“False gods will not avail you. Whether you worship the eastern serpent or the pagan storm lord of Rusk, there is no power to be found in them. I come today to tell you of the Master of the Deep. Vlar, the Lord Beneath the Waves, is a true god. He lives in the Deep, but there is no place outside his grasp. His many limbs stretch across the world, and he will cast unbelievers into shadow.
“But to his followers, Vlar imbues great power. Strength of arm and spirit. Power to bring prosperity to our allies, and destruction to our foes. Even now, the kingdom of Caedia is learning the truth of this. That land has grown fat and indolent. They will not stand before us. It is the nature of the weak to yield before the strong.”
Hakon stood in a market square, flanked by two of his men that stood silent vigil over him. He did not stand on a raised platform, nor did he shout his sermon in great bellows. Instead, he stood calmly in a small clearing, with folk gathered around him. Hakon spoke in a conversational tone, but his voice easily carried to Alaina’s ears nonetheless.
He is drawing quite the crowd already, she noticed. I would not have thought a heathen priest would get so many takers. Maybe it’s just curiosity… most of these folk have never seen a Svard before, much less a Svardic priest. And Yerevan is a place of mixed faiths already. Perhaps they are more open to proselytizing than I had considered.
Hakon continued speaking to the crowd. “Caedia is the first. It will not be the last. The great serpent has gorged itself for years on the people of the Midlands and beyond. Now it lies still, too bloated to defend itself from Vlar. The time of slinking in shadows, of forked tongues and venom, has come to its end. Now is a time for iron and blood.”
“What, you mean to destroy Torathia itself?” called out a man from the crowd. His tone was mocking.
With good reason, Alaina thought. If these barbarians truly think they can challenge Torathia, half a continent away, they’re even more delusional than they seem. It’s an idea worth mocking.
“I do not come to destroy anything,” Hakon said, “I come to spread the word of Vlar to the unknowing. I come to bring wisdom, so that you may chart the right course in the coming days. Rusk is a land in the midst of a change, as the old gods bow before the new. It is a false choice. Perkun or Torath, either road leads to weakness. To destruction.”
“How do you figure?” asked another in the crowd. “Seems to me you’re the one talking out of both sides of your mouth. Destruction is coming, but not from you? Who from, then?”
The man looked rough around the edges. Not a city man or a merchant. Probably a traveler or maybe a tradesman from the outskirts of Yerevan. Definitely Middish from his accent. The crowd was perhaps three quarters Middish to one quarter Ruskan. That’s interesting. I wonder why that might be, or is it just coincidence?
“I am a messenger,” Hakon said. “A harbinger. Come to spread words and warnings. But the Taerbjornsen has come to Caedia. He will leave it a ruin.”
I recognize that voice. Alaina glanced a few feet down from her. Yorrin stood in the crowd, arms crossed over his chest. He was giving Hakon a look of utter disdain. He must have caught up with us recently. I can’t imagine he’d be willing to listen to much of this before he felt compelled to say something.
“The Taerbjornsen,” Hakon repeated the name. “The Jarl of Jarls. What your people might call a High King. Or perhaps an Emperor in the Cassaline style.”
“High King of what? Snow and rocks and bear shit?” Yorrin asked.
Hakon curled his lip in contempt. “You cloak yourself in ignorance and think that it is armor. Taerbjornsen has united the clans of Svarden and the northern wastes. He has united the kingdoms of Kriegany. He has assembled a great army the likes of which has not been seen in an age. And he will use that army to sweep away Caedia, and any other Middish kingdoms that stand against him.”
“Not ignorance or armor, actually. Though it is a nice cloak,” Yorrin acknowledged. “It’s new. Regardless, Torath will protect Caedia from your Tarry Barn Son and your squid god both.”
“Your faith is misplaced. Torath has no power. Torathia holds sway because of its armies and its wealth, but its armies have grown lazy and its wealth will not save it.” Hakon smiled a thin smile, one that made Alaina’s skin crawl. “You are farmers and peasants, not men of iron. So I will use language that speaks to you: Vlar has let the Midlands grow ripe, and now the Taerbjornsen has come to reap them.”
“You should kick them out,” Yorrin said to Dmitri Bogdanov.
It was a bold suggestion to make to a bayard. Not the least reason being that Yorrin wasn’t so much suggesting as he was simply telling the bayard what he ought to do. Alaina winced.
“Be careful,” said Sir Boris, glaring at Yorrin. “And mind your tongue.”
Dmitri waved his hand dismissively at his cousin. “It is fine. Speak your mind, little man. You think that we should deny these Svards lodgings in Yerevan?”
Yorrin shrugged. “You’re Torathi now, right? They’re heathens come to spread the word of their false god. Said as much the moment they climbed off their boat. That alone ought to be a good enough reason.”
“Proselytizing is not forbidden,” said the bayard.
“No, of course not,” Alaina said. “Else how could a path have ever been paved for my arrival?”
Dmitri nodded, smiling. “Mother Alaina understands,” he said.
“Even so, they’ve admitted that they’re in cahoots with the Svards attacking Caedia,” Yorrin said.
“Caedia is a neighbor by way of Zheleznaya Krovnaya, of course,” Bogdanov said. He seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “A good neighbor. We give and receive a great deal of trade with them. But we have no oaths of allegiance with King Edric. Caedia’s enemies are not Yerevan’s enemies.”
“And what of enemies of the Church?” Alaina asked.
Bogdanov swallowed nervously. Alaina felt some satisfaction at seeing it, but she did her best not to show it.
“Forgive me, Dmitri,” Alaina said. “I don’t mean to push you. But Yorrin has a point. Not just a heathen priest. Not just men invading Caedia. But a heathen priest in league with an army that has invaded Caedia… if they oppose Torath directly, that goes beyond nations and kings and alliances. Does it not?”
“Perhaps,” Bogdanov allowed. “But… Yerevan thrives because we do not pick fights, Mother. So far this man has just spoken a few words. His ship has not yet docked. He has but a few men with him. I hear that he only intends to walk the streets and speak. Forcing him out might be… needlessly provocative.”
What a coward, Alaina thought. But this is the man that you must work with, for a long time to come. Tread carefully.
“Very well,” she said with a smile. “Then we shall walk the streets as well, and listen.”
Alaina stepped forward from the crowd, moving to stand beside Yorrin. She felt Aleksandr’s presence still looming behind her, a silent ironclad figure that she hoped would serve to keep this conversation from growing too heated.
“You say you intend to ‘reap’ the Midlands, but you’ve sown nothing here,” Alaina said. “Reaping the toils of other men? In the Midlands we call such things cowardly and low. Are they esteemed, in Svarden?”
Hakon turned his smile to Alaina. “The weak exist to serve the strong. Such is the nature of life. In Svarden our fields are toiled by thralls. I think that it is the same in the Midlands, only we have not yet claimed those thralls.”
“So all men are your slaves, some just haven’t figured it out yet? That’s the wise words of your squid god?” Yorrin’s tone still held naked contempt. Alaina would not have put it quite the same way, but she appreciated Yorrin’s enthusiasm.
The crowd seemed to respond to it too. Discontented murmurs rippled through the folk surrounding Hakon.
“I do not need Vlar to tell me plain truths anyone can see with their own eyes,” Hakon said. “All men are not my slaves, little man. But they are likely to be someone’s slave. As I said, the weak exist at the pleasure of the strong.”
“You have a very limited view, Hakon,” Alaina said.
“Do I?” Hakon seemed amused, still wearing that same menacing smile.
Alaina felt a chill in the air. I’m imagining it.
“I’d expect nothing less from a heathen savage,” Yorrin scoffed.
“You call me savage,” Hakon said. “Very well. I say that what you call savage is little more than strength. You doubt my philosophy, but these very lands give the lie to your words. These people around us serve at the pleasure of their lord. He serves his master the Tsar.”
“I don’t,” Yorrin said. “Neither does she.” He gestured to Alaina.
It was clear Yorrin was feeling indignant at Hakon’s assertions, but Alaina feared he might be overstating his position. Hakon is obviously practiced at rhetoric, and Yorrin is not. If we aren’t careful, we could move the tenor of the crowd in Hakon’s favor.
“No, she serves another master. A church.” Hakon spat the word like an epithet. “The Church of Torath, false though it may be, is one of the strongest powers in the Midlands. As is the land that serves as the seat of that power.”
“You’re damn right,” Yorrin said. “Torathia has fangs, Hakon. I’d tread carefully, were I you.”
Oh dear, Alaina thought.
“Torathia—” she began to interject, but Hakon spoke over her. His voice carried, projected much louder than it seemed it ought to.
“Indeed,” he said. “Torathia is strong, in its way. Your Church is strong. How many kingdoms pay tribute to the Church? How many times has Torathia invaded the Cassaline Empire and broken its dreams of conquest? The Torathians have projected their strength across the Midlands and the south for generations. And now they turn to the north as well, in the form of a pretty face speaking honeyed words.” He gestured to Alaina.
This man is very well educated, for a “savage,” Alaina thought. He speaks Ruskan and Middish, and he clearly knows his history. Where did a heathen priest from the far north learn so much?
The crowd was mixed, but seemed to be growing a lot less hostile to Hakon than Alaina had hoped they would be.
“You speak quite eloquently,” Alaina said. “For a man that has come to tell us of an unprovoked war his people are waging. And not just a war against Caedia, it seems, but a Holy War against Torathia itself.”
“It is true that war is holy in Vlar’s eyes. All war. Tests of strength, of mettle, are how men prove their divine right to rule. But I bear you no particular hatred, priestess. I simply see the world clearly. I am not your enemy. There are far more dangerous things out there than the Taerbjornsen and his armies. Your people are too soft, too fragmented, too weak to survive the days ahead. Only I—only we—have the strength to do what must be done.”
“You’re delusional,” Alaina said. “And I think you will find that there is a great deal more strength in the people of the Midlands than you expect.”
“It would be a welcome surprise,” Hakon said. “I suppose we shall see.”
Hakon reached down to his belt and drew out a long, curved dagger. A few hushed whispers rippled through the crowd. Alaina blinked in surprise, and she heard a clank of metal behind her as Aleksandr stepped forward.
Hakon’s guards stepped forward as well, but he waved them back. He seemed unconcerned by Aleksandr. Instead, he held up his left hand and gently ran the edge of his knife along his own palm. He wiped and sheathed the blade in a few smooth motions. He clenched his left hand into a fist, and blood began trickling down his forearm.
“Hard to act superior when you’re doing heathen black arts like that,” Yorrin observed.
“Hardly,” Hakon said. “No black arts. Just a simple consecration by Vlar. It has been good speaking with you, priestess. I feel I have learned a little about you and your god. Perhaps you have learned something as well.”
Hakon turned and strode away without waiting for a reply. His brutish bodyguards followed closely. The crowd moved to give him a wide berth as he passed, and Alaina saw that most of the folk were reluctant to look the Svardic priest in the eye.
The crowd remained uncomfortably silent for a long moment after he was gone. Alaina felt unnerved, her skin prickling with goosebumps. The air felt uncomfortably chill, where moments before it had been a comfortable spring day.
Aleksandr stood close beside her, a comforting presence. Yorrin was nearby as well, and comforting as well in his own way. The crowd began to disperse, a few muttered exchanges breaking the quiet.
“That was unpleasant,” Alaina said. “But not exactly unexpected.”
“The bastard’s openly admitting that he’s come to slaughter the faithful,” Yorrin said. “Is the bayard seriously going to insist on letting him stay, even now?”
“Most likely,” said Aleksandr. “Bayard Bogdanov is well known for being a peacemaker. Yerevan has not seen serious conflict in many years. He trades freely with all of his Middish neighbors. Many of his vassal bayards are—hm, not the same? Several of them have fought one another, and the Middish, many times. But Bogdanov, he is always trying to settle such things.”
“I can’t exactly fault him for it,” Alaina said. “For one, his policy has resulted in a great deal of prosperity for his people. For another, his liberal attitude was the direct cause of the Church establishing such a strong foothold here. He welcomes the Middish, and welcomed Father Iosif, with open arms.”
“That’s different,” Yorrin protested. “That’s the Church, Alaina. These heathens are barely above animals.”
The world must be so much easier for men like Yorrin, Alaina marveled. Simpler, if everyone who thinks sufficiently different from you is a monster to be defeated.
“I am not so sure of this, Yorrin,” Aleksandr said. “Especially for Bayard Bogdanov. He must be careful not to anger anyone, if he is to maintain his peace.”
“Bah,” Yorrin scoffed, but he didn’t press the issue.
“I doubt he will be persuaded, but I’d still like to go speak with Dmitri again,” Alaina said. “That man—Hakon—he gives me a very unsettled feeling.”
“Agreed,” muttered Yorrin.
“Da. We shall go now?”
Alaina nodded. “I think so.” She reached out and took one of Aleksandr’s gloved hands in her own, squeezing it. He squeezed back, and smiled at her.
“You two go on ahead,” Yorrin said. “Going to go meet with Olivenco. See you at the Silver Pine later tonight?”
“We might stay at the bayard’s keep,” Alaina said, trying not to smile too much. She squeezed Aleksandr’s hand again. At least I hope we shall.
“Ah. Right. Well, tomorrow then, yeah?” Yorrin looked mildly uncomfortable.
The poor man is so pent-up it’s a small wonder he’s as stable as he is. He really needs to find himself a woman, Alaina thought. Or perhaps a man? I wonder if that’s his problem?
Yorrin slipped away into the crowd, leaving Alaina to ponder his issues as she and Aleksandr made their way back to Bogdanov’s hall. Though she’d traveled with him for the same amount of time as she had Aleksandr, she felt that she knew Yorrin a great deal less. And not just for the obvious reasons. The man was friendly enough to her, but he clearly prized his privacy.
Perhaps it’s not a desire for privacy, exactly. It was not so long ago that he was a different man. Aleksandr has changed him, for the better as I understand it. He has left a life behind, and I think he’s still settling into this new one.
As they walked back to the bayard’s keep, Alaina felt as though the chill in the air had not lifted. Something niggled at the back of her mind, an unsettling sensation. She found herself leaning against Aleksandr, their hands still entwined. She hoped to dispel the sense of unease through their closeness.
He’s leaving soon, she reminded herself. And here you’ve done everything you swore not to do.
“Giancarlo will be ready to move on soon, won’t he?” She forced herself to ask the question. To face the unfortunate reality ahead of them.
“Da,”Aleksandr said. “Maybe another week, he says.”
“And then you’re on to Caedia? Not just to escort him.”
“Da. And… no. Not just that.”
“You intend to join the war. Defend Caedia against the Svards.”
“I do. We do, I mean. A mercenary company must find wars to fight. And this one…” Aleksandr paused.
“It’s worth fighting,” Alaina said for him. “I know. If I hadn’t known it already, Hakon has more than confirmed it.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said, nodding. “Exactly.”
“It makes sense,” she said. “Definitely a goal worthy of you, Aleksandr. And this odd company you seem to have gathered. Caedia would do well to hire Steelshod to help in its defense, I think.”
Aleksandr smiled. Alaina felt her insides flutter.
I will miss you, she said in the safe confines of her own mind. I will miss you so much. I didn’t mean to fall in love with you, but I went and did it anyway.
She swallowed, smiled back, and found her courage.
“I will miss you,” she said softly.
Aleksandr’s smile fell. He nodded. “Da,” he said, just as quietly. “I agree. I will miss you as well.”
“I love you,” she whispered, even quieter.
The smile came back, though she saw a rueful wince around his eyes. “Da,” he said. “This too.”
She laughed. “Are we fools, Aleksandr? We’ve only known each other a couple months. Is this… is it real? You have a life to live out there, and I have one here. We can’t change that. These feelings… they’ll fade.”
Aleksandr’s expression turned somber again. Even more than before. He turned to face her fully, oblivious of anyone else that might be on the streets around them. He clasped her hands in his.
“I do not have much experience with such things,” he said. “But I do love you, Alaina. Very much. And I will return. If this feeling ebbs while I am away, then it does. But… I do not think that it will.”
She kissed him. Aleksandr froze as she did, blinking awkwardly. Probably uncomfortable with doing so in the middle of the street, as she pulled her hands out of his and wrapped them around the back of his head. She ran her fingers through his short hair and pulled him tight into the kiss, and after another awkward moment he finally responded in kind.
She didn’t know how long it lasted. Her cheeks were flushed when it ended, and she felt floaty and comfortable all the way back to Bayard Bogdanov’s hall. She knew that they were probably making a mistake, but rarely had a mistake made her feel so incredible before.
The feeling faded a little when they entered the hall. It faded a little more when Dmitri Bogdanov listened to her without actually listening. Yes, he understood that High Priest Hakon was dangerous. Yes, his people were waging war against Caedia. Perhaps they even bore ill will towards the Church. But he had taken no aggressive actions here, and Dmitri was loathe to “start trouble” with the Svards.
A wasted hour later, her euphoria had evaporated completely. Worse still, Dylan came to ask Aleksandr’s help with some disagreement within the company. He promised to return later, but later had not yet come.
As night fell, Alaina found herself sitting alone in her chambers. She felt cold. Flames flickered in the hearth, but they only warmed the surface of her skin. The chill ran deeper than that.
Shadows danced in the corners of the room, and as the fire waned the shadows grew. Black tendrils stretched along the walls like a dozen grasping tentacles. Alaina’s skin prickled and her stomach churned as she stared at the wall.
Something is wrong, she realized. Something is very wrong.
The shadows grew closer. Her breath caught in her throat. Her heart was pounding in her ears.
She closed her eyes.
“God is wise,” Alaina whispered in Temple Torathi. “Let his wisdom guide me. God is kind. Let his kindness comfort me. God is strong. Let his strength lift me. And if he cannot, let him show me how to do it myself.”
She felt something come untangled deep inside of her. The chill dissipated, and she felt the glow of the hearth warm her face. She opened her eyes, and saw nothing more than a few dancing shadows cast by the dying fire.
Are you losing your wits, woman? Alaina wondered. Or was that real?
It had felt real enough. Something had been here in the room with her. For a moment, she feared it might be the essence of the Thaumati demon. But she had sensed nothing since the binding. Her work, and Borthul’s, had done the job. She was almost certain of it.
Besides, this felt different, she admitted to herself. Wrong, yes. But not Thaumati. Thaumaturgic energy is unmistakable. The intensity of it. It is a scream across the void, to those that can hear it. This was more of a whisper.
Another thought came to her then. A memory, of words she had heard not so long ago. Words spoken by a man with as much conviction in his god as Alaina had in hers. Conviction sealed in blood.
“He lives in the Deep, but there is no place outside his grasp. His many limbs stretch across the world, and he will cast unbelievers into shadow.”