The rocky floor of the cavern was not well suited to riding.
Aleksandr wheeled around the domovoy and charged their messy formations. Each time, he felt a sinking fear that Dascha would stumble on the uneven ground. And each time, his old friend navigated the treacherous battlefield with grace.
Dylan’s horse had stalled some distance back, closer to the main battle. He’d switched to his bow and was harassing the enemy flank as they crashed upon Bear and the men of Taraam. But Aleksandr kept going, seeking to cut off the aurin reinforcements.
These foes were fierce, and determined. They were masters of the ambush. But their charge was sloppy, and it appeared they did not have the cohesion to maintain this onslaught for long. They were counting on pure ferocity and weight of numbers. Aleksandr meant to deprive them of the latter.
Contrary to the tales Aleksandr had heard, it was quite clear by now that the domovoy could not see in absolute dark. While the initial ambush had waited in such darkness, relying on their targets to provide light, the reinforcing troops carried lights of their own. Aleksandr saw a mix of smoky torches with flickering orange flames, and the strange blue-green “torches” that appeared to be some sort of glowing moss or fungus.
In the mixed light, he counted eleven more domovoy emerging from a small tunnel on the farthest side of the cavern. They moved quickly, jogging in the direction of their allies fighting on the Underpass road.
Too many to fight alone. I should fall back and join the others, Aleksandr told himself. He clenched his jaw. Or I can break them here, and perhaps turn the tide.
He urged Dascha forward with his knees, shifting in the saddle so that he could bear Kholodny in a two-handed grip. He carried no light on his person, and he approached the domovoy from an oblique angle. They did not seem to notice him at first.
The first few seconds will be everything, Aleksandr told himself as Dascha wove between three jagged stalagmites. I will have to make it count.
The first domovoy to notice him turned, eyes wide, howling frantically. His lips were scarred, with metal hooks pulling his lower lip down into a forced grimace.
Dascha did not even slow down. The domovoy’s warcry was cut short as he was crushed beneath the warhorse, and Aleksandr swept his sword in a wide arc as he rode right through the middle of the goblin pack. Their screams echoed across the cavern, and he felt the impacts as Dascha trampled one, then two small bodies.
The cavern ended abruptly up ahead—not enough room for Dascha to quickly wheel. Aleksandr leapt from the saddle with practiced ease, whistling a command for Dascha to follow. The horse reared up, stopping short, and began shuffling around.
Aleksandr had already turned to face the domovoy.
He counted four of them on the ground already’ two motionless and the other two writhing in pain. That left seven still up and battle-ready. They were still scattered, disorganized from the shock of Aleksandr’s charge.
You will not get a better moment than this.
Aleksandr charged them, bellowing a nonsense battlecry as he did. He kept Kholodny raised high in an overhead grip. Two of them gathered their wits faster than the others, and they stood side-by-side, facing Aleksandr as he approached.
They bore the vicious looking weapons Aleksandr had come to expect of the aurin. Bronze or crude iron worked into wide, curved blades with needless hooks, jagged edges and other intimidating decorations. Their flesh was scarred and branded, pierced through with small, crude jewelry. They stood perhaps four feet tall. Four feet of pure, vicious fury.
Aleksandr brought his blade down at one of them, a straightforward arc cleaving for the creature’s skull. It raised its own sword, angled, to deflect the blow. Aleksandr lunged, his legs launching him forward with explosive energy. The domovoy deflected the initial blow, but Aleksandr was already inside his reach. He smashed his foe’s face with the hilt of his sword.
Aleksandr felt bones crumple under the force, and one eye burst in wet gore as Kholodny’s iron cross-piece penetrated deep in the skull.
An impact resounded against Aleksandr’s backplate, as the other aurin warrior sought to take advantage of Aleksandr’s vulnerability. But the bronze sword scraped across hard iron plate, leaving naught but a bruise. Aleksandr whirled on the second foe. Kholodny flashed, rippled steel glittering in the glowing light. He kept the domovoy on the defensive, a weaving pattern of blows that Aleksandr had trained so many times since childhood that he could do them in his sleep. In his periphery, Aleksandr saw another two fast approaching, swords and axes raised high.
The aurin were more dangerous than the racharin. That much was indisputable. Vicious, aggressive, with weapons and armor clearly goblin-made rather than scavenged from civilization’s leavings. They fought with rage, like Bear did. Furious onslaughts, sweeping blows, large weapons considering their stature.
But they lacked something simple. They lacked discipline. They lacked skill, or at least in sufficient quantities to match a man trained as a druzhnik—a Ruskan knight—since birth. They did not know the countless forms and stances, the counters and grapples, the maneuvers that a proper warrior learned.
It was their undoing.
Aleksandr’s pattern of attacks had fallen into a rut, and the domovoy responded as any amateur would. He grew confident, anticipating where Kholodny would be before it was there. It was a simple matter for Aleksandr stutter his tempo and then unleash a sudden onslaught. The blows left the domovoy opened from collar the belly, and he toppled backwards with little more than a shocked croak.
Aleksandr turned to face the next two. The last three, behind them, were trying to get their two wounded allies back to their feet. These two seemed a touch hesitant, but still they advanced. Baring their teeth and snarling at Aleksandr in an alien tongue.
Aleksandr heard heavy impacts on the stone behind him. Blood dripped from Kholodny, blade and hilt alike, and Aleksandr could see red staining the glove on his right hand. He exhaled deeply, then drew in a breath through his nose.
Aleksandr and Dascha crashed into the two aurin in a storm of iron and blood.
When the fighting was ended, Dascha snorted in annoyance as he placed a broad hoof down on the broken body of his domovoy foe, and crushed the last glimmer of life. Aleksandr’s own foe was bleeding out on the stone after Kholodny had run him through. The hole in the domovoy’s chest made a wet, gurgling sound as he died.
Aleksandr looked to the last of them, and saw the surviving domovoy falling back. All three of them were retreating, and one was helping along one of the wounded. The other wounded had gone still, his shouting silenced..
Let them go, Aleksandr thought to himself. A few survivors makes little difference, so long as they are routed.
Aleksandr passed Kholodny to his left hand and placed his right on Dascha’s neck. The muscles in the huge warhorse’s neck rippled at the touch. Aleksandr scratched Dascha for a moment, until he realized he was leaving red streaks of domovoy blood on his old friend’s fur. He lowered his hand.
He could still hear the sounds of battle echoing through the cavern. He could only hope that, without their reinforcements, the aurin would collapse. Even so, he dreaded to think of what casualties might be waiting when he returned to his companions.
We have hours yet—maybe a full day—before we reach the end of the Underpass. A sobering thought. If they keep up these ambushes, sneak attacks, and all the rest… how many of us will still be alive when we finally get out?
They needed an edge. Yorrin and Prudence were excellent scouts, but not infallible. They needed a better way to anticipate the aurin’s next move.
Aleksandr looked up, staring at the small, dark hole in the cave wall. The domovoy had vanished into the side tunnel.
Who better to know when an attack is coming?
He wiped the blood from Kholodny and slid the blade into its scabbard. He stooped down to pick up one of the fallen moss-light torches. A stone covered in pale, glowing fungus, lashed to a short stick. Crude, but it seemed effective. He approached the opening. It looked narrow, with a low ceiling, but not so small Aleksandr couldn’t fit. He felt Dascha nudge his shoulder.
“Stay, old friend,” Aleksandr murmured in Ruskan. “I will return.”
He drew a dagger from his belt and stepped into the passageway, leading with the blue torch. The walls felt close, and Aleksandr’s hair brushed the ceiling. The tunnel curved up ahead. The pale, blue-green glow cast odd shadows on the stone. Damp patches on the rocks gleamed under the light.
He heard something up ahead. Low voices, murmurs, carrying through the confines of the tunnel. Aleksandr stomped forward, not trying to conceal his approach. His iron mail clinked against his breastplate. His boots resounded on the stone. He came to the corner, still leading with the torch in his left hand, and rounded the bend.
A snarling face lunged out at him. In the confined space, the domovoy could not swing his sword in a full arc. It opted to jab instead. Aleksandr stepped into the blow, letting the bronze sword turn as its point struck the angled surface of his breastplate. As he stepped, Aleksandr raised the dagger in his right hand and thrust it forward.
It sank to the hilt in the soft flesh of domovoy’s throat. Aleksandr felt the impact as the crossguard jammed into his enemy’s collarbone. Hot blood gush from the wound, and he felt it soak through his glove.
Just behind the dying goblin was another, striking for Aleksandr’s unprotected face. He deflect the blow with the crude torch, yanked his dagger free, and kicked the first domovoy into the second. While they were occupied, he lunged in again, stabbing at the domovoy’s side, arm, and back. The domovoy wore a shirt of piecemeal armor, bronze discs lashed together. A few of Aleksandr’s dagger thrusts clanged against the armor, but others pierced the many gaps in the crude mail.
The two aurin collapsed in a heap, one on top of the other. Both gurgled and moaned as they died. Aleksandr stepped over them, wiping their blood off on the hem of his cloak and sheathing the dagger. He looked for the last two: the injured one, and the one helping him to safety.
They were only a few dozen paces ahead of the ambush. Aleksandr approached, torch raised, right hand empty. The healthier of the two turned, baring his teeth at Aleksandr. He raised his sword, menacing, but he stayed close to the wounded one.
This one seems to care about his kin. More than some of the others, at least. Admirable… and something we can use, perhaps.
“Hello,” Aleksandr said, in Middish. “Do you understand? I speak tongue of men, some of your kin—racharin—seem to know it.”
At the word racharin the little aurin’s glare seemed to deepen. He opened his mouth, but where Aleksandr expected to hear some foreign epithet, he heard only a faint sigh of air. The domovoy looked as though he was snarling, his mouth moved as such, but no sound came out.
“I wish for answers,” Aleksandr said. “Give them to me, and you and your companion may live.”
In answer, the aurin leaned his friend against the wall and charged, sword held high.
Aleksandr met the blade with the haft of his torch, though the wood of the torch splintered under the furious assault. This domovoy wielded his sword expertly. He choked up his grip along the blade, hacking in small, fierce strokes that did not get tangled by the low ceiling and narrow walls. Aleksandr was moderately impressed.
So he dropped the mangled remnants of the torch, and waited with empty hands for the next strike. He deflected the next blow with his forearm, trusting in his mail sleeve to prevent serious damage. His other hand reached out and gripped the domovoy by the wrist. The creature snarled voicelessly as Aleksandr took tight hold and then slammed him against the wall of the cavern.
Once. Twice. Thrice.
The fourth time, the fight went out of him. The domovoy crumpled, dazed. His sword clattered onto the stone floor. Aleksandr kicked it away. He stepped over to the wounded one, and saw the nature of the injury. The domovoy’s left leg was broken. A bad break, from the look of it, with a swollen lump in his shin where the leg took a sudden unnatural turn. Dascha’s work, most likely.
The creature snarled at him. Aleksandr ignored him, turning back to his stunned but otherwise healthy foe. The little domovoy was starting to come to his senses.
Aleksandr grabbed him by his arms and lifted him up, bringing their eyes level with one another. Aleksandr slammed his back against the wall of the tunnel, and he stared into the domovoy’s eyes for several long, silent moments.
In the pale glow of the broken torch, Aleksandr noted that the aurin’s face was marked with numerous scars and brands. Three metal rings pierced his low lip, and half a dozen hung from his oversized ears. Aleksandr noticed a tangled mass of scar tissue at his throat, and when the aurin opened his mouth to snarl, Aleksandr saw a blackened stump of a tongue inside his small mouth.
“You cannot speak,” Aleksandr said, realization dawning on him.
Strange luck, you have, to pick the mute as your captive.
The aurin just sneered at him.
“Very well,” Aleksandr said. “Do you understand Middish? If not, continue in same way you are. I will kill you quickly, you and friend both.”
The aurin’s mouth snapped shut. He glared, hate in his eyes, but his muscles relaxed noticeably.
“So you do understand,” Aleksandr said. “A little, at least. Is good.”
The domovoy said nothing. Of course.
“So,” Aleksandr said, “Listen, please. Is simple: We wish for no quarrel with you or your people. We wish only to pass. If you wish to live, you will help us do so.”
The domovoy was still silent, but his eyes flickered left and right. Aleksandr could only hope that meant he was trying to follow along, or considering Aleksandr’s words.
“Your friend may leave, unharmed. If others had not tried to kill me, I would offer same to them,” Aleksandr said. “You are to move with us. Guide us past whatever ambushes remain. When we reach the end of the Underpass, you will be free. Unharmed. This I swear.”
A long silence followed. Finally, Aleksandr loosened his grip, and lowered the domovoy to the ground.
“Do you understand?”
Finally, the aurin gave a single, terse nod. Just a jerk of his head, a setting of his jaw. But it was still more than Aleksandr had expected, in truth.
“Good,” he said. “Do you agree?”
The domovoy glanced at his companion with the broken leg. He glanced the other direction, to the two bodies of his fallen kin. Their still forms lay in a wide puddle of dark blood.
He looked back to Aleksandr. Opened his mouth, but no sound came out but a faint hiss. He grimaced. Gestured to a fallen axe, then to his living friend. He wiggled his fingers, and arched his brow at Aleksandr.
It took a moment to understand. Then, “Da,” Aleksandr said. “He may go. You may give him the weapon, to help him walk.”
The domovoy bobbed his head, an absentminded gesture as he considered the situation. Finally, he looked up and met Aleksandr’s eyes again. He stared, small dark eyes intense, as if searching for something
Searching for what? Aleksandr wondered. But the answer was easy enough, when he thought about it.
“I am a man of my word,” Aleksandr said, finally. He reached down and picked up the fallen sword. He held it out to the aurin, hilt first. “I swear to you: We want only to leave.”
The domovoy reached for the blade, then hesitated. He jerked his head down in another terse nod.
Language difficulties aside, in the end it was not so hard to understand the aurin.
He is seeking the same thing every desperate man is searching for, Aleksandr realized. The same thing Yorrin was seeking. Aurin or human, we are not so different after all.
He needed something, someone, to believe in.