Aleksandr winced as he pulled on his leggings and boots. His leg had stopped bothering him for the most part, especially as Alaina splinted it each day before he went out. He was able to walk with relative ease, and he had even been able to spar with the men a few times without too much pain. But the fracture in his bone had not yet fully healed, and it pained him most in the early morning.
“I’ll get that in a moment,” Alaina said from where she sat. She was brushing out her long black hair, still clad only in a linen shift.
“Ah,” Aleksandr frowned. “No splint today, I am thinking.” I will need full mobility, even if it hurts.
Alaina’s expression darkened, but she did not argue.
Aleksandr donned his tunic and belted it around his waist. Then came his quilted gambeson. He laced it up methodically, focusing his attention on simple actions to still his mind.
“I thought that we already settled this,” Bayard Bogdanov protested. “Has something changed? Have the heathen barbarians spilled blood on my streets?”
“No, bayard,” Aleksandr said. “But—”
“Then why must I retread ground already walked? I will not risk the offense. Not unless they provoke me.”
“Bayard Dmitri,” Alaina said. “Please hear them out. I understand your concerns, truly I do. I would not have requested this audience if I did not think that their idea held merit.”
Bayard Bogdanov frowned in silence for a long while. Finally, he let out a dramatic sigh. He waved a hand impatiently at Aleksandr and Yorrin.
“Fine, fine,” he said. “Out with it then. What is your plan?”
After the gambeson was snug against his body, Aleksandr slipped on his gloves. Tough old goatskin leather, thin for how sturdy they were. They were scuffed and bloodstained, but they fit him like a second skin.
He shrugged into his mail hauberk, adjusting it until he felt it settle properly on him, then belted it as well. In a way, the heavy iron felt comfortable to him. A familiar weight that had seen him through a great many difficulties. After that, he looked down at the table on which his gear had been arrayed.
Piotr had finished fitting the armor he had paid for. Alongside the new pieces of iron plate, his breast and backplate also rested. They had been cleared of dents, and every scratch had been painstakingly polished out. Even the straps connecting the pieces looked to have been replaced with new leather. Aleksander hefted the two pieces.
“Here, at least let me help with that.” Alaina had dressed faster than Aleksandr—no surprise, given that she had no armor to don.
With her help he easily pulled the breastplate over his chest. She tightened the straps until it fit properly. This weight still felt unusual to Aleksandr—a little heavier than he was used to. He would get used to it in time. The added protection would be important today, of all days.
She handed him mail gauntlets to go over his leather gloves. As he pulled them on, she knelt to fasten greaves to his shins. Then she helped him to don vambraces to cover his forearms, and affixed a gorget across his throat. Covering the areas where his hauberk fell a bit short, providing something approximating total coverage. Piotr did good work—each piece was beautifully made polished iron, and Aleksandr did not mind the lack of ornament or engraving. If anything, he preferred it.
Last of all his armaments came Kholodny. Aleksandr needed no help in donning his family blade, but Alaina took the swordbelt from him anyway. It was as much for her as for him. A moment of intimacy and purpose, helping him prepare for what was to come.She buckled the belt, her fingers deftly manipulating the leather with more tenderness than seemed necessary for a weapon of war.
Aleksandr saw the concern in Alaina’s eyes. Not just concern, he realized. Fear.
“And you say this will give no insult?”Bogdanov asked. “You are sure?” The trepidation in his voice was clear.
He is a coward at heart, Aleksandr realized with disappointment. Not just shrewd, as his reputation says. He is afraid of what the Svards might do to his city, or what the Tsar might do to him if this situation goes poorly.
“I’m telling you, the Svards love this kind of thing,” Yorrin said. “They take it bloody serious.”
“Besides,” Alaina said. “If offense is taken, it will be taken towards Aleksandr and Yorrin. And, perhaps, myself and the Church. But none of us speak for Yerevan. Hakon will know that.”
Bogdanov ground his teeth, contemplating their words.
“Da,” he said finally. “Very well. You have my blessing.”
Alaina gave a shallow bow in gratitude.
Good, thought Aleksandr. We were going to do it regardless. Better that it will not cause problems between her and Bogdanov.
Aleksandr was fully garbed in plate and mail. Alaina scooped up one final item from the table. Not armor nor weapon, but in a strange way it felt just as important as anything.
His cloak. The tailor had done well—Aleksandr knew by now that the rich brown fabric felt both strong and supple to the touch. He was satisfied with the device, the silver horseshoe. He would have been happy with white, as was commonly used for silver on many banners and tabards. But the tailor came recommended by Bayard Bogdanov himself, and he would settle for nothing less than the precise execution of his task. The silver threads stood out against the dark brown.
“It’s good heraldry,” Alaina said. “Simple, effective. Noticeable without being gaudy. It fits you.”
“Is not just mine,” Aleksandr said, uncomfortably. No good will come of thinking this is my heraldry. My heraldry lies back home, the banner of Pripia and House Kerensky. I am not a bayard, no matter what Yorrin likes to call me.
He looked down at the simple, well-woven silver horseshoe. This is Steelshod’s sigil. One I am happy to wear for now.
“Even so,” Alaina said. “It fits.”
She swept the cloak over his shoulders and fastened the clasp across his chest. Her fingers lingered on cords of the cloak for a long moment, and then she leaned forward to rest her forehead against his.
“I won’t ask you to be safe,” she said. “I know that wouldn’t be fair. Sometimes danger is inevitable, and today—yes. I know that. All I can ask is that you do your damned best to get through this, so that we can enjoy your last few days in Yerevan properly.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “I will do what I can.”
She smiled, and kissed him. Aleksandr was still learning how to judge such things, but it seemed to him a good kiss. All thoughts of what lay ahead left his mind for a few moments.Then the kiss was ended, and Alaina sighed. She pulled away silently, and Aleksandr could see the turmoil of fear and doubt flicker across her face.
He took her hand in his. Through glove and gauntlet it was not as tender as it might have been, but even so he squeezed her and felt her squeeze him back.
They left together, making their way out of the keep and down to the yard.
Yorrin was waiting for them, already mounted. His new armored coat was well fitted to his small form, and he had not yet accumulated all of the slashes, bloodstains, and filth that his gambeson had been covered with. Between that, the Steelshod cloak, and the ornamented hilts of his sword and dagger, Yorrin cut a very different figure than the desperate man Aleksandr had met those months ago.
His hair was still an unkempt mess, cut just enough to keep out of his eyes. And he sat stiff in his saddle, obviously not truly comfortable astride. Even so, he smiled at Aleksandr and Alaina, and held up reins in each hand.
“You prepared Dascha,” Aleksandr said, surprised. “He did not trouble you, did he?”
“No,” Yorrin said. “He was well-behaved once I started cutting up an apple.”
Alaina laughed as she mounted her own mare. “Were you waiting long?” she asked.
“Just barely got the horses out here,” Yorrin said.
He may be lying, Aleksandr decided as he swung himself onto Dascha’s back. I do not think he will ever lie to me about something that matters, but… He might have been waiting an hour and tell us that just so we don’t waste time apologizing.
“Good,” Aleksandr said. “We go, then.”
“Yeah,” Yorrin said. “Wouldn’t want to be late for our appointment.”
“Doom is coming to the world of men,” Hakon told the crowd. “But be not afraid. The Master of the Deep has foreseen it all. He will welcome you, and—”
“High Priest Hakon!”
Aleksandr’s voice carried. The peasants of Yerevan parted around him nervously, leaving an empty path to Hakon and his five mute guardians. Aleksandr stepped forward, Yorrin and Alaina on either side.
“You,” Hakon said, sneering. “The knight, his whore, and his servant.”
“My name is Aleksandr Kerensky,” Aleksandr said. He did not let his annoyance modify his tone. “She is Alaina, Priestess of Torath. And this is Yorrin, my comrade in arms.”
Hakon exhaled a single breath of dismissive laughter. “If I had need of your names, I would have had them by now. You are no one, and such is how I will remember you.”
“Careful now,” Yorrin said. Aleksandr could hear the cocky smile Yorrin was no doubt wearing. “You’ll feel pretty stupid about those words later.”
“Doubtful,” Hakon said. “You are here to—what? Argue with me again? Did you feel you won our last debate?”
“I am here to ask you to leave,” Alaina said. She stepped forward, ahead of Aleksandr. “Your presence is… disquieting.”
That got some unhappy murmurs from the crowd.
Already he has gathered a following here? Aleksandr worried. He’s as silver-tongued as he is black-hearted. Good we have not delayed any longer.
Hakon grinned, with menace in place of mirth. “Do you find it so, serpent priestess? How unfortunate for you. The lord of this place, Bayard Bogdanov, has given me leave to spread Vlar’s word on his streets.”
“I do not speak for him or anyone else,” Alaina said. “Only myself. And, for myself, I am asking you to leave. Peacefully.”
Hakon laughed. “I decline. Begone, and take your simpering manchildren with you.”
Alaina sighed. “As I said: I speak only for myself.” She took a step back, falling behind Aleksandr again.
“High Priest Hakon,” Aleksandr said again. He did not shout this time. There was no need. He had Hakon’s attention now. “I am Aleksandr of House Kerensky, son of Bayard Valentin. And I challenge you to the holmgang.”
A crowd had already formed. That was good. Well over a hundred Yerevani peasants and yeomen lined the streets and the docks. Aleksandr noticed as well the presence of Boris Bogdanov and a handful of Bayard Dmitri’s other druzhniks.
Whatever happens here today, word of it will spread quickly.
Dylan and the rest of Steelshod were waiting in the crowd. Olivenco as well, along with a cluster of awkward-looking men that would be his latest round of possible recruits for Taraam. Even Giancarlo Rossi was present, standing between Dylan and Olivenco and looking generally concerned.
Aleksandr stopped his horse beside them and dismounted. Dylan took Dascha’s reins in hand. Yorrin and Alaina dismounted behind him.
“You alright?” Dylan asked.
Aleksandr did not answer right away. He gave a simple nod.
“People were wondering if you weren’t going to show,” Robin offered cheerfully from nearby. “I’ve already won twelve pence just from your arrival.”
“We aren’t late,” Yorrin said.
“No, but they are early,” said Olivenco, nodding towards the one area clear of the crowd.
Aleksandr had ignored them until now, but at Olivenco’s prompting he looked.
Hakon and four of his men stood just at the edge of one of the docks, before it stretched out into the river. They were—as always—fully clad in arms and armor. Hakon was murmuring some sort of chant in his native tongue. Barely audible from where Aleksandr stood, and he was closer than most.
The fifth member of Hakon’s entourage stood apart, out on the rough planks of the dock. He too was armed and armored. He wore a mail hauberk and an open-faced iron helm, with wool and leather covering the rest of him. A sword was sheathed at his side, and he held axe and shield in hand. His round shield looked to have fresh paint across its face, Svardic symbols in reddish brown. Blood, or pigment designed to look like it.
Aleksandr drew Kholodny. He heard a ripple of whispers as the crowd caught sight of the rippled true steel of his family blade. Or perhaps it was because of the blackened runes that ran down both sides of the blade like ugly stains. He unstrapped his swordbelt and passed it to Dylan.
Alaina stepped up to his side. “Sir Kerensky fights for the Church,” she declared. “Even as the Vlari priest consecrates his own fighter, so to will Sir Kerensky go to battle with Torath’s Blessing.”
They had spoken of this in advance. Alaina knew it made Aleksandr mildly uncomfortable, but the theatrics of it were essential.
Besides, she was right, Aleksandr admitted to himself. Whether I believe or not, if Torath exists, I have little doubt he would prefer my victory over Hakon’s.
Alaina intoned a prayer to Torath. Aleksandr gripped Kholodny with both hands, blade pointed skyward, and he pressed the steel against his brow.
“Holmgang! What do you know of holmgang?” Hakon scoffed.
“I know that it is duel, a sacred rite of challenge among people of northern coasts,” Aleksandr said. “I know that your own Taerbjornsen has won many of his armies in holmgang. And I know that if you refuse to fight me, you mark yourself a coward in front of all of us.” Aleksandr still did not smile, did not even blink. But inside, he was grinning. “And in front of your god.”
“I am High Priest of the Deep and a Jarl besides,” Hakon said. “I have no need to prove myself to you. Even if I accept, I have huskarls—champions—to fight in my stead.”
“Da. Fine with me,” Aleksandr said. “If you fear facing me I will gladly defeat one of your men.”
Hakon rolled his eyes, either disgusted or intending to act it. “And what is your claim, knight? Why do you seek holmgang—what price is to be paid by the loser?”
“You know what I want, Hakon,” Aleksandr said. “If I defeat you, you go in peace. Leave Yerevan’s shores and not return, unless you are invited.”
“I have unfinished work,” Hakon said, his tone ominous. “Work more important than a second-rate knight from a Ruskan backwater. I am to put it in danger… for what? What do I get when I win?”
They had discussed this already. Alaina spoke loudly, and her voice carried across the square. “If you win, High Priest of Vlar, then I will leave Yerevan instead.”
A startled cascade of murmurs passed through the crowd. Their attention had already been captured, but word of this was sure to spread across the whole city.
“Let us entertain no illusions about the nature of this duel, Hakon. Your man will fight for Vlar, and mine will fight for Torath,” Alaina said. “May the best god win.”
“The holmgang ends when one man is dead, or dead to Vlar,” Hakon said to Aleksandr. He did not shout, but his voice carried across the crowd nonetheless. “Surrender, retreat off the dock, or meet your god in his hall. It will end for nothing less.”
Aleksandr nodded. He tried to ignore the pain rippling through his leg as he crossed the short distance. He hesitated at the edge for a moment, then stepped onto the wooden planks of the dock.
He held his sword high as he approached, and tipped in an informal salute to his foe. He bore no specific ill will towards the man. He was just Hakon’s pawn. Perhaps he would see reason, and yield after—
The Svard surged forward, shield out and axe high. Aleksandr’s first instinct was to backpedal, but he had little room to do it without accidentally forfeiting.
Besides, his leg hurt too much. He held his ground, using Kholodny’s superior reach to stop the Svard’s charge. It worked—the man stopped short, and began probing at Aleksandr’s defenses. He held his shield out, parallel with his arm, jabbing at Aleksandr with the edge. He tried to jab high, and with his other hand hidden below the shield he threw a quick hack towards Aleksandr’s legs.
It was a style Aleksandr had not quite fought against before. For a brief moment his sword was bound up above the shield, and he felt pain lance through him as the axe caught him in the shin.
The sound of metal scraping metal resounded in the air, and the axe left little more than a small dent and long scratch in the iron greave covering Aleksandr’s lower leg. Then he forced the tip of the Svard’s shield down with his two-handed grip on Kholodny. As the Svard tried to hack at his leg again, Aleksandr brought the hilt of Kholodny under the shield and rammed it into his enemy’s face.
The Svard reeled back, blood gushing from his broken nose. Aleksandr took a painful step, trying to close the distance. The Svard threw his axe at Aleksandr—not a serious attack, Aleksandr barely had to angle Kholodny between them to sent it skittering away. But it slowed him enough for the man to draw his own sword.
Longer reach, but it will hurt even less than the axe did if he hits my plate. Once again, the Svard came in shield-first. In his hands the shield was as much a weapon as anything, and he jabbed and struck at Aleksandr with it. He kept the blade behind the shield, thrusting in tandem when he thought the shield would keep Aleksandr’s own blade bound up. Perhaps he thinks he can leverage it into a gap if he gets me off-balance enough.
It wasn’t a bad plan. Aleksandr was struggling to regain control of the duel. The Svard circled around him, constantly probing. Aleksandr’s mobility and unfamiliarity with the Svardic shield style put him at a marked disadvantage. He kept striking, but each time his attack was turned by the shield. Each time Kholodny made contact chips of wood flew, until the face of the shield was more raw gouges than it was painted wood.
Kholodny felt warm in Aleksandr’s hands, even through leather and mail gauntlets. It put him in the mind of the time before Borthul and Alaina had bound the demon in his sword, when it felt warm all the time. It was a disconcerting thought. A distracting thought.
The Svard kept his shield between himself and Kholodny. His sword darted out, catching Aleksandr beneath his left shoulder. His armpit was partly protected by mail, but he felt the impact as the Svard rammed the sword in with considerable force.
Aleksandr ignored the pain in his shoulder. More importantly, he ignored the pain in his leg. He moved with a sudden burst of speed, pivoting around the Svard and getting the sword off of him. He brought Kholodny into a high guard as he moved into the Svards flank.
His opponent reacted quickly, turning to face Aleksandr and raising his shield to take the coming blow. Aleksandr brought Kholodny down with all his strength anyway, hoping to put the Svard off balance or even knock the shield out of his hand.
An explosion of wooden splinters burst around the steel sword, and the air was filled with screams. Aleksandr smelled and tasted blood.
It took him a moment to realize that Kholodny had smashed through the battered shield and severed the Svard’s arm near the elbow. Aleksandr knew blood had spattered his face, and more was pumping out of the Svard’s stump. He flailed wildly with his sword, and Aleksandr was forced to parry.
“Surrender, please” he told the man.
The svard slashed at him, his blade glancing off of Aleksandr’s breastplate.
“Stop!” Aleksandr said again. He batted aside the next sloppy strike. “Yield and you may yet live.”
The Svard struck again. This time, Aleksandr shifted his grip on Kholodny to one-handed, and he caught the Svard’s sword in a mailed fist. He ripped it out of the man’s rapidly weakening hand and tossed it aside.
The Svard crumpled to his knees, fountains of blood still pouring out of his stump. He looked up at Aleksandr. Aleksandr saw hate and fear in his eyes. Then he toppled forward, landing facefirst in a pool of his own blood as it slowly dripped through the cracks in the dock.
Aleksandr sighed. He let Kholodny hang slack in his grip, the point of the sword gently resting on the wood of the dock. He became aware then that the crowd was shouting and cheering. He looked up, and saw the Svards approaching.
“A tempting offer, Priestess,” Hakon said. “It might be easier to work unimpeded by your weak southern theology. But even so… you ask me to risk much. I have work to do.”
“What’s the problem?” Yorrin challenged. “If your squid god’s so powerful, your man won’t lose, will he?”
Hakon shrugged. “Likely not. My men are warriors of blood and iron, and Vlar’s favor is powerful. But men are still men. Only superstitious simpletons attribute all luck to the gods. My champion might slip on a stone or spilled blood. And then I will be forced to leave? I am not sure your offer is worth the risk, however small.”
“Alright then,” Yorrin said. “If Vlar can’t be counted on… how about two holmgangs. You lose one, you can stay. You lose both, then you have to leave.”
Hakon gave Yorrin an incredulous look. “You think to challenge me?”
“Think to? No. I just did. Or do I need to slap you with a glove or spit in your general direction or something? I’m happy to do either or both, if you like.” Yorrin pulled off one of his gloves to prove his sincerity, drawing a few scattered chuckles from the crowd.
Hakon frowned, but he seemed to be considering the offer. Finally, he smiled at Yorrin. “Very well, little man. I accept.”
Hakon’s men dragged the fallen off the dock. Hakon looked furious, but he gave Aleksandr a single nod as they met at the edge of the dock.
“I cede the first victory to you,” Hakon said.
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “I am sorry about your man. I did not intend to kill him.”
“You should have. He would never have surrendered to you,” Hakon said. “Your weakness is why I am here.”
“That’s enough of that heathen nonsense,” Yorrin said from where he stood.
Hakon glared at him. “Indeed,” he said curtly, nodding to one of his other huskarls. The warrior stepped forward, just as big and broad as the one Aleksandr had fought. To him, the Svards seemed a large breed of warriors. But compared to Yorrin, the man was a giant.
Yorrin looked unconcerned. He drew his steel sword and dagger.
“Well then,” he said. “My turn?”