Northmen 1: The Herald of Doom

“Delivery for Steelshod?”

The man called out from the doorway of the Silver Pine. He was old and gnarled, with white hair and bushy eyebrows. His clothes were—unsurpringly—carefully tailored. He waited patiently for a response.

“That’s us,” Yorrin said, hopping to his feet. Though Aleksandr’s leg was healing well, Yorrin still moved faster than Aleksandr could. Still, Aleksandr rose slowly and followed.

By the time Yorrin crossed the room, the old tailor had noticed him. He squinted, then grinned toothlessly.

“Ah, master Yorrin!” he said. He was Middish, though his accent was tinged with traces of Ruskan pronunciation from living in Yerevan so long. He held out a parcel, dark cloth folded up and bound in twine. “I have the first two here for you! Fine work, they are.”

When Aleksandr caught up, Yorrin had already untied the cloth. He held them up, one in each hand, letting them unfurl.

Two cloaks. Thick dark brown wool, well-crafted. Emblazoned in the center on the back of each cloak was silver thead skillfully embroidered into the U shape of a horseshoe.

Aleksandr and Yorrin had agreed upon the design together. Simple, but distinct. Dark enough that Yorrin could wear it at night without drawing too much attention to him. Cloaks, not tabards, because unlike a company such as Taraam every member of Steelshod wore markedly different gear. Cloaks seemed easier to add to any kit. More practical, too.

The cloak tailored for Aleksandr was obvious at a glance—it was the one that pooled on the floor where it hung from Yorrin’s hand. He accepted his cloak from Yorrin, and each of them swept the cloaks over their shoulders and fastened them.

“Good, yes?” asked the tailor. “Just as we discussed.”

“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Fit is good. Comfortable.”

“Agreed,” Yorrin said. “We’ll take one for each of the men.” He gestured towards the table where their companions sat.

The tailor smiled. “Good, good!” he said. “How many more, then? Ten?”

“Call it a dozen,” Yorrin said. “In fact, let’s do a score of them. Good to have a few spares.”

The tailor was clearly delighted with that suggestion. He hurried over to the rest of the group and began taking measurements.

“Twenty? I know Giancarlo said he is happy to pay upfront, to help with—” Aleksandr hesitated, seeking the word. “Expenses? But you may be overdoing it.”

Yorrin just smiled. “I don’t think so,” he said. “They’re good cloaks, and we’re getting a sweetheart deal. Giancarlo probably approves. Anyway, what do you think?”

Aleksandr considered for a moment. “Looks good on you,” he said to Yorrin.

The cloak was cut well, just to Yorrin’s height, and it looked as natural and comfortable hanging from his shoulders as Aleksandr’s felt. The color went well with Yorrin’s new armored jack of plates, as well. The jack was courtesy of Piotr’s smithy: a heavy dark brown cloth, with small iron plates sewn between the layers. It would provide considerably more protection than the textile gambeson had, and without being much louder or more restrictive of the small man’s mobility.

“Same,” Yorrin said to Aleksandr. “They’re good cloaks.”

“Da, is good design, Yorrin.” Aleksandr said. He rolled the fabric between two fingers. “Good material, too.”

“Makes sense it would be,” Yorrin said with a shrug. “Old fellow came recommended at the bayard’s suggestion, didn’t he?”

“He did,” Aleksandr said. “Is just… strange. To see a heraldic symbol and know it is…”

“Yours?”

Ours,” Aleksandr corrected. “But—da. I never expected this, when I left home.”

“Safe to say I didn’t either,” Yorrin said. “But it’s the right thing to do. You’re the right man for it. It’s an honor to follow you, under this banner or any other.”

Yorrin is rarely so sincere, Aleksandr thought, swallowing a knot of nervousness in the back of his throat. Guiding men, leading men, was one thing. But the formality of a proper company was still daunting. He had no experience in this, and neither did Yorrin. There would be much to consider. Organization, hierarchy, payroll, logistics…

He smiled warmly at his friend. Problems for another day. He let himself enjoy the moment. “You honor me in turn, Yorrin,” he said. “You are a good man.”

Yorrin wrinkled his nose at the words, but he did not argue. A good sign.

“Looks good,” Dylan said as he approached them. “Not too flashy, but it makes a statement. Very… you, Aleksandr. I like it.”

It is not me, Aleksandr thought, annoyed. It is to be for all of us. I’m starting a mercenary company, not appointing myself a bayard with new heraldry. That would be an affront to house Kerensky and—somewhat more dangerously—the Tsar himself. I am not so foolish.

“Thank you,” was all he said.

“Before he left this morning Giancarlo said he was looking to buy a shipment of spears and helms today. Coming in by barge, supposedly, if the barge hasn’t been hit by Svards on its way here.”

“Have they come all the way up the Ironblood?” Yorrin asked.

Dylan shrugged. “Not that I heard, just saying—you never know. Anyway, you want I should take a few of the men down to the docks and meet him? I think it was supposed to be happening in an hour or two.”

Aleksandr took a moment to contemplate the question, then shook his head. “I will go,” he said. “Stay with them here, until the tailor is done. Then—maybe more training, in the castle yard?”

 “Sure. They could use some more time working together, I think,” Dylan said. He glanced at Yorrin. In the corner of his eye, Aleksandr saw the young man give Dylan a single quick nod. “You two will meet us there when you’re done?”

“Da,” Aleksandr agreed.

As they gathered their things, Aleksandr did not miss another quiet, almost imperceptible gesture Yorrin made. Prudence made eye contact with him, wordlessly arching her eyebrows. Yorrin cocked his head to the side, then Prudence nodded in turn.

They got outside the Silver Pine and traveled in silence for a time. The streets of Yerevan were muddy and dotted with deep puddles—it had rained the previous night, and the sky was still swirled with gray clouds. Aleksandr and Yorrin went on foot, but even so the crowds gave them considerable space.

I wonder if they recognize us. Some word has spread of the work we did for the Bayard. The Black Blade, they called me. The idea felt awkward to him. Uncomfortable. No, probably just giving berth to men well-armed and armored, he decided.

The troublesome thoughts persisted as they made their way to the docks along the Ironblood. Aleksandr did not miss the looks that passersby cast towards him. He was known here. Known for his deeds, for the curse he brought on the Kerensky family blade, and for the lives he had taken. He knew that most of the folk of Yerevan likely counted him as a heroic figure. A notable warrior for Bayard Bogdanov. Even so, he felt somehow disquieted. He was unaccustomed to such things.

Yorrin, for his part, seemed as collected as ever. He walked with a nonchalant air. If he noticed the looks, he did not care. If he cared after all, he did not show it.

“Aleksandr! Yorrin! Good to see you!”

Giancarlo had spotted them before they spotted him. No, not quite, Aleksandr realized. Yorrin was already looking Giancarlo’s direction.

The merchant waved at them from the waterfront. Around him stood a half-dozen hired hands, day laborers and porters of Yerevan that hired themselves on to merchants to load and unload cargo shipped along the river. He had a good-sized wagon at hand, recently purchased to replace the ones lost to the fire. It was empty, Aleksandr noted as they approached.

“Giancarlo,” he said. “Dylan said you were expecting us.”

“Expecting you, signore? Certainly not! But expecting your—what was the name? Steelshod company? Si, I was expecting a few men.”

“The others are getting fitted for their cloaks,” Yorrin said.

Giancarlo nodded, and made a show of looking over the cloaks Yorrin and Aleksandr wore with a critical eye. Knowing the merchant, he had not missed them the moment Aleksandr walked up.

“Si, si. Very fine work, these cloaks are,” he said. “In any case, I do not expect much trouble. The docks of Yerevan, in broad daylight, with bayard’s men about?” Giancarlo gestured around, and Aleksandr noted an armed guard standing a hundred paces further downriver. “A man would be a fool to start trouble, si? But it is good to show that one has coin to pay for mercenari, regardless. To make the good first impression.”

“I understand,” Aleksandr said. “We are to stand back and look intimidating, da?”

“Essatamente!” Giancarlo said. His gaze passed from Aleksandr to Yorrin, then back to Aleksandr. “You are already doing a good job, signore.” He winked at Aleksandr.

Yorrin wrinkled his nose in annoyance, but said nothing.

“You are expecting the shipment to arrive soon, then?” Aleksandr asked.

“Si, soon,” Giancarlo said with a chuckle. He gestured out to the nearest dock, where a barge was moored. “As soon as they unload.”

Aleksandr blinked. Oh. “They have already arrived? Are we late? I—”

“No no no,” Giancarlo said quickly. “These things take time, signore. A great deal of the mercantile business, it is waiting, si? They have docked. I think the captain, he is paying Yerevani docking fees and arguing about tariffs. When he is done, he will come to me. I would guess… one half of an hour, perhaps.”

Aleksandr breathed easy. He and Yorrin settled into position standing just behind Giancarlo, waiting for the seller to arrive.

Giancarlo’s guess was very close to perfect. After a half hour, a keg-bellied Middish man with a bald scalp and white muttonchop whiskers approached. He blustered mightily when Giancarlo declined his initial price, but his voice never rose loud enough to sound truly hostile. Aleksandr did not miss the occasional furtive glances the man cast his way, however.

Giancarlo was right. Of course. His manner may seem strange to me, but there is no sense in denying that he is a skilled merchant.

Soon, Rossi and the barge captain had reached an amicable agreement, and then the porters were let on to begin offloading the cargo. They brought out long crates loaded with spears, and more crates loaded with helms. Both appeared to be made well enough to serve, but unremarkable. At least so far as Aleksandr could tell.

You are no expert, he reminded himself.

He had spent as much time at the forge with Piotr as Yorrin spent practicing bladework with Olivenco. Even so, he felt Yorrin was proving a better swordsman than he was a smith.

The porters were nearly finished loading the wagon when it happened.

Aleksandr heard a murmur ripple through the crowd. He did not pay it much attention, not at first. But he noticed Yorrin was instantly on edge.

“Trouble?” he murmured.

“Maybe,” Yorrin said. “Something coming.”

Aleksandr looked towards where some folk were gathering, and saw a ship gliding up the Ironblood.

It was large and lean. Bigger than any of the river skiffs here in Yerevan, longer than the barges. Larger than the pirate-hunting galley on which Aleksandr and Yorrin had crossed the Encircled Sea of Torathia. The prow of the ship was decorated with some sort of strange creature, a wide maw encircled by twisting tentacles. Two tentacles stretched out, entwined around each other, to form a long sharp point at the very tip of the vessel.

Dark red sails hung from the mast, the color of old blood. Dozens of oars jutted out on either side, moving rapidly. The ship approached quickly, and as it grew closer Aleksandr could make out the figures on deck.

Large men, clad in mail and fur. They bristled with swords, spears, and axes. Their hair and beards were long, mostly fair colored.

“Svards!” shouted someone in the crowd. Aleksandr knew that they were right.

“Guess they do come up this far,” Yorrin murmured.

“This could be bad, signori,” Giancarlo said. “If they have come to raid…”

“We will defend Yerevan against them,” Aleksandr said immediately. Alaina lives here.

Giancarlo grimaced. “Si, of course. But I must—”

“We know you won’t risk your skin,” Yorrin said. “If your wagon’s loaded, you’d better get back to the Silver Pine at the very least. We’ll find you.”

For a moment, Giancarlo looked like perhaps he was going to say something else. Then he closed his mouth and nodded at Yorrin. He turned to the porters and began rattling off orders to them.

Aleksandr kept watching the ship. He laid one hand on Kholodny, though there was no real reason to. He saw the armed man in Bogdanov’s colos scurrying off in a panic, no doubt to sound an alarm. If there was an attack imminent, Yerevan’s dock was full of victims and precious few defenders.

But the ship was not approaching the dock directly. It stayed well out in the middle of the Ironblood, even as it grew closer. Once it was directly across from the docks, the rowers worked to keep it steady. Aleksandr saw the men on deck drop down a weighted chain, and the ship began listing against the river’s lazy current.

“You think they intend to attack?” Yorrin asked.

“I do not know,” Aleksandr said. “If they do, their window for a surprise strike is closing fast.”

“Agreed. Seems like they have something else in mind.”

“Da. Even so, we must be careful. Stay on guard. Perhaps we should have sent someone for the others.”

“Prudence should bring them as soon as they’re able,” Yorrin said.

Of course. Aleksandr did not question the assertion. It is good to have Yorrin at my side. Our strengths and skills have little in common, but they complement each other well.

“Definitely Svards, you think?” Yorrin asked. “Never seen a Svardic longship before. Thought they were… Not sure. Smaller.”

“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Definitely Svards. Though… a Svardic Longship? I am not sure. Perhaps a galley? Could be either, I do not know sea vessels well enough to say. Either way, looks as though it can hold a great many warriors. If they mean to attack, now is the time.”

 Instead, it held position in the middle of the Ironblood for some time. Aleksandr saw movement on deck, but it was far enough that he couldn’t make out exactly what they were doing until they lowered a small boat into the water. A half dozen men climbed down a rope ladder into the boat, and began rowing towards Yerevan.

They were in no hurry. By the time they had arrived, the crowd on the dock had grown many times over—curiosity seemed to be beating out fear. To Aleksandr’s relief, ten of Bogdanov’s druzhniks arrived as well, led by Boris himself. They formed up around the docks, blades and shields in hand. They would not hold against the full force that was likely aboard the ship, but against just six men Aleksandr assumed they would be quite effective.

Better still, Aleksandr heard a crash of hoofbeats approaching fast behind him. Dylan was the first to dismount, but a quick glance confirmed that he had brought all of the company—Steelshod. All of Steelshod—with him.

They fanned out behind Aleksandr.

“Is Svards?” said Bear. “I never killed Svard before.”

“Me neither,” Robin said.

Bear rolled his eyes. “You not kill much, Robin. You going talk Svards to death?”

“Sure,” Robin said, unperturbed. “I ever tell you about the time I convinced a man to jump off a cliff?”

“The Svards are all deadly warriors, or so I’ve heard,” said Orson, ignoring Robin’s banter.

“Aye, I’ve heard that too,” said Cam. He scratched his beard.

“Does not look like many,” Anatoly said. “Skilled warrior or no, I think we can take six men.”

“Alright, that’s enough,” Dylan said. He raised his voice to be heard over the others. “Eyes forward.”

Aleksandr was pleased to hear the chatter die down. Dylan does not have enough faith in himself, he thought. But he has the strength to be a good leader, if only he can get past his own doubts.

The boat finally reached the small dock. It pulled up alongside and one of the Svards hopped off into the water. He clambered onto the dock, grabbed a mooring rope, and tossed it back to another man who promptly tied off the boat.

Boris and his druzhniks stepped forward as the Svards disembarked.

“Ruskan? Middish?” he called, each word in its own tongue.

“Either,” rumbled a voice from the center of the Svards. The voice spoke Ruskan with a light accent. “Both,” it added in Middish.

The Svards parted, and one man strode ahead of them.

He was dressed as rough as any of them. Mail, wool, and leather. A sword hung from his side. The other five men carried shields, but this one did not. He looked older than the rest of them: his brown hair was salted with a great deal of gray. The hair itself hung in a long tangle of locks, past his shoulders. His beard was just as long, twisted into at least a half dozen cords. Each one was tied with small strips of black leather, or perhaps some sort of plant fibers.

“Middish, then,” Boris said. Aleksandr was unsurprised—nearly every Ruskan in Yerevan seemed to speak Middish, and not every Middishman spoke Ruskan.

“As you like,” the man said. He stopped short a few paces from Boris.

Aleksandr tightened his grip on Kholodny. He was not sure he was close enough to intervene if things took a turn, but he would try nonetheless.

“Who are you? What is your business in Yerevan?” Boris asked.

The man stood tall, chest forward. He raised one open hand, palm out. The hand was rough, callused, and marked with dozens of scars.

“I am called Hakon, High Priest of Vlar, Seeker of Deep Knowledge, Jarl of Raumsdair, and Herald of Vlarrøk.

His voice carried across the crowd easily, though he did not seem to speak loudly. Aleksandr heard each word clearly. Hakon’s voice was deep, but there was a a closed nasal quality in the way he pronounced Middish.

“And why have you come here, Hakon?” said Boris. “Do you bring war to Rusk?”

Hakon cocked his head to the side, squinting at Boris with blue-gray eyes the color of sea ice. “War?” he said. He sounded perplexed. “Why would I bring war?”

“We’ve heard what you Svards are doing along the coast,” Boris said. Boris was a soldier. Not a man to mince words. Aleksandr did not feel kinship with the man, but this much at least he respected.

“In Caedia,” Hakon said. “Ja. Yes. The Taerbjornsen has come to Caedia, and he will be its doom. That has been foreseen.”

“Well then,” Boris said. His voice grew a shade more stern. “If you haven’t come here to bring war to our city, I say again: Why are you here?”

Hakon smiled a thin smile, barely visible beneath his tangled beard. That smile made Aleksandr’s blood run cold.

“To bring to your people the words and wisdom of Vlar,” he said. “So that your fate might be different.”