Aleksandr’s leg hurt.
He bore it silently. It was, after all, a small price to pay. He was thankful none of his people had fallen in the fighting, and doubly thankful that the wounded were safe in their wagon. It could have been much worse.
It was much worse for Giancarlo’s men. Three of the merchant’s mercenary guard had fallen. They were digging out a few muddy graves a few hundred feet off the road, near a drooping willow.
Even so, the knowledge of all the ways things could have gone worse did not abate the hot, incessant pain in his leg. Alaina had redone the bindings on his splint, and chided him for exacerbating the fracture.
He hadn’t done so intentionally. But when the black-clad leader of their attackers came, Aleksandr faced him. Their duel from horseback ended with Aleksandr tackling his enemy out of the saddle, straddling him, gripping Kholodny by the blade, and leveraging it through the narrow opening in his enemy’s helm.
It did the job, anyway, Aleksandr thought. And perhaps led to these men surrendering. I didn’t give much thought to how that grapple would affect my leg.
He would not have done it differently, even if he’d realized the consequences. The battle was over, and his leg would heal eventually. So he limped without complaint.
Yorrin and Dylan walked on either side of him. They reached the prisoners quickly enough. Three soldiers kneeling in the mud, dressed in mail and wool. They bore superficial injuries, but nothing serious. They had surrendered when their commander fell, and the numbers began to turn against them.
“Have they caused any trouble?” Yorrin asked. The question was directed behind the prisoners, to Bear and Robin.
“Nyet,” Bear said. He sounded disappointed.
“We do not want trouble,” said one of the Ruskans in very passable Middish.
Robin clouted the man on the back of the head. “Nobody asked you, scum,” he snapped.
Aleksandr held up a hand, signaling Robin to back off.
“Do you know who I am?” Aleksandr asked. He stuck to Middish, so that his people could follow the conversation.
The man in the middle, who’d spoken, shook his head. He was lean, with a bushy beard. “From the homeland, though. That much I can tell.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “From Pripia.”
Aleksandr still held Kholodny in hand. He had wiped the blood from the blade, but not yet sheathed it. He wanted these men to feel the weight of their situation, and to understand that they had not yet survived this encounter.
It served another purpose, however. They did not miss the steel that marked Aleksandr, not just as a wayward druzhnik far from home, but something else. A noble. Perhaps even a bayard.
Aleksandr noticed the man on the right widen his eyes. He was more clean-shaven than the other two, cheeks dotted with stubble. His hair was cropped short, and he had a scar trailing down the left side of his chin.
“Kerensky,” he said.
Aleksandr gave the man a slow nod. “Da,” he said. “My name is Aleksandr Kerensky.”
“Bayard of Pripia,” said the man with the scar.
The third man, silent so far, spat. “Pripia is land of snow and bears. Ugly women, bad food. You are nothing.”
This man was the largest of the three, broad and muscular, with a nose that looked to have been broken several times. Behind him, Bear chuckled. Robin quietly nudged him, arching an eyebrow.
“Ugly women, bad food,” Bear muttered to Robin. “Is all of Rusk.”
“Don’t insult a bayard, Yuri,” snapped one with the scar. “Especially not a Kerensky! Rulers are as harsh as their winters, in Pripia.”
“I am not a bayard,” Aleksandr said. “When I left home, my father still ruled.”
“An heir, then,” said the scarred one. “Still, is same principle.”
“I am third son of Bayard Valentin,” Aleksandr said. “With luck, I will never inherit. But this is not point. Is only to say: you know who I am. Now, I will know who you are.”
“Yuri,” said the large man. “Of Klomsk.”
“Grigor,” said the one in the middle. “Of Yerevan.”
“Anatoly,” said the scarred one. “Of Vorkuta.”
Ah, Aleksandr thought. That explains some things.
“Vorkuta?” Aleksandr said. “That is Bayard Tarakov’s land, da?”
Anatoly nodded. “Da,” he said. “He is a Kerensky vassal, da?”
“He is,” Aleksandr said.
“I used to ride with Tarakov’s druzhniks. He—”
Anatoly’s words were cut short and he was suddenly sent sprawling forward into the mud. Bear stood behind him, glowering.
“Bear!” Aleksandr said. “Stand down.”
“Tarakov!” Bear growled. “I know this name!”
Anatoly scrambled away from Bear, and Aleksandr stepped between them. “Bear,” he said.
“Out of way, Aleksandr!” Bear said. “Tarakov men kill my father. And father’s father. And—”
“We get it,” Yorrin interrupted. “Did this fellow do any of that?”
“He is Tarakov man! He say he ride with them!”
“Blyat!” Anatoly muttered. “Steppe barbarian? I thought I recognized the look of that monster. A Kerenksy rides with a Steppe barbarian?”
“Enough!” Aleksandr said, raising his voice.
The Ruskan prisoner, Anatoly, fell silent immediately. Bear stood his ground, clenching his jaw, glaring past Aleksandr at the man on the ground. Finally, he muttered something in the Ruskan-Targan pidgin tongue of his clan. Aleksandr caught enough of it to know it was a curse. Bear turned and stormed away, walking towards the raging river.
“That was unexpected,” Dylan said.
Aleksandr turned his attention back to Anatoly. “Bear has ridden with us for some months now,” he said. “He is our comrade. You are not.”
Anatoly nodded, shuffling back to join the other two. “Da, understood. I was just surprised, is all. Bayard Tarakov, he was—is—Kerensky man. One of your father’s vassals.”
“He is,” Aleksandr agreed. “But what he does in Tarakov lands, or on the Steppe, is not concerning Bayard Kerensky. Bear has no quarrel with me.”
“Well, tell him I have no quarrel with him then!” Anatoly said. “I sold Tarakov my sword, I didn’t swear it. I’m no druzhnik. Just a free man with skill at arms.”
“Tell him yourself,” Yorrin said. “This is all off the point.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Yorrin is right. What matters is: you attacked us.”
Anatoly and Grigor both grimaced, while Yuri glared defiantly at Aleksandr.
In Ruskan, Grigor offered thin apology: “It wasn’t personal,” he said. “We did what we were hired for.”
“Middish, please,” Aleksandr said.
“Sorry,” Grigor said. “We were hired to do job. We did job.”
“You were hired to waylay travelers? Are you sellswords or bandits?” Dylan asked.
“There a difference?” Robin asked from behind them. He shut his mouth when Aleksandr shot him a cautioning look.
“We are sellswords, only,” Anatoly said. “We signed on with Chernyy Garin because the pay, it is better than most.” Anatoly’s eyes drifted towards where the body of their black-clad leader lay in the mud. “Was better than most,” he amended.
“This Black Garin, he make habit of banditry?” Aleksandr asked.
“No,” Anatoly said. “Usually hires on with bayards along the Zelezkrov. Vassals to Yerevan. Always some sort of civil skirmish, or fight on a border somewhere.”
“You should have stayed along Zheleznaya Krovnaya,” Aleksandr said.
Anatoly frowned. He nodded. “Da,” he said. “True enough. You are not soldiers, then?”
Aleksandr tilted his head at that, giving Anatoly a quizzical look. “Soldiers? You could call some of us this. We are several groups, traveling together.”
“Soldiers,” Anatoly repeated. “Out of Copperwell.”
Yorrin snorted. “You already got Aleksandr pegged as a Ruskan bayard—”
“I am not a bayard,” Aleksandr protested.
“Sure, whatever,” Yorrin said. “Anyway, you recognize Aleksandr, and you think we’re soldiers from Copperwell?”
Anatoly shook his head. “I did not say this,” he said. “But this is what we were told.”
“Back up,” Yorrin said. “Told by who?”
“Garin,” Grigor said. “We were—”
Yorrin held up a hand. Grigor swallowed his words. Yorrin pointed at Anatoly. “You,” he said. “Take me through it. Start from the beginning, as far back as you need to go. Tell me how you ended up here, in the mud, with your life and death in Aleksandr’s hands. If it’s a tale you’re spinning, make it a good one.”
Anatoly swallowed, clearly nervous. Before he spoke, Yorrin held his hand up again. “Wait. Robin.”
“Take them out of earshot,” Yorrin said. He gestured at Yuri and Grigor. “Whip, go with him? Get a version from one of them.”
“Got it,” Dylan said.
They waited in tense silence as Dylan and Robin corralled the two men away. That left Aleksandr, Yorrin, and Anatoly alone.
“Go ahead,” Yorrin said. “Tell us your story.”
“I—we—lived in Yerevan. Chernyy—Black—Garin, he was paying good money to sellswords. We work for Bayard Bogdanov and his vassals… Bayard Stanislav, Bayard Verchenko, anyone who is willing to pay, da? Border skirmishes. Bandit hunting. Sometimes, we are waylaying caravans of rivals.” Anatoly paused. He seemed to consider his words carefully, studying Aleksandr and Yorrin. “In truth, this work, is sort of like being bandits itself. But is under command of a bayard.”
“That does not make it good work,” Aleksandr said. “Not necessarily.”
Anatoly nodded. “Da,” he said. “True. But I am sellsword. I have no other skills. I must sell my sword.”
“You could pick who you sell it to a little better,” Yorrin said.
“Is easy to say,” Anatoly said. “Is easy for men like you to do, maybe. Not so for me.”
Perhaps he remembers it was not easy for him. Not so very long ago. Aleksandr thought. “Go on,” he said to Anatoly.
“Three days past, Black Garin, he came to us with new job. Very new. No notice. He called us together and said we must be riding out right away. A caravan was coming up from Copperwell, taking the Border Road. A caravan of soldiers, planning mischief in Yerevan’s outskirts. Planning to raid and pillage Yerevani farmsteads south of Zelezkrov. Garin says we must ambush them and drive them off, before they strike.”
“That’s… remarkably false,” Yorrin said.
Anatoly gave Yorrin a rueful look. “Da,” he said, nodding. “You do not need to be telling me this.”
“So you’re saying you thought we were an invading army?” Yorrin asked. He glanced behind them, at the small, ragged force that gathered around the wagons. “Really? That’s what you’re going with?”
Anatoly shrugged. “This is what Garin said. Is my job to disbelieve? Did we think you an army? No. But you could be a raiding party, da.”
“What were your orders?” Yorrin said. “Specifically.”
“Simple,” Anatoly said. “We follow Garin. Wait for his mark. When he gave signal, we ride out and attack. You kill Garin.” Anatoly glanced at Aleksandr. The mix of fear and respect was obvious enough. “We lose too many men. No winning that fight. So… we surrender. And here we are.”
“That’s all?” Yorrin asked. “Those were the only orders? Wait for Garin’s word, and attack?”
“Da,” Anatoly said. He looked confused, at least to Aleksandr’s eye. “What else is there? Is a fight, not too complicated.”
“What of the group on the other side of the river?” Yorrin asked.
Anatoly frowned. “Vasily,” he said.
The word startled Aleksandr. Yorrin didn’t miss it, and he met Aleksandr’s eyes with a quizzical look.
“Is nothing,” Aleksandr said. “My—my brother. Middle brother. Same name, is all.”
“Is good name,” Anatoly offered. “But not all men who share it are good men. Vasily… we call him Krovayy. Called him Krovayy.”
“Kro-what?” Yorrin asked.
“Ah, is…” Aleksandr considered a moment. “Bloody. Bloody hands, maybe.”
“That, da,” Anatoly said. “Vasily, he was a… hard man. Good man in a fight. But he was not much above a bandit.”
“Vasily, he was across the river?” Yorrin asked.
“Da, he led attack on that side,” Anatoly said. “Garin spoke to him before. Gave him orders on when to strike.”
Interesting, Aleksandr thought. He didn’t know?
“You did not know what his orders were?” Aleksandr asked.
Anatoly shook his head. “Nyet.”
Yorrin had told Aleksandr what he’d heard, at the tail end of the battle. The men saying that they had come “for the woman.” Alaina. They came to kill Alaina.
Yet even as Aleksandr’s expression grew tense, Yorrin remained calm in his questions. Casual.
“I heard one of them,” Yorrin said. “He said they only wanted the woman. Any idea what he meant?”
Anatoly furrowed his brow. “Woman? This—this does not make sense. What woman?”
Aleksandr clenched his jaw. That reaction seemed truthful enough. I wish it had not.
“Only one woman in the wagon he was going for,” Yorrin said. “A Torathi priestess.”
“Priestess? This makes less sense,” Anatoly said. “Much of Yerevan follows the Snake God. I have said prayers to him myself.”
“And Black Garin? He followed Torath too?” Yorrin asked.
“No,” Anatoly said. “I do not think so, anyway. Never saw him pray to any god.”
“He have any particular grudge against Torath that you know of?”
Anatoly shook his head.
“Thank you,” Aleksandr said. “Stay here. Do not move, or you will regret it. Da?”
Aleksandr pulled Yorrin aside. They left Anatoly kneeling in the mud.
“He seemed honest enough,” Aleksandr said.
“Agreed,” Yorrin said. “Fuck. If that’s the case, I haven’t got high hopes for the other two. I might have killed the man who had more answers. Sorry.”
“Do not apologize,” Aleksandr said. “If this is case, I definitely killed man with the most answers, da?”
Yorrin showed a half-hearted smile and let out a breath of laughter. “Suppose so.”
“Let us speak with Dylan and Robin, see if every story is same,” Aleksandr said.
Yorrin nodded. No more words were needed, and they set to the task.
The stories were all the same.
Aleksandr had expected it, really. But still it rankled. Once again, he lacked answers. Whoever attacked Alaina at the Crossroads was behind this as well. Aleksandr knew it, despite a striking lack of evidence.
“More than one,” Yorrin said. They stood in a cluster, the two of them along with Prudence, Robin, and Dylan. Bear was still sulking by the river, and Alaina was resting in the wagon.
“Agreed,” Prudence said.
“How do you figure?” Dylan asked.
“It’s obvious,” Robin said. When everyone looked to him, waiting for him to explain, he faltered. “I mean, I figured it was obvious. But Yorrin, you should explain.”
“Well done, Rotten, no one suspects a thing,” Yorrin said, rolling his eyes. “There’s more than one of them because I’d wager fifty shekels that one of them is whoever rode out of the Crossroads first thing, the night we arrived. If they rode hard, one horse, they’d have beaten us up here by a long stretch. We’re no more than a couple hard days ride from Yerevan now. Anatoly said they were hired just three days ago. It’s tight, but I think someone could’ve made that.”
“But if they did, then they couldn’t be the one you spotted outside the Crossroads,” Dylan said. “Got it.”
“So there’s a conspiracy out to kill Alaina,” Prudence said. “Why?”
A good question. Only silence answered her.
“We cannot stay here much longer,” Aleksandr said. “The graves are dug. The men have rested. We must move soon.”
“We’re still no closer to knowing what’s going on,” Yorrin complained.
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “I know. I dislike this as much as any of us. But we cannot stay forever.”
“On to Yerevan, then?” Robin said. “Mayhap there’s more answers to be found there?”
“Hm,” Yorrin said. “Forty denarii is decent money.” His hand went to his purse, an absentminded gesture. “But not enough for that many men, I think. Yet that’s all Garin had on him.”
“Half upfront, half on return,” Dylan said.
“Which means someone is back in Yerevan waiting to hear word the deed is done,” Yorrin said.
“Good,” Aleksandr said. “Then we will go, and we will find them.”
“What about them?” Robin asked. “Bear wants to kill the one. Annie Tully or whatever girl’s name that was. Can I kill one of the others?”
Aleksandr frowned. “They did not know Garin’s true purpose,” he said. It did not sit well. Executing men for following reasonable-sounding orders.
“They tried to kill us,” Yorrin reminded him. “Tried to kill Alaina. They did do for a few of the Cassaline’s mercs.”
“Da. Even so.”
“So, what?” Robin asked. “You gonna let them go? Offer them a job like you did me?” He laughed.
Aleksandr scratched his beard, and stared at the three Ruskans. They were soaking wet, shivering, covered in mud and flecked with blood. Yorrin peered into Aleksandr’s eyes, and sighed.
“Let’s get it over with,” he muttered.
“Here is where we stand,” Aleksandr said. “Your commander lied, as I think you realize by now. We are travelers. Merchant, priestess, scholar. Mercenary guards. We mean no harm to anyone, and you attacked us without prov—” he stumbled over the word. “Provokatsiya,” he said.
“We understand,” growled Yuri, the burly bearded one. They still knelt in puddles of rainwater and mud. Aleksander’s men had fanned out around them, waiting for Aleksandr’s word. “So kill us and be done with it.”
“I would rather not,” Aleksandr said. “You were led to battle on the back of a lie. You did not fight dishonorably. You asked for quarter, and you have cooperated since. What I say may not sit well with my friends, but the truth does not wait for approval of others.”
Aleksandr drew Kholodny. He saw the men recoil in fear at the naked blade. Even Yuri.
“You have a choice ahead,” he said. “Face justice here. Satisfy those whose comrades you slew, quench their thirst for revenge. I promise you, I will make it swift. You will not suffer.”
The offer hung in the air like a black cloud. For a moment, the only sound was the crash of the swollen river and the patter of rainfall.
“I think I speak for all,” Anatoly said slowly. “When I say we would like to hear other choice.”
Aleksandr nodded. “We are bound for Yerevan. Whoever hired your commander, Black Garin, hired him there. They may be there still.” Aleksandr wrapped his left hand around the hild of Kholodny, gripping the sword in a two-handed high guard. He took a deep breath. “I want him.”
He spoke the word with more vehemence than he had intended. The Ruskan prisoners flinched. Aleksandr paused, took another breath.
“I want to find whoever hired Garin. Whoever hired you. You will travel with us. Unarmed. You will swear to follow my orders on the road as if I was your commander. Once we reach Yerevan, you will help me find this man however you can. If you do this, you will be free to go. I will not see vengeance.”
The silence was shorter, this time. Anatoly cleared his throat.
“I think, again, I speak for all of us,” he said. He offered Aleksandr a meek smile. “We would be very happy to help.”