The sky matches our mood, it seems, Aleksandr thought to himself.
It was hard to tell what time of day it was. The sun was hidden behind dense, dark clouds. A torrential rainfall pounded down upon them as they emerged from the Underpass.
Small waterfalls ran down the side of the mountains behind them. The smooth Underpass road gave way to a cobbled Cassaline creation. Water ran through the cracks in the stones, and on either side of the road it had collected in fast-flowing gutters that swirled with mud and branches.
The men of Taraam had lost two more of their number inside the aurin fortification. There were only six of them remaining. Olivenco, of course, still confined to a litter. Lefty moved under his own power, though Alaina had bandaged a wound on his leg that appeared serious enough to cause him to walk with a pronounced limp.
The young fellow, Edric—the one that the others called Lordling—was still feverish from the half dozen arrows he had taken. He slipped in and out of consciousness, and his litter was dragged by one of the horses. Connor—the one they called Quickblade—had suffered wounds on both arms that rendered him useless in a fight but able to keep up in a march. His right arm was bound in a sling, and his left was bandaged but still partially functional.
Geoffrey—Wallbreaker—was battered and bruised, but still marched and carried his weapons. Perrin—the youngest of them, and the only one without a nickname—was also essentially intact and still marching, shield strapped to his arm and sword ready at his side.
Six men. Out of forty. Such a tragedy. Aleksandr felt an ache in his chest, a sympathy for the men of Fort Taraam. Such a senseless loss of life. Damn the domovoy. Damn the aurin.
No, Aleksandr reprimanded himself. Not all the aurin. He glanced at Kerfuffle, who marched alongside Perrin. The small fellow had followed them out of the Underpass and into the rain.
He looked largely uninjured. According to Yorrin, the aurin warrior had saved several lives in that final battle. He had turned his blade against his kin. Yorrin couldn’t fathom why. But Aleksandr thought that perhaps he understood it.
Those ritual scars that mark his body, even removing his tongue. I do not think that he did these things to himself. I intended to force an enemy into guiding us out, but perhaps in a way I was also giving him a way out.
Aleksandr’s left leg pained him with every step Dascha took. Alaina had confirmed that it was broken. A clean break, as Yorrin had predicted. There was little she could do but tie a few lengths of wood on either side of it to keep him from moving it too much.
Yorrin and Prudence were largely uninjured, though Yorrin’s gambeson was torn in several places. The inner layers of textile protruded from the slashes in pale, ragged tufts.
Bear was bandaged in many places. Alaina said he was lucky to still be standing and moving of his own volition, but the big barbarian seemed oblivious to how close he may have come to dire injury. He’d nearly shoved her away when she went to stitch up his fresh wounds, but Aleksandr had insisted.
The worst of them was Dylan. He had regained consciousness quickly, which seemed good to Aleksandr. He was even lucid enough to ride. Or so he insisted. He sat stiffly in the saddle, eyes downcast. But Aleksandr kept the lean man in his periphery, worried that he might take a turn at any moment.
“I’ve seen head wounds like this before,” Alaina said, studying Dylan’s pupils. “A man kicked by a horse, a man beaten by muggers, and another injured in a melee tourney.”
“Will he be alright?” Aleksandr asked.
“I’m fine!” Dylan interjected.
The wound didn’t look like too much… a knot on the back of his head the size of Bear’s fist, and a small cut. But Aleksandr had seen a man with a similar wound, back home. One of his father’s druzhniks. He hit his head when his horse threw him. He had seemed alright, but died that night in his sleep.
“Hopefully,” Alaina said. “Head injuries are fickle things. Two of the men I mentioned died. The third lived without any apparent issues.”
Yorrin frowned. “Bad odds.”
“Less odds, I think,” Alaina said. “Than the details of what, exactly, was injured inside the skull. But since I can’t see inside the skull—”
“I’m fine!” Dylan protested again. “Just sore. A little dizzy.”
Alaina smiled, and rested a hand on Dylan’s. “That’s good,” she said. “I will keep an eye on you. Tell me if you feel anything worsen.”
“Is nothing you can do for him?” Aleksandr asked. The midwives and wise men of his father’s hall had done nothing for Viktor. But it seemed to Aleksandr that Alaina was considerably more learned that they had been.
“Not as such,” Alaina said. “I’ve heard stories of Cassaline trepanning, but… I’ve never done it myself, nor been trained in it, nor do I have the tools for it.”
“Trepanning?” Yorrin asked.
Alaina hesitated, as if considering whether or not she should really answer the question. Finally, she did. “A process where they scrape a hole through the scalp and the skull, to allow bad blood to drain out of the brain. With wounds such as this, that’s the danger.”
“God’s fangs,” Yorrin muttered, eyes wide.
That is a horrifying thought. It conjured an unsettling image in Aleksandr’s head.
“Nobody’s cutting any fucking holes in my head!” Dylan snapped, trying to sit up. Alaina gently laid a hand on his chest, and he let her keep him down.
“No,” Alaina agreed. “We are not. So I can only hope that such a thing is not necessary.”
“So… there’s nothing else you can do for him?” Yorrin asked.
The priestess shook her head. “Just watch, and pray. His fate is in Torath’s coils, now.”
It had been a couple hours, and Dylan had neither worsened nor improved.
The rain beat down on them in a steady torrent, and they trekked in silence. The ground beyond the cobblestone road was rough and rocky. They were surrounded by jagged hills dotted with boulders, evergreens and scraggly foliage. Yorrin and Prudence seemed to be keeping their eyes on the hilltops, no doubt watching for a ambush of domovoy. Kerfuffle, however, walked proudly. Head high, shoulders back, unconcerned. Likely a good sign.
A steep, black cliff rose up on their right. The stone was slick with rain. A deep pool of dark mud and stones had gathered at the base of the hill, spilling onto the road somewhat. Their column moved around it wordlessly. Back on the Torathian side of the Midland Mountains the hills were rough, to be sure, but things seemed even harsher on this side.
There is a small kingdom on that side, Aleksandr considered. Karim, I think it was called. But here, Alaina says it is a few days in any direction before we will enter a proper kingdom. Until then, it will just be isolated freemen eking out life on the borders, sworn to no lord or king. Protected by Fort Taraam, or—more likely— by nothing.
It was a familiar concept. There were huge tracts of barely settled land in Rusk, theoretically claimed by the Tsar and his bayards. In reality, many serfs on the fringes of Rusk had never seen a bayard or a druzhnik. They lived hard lives, but perhaps ones more free than those that labored under a lord’s eye. Aleksandr had spent a little time in such homesteads, here and there, as he’d made his way out of Rusk.
According to Lefty, Taraam was about a half-day’s travel away. After an hour on the road, the sun gleamed out from behind the angry black clouds enough that Aleksandr judged it was likely midday. They would arrive at nightfall, then.
Shelter from the rain, a warm hearthfire, and a dry pallet to sleep on, Aleksandr thought. That will be welcome indeed.
Aleksandr glanced to his right. The young soldier, Perrin, walked alongside Prudence. Prudence still had her eyes cast in the distance, but Perrin’s gaze was much, much closer.
“Perrin,” Aleksandr said. He did not raise his voice very loud. For a moment he thought it was drowned out entirely by the beating of the rain. But then Perrin glaned up. Unlike Aleksandr’s companions, Perrin lacked a cloak. His head was protected by a quilted cap and a mail coif, neither of which did much of anything to keep the rain out of his face.
“Yeah?” the young man met Aleksandr’s eyes. He was likely only a few years younger than Aleksandr, but his face was so young. Cheeks speckled with sparse stubble, eyes wide and curious.
“This fort, Taraam,” Aleksandr said. “You have more men there, da?”
Perrin nodded. “Not so many, but we have a few. The company’s been about a hundred men for years, but we bled recruits bad last winter. Lost a few to goblins—that’d be why the Captain was so keen on clearing out the caves—and more to chance and fate and the like. Men not returning from leave to see their kin, or retiring to help the family farm, you know how it goes.”
“How many will be waiting for us?”
“Hm,” Perrin furrowed his brow, considering. “About a score? The Captain left Doughty Davan in charge. Good man, if a bit of a hardass.”
“They will be able to tend the wounded?” Aleksandr asked. “Alaina said that several of your comrades have a difficult road to travel.”
Perrin ran his hand across his chin, scratching at a beard he did not have. He wiped water from his eyes—immediately replaced, of course, but perhaps the gesture was enough. Then he frowned.
“Don’t think so. But there’s an herb woman south of the fort, near the border with Cardenbury. Lefty knows her pretty well, think she either helped to birth him or knows the midwife that did. Likely we’ll fetch her and pay her good silver to stay at the fort a while and see to the Captain.”
“Good,” Aleksandr said. “Though… is not just the Captain. The young man, Edric?”
“Lordling,” Perrin said. “On account of him being the fifth son of a minor lord up in the Copperlands.”
“Da. He is not well.”
Perrin nodded. “We’ll do what we can for all of them, don’t worry about that. Taraam takes care of its own.”
“Good,” Aleksandr said again.
Perrin fell silent for a moment, but Aleksandr felt the young man’s eyes upon him. Finally, he spoke. “What about you?”
Aleksandr cocked his head. “Hm?”
Perrin jerked his jaw in the direction of Aleksandr’s leg. “That leg doesn’t look like it feels good. And two more of your men didn’t come out unscathed either. You have a healer?”
“Aside from her?” Aleksandr looked at Alaina.
She was staying close to Olivenco. Her hood was not up, something Aleksandr almost questioned until he realized the downpour was so intense it had soaked through his own woolen cloak some time ago. Her dark hair was plastered to her scalp, and to her face in thin stray locks. Every so often, she would look down at Olivenco, monitoring his status.
“No,” Aleksandr finally said. “But she is best I have ever seen. We will be with her to Yerevan. Is a long way… if my leg still troubles me then, I will stay until it heals.”
“And what about them?” Perrin nodded at Bear and Dylan. “Same thing?”
Aleksandr nodded. “Bear will recover, Alaina said. Unless his wounds fester. And Dylan…”
“Hope for the best,” Perrin muttered. He made an absent minded gesture, twisting his right hand in front of him as if curving around a globe. Aleksandr had seen Yorrin make the gesture enough times. The proper way was with both hands, but the one-handed version was common enough as well. Invoking Torath as a good luck charm. As far as Aleksandr could tell, it was a simple pantomime.
The Snake That Encircles The World, they call him. Torath’s most prominent title was reflected in the gesture, a crude mimicry of encompassing a sphere.
“Quite,” Aleksandr agreed.
They fell silent for a while, trudging through the rain. Up ahead, the stone Cassaline road curved off into the horizon. Aleksandr saw a side road branching off to the left—south, if his mental map was correct. This road was not a Cassaline construction. It was not made of carefully mortared stones. Rather, it was a wide dirt track, sprinkled with gravel.
A Middish road, no doubt. Rather like the roads back in Rusk, the difference between this and the Cassaline style was stark. Especially in inclement weather. The road had turned to mud, and huge puddles spread across much of its length.
Perrin gestured to the dirt—or rather mud—road. “Taraam’s just a few more hours that way,” he said.
The column took the turn. Their progress slowed as they were forced to slog through thick, squelching mud. Aleksandr let his mind wander for a time, until he heard Perrin speak again beside him.
“We owe you.” His voice was quiet, barely audible beneath the pouding rainfall. Aleksandr strained to hear him. “More than we can count, really. More than Lefty’s like to ever say.”
“Is not a problem,” Aleksandr said. “If we had not come, perhaps you—”
“We’d be dead,” interrupted Perrin. “No doubt. If not today, soon enough. No way we’d have abandoned the Captain, not until he died of poisoned blood. The goblins would’ve overrun us. Or taken us on our way out. What you did… you didn’t have to.”
“Nyet. Of course we did,” Aleksandr said.
Perrin shrugged. “Maybe it helped you too, sure. Safety in numbers and all. But you lot accepted most of the risk. For God’s sake, man, you charged that beast. You can’t say you had to do that!”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “I can. You misunderstand me, Perrin. I am not saying we had to help for our own sake. I am saying we had to help. Is the only option we had. Is the right thing for us to do.”
Perrin stared up at Aleksandr, brow furrowed, lips pursed. “You’re serious.”
Perrin smiled. “You’d make a good leader,” he said. “Or a good lord.”
“You are kind,” Aleksandr said. “But I am third son of Ruskan nobility. I will not be a lord.”
“Could still be a captain, though,” Perrin said. “Taraam’s likely going to be in the market.”
“Lefty is a good man,” Aleksandr said. “He will do well.”
“Of course he will. But he’s a…” Perrin hesitated, as if searching for the right word. “He’s a good man. A good right-hand. An enforcer, a rough and gruff fellow that won’t tolerate horseshit. But he’s not exactly… well, the Captain. A true leader has something else.”
And he thinks I have this? Why? Aleksandr was not entirely sure what Perrin was driving at. Perhaps it is the language. Some nuance, lost on me.
Aleksandr’s thoughts were interrupted by a distant, muffled sound. Aleksandr could tell instantly that it was loud, and quieted only by considerable distance. A crashing sound, something huge smashing into something else.
Everyone in the column went on alert at the same time. Aleksandr’s hand went to the hilt of Kholodny, and in his periphery he saw Perrin reach for his own sword.
Yorrin popped up alongside Aleksandr. He’d strung his bow. He held an arrow in his left hand, flush alongside the bow itself.
“Came from the south,” Yorrin said.
Aleksandr frowned. “Taraam?”
“My thought, yeah.”
“It could’ve been” Perrin joined in their conversation. “But if so, it was bloody loud. We’re still an hour out, at least.”
Aleksandr met Yorrin’s eyes. In a few moments, a great deal of communication passed between them in silence.
Something is wrong at Taraam, Aleksandr thought. We are exhausted, wounded, and low on men. We do not wish to stumble into more trouble unaware.
He knew Yorrin understood all of this. And Yorrin understood something else, as well: The best chance we have of going into this trouble with our eyes open is if we scout it first.
“Prudence,” Yorrin said. He raised his voice, but it still did not rise to a yell. Nevertheless, the small woman made her way over in moments. She arched an eyebrow at Yorrin, and he shot her a pointed look.
“Yorrin,” Aleksandr said. We must be careful. Thorough. And we must remain undetected.
Yorrin smiled up at him. It was a small thing, lopsided, almost smug.
“We’re on it,” he said.
And then they were gone.