It was night when they approached the fortress of the domovoy.
How could they even know? Aleksandr wondered to himself. No sunlight. Night or day, makes no difference.
Of course, Aleksandr had no way of knowing where the sun was outside the Underpass. It could well have been high noon. But it was night down here, for their purposes. The aurin warrior— Kerfuffle, Yorrin had named him, and he answered to it readily enough—had made sure of that.
It was night because the firelights beyond the wall were faint, and dying. It was night because there were only a few domovoy visible from a distance, patrolling the wall bearing the pale blue mosslights. It was night because it was quiet within.
It was night because Kerfuffle had held them back for a few hours after they started to draw close. A compromise, since they refused to delay the journey by many more hours by following him deeper into the caves.
How did he know they would settle in at this time? Without a sun or anything else to guide him? Aleksandr did not know the answer. It was a question too complex to try to articulate to the mute domovoy. But perhaps it was simple, in the end. Perhaps he simply senses it. How often have you awoken a few minutes before the sunlight hits you? This is his home. He keeps the same schedule as his kin, his body moves in the same rhythms.
Whatever the reason, Kerfuffle had been right. From a distance, they watched as the reflected lights glowing from beyond the wall began to dim. They listened as the chatter of the aurin defenders began to die down. That was when they moved up, creeping slowly closer to the walls.
Lefty had not believed them, when he first heard that Kerfuffle was claiming there was an aurin fortress in their path.
“The fuck are you on about?” Lefty growled. “A fort? In the middle of the damn road?”
“Da, that is what Kerfuffle claimed,” said Aleksandr.
“Then Kerfuffle is blowin’ smoke up your ass,” Lefty said, shooting a glare at the domovoy. “That, or he’s leadin’ us into a trap.”
If he was offended, the domovoy did not show it. He stared at Lefty, thin lips drawn tight over his sharp little teeth.
“Why are you so sure?” Dylan asked.
Lefty snorted in disgust. Before he could answer, Aleksandr furrowed his brow. Realization came to him suddenly.
“You would have passed it on the way in.”
“No shit,” Lefty said. “There was a big clearin’, yeah. Maybe an hour into the tunnel. That was the first big fight we got into. But there wasn’t no fort there.”
Aleksandr glanced at Kerfuffle. The domovoy was still staring at Lefty.
“Don’t mean there ain’t one now,” interjected one of the Taraamites. Geoffrey, the one called Wallbreaker. He spat onto the stone ground. “Been a few days.”
Kerfuffle raised a small hand and pointed at Geoffrey.
“That quick?” Yorrin said. “They can raise fortifications in a few days?”
“They can make openings in the tunnel walls, too,” Geoffrey pointed out. “Done that mighty quick before. Mayhap they’ve got a way with stone.”
Kerfuffle was still pointing at the big mercenary, and he gave a slow, deliberate nod.
Lefty frowned. “Maybe,” he said. “But I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Then, they saw it.
The walls were stone. Rough, ugly stone, but stone nonetheless. They raised about twelve feet high. The gate at the center of the Underpass road was a crude thing, wood lashed together with hides and lengths of rope.
As fortifications went, Aleksandr was not impressed. He’d seen wooden keeps in rural Rusk made with sturdier craftsmanship. To say nothing of the Cassaline-built marvels he had seen in Torathia. A battering ram would probably breach the gate in less than an hour.
But they had no battering ram. And the domovoy had apparently raised the wall in a matter of several days time. He was impressed with their resourcefulness, if not the quality of their skill.
They had crept as close as they could while still having a place to hide out of sight of the walls. Their column was hiding behind a dense formation of rocks, just off the Underpass road, just a couple hundred feet from the wall.
Now, they waited.
Kerfuffle, Yorrin, and Prudence had slinked off ahead, to try to scout the walls of the aurin fortress. Their goal was to climb up, dispatch the sentries, and get the gate opened. Aleksandr and the others had prepared themselves for what was to come, and they awaited the signal.
Once the gate opened, Aleksandr would lead the attack. Bear would be at his side. Of the Taraamites, Geoffrey and Perrin had volunteered to join them in at the front.
It would be up to Dylan and Lefty to get the wounded—as well as Alaina and Borthul—through the fort safely. They would move slower, so Aleksandr and the others would have to occupy whatever domovoy were within until the wounded had made it to the other side.
Aleksandr did not intend to win against the domovoy, necessarily. He only needed to stall them, and hurt them enough that he could then disengage without immediate pursuit. In practice, he did not know how likely this would be.
Kerfuffle had seemed nervous with the plan. When they pressed him to explain why he was so keen to avoid this fortification, his answer was somewhat unsettling. He just drew a crude humanoid shape, then drew small simple stick figures around it. The small figures were perhaps half its size. Yorrin asked him if the figures were meant to represent the goblins, and Kerfuffle just shook his head. Instead, he pointed at Aleksandr, and at Bear, and at the men of Taraam.
The figures were meant to represent them. Something inside the fort was twice the size of a man. Aleksandr had heard of giants before, hiding in the remote mountains in the frozen north of Rusk. But he had never seen one, nor thought he would find one here. In truth, he had always doubted that they existed at all.
But Kerfuffle was deathly serious. The thought made Aleksandr shiver.
Fear will not lend strength to your sword-arm, he thought. Whatever waits within, you will face it soon enough. Be calm. Be strong. The men will see your courage, and it will give them courage in turn.
He could still hear the words, spoken in his father’s voice. Bayard Valentin Kerensky had led men into battle many times, and lived words like that. Aleksandr could not imagine fear gnawing at his father’s guts, nor imagine Valentin repeating such advice to himself over and over while waiting for a battle to come.
Valentin was new to this once, as well, he reminded himself. Just as you are. Remember the words. Live them. The rest will come later. If you survive.
Alaina moved up alongside him. They were close enough to the aurin fort that they were keeping quiet. Not even whispering, unless what they had to say was critical. But Aleksandr’s eyes had adjusted to the dim light, and he saw the gleam of her teeth as she smiled at him. She stood beside him, and he suddenly felt her hand slip inside his. He could not feel her through his thick leather gloves, but there was a gentle pressure as she squeezed his hand. An uncomfortable blush warmed his cheeks.
She stood like that for a long moment. Just as Aleksandr’s apprehension began to fade, Alaina suddenly moved. She leaned her face towards his, growing inappropriately close. He felt his face turn red with nervous energy, until Alaina’s cheek was nearly touching his. She was a few inches shorter than him, and her chin brushed across his armored shoulder.
He felt her breath, hot against his ear. Aleksandr clenched his jaw to keep focused and not let his mind wander.
“Whatever happens next,” Alaina said, her voice barely a whisper. “You have done more than anyone could have ever asked. For these men. For your own. And for me.”
Her lips brushed Aleksandr’s ear. They felt soft, and moist. Aleksandr swallowed, and did not reply.
“I’m sorry.” She spoke so softly, even with her lips touching his ear he could barely hear her. “If I had known it would be this bad, perhaps I would have—it doesn’t matter. I’m sorry, regardless. I did not mean to put you and your friends in this much danger.”
Aleksandr tilted his head down, so that his lips nearly touched Alaina’s ear. He sensed her shiver, and realized he was probably tickling her with his beard. Nevertheless, he would not be less careful than she was being. They had all agreed not to speak, so close to the fortification.
“It is fine,” he whispered, just as softly as she had. “Is good, even. Lucky. Had we not come here, now, these men would be dead. Is all for the best.”
Alaina’s face was so close to his that he could feel as she smiled. “I suppose you’re right,” she whispered. “God helps those who help themselves… but sometimes he nudges things a little.”
I do not know a great deal about the god of the Torathi Faith. Aleksandr thought. But if Torath does exist, I can not imagine a better incarnation than the one Alaina believes in.
Truly, interacting with her was nearly enough to make him reconsider his skepticism of her faith. She had a strong respect for the independence and self-determination of all men, tempered with remarkable compassion.
They stood together in silence for some time. Alaina still clasped his hand, resting her cheek against his, her breath whispering in and out past his ear. Aleksandr found himself comforted by her presence. Calmed. And that calm, in turn, gave him strength.
“We’re on,” Dylan said, his whisper raising just loud enough to be heard by everyone. “Look.”
Aleksandr looked. He saw a glimmer of light reflect off the top of the gate; Yorrin’s signal. The way was clear, and the gate would open shortly.
Without sparing a second thought, he swept Alaina into a fierce embrace. She returned it with equal enthusiasm, but it did not last long. Aleksandr turned and pulled himself up into Dascha’s saddle.
He rode out from behind the stone formation. Bear, Geoffrey, and Perrin followed on foot, leaving the other horses for the wounded. Aleksandr saw the gate up ahead in the gloom, still closed. Still, he urged Dascha forward with his knees, longsword in hand. He trusted in Yorrin, and in Prudence. He even trusted in Kerfuffle. They would deliver.
The gate swung open mere moments before he arrived. He rode through. Prudence was nowhere to be seen, and he saw only Yorrin’s back as the man slipped off towards a shadowed wall of the cavern. But Kerfuffle stood in the threshold as Aleksandr passed, and the aurin warrior fell into step alongside Bear, Perrin, and Geoffrey.
Aleksandr saw two fallen domovoy sprawled out on the stone, blood pooling beneath them. No doubt there were other corpses on the wall above him. The sentries.
Perhaps we will be very lucky, he thought. Perhaps the rest of them are sound asleep, and—
As Aleksandr rode into the fort, he heard a shout rise on the far side of the cavern. One of the domovoy had spotted the commotion.
The alarm was raised, now. Aleksandr rode towards the shouting. It was only a matter of time before the aurin descended upon them, after all. A fight was inevitable.
He intended to be at the center of it.