No, not pirates.
As it turned out, pirates were very much the brigands of the open water. That's what Yorrin had always heard they were, of course. But he'd never really considered the matter very closely. Pirates, like brigands, went for weak targets: Ships that looked like they'd be easy pickings. Fat cargo, minimal defenders, that sort of thing. So it really shouldn't have shocked anyone that they were decidedly less interested in waylaying a ship laden with soldiers and sellswords.
I'd have thought that was common sense, thought Yorrin. Low risk, high reward. That's just basic thievery.
But the ship that employed Aleksandr,and by extension Yorrin, didn't seem to understand. They'd sailed up and down the trade routes of the Encircled Sea for a solid week, with nothing to show for it. Barely even any silver, since they received only a tithe-wage on any day there was no fighting.
Now they found themselves on the northern coast, in the Volhynia region of southern Rusk. This marked the first time Yorrin had ever set foot inside Rusk. Though Aleksandr claimed that calling the Volhynia "Rusk" was something like calling the distant kingdom of Kirkworth a part of Torathia. They were neighbors—sharing some culture, language, and people—but the Volhynia was its own land.
Their ship had docked in the town of Ozu-Cale: a small port compared to Nasarat, but still big enough to get lost in. The style of architecture felt familiar, yet strange: the common structures were the same as anywhere, crude boxes made out of wood or clay bricks. But their more grand cultural structures seemed to favor domed ceilings and sweeping archways. The largest church they'd seen looked to be made of a dozen little towers, each with its own roof dome, but all the towers merged together into a single structure.
Aleksandr and Yorrin had been granted two days of "shore-leave," as the tyrannical shipmaster called it. Yorrin had been pleased to find that many residents of Ozu-Cale spoke enough Middish to get by, and with that settled he'd blazed a trail across half a dozen of the town's seaside taverns. Ruskan beer, or Volhynian beer, or whatever you wanted to call it, tended towards dark and bitter. Just the way he liked it, though Aleksandr didn't seem to share his enthusiasm.
"Come on, Aleksandr, give it a taste at least!" Yorrin insisted. He thrust the tankard in his friend's face.
"Is a common Kyevan Dark, Yorrin," Aleksandr said. "Is nothing special. No, thank you."
Yorrin shrugged. "Fine, fine. More for me." He took a swig.
"Please to be careful," Aleksandr cautioned. "Do not get drunk."
"Psh," Yorrin scoffed. "S'fine."
"It may be stronger than what you are used to, is all."
Yorrin nodded. It definitely was at that. His face felt flushed, and his limbs were feeling loose and wiggly. Not a bad feeling, but the wise thing to do would be to call it a night.
He took another swig, draining the cup. "I'll be alright," he said. "C'mon, let's hit one more place, yeah?"
Aleksandr sighed. "Very well. But only one more, da? Is last stop, then we sleep."
"Da da da," Yorrin replied, tossing some copper gir on the table beside his empty drink. So far, none of the bars in Ozu-Cale had balked at the Torathian coins. "Come on."
They swept out of the tavern and into the streets. The air was biting cold, though it hadn't snowed much in the past few days. A sheen of frost was beginning to form on any damp surface, though, including the muddy street. Their feet crunched through the thin layer of ice. Aleksandr whistled and Dascha emerged from where he'd patiently waited outside the tavern, falling into step behind them.
Up ahead, a couple of women stood beside the road. Pale skin, crimson lips, and ample cleavage spoke their intentions clearly. Still, they called out something in Ruskan. Yorrin kept his eyes straight ahead, until one of the women reached out and gently caressed his arm. He froze. The other woman had reached for Aleksandr, but he said something to her in Ruskan. Yorrin had no clue what was said, but he could tell it was a dismissal.
"Sorry," Yorrin said. "No thanks."
"Middish?" The whore smiled. She grabbed hold of Yorrin's arm. "Is good to me, Middish men is better bedding than men of the Volhynia! Come, little man. I thinking you not so little where it counts!"
Yorrin dug in his heels, and shook her hand off his arm. "Yes," he said. "I am. Sod off."
She frowned, spat a curse at him in Ruskan. He didn't recognize the words, but he knew curses when he heard them. In any tongue. He just rolled his eyes and kept moving. He heard Aleksandr fall into step behind him.
Yorrin took long strides, or at least long for him, putting some distance between them and the whores. After a moment, Aleksandr reached out and stopped him.
Yorrin shot him an annoyed look. "Yes?"
"Is alright? You seem, hm. Bothered?"
Yorrin shrugged. "It's fine. Let's just..." he looked ahead, to a tavern down the street. "You know what, let's just head back, yeah? Call it a night."
Aleksandr stared at Yorrin in silence. He studied him long enough that it started feeling uncomfortable.
Finally, Yorrin sighed. "What?"
"Am just trying to understand. What is troubling you? Is the women, or...?"
Whores, Yorrin thought. Not women.
"Is only... I am surprise, I suppose."
"Da, surprised. I am. The women, they seem to trouble you. But... they have such women in Nasarat, da?"
"Yeah," Yorrin agreed. Of course they do.
"I say no to them, because I am Kerensky. Such things are for marriage, da? Is only that I did not think you felt such a way."
Yorrin blinked, cocked his head. He stared at Aleksandr. "Since I'm not a noble, I'd jump at the chance to fall into bed with a whore? Is that what you thought?"
Aleksandr frowned. "Ah. No?"
"Yes it is," Yorrin said.
"Da," Aleksandr said, sighing. "Is what I thought. Was... unfair, I suppose."
"What is it you love to say, Aleksandr? That anyone can be noble, if they want? But not when it comes to whores?"
Aleksandr shook his head. "Was foolish of me. Yorrin, I am sorry. Many of my father's men, this was common practice for them. Is not, ah, shameful, for lowborn. In Rusk, anyway. I did not mean to insult."
Yorrin clenched his jaw. Swallowed. "Yeah," he said. "Not all that shameful in Torathia, either. I do what I do for me, not 'cause it's proper or somesuch."
"Do you wish to speak more? Or... we go back to ship?" Aleksandr asked.
"What's there to say? Aleksandr: I was born on the streets of Nasarat. Never knew my da. Lost my ma years before I grew my first chin hair. And that's all there is to say on it."
Yorrin turned and resumed walking towards the tavern. He wanted that last drink after all.
I won't make a bastard. The refrain had gotten Yorrin through his adolescence, when his blood pounded and the ladies of the night beckoned. It had become such second nature that he barely needed to think it any more.
Aleksandr followed in silence. He didn't question Yorrin for changing his mind again about getting another drink. A small kindness, but one that Yorrin appreciated.
Troubling thoughts and the biting cold in the air had cleared Yorrin's head somewhat by the time they entered the last tavern. The air was thick with smoke and the smell of burning wood, spices, and sweat. One look around the room suggested this was the sort of tavern that his kind of people would frequent. Dirty, rough, and the barkeep wore a wooden cudgel openly on his belt.
The place was fairly crowded. Yorrin recognized a pair of sailors from their ship, deep in their cups. There was a crowd of six men seated around a long table, and they drank and argued boisterously. And every so often one of them would stare over their shoulders, towards the corner of the room.
The man in the corner was, admittedly, eye-catching. He was huge, that much was obvious even sitting as he was. His hair was a tangled mass of dark brown, and his beard was similarly bushy and wild. He was dressed in heavy furs, his cloak clasped at his throat with bear claws. A heavy axe, its broad, bearded head a dull gray iron, leaned against his side.
Aleksandr and Yorrin declined food, and the barkeep gave them a choice of dark beer or mulled wine. Aleksandr took the wine, of course, and Yorrin decided to join him for once. They took seats, and Yorrin sipped the hot beverage cautiously. They used much the same spices here as they did in Nasarat, and he found the small differences pleasant.
Behind them, the huge man bellowed something in Ruskan. A barmaid rushed to attend to him, and Yorrin was pretty sure he heard the men at the long table grumbling.
"What's his deal?" Yorrin asked, nodding his head towards the big fellow.
Aleksandr frowned. "Is from the Steppes, I think. That accent. Da, the eastern Steppes on the edge of Rusk."
Yorrin thought for a minute. "Targan?" he said. "That's what you call 'em, yeah?"
"No. Or, da, but no. Targans are people of the Steppes. Wild, savage, but they raise good horseflesh."
"So where's the 'no' then?" Yorrin asked, confused.
"Is too much of Rusk in him. Targans have own language, darker skin, different people. But on the near Steppe, at edge of Rusk, is different. Barbarians there, too, but is more like him. Ruskan look, Ruskan tongue, only..."
"Different. Sure," Yorrin said. "Not many barbarians left in Torathia, but there're plenty in the western Midlands. So he's a Ruskie, sort of, but different enough that it's a problem."
Aleksandr nodded. "Da. Much problem. Barbarians of the Steppe fight Rusk for many years. Raid eastern Rusk."
"But we're not in Rusk," Yorrin pointed out.
"Raid Volhynia, too. And he is armed." Aleksandr's brow furrowed. "May be trouble, Yorrin."
The big barbarian grinned at the barmaid when she handed him a drink. He took a huge gulp, belched, and then waved at the crowd of men eying him from their table.
"Maybe," Yorrin agreed. "He seems friendly enough, though."
Aleksandr looked skeptical, but he didn't argue. Yorrin took a gulp of his wine, then set down his cup. "Let's introduce ourselves, how 'bout? See what he's about."
"Yorrin, is not a good—"
Yorrin stood up, and approached the barbarian. He heard Aleksandr mutter something in Ruskan before following.
"Hey! You speak Middish?" Yorrin asked the big fellow. He plunked himself down opposite the barbarian.
The man narrowed his eyes. "Da," he grumbled. "Little. Who you?"
"Name's Yorrin," Yorrin said, thrusting out his hand.
"Medviet." The barbarian's hand dwarfed Yorrin's, and his shake nearly wrenched Yorrin's arm out of its socket. He looked to Aleksandr, who had just approached behind Yorrin. "And you?"
"Aleksandr. You say your name is... Medviet?"
The barbarian nodded. "Da."
"Is a Ruskan word," Aleksandr said. "But you—"
Medviet chuckled. "Not Ruskan. Ruskan call me Medviet. Clan call me Ayuz." He looked at Yorrin. "Middish, something else."
"Not sure I follow," Yorrin said.
"Clan call me Ayuz. I am big, strong like Ayuz."
“Medviet, Ayuz, these words mean same thing, different tongues,” Aleksandr said. “Bear.”
The barbarian grinned.
“So your name is Bear?” Yorrin asked. “Just… Bear?”
“Da, is Middish word,” Bear agreed.
“Bear,” Aleksandr said. “You are far from homeland, da? Why?”
Bear shrugged. “Tired. Is word? Tired of thing. No fun.”
“Bored?” Yorrin offered.
“Da. Bored. Fight clans, bored. Fight Ruskans, bored. Fuck clan women, bored. Fuck Ruskan women, bored. All is bored.”
“Boring,” Yorrin said.
“You say bored, is bored!” Bear shouted, slamming a fist down on the table.
Yorrin jumped, but Bear just laughed. He wasn’t angry. It was just for emphasis. Or maybe to assert his own manliness.
“So you came to Volhynia to find something else to do?” Yorrin asked.
Bear shrugged. “Volhynians just Ruskans with silly hats. Still bored. More bored than all!”
Before Aleksandr or Yorrin could reply, Yorrin heard footsteps behind them. Then a voice spoke in Ruskan. A quick glance confirmed it was the group of six men from the table. They were fanned out, glaring at Bear. Yorrin had no idea what they were saying, but the lead man was cursing up a storm.
Aleksandr turned to the men, and he spoke to them in Ruskan. His tone was placating. Yorrin could just imagine:
Please, friend, he is not harming anyone. This need not end in violence.
Shut up, if you know what’s good for you. This barbarian savage isn’t welcome here!
Aleksandr’s voice grew more stern, and authoritative.
I will ask you one more time, gentlemen. Please let us resolve this amicably, and return to your drinks.
Their reply was terse. The Ruskan equivalent of: Get fucked!
Aleksandr sighed. Yorrin quietly slipped out of his seat, ducking to the side, keeping his head down. He was a small man, and he knew they wouldn’t pay much attention to him. Sure enough, when he twisted back around to watch as things finished breaking down he saw all six of the men staring at Bear and Aleksandr.
Bear just grinned. He downed the last of his beer, and stuffed the remaining chunk of gravy-soaked bread from his plate into his mouth. Then he shoved the table out of the way, lurched to his feet, and bellowed something with his mouth full. Yorrin didn't need to speak Ruskan to know a challenge when he heard it.
Bring it on, you ugly whoresons!
At least he didn’t pick up his axe.
The six men were unarmed. They were looking to hurt Bear, kick him into the street. Not murder him. They surged forward, trying to shove past Aleksandr. A stupid mistake, that. Aleksandr checked the first man, catching him and slamming him down onto the floorboards with a couple surprisingly fast, fluid motions.
The first two men to reach Bear regretted it almost instantly. The huge Ruskan barbarian clinched both of them at once, kicking their shins, grappling one under each arm, and finally slamming both of them into each other.
The brawl took a while to conclude. Yorrin only stepped in when it was necessary: kicking a man’s feet out from under him when he tried to suckerpunch Aleksandr, or pulling one of them back by the hair to distract them long enough for Bear to pick them up and toss them across the room.
The barkeep stayed back, watching, cudgel in hand. He clearly didn’t really want to tangle with a barbarian and a knight. Yorrin suspected that he was smart enough to have noticed the axe Bear left leaning against his chair, and the sword at Aleksandr’s side. They were clearly holding back. No need to antagonize them.
After a solid couple of minutes, things quieted down. The other patrons had fled. The six men were scattered across the floor, groaning. Bear had a bloody gash across his nose, a swollen eye, and a broad grin. Aleksandr seemed to have fared better, though he moved like he had a few bruises. Yorrin was untouched.
Aleksandr spoke to the barkeep, his Ruskan coming out in apologetic tones. A handful of coins exchanged hands. Yorrin relieved each of the battered men of a third of their purses, and he offered that to the barkeep as well. The fellow seemed to accept this, nodding appreciatively.
“We go,” Aleksandr said. “Before things are getting worse.”
“Aleksandr!” Bear roared. “Yorrin!”
They looked at him. The huge barbarian had picked up his axe, hooked the bearded head into his belt. He walked up to them.
“Da?” Aleksandr said.
Bear reached out and scooped both of them into a crushing embrace. “Good fight!” he said.
“You too,” Aleksandr said.
“Where you go?” Bear asked.
“Uh,” Aleksandr hesitated. “Torathia,” he said. “We have ship, to cross the Encircled Sea.”
“Not our ship,” Yorrin clarified. “We’re working for it. Protecting it from pirates. Not that we’ve seen any pirates.”
Bear nodded. “You fight on ship?”
“Not yet,” Yorrin said. “But yeah. Maybe.”
Bear nodded again. “Da, da. In Torathia, you fight?”
Aleksandr frowned. “Bear,” he said.
“You are asking to join us?”
Bear grinned. “Not bored!”
Yorrin chuckled. “That’s all you’re after, huh?”
“What is else? Life is fight, fuck, eat, drink. Have to make fun, da?”
“Is much more to life than that,” Aleksandr said. “No wonder you are so bored.”
Bear frowned. “You call me wrong?” The huge man clenched his hands into fists, and he loomed over Aleksandr menacingly.
Aleksandr met Bear’s glare with an expression of pure iron. Yorrin almost felt sorry for the big dumb barbarian.
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “You are wrong.”
Bear and Aleksandr locked stares for several long moments. Finally, Bear broke off, laughing uproariously. Aleksandr frowned.
“What is funny?”
“You!” Bear said. “Not bored. Very strong. Fast, too. Good to fight. I will like time together.”
“Together?” Aleksandr said. Yorrin kept his mouth shut, stifling another laugh.
“Da! We go to Torathia, across sea, you said.”
“We go to Torathia,” Aleksandr said, gesturing to himself and Yorrin.
Bear just nodded. “Da, good. Torathia. Bear is ready. Lead way!”
Aleksandr gave Yorrin a pleading look. Yorrin just shrugged. “Ship could probably use another sellsword,” he said. He started for the door. He knew Aleksandr and Bear would follow.
And you could use another man watching your back, Yorrin thought. Intervening to protect a total stranger? If we’re not careful, those morals are going to get you killed one day.