The dawn was gray and wet.
Aleksandr was not surprised. Every day had been such since they’d left the Underpass. The rain, so far, was not so torrential as it had been. Aleksandr felt the droplets pelt his cloak as he walked across the yard in Fort Taraam. So far, they had not soaked through. If it kept up like this, today would be far less unpleasant than their first day out of the mountains had been.
I will miss the roof overhead, though, he mused. And the warmth of a hearthfire. This respite has been more welcome than I could have expected.
Aleksandr found most of his friends at the stables, preparing the horses. Yorrin was the only one that was absent, and Aleksandr noticed his horse was missing too. Dylan already had his own mount readied, of course. He moved between the others, checking on them and lending aid where it was needed. Aleksandr noted that Robin was preparing Alaina’s horse. Not to help her, but because he would be riding it. She had other accommodations now.
Nearby, the men of Taraam were making final preparations of one of their wagons. The wagon was a simple, sturdy affair, with a frame over which they had tied down several skins to keep out the rain. Four horses were hitched to the front, and one of them stamped the ground impatiently as Aleksandr passed.
Edric, the young man they called Lordling, was already loaded into the wagon. Aleksandr watched as Alaina helped Olivenco up into the back of the wagon as well. She would join them once it was time to go.
Lefty and Perrin were making a final pass on the wagon. Three other members of their company were readying horses to ride alongside the wagon. Aleksandr recognized one of them from the Underpass. Connor Quickblade. His right arm was still bound in a sling, but he was gingerly using his left to check the straps on a mount.
Further down in the same yard, the other Taraamites were readying more horses and a second wagon for their own journey. Aleksandr noticed Kerfuffle standing near them, but slightly apart. He approached.
“Kerfuffle,” he said. The small fellow looked up at him. “I understand Lefty has offered you a place here?”
“Is good. You would be welcome with us, too.”
Kerfuffle frowned. He gestured to Aleksandr, pursing his lips in a half-smile and nodding appreciatively. Then he pointed out, sweeping his hand towards the walls in a broad gesture. His expression turned to a grimace, and he spat on the muddy ground.
The domovoy could not speak, but that did not mean he couldn’t communicate.
“Da,” Aleksandr admitted. “Out there, you would not be well-received. Most Middish fear and hate the domovoy. The goblins.”
Kerfuffle nodded again.
“And what of Lefty’s men? Ones that did not fight with us through the Underpass? They are treating you well?”
Kerfuffle shrugged. He raised a hand and waggled it back and forth in a “so-so” gesture.
“You trust it will get better?” Aleksandr asked.
Kerfuffle grinned. He nodded.
“Good,” Aleksandr. “I was wishing to bid you farewell. No doubt we will see each other again. Someday.”
Kerfuffle nodded. He reached out and thumped the palm of his hand against Aleksandr’s breastplate. His short stature meant the gesture hit Aleksandr in the abdomen. Kerfuffle grinned around the ritualistic scars that marred his face. The closest he would get to speaking a goodbye. Aleksandr smiled back.
“Kerfuffle!” growled one of the Taraamites. It was Geoff, Aleksandr realized. The one called Wallbreaker. He was staying with Davan, and when they returned he would begin rebuilding the damaged walls. Now, he was working on the wagon, attempting some sort of repair to one of the wheels. “Give me a hand?”
Kerfuffle snapped into action, hurrying to his aid. Aleksandr watched as Wallbreaker applied brute strength to the problem, and directed the small domovoy beneath the wagon to help tie something off.
He will do well, here. He is already not a goblin, but just a fellow soldier. The thought made Aleksandr smile. The brotherhood of arms is a powerful binding force. Very little equalizes men so well as fighting for your life against a common foe.
Aleksandr turned back to his own group. Alaina was gathering a few things from the saddlebags of her horse, to transfer them into the wagon where she would be spending the next several days of travel.
The reformed—in theory, at least—bandit was chatting with the priestess, but he made no attempt to help her carry anything. Aleksandr walked up behind them.
Alaina turned before he spoke, likely hearing the metallic clamor his armor made as it scraped against itself. She smiled at him.
“Aleksandr!” she said.
“Alaina,” he said. He smiled back at her, and reached for one of her bags. “May I?”
She laughed, and passed it off to him. “If you like,” she said. “Though it’s not as if I have far to carry them.”
“Is principle,” Aleksandr said. He glanced at Robin. “Is good practice, as well. To know how a man conducts himself, da?”
Robin shrugged. “She didn’t ask,” he said.
“You did not offer,” Aleksandr replied.
“Fair play,” Robin said, shrugging. “I was getting the horse ready, though.”
“Looked to me you were doing nothing,” Aleksandr said.
“Well, sure. Now. That’s just ‘cause I’d only barely finished prepping the horse.”
Aleksandr spared a moment to look the steed over. It was a placid animal, a roan palfrey with a smooth gait. Not a warhorse, but a good riding animal. Alaina had already bought it for the journey before they met her. Robin claimed to know how to ride, but whether that was true or not Aleksandr knew that he would have an easy time with this horse.
“You are not,” Aleksandr said.
“Finished. There,” he pointed with the hand not holding Alaina’s bags. “Strap will not hold for a day’s riding.”
Robin looked where Aleksandr had pointed. He frowned. “Looks okay to me.”
“Is not. Try again.”
Robin muttered something under his breath, but he hunkered down for a closer look.
Aleksandr didn’t wait to see how he handled it. Instead, he turned to carry the bags over to the wagon. He found Alaina falling into step beside him, leaving Robin behind to finish with the horse.
“You’re hard on him,” Alaina said.
“Da,” Aleksandr admitted. “Is needed, I think. He is not used to work. Not used to doing what needs doing. He is lazy. You think I am too hard?”
“Not at all,” Alaina said. “He’s definitely lazy. And worse. If he’s lived as a bandit for any length of time, he’s done his share of ill deeds.”
“You think I should have given him to Taraam? Pay for his sins in the manner Lefty wished?”
They reached the back of the wagon. Aleksandr lifted the bags onto the wooden floor.
“I didn’t say that.” Alaina shook her head. “I was just surprised. I hadn’t seen you speak to any of the others that way. You’re normally very… kind.”
Aleksandr nodded. “Da,” he said. “Is different, with them. They are my friends. Yorrin was not good man when I met him, perhaps. But… he is trying to change. Has changed, some, just in time I have known him.”
“Makes sense,” Alaina said. “You’re trying to push Robin to make that same change. Become a better man.”
Alaina was silent for a moment. Aleksandr looked towards her, and she met his eyes. “Do you think he can? Truly?” she asked.
“I do not know. I hope so,” Aleksandr said. “You think I am foolish?”
“No!” Alaina said. She smiled. “I think you’d make a good Torathi priest. Atonement, reform, second chances. The scriptures speak of these things at length.”
“Ah,” Aleksandr said. She thinks I should be a priest? The thought was absurd. But… “I have not read your scripture, but… da. I think I have heard of this, from others. The shedding of the old skin.”
Alaina smiled, and she cleared her throat. When she spoke again, the cadence of her voice had changed completely. “When Adah rose from the well, Torath made her flesh anew. The wounds upon her were shed as old scales, and she was as a new Molt upon the world. The gates of Tzevoy were made open to her, and she smote venom and fire upon them.”
Aleksandr listened carefully, trying to follow the speech. The Middish sounded strange to his ear, as did some of the words. “This is from your holy texts?” he asked.
Alaina nodded. “From the Book of Adah. One of the early saints—Molts, we sometimes call them.”
“And this other word, Zev—” Aleksandr stumbled over the word.
“Tzevoy. A city.”
“Where is this place?” Aleksandr asked.
Alaina shrugged. “Torathi scripture goes back thousands of years, Aleksandr. Many would tell you it was once a city somewhere in Al Hassad. There are countless interpretations of the scriptures. Nobody knows for sure.”
“What do you think?” Aleksandr asked.
“It could have been in Al Hassad,” she said. “Or Torathia, or the far east for all I know. Or nowhere. I don’t think it matters. The scriptures are not valuable because of their historical accounts, but because of the philosophical wisdom within them.”
These words. My Middish is not strong enough for this conversation. Aleksandr was silent for several moments as he tried to understand.
Inside the wagon, they heard a chuckle. Aleksandr glanced up and saw that Olivenco was not lying down on the pallet they’d set up for him. Instead, he leaned against the wall, and he was watching them. He grinned.
“That is not what I would expect to hear a priestess say!” he said. “The clergy back in Spatalia are quite fond of oración ardiente! Everything is literal, everything is very importante, and if you disagree you are bound for an oblivion outside of God’s Coils. No room for argument, si?”
Alaina frowned. “We have our share of fiery speakers in Torathia, too,” she said. “But that’s not how I prefer to conduct myself.”
Olivenco nodded. “Si, si, that much is clear. This is why you think the young man, Kerensky, would make a good priest, si? He would make a terrible priest where I come from.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Alaina said. “I’m sure there are good priests in Spatalia, too.”
“Maybe,” Olivenco said, shrugging. “Is not like I was a frequent attendee of the churches, I admit.” He shot Alaina a wink.
Alaina laughed. “So you’ve said.” She looked back at Aleksandr. “We could use more priests like Aleksandr.”
“Is not a good idea, I think,” Aleksandr said quickly. “I do not follow your god, for one.”
“Yet you live his virtues,” Alaina said. “Trying to turn a man like Robin, a man who has murdered and robbed and God knows what else, to the good. Trying to make a molt of him, to get him to shed his old skin and live a good life.”
The words echoed in Aleksandr’s mind. He had said something very similar to Yorrin, shortly after they had first met.
“Perhaps,” Aleksandr allowed. “Is not a tenet of faith, for me. Is not something I do for Torath. Is just… right thing to do.”
“Yeah,” Alaina said. She climbed into the back of the wagon, but then glanced back at Aleksandr with a sly smile on her lips. “The best tenets of faith always are.”
Aleksandr rode out ahead of the others.
He found Yorrin a few hundred feet from the gates of Taraam, in the wreckage of the Songbirds’ camp. Yorrin had left his horse with its tether looped over a tree branch. He was crouched beneath the tree’s boughs beside the old, decayed catapult.
He held a sheet of vellum stretched over a slat of wood, and he was scribbling with a piece of charcoal. The rain was only a light drizzle so far, and the overhang of the tree seemed to provide enough cover to keep the vellum dry.
“Aleksandr,” he said. He spoke without looking up, and only once Aleksandr was within a few feet. “Time to go?”
“Not quite yet,” Aleksandr said. “Dylan is leading the column out of Taraam now. You have a few minutes, I think. Alaina told Lefty to keep a slow pace on the wagon. Is better for Olivenco and Edric, that way.”
“Nearly done anyway,” Yorrin said.
Aleksandr looked over Yorrin’s shoulder. He saw several small but passable sketches, of various parts of the catapult. Each drawing was annotated with various notes, scrawled in a small, jagged hand. Aleksandr could not read Middish, and he wondered that even if he could he might still find Yorrin’s hand illegible.
“What are you doing?” Aleksandr asked. “Drawing catapult, of course. But… why?”
“To understand it,” Yorrin said. “The Cassalines understood these things well enough to build thousands of them. Every one of their legions was full of engineers and sappers that could build all sorts of marvels. Those were soldiers, not scribes, and yet they could design and build stuff that few enough folk today can even hope to understand. How many Middish sappers can build a real catapult or ballista, in the Cassaline style? With the range and power of the old weapons?”
“I do not know,” Aleksandr admitted. “Is… not many?”
“Close to none, far as I know,” Yorrin said. "Maybe in the biggest cities. The Serpentes in Nahash can definitely maintain and operate some old Cassaline weapons, maybe even build some imitations. But even then, I think their bolt throwers are a damn sight less impressive than the old Cassaline designs.”
“Cassala is a fallen Empire,” Aleksandr said. “But is not gone, da? Even in Rusk we hear of the University. This knowledge, is not lost. Just forgotten by most.”
Yorrin carefully laid another slat over the top of his vellum, then a loop of leather to hold them together. He slipped the vellum into his pack, then stood, shrugging the pack back onto his shoulders.
“I’m not too sure about that,” he said to Aleksandr. “Else why isn’t the Cassaline Empire still ruling everything?”
“So you hope to learn how to make a catapult like this one?” Aleksandr didn’t try to sound skeptical, but he was fairly sure he did anyway.
Yorrin drew a dagger from his belt, and he slipped it into the mechanisms of the catapult. He sawed it back and forth a couple times, and a thick cord snapped under the iron.
“Yeah,” he said. “Or sabotage them. Depending. This one shouldn’t fire anymore. Not unless they know how to repair it. Should keep the folks in Taraam safe, just in case any of Robin’s old men figure they’ve got one more song to sing.”
A good idea, Aleksandr thought. And one I did not think of. Yorrin is going well out of his way to help the men of Taraam.
Given his conversation with Alaina, Aleksandr found the realization more comforting than normal. He considered speaking of it more directly, but he wasn’t sure what to say. When he finally spoke, he only said: “Come, we should go.”
Yorrin nodded. He sheathed his dagger. “Right,” he said. “Back to sleeping in puddles under the clouds.”
Aleksandr chuckled. “Only for a night, I think. Lefty says there is an inn, at crossroads of two Cassaline roads. Is a large inn, been there many generations, should have room enough for all of us.”
“Sounds nice enough,” Yorrin said. “For a night, anyway. After that…”
“Da,” Aleksandr admitted. “Then is back to sleeping under rainclouds.”
Yorrin shrugged. “You know,” he said, “After the Underpass? I think I missed it. Clouds and rain beats those damned caves any day.”
Aleksandr glanced up. The sky was a monochrome fog, dark clouds swirling beneath gray clouds, with some white clouds hiding away the sun.
Not a glimmer of blue in sight, nor any direct sunlight. He felt raindrops pelt his face. Cold raindrops, almost sleet, as the season changed from winter to spring.
Dreary as it was, it was still the open sky. He took a deep breath of fresh air.
“Da,” he said. “I think you are right.”