The storm was relentless.
Every few days it would ease up a little, but before they even had time to get their boots dry it would return with torrential rain and fierce winds.
Damn thing feels like it’s following us. Yorrin had experienced plenty of storms blowing in off the Encircled Sea, but rarely for such a long time as this. The Whip said storms rolled north along the edge of the Midland Mountains with some regularity, and they just had the bad luck to be traveling with it. If they hunkered down for a week or so, Dylan said it would likely pass them by.
But the priestess won’t want to do that, Yorrin thought. She wants us to make it to Yerevan with as much haste as our caravan can muster.
Which wasn’t much, all things considered. The wagon that bore Alaina, Lordling, and Olivenco had to keep a slow, even pace for the wounded within. The merchant, Giancarlo, likewise kept a slow pace for his own trade wagons. His cargo was precious, he said, and some of it was fragile.
Aleksandr had guessed a fortnight to Yerevan, but here they were closing in on the eleventh day and now he estimated they had another ten to go.
Worse, we’re no closer to knowing who it was I saw that night.
Yorrin had spent the last week and a half studying the newcomers to their group. Giancarlo and his two factors, Levin, Orson, Cam, and the seven other mercenaries that rode in formation around the merchant’s wagons.
He’d learned little. Or, more accurately, he’d learned plenty, but none of it was what he was looking for.
Levin had grown no more talkative on the road. The man was good at his job, to be sure. He ranged ahead of the caravan regularly, whether with his own company or with Yorrin or Dylan seemed to make no difference to him. He was equally quiet, focused entirely on watching for danger.
The way Levin moved, Yorrin felt he could have been the one outside the Crossroads. But beyond that basic grace and physicality, Yorrin had zero reason to suspect him. The silent mercenary showed no animosity towards Alaina or anyone else. Even Robin. He just kept to himself, except when his brothers in arms pushed him to join them in a game.
Orson remained a much friendlier sort, happy to ride out on patrol and help pitch camp each night. He also offered to check on Alaina, under supervision. He acted as her hands when tending to Lordling’s many wounds every time the caravan stopped.
Alaina’s health had progressed much as she expected. She had struggled to hold down food or even water for days, but in the last week her improvements had been noticeable. If Orson was secretly poisoning her, it was far from obvious.
Giancarlo’s two factors mostly tended the wagons and commanded Giancarlo’s mercenaries. They kept to themselves at camp, speaking rapid Cassaline. Giancarlo himself was more gregarious, though Yorrin found he had little patience for the man. Too ingratiating. Too much like the many grifters and confidence men Yorrin had known in Nasarat.
I suppose the skillsets are the same, Yorrin mused. Giancarlo’s job is to convince men to pay more money than they ought for goods they probably don’t need.
As much as Giancarlo rubbed Yorrin the wrong way, the merchant had given no more reason to suspect him than he had back at the Crossroads. Nobody had.
Eleven days into this journey and no closer to knowing what really happened.
The thought was aggravating. But Yorrin pushed it out of his head. He had more immediate concerns.
“That doesn’t look right,” Yorrin said.
“Mm,” Levin grunted.
I think that means “no shit.”
A river crossed the road ahead. That alone wouldn’t be a problem. The road was old Cassaline stonework, and the Cassalines were not the kind to fear a river. A sturdy stone bridge arched across the water.
Or, it was supposed to. It probably did, a month ago. But the endless downpour had swollen the river well past its usual size. It spilled over the riverbank a considerable distance, so much so that shallow water eddied around the front of the bridge.
“We’ll have to ford the river just to get to the damn bridge,” Yorrin thought out loud.
Levin didn’t respond. He just studied the area. Out in either direction the ground was muddy grassland dotted with hedgerows and thickets of foliage. Yorrin tracked Levin’s gaze out to a dense copse of trees a hundred feet east along the riverbank. On the far side of the river, a small forest sprawled for some distance. Several drowned trees leaned over the river.
“Dangerous,” Levin said.
He’s right. If the river uproots one of those trees and sends it towards us… “That could hit like a battering ram,” Yorrin said. “Either on us, or the bridge.”
Levin just grunted in agreement.
There wasn’t much else to do. They doubled back to the caravan to let everyone know what was coming. Aleksandr frowned as he listened to Yorrin’s report, but when he spoke he was calm.
“Do not ride back ahead,” he said. “We will approach river together, and decide how to cross.”
Aleksandr spoke with such finality that nobody thought to question him. There was a chorus of nods and muttered assents, then the caravan resumed its pace towards the bridge.
When they returned to the bridge, if anything it looked as though the situation had gotten worse. Muddy water swirled around the entrance to the bridge, full of leaves and branches. It was hard to guess the depth, though Yorrin was fairly sure even he could wade through it if the current allowed.
Aleksandr rode ahead with Yorrin and several others, getting a closer look. The Whip hefted his long spear and prodded at the water’s edge.
“Don’t think it’s too deep,” he said.
“Still dangerous,” Prudence observed. “Deep or not, that river’s moving fast.”
“Prudence is right,” said Perrin.
“Da,” Aleksandr said quietly, staring at the water.
“Does not look too fast,” Bear said. “Not where we cross. Is fast only in middle.”
“The surface can be deceptive,” Yorrin said. He’d learned that much living on the banks of the Limes River in Nasarat. “Still waters above can hide fierce currents below.”
Aleksandr looked to the crowd behind him. His gaze lingered on Dylan, whose homeland of Victoria lay not too far west of here. And on Perrin, and on Levin, both of whom seemed to have grown up on this side of the Midland Mountains.
“This bridge,” Aleksandr said. “Is only crossing for many miles, da? No easier way around the river?”
Perrin took off his helm, letting the rain splash into his face and hair for a few moments before he put it back on. Dylan rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Levin sat stiff in the saddle, unmoving.
“Nowhere near here,” the Whip said finally. “Venture far enough west, into Victoria, and you’ll find other ways around.”
“East could work, too,” Perrin said. “The river is born somewhere in the foothills of Copperwell. You go all the way back to the Midland Mountains and we could probably slip around it.”
Both of those would delay us by a lot, Yorrin thought. Weeks, probably. Probably faster to just camp here for a tenday and wait for the river to subside.
Aleksandr frowned. Clearly, he’d had the same thought.
“I will cross first,” he said. He didn’t raise his voice to be heard clearly over the pouring rain. “If I find it safe, you will follow.”
“I’ll go with you,” Yorrin and Dylan both spoke up instantly. It took Yorrin half a moment to realize Dylan had said the exact same thing as him.
“Da,” Bear said. “We go first. Prudence, you go with?”
Prudence furrowed her brow. Before she could voice her preference, Aleksandr spoke. “Prudence, stay with Alaina?” he asked. “See them across safely.”
She nodded, obviously grateful not to be pushed into being among the first to cross.
Levin looked from Aleksandr back to the caravan. Then back to Aleksandr. “I’ll go,” he said.
Aleksandr’s eyes widened. “Truly? You do not have to.”
Levin hacked something up the back of his throat, then leaned over in the saddle. He pressed his thumb against one nostril and blew a glob of snot out the other.
He’s said what he’s going to say, Yorrin realized. Strange fellow.
Prudence and Perrin returned to the caravan, and began bringing them up to the water’s edge. Yorrin urged his steed up to stand alongside Dascha. In his periphery he saw Dylan, Bear, and Levin nudge their mounts up behind him and Aleksandr.
“Go slowly,” Aleksandr said. “Carefully. If you find a deep spot, remember it. We will cross, then return and accompany the wagons.”
They nodded. Aleksandr nudged Dascha forward. The huge warhorse snorted in indignation, but he stepped into the water. Yorrin urged his own steed to follow alongside.
They went deeper and deeper. Water lapped at Yorrin’s boots and began climbing up his legs. He felt currents swirling around him, but his horse kept its footing.
“Might not be too bad,” he said.
“Don’t jinx us,” muttered the Whip.
But he hadn’t. Soon enough Yorrin felt himself rising back out of the water as he climbed up the gentle slope of the stone bridge, and then they were out of the water and onto the bridge.
“Anyone find any deep spots?” Yorrin asked.
“Deep enough to trouble a horse? Nah,” said Dylan. “Deep enough to trouble a wagon, though? Maybe.”
Yorrin glanced over his shoulder. The rest of the caravan had caught up, and the three wagons had formed an orderly queue in front of the bridge. Giancarlo’s men and the Taraamites were moving around the wagons, ensuring everything was secured and they were ready to attempt the crossing.
Yorrin and Aleksandr crossed the bridge in a few moments, and descended back into another swirling pool caused by the overflowing river. This side, too, was deep but not too deep. The murky water was turbulent, but it did not appear to hide any deadly pitfalls. They gathered into a loose circle on the far side of the river.
“Did not seem too bad,” Aleksandr observed. “Though Dylan is right. Is likely the wagons will not have such an easy time.”
“Won’t,” Levin agreed. “Wheels,” he said, kicking out one foot. It took Yorrin a moment to realize that he was demonstrating how high off the ground the wheels of Giancarlo’s wagons rose. It was notably lower than the highest the water had risen.
“Is just little water,” Bear scoffed. “Will be fine.”
Levin gave Bear a cool look.
“The wagon’s will take on some water,” Yorrin agreed. “But if we move quickly and they aren’t lifted by the current, they should make it across alright.”
Aleksandr nodded. “Very well,” he said. “We will try.”
When they crossed back over, Yorrin set a quicker pace. The water was deep, but it held fewer terrors now. On the other side, he noticed that Giancarlo’s two wagons were in front.
Typical, the merchant bulls his way to the head of the queue.
Lefty approached. “Aleksandr,” he said.
“I’ve got the merchant wagons going first. If the current’s too strong, I’d rather we lose goods than souls. If he can cross safely, I’ll trust it to our folk.”
“Good idea,” Aleksandr said. “He did not argue?”
Lefty shook his head, his scarred and stubbled face twisting into an amused sort of sneer. “Naw, he thought we were honoring him.”
Aleksandr smiled. “We will stay at the front, I think. To guide the wagons along. Although… Yorrin?”
“I’ll stay with our wagon,” Yorrin said instantly. Aleksandr gave him a grateful nod.
They broke up then, to do their duties. With the river’s dangers demystified, Yorrin wasn’t overly concerned. Sure enough, the first wagon crossed the near side without issue, and began rolling across the bridge. Then the second wagon crossed onto the bridge, just as the first rolled across the far side and into safety.
We’re going to make it, Yorrin thought.
It was about that time that he heard the horn.
Two sharp blasts. He had his bow unslung before the second blast had finished. He hooked it between his leg and the horse, bending it and looping the string taut in a single quick motion.
He had the bow in hand by the time he heard the shouts. A cluster of men broke from the dense trees on the far side of the river, charging towards Aleksandr and the others at the front of the caravan.
Those aren’t bandits.
The realization formed a knot in the pit of Yorrin’s stomach. The men were mounted, clad in mail, armed with spears and shields and swords. They were mercenaries—like Levin and his ilk—if anything.
At the front of them rode a man whose mail was streaked with some sort of soot or black mud, a long sable cloak around his shoulders. His face was obscured by a helm that featured a thin T to allow his vision and voice to extend beyond the iron. He shouted something, but Yorrin couldn’t make it out.
Maybe I can, Yorrin realized. That’s not Middish.
Ruskan. It was Ruskan.
What are Ruskan mercs doing attacking a trade caravan on the edge of Yerevan’s influence? That makes no sense.
He nocked an arrow while he pondered the question, and put it to flight towards the riders. They were a good distance, on the far side of the river from him. Worse, the rain fouled his aim, and the arrow went wide.
Aleksandr was shouting to the others, and all three groups of men listened to him. He had Bear on his right hand and Levin at his left, with Lefty and the Whip and a dozen more forming up to meet the Ruskan charge. Even Robin was there, sword in hand, though Yorrin noted he was near the back of the lines.
Yorrin started to urge his horse across the water and onto the bridge, but a sharp whistle gave him pause.
Prudence. The whistle sounded like a warning, and he glanced towards where she sat alongside Perrin driving the wagon. Perrin was climbing out of the wagon and grabbing for one of the horses, but Prudence just pointed. Yorrin followed her gesture, and widened his eyes.
A second force of Ruskans had emerged from the small grove on this side of the river. Fewer than the first group, but that was small consolation given that nearly every fighting man was assembling around Aleksandr.
Yorrin’s mind raced, and he nocked and launched an arrow on instinct. This time he found his mark, but the arrow thudded into the shield of one of the Ruskan riders.
It’s you, Perrin, Prudence, and three of the merchant’s soldiers on the bridge. Against nine of them. You’ve lived through worse odds, and that’s just in the past few weeks.
He shot another arrow, this time catching one of the riders in the thigh. The man cried out in pain, but he kept the saddle.
“Come on!” Yorrin shouted to the three mercs.
He didn’t know their names. Preston? Parson? One of them is something like that. The men snapped to act anyway, their horses splashing through the water. Prudence stayed on the wagon, taking careful aim with her crossbow.The three mercs and Perrin all converged on Yorrin’s location, though, and Yorrin realized they were looking to him for orders.
He wanted to shout at them for being such fools. I’m a cutpurse, you idiots!
But they weren’t treating him as an authority on his own merits, of course. Aleksandr’s authority was so absolute that it flowed down from him and into his men. It was obvious Aleksandr treated Yorrin as something approaching his right hand, and so they did the same.
“Hold position,” Yorrin called out as he readied another arrow. This time, he went for the horse.
Should’ve done that sooner. The beast let out a horrible sounding scream as his arrow caught it in the throat, just above its chest. The horse went wild, flailing and kicking, and sent its rider splashing to the mud.
The Ruskans were nearly upon them. Yorrin hooked his bow over the horn of his saddle and drew his sword. “Ready…” he called. He felt his voice quaver on the word. Maybe they didn’t notice.
Then came the clash, and Yorrin’s world was reduced to the man in front of him, and nothing else.
He heard the clamor of battle around him, but he was wholly focused. His foe stabbed at him with a spear, and kept his shield high. Yorrin’s sword was the short leaf-shaped blade of a Cassaline legionnaire, and his arm was shorter as well. He scrambled to deflect the probing spear strikes, unable to counter. His heart thumped as a near-miss opened a thin laceration on his cheek.
He reached behind him, drawing his dagger and urging his horse forward with his knees as Aleksandr had taught him. The Ruskan stabbed at him, but he beat the spear aside with his sword as the distance closed between them.
He leapt from the saddle, tackling the Ruskan and sending them both to the mud. This was a type of fighting better suited to Yorrin’s skills. They rolled about in the muck for a few moments, until he brought his dagger to bear and rammed it into the Ruskan’s unarmored throat.
He clambered to his feet, taking stock of the field. He had no clue how much time had passed, but he saw two of Giancarlo’s mercenaries sprawled, unmoving, on the ground. The third had broken off, retreating back towards one of the merchant wagons, and none of the Ruskans appeared to have given pursuit.
Instead, two of the Ruskans were pressing in on Perrin. The Taraamite had shield and sword in hand, and he held them at bay… but only just. Four more of them—the only ones left standing—were advancing on the wagon.
They weren’t going for Prudence, though. They’d dismounted, and approached the rear of the wagon. Yorrin heard murmured words between them.
Alaina’s in there. Olivenco and Lordling, too. Defenseless.
The smart thing to do would be to run. Or rush to Perrin’s aid, dispatch those two, then take the remaining four together. But in the time that would take, there was no telling who among the wounded would be dead already.
The smart thing to do was to bail on Aleksandr the moment he went to sleep, that first night on the road. If smart means selfish.
Yorrin advanced on the wagon.
The rearmost Ruskan heard him, a moment too late. He spun around, and Yorrin brought his sword up under the hem of the man’s mail surcoat. He rammed the sword up into the Ruskan’s guts, wrenching it back and forth, opening a wide, mortal wound in the man’s belly.
The Ruskan gurgled. His three comrades heard him, and they turned. Yorrin tried to pull his sword free, but the dead Ruskan collapsed. He brought down Yorrin’s blade with him, leaving Yorrin armed with nothing but a small, sad little dagger.
One Ruskan held a sword. The other two, spears. All three had shields. Yorrin raised his dagger in his left hand, keeping it in a defensive posture. His mind raced, running through possibilities.
Kick dirty water into their eyes? Juke left, duck past them, circle around the wagon? Find Prudence. Where the fuck is Prudence?
There was movement behind the Ruskans, and for a moment Yorrin thought Prudence had come through.
But it was too tall. The lean form of Olivenco emerged from the back of the wagon. He held his sword in his left hand. The blade was slender, much thinner than any sword Yorrin had seen before. Even at a distance Yorrin saw the gleaming, limned patterns of true steel ripple across the blade. The hilt was bronze-plated, ornate, forming a long hooked guard.
The Cutter of Camarr. Fabled swordsman, with a sword to match his fame.
Olivenco slashed out at one of the Ruskans. His sword opened a shallow slash along the back of the man’s neck, but it was far from a killing blow.
Crippled. His right arm is his sword arm.
The Ruskan grunted in pain and spun around to face Olivenco. One other turned as well, with the swordsman keeping his eyes on Yorrin.
“Cripple,” growled the injured Ruskan. “Throw down sword. We not kill. Only want woman.”
Olivenco swallowed nervously. His eyes roved across the three fighters. Finally, he nodded. “Si,” he said. “Please… do not kill me. I will throw down my sword, as you say.”
The sword-wielding Ruskan, still facing Yorrin, grinned.
It’s bullshit. It’s obviously bullshit. Is he really falling for this?
Olivenco hurled his sword away from him, sending the beautiful blade splashing into the mud.
“Kill him,” growled the swordsman.
The injured Ruskan laughed, and advanced on Olivenco.
Yorrin dove to the ground, rolling past a hasty, startled swing from the swordsman. He felt his fingers wrap around the hilt of Olivenco’s sword, and he came to his feet. He lashed out at the Ruskan swordsman with Olivenco’s blade.
The sword was so light. It practically danced in his hand. The Ruskan tried to deflect with his shield, counter with his sword. Yorrin turned the sword with his dagger, and Olivenco’s sword was so fast it easily twisted around the shield.
Yorrin raked the blade across the Ruskan’s sword hand. The steel parted his leather glove as easily as his flesh, and blood gushed as the sword and two fingers fell into the mud.
In his periphery, he saw one of the spearmen lunging for him. Yorrin ducked the blow, striking the spear offline with Olivenco’s sword and delivering a quick thrust.
If he’d had his short Cassaline sword, the thrust wouldn’t have even connected. But Olivenco’s blade was as long as any arming sword. It was just lighter, thinner. More nimble. The thrust delivered several inches of steel into the Ruskan’s collar. It actually pierced between the iron links of his mail hauberk, opening a wound just below the collarbone. He gurgled, and collapsed.
Yorrin saw the third, injured Ruskan still tangling with Olivenco. The Cutter of Camarr had drawn his dagger, the small steel weapon that matched his sword in style and ornament.
Crippled, yes. He lost his sword-arm, yes. But when he dueled before, his left arm held his dagger.
Olivenco kept his dagger close to his body, in a defensive posture. Every time the spear prodded at him, the dagger flickered out and turned the blow away. Olivenco was not countering the strikes. Indeed, Yorrin doubted he could. His tactic was purely a defensive one.
That suited Yorrin just fine. He stepped up behind the Ruskan and opened his neck along the side. Blood spurted from the slit in crimson gouts, and the Ruskan toppled instantly.
Yorrin whirled back around, ready to deal with the swordsman that had lost both his sword and much of his hand. But the Ruskan was already some fifty feet away, fleeing, on foot, down the road.
He suddenly jerked and tripped, sprawling facefirst onto the ground. Yorrin saw the feathered fletching of quarrel protrude from the back of his head, and he glanced over his shoulder.
Prudence and Perrin stood side by side, the rest of the Ruskans around them dead on the ground. Prudence lowered her crossbow.
Yorrin darted forward, hopping up onto a wheel of the wagon to gain some elevation. He looked north, and saw the battlefield where Aleksandr and the others had clashed. Aleksandr was unmounted, but he still stood. The rain slowly washed away the the streaks of blood on his breastplate. At his feet lay the body of the lead Ruskan.
Yorrin saw a few more of the mercs had fallen, but most of the men that had rallied around Aleksandr still stood. Three Ruskans knelt in the mud, unarmed, obviously having surrendered.
Aleksandr was looking south with as much urgency as Yorrin had looked north. Their eyes locked. There was no mistaking the question in Aleksandr’s expression.
Yorrin gave Aleksandr a single nod, and a thin smile. He saw the relief wash over his friend’s face.
Alaina was alive. That was enough for Aleksandr. For now, anyway. Yorrin couldn’t help but realize that, while their wounded had survived, not all of their people had. Giancarlo had lost men, at the least, and Yorrin couldn’t yet say for sure that he was the only one.
He looked down at one of the dead mercenaries.
Piers, he recalled suddenly. Not Parson. His name was Piers.
The battle was over. They could finish their bridge crossing.
We paid enough of a toll for it.