It was on the fourth day of travel that things nearly unraveled.
Yorrin had opened up again after that first day on the road. Aleksandr skirted around their interactions, avoiding any direct confrontations. Instead, he simply listened as Yorrin told him bits and pieces of his life in Nasarat. The culture in Torathia was strange enough to Aleksandr, but life as a criminal was stranger still.
Aleksandr spoke a little of Pripia—of his family, of why he left—and, inevitably, of the incredible honor and duty that was Kholodny.
“So if you don’t get that sword back, you’re a disgrace to your family?”
They were still on the Cassaline road. Passing through a forest of evergreens, boughs laden with snow. They were walking again, giving Dascha a rest.
“Da. Is much worse than this, really. If I do such a thing, is disappointment to father, grandfather, all Kerensky house. I could never return to Pripia. Or Rusk, I think.”
Yorrin let out his breath in an incredulous sigh. He shook his head.
“I don’t get it.”
“Is nothing to ‘get,’ Yorrin.”
“Is so. You take this ‘honor’ stuff seriously. Never really believed any of you nobles did, not really. But you do. You’ve put it all on the line. Your honor, your family, your home. For a stranger.” Yorrin laughed, a single chuckle punctuating the sentence. “Not just a stranger: A thief! A liar.”
Aleksandr mulled over his next words carefully. “If I did not have honor enough to defend you,” he said, “what worth is honor? Is a hard question, but also… not so hard. Truth, honor, nobility. Is for all times. Otherwise, is meaningless. Da?”
Aleksandr heard the snow crackle in the woods to his right.
Yorrin scratched his chin. “Sounds nice,” he admitted. “But—”
Aleksandr held up a hand, silencing him.
Yorrin froze, eyes meeting Aleksandr’s. Wordlessly, Aleksandr gestured towards the sound. Another crackle as ice and snow crunched underfoot. Something large, and too close to the road to be a deer. A man. Maybe more than one. Out of sight, just off the path, plenty of cover around. And no other living souls for miles.
His hands went to Dascha’s saddlebags. He passed Yorrin his unstrung hunting bow and a couple of arrows. In that moment, Aleksandr sorely missed Kholodny. He wrapped his hand around his woodcutting axe. In the time it had taken him to grab it, Yorrin ducked off the road.
Aleksandr swung himself into the saddle. He kept the axe low, partially hidden behind Dascha’s massive frame. He looked towards the sound he had heard.
“Hello!” He called out. “Who is there?”
Birds scattered from the trees at the sudden sound. Empty silence reigned over the woods.
Aleksandr trotted Dascha forward. He heard a crackle in the snow again. This time when he looked to the sound he saw men.
Three fellows stepped out from behind the trees. They looked much as he might have expected. They wore faded woolen rags, caked with dirt. One of the men carried a spear, another a thick tree branch carved into a cudgel. The last was the most dangerous: a bowman, arrow nocked. Aleksandr saw only two more arrows in a rather deflated quiver.
“Hail, Ruskie,” said the man with the spear. He grinned, but there was no mirth in it.
“I want no trouble.”
“Trouble’s found you,” replied the spearman. “Where’s the other one? The little fellow?”
“I am alone,” Aleksandr said. “And I give you this chance, now: Go. Please.”
The spearman chuckled. The other two joined in after a beat.
“Don’t think we will just yet, Ruskie. That’s some fine gear you’ve got. Nice lookin’ armor. Good horseflesh.”
“Is not for you. Best if you go. This armor, this warhorse, is because I am druzhnik. Knight. I will kill you.”
“Reckon not. David! Simon!”
Another man, also a bowman, emerged from the woods on the opposite side of the road. A fifth man with him, his spear looked like a scythe beaten out of shape.
This was not good.
The new bowman gestured over to the woods where Aleksandr and Yorrin had separated. “Other one’s over there somewhere. He ain’t mounted. We can find him after we kill this one.”
Aleksandr breathed in deeply. Exhaled. His grip tightened.
“Well then, Ruskie. You’re outnumbered. So—”
Aleksandr did not let the spearman finish. These men were used to intimidation. Talk, talk, talk. Scare the traveler into giving up without a fight.
Aleksandr urged Dascha into action with his heels, and the warhorse wheeled for the two new men. They were closer to where Yorrin was probably hiding. The spearman’s words turned to shouts of surprise. Aleksandr braced himself, felt something clatter past his back. Either the arrow had not pierced his mail, or he was too excited to feel the pain.
The bowman facing him stared at Aleksandr, eyes wide and white. He loosed his arrow, but it went wide. The man with the scythe-spear moved to interpose himself. A bad idea. He was no soldier, and this was no spearline. He faltered as Dascha thundered closer. Aleksandr leaned forward, sweeping his long-handled axe out in front of him. He beat the spear out of position by just a few inches. More than enough. Dascha smashed through the man like he was a small shrub. The bowman drew a second arrow, but struggled to nock it. Aleksandr swung his axe as Dascha passed. The bowman screamed.
He wheeled around. The man with the scythe had collapsed in the snow, a tangle of blood and broken bones. The bowman was on his knees, left hand weakly probing at his right shoulder. Aleksandr had nearly taken off the arm. Blood streamed down in steady pulses.
He felt no joy, but to say he did not feel the exhilaration of battle would be a lie. Aleksandr’s pulse pounded in his ears. He looked past these two men, no longer threats, to assess the rest of the field.
The man with the cudgel leaned against a tree, holding his belly and moaning. An arrow stuck out between his fingers, more than half its length vanished into his guts. He sagged against the tree, blood pouring in a steady stream onto the white snow. But the other two men were out of sight. Aleksandr heard the sound of a scuffle and urged Dascha forward to see past the trees.
Yorrin had his back to a tall, wide evergreen. He held the bow like a staff, swinging it wildly only just barely keeping the spearman at bay. The bowman stood a dozen paces behind the spearman, trying to decide between shooting Yorrin or watching for Aleksandr. When Aleksandr and Dascha came into view he pulled back the string of the bow. He shouted a warning to the spearman, who then backed away from Yorrin at an angle, so that he could put both enemies into view.
“You have lost,” Aleksandr said. “Yield.”
“Reckon not,” the spearman replied. “Got your little manservant, don’t I? You yield!”
Aleksandr sighed. The axe felt heavy in his hand. “This will not happen.”
“Tell you what,” the spearman said. “You just dismount that big beast. Step away from it, we back off of your fellow here, we take the horse, and you both keep your lives. Nobody needs to yield to nobody.”
“And your friends?” Aleksandr asked. He nodded towards the man with the arrow in his gut.
The spearman shrugged. “Rough deal. Nothin’ for it. They won’t survive with wounds like those.”
The bowman’s arm shook with strain, and he loosened his grip on the bow. He kept the arrow nocked.
“Very well,” Aleksandr said.
He dismounted. Walked at an angle, away from Dascha and the bandits both. The bandits looked a little surprised he'd given in so easily, but they moved quickly towards the horse.
“Aleksandr…” Yorrin said, shock in his tone.
Aleksandr just shook his head. The bandits reached Dascha, and the bowman stowed his arrow and shrugged the bow over his shoulder. He went to mount Dascha, grabbing awkwardly at the saddle’s pommel.
He screamed a moment later, when Dascha reared up and smashed both hooves into the poor fellow’s face.
The spearman stared, dumbfounded, for a long moment. By the time he gathered his wits, Aleksandr had descended upon him. He slammed the axe into the man’s back. The bandit went down face-first in the snow. Aleksandr yanked out the axe and brought it down once more, silencing the man’s screams.
He left the axe planted in the man’s back. Stepped over to Dascha, and leaned against the familiar warmth of the stallion. He pressed his hand to Dascha’s nose.
“God damn, Aleksandr,” Yorrin said from behind him.
Aleksandr glanced at his traveling companion. Yorrin was uninjured, but he looked pale. Aleksandr looked around the area once more. The injured men had collapsed. Likely the spearman had been right. Their wounds were not the type one easily recovered from.
The smell of blood and emptied bowels hung heavy in the air.
“Yorrin,” Aleksandr finally said. “We should go.”
“Sure, but we ought to search ‘em first,” Yorrin said. “Pocket whatever tools or coin they’ve got.”
Aleksandr shook his head. “Is not seemly, Yorrin. Come.”
“I’ll do it,” Yorrin said. “We at least ought to gather the arrows. In case we need them again.”
Aleksandr almost disagreed, but Yorrin was right. He simply did not have the heart to wander the area, stripping the dead. He nodded.
Yorrin was quick and efficient, moving from corpse to corpse and relieving them of anything useful. Before long he rejoined Aleksandr and they got underway. They left the dead where they had fallen. The beasts of the woods would tend to them soon enough.
They traveled on foot again. After they had put a bit of distance between themselves and the battle, Yorrin broke the silence.
“You didn’t want to kill those men.”
“But you did it anyway.”
Aleksandr sighed. “Da. They left no choice.”
“You charged the two that were closer to me. And then at the end you played them, got them off of me.”
“Hell, you could’ve just left me,” Yorrin said. “Ridden off. Not like they could’ve caught up.”
“I would not do this thing.”
Yorrin nodded, a smile flickering across his face. “Yeah,” he said. “I believe it.”
Aleksandr wasn’t sure how to reply to that. “Good,” was all he said.
Another silence lulled.
“When we finish this business—find Cross-Eyed Pete, I mean—when we drag him back to Nasarat to prove my innocence…”
Aleksandr stopped walking. He met Yorrin’s eyes. “What is it, Yorrin?”
Yorrin swallowed. “Do you—do you think you’d like a companion? To help you on the road, I mean? A manservant, like those fools thought I was.”
“A manservant?” Aleksandr’s brow furrowed. “You wish to be this? For me?”
Yorrin shrugged. “I don't know. Maybe not. But it’s better than thieving. You said—a man could have a better life than lying and stealing.”
“Da. Is true.”
“So. Do you think—ah, nevermind,” Yorrin said, shaking his head. He started walking again.
Aleksandr did not walk after him. Yorrin stopped. Looked back.
“Manservant,” he said, “Is not a thing I need. No.”
Yorrin sighed. Nodded. “Alright then.” He began to turn around when Aleksandr spoke again.
Yorrin stopped. He looked back one more time.
“Friend,” Aleksandr said again. “This is something I could use. I have none in this place. Is good enough for you?”
Yorrin smiled. It was a cocky, self-satisfied smile. Though they had only known each other a few days, it was becoming a familiar expression.
“Yeah,” Yorrin said. “I think that’d do.”