Biting winds and freezing rain made for unfortunate road companions.
Aleksandr had expected the sleet. He had tried to take precautions. Everyone wore an extra layer—two, in the cases of Alaina, Borthul, and Prudence—thanks to the extra cloaks and roughspun wool Yorrin had purchased in Nashim.
It wasn’t enough. Small stones of ice and fat droplets of freezing water had pounded them mercilessly since they’d crossed into the land Alaina called “Karim.” A fierce, cold wind blew the storm west, the same direction they traveled. It had kept the sleetstorm overhead for the better part of two days.
The Midland Mountains were visible ahead of them, jutting up on the horizon like jagged black and white blades. Aleksandr had crossed the Barriers when he traveled from Rusk into Torathia, and that mountain range was high and forbidding. But the Midland Mountains looked more dangerous, somehow. Sharp stony peaks and sheer cliffs spoke of their impassibility, at least here. There was no way of crossing them for hundreds of miles, save the Underpass.
Alaina said it would take them days yet before they reached the Underpass. They would be inside Karim almost the entire time, until they reached the edge of the kingdom. The foothills were no-man’s land, especially around the Underpass. The domovoy of the mountains were too hostile for the men of Karim to risk their wrath by building settlements too close.
Although, that would suggest that the Karimites built much in the way of settlements anywhere. They’d seen a distant keep not long after they left Nashim, and the lowlands were dotted with farms, but Karim appeared to be largely rough, unsettled country.
“This place, Karim,” Aleksandr said.
Alaina glanced at him. The cold and the beating rain discouraged idle chatter, and they’d been riding in silence for some time. But she smiled, and her eyebrows raised in curiosity. Aleksandr forged ahead.
“Is not very settled. The land, I mean. Not like Torathia.”
Alaina nodded. “That’s true enough,” she agreed. “Torathia is something special, really. We enjoy an amount of prosperity and peace that is unrivaled. Tell me, though… is this so different from your homeland?”
Interesting point. Aleksandr looked around.
The old stones of the Cassaline road were slick with water and ice. The ground around them was mostly mud and dead brown grass, exposed as the winter snowfall melted. Barren trees interspersed with a few evergreen groves. In the distance, to his right, Aleksandr saw a lonely plume of smoke rise off a farmstead, but he could barely see the steading itself. Only the glimpse of a thatch roof and the smoke spoke of its presence.
She was right. The homeland was vast, and most of it was unpeopled. Particularly in his home, in the far northern holdings around Pripia. In winter you could ride for days without seeing another living creature, neither man nor beast. Perhaps he had grown too accustomed to the fertile farmlands and trading towns of Torathia.
He looked back to Alaina, and shrugged. “Would be more snow in Rusk, this time of year,” he said with a wry smile.
She laughed. “I suppose there would!”
“I take your point,” Aleksandr said. “This land… is outside borders, and so more vulnerable, da? The people here, they must fend for themselves?”
“Somewhat,” Alaina allowed. “But it wouldn’t be right to say they’re on their own, either. Karim, like most kingdoms on our borders, pay considerable tithes to the Church. In exchange, they know that they can call upon the Knights Serpentes if they have need. But you’re right that they mostly fend for themselves. A lot of these smaller kingdoms, the lords style themselves ‘King’ and consider their land sovereign.”
“You say this as if you do not agree,” Aleksandr said. “Is this place, Karim, not—what was word? Sovereign? Is... nezavisimy, da?”
She smiled. “We could speak the mother tongue, if you prefer?” She said in Ruskan. “But yes, that’s the word.”
Her Ruskan was admittedly excellent. She had a strong Torathian accent, softening some of the guttural tones of proper Ruskan. But to Aleksandr’s ear that just lent her words a more elegant quality. It was a treat to listen to.
Your Middish is not half so good as her Ruskan, Aleksandr reminded himself. You need the practice. She does not.
“Middish is fine,” he answered.
“Very well,” she said. “To your question: yes, of course Karim is a sovereign kingdom. It has a king. The noble house Enorius has ruled here for generations. Currently King Micah, I believe. He protects these lands as best he can, with his knights and soldiers. Most of the kingdoms see it as a sign of weakness to call upon the Church for aid, and avoid it all cost.”
Aleksandr nodded. “Is much the same in Rusk. The bayards, they settle most disputes among themselves. If the Tsar involves himself…” Aleksandr frowned. “Unpleasant for all concerned.”
“I’ll admit: I’m not sure how I feel about you likening the Torathi Church to a tyrant,” Alaina said. She said it with a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, though. She was not offended, Aleksandr would bet on it.
“Is like we say in Rusk: The Gods only demand your obedience on holy days. The Tsar demands it every day.”
Aleksandr had first heard the saying from one of his father’s armsmen, a grizzled old veteran named Gennady. It was a joke, but the kind of joke that you looked over your shoulder before you told.
But here, it was just a good joke. Alaina laughed, and Aleksandr heard a chuckle from behind them. Yorrin was riding close by again, listening in. Aleksandr wondered that perhaps he should find such eavesdropping bothersome, but he did not. Yorrin had proved his loyalty enough times to deserve trust, and Aleksandr knew he meant no harm.
The conversation, the laughter, was good. It took their minds off the deluge of sleet, and the freezing wind. They passed a crossroads, where several muddy trails split away from the cobbled Cassaline road.
“King Micah’s seat is that way,” Alaina said, pointing south. “There’s a township there as well. It’s a few hours away.”
“We’ve got enough supplies to see us through the Underpass, I think,” Dylan said from the back of their column.
Aleksandr nodded. “We press on. Unless there are objections?”
He glanced across the faces of his companions, but nobody spoke up.
“Well then,” Aleksandr said. He urged Dascha forward, and the others followed.
The sun was dipping behind the Midland Mountains when they spotted a roadside inn, less than a mile after they’d passed the crossroad. It looked small and shabby from the outside, but it had four walls and a roof, which would be welcome in this weather.
It was small and shabby from the inside, too. It stank of sweat, ale, and old milk. But for a handful of copper gir, they could lay their bedrolls down on the packed earth of the common floor. For another handful, the horses were sheltered in a ramshackle stable.
The amenities were far from what Aleksandr had found in Torathia. But better than nothing.
They left at dawn.
In the predawn gloom, Aleksandr pulled on his layers of wool and iron. He strapped Kholodny to his side. Before the others had woke, he headed out to the crude stables. He rummaged through his saddlebags and pulled out the last gift his father had given him, before he left Pripia.
Dascha and Kholodny were the clearest signs of his status as Ruskan nobility. But the hard iron breastplate he drew out of his bags was a close third, in terms of status symbols. Most Ruskan knights, druzhniks, wore coats of mail. A solid breastplate like this required a skilled smith, to forge iron that was pliable enough to hold the shape and take blows without shattering.
The breastplate had been Aleksandr’s grandfather’s. One of several, not a proper heirloom like Kholodny. But breastplates were expensive, and his grandfather was dead and long past caring. They were of a similar build, taller and broader than Aleksandr’s father Valentin. It had taken only a few adjustments by the local smith in Pripia for it to be fitted to Aleksandr.
It was dull gray, marked with dozens of scratches and several small dents. This was no ornamental armor, no badge of office. This armor had seen battle. A Kerensky man had entrusted his life to it, and it had not let him down.
Aleksandr hadn’t worn it much. A few times, in skirmishes when he worked southern Rusk as a druzhnik-for-hire. He’d almost worn it on the Crimson Serpent, the day they faced the pirates. But he had been afraid to wear the extra weight, in case he was knocked overboard. Somehow, he knew it had been a foolish worry: the ocean would have swallowed him regardless. But the fear had kept him from digging the armor out of his quarters.
Now, it was time. There was no chance they would cross through the Underpass without running afoul of the domovoy, this much was certain. If the stories were true, the domovoy often attacked in force. He would need every scrap of advantage he could find.
He pulled the breast and back plates into position over his mail. He tightened the straps, and felt the weight settle onto his shoulders and hips. It felt bulky. A little odd. But he would get used to it.
“Good idea,” a voice said behind him.
He didn’t jump.
“Yorrin,” he said, without looking. “Morning.”
“Morning,” Yorrin said. “Didn’t know you had that.”
“I have not worn it much,” Aleksandr admitted.
“Most like you’ll need it. If folk are right about the goblins being more active than usual. And maybe even if they’re not.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Was my thinking as well.”
He turned to face his friend. Yorrin had geared up for the day as well. He wore layers of wool beneath and over a new dark gray gambeson, courtesy of the coin they’d acquired from Scaleman. The short Cassaline blade he’d picked up on the Crimson Serpent was buckled at his side, behind a quiver of arrows. He kept the hunting bow he’d bought in Misviyr unstrung, hanging across his back.
Yorrin was no knight. But, kitted out as he was, he surely looked the part of a mercenary. It felt strange to recall that, not so long ago, Yorrin had completely looked his part as a cutpurse gutter rat. The path from there to mercenary was, perhaps, fewer steps than some men might wish to admit.
“The others will be up soon,” Yorrin said. “We should go, before the rain picks up again.”
Aleksandr glanced skyward, and nodded. Thick gray clouds still stretched as far as the eye could see, but so far yesterday’s sleet had abated. Little more than a light shower pelted down on them.
The company was on the road by the time the sun bled an orange glow into the eastern cloud cover. They kept up a brisk pace, and none of them were surprised when the rain turned by midday. Fat, frozen droplets hammered down on their cloaks and layers. They didn’t pass another soul on the road.
Dylan rode ahead of the column for a time, scouting to ensure no obvious signs of trouble. The Cassaline road cut through several small, rocky foothills as they grew nearer to the mountains. The hills cut down on visibility, and at times Dylan was out of sight for long, tense stretches. But he always circled back around, confident and calm astride a rangy courser almost as gangly as he was.
A few hours before sunset, as Dylan rejoined the group Aleksandr felt hairs on the back of his neck prickle. Beneath Dylan’s hood, Aleksandr could see his brow was drawn, lips in a tight line.
“Trouble?” he asked
Dylan gave a curt nod. “Yeah. Hey, priestess…”
“Yes?” Alaina asked, pulling her steed up closer. The others clustered up behind them.
“You said we’re still in Karim?”
She paused, assessed the landscape around them. “Nearing the border, maybe, but yes. We should cross out of King Micah’s territory tomorrow morning, and reach the Underpass by nightfall. Or early the day after tomorrow. Why?”
Dylan swallowed. He glanced over his shoulder, though there was nothing for him to stare at. He looked back. Met Aleksandr’s eyes.
“The goblins must be pushing in even more than we’d heard,” he said. “Around that bend, there’s a… marker.”
“Marker?” Yorrin asked. “What sort of marker, Whip?”
“Goblin, I think. Right in the middle of the road. A wooden post, with a skeleton mounted on it. Marked in some kind of tongue. Do the goblins even have writing?”
Alaina nodded, frowning. “They do, I think.”
From behind her, Borthul cleared his throat pointedly. Aleksandr glanced at him
“They most certainly have writing. As for this business: You’re describing a territorial totem,” the old man said. “A warning, of sorts, proclaiming that passing beyond will mean you are marked for death by their clans.”
“Lovely,” Prudence muttered.
“Is good, Prudence!” Bear said. “Is time, and past time! Let the fighty domovoy come, we kill them! What is problem?”
“The problem is they’ve pressed in even further than we expected,” Dylan said. “Into a settled kingdom, even. They could be watching us from the hills right now for all we know!”
Aleksandr involuntarily glanced around them. The stony hills were dotted with evergreen groves and rock formations. None of them was so close as to provide an ideal vantage for an ambush, thankfully… but Dylan was right. They certainly could be out there. Watching. Waiting for the right moment.
“Calm down, Whip,” Yorrin said.
“Yorrin, he’s—” Prudence began.
“Shut up, Prudence. Bear’s right.”
Dylan and Prudence both arched their eyebrows at that. Even Aleksandr cocked his head at that.
“I am?” Bear said. He sounded as surprised as any of them.
“You are,” Yorrin said. “This doesn’t change anything. We knew the goblins were out in force. We knew we weren’t getting through the Underpass without a fight. So maybe they’re pushed out a little further than we expected. And maybe we throw down with them a day early. So what? Either we can take the buggers, or we can’t. I say we can. We’ll find out soon enough.”
Aleksandr smiled. Bear let out a deep belly laugh, grinning from ear to ear.
Well said, Yorrin, Aleksandr thought. I only hope you’re right.
“Well said, Yorrin,” Aleksandr said. He didn’t say the other bit out loud.