiding is common. Bandits, and…” he paused. “Others. Domovoy.”

“Domovoy?” Dylan asked.

“Little fighty men,” Bear said. “Live in mountains, hills, and old places.”

“Oh,” Dylan said. “Goblins?”

“They have many names,” Priestess Alaina interjected. “Domovoy, duende, goblin, dwarf, kobold. Small, wild men that dwell in some of the dark spaces between civilized society. Or even uncivilized society.”

Aleksandr nodded. He’d never seen one himself, but he’d heard tales. Savage pygmies, with a primitive culture and a warlike demeanor. “Is true, then? Underpass has domovoy dwelling inside it?”

Alaina nodded. “Always. But it’s worse than that.” She hesitated. Aleksandr could see in her eyes that she almost wanted not to say any more. But she continued. “In the last year, there have been reports. The domovoy—the goblins, to use the most common Middish name for them—are much more active than normal. No travelers have made it through in several months, and only a few have even managed to flee the way they came with their lives intact.”

“Sounds dangerous,” Prudence said. “You didn’t mention that when you said you had a job for us.”

The priestess shot Prudence a look of annoyance, but she suppressed it quickly.“I said I had need of brave mercenaries, willing to take on a difficult task,” she said. “Did I lie?”

Aleksandr could not help but respect the woman’s fire. Prudence just shrugged, not committing to the argument.

“Is fine, Prudence!” Bear said. “Domovoy is small fighty men. More smaller than Yorrin! Is no problem.”

“A small viper’s bite is just as potent,” Yorrin said. His tone was a little sullen, but the words were wise enough. They had the cadence of something he’d heard before, or perhaps...

“You’ve read scripture?” Alaina seemed surprised.

Yorrin nodded, though Aleksandr could see the uncertainty in his eyes. “A little,” he said.

The sharp angles of Alaina’s face seemed to light up when she smiled. “A good proverb,” she told Yorrin. “Well said.”

“We’re getting off the point, here,” Dylan said. “You want us to take you through the Underpass. Despite the goblins being more active than they have been in years.”

Alaina met Dylan’s eyes. “Correct,” she said.

“But… why the Underpass?” Dylan asked. “The Pontiff’s Pass at Ephrath isn’t all that far out of your way.”

“Indeed not,” Alaina said. “But it also has the unfortunate quality of being completely snowed in until at least the first spring thaw. It’s been too long since Iosif’s death as it is. I need to get to Yerevan with all haste.”

“Even if it risks your life?” Prudence said.

Alaina’s lips thinned to a line. “Yes,” she said bluntly. “Even then. That is why I’m looking to hire you, after all.”

Once again, Aleksandr found himself admiring her conviction. This was a woman that clearly knew her purpose in life. Aleksandr wondered if he would ever feel such clear, perfect clarity about anything. He did not know, but… perhaps the first step would be understanding her a little better.

“We would be honored to take you to Yerevan,” Aleksandr blurted out.

Dylan and Prudence had both been preparing to reply to the priestess, but their mouths shut at Aleksandr’s sudden outburst.

Alaina’s eyes widened. She was surprised, and her smile was a pure moment of unguarded joy.  “Truly?” she asked.

Aleksandr almost backpedaled. He should have discussed it with the others. It was not his intent to speak for them, despite the increasing way they had begun to defer to him over these last several weeks since Misviyr. But at the same time… if they were going to call him their leader, shouldn’t he make decisions for the group from time to time?

“Truly,” Yorrin said, cutting in when Aleksandr hesitated. “We go where Aleksandr says. And your cause is a noble one. Spreading the Faith to godless heathens; what’s not to like?”

Bear snorted. “Not godless, Yorrin! Worship gods of earth and winter and many other thing.”

“Right,” Yorrin said. “Godless.”

“The part where we face an untold number of hostile goblin savages,” Prudence said to Alaina. “Not much to like there.”

“Shut up, Prudence,” Yorrin said. Aleksandr saw Yorrin’s eyebrows arch at the girl, and he saw a flicker of understanding cross her face. She fell silent. Aleksandr did not fully understand the two of them, but it was painfully clear that they understood each other far better than it looked on the surface.

“We get real fight in this Under Passing, da?” Bear said. Aleksandr nodded. “Then is much to like!”

“There’s still the matter of payment,” Dylan said. “This is a long journey you’re asking us to take. A month at the least.”

Aleksandr knew that Dylan had a point. He still had a small portion of Yusef Scaleman’s payment, but most of it had gone to horses, and to equipment, and to paying their way these last few weeks.

Alaina tensed. One hand seemed to drift to her side unconsciously. “Building a new church is no small task,” she said. “I have been given a considerable pool of discretionary funds from the Faith.  I can pay you fairly.”

“Relax, priestess,” Yorrin said, voice surprisingly soft. “We aren’t going to steal your coin. It’s our job to make sure you keep it, remember?”

Alaina smiled a little at that, and relaxed her shoulders. Her arm drifted back to her side. “My apologies.”

“Is fine,” Aleksandr said. “You do not know us. But Yorrin is right. We will keep you and your coins safe.”

Alaina’s smile deepened when she looked at Aleksandr. “Of course. Still, it was unseemly of me. You have shown me nothing but courtesy.”

“Well, most of us,” Prudence muttered, jerking her head towards Bear.

Aleksandr was surprised when Bear caught the movement, and narrowed his eyes. “Who is not? Who is mean to little snake lady? Show me to them, Prudence. I make them be courtesy!”

“Courteous,” Prudence corrected.

Bear pointed at Alaina. “She say courtesy, I say courtesy!” He looked to Alaina, then glanced around the tavern, then back to Alaina. “Snake lady, someone insult you or your snake house? Tell me, I break them for you.”

Alaina put her hand to her mouth, stifling laughter. After a moment, she smiled at Bear. “It’s quite alright, Bear. Thank you for your concern.”

Bear set his jaw in a single decisive nod.

“We can negotiate an exact rate later,” Alaina said. “Perhaps… forty shekels for each of you? With ten more if we arrive in good time? But I am open to negotiation.”

Not a bad initial offer. Aleksandr thought. It would mean the worth of a single gold mina for each of them. A good rate. A fair rate. Yusef’s outrageous payment of four minas to each of them had been a desperate plea, and disregarding that Alaina’s offer was as good as any Aleksandr had seen.

“A good start,” Aleksandr said. “Why not negotiate now? You wish to leave as soon as possible, da?”

“I do…” Alaina said, hesitating. “But there is someone else I think you should meet.”

“More clergy?” Dylan asked. He was leaning back in his seat, motioning to the barkeep.

Alaina shook her head. “No, no. A colleague of mine, but not in the Church. He’s a scholar. He’s expressed some interest in making his way to Yerevan as well. I thought perhaps…”

“Two contracts for a single job,” Yorrin said, smirking. “I like the way you think, priestess.”

Alaina chuckled. “Well,” she said. “That’s not exactly how I was thinking of it, but I suppose that’s true.”

“So who is this man, then? Aleksandr asked.

“A scholar, like I said. A student of antiquity, in particular. I believe he has an interest in some old ruins in southern Rusk. Perhaps it would be simpler if you just met him?”

The barmaid came back around. She’d poured fresh draughts for Bear, Yorrin, and Dylan. Bear scooped up his and took a long, deep swig. Aleksandr went to reach for his purse, but Prudence was a step ahead of him. A couple of silver coins changed hands. I’ll need to remember that, Aleksandr thought to himself. Pay her back later.

“Is a good idea,” Aleksandr agreed. “Where is this man?”

“Not far. Near the edge of Nahash, staying at a hostel. I can take you now, if you like.”

Aleksandr answered by standing from his chair. He’d had enough of this place. His own tankard was still mostly full. He did not care for the bitterness of the drink here. His grandfather had always laughed at him, when he wrinkled his nose at the strong, foul spirits they brewed in Pripia.

“Good,” he said. “Da. Please, lead the way.”

“But I just got a fresh drink,” Dylan said, gesturing to his tankard.

“Bah! Too slow!” Bear slammed down his tankard. Empty. His upper lip was coated in frothy head, and the dense tangles of his beard glistened with spilled beer.

“God damn, Bear, she just brought them,” Dylan said, taking a sip of his.

Bear held out a hand. “Give. I will do.”

Dylan sighed, and passed his tankard over. Bear brought the drink to his mouth and emptied it in a single sustained chug. He looked around the table, seemingly noticing for the first time that neither Aleksandr nor Prudence had touched their own beers.

“Give. Is waste!” he demanded.

Prudence chuckled as she passed hers. Aleksandr felt a pang of embarrassment at the big barbarian’s antics, but Alaina was laughing as well. When Bear had drained every other mug at the table, he turned to Yorrin. Yorrin lounged in his chair with easy confidence, one hand on his drink.

“Touch it and you’ll regret it, big man,” Yorrin said. He took a swig of his beer. He clearly enjoyed it more than Aleksandr, but his pace was markedly slower than Bear’s.

“Too slow, Yorrin! Aleksandr say we go.”

“This is a good brew, and guzzling it like you are is almost as bad a waste as leaving it on the table,” Yorrin said. “I’ll be done in a minute. If you’re so eager to go, then go. I’ll catch up.”

It spoke much of Yorrin’s background, that such a beer would be a treat to him. Aleksandr supposed the fact that it was not watered down was a point in its favor, but it also seemed clear that Yorrin had a much greater appreciation for bitter, unpleasant flavors.

“Is fine, Yorrin. Enjoy your drink. We will ready the horses,”Aleksandr said.

Yorrin shot him a thankful smile. Aleksandr gestured for the door, and everyone else followed him out. The sun was dipped low on the horizon, lighting the clouds in gleaming gold. Aleksandr took a deep breath. The evening air had a chill bite to it that helped to clear his mind.

Ice and a dusting of snow on the ground crunched under their feet as they approached the stables. It took a few minutes to bring out their horses and ready their saddles. Yorrin joined them in time to prepare his own steed, stepping in to take over where Aleksandr had begun to do it for him.

Yorrin did not seem to care for horses the way Aleksandr did, but he took Aleksandr’s training seriously. He still rode stiffly, but he was practiced and efficient at strapping on the horse’s kit. Prudence was much the same, but she struggled a bit more with the task simply by dint of being even smaller and slighter than Yorrin. Bear knew much more than either of them, but he still thought of horses as an amusing waste of time.

Of all of them, only Dylan really seemed to take to the saddle naturally. He joined Aleksandr in checking everyone else’s work, tightening straps, and helping Prudence into the saddle. Aleksandr offered Alaina a hand onto her own steed. Her hand was cool and smooth, and she smiled at him as she shifted into the saddle.

They rode out, quickly getting onto the main Cassaline road. Nahash loomed large ahead of them, the orange-gold glow of the setting sun gleaming off of the spires rising out of the center of the city.

Nahash. The Serpent’s City. The Encircled City. The City of the Pillar. It likely had a dozen more names Aleksandr had never heard. The heart of the nation of Torathia, and birthplace of the Torathi faith. Home of the Nahash Council, appointed High Priests of Torath that ruled Torathia. Home of the Ammud Kahal, the great Cathedral of the Pillar.

Aleksandr had heard of the Pillar, of course. He had never quite believed the stories, but seeing it now, it was impossible to doubt. A smooth, featureless pillar jutting up out of the ground. Deep, dark brown in color, unblemished despite standing there since the dawn of recorded history. It stretched hundreds of feet into the sky, impossibly high. Nahash had been built around it for a reason. The Ammud Kahal was named for it. The Faith made a variety of claims about it, but Aleksandr still harbored doubts that anyone truly knew what the Pillar was, or why it stood here.

Nahash was a city of concentric circles, resting along the banks of the Tyre. The Inner Circle was the hill from which the Pillar stood. The Ammud Kahal and the seat of the Torathian government lay within the walls of the Inner Circle. Even at a great distance, Aleksandr could see the stone walls. The Middle Circle was the core of Nahash: a huge, densely populated urban environment enclosed by another set of walls. The Outer Circle was pure sprawl, stretching out in every direction and spilling up and down the Tyre’s shores.

Most of this, Aleksandr had learned from his tutors years ago. Prudence and Yorrin had refreshed his memory as they approached the city yesterday. He had never set foot inside the actual city. Seeing it all laid out ahead of him, he wasn’t sure he wanted to. It was beautiful, in a way. But it was also terrifying. He had found Nasarat and Misviyr to be overwhelmingly crowded. Nahash would make them feel like Ruskan villages by comparison.

Alaina led them off the main road before they reached the dense neighborhoods of the Outer Circle. They meandered closer and closer until Aleksandr realized they had entered the Outer Circle without quite realizing it. One minute he felt like they were still in the “outskirts,” with buildings popping up around them sporadically. The next, he realized they were navigating a muddy path between a block of small homes and a couple of large wooden buildings.

“Here,” Alaina said, pulling her horse to a halt. “He’s in there.”

She gestured at one of the structures. A long wooden building, two-storied. It looked drab and unornamented, but considerably more stable than the crude hovels across the road.

Aleksandr dismounted. “Stay,” he told Dascha in Ruskan. “And make sure the others do the same.”

Dascha snorted, flapping his lips at Aleksandr indignantly. Aleksandr patted the horse affectionately, scratching the soft center of his nose. “I know you are not their keeper. But I would consider it a favor,” he murmured.

Aleksandr turned to face the others as they climbed down off of their own horses.

“One word of caution,” Alaina said. “Before you meet him.”


“He is…” She frowned, seeming to struggle with finding the right word. “Eccentric. But he means well. And I think he will pay you fairly.”

“Scholars can be a bit distracted,” Yorrin said, coming up behind Alaina. “Heads in their books and all.”

“Indeed,” Alaina said. “Though it’s not just that. He isn’t... exactly a scholar.”

Aleksandr tilted his head. “No? But you said—”

“I know,” she said. “He is! But that’s not what he considers himself.”

She hesitated again.

“Go on,” Aleksandr prompted.

Alaina sighed. “He calls himself a wizard,” she said. “And from what I’ve seen, he may well be telling the truth.”