Aleksandr rose from bed slowly. He moved with care, letting Alaina sleep. It was still early, and in truth it had been well past dark before Aleksandr had fallen asleep the previous night. But even so, he found himself awake the moment the sun’s rays began leaking through the window.
He dressed quietly. His leg still ached as he moved about Alaina’s quarters. I did not do a very good job “taking it easy” yesterday, Aleksandr realized with a smile.
More than just his leg ached. His back and shoulders had been worked hard at the forge, and Alaina had burned through his last dregs of energy before they slept. He did not regret any of it.
He dressed, feeling some relief as the weight of Kholodny settled on to him once more. The appearance of the blade still left him feeling somewhat disquieted—if father saw these foreign runes on his family’s blade he would not be pleased. Thaumati or Torathi makes little difference.
Still, Bayard Valentin Kerensky would be even more upset if his family’s sword had been claimed by a demonic entity, or was permanently destroyed. Aleksandr could only trust that his father would understand what had to be done, given the situation.
He hobbled over to where Alaina slept. The chamber had been warm through the night from the banked coals in the fireplace, and the blanket hung over her askew. Her skin was pale in the early morning light, and her black hair had fallen across her face in a messy tangle. Aleksand grabbed the blanket and pulled it up, covering her bared breasts. He leaned down to plant a gentle kiss on her brow.
Her eyes fluttered open. “Mm,” she murmured. “Aleksandr?”
“Alaina,” he said.
She blinked a few times, then seemed to focus on him. “You’re dressed? It’s morning?”
“Only a little,” Aleksandr said. “Sun has just risen. You do not need to wake.”
She frowned. “Then neither do you,” she said.
She reached out and tugged on the collar of Aleksandr’s gambeson. She pulled him down for a kiss. A proper one this time, a fierce kiss on the lips that left his head swimming.
“I—” Aleksandr swallowed. “There is much to do today,” he said.
“No doubt,” Alaina said, kissing him again. “There always is. I have many duties as well. Duties that will not vanish if I am an hour late leaving this room. Or two.”
“I must meet with the others,” Aleksandr said. “Plan our next—”
Alaina silenced him with another kiss.
When it ended, Aleksandr was not sure what he had been about to say.
Aleksandr limped into the Silver Pine several hours past sunrise. He saw his companions sitting about the common room, broken into several small groups. They were chatting and sipping ale. Clearly, they did not perceive Aleksandr to be late.
Yorrin was the first to notice his arrival. He stood up from his seat and approached. As he grew closer, Aleksandr’s attention was drawn to Yorrin’s attire. His clothes were threadbare and stained from their time on the road. His gambeson had been shredded open in numerous places, patched with crude stitch jobs Yorrin had likely done himself.
We should replace that, Aleksandr thought. The armor, at least, if not all of his clothes. His sword and dagger stand out as the only part of his kit that would look out of place on a common highway brigand.
“Aleksandr,” Yorrin said. “Everything alright?”
Aleksandr nodded. “Fine,” he said. After a momentary pause, he added “Why do you ask?”
Yorrin shrugged. “Just making sure. Borthul seemed to think he’d done the trick, but.. You stayed behind to work on your sword and never came back last night.”
“I stayed the night at the bayard’s keep,” Aleksandr said. He felt a blush creep into his cheeks, hopefully hidden by his beard. “It was late, when I finished honing Kholodny’s edge.”
“Sure,” Yorrin nodded. “We figured. Just wanted to be sure. So—sword’s alright, then?”
“It feels fine to me,” Aleksandr said. “Though… I felt this presence Borthul and Alaina referred to much less than they did. I trust them when they say it is bound.”
“Good,” Yorrin said, wrinkling his nose. “Glad Alaina was there to put some holy bindings on it. I don’t trust the wizard entirely. He’s a little too close to the cultists for my tastes.”
Yorrin is not wrong, Aleksandr thought. Not entirely. Borthul’s magic is clearly closely related to the Words of Power. Aloud, Aleksandr said only “I think he is sincere, in his help.”
Yorrin shrugged again. “Hope so,” he said. “Anyway, some of the others wanted to talk to you.”
“Oh? Should I be concerned?”
“Nah.” Yorrin shook his head. “Lefty and the Taraamites are leaving soon, I expect they wanted to say a proper goodbye. Not sure what the Ruskan or the others want. I’ve got guesses.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said, stepping forward to approach the others. “As do I.”
Once again, Aleksandr saw Anatoly staring at him. The young man had an intense look in his eye, but Aleksandr did not go to him first. He walked past, and sensed Yorrin’s shadow behind him. They headed for where the men of Taraam all sat around a long table.
They have done a good job recruiting. The table was crowded with more than a score of men. Aleksandr was happy to see it.
Lefty sipped a mug of ale and grumbled something under his breath to one of the others. Olivenco sat beside him on one side, Connor Quickblade on the other. Aleksandr saw many unfamiliar faces, but mixed into the group he saw a few others he definitely recognized.
The young man that survived the fight against the cult, for one. He looked less disoriented and afraid, of course, though his body language still seemed too uncertain and afraid for a man that was bound to be a mercenary soldier. He hunched in his seat, sipped his drink, and said little.
Aleksandr also saw a familiar face he had not seen in some days: Holbrook, the fellow they called Hal. He had parted ways with them on the road, seeking recruits in the small kingdom south of Yerevan called Copperwell. Apparently he had returned—successful, Aleksandr suspected, given the number of men sharing their table.
The third man Aleksandr recognized sat beside Connor. His face was sunken, though he had more color than he had the last time Aleksandr had seen him up and about. He moved slowly, clearly still weak. Edric Maron, the noble’s son. He is finally out of bed, then. Alaina thought he would be up sooner. Edric did not look well, even now. He was not fit to fight yet, for a certainty. Aleksandr wondered if he ever would be.
“Aleksandr,” Lefty growled. “Good to see you. How’s the leg?”
“Healing,” Aleksandr said. “Yorrin says you plan to leave?”
Lefty nodded. “We’ll hit the markets today and buy supplies. Probably leave tomorrow morning at first light.”
“I wish you well,” Aleksandr said. “And you have my thanks, for helping us on the road north.”
Lefty snorted in derision. “We both know who owes the thanks here, Aleksandr. Without you an’ your folk, we’d all be dead in that fuckin’ tunnel. And that red-bearded twat following you around would’ve probably done for the men back at the fort.”
Aleksandr tilted his head in acquiescence. “Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps not.”
“Perhaps!” Olivenco laughed. “False modesty does not become a captain. Stand proud, Aleksandr. We all know the truth.”
“Damn right,” Lefty said before Aleksandr could reply. “Taraam owes you a debt we can’t repay. We won’t forget it.”
Aleksandr smiled. “Very well. It was my pleasure, then, da? I am glad to have helped. And I wish you well on your return journey.”
“Olivenco,” Yorrin said. “Didn’t realize you were leaving quite so soon. Can you meet one more time tonight? A final lesson?”
“We will meet tonight,” Olivenco said. “But not for lessons. We will drink and say fond farewells to Lefty and the others. Lessons can wait until mañana—tomorrow.”
Yorrin cocked his head. “You’re not leaving?”
Olivenco shrugged. “Not yet,” he said. “I am no captain, after all. But I have been persuaded that I have some use yet, si? I am quite charming, after all.” He winked. “Twenty recruits is good. But Taraam should have at least cien—one hundred men, properly. Lefty will take these men back to help rebuild and prepare the fort. I will stay here with a couple of men, and we shall attempt to find more recruits. Perhaps we will have the full hundred before winter comes again.”
“Oh,” Yorrin said. “Good.”
“Si. You still have much to learn,” Olivenco smiled his cocky smile.
It is good to see so much confidence in him. This is the man that Lefty and the others followed, and would not abandon. Teaching Yorrin has been good for him, I think.
“We’ll miss you, Captain. Stay safe,” Lefty said. He glanced at Aleksandr. “You too. Wherever you’re bound next, I expect you’ll find your share of trouble. Be good to see you all again one day.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “You as well.”
“One more thing. Uh,” Lefty hesitated. He was scowling, but such an expression was not uncommon for him. “He’s a damn good lad,” Lefty finally blurted out. “Give him a fair chance and you won’t regret it.”
Aleksandr furrowed his brow. Who is he talking about? He wondered.
Then it hit him. There was one Taraamite in Yerevan that was not sitting at the table with Lefty and the others. He does not intend to return with them. I had wondered, but did not wish to assume.
Aleksandr gave a single nod of understanding. “Da,” he said. “Thank you.”
Lefty nodded back. Aleksandr stepped away from their table, Yorrin still close beside him. He glanced around the common room of the Silver Pine.
We have completely dominated this inn, Aleksandr realized. Giancarlo and his mercenaries had another table, and Aleksandr’s people had staked out a third. Anatoly sat with them, near Dylan. As did Perrin, who was—as ever—talking quietly with Prudence.
As soon as Aleksandr and Yorrin moved away from the Taraamites, Anatoly rose from his seat. Once again, Aleksandr saw fierce determination in the young man’s face. He had let his dark stubble grow into a rough beard, though the scar on his chin stood out through the hair.
“Sir Kerensky,” he said. His body language was tense, his jaw clenched nervously.
“Aleksandr,” said Aleksandr.
Anatoly smiled, some of the tension deflating. “Da,” he said. “Right. Aleksandr. Can we speak?”
“Of course,” Aleksandr said. “What is it?”
Anatoly swallowed. “Uh,” he said. His eyes flickered to Yorrin, who stood beside Aleksandr and watched with his characteristic strange mix of disinterest and scrutiny.
“Anatoly,” Aleksandr said. He tried to sound kind. Understanding. He was not sure if it worked, but Anatoly met his eyes. Aleksandr switched to Ruskan. “I know what you hope to speak to me about. You did not leave when Yuri did. You have traveled with us for some time, eaten with us, fought against us and alongside us both. You were a mercenary under Black Garin, because you needed coin. But there was no honor in that work. You wish to serve again. Fight again. But you wish to serve alongside good men and women. You wish to fight for a cause that does not trouble your sleep.”
Anatoly closed his eyes as Aleksandr spoke. He trembled, his shoulders moving in small shivers as he took a few deep breaths. To Aleksandr, he looked like a starving man that had just been offered a loaf of bread.
“Yes,” Anatoly whispered. He spoke Ruskan as well. “Yes. You’re right. That’s exactly what I want.”
Aleksandr nodded. “Da, very well,” he switched to Middish. “Yorrin and I have already discussed this. Of course you are welcome to stay with us as long as you like. You will be an equal member, given a share of our pay.”
“And you’ll be expected to follow our orders and pull your weight,” Yorrin added.
Anatoly’s eyes flickered open, and Aleksandr ignored the glassy look to them. Anatoly nodded, smiling. “Spasibo!” he said. “Blagodaryu! Thank you, both of you!”
“Pozhaluysta,” Aleksandr said. Anatoly’s enthusiasm was infectious, and he smiled back.
“Yes, well. There’s likely to be hard work ahead,” Yorrin said. Anatoly was unperturbed by the colder response. He walked back to the table as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
Aleksandr turned his attention to Giancarlo’s table. As he crossed the room, Yorrin kept in close step.
“Bear won’t like it,” he murmured.
“Da,” Aleksandr agreed. “We discussed this. His hatred is—hm, what as word? Foolish, but—rational?”
“Irrational,” Yorrin said. “Might be, but that doesn’t seem to stop him. We discussed it, but you didn’t say what you plan to do about it, exactly. We’ll just tell him to fall in line?”
We did not discuss it because I am not yet sure, Aleksandr thought. “Da, something like that,” he said blandly as they reached Giancarlo.
The merchant sat with what was left of his hired hands. He had no factors, no porters, only a handful of mercenaries. Levin and Cameron were perhaps the most notable, though Aleksandr also recognized Orson easily enough. Conrad had gone with them against the cult and still bore a healing injury from the fight. The last man, Nathan, Aleksandr knew the least.
“Signore Kerensky!” Giancarlo said. “How are you doing this day?”
“Fine,” Aleksandr said. “Healing. And your men? Conrad, da? How is your wound?”
“Getting better,” the mercenary said. “Orson says it’s healing clean, anyway.”
“Si, si, he is fine,” Giancarlo said dismissively. “Signores, I wished to discuss our plans.”
Aleksandr frowned. “Oh?”
Yorrin was more blunt. “What do our plans have to do with you, exactly?”
“Si, an excellent question!” Giancarlo said, grinning. “You are a company of mercenary, si? Your contract with the priestess is ended. What comes next?”
“I am not certain,” Aleksandr said. He felt hesitant to be too open with Giancarlo. The merchant was not a bad man, clearly. But he was still a merchant, and still more a stranger than most that had traveled the long road north with them. “Why?”
“Excellent,” Giancarlo said. “As you know, I have lost much. My factors, most of my wares, and many of my guards. An unfortunate outcome for this past trade venture, to be sure. I would almost say it has been a complete failure, but for the quick thinking of your man.”
Giancarlo gestured to Yorrin, who crossed his arms over his chest. Aleksandr cleared his throat. “Da, I know this,” he said.
“As it happens, fortuna smiles upon us. I believe I can still turn a bit of profit from this outing. These past few days I have unloaded as many of my premium wares as possible, for a modest sum of solidi—or zolotnik, as your people call them.”
Is he going to get to the point? Aleksandr wondered. “Lucky for you.”
“I have a plan to turn a more serious profit now, signores. Have you heard of the troubles in Caedia?”
Caedia? It took only a moment to place the name. A Middish kingdom, one of the largest. If Aleksandr recalled correctly, it lay along the western coast. The only significant trade Rusk did with Caedia was through Yerevan, along the Ironblood. Aleksandr knew of the place, but he had heard no recent news of it.
“Trouble?” He asked.
“Si! Northern raiders have sailed down the coast.”
“Out of Svarden?” Aleksandr asked. “Such things are not uncommon.” He knew a little of Svarden as well, though no more than he knew of Caedia. A land of cold seas and steep mountains, known for its warrior kings and reavers. The western edge of Rusk had seen its share of troubles from Svardic raiders, but the Kerensky holdings were far from the sea.
“Si, one assumes,” Giancarlo said. “But they say this is different. I have heard murmurs in the Yerevani markets, merchants that have come up the Ironblood. The Svards are raiding in greater numbers. It is a full invasion, they say. Caedia is marshaling its forces for a large-scale war.”
“This seems unlikely,” Aleksandr said. “But I am no expert on either Svarden or Caedia. Is possible, of course.”
“Si, well, whether the invasion is real or imagined, if the Caedians believe it to be so that is good enough for me,” Giancarlo said with a smirk. “My plan is to buy up as many arms and armors as my purse of profit can afford. I will ship them downriver and outfit the Caedians against the northern savages.”
Giancarlo’s tendency to obfuscate his intent and coax one along to his desired conclusion was irritating, but Aleksandr was beginning to guess the merchant’s meaning. “You hope to hire us on for this journey. To escort you and your wares into Caedia, da?”
Giancarlo grinned. “You are a clever one, signore! Si, esattamente! You understand my meaning. I have lost men on the road, of course. More importantly, I have lost Elfisio and Aguapo, who dispatched orders to the mercenari. I have no interest nor aptitude in telling these hard and accomplished men what to do.” Giancarlo gestured to the men sitting around the table. Cam snorted a laugh, and Conrad rolled his eyes. Orson exchanged an exasperated glance with Levin.
“So you wish to hire me and my friends, and command them as well?” Aleksandr asked. He considered the idea.
Before Giancarlo could respond, Cam spoke up. “Och, hope ye can forgive the interruption,” he said. “But I reckon we’d speak better for ourselves.”
Giancarlo cast a skeptical glance at his mercenaries. “Do you?” he asked.
Levin had been sipping his drink, and he thumped his tankard down on the table loudly. He met Giancarlo’s eyes. “Yeah,” he said.
“What Levin means to say is that our contract’s done, Sir Rossi,” Orson interjected. “Technically, I mean. We were to get you to Nahash to trade your goods. Then that became Yerevan. Either way, we got you to a city and your goods are traded—what was left of them, at least.”
“Si,” Giancarlo said. “And you have been paid. More than that: I have continued to pay for your lodgings here out of the vastness of mio cuore, no?”
“You have,” Orson agreed. “And we appreciate it. But if we’re to take orders from Aleksandr anyway, we were thinking…”
“You wish to join with us directly,” Aleksandr said. They seem to be good men. If we are to become a proper mercenary company, we will need all the good men we can get. “You would join our group as partners, take a fair share of our pay.”
“Giancarlo can negotiate a contract with Aleksandr and I directly, for everyone,” Yorrin added.
Levin leaned back in his chair, a thin glimmer of a smile teasing the corners of his mouth. Orson grinned, and the others were all smiles and chuckles.
Giancarlo sighed theatrically. “Betrayed by my own men!” he lamented with a smile. “Si, very well, this is acceptable to me if it is to you. My concern is that you will remain here until my caravan is ready, and escort me to the capital city of Arcadia.”
Aleksandr nodded. “Is fine I think, Giancarlo. We must discuss to be sure, but—da. I do not think anyone will object. If war is truly come to Caedia, there will be work for mercenaries as well as merchants.”
Giancarlo wore a smug smile, and he winked at Aleksandr. “Si, I may have had this thought as well,” he said.
Of course you did. It is unlikely that any of this is a surprise to you, Aleksandr thought. Giancarlo seemed to be a decent man, despite some of Aleksandr’s misgivings at their first meeting. But decent or not, he was undoubtedly a cunning man.
“I will speak with the others,” Aleksandr said. To Orson and the other mercenaries, he added: “Meet me tomorrow morning at the bayard’s keep. In the training yard.”
“Why?” asked the one Aleksandr knew the least. Nathan. “You looking to test us? Haven’t you already seen us fight?”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. The answer served both questions equally well. “I would test your mettle more directly, if we are going to fight together.”
Aleksandr didn’t wait for further questions. He turned and walked towards Dylan and the others.
Dylan passed him a drink as he sat at the table. Anatoly gave him a warm nod. Robin had acquired a bowl of nuts from somewhere, and he was lounging back in his chair surrounded by a mess of shells. Bear glowered.
“Aleksandr,” he growled. “Is true? We ride with Tarakov men now?”
“Just the one, Bear,” Yorrin said.
“Is scum, Yorrin!” Bear said. “Tarakov man has no honor!”
“Idi na khui!” Anatoly snapped. “What would a horse-fucking barbarian know of honor?”
“I not fuck horses,” Bear growled. “Targans fuck horses. Ruskans fuck mothers. Bear fucks many women!”
Bear sounded furious, but his words elicited a few chuckles from the others. Robin began laughing so hard he nearly fell out of his chair, and when he rose he coughed a few times as he choked on a nut.
Bear glared at them all in turn. “What?”
“Hard to take you seriously when you’re arguing about something so stupid, Bear,” Prudence said.
“Bear,” Aleksandr said. He did not raise his voice, but he was pleased when his companions all fell silent.
“Da?” Bear said. He gave Aleksandr a wary look, unsure if he was going to receive support or censure.
“We give men second chances,” Aleksandr said. “All men, even those that followed Bayard Tarakov. You will do same, if you stay with us. Understood?”
Bear grimaced. He clenched his hands into meaty fists. After a long silence, he gabbed a tankard from the table and drained it in a long pull. He slammed it down on the table. “Da,” was all he said.
That will do. Aleksandr nodded, and sipped his own drink. It only took a few moments for the mood to settle. Robin clapped Bear on the back and offered to get him another drink, since he was already getting up to fetch one for himself. When Bear accepted, Robin asked to borrow a few coppers to pay for them.
They drank in comfortable camaraderie for a while. The staff of the Silver Pine brought around a platter of pierogies, which vanished quickly. After a while, Aleksandr noticed Perrin slip away from where he sat with Prudence and circle around the table. He squeezed in beside Aleksandr and Yorrin.
“Have you got a moment?” he asked.
“Apparently today’s the day everyone finally asks us outright,” Yorrin observed.
“Da,” Aleksandr agreed.
“Uh…” Perrin hesitated. “I’m not sure—”
“Is fine, Perrin,” Aleksandr said. “You wish to join us. Leave Taraam and travel with us to Caedia, or wherever we go next.”
Perrin blinked. “Um. Yes. I suppose—yes. That’s what I came to ask. I guess Anatoly already asked you. Right.”
“Da, and not just him,” Aleksandr said. “Is no problem.”
“So… it’s alright then, yeah?” Perrin said. “I figured as much.”
“I did not say that,” said Aleksandr.
“Oh,” Perrin said, frowning. “Uh, I mean. Alright. Prudence told me I had to ask you, but—well, I’ve been with you longer than Robin or Anatoly or any of these others. Anyone other than your—your core group, I mean. You know I can handle myself in a fight. You know I’m loyal.”
“Da, we know these things,” Aleksandr agreed. “Is one more thing we know, however.”
“Okay… what’s that?”
“You’re fucking Prudence,” Yorrin said.
Perrin blushed. Aleksandr sighed. “I would not have said it in this way,” he said. “But… Yorrin raises important point. If we are to be a proper mercenary company, we must be professional. We must be soldiers, Perrin.”
“I can be a soldier,” Perrin protested. “I’ve been a soldier for the past few years.”
“Is something you know well,” Aleksandr agreed. “But your relationship with Prudence… complicates things.”
“Yeah,” Yorrin said. “We need to know you’re focused on the job at hand. We have to be able to trust you’ll do what the company needs, not what Prudence needs.”
“Da, Yorrin sums it up well,” Aleksandr said. “I must believe you wish to join us, truly. And not that you wish to join us because this is where Prudence happens to be.”
Perrin swallowed. “Huh,” he said. He scratched the scruffy inkling of a beard on his chin. “I—I guess that makes sense. I think I do.”
“Not good enough,” Yorrin said. Perrin’s face fell.
“Hm, Yorrin is perhaps too quick,” Aleksandr said. “But not wrong. Is an important question. Not just for us, to know if we will let you join us. Is important for you, Perrin. You must be your own man.”
Perrin nodded. “That—that makes sense. Thank you. But—I’m not sure anymore. I mean. I think I do. You—Aleksandr, you’re a singular captain. Even moreso than Olivenco. I think it would be an honor to be one of your men.”
“Good,” Aleksandr said. “You are kind.” I am not nearly so sure as you, to be honest.
“I guess. I don’t know. I meant it,” Perrin said, shrugging.
“Da, I know,” Aleksandr said. “I have asked some of the others to meet me tomorrow at the bayard’s training yard. Think on what we have said. If you still wish to join, go there. Da?”
“Right,” Perrin said. He nodded. “Okay. I—I’ll be there. I’m sure of it.”
“Then I will see you there,” Aleksandr said.
Perrin excused himself. He stepped outside the Silver Pine, hopefully to sincerely consider Aleksandr’s words.
“We’re about to double our numbers,” Yorrin said quietly.
“Da, it looks so.”
“I think that will make us a real mercenary company, Aleksandr. A dozen men or more? That’s not much smaller than those Free Spears Dylan used to run with.”
“Is a good thing, I hope,” Aleksandr said. “We keep taking jobs. Might as well have enough men to do them right, no?”
“Sure,” Yorrin said. “Makes sense. I’m not criticizing. I’ve got no doubt you’ll pick our contracts carefully. Mercenary or not, we aim to do good. Make the world better than we find it. Right?”
Aleksandr smiled. Yorrin has come a long way. “Da,” he said. “Exactly so.”
“Although, there’s one thing I think we’re overlooking,” Yorrin said.
“Oh? What is that?”
“Well, if we’re going to be a real merc company…” Yorrin said. “I think we’re going to need a name.”