The fort stank of goblins.
Their hovels were filthy, and trash was piled in every dark corner he could see. It was a petty thing to worry about, perhaps. Yorrin knew he ought to be happy that they had the relative safety of the crude walls. The comfort of a fire. A source of fresh water to refill their skins.
But he couldn’t keep his mind off the smell. Early on, he’d been too much on edge to pay it much mind. He’d been studying the Taraamites, waiting for some sign of treachery. Waiting to see their true colors.
When they heard their captain lived, they showed those colors: Blue, black, and gray. The colors sewn into their tabards, and the ragged standard one of them had draped over the gate. These men were loyal to their captain, to their company, to their fort.
Now, they were letting themselves celebrate a little. Aleksandr had told everyone to share their rations, so the mercenaries were passing around a wineskin from the Whip’s saddlebags and sausages from Yorrin’s. Their captain was alive. For now, that was enough for them to celebrate a little.
Yorrin had cheered along with them when Alaina first came out, but in truth he found it difficult to get too excited.
We’re deep in dangerous territory, with the worst still ahead. Twelve injured men to swell our ranks, and draw even more of the aurin’s attention to us. Yorrin reviewed their situation bitterly. And they’re celebrating.
It wasn’t just the men of Taraam. Bear and the Whip were sitting around the fire with most of the mercs, trading banter. Bear took a hearty gulp of wine and then argued in favor of the beauty and enthusiasm of the whores out in the Steppes. He seemed more excited about the enthusiasm.
That caught Yorrin’s attention, of all things.
“Didn’t even know you barbarians have whores,” Yorrin said. “Figured you just hit your women over the head with a club and drag them off somewhere.”
The men of Taraam chuckled at the jab. Bear laughed loudest of all.
“Da!” he said. “Is what Targans do! Not my people, we pay for good woman.”
“Aren’t you a Targan?” asked Connor. Quickblade, they called him. “Ruskie barbarian, yeah?”
Bear shook his head vigorously. “Nyet! Targans love horse. Targans savage, and thirsty for blood.”
“Where’s the, whatcha call it, nyet, then?” said Quickblade. “Sounds like you from what I’ve seen.”
Bear grinned. “Horse is good to go fast. Not to fight. Fight with feet on ground! Also, Targans love horse, da? If you are catch meaning.”
Bear pantomimed a few crude thrusts, to the laughter of the men.
“But da, I am thirsty for some bloods,” Bear admitted.
“I still ain’t seeing how you’re not a Targan,” said one of the other Taraamites. “Maybe you don’t fuck horses, but you’re from the Steppes and you talk funny. Seems like a Targan to me.”
Bear frowned. “You from snake land? Torathia?”
The soldier shook his head. “Naw. I was born a few miles over the border from Taraam, in Kirkworth.”
Bear shrugged. “Kirkworth, Torathia. Is same. Thin beard, weak food, water for blood.”
The soldier somehow missed the point, and he looked annoyed. Before he could work himself into a proper lather over the insult, one of his mates spoke up.
“Oh for God’s sake, Randal!” It was the arrogant one with the fine-boned face. Lordling. “He’s saying he’s from the Steppes, from near the Targans, but he isn’t one. Like how Torathians and Kirkies are both Middish. Both the same, even if they’re different.”
The slower merc, Randal, narrowed his eyes while he pondered this idea. Bear just grinned, and finally passed the wineskin on.
“So what’re your folk called, then?” Asked Quickblade. “If you’re not Targan, and you’re not Ruskie… what are you?”
“Elzjek Khalkar!” Bear said proudly.
Sounds like he’s sneezing, Yorrin thought. This wasn’t the first time he’d heard Bear speak of his clan along the border of the Ruskan Steppes, and no matter how many times he heard the name, he knew he’d never remember it.
He wasn’t alone. The men of Taraam shared a laugh over the foreign name. Bear took it good-naturedly, and gave as good as he got. In his own way, at least. Yorrin lost interest in the banter again, and his eyes began to wander.
Not everyone had chosen to sit by the fire with the main group. Lefty had taken one of his men, Wallbreaker, out to relieve those that had been standing watch on the walls so that they could partake of the celebrations. Borthul had retired to his bedroll to continue doing the same thing he’d done while he sat by the fire. Prudence was sitting off to one side with another of the mercenaries. The tall man with a boyish face that had been with her and Alaina in the tent.
He’d best not have any designs on her, Yorrin thought, narrowing his eyes at the young man. In truth, he could tell that his protective impulse was probably unnecessary. Of everyone, those two seemed the least boisterous. They sat a little closer than might be proper, but they weren’t doing much more than talking in hushed tones.
You’re casting a critical eye on them because you can, Yorrin admitted to himself. Because if you spot them doing something improper, you can tell them to stop.
His eyes drifted further into the shadowed area of the fort, to where Aleksandr and Alaina sat. How the hell am I supposed to reprimand them?
Alaina was sitting on the ground below Aleksandr, half-naked. Or at least, with her shoulders and collarbones bared. Aleksandr was kneading the muscles in her back and shoulders, and they were conversing quietly.
A few of the Taraamites had already made rude remarks at Alaina’s expense. Quickblade in particular Yorrin had told to bite his tongue, but the lean hook-nosed merc had just smirked in reply. It was actually Bear’s loud boasting that had shifted the topic, and distracted the mercenaries.
What the hell is Alaina thinking? Yorrin wondered. Taraam may have a reputation for only hiring loyal and honorable mercenaries, but she’s just tempting fate. We don’t know these men. They’ve been through hell, and could face death tomorrow. What if one of them decides he wants to dip his wick one last time before he sloughs off his mortal form?
Forget propriety, it was needlessly reckless. He’d expected better from Alaina and Aleksandr both. He knew the priesthood wasn’t celibate, but there was a wide gulf between celibacy and… that.
Fortunately the Taraamites seemed largely oblivious. Even so, Yorrin felt a pang of relief when Aleksandr and Alaina finished, and Alaina finally covered herself again. The chatter around the campfire died down, and the fire itself followed suit soon after. The mercs began hunkering down on bedrolls, and Yorrin’s companions did the same.
He got up and wandered over towards Aleksandr. Alaina had already retired for the night. The Ruskan knight had his longsword drawn and laid across his lap. He was carefully running a flat whetstone across it, reguarly pausing to wipe the blade down with an oiled cloth.
“Aleksandr,” he said. He hesitated, unsure of what to say next. Should I even bring it up? Is it my place? “Everything alright?”
Aleksandr didn’t respond for a long moment. He was focused on his task, lost in thought. Finally, he blinked, and refocused his gaze on Yorrin. “Hm? Oh! Da. Is fine, Yorrin. Why?”
Yorrin shrugged. “No reason.”
“Are you sure?” Aleksandr ran the oilcloth down the length of his blade one last time, and then folded the stone up inside it. “You sound—ah, I am not sure word. Unhappy? No. Upset? Hm”
While he murmured words, Aleksandr carefully slid his blade—a gorgeous weapon, Yorrin couldn’t help but notice whenever he chanced to look closely at it—into its sheath.
Yorrin sighed. “Concerned, maybe,” he said. “I sound concerned.”
Aleksandr’s head cocked to the side. “Is not word I thought of. But… da. Concerned? Why?”
“Plenty of reasons for concern,” Yorrin hedged. “You think these lads improve our odds of getting out alive much?”
Aleksandr pondered the words in silence for a moment. “Da,” he said finally. “More sword arms. And they walk this path once before already. Is possible they see an ambush before it springs.”
“They’re also liable to draw more attention down on us,” Yorrin pointed out.
Aleksandr nodded. “Is true. Even so.”
“Suppose you’re right. If the crowd that attacked here a few hours ago is any indication, the aurin have got more numbers to bring to bear than we could handle. Twenty or thirty goblins would overwhelm you and Bear and the Whip, no doubt.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Is my thinking, too. This is lucky, Yorrin. Good that we find them. Good for them, good for us.”
“Long as neither of us do anything stupid,” Yorrin muttered.
“Stupid? How?” Aleksandr asked. His bushy eyebrows raised in concern.
“Just…” Yorrin sighed again. “Well, Alaina, for example.”
Aleksandr’s brow furrowed even more obviously, but he said nothing.
“We don’t know these men yet, Aleksandr,” Yorrin said. “Taraam might have a reputation for fielding good and decent mercs, but they’re still mercs, yeah? They’re still men. Men who may not live another day. Tempting them with a half-naked woman…”
Aleksandr raised a hand, and Yorrin snapped his mouth shut so quickly he felt his teeth clack.
Now you’ve done it, Yorrin told himself. Gone and pissed off the one man to ever look at you and think there might be somethin’ more to you than cutting purses. Fuck.
“I take your point, Yorrin,” Aleksandr said. His voice was calm, but that didn’t mean much. It seemed to Yorrin that Aleksandr’s voice would probably stay calm even if he was enraged past reason. “I say as much to Alaina. Or…” he hesitated. In the dim light it was hard to say, but Yorrin almost thought he was blushing. “Try to, at least. She does not agree. She believe reputation of Taraam is earned. More, she—ah, how to say. She did not care?”
“That much was obvious,” Yorrin blurted out.
Instead of looking annoyed, Aleksandr just gave a pained shrug and a nod. “Da. Is hard to explain. She is… strange woman.”
Shit, it wasn’t both of them, Yorrin realized. Aleksandr was as uncomfortable with all of that as I was. Maybe more.
It cast the priestess in a new light. Or perhaps it didn’t. It had been clear from the start that Alaina was a bold woman. Willing to risk her life to get to her church a few months sooner. Willing to entrust her safety to a small group of strange mercenaries. Is this really different, or just more of the same?
“I suppose she is,” was all Yorrin said.
Aleksandr smiled. “Da,” he said. His eyes looked distant. Dreamy. “I have never seen one like her.”
Not touching that, Yorrin decided. A discussion for another day, if they made it out of these tunnels alive.
“Best get a few hours of shuteye,” Yorrin said.
“Da,” Aleksandr agreed. Then, “Yorrin. Thank you.”
“Uh,” Yorrin blinked. “For what?”
“For speaking to me. For honesty. If you disagree with me, is best you tell me. This is what I am liking about you.”
“Oh,” Yorrin said. “Right. Well… yes sir.”
“Is no need for sir, Yorrin.”
“Understood,” Yorrin said. The corner of his mouth twitched as he suppressed a smirk. “Sir.”
Aleksandr rolled his eyes, but Yorrin saw his big frame shake with a single breath of laughter. “Good night, Yorrin.”
They woke a few hours later. Yorrin rubbed the sleep from his eyes, took a swallow of water, and hopped to work. He helped Aleksandr and the Whip get the horses fed and their kit strapped on. Bear helped a few of the Taraamites in smashing apart one of the goblin hovels. They picked through the wreckage for long lengths of wood and some sturdy hides. Wallbreaker directed the men in pulling the hides tight across the wooden planks, and secured them with a few nails.
By the time Yorrin had finished with the horses, he saw a some of them emerging from the largest hut. Four of the Taraamites were carrying a litter, each holding up a single corner. Alaina walked alongside them. Presumably their captain, Olivenco, was the one on the litter.
He looks like a corpse, Yorrin couldn’t help but notice. Olivenco was a Spatalian, and what ought to be swarthy olive skin looked deathly pale in the firelight. He had several blankets wrapped over him, but even so, it was obvious that his right arm ended just below the shoulder. He was limp. At first Yorrin thought he was unconscious, but as they carried him close to the others he suddenly moved. Just a little, shifting on the stretcher so that he could raise his head a few inches and look around.
“Lefty,” he said. His voice was raw and hoarse. “Donde? Where are you, Lefty?”
The lieutenant emerged from a cluster of his men. He strode across the open area and dropped to one knee at Olivenco’s side. His men followed, and they formed a circle around their fallen captain. Yorrin joined them, just another face in the crowd.
“Cap’n,” Lefty said. He reached out and took Olivenco’s hand. “Glad to see you’re alright.”
Olivenco made a rasping, ragged sound. It took Yorrin a moment to realize he was laughing.
“No, Lefty,” Olivenco said. He raised his one remaining arm “I am all left, I think.”
Yorrin couldn't help himself from bursting into sudden laughter. The Taraamite men joined in. A helpless, desperate sort of laugh that spoke volumes.
“You’ll be okay,” Lefty said. “We’ll get you out of here.”
“Si, si,” Olivenco said, pulling his limp hand out of Lefty’s grasp and waving it in a dismissive gesture. “Perhaps. But listen. Lefty. All of you! If we can make it out alive, bueno. I would love nothing more than to spend the next thirty years cursing that Torathi witch for taking my sword arm. The best duelist in Spatalia, the best in the Midlands, the best in the world, and she takes my fucking sword arm!”
Lefty glanced at Alaina, and gave an uncertain shrug. He’d seen Olivenco’s wound, and Yorrin had not. Judging from his attitude before Alaina offered to help, it was clear the wound had been bad enough none of them had expected their captain to live.
“But!” Olivenco went on. “We have miles to go, and we both know the duende will take a toll in blood for every one.”
Lefty nodded. “Aye, sir. We’ll handle the bastards.”
“Si, no doubt,” Olivenco rasped. “But, let us be—hm!—practical. Four of your blades tied up carrying a useless man? This is all well and good… until it is not. You must get the men out alive, Lefty. As many as you can.”
Lefty looked uneasy, frowning as he listened to his captain’s words. “Sir…”
“Promise me you will do this,” Olivenco said. He reached out with his left hand and grabbed Lefty by the tabard.
“I’ll get the men out.”
“That is not what I am asking,” Olivenco said. His voice grew lower, the raspy quality more pronounced.
“Sir,” Lefty said. “I—I’ll do my best.”
“Si,” said the Taraamite captain. “Your best. Get the men out alive. Back to Taraam. I cannot fight like this. Deadweight. You know this.”
“Sir, we’re not—”
“Get the men out,” Olivenco growled. “If it comes to it, you leave me. Understood?”
Lefty clenched his jaw, and said nothing. A few low murmurs rippled through the men.
This isn’t helping their morale, Yorrin thought. It might be true. Hell, of course it’s true. But it’s not what they want to hear right now.
“Promise me, Lefty,” Olivenco rasped. “Swear it.”
“Sir…” Lefty looked tormented, his face drawn as if he was in physical pain.
The crowd parted, and Aleksandr stepped forward. He walked up to stand by Lefty’s side, and he looked down at Olivenco.
“You are Olivenco?” he said.
Olivenco looked annoyed. “Si,” he said. “I am speaking to my—”
“Da, I see this,” Aleksandr interrupted. “I am Aleksandr Kerensky. You have heard of me and my men, da?”
“You brought the priestess,” Olivenco said.
“We did,” Aleksandr said. He gave a curt nod. “You live because of our efforts, I think.”
Olivenco’s lip curled into a grimace. “Live,” he muttered. “Si, such as it is. Now please, excuse—”
“Your men do not wish to leave you,” Aleksandr said. His tone was calm, but cold. “They do not wish to make promise you ask of them.”
“They must,” Olivenco said. “I am—”
“Deadweight. Da, I heard,” Aleksandr said. “Maybe this is so. Maybe not. But they do not wish to leave you to die. Is a good thing, I think. They are good men. And you a good captain.”
“This is not your business,” Olivenco rasped. His voice was lowered, and Yorrin sensed an air of menace to his tone. It rang hollow, given that the man was flat on his back and on death’s door. But still, something about the way Olivenco spoke made the hairs on the back of Yorrin's neck stand up.
If Aleksandr was similarly unnerved, he did not show it. “You are wrong,” he said. “We are companions now. Our fates now bind together. Is not just yours to decide, or Lefty’s. So I will be clear.”
Aleksandr glanced around the crowd. The Taraamites were staring on in an uneasy silence.
“Until we leave this place, we are one group!” Aleksandr said. He spoke loudly, and his voice carried across the cave. “We march together. We eat together. We fight together. If someone dies, we mourn together.”
Olivenco struggled to sit up in the litter. For the first time since they emerged, Alaina stepped closer. She laid a gentle hand on the captain’s chest, but it was enough to keep him from moving too much.
“We do not leave men behind to die,” Aleksandr said. “Too many have died already. Is possible that all hell breaks loose, and each man must run for his own life. But if not, then we stand together. Is no other way. This is what I promise.”
The men of Taraam didn’t cheer. They didn’t echo Aleksandr’s declaration with a chorus of affirmations. But there was a ripple of nodding, and Yorrin saw the tension in their faces bleed away. The cloud of despair that had settled over them dissipated.
Lefty stood up. “Aye,” he said. “I can promise that, too. Go on lads, let’s move. Pack it up.”
The mercenaries dispersed to finish breaking down the camp. Yorrin moved forward, standing by Aleksandr’s side. Up close, Olivenco looked even worse. And he was the one man that did not appear relieved to hear Aleksandr’s words. He glared up at the Ruskan.
“I am a burden,” he rasped. “Just a weight to be carried.”
Aleksandr looked down at him. “Da,” he said, shrugging. “Perhaps. But so is a battle standard.”
Olivenco reached out and grabbed at Aleksandr, his weak hand raking across Aleksandr’s mail. “And if men die, to keep me alive?”
“They die for a cause,” Aleksandr said. “There are worse deaths.”
“A cause,” Olivenco growled. “I am no cause. I am useless. Lisiado. A swordsman who cannot lift a fucking sword.”
“You are their captain, still,” Aleksandr said.
“Not when this is done. They will choose another. Lefty, probably. I cannot serve like this. I can do nothing like this,” he said. “I am lisiado.”
That word again, Yorrin thought. Spatalian. Crippled? Useless? Something like that, must be.
Olivenco looked up at Aleksandr, and their eyes met. Even from his vantage, Yorrin saw less anger in the Spatalian than he’d expected. It wasn’t anger or hatred that was driving him. It was fear.
“How am I supposed to live like this?” Olivenco asked. His voice sounded more ragged and broken than ever.
Aleksandr’s expression finally softened. He reached down and took Olivenco’s hand, giving it a single squeeze.
“I do not know,” he said. “But you will have many years to find out.”