They were just two days out of Yerevan when Alaina finally felt well enough to get out of the wagon for good.
Not for good, she reminded herself. Else you wouldn’t have turned around and gone right back inside the moment we stopped, so that you could to tend to this.
She was hunched over Edric Maron, tending to him. The wagon had pulled to a stop a short time earlier. Outside, the others were making camp. Even Olivenco was up and about. Only Alaina and Edric were within the wagon.
She applied a pungent ointment to Edric’s wounds. The marks themselves—once arrow wounds, but made much worse by sepsis—were mostly sealed over. They were little more than angry red scabs and scar tissue now. Still, she’d had to lance two of them of pus yet again, and the ointment would hopefully stop the cysts from returning.
It’s been less that come back each time, at least, she thought. Edric had taken nine arrows, and every one of them had been filthy and inflamed by the time they got out of the Underpass.
It’s a miracle he survived the wounds at all. And another miracle, that he’s survived the recovery.
“How does that feel?” she asked.
Edric mustered a weak smile. Everything he did was done weakly, now. His body had been ravaged by the wounds. “Better, at least,” he said.
“Indeed,” Alaina said, wrapping clean linens around the wounds that still warranted it. “You’re nearly there, Edric.”
“Nearly where?” the young man asked.
“Recovered,” Alaina said. Intentionally missing his point.
Edric lifted one of his shrunken arms, the left one, and flexed his hand. The effort was clearly significant, but worse, it made him wince. One of the arrows had left its mark in his bicep, and the simple exertion obviously caused him pain as the scar tissue was pulled.
“I don’t feel recovered,” he said.
“With luck, this will be the last time I have to lance these,” she said. “Some strength will return once your body is healed.”
Edric frowned. He lowered his arm back to his side. Alaina felt his eyes on her as she finished the last bandage.
“You never lie to me,” Edric said after a long silence. “I noticed that early on.”
“Of course not,” she said.
“Which is why you say things like some strength will return. Yes, I believe that. Once I can move again, I’m bound to grow stronger. But you didn’t say you’ll be back to normal, did you?”
He’s no fool.
“No,” Alaina said. “I didn’t.”
“My father’s a lord in the Copperlands,” he said.
“I know,” Alaina said. “You’ve told me that much.”
“Nobody important,” Edric added. “Owns a mine that dried up two generations ago. A few score of peasants. Not nearly enough estate to spread across five sons.”
I know that, too. Alaina held her tongue. It was clear that Edric needed to say something, and she realized he was building up to it.
“He’s got a vassal. Or he did. Haven’t been home in years. No desire to.”
Indeed not, Alaina thought. Or maybe you’d have asked to go with Holbrook when he ventured into Copperwell to try to find new recruits for Taraam.
Holbrook—Hal, the men called him—had linked back up with them empty-handed a few days later.
“Fellow’s name was Jed,” Edric said. “A knight, or what passes for a knight in Copperwell. Knew how to fight, anyway, and ride. But he took a wound in the leg one day. Even after it healed, it never healed. He had a limp the rest of his life. Stopped serving in battle after that.”
“A common enough story,” Alaina said.
Edric nodded. “I know. You think I don’t know? I know what you won’t say. There’s no recovering from this. I didn’t lose a limb, but I’m as crippled as the Captain. I’ll never fight again. My time at the Fort is done.”
Alaina sighed. “It’s true enough that you may never fight again,” she said. “I can’t say for sure. There have been fabled warriors in the Serpentes that took grievous wounds and went on to great heights regardless. Perhaps your fighting days are done, perhaps not. But either way, your time with Taraam is only over if you believe it is so.”
Edric rolled his eyes. “I just have to believe, huh? You’ve spared me the sermons this whole time, priestess. Gonna start now?”
“No,” Alaina said. “I’m not talking about trusting in God to set things right for you. That would be empty, and you’d be right to scoff.”
Edric eyed her warily. “Then what are you getting at?”
“Torath helps those who help themselves,” Alaina said, letting the fierceness inside of her bubble up with the words.
“How the hell am I to help myself, eh? I can’t just will myself to—to walk steady, or to swing a sword without dropping the damn thing!”
“There are many ways to be useful,” Alaina said. “While some injured Knights Serpentes go on to return to being great warriors, many more serve in other ways. Administration. Strategy. Diplomacy. Their service is no less valuable, despite it not coming at the edge of a sword.”
Edric frowned. “Taraam is not the Knights Serpentes.”
“No,” Alaina agreed. “The Knights are a sworn brotherhood, loyal and true. Men of honor. Not some mercenary company in a Middish backwater.”
“Fuck you,” Edric growled. “We have honor, and we’re damned loyal. We—”
Alaina grinned at the insult, and Edric fell silent when he realized she was still smiling.
“Oh,” he said.
“More similar than one might think,” Alaina said. “Have you no need for administrators? Tacticians? Ambassadors?”
“We’re just one fort,” Edric said. She could hear the hesitation in his voice.
“One fort with sorely depleted numbers,” Alaina said. “If nothing else, you could use a recruiter, I think.”
“A rec—huh. Yeah. I guess so,” Edric said. He grew contemplative, staring at the wall of the wagon.
“Something to think on, anyway,” Alaina said. “You may not have outlived your usefulness after all.”
Edric didn’t respond, still lost in thought. Alaina left him to it, and climbed out of the wagon.
The sun was low, but she expected they had at least an hour of daylight left. The sky was gray where it didn’t glow orange, and there was—mercifully—not even a drizzle of rain. Still, rain would return sooner or later. Her boots squelched in mud as she walked away from the wagon.
A camp had been established, and Alaina couldn’t help but marvel at it.
We set out from Nahash with just seven people, she thought. Now, we’ve nearly tripled that.
Several smoky campfires had been established, and the different groups were each preparing their own meals. Orson and the Highlander mercenary, Cam, were cooking something in a pot over their fire.
“Alaina,” Orson said as she passed. “How are you feeling?”
“Well enough,” she said, giving the young man a smile. Orson had been helping her prepare tonics to manage the symptoms of her poisoning for many days now. He was every bit the earnest, kindhearted young man he’d seemed that first night she met him. “Something smells good.”
“Does it?” Orson asked, laughing. “Not sure about that. Cam says this is an old highland stew, but so far it just seems to be salt pork and beer.”
“Not a bad start,” Alaina said.
“Listen to the lass, Orson,” Cam grumbled. He had a few gnarled little carrots that looked past their prime in his lap, and he whittled chunks of them directly into the stewpot. “Once Levin toddles back with some hedge herbs and wild mushrooms you’ll be singin’ a different tune.”
“Make sure I get a chance to look at the mushrooms first this time, hey?” Orson said. “I don’t want a repeat of the other night.”
“Them mushrooms was fine,” Cam said. “Weak bellies you lowlanders have, mark me.”
Orson rolled his eyes, but he joined Alaina in a chuckle as she walked past.
Giancarlo and his two factors sat on a couple of stumps and rocks that had been arranged for them. As always, the Cassaline merchant looked surprisingly at ease on the road.
He dresses well, but it’s clear he’s spent a lot of time on the road. Long enough to be comfortable anywhere, if he needs to be.
It was just as obvious that his two factors did not share his comfort far from civilization. Elfisio kept a large cloak draped around him, looking for all the world like a child hiding beneath a blanket.
Or his mother’s skirts. The thought was uncharitable, and Alaina regretted it immediately. But the skinny factor set her teeth on edge. He kept mostly to himself, and eyed most of the mercenaries as if they were dirt to be scraped off of his shoe.
Aguapo was no less comfortable sitting on his rock, but at least he’d always seemed kind and courteous. Alaina gave the fat man a friendly nod as she passed.
Holbrook was cooking a meal for the Taraamites. He was further along in the process than Cam and Orson.
It’s possible some of those good smells were coming from here, she allowed. It looked as though he’d made some sort of soup, but all she saw was bubbling cheese covering the top of the kettle.
“Hal,” she said. “That smells as good as it looks. Don’t tell me that’s that hard cheese you’ve been carrying around?”
“It surely is,” he said. “It ain’t much on bread, and it’ll dull your knife in two slices, but it’s marvy on soup. This is the proper way to eat it.”
“He’s not lying,” Perrin said. “It browns up nicely. Takes some of the, uh, pungency away too.”
He sat nearby, toasting a few pieces of old bread over some banked coals. Prudence sat beside him, obviously planning to take her meal with the men of Taraam.
She’s been doing that almost as often as Perrin eats with Aleksandr’s folk, Alaina thought.
“He means it tastes less like feet this way,” Prudence said. Holbrook let out a hoot of laughter. Perrin shrugged, accepting the translation.
“Want us to save you some, Alaina?” Perrin asked.
“Tempting, but I expect Aleksandr’s got something set aside for me,” she said.
She kept walking. Behind her, she heard Hal snickering.
“Bet he’s got somethin’ set aside for her!” he whispered, too loudly.
A moment later, she heard him yelp in pain.
“Dammit, Perrin!” Hal complained. “Keep a leash on your woman!”
That’s not likely, Alaina thought. If anyone’s wearing a leash in that pair, it’s surely not Prudence.
Nearby, Lefty, Connor, and Matt were setting up the last of their tents. Lefty’s leg had mostly healed, and Connor’s sword arm was largely mended. Even so, both men kept young Matt doing the brunt of the work.
“Strike it harder, Boy,” Lefty growled. “That stake won’t hold if we get a howlin’ wind through here.”
Matt slammed his mallet down on the tent stake with enough force to drive it deep into the muddy dirt.
“Better,” Lefty said.
Alaina passed them, and saw a familiar sight a good distance away. Nowhere near the third campfire, but further off the road, amidst a grove of trees.
Yorrin was standing between two evergreens. His feet were spaced in a stance that looked awkward. Or perhaps it only looked as though Yorrin thought it was awkward. He held a sword in his right hand.
Not just a sword, Alaina thought. His sword. Pattern forged Spatalian steel.
Olivenco, the Cutter of Camarr, paced in circles around Yorrin. He held a long stick in his left hand, and he occasionally whipped it out to prod at Yorrin. Nudging his feet apart or together, tilting his grip one direction or another. He was murmuring instructions along the way, but they were too far away for her to hear what was said.
That’s an unlikely friendship, she thought. And the fact that Olivenco gave up his sword is even unlikelier.
When she’d first heard it, she wondered if Olivenco was about to take his own life. Throw himself off that flooded bridge and into the fast-flowing river. Slit his own throat with his dagger. Something.
If anything, he’s even more invigorated now, Alaina realized. As if his sword was a great weight hanging around his neck. Perhaps it was, in a way. The fabled swordsman, unable to wield his sword.
Whatever the reason, Olivenco had taken to teaching Yorrin for hours every time they stopped. They’d likely break for supper, then get back to it until the sun fully set. A few nights, she’d even seen them continue practicing for a time by lantern light.
The voice pulled Alaina’s attention in front of her. It was filled with warmth, and she smiled when she saw him.
Aleksandr was sitting near the third campfire. His broken leg was resting up on a log. Every time it seemed closer to healing, he did something foolish like tackle a man out of the saddle. Still, he seemed unconcerned. There was an empty spot next to him.
If it was possible, the cookfire here smelled best of all. She realized why as she grew closer.
“Someone go hunting?” she asked.
Robin was tending the fire, and he had three birds impaled on makeshift spits over the flames. Their skin had already begun to crackle.
“The Whip,” Robin said. “Took one of the merchant’s mercs and two of the Ruskies with him. It’s a wonder nobody died.”
“It was fine, Robin,” Dylan said from where he sat.
Dylan was tending a small stewpot, likely cooking up the offal from the birds into a gravy.
“It was madness,” Robin said. “Giving the Ruskies bows and arrows and wandering off with ‘em. Aleksandr, didn’t you tell them they were to stay unarmed?”
Beside Dylan sat one of the three Ruskans—Anatoly, isn’t it?—who had a small stick in hand. He was prodding at a couple of small wild onions that were sitting directly on the coals, roasting in their skins. He glared at Robin, but he held his tongue.
“Robin,” Aleksandr said. His tone was cautioning, and as always that was enough to cow Robin.
Alaina sat down beside Aleksandr. As she did, Dylan sighed loudly. “Yeah, Robin,” he said. “For someone who also was trying to kill us before Aleksandr turned you, you sure do like beating that drum.”
“I’m a God-fearing Middishman,” Robin said. “Not a dirty Rusky from some frozen backwater.”
After a silent beat, Robin added: “No offense, Aleksandr.”
“If we were smart, we’d have disarmed you too,” Dylan said. “At least Anatoly did something with the weapon we let him carry.”
Anatoly smiled. “Da,” he said. “If you do not trust me, you need not eat my bird,” he said to Robin. “Might be it is your kin anyway? Better not to risk.”
There was a ripple of laughter around the campfire. All except Borthul, who sat a bit removed and seemed to be poring over one of his tomes. The wizard had finally begun sleeping a little less than he’d been since they left the Underpass, but he was still not especially talkative.
“Move! I am smelling food!”
Bear’s voice resounded over a good distance. Alaina glanced out and saw him and the other two Ruskans approaching. All three men were carrying bundles of small logs in their arms. Well, Bear’s logs aren’t terribly small, really.
Soon enough, food was served. The camp was alive with chatter and laughter. They gathered and fractured as the night came on… warming by the fire, going off to a broad flat rock to throw dice, hauling water, gathering more firewood, telling tales, fetching a wineskin from the wagon… the sun set on a camp of companions.
Alaina felt her cheeks flushed from the heat of the fire, the wine and good food. She leaned into Aleksandr, and felt him adjust his position to allow her to rest her head on his shoulder. Wordlessly, she felt him wrap his left arm around her shoulders.
We’ll be in Yerevan tomorrow or the next day, she thought. And then this all goes away.
Lefty and the men of Taraam would seek their recruits, and then head back south to their fort. Alaina would miss them, she knew.
But at least they would be going home. She could be happy for them
So too would Giancarlo and his men would go their separate ways in Yerevan. In all likelihood, somewhere in the camp was the man that tried to kill her. Either he would go free, or they would find him—which was, perhaps, even worse. Whoever he was, he had traveled with them, ate with them, laughed with them all these days.
And once they reached Yerevan, Aleksandr and his people would part ways with Alaina as well.
They’ll help find Iosif’s killer, perhaps, she thought.
Somewhere in Yerevan was the man—or men—that had succeeded in killing Father Iosif. Alaina wanted to find them. They’d invoked blasphemous runes in the murder. Delayed the Church. Struck a blow at Torath, presumably. She had heard of Thaumati cults before, but never seen one.
Their help will be most welcome, she reminded herself. But after that…
After that, no matter how successful they were, it would come to an end. Aleksandr was a mercenary. Or an errant knight. Either way, he would not set roots in Yerevan. Alaina would never even ask such a thing of him.
I’ll miss him, though. She could admit that much, if only in her own head. She would miss his smile, miss his rare laughter. She would miss his sad eyes and his warm, solid body. She would miss the smell of him, and his arm around her shoulders. She would miss his lips.
You already miss his lips, she told herself. Deal with it, woman. Don’t let yourself get so worked up, especially not with you already embracing him. You promised him you wouldn’t pressure.
She sighed, and settled herself into the crook of Aleksandr’s arm. She listened to the banter and conversations around her, and spoke up when the mood struck.
Alaina stayed at Aleksandr’s side until the fire had died down to ashen coals. She nearly asked him to follow her into her tent, but she resisted the impulse. She went to her small, cold tent alone.
At what point on this road did you stop wanting so badly to see the end of it? How did things stray so far from your plans? How is it that despite all of the strife and danger and death, this has been one of the best times of your life?
What are you going to do about it?
She pulled her blanket tight against her body. No matter how hard she tried to keep them away, the questions came unbidden to her mind.
She had no answers.
End Book 2