The mercenaries proved to be little more than a steady stream of empty, pointless chatter. None of them had seen anything. None of them bore any ill will towards Alaina, or anyone else. They were hired to protect Giancarlo’s wagons, and that was all they did. These days, that mostly meant sitting around getting drunk and dicing, waiting for the Underpass to open.
Only a few of them stood out to Yorrin.
The surly fellow from Robin’s gambling table, for one. Levin, they’d heard his name was. He was a lean man, with a calm and predatory menace about him. The way he moved, Yorrin felt certain he could have been the one climbing the wall of the Crossroads. But that did not mean that he was.
On the other hand…
“Levin,” Yorrin said. “You left the gambling table in a huff last night.”
“Mm,” Levin grunted his agreement. He stood in a relaxed pose in the center of the room, hands resting on his belt, leaning slightly to the side.
“You stormed out into the—well, into the storm. And nobody saw you again until… when? Morning?”
Levin nodded, scowling.
“Where were you?”
Levin scratched the stubble on his cheek. “Wagon,” he said.
“Yes, one of your fellows said as much. You joined Calvin—the man sitting in the back of the wagon—on guard duty?”
“Calvin remembers you joining him. And he remembers you being there in the morning. But he slept much of the night. He can’t vouch for you during that time.”
Levin just stared at Yorrin with an inscrutable expression.
“What were you doing, while he slept?”
Levin’s expression turned even more sour and disgusted, if such a thing was possible.
“Sleeping,” he said finally. Idiot, his tone added.
“You slept through the whole night, then? You didn’t wake up once?”
The only reply Levin gave was a slow nod.
“And can anyone vouch for that? The other fellow in the wagon, maybe?”
“Care to explain that?” Yorrin asked
Cheeky bastard. “This silent mercenary shtick isn’t helping your case any,” Yorrin said. “This will go easier for you if you answer our questions.”
Levin arched an eyebrow. “Why?”
Robin stepped forward. Yorrin could tell he was doing his best to be menacing. “Because, you’re in a lot of trouble here, you insufferable prick,” he said. “A priestess of Torath struck down, nearly killed. Of all the mercenaries in your company, you were the one that stormed out into the night. Yorrin saw someone out there, acting fishy. Could’ve been you.”
Levin curled his lip in a disdainful grimace. “Wasn’t.”
“You haven’t got any proof of that, have you?” Robin snapped. He stepped closer, jabbing his finger into Levin’s chest. Levin was clad in roughspun cloth and a mail surcoat. “You’re in a lot of trouble here,” Robin continued, repeatedly prodding Levin’s mail. “Your boss isn’t going to stick his neck out for you. And if you think—Ah!”
Levin grabbed Robin’s finger and twisted it, bending at an unnatural angle and forcing Robin to either let it break or move his entire body to accommodate the motion. Robin opted for the latter, howling in pain and awkwardly following Levin’s lead.
“Don’t touch,” Levin said. His voice was as calm as ever.
Robin looked to the others for help. Don’t pick a fight you can’t finish, Rotten, was Yorrin’s first thought. On the other hand…
“Let him go.” Aleksandr’s voice was quiet, and without overt menace. But his hand rested on the pommel of his steel sword, and his eyes locked with Levin’s in a steady gaze.
Levin let go.
Robin recoiled, shaking his hand as if the pain was water that could be flicked away. “Fuck me, that hurt!”
“Is just little bending, Robin,” Bear said. “I not hear crunching of bone.”
“A little bending?” Robin said. “You try it and see how it feels!”
“You complain like woman,” Bear complained. “Always new complain, like your belly is aching.”
“Bear,” Aleksandr said. The word was enough to silence the barbarian’s grumbling. Aleksandr did not take his eyes off of Levin. “Thank you,” he said.
“Your friend, the one in the wagon,” Aleksandr said. “He slept the whole time, da? This is why he cannot vouch for you?”
Levin nodded. “Not my friend.”
“A shame. Brothers-in-arms should be friends, I think,” Aleksandr said.
Levin had no reply for that.
“Did you harm Alaina?” Aleksandr asked.
Levin met Aleksandr’s gaze, unflinching. “No.”
“Do you know who did?”
“Would you tell me, if you did?”
Levin frowned. “Yeah.” he said. He paused, then added: “Sorry. She seemed nice.”
That might be the most he’s said in one go since we met him, Yorrin mused.
“She is not dead yet,” Aleksandr said firmly. “But… da. She is nice.”
Levin nodded. He looked around, eyes passing from person to person. Finally, he spoke. “Done?”
Aleksandr nodded. “For now, da.”
Levin gave Aleksandr a single, curt nod. Then he turned and walked out without another word.
“Charming fellow,” Dylan said.
“I like!” said Bear. “Most Middish talk talk talk! Is waste. This man, no waste.”
“Bastard nearly broke my finger,” Robin muttered.
Bear grinned. “Da! Is true! No talk, just doing.”
Yorrin ignored them, glancing at Aleksandr. “You trust him?”
Aleksandr’s jaw was set in a stubborn frown. He nodded, but there was hesitation in it. “Da,” he said. “Somewhat. You said man you saw outside, you chased him inside, da? Into the Crossroads.”
“Yeah,” Yorrin agreed. “Or at least, I think so.”
“Is good enough for me, for now anyway. Let us meet the last of them.”
Yorrin nodded. “Go and grab another, Whip? Whoever’s left that we haven’t met yet.”
The Whip nodded, and stepped out to find another mercenary. Before long, he returned with a man in tow.
He was a big, broad fellow, with reddish hair and beard. Yorrin recalled him from the night of gambling.
“Cam,” he said. “Right?”
“Aye,” Cam replied. His voice rumbled out in that same brogue. “Cameron, really. But my mates call me Cam. You can too, I s’pose.”
“You were gaming at the table with Robin last night,” he said.
“Aye, that’s right,” Cam glanced at Robin, and he gave a reluctant smile. “Slippery one, he is. Lost a few pennies.”
“Nah,” Robin said, patting the purse on his belt. “You didn’t lose them. We both know exactly where they are.”
“Robin says you two called it quits a while after I’d left,” Yorrin said. “Which means there’s no chance you’re the man I’m looking for.”
“Reckon he’s right. Though I dinna know who you’re looking for, lad.”
“Someone poisoned the priestess,” Yorrin said. “And they were outside the inn last night, in the dark and the rain. I tracked them back inside… which means they’re here. With us.”
Cam frowned at that. “You sure?”
Yorrin crossed his arms over his chest, and stared at the Highlander.
“Ach, alright. Bad news, that is. Sort’ve guessed at it, what with how you’ve been questioning everyone and all. But even so. A poisoner? In our own ranks? Can’t say as I believe it.”
“Believe it,” Yorrin snapped. “Can you think of anyone in your group that might’ve had reason to hurt the priestess?”
Cam pondered the question. Not for long, though. “Nay, not a one,” he said.
“What about means? Someone who could scale the outside of the Crossroads? Someone with access to poison, and knowledge of how to use it?”
Cam scratched his beard. “Aye, there’s a one or two for each of your questions, lad. Few of the lads could likely do the climbing. The merchants have access to every damn thing in their wagons. Orson knows his herbs.”
Cam frowned, and shook his head. “But nay one man fits all of ‘em,” he added.
Yorrin sighed. As I expected, this one’s no use at all. Robin’s already given him all the cover he could need.
“Fine,” he said. “Thanks. Aleksandr?”
Aleksandr shook his head.
“Right,” Yorrin said. “You can go. Send us one of your friends. The midwife’s son, we haven’t seen him yet.”
“Orson? Aye, alright.” Cam nodded, but he hesitated when he reached the door. “Don’t be too hard on the lad, aye? He’s a good man. Kind hearted.”
“Then he’s nothing to fear from us,” Yorrin said, trying to sound reassuring. He was fairly sure he just came off sarcastic, but didn’t care enough to puzzle it any further.
Cam departed. They waited in uncomfortable silence until the next man arrived.
Orson was the only other member of Giancarlo’s retinue that had truly caught Yorrin’s attention, when he’d heard descriptions of each of them. The man apparently knew his way around herbs and tonics, which meant he may well know his way around poisons.
He was a young fellow, perhaps as old as Aleksandr but no more than that. He looked younger, as his cheeks were shaved bare and his round face had an open, earnest quality Yorrin associated with youthful naivete.
We’ve spoken already, Yorrin realized.
“You spoke up last night,” he said.
Orson blinked, surprised. He looked less naive than simply apprehensive right now, and Yorrin’s sudden claim caught him off guard. After a moment, he nodded.
“Yes,” Orson said. “At the gambling table.”
“Oh, hey, I remember you,” Robin jumped in. “You stuck up for that tongue-tied cheating bastard friend of yours.”
Orson frowned. “Levin,” he said. “Though he already told you: he’s not a bastard. Nor a cheater.”
Robin shrugged, unconcerned. “If it feasts on a battlefield and caws like a crow…”
“Enough, Rotten,” Yorrin said.
Robin pulled a face of exaggerated annoyance, but he shut his mouth. Good enough for now.
Orson, for his part, looked past Rotten. He met Aleksandr’s eyes, and his brow furrowed in concern. “How is she?”
Aleksandr looked surprised by the question. “Is too soon to tell, I think,” he said.
“Oh,” Orson said. “Sorry to hear that. If there’s aught I can do to help…”
“About that,” Yorrin said. “Could be. Giancarlo said you know your way around herbs and medicines.”
Orson grimaced. “Oh, that. I fear he’s oversold me to you. My mother is a midwife. I learned a few tricks of the trade when I was a boy, but a lot of those skills have gone to rust. I can stitch a wound and make a simple poultice, of course. Maybe a simple cure for what ails here or there. But that’s all. I heard she was poisoned?”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. His mouth was drawn in a thin line, and he studied Orson with an intensity that nearly unnerved Yorrin. He could only imagine how the target of that scrutiny felt.
“Afraid I don’t know much about poisons or antidotes,” Orson said. “I could do my best to help of course, but it’s a tricky thing. Sometimes the wrong remedy is worse than no remedy.”
“Sounds like you know enough,” Yorrin said.
Orson shrugged. “Enough to help? Maybe. But—”
“No,” Yorrin said. “Not enough to help. Enough to have done it yourself.”
Orson froze. His soft brown eyes widened. “I—what—” He cleared his throat. “Uh. No. Damn, I’d heard you were asking everyone what they knew, but—you think I did this? Poisoned a priestess of Torath? For God’s sake, why?”
Good question. He might have the skills, but he has no motive that I can see. “You tell us,” Yorrin said.
“How can I tell you when I—” Orson began to shout, but stopped himself. He took a few breaths, obviously reining in his temper. “I have no idea why anyone would do this. Maybe some heathen from Al Hassad or another far-flung realm, but there’s nobody like that here.
“I feel for your priestess. I’m sure she’s a good person. She didn’t deserve this. And if you like, I’d be willing to take a look at her and see if I can help figure out what’s wrong, and how we might treat it. But if you’re looking to pin this on me… look elsewhere.”
He’s got a spine. Mercenary material after all, for all that he looks soft.
Aleksandr sighed. “I believe you, Orson,” he said quietly.
Orson stared at him in surprise. “Good!” he said, after an uncomfortably long silence.
“Not so good for us,” Aleksandr said. “You are the last man we are speaking to. If I believe you, and is not you, then we have no idea who is responsible.”
“Da. Is not your concern, however. I—”
The door burst open. Levin stood in the threshold, and he held a naked blade in his hand. Behind him, Cam stood. He had a hand on Levin’s shoulder, and Yorrin heard him mumbling something. He missed some of the words, but it had the cadence of a man trying to talk his mate down from a stupid fight.
Levin shrugged Cam away and stepped into the room.
Yorrin palmed a dagger, preparing to throw it at Levin’s face. Bear laughed excitedly. “Is fight? Good!”
“Levin?” Orson said, shocked.
“Orson,” Levin said. “Behind me.”
“Levin, it’s fine,” Orson said. “They’re just talking. They—”
“Blame you,” Levin said. He jerked his jaw back towards Cam. “Said so.”
“That’s not what I said, lad!” Cam protested. “I was just—”
Aleksandr’s family longsword—Kholodny, it’s called—came free of its sheath in a long, smooth motion. “Levin,” he said. “I do not blame Orson, or you. We have no quarrel. But if you do not sheathe your blade, this will change very quickly.”
Levin scowled. He looked around the room. Bear had an axe in hand, and the Whip had drawn a dagger of his own. But Aleksandr dominated the room. Him and his longsword, the blade’s rippling patterned steel reflecting the light of the hearthfire and lamp.
Levin slammed his sword back into its sheath. “Leave. Him. Alone,” he said, nodding at Orson. Each word came out in a sharp staccato.
“Levin, god damn it, listen to me,” Orson said. “Aleksandr was just saying that he believes me. It’s alright.”
Aleksandr sheathed his sword. “Da,” he said. “As Orson says. I do not think he did this.”
Levin swallowed. “Oh.”
“Yeah,” Yorrin said. “Oh. Toddle on.” He gestured to the door. Cam still stood in the hallway, looking exasperated.
Levin ground his teeth so loud Yorrin could hear it where he stood. Then the taciturn man whirled around and strode out of the room without another word. Cam followed, shooting Aleksandr an apologetic shrug as he did.
“Sorry,” Orson said.
“Is fine,” Aleksandr said. “He was worried about you. You are close?”
Orson smiled. “Guess so,” he said. “I’m newer at this trade than he is. He’s taught me a lot… how to ride, how to shoot, how to swing a sword. How to spot or lay an ambush. I thought I knew, but I was rubbish.”
“Is good, to learn from your comrades,” Aleksandr said. “You are friends, then.”
Orson nodded. “Definitely. Thanks for not—well, anyway. Just thanks.”
“Is no problem,” Aleksandr said. “I am upset. Hungry to find whoever has harmed Alaina. But I believe you. And him. You are not responsible.”
“Glad to hear it,” Orson said. “And… If you’re willing to let me, I’d like to see her. Maybe I’ll recognize something. I won’t take any action unless I’m sure.”
Aleksandr frowned in what Yorrin guessed was a fleeting moment of distrust. Then he nodded. “Da,” he said. “Good idea. Robin, take him to where Alaina is bathing? Speak with Prudence, see if she is decent.”
Rotten nodded. “Come on, then,” he said to Orson.
Once they were gone, Aleksandr glanced at Yorrin. The Whip stepped closer to them as well. Bear didn’t seem to care about their conference.
“What now?” asked the Whip. “That’s everyone.”
“Da,” Aleksandr agreed. “It is. And… I do not know.”
“Alaina’s not going to want to stay here any longer than she has to,” Yorrin said. “You know that. If she starts to recover…”
“She will want to return to our journey. Da. Road to Yerevan is long, but growing shorter each day. There is room in Lefty’s wagon for her, with the other wounded.”
“So we just go? Leave this mystery unsolved?” Yorrin asked. That doesn’t sit well.
“And let them get away with it. I do not like this idea,” Aleksandr said.
“It’s someone in Giancarlo’s retinue,” Yorrin said. “I swear it. I don’t know who, or how, but even so. It has to be one of them.”
“I am given to agreeing,” Aleksandr said. “But we must handle with care.”
“Can’t just take ‘em all into custody, anyway,” Dylan said.
“We could stay,” Yorrin said. “They’re waiting for the Underpass to open, or for Rossi to pick a new destination for his goods. We stay, watch, listen, and wait until they slip up.”
“Didn’t you just say Alaina won’t want to stay?” asked the Whip.
“Da,” Aleksandr saoid. “She will. We need a different idea.”
“Maybe we could—no, that won’t work.” Dylan’s brow furrowed as he considered their situation.
“Aleksandr,” Yorrin said.
“I think I have a terrible plan,” Yorrin said.
“Oh? Terrible is better than nothing.”
Yorrin grimaced. “Yeah,” he said. “Maybe. This could bite us later, though. Could make everything, the whole rest of our journey, a lot more complicated.”
“Yorrin.” Aleksandr said the word with weight. “If there is a chance your plan means justice for what was done to Alaina, is worth some complications. Explain.”
“Right,” Yorrin said. “Well, I guess it’s pretty simple, really. We don’t want to let them out of our sight. Giancarlo’s destination is out, and he’s looking for a new market. So…
“What if we bring them with us?”