The men of Taraam reminded Dylan of the Free Spears.
Not sure it’s an accurate comparison, really. The Free Spears were—are—a small brotherhood, founded by Terence’s uncle. Taraam has been here since the Empire’s Decline. The differences are probably more than I can tell.
Dylan realized it was no doubt some sort of nostalgia. Not based in reality. But he couldn’t help it. They were a proper mercenary company, with ranks and a banner and a hierarchy. And a fort, for that matter. The Free Spears had all of that but the fort, anyway.
In the Underpass, the Taraamites had mostly just seemed desperate. But now, reunited with their fort and the twenty or so men within it, he saw Lefty really show himself as a proper lieutenant. The serjeant they’d left behind, Davan, was a solidly built man with a scarred lip that gave him a permanent snarl. His personality seemed to match the expression he was forced to hold.
They’d brought everyone inside the walls with considerable haste. The Taraamites were carrying an assortment of lanterns and torches, enough to cast the whole fort in a hazy orange glow.
Taraam was laid out like a typical post-Cassaline fortification. Wooden outer walls surrounding a score or so outbuildings such as several barracks, a stable, a smithy, and a well. At least two wide open yards that Dylan could see, likely used for training and sparring and perhaps as temporary marketplaces when traders came through. The wooden inner walls looked older and better constructed than the outer ones, and they encircled a stone tower that definitely dated back to the old Empire.
The wounded—including Bear, but not Aleksandr—had been taken to a long flat wooden structure that seemed to serve as an infirmary. Alaina was with them, treating their wounds with the more extensive supplies available to her from Taraam’s stores.
Like Aleksandr, Lefty had foregone the infirmary. He limped around the muddy grounds, listening as Doughty Davan gave a report of all that happened in their absence. Davan delivered his report with military-style precision, in the same way that the first thing Lefty did as soon as he entered Taraam had been a curt announcement of the calamities that befell them in the Underpass.
Do I miss it? Dylan wondered to himself. Serving in a proper company?
He fancied himself in a mercenary company still, with Aleksandr their captain. But Aleksandr himself declined any honorific, even the one that was his due by dint of his noble birth and knighthood back in his homeland. He seemed allergic to the trappings of authority. Dylan’s Victorian sensibilities respected that humility, of course. And it was refreshing, in a way, to be consider Aleksandr his friend and call him such.
But it did not engender the feeling that they were a proper company. As eclectic a group as he could imagine: only five of them and yet they managed to hail from five wildly different walks of life.
Five? No. Six, now. Dylan frowned at the thought. A mercenary company needs to grow its membership, to be sure, but this is just ridiculous.
He looked over at their newest member. “Sweet” Robin was trailing behind Aleksandr, clearly trying to avoid making too much eye contact with the Taraamites. He was unarmed, his sheathed sword carried by Aleksandr. Robin was flanked on either side by Yorrin and Prudence. Borthul and the goblin, Kerfuffle, trailed farthest behind their little column as they followed Perrin. He was leading them to the barracks that would house them for the night.
What was Aleksandr thinking, hiring him on? Dylan thought, still staring at Robin. The man’s a brigand. He’s been leading a band of cutthroats and bandits for God only knows how long. Does Aleksandr really think that a man like that can just up and change?
Dylan glanced at Yorrin. The short, intense man was keeping an eye on Robin as he walked. His right hand was resting on the hilt of his sword. Dylan knew that Yorrin had been steeped in crime and thievery before he began traveling with Aleksandr. And yet, it was clear that the man was taking his new life seriously. Somehow, Dylan had his doubts that Robin would be as committed to turning over a new leaf.
Perrin led them into a barracks house. Inside there were rows of pallets laid out along the long walls. Between the pallets were not walls, so much as empty wooden frames. Dylan suspected they were for hanging clothes and kit. Each pallet also had a small lockbox resting nearby.
In the center of the room was a large hearth, its stone walls blackened with soot. Two Taraamites were tending to it, getting the coals lit and a fire going.
“We haven’t used this one in a little while,” he said. “Bedding might be a bit musty, but it’s dry and it’s clean. Should be warm, too, in a minute. ”
“Is very nice,” Aleksandr said. He chose a pallet, leaning Robin’s sword against it. He unfastened his sodden cloak and draped it over the wooden rack. Then he began working at the straps and fastenings of his armor. “Thank you, Perrin.”
Perrin nodded. He stood near the door, hesitating. One of the Taraamites tending the fire in the hearth glanced at him, and the two exchanged a series of pointed looks for several quiet moments.
Dylan didn’t miss that a few of the pointed looks included not-so-subtle nods towards Robin. The bandit nonchalantly shrugged out of most of his clothes, dumping them in a haphazard pile around his chosen bedding. Then he flopped onto the straw and the blankets. He was lying on his back, fingers interlaced behind his head, staring at the ceiling.
“Everything alright?” Dylan asked Perrin. He kept his voice low, but they weren’t that spread out across the room. He had little doubt everyone could hear him.
“Uh,” Perrin said. He seemed to hesitate, choosing his words carefully.
Yorrin, however, wasn’t so concerned about niceties. “They’re worried about him,” Yorrin said, jerking a thumb towards Robin.
“Oh, no need to worry about me. I’m just fine!” Robin said. He pursed his lips in a thoughtful expression. “Actually, I take that back. If you’re really worried about me, I could use a drink. Have you got any mulled wine?”
Several incredulous eyes turned to Robin at once. His expression looked so genuinely curious—and oblivious—that Dylan couldn’t help but snort a single breath of laughter.
“Oh, stupid me, what am I thinking?” Robin said. “It’s the middle of the night. I bet you lot only got out of bed to come and kill my mates, didn’t you? Alright, so mulled wine’s right out. Have you any milk? I could warm it myself, even, at the hearth. Maybe splash in a finger of rye?”
“That’s not what they meant,” Dylan said.
“He knows,” Yorrin interjected. He’d crossed his arms over his chest, and he was eyeing Robin with a critical expression. “Don’t you, Rotten?”
“It’s Robin,” Robin corrected absently. He was still lying on his back, utterly relaxed.
“Yes, Sweet Robin, you told us,” said Yorrin. “You’re too sweet by half, well past the point of spoiled.”
Robin smirked. “Ah,” he said. “I get it. Good one.”
Aleksandr sighed. He had removed much of his armor, and pulled off the boot on his right foot. He was hesitating at the left. He glanced at Robin, and at Yorrin, and at the Taraamites.
“Robin,” he said.
“Right. What can I do for you, Aleksandr?”
“Is hard enough to convince Lefty and others not to hang you. Maybe do not, ah, what is word? Anger them on purpose.”
“Antagonizate,” Yorrin offered.
“Antagonize,” Prudence murmured.
Yorrin shot her a glare. “I’ve heard it both ways,” he muttered, more to himself than anyone else.
“Da,” Aleksandr said, nodding at both of them. “Do not antagonize them.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Aleksandr, sir,” Robin said. He smiled, looking for all appearances to be totally earnest.
Aleksandr had unfastened his baldrick, and he laid his family blade in easy reach along the edge of his bedding. He looked over at Robin, his eyes hard, dark glints.
“Da, and yet you do,” Aleksandr said. “Repeatedly. Is best you understand now: I am not charmed by you.”
Robin frowned at that, the first time he’d broken his casually cheerful exterior.
“I spared you because killing you now is waste. You led men. Organized them. This shows some competence. Some ability to speak to people. I hope you can change. Grow. Better yourself.”
Robin’s smile flickered back on. “Course I can!” he said.
Aleksandr’s expression did not change in the slightest. Dylan felt mildly unsettled by the intensity of his gaze, and he wasn’t even the recipient.
“No,” Aleksandr said. “Not yet. Men of Taraam are worried you will cause trouble in night. Try to escape. So when they go, they will bar door to this barracks from outside.”
Robin blinked, taken aback. He wasn’t alone. Dylan noticed Prudence looking concerned, sitting over where she’d set up her own bed.
Huh, Dylan thought. That’s one way to do it.
“You will not escape. And in morning, they will let us out,” Aleksandr continued. “If you have killed us all in our sleep, I trust they will make your last moments suitably unpleasant. If, as I think will happen, we all wake together after restful sleep… then we move on. Is clear?”
Robin chewed his lower lip for a moment. Then he nodded. “Right. ‘Course it’s clear. No need for threats like that, though. You lot are the ones that spared me. Have to be a right bastard madman to kill you for the kindness.”
“I notice you don’t have anything to say about trying to escape, though,” Dylan said.
Robin looked over at him and shrugged. “Why the hell would I try to escape? You killed or broke every man in my gang. Not bloody likely I’ll find another pack of desperate rubes to boss around any time soon. So what would I do? Go hide in the wilds on my own? In this weather? With these fine folk of Taraam hunting for me, and you lot as well? No thanks. I’ll take my pittance pay and safety in numbers if it’s all the same to you.”
Damn, Dylan thought. I actually believe him.
“Good enough for me,” Yorrin said.
Aleksandr glanced at Perrin. “Acceptable?”
Perrin nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ll tell Lefty. Thanks, Aleksandr.” Aleksandr nodded in acceptance while Perrin gestured to the other two Taraamites. The three of them left together.
They heard some commotion outside as the men began barricading the door shut. Borthul was already asleep in his pallet, and everyone else finished removing as much of their waterlogged clothes and kit as they could. Aleksandr gestured to Yorrin, and the small man went over to his side. He hunkered down and very carefully helped Aleksandr remove his left boot.
It’s his leg, Dylan realized. Must be swollen from the injury. God, I bet he’s in a world of pain right now. Probably has been this whole time. Not that he shows it.
“You wound me, you know,” Robin muttered as he kicked off his boots. “You’ve got a bloody goblin in your number. Murderous heathen savages, they are. And yet I’m the one everyone gives the evil eye?”
Kerfuffle was already curled up in one of the pallets. But he lifted his head at the word “goblin” and stared at Robin.
“He helped us get out of the Underpass alive,” Dylan said. “Killed some of his kin to do it, too. He’s proven himself several times over. If you do the same, we won’t have a problem.”
At that Kerfuffle smiled, baring his row of jagged teeth at Robin.
“The Whip’s right,” Yorrin said. He smirked. “Kerfuffle is most definitely a murderous heathen savage. But he’s our murderous heathen savage.”