“There is no room in the motherland for third sons. Go. Make your name, or break it. But go.”
The words still echoed in Aleksandr’s head some nights. His grandfather’s voice, telling the hard truths that others might not want to face.
Facing hard truths. Truths like I don't know what I'm doing here. Aleksandr drew his blankets tight against his body. Leaned against the hard tree trunk at his back. The snowfall was light, drifts no more than a foot high.
Back in Rusk, snow this light, at this time of year, would be the sign of a warm and easy winter. Here, south of the Barriers, they saw it a bit differently. He'd been away less than a year, and already he wondered if he was forgetting what it meant to be Ruskan.
He'd crossed hundreds of miles of the homeland, meeting with the bayards and selling his sword. Or, as the case often was, not selling it. Slaughtering unruly peasants, fighting the barbarians of the Steppes, border disputes between bayards that inevitably led to brother slaying brother— none of it held much appeal.
So he crossed the Barriers, passing the border into Torathia. And he found most Torathian lords much the same as the Ruskan ones. Petty disputes, pointless conflicts, fighting, killing— for what?
His fire had died some time ago. Nearby, Dascha stood rigid beneath heavy layers of blankets. Tethered to the tree, the stallion's breathing came in the rhythm of sleep. Aleksandr looked up to see the moon shining through the clouds. Still an hour until midnight. He shifted his position again, pulling the blanket close, and tried to sleep.
A crackle in the snow. Not far away. Very faint, but there. He cracked open an eyelid and saw something moving in the darkness. Man-shaped, creeping closer.
Quiet. Terrifyingly so. A night like this, the snow should have formed an icy shell that cracks at the slightest pressure. Beneath the blankets, Aleksandr's hand went to grip the hilt of Kholodny.
"Take it," said his father, Bayard Valentin Kerensky.
"Father, I cannot," Aleksandr protested. "You know that."
"I know what I know. Take the blade."
"Father, Kholodny must go to Artyom. He is firstborn, your heir, he—"
"Your brother will inherit Pripia and all of its lands and peoples. My heir, as you say. But Kholodny goes where I say it goes. Artyom is shrewd and will rule well. But he is not a fighter. Pick up the sword, Alek."
The leather on the sword's grip was worn thin. Aleksandr felt the metal beneath, cool in his hand.
The shadow-shrouded man reached Dascha. Aleksandr saw a glimmer of moonlight reflect in his hand.
"Careful," he said, without moving. "He bites."
The man started, cursing under his breath. As if in reply, Dascha snorted. A low rumbling sound of contempt.
"You're awake," the man said.
"That makes this... awkward."
"Da," Alekandr agreed.
"Your accent— Ruskan?"
"That means yes?"
"Da." Aleksandr smiled.
"How did you hear me? I was quiet as a mouse."
"Perhaps," Aleksandr said. "Mice... they make noise, in Rusk. Is same here, da?"
The man actually laughed at that. "They do," he agreed.
"Well then," Aleksandr said.
A moment of silence passed between them.
"I don't want to kill you," the man suddenly blurted out.
"And I do not wish to kill you," Aleksandr said. "So let us go our ways. How you say… peacely?"
The man sighed. “Don't normally do this— robbing folks on the road. But I'm here now, and I’m not leaving empty-handed," the man said. "Not tonight."
"If you are thinking to steal from me, is not what is inside your hands you should worry on," Aleksandr said. “Will you leave with hands? That is question.”
He still leaned against the tree, blanket covering most of his body. He heard a crunch in the snow, as the man slowly moved around Dascha. He wisely gave the rear of the warhorse a wide berth.
"Bold words," said the thief. "Especially from a man hiding under the covers."
The man stepped forward, past the dead campfire. He studied Aleksandr, taking his measure. Aleksandr did the same.
The fellow was small. Aleksandr, despite looking upwards from his seat on the ground, found it hard to believe he was much taller than five feet. His hair hung unevenly across his brow, filthy and matted. Clad in tattered wool and leathers, an unstrung bow tied over his back. An iron dagger gleamed in his hand.
Nothing more than a common thief.
Aleksandr kicked off the blankets, lurching to his feet and sliding Kholodny free of its scabbard in one motion.
He felt a bit of gratification, as the easy confidence drained from the man's eyes.
Aleksandr towered above him: six feet of broad, solid muscle. The heaviest pieces of his armor were stashed in Dascha's saddlebags, but he still wore a shirt of mail over his woolen clothes. And then there was Kholodny.
He gripped the sword in both hands, a confident stance he'd taken hundreds of times. Even in the pale moonlight the blade glimmered—pale, silvery metal, limned with dark ripples.
True steel was a rarity in this day. And it was worth more than the horse, the mail, and every other item in Aleksandr's possession.
Though Aleksandr protested, he held Kholodny aloft, feeling the weight and perfect balance of the blade.
"I provide for my sons, Alek," Valentin said. "Artyom will have Pripia, and the duties and privileges of a bayard. To Vasily, I have given an introduction to the Tsar's court. He is nothing if not likeable, and I know he will do well. You will walk a different path. You will walk it alone, and it will take you far from here. So you will take the Kerensky blade. You will wield it with honor, courage, and discipline. Do you understand?"
Aleksandr tightened his grip on the hilt of the sword. He swallowed, met his father's eyes.
"Yes, father. I understand."
The would-be brigand eyed Aleksandr warily.
"That's a nice blade," he said.
"You do not wish to see it closer."
The man nodded. "I believe you."
"You meant to rob me," Aleksandr said. Not a question.
"You had something I needed."
"Da, I had something," Aleksandr replied. "Not yours. There are other ways to earn your coin."
The little man shrugged. "Earning's not exactly what I had in mind, Ruskie."
"So now, what is plan?" Aleksandr asked. "I told you go. I give you one last chance. Go."
The man seemed to consider this. "I start running. Then you hop on that big beast of yours and ride me down? No thanks."
Aleksandr frowned. "I would not do this thing."
"Uh huh," the man said, nodding. "Course not."
"I mean it. And of two of us, you are not one to assume—hmm, what is Middish?—moral betterness."
The man stood his ground, looking Aleksandr up and down.
Aleksandr sighed. "If you do not trust me, then what is next step?"
"For now? I'm just admiring that beautiful blade. And trying to decide if you really know how to use it."
Aleksandr narrowed his eyes. "Do not test me, little man."
The man smiled a small, crooked smirk. Some of his confidence was returning. "Too late for that, Ruskie. I'm mostly done with my tests anyway. You're soft."
Aleksandr's brow shot up at that. "I am... soft?"
"As a baby's bottom. I tried to steal your horse. I've threatened you, at least twice. And here I am, unarmored, with just a little purse-cutter at hand. You're bigger than me, dressed in mail, with a God-damned-beautiful sword that outreaches me by an armspan.
"You could've cut me down, or tried, but no. There you stand, tryin' to talk me into running away. Tryin' to avoid a fight. Because you're soft."
Aleksandr nodded his head. "Perhaps you are right, little man. I have killed men. In battle. But I am not liking it, da? You are, as you say, unarmored. Not much armed. Dirty, small, skinny. Hungry, I think. Cold, very much."
The man glared, already seeing where Aleksandr's words would go.
"A sad little creature," Aleksandr continued. "What honor or glory would be for slaying you? It would be sad thing. I would shake my head over your corpse, tsk my tongue, and leave you for crows. Is what you want? If so, I will grant this wish."
Aleksandr shifted Kholodny into a proper guard stance and spaced his feet apart on the icy ground.
"Make up your mind, thief. I give you one last chance. Run: live. Fight: die."
The man swallowed, his eyes narrowed to hard, dark glints in the moonlight. Aleksandr saw him tighten his grip on the dagger.
Then he spun around and sprinted off through the snow. His feet crunched in the ice, and Aleksandr watched as he ran for the lightly forested ground a quarter mile to the west.
Aleksandr couldn't help but laugh. His heart was pounding, his body having prepared for the possibility of a life-or-death fight. Now that energy drained out of him in the form of deep, booming laughter. He did not rush to mount Dascha and ride the man down. Let him live. Perhaps he would rob someone else. Perhaps he would turn his life around. As a stranger here, it was not Aleksandr's place to care.
Aleksandr sheathed Kholodny and rolled up his blankets. He would not sleep here, not with the possibility that the man would come back later in the night. He packed up his meager little campsite, loaded Dascha up.
Aleksandr frowned when he handled Dascha's saddlebags. Several small side pouches had been slit open. He was missing a purse of Torathian shekels and a handful of useful but non-essential tools: flint, whetstone, oil.
The little man. He must have done it while he stood beside Dascha. While they spoke. As annoyed as Aleksandr felt, he couldn't deny that it was cleverly and quietly done. The man had quick hands, that much was clear.
Aleksandr went to mount his warhorse, and paused. He examined Dascha's saddle. There. A strap on the girth was cut. It might hold up at a walk, or a trot, but a hard gallop would put the whole saddle askew. And, most likely, send Aleksandr face-first into the ground. If he were lucky. Unlucky, and he would be tangled, dragged some distance.
Very clever. If Aleksandr was the type of man this fellow seemed to think he was, he may well have broken a bone at the cost of his pursuit. Or worse.
It took only a few moments to tie an extra length of leather to the strap. It wouldn't hold for too long, but Nasarat was no more than an hour or two away. It would do well enough.
He considered following the man's tracks in the snow. But he did not know the woods here, and a man like that surely would. The man had carried a bow on his back and Aleksandr did not relish an ambush at range. Especially in the dark of unfamiliar territory.
Replacing the goods would be a nuisance, but it was just coin in the end. He still had more coin, buried deeper in his bags.
No. It was not worth risking his life over. Barely worth killing over, if he was being honest with himself. He wondered if the little man's words were right. Was he soft? He had not thought so, back home. He trained as hard as anyone, wielded Kholodny with skill and confidence.
But he didn't like the killing. Not the way some of the druzhniks he'd served with had, when he sold his sword to Ruskan bayards on his way south. If he were hunting vicious brigands, or a man was trying to kill him first, he wouldn’t hesitate. But he wouldn’t relish it. It was why he'd been reluctant to sell his sword-arm here, in Torathia.
He put the thoughts out of his mind as he rode. The moon still shone, but it was dark enough that he ought to keep his focus on the road.
He had almost ridden through to Nasarat in the first place, but night fell with the city still out of reach. And one last night beneath the stars seemed nice. But now, he didn't trust that the little man wasn't still out there. Watching, waiting for him to go back to sleep.
He now rode until he saw the sparkling lights of Nasarat rise into view. There was an inn with a stable on the outskirts of the city, outside the walls. It was a simple thing to wake the innkeeper and the stableboy. He dug payment out of the depths of his saddlebags. The innkeeper wrinkled his nose a little at the unfamiliar coin, a silver denga from the motherland. But coin was coin.
Dascha was given oats and a berth in the stable. Aleksandr laid out his bedroll on the floor of the common room.
There were a few other men scattered throughout the common, all fast asleep. The air was warm, if a little stale. Most importantly, four walls and a roof reassured him that the little man from the road would not accost him a second time.
He pulled the blanket over him, feeling the weight of Kholodny close against his body. His eyelids were heavy. When they closed, sleep claimed him immediately.