It’s a good night for a raid, at least, Yorrin thought to himself. The moon and stars were still fully occluded by thick, dark clouds. The only light for a few hundred feet were the firelights in the camp. Heavy rain still pounded down upon them. Yorrin’s feet squelched in the mud, but the sound was muffled by the steady rainfall.
It was well past nightfall now. The campfires still blazed, and a few men were hunkered down around them, but most of the “Songbirds” had retired to their tents. It had taken time to get back to Aleksandr and the others and put their plans in motion. And then more time, as he and Prudence made their way down to the camp.
Prudence told the fellow on the walls “two hours,” Yorrin recalled. If I’m not mistaken, we’ll be butting up against that deadline soon enough.
The Songbirds had three of their number posted around the perimeter of their camp. A fourth carried a torch as he patrolled a small circuit. The light guttered in the wind and rain, but Yorrin wasn’t surprised to see that the oilcloth on the torch was resistant even to this fierce downpour.
That’d be the safety spotter, then, Yorrin noted. The torch only cast light out about thirty paces, and it would render the man as night-blind as the folks at the campfire. His job was likely to spot anyone that slipped past the sight of the three sentries that were looking deeper into the black night.
But as Yorrin and Prudence had already noticed, these men had been fool enough to pitch their tents into a sort of wall along one side of the camp. This provided a great angle of approach, and only one of their sentries was posted on that side.
He was hunkered down beneath the scant cover of a tree. Yorrin almost felt bad for the man. The other sentries didn’t have very clear sightlines on him. And the fellow himself was clearly cold, wet, and exhausted. Dreaming of his bedroll. Prudence rustled a bush a good distance out, and the man squinted to see if it was an animal or if there was trouble to be found.
Trouble’s already found you. It was no great challenge to approach the man in his blindspot while he stared in Prudence’s direction. Yorrin came around the trunk of the tree, and he reached both hands over the man’s shoulders.
His left hand clamped over the sentry’s mouth at the exact moment his right hand swept a razor edged purse-cutter across his throat. The sentry let out a faint, muffled cry as he died.
A pang of emotion rippled through Yorrin. It wasn’t that he balked at killing the man. He’d killed men for less cause before. It was the quiet, unpleasant realization that he could easily have been this man.
Pickpockets, second-story men, grifters… we’re all cousins to the brigands that plague the roadways. Hell, I met Aleksandr when I tried my hand at plaguing a roadway. The thought was briefly unsettling. Yorrin pushed it away. For one thing, I changed careers, and this fellow didn’t. It’s not like I didn’t deserve to dangle on that rope when Aleksandr saved me. And besides, I never would’ve made this kind of mistake. Poor fool bleeding out into the mud is paying the price of stupidity. The brigand’s life isn’t known for forgiving mistakes. Simple as that.
The rain washed the blood from Yorrin’s hands. He leaned the corpse against the tree, in case one of the other sentries caught sight of him. Then he crept up to the tent wall. As he carefully cut a slit in the tent, Prudence appeared beside him like a shadow. He exchanged a few gestures with her, sending her to an adjacent tent.
Then they got to work.
“Songbirds?” Lefty didn’t hide his surprise. He spat on the muddy road.
Yorrin and Prudence were nearly encircled by the others, those healthy enough that they might participate in the upcoming conflict.
“I take it you know of them?” Yorrin asked.
“Could say that. Cockroaches. They mostly work the western Imperial road, towards Kirkworth. Murdered a number of our men when we sent them out to hunt or gather wood. They run at the first sign of trouble. Captain figures they want Taraam, but they’ve been too cowardly to face us in an open fight. No surprise they’d wait till we’re all away.”
“This was no small band. Looked to be thirty four of them,” Yorrin said.
Perrin frowned. He looked to Lefty. “That’s more than we thought they had. A lot more. Isn’t it?”
Lefty nodded. “Had ‘em pegged at a dozen, maybe a score at the most. Robin must’ve been busy.”
“Robin?” Aleksandr asked.
“Last I knew, he led the Songbirds. He’s all talk, from what I’ve heard… just a gutless, backstabbing little coward. ” Lefty said. “But he knows how to keep a pack of selfish bastards all pointed in the same direction, at least. And maybe he’s learned a thing or two, if he’s sweet-talked that many more men into his company.”
“Might not be his tongue that swayed them,” Yorrin said. “But the promise of spoils. They’ve got a siege engine. Catapult, I think.”
That drew some attention.
“How the hell did they make a catapult?” the Whip asked, incredulous. His eyes looked more alert than they had when Yorrin and Prudence had gone scouting. He’d dismounted, and he stood mostly of his own accord. Just leaning lightly on the haft of his spear. Yorrin assumed these were good signs that he wasn’t about to keel over dead.
“Yorrin didn’t say they made it,” Prudence interjected. “Just that they have it.”
“Definitely didn’t make it,” Yorrin said. “Looks beat to shit, covered in moss.”
“Could be that it’s a relic of the Empire,” Alaina said. “Survived all these years in some overgrown forgotten fort. The Cassalines built to last.”
“Either way,” Yorrin said, looking to Lefty. “Your lad on the wall said they’ve been hammering the fort for the last few days. Only a matter of time before they break through.”
“And you told him that we’re out here?” Perrin asked. “That we ought to attack the camp together?”
Yorrin nodded. “But I’m not sure he totally believed us.”
“Is fine,” Aleksandr said. He alone of all of them was still in the saddle. Yorrin knew that with his leg busted, mounting and dismounting would be excruciating. “We go forward anyway. If we do this on our own, is good enough. If they help, is better.”
“I’ll go with you,” Lefty said. Aleksandr looked at him, as if appraising his status, then nodded.
“As will I,” said Perrin. “You too, right Geoff?”
Wallbreaker nodded. He was standing behind Perrin, but clearly listening in. He rolled his thick neck across his broad shoulders, and even from several feet away Yorrin heard his bones pop and crackle at the motion.
“Me too,” said Quickblade. Yorrin arched his eyebrow at the man, who had both arms in makeshift slings that Alaina had made.
Lefty snorted. “Not a chance. You, Lordling, and the Captain stay behind. No discussion.”
“Is fine, Little Blade,” Bear growled to Quickblade. “I go with Aleksandr. You too weak, you stay.”
“Bear,” Aleksandr said. His tone clearly disapproving. “You are injured.”
“Da!” Bear said, grinning. “Will be good fight! Better chances for little Middishmen to kill Bear! Make good story!”
“You should—” Aleksandr started to argue, but Yorrin rolled his eyes.
“You’re injured, too, Aleksandr,” he pointed out. “Riding into battle on a broken leg doesn’t give you much room to tell us what we should or shouldn’t do.”
Bear just grinned. His huge arms were crossed over his chest.
“On that note, I’m going too,” said the Whip.
Aleksandr looked even more critical at this claim. He glanced at Yorrin.
“You are right,” he said finally. “We are all injured. Bear, Dylan, if you can ride and fight, you may go.”
“Well then,” Lefty said. He looked around, counting them off. Lefty, Perrin, Wallbreaker. Aleksandr, Dylan, Bear. His gaze settled on Kerfuffle. “You in too?”
Kerfuffle bared his teeth in what Yorrin could only assume was a goblin smile. It was an ugly thing, bristling with menace. Least he’s on our side now, Yorrin thought. For now. Bloody heathen.
Lefty glanced up. “Well then, it’s nine of us, if the Fort doesn’t join in. Against thirty four of them. The Songbirds ain’t exactly battle-hardened warriors, but even so those odds are dogshit.”
“Seven,” Yorrin said.
“Eh?” Lefty squinted at him. “What?”
“It’s seven of you,” Yorrin repeated. “If the Fort doesn’t open its gates and come out to help us, then it’s the seven of you.”
“What, your balls fall off?” Lefty growled. His glare passed from Yorrin to Prudence, then back again. “You lose your stomach for fighting? I’d expect this from the girl, but not you. You said there’s thirty fucking four of them. You really going to sit it out and let us go against near three dozen men?”
Prudence looked annoyed. Yorrin suspected she was about to interject, but he quieted her with a subtle look. Then he looked back to Lefty.
“No,” Yorrin said. He smirked. “We’re going to make sure it’s seven against a hell of a lot less than thirty four.”
The tent stank. The smell of sweat was thick in the close, humid air. And now the metallic scent of blood and the stink of emptied bowels were layered on top of that.
Yorrin left five corpses in their bedrolls. The men had died without properly waking, and without more than a few muffled groans. Their blood had soaked through their blankets, but in the darkness of the tent Yorrin figured there was a chance someone sticking their head inside might not notice right away.
He moved, not to the tied off flap that served as a “door,” but to the far wall. He listened through the thick canvas. He heard muffled snores. Further out, he heard the sounds of the men at the campfires grumbling to one another. He slit a hole in the wall, and then cut his way through to the adjacent tent.
Yorrin’s eyes had adjusted as much as they could. Even so, he worked in near total darkness. He crept between the sleeping men, giving each of them a cold, iron kiss awake. He was on the fourth—and last—man in the tent when the Songbird came awake early.
Yorrin scrambled to muffle him with one hand, and end him with the other. The struggle that ensued was brief, and fierce. Yorrin had the upper hand, but the Songbird was fighting for his life. He clipped Yorrin in the jaw with a wild punch that rang Yorrin’s bell. When Yorrin’s hand slipped off the Songbird’s mouth, he started to shout.
Yorrin silenced him with a quick strike, ramming his dagger into the apple of the Songbird’s throat. Hot blood gushed over his hand. He heard a voice suddenly, and it sounded as if it came from the entrance of the tent.
“Alright in there?”
Yorrin grunted an assent, a mumbled “yeah,” and prayed for luck. He moved up to the closed flap, waiting. The rain pounded rhythmically against the thick cloth roof. He heard a rustle, the telltale sound of someone unfastening the catch on the flap.
Come on. Lean your head in first. Give me a target.
The damned brigand led with his foot, sticking his right leg into the open flap. Yorrin didn’t dare strike yet. He needed the first blow to be the last.
An arm came next, bearing a small flickering oil lamp. The light was dim, but it was bright enough to Yorrin’s adjusted eyes. He was momentarily blinded as the Songbird wriggled the rest of the way through. Yorrin blinked, trying to get a clear look at his target. The Songbird had no such difficulty.
He murmured an inarticulate noise of confusion. Yorrin’s vision cleared just as the Songbird seemed to comprehend what was going on.
“Ware!” he shouted. “Foes! To arms! W—”
Yorrin hit him low, and felt the man’s knee give out. His grunt at the impact turned to a wail as Yorrin stabbed him in the neck. The wail died when he did, as Yorrin jerked his blade back and forth across the throat in frantic movements.
Too little, too late. He heard shouts outside the tent. Time to go.
Yorrin scrambled to his feet as he heard footfalls in the mud and puddles outside. The lamp had gone out when the Songbird fell on top of it, and now he couldn’t see a damn thing. He considered going for the slit he’d cut in the side of the tent, but paused. It was a slim, carefully sliced hole that he had crawled through. Not an easy, fast egress, especially now that he was nightblind. He went to the back of the tent instead, rammed his dagger into the canvas, and started carving a ragged hole.
A voice outside the tent called within. “Ned?” A pause, then. “Whoever’s in there, come out now or—”
“Foes!” The interruption came from elsewhere. A good distance away, by the sound of it. The man outside the tent cursed, and Yorrin smiled to himself.
Hoofbeats hammered against the muddy ground. The snap of a bowstring and a whistling sound, followed by a scream. That would be the Whip, shooting from the saddle. Then came the metallic clamor of crossed blades. A roaring shout, brimming with bestial fury. Bear.
Yorrin suspected the man outside had been redirected. He took his chances and went back to the front of the tent, peering through the open flap.
The Songbirds’ camp was in chaos.
Aleksandr had ridden through the middle of them, laying into the surprised Songbirds with his steel longsword. Lefty rode Yorrin’s horse at Aleksandr’s left flank, and Perrin rode Prudence’s horse on the right. The Whip had ridden past, keeping his distance, putting arrows into any isolated enemy.
Bear and Wallbreaker were on foot, though Yorrin saw Bear’s horse abandoned at the camp’s edge. They had entered a messy melee with a few confused and scattered Songbirds that the cavalry charge had left behind. Kerfuffle charged in a few paces behind them, brandishing his jagged-edged blade.
Men were still emerging from the tents Yorrin and Prudence had not yet cleared. Yorrin emerged from the tent, drawing his sword as he did. He came on one such brigand from behind. The man was clad in an unlaced tunic and nothing else, brandishing a handaxe. Yorrin rammed his sword through the man’s back, entering low and driving the leaf blade up into the ribcage.
The Songbird gurgled and died. As he crumpled, he pulled Yorrin’s sword down with him. Another man stepped out of a tent, half-dressed with sword in hand, and he spotted Yorrin. The Songbird descended upon him while Yorrin struggled to wrench his blade out of the corpse.
A crossbow bolt whistled past Yorrin’s ear and sank into the Songbird’s chest. He staggered, stopped, then dropped to his knees. His sword plunked into the wet mud. He looked up at Yorrin, confusion and fear in his eyes.
Good shot, Prudence.
Yorrin pulled his sword free, and he moved past the wounded—probably dying—Songbird to find a different target.
There was a notable lack of them. The bandits that Bear had been fighting seemed to be dead or fled. A small pocket of resistance was facing Aleksandr and the other horsemen, but they looked to be crumpling fast.
Yorrin heard more hoofbeats. He looked south, and saw a dozen torches bobbing across the open field between them and Taraam. It looked as though the Taraamites were coming after all.
Yorrin jogged towards Aleksandr. He arrived just in time to see the Songbirds break. They scattered in all directions, leaving their weapons lying in the mud as they ran for their lives.
In moments, Yorrin saw Aleksandr staring down a single man. They had clearly crossed blades already. The man stood with his sword forward, scant inches from Aleksandr’s own blade. A guard position. Seeing how outnumbered he had become, however, he relaxed his stance.
He looked a little less rough than some of the other brigands. He wore a dark red dyed gambeson over brown clothes, and a sodden green cloak hung from his shoulders. His rain-slicked hair was dark brown, but his beard was red.
“Robin?” Aleksandr said.
The man nodded. He still held his sword, but when Aleksandr leveled his family blade at Robin’s face he dropped it in a hurry.
“That’s me,” he said, smiling nervously. He held his hands up, palms out, in a placating gesture. “Sweet Robin, the lads call me. I yield to you. Mercy, sir knight. Please?”
The Taraamites that came riding in fanned out to try to run down the fleeing Songbirds. Yorrin didn’t have much interest in that. The day was won. If a few of them scurried off to bandit another day, he wasn’t concerned. Bandits were an inevitability. If it wasn’t them, it’d be someone else.
“You’ll get mercy,” Lefty growled. “I’ve got some at the end of a rope.”
Robin grimaced. “Ah, not quite what I had in mind, to be honest,” he said. He kept eye contact with Aleksandr. “Please, sir knight. I’ve surrendered to you, not to these backwards ruffians. I hope that you will—”
“You keep calling me knight,” Aleksandr said. “Is so obvious to you I am knight? Why?”
Robin blinked. “Oh,” he said. “You’re not Middish.”
“Ruskan,” Aleksandr said. Yorrin thought he saw a faint smile of amusement flicker across Aleksandr’s face, but it was quickly stifled into an impassive stare.
“Well, even so. They’ve got—they’ve got knights in Rusk, don’t they? You’re wearing plate-and-mail, and sitting atop that great big warhorse. And this sword you’ve so kindly given me an up close look at is a right beauty. Is that true steel?”
“Da,” Aleksandr said.
Robin furrowed his brow. “Uh. What?”
“Means yes,” Yorrin said. He wiped the blood from his blade and sheathed it.
“Oh! Right. Good. Well, anyway, as I was saying. You have the look of a man of substance, sir…”
“Aleksandr Kerensky,” Aleksandr said.
“See? A surname like that, you must be nobility! Am I right? I’m right, aren’t I?”
Aleksandr nodded. “I am.”
“Well, as one cultured man to another, I can explain. This whole business looks worse than it is. But I’m actually the son of a minor noble in Kirkworth, and I assure you that I will be ransomed for a reasonable price. There’s no need for men such as ourselves to concern ourselves with hangings, believe me.”
“Don’t say ‘believe me.’ Just makes you look like a liar,” Yorrin offered. Robin shot him a pained look.
“He is a fucking liar,” Lefty snapped. “He’s as noble as a blister on my ass. Heard from a Songbird we caught last month that he says he was born rough, in a Cardish hedgerow.”
“A convenient fiction, to earn their trust,” Robin said instantly.
“And what the fuck do you call this then?” Lefty said.
Robin just shrugged, a nervous smile on his lips.
“Robin,” Aleksandr said. Lefty fell silent.
“Call me Aleksandr.” Aleksandr sheathed his sword.
Robin grinned. “Ah! So you do recognize my obvious nobility. Grand. We—”
Aleksandr dismounted in a sudden movement. Yorrin was ready, and he received Aleksandr as he came off of Dascha. Aleksandr still winced as he put weight on his leg, but he stepped closer to Robin.
“I do not believe you,” he said.
Robin’s face fell, and Lefty snorted with a satisfied breath of laughter.
“You call me Aleksandr because this is my name, da? You mistake me. Is not my preference to lord nobility above anyone.” Aleksandr limped forward, staring hard at Robin. “Lefty and his men are good men. I fight by their side. They say you are brigand. Murderer. Do you dispute this? Truly?”
Robin’s eyes widened. Yorrin could tell he had prepared a dozen lies to try to wriggle out of this, but nothing had prepared him for Aleksandr.
“Uh…” Robin trailed off. He swallowed. “I suppose not.”
“Lefty wishes to kill you for your crimes,” Aleksandr said. “What do you say to this?”
Robin’s jaw clenched, then unclenched. His fists did the same at his sides. Yorrin watched him with some interest. He was curious what the man would say.
Finally, Robin spoke. His voice was smaller than it had been before. He looked at his boots. “I don’t want to die.”
Aleksandr just nodded. “Few wish to,” he said. “But everyone does anyway.”
Robin looked up. “So... that’s it? I’m to dangle?”
“No worse than you deserve,” Lefty growled.
Aleksandr glanced back at him. “Lefty,” he said. “May I speak with this man? Your brothers are here. Is best that you lead them back to the wounded, da?”
Lefty hesitated, glowering. Beside him, Perrin reached a hand out and touched his shoulder. “We owe them,” he said.
That did it. The anger in Lefty’s expression lifted, and he nodded.
“Damn right we do,” he said. “Well enough. He’s in your hands then, Kerensky.” Lefty wheeled his horse and rode out to meet the other Taraamites. Wallbreaker followed, but Perrin didn’t. He still sat astride Prudence’s horse, watching Aleksandr.
Aleksandr looked back to Robin.
“If you do not die for your crimes,” Aleksandr said. “What will you do?”
“Grovel and scrape and thank you for the rest of my days, Sir Kerensky,” Robin vowed.
“Right. Aleksandr. Sorry.”
“I do not wish for your thanks, Robin. Is not groveling I am asking about, either,”
Robin frowned. “I don’t follow.”
“What will you do with your life. This is question.”
Yeah, Yorrin thought. That’s the question alright.
“Uh…” Robin hesitated. “Do… better?”
“Bozhe moy,” Aleksandr muttered. “How will you do better, Robin?”
Robin paused again. He looked up, but said nothing.
“Da,” Aleksandr said, nodding. “I thought so. Is fine. You surrender to me. Killing men like this, after battle, in cold blood…” he paused, and glanced at Yorrin. “What is Middish?”
“What? An execution?” I know that one well enough.
“Da. Execution is not… hm.” Aleksandr paused again, as if gathering his thoughts. “Is a waste,” he said finally.
“Couldn’t agree more, friend,” Robin said. “I—”
Aleksandr held up a hand, and Robin shut his mouth. “You have committed crimes. Against Lefty and his men. Against others too, I am thinking. Is no going back to change this.”
“Suppose not,” Robin said.
Shut up, will you? Yorrin thought. Then, “Shut up,” he suggested.
Robin shut up.
“In Rusk, we have tradition. Many crimes, we do not kill or maim for. Instead, we exact price. Perhaps we do same here. You pay for what you have done.”
Robin looked mildly hopeful at that. But he slowly reached down to his belt and jingled a thin, sad-looking purse on his belt.
“Is likely you do not have enough to pay,” Aleksandr agreed. “Lefty says your Songbirds kill several of his men. You nearly kill me.”
Yorrin snorted. Like hell he did. If he was close to killing Aleksandr I’ll eat my lockpicks.
“Five hundred gold rubles,” Aleksandr said. “Is what you owe, I think.”
Robin blinked. “Uh. Gold? What’s a ruble? How much is that in… in real coins?”
“Is similar to a Torathian mina,” Aleksandr said. “Or a Cassaline solidi.”
“Fucking nobles? You want me to pay you five hundred gold nobles?” Robin’s jaw dropped.
Aleksandr smiled. “Da,” he said. “Is fair, I think.”
“Fair? How the fuck is that fair?” Robin gesticulated angrily as his voice raised. “How do you think I’m going to—I mean—I can’t just cop a squat and shit gold into the mud for you! Are you mad?”
“Careful,” Yorrin murmured. He rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. Robin paused, and he realized his situation. Bear and Prudence had wandered in during the conversation, and both stood behind him. He was surrounded.
Robin visibly reined himself in. He took a few breaths, and some of the color drained from his cheeks. “Right. I think your price is a little high, Sir. Aleksandr.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “You have killed, Robin. What cost is life?”
“A damn sight less than a hundred nobles, I bet,” Robin muttered.
“Oh?” Aleksandr said. “Is what, then? Ten? If Lefty hands me ten gold coins, I give you to him? And his men do with you as they like?”
Robin swallowed. “Uh. Upon careful consideration, perhaps your estimates are not as far off as I thought.” Robin scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Still can’t pay it, though.”
“Is fine,” Aleksandr said. “Is often the case in Rusk, too. Price is set high. Is not taken in coin, hardly ever. Is taken in service.”
Aleksandr smiled again. “Da. You will serve. These friends of mine,” he gestured to Yorrin, to the Whip on his horse, to Bear and Prudence. “We are… mercenaries, I suppose. We split pay five ways.”
“And you’ll cut me in?” Robin asked. He sounded surprised. “Split six ways?”
“No,” Aleksandr said. “You are not one of us. Not yet. We will give you… hm. Half share. Is good, Yorrin?”
Yorrin considered. He wasn’t totally sure what Aleksandr’s game here was, but he got the general idea. He’s trying to reform him. This two-faced bandit coward, and still Aleksandr thinks he can be redeemed.
“Half seems high,” Yorrin said.
Robin seemed mildly put out, but he didn’t object.
“A third, then,” Aleksandr said. “Better?”
“Alright,” Robin said, gritting his teeth. “Suppose that’s fair enough. I—”
“Wait,” Aleksandr said. “A third of a share, but remember: you must pay. Half of your pay goes to your debt.”
Robin frowned. “So… I get a sixth share, really. That hardly seems—”
“Is this, or Taraam,” Aleksandr said.
Robin swallowed his words. “Right,” he said. “Well then… thanks?”
Aleksandr smiled. “Da,” he said. “Welcome aboard.”