It was clear that Aleksandr had spent a great deal of time with Bayard Dmitri’s blacksmith since they’d arrived in Yerevan.
Alaina knew he’d done some work on his armor with the old smith—Piotr, his name was—but she hadn’t realized how well they seemed to know each other. The smith seemed a curmudgeonly type, but he greeted Aleksandr warmly when they approached him. He listened to Aleksandr’s clumsy—but endearing—attempt to explain Borthul’s plan.
Piotr cast a few skeptical glares at the wizard, and one at Alaina, but he did not interrupt. And when Aleksandr showed him Kholodny, Piotr let out a surprised breath. Something between a sigh and a whistle.
“I had heard folk calling you the Black Blade, Kerensky, but I didn’t realize…” he said in Ruskan then he hesitated. “And this—this blackness, it won’t come out?”
“Da. I have cleaned and honed it many times,” Aleksand said. He spoke Middish, no doubt so that Borthul and Yorin could follow along. “Is as sharp an edge as it has ever had, and yet… it does not change.”
Piotr took Kholodny into his hands and ran a reluctant finger along the flat of the sword. “I see this,” he said, joining Aleksandr in Middish. “But this wizard’s plan, it will help?”
“Da. They believe so, anyway,” Aleksandr said. “And I recall you said, when we first met—you have worked with steel before. At least a little. Under your old master, you said.”
Piotr nodded. “So I did. Da, I will help how I can. When are we to do this?”
No point in wasting time, Alaina thought. “Now,” she said. “If you can. We can—I can pay you for your trouble.”
Piotr waved a dismissal hand at her. “Kerensky has been a good apprentice,” he said. “And it would be a terrible shame, to leave one of the great Ruskan steel blades in such condition. Now is good. Sasha! Stoke the fires!”
The old smith turned, laying Aleksandr’s sword on a workbench before he began barking orders to get his forge ready. Yorrin sidled up between Alaina and Aleksandr.
“D’you mind if I watch what you and he do, and take a few notes?” he asked Aleksandr.
“No…” Aleksandr said, furrowing his brow. “Though—why? Is just smithing, Yorrin.”
Yorrin shrugged. “It’s steelworking. Maybe not making steel, but even so, reworking it isn’t a well-known skill either. Figured it’d be good to know exactly what he does. Maybe we could do it again, without him. If we needed to.”
“That’s resourceful,” Alaina commented.
“Da,” Aleksandr agreed. “Good thinking, Yorrin. I will tell Piotr to leave you alone, and answer your questions if he can spare the attention. Take your notes.”
“Alright,” Piotr said, waving Alaina and Borthul over. “Let’s see this, da? What you are asking of me.”
They approached together. They each carried vellum scrolls upon which they had carefully written the respective inscriptions they intended to have marked upon Kholodny. Borthul had seemed indignant at the idea that Alaina would be given one entire side of the blade, but Aleksandr had insisted.
I wish I had as much confidence in my idea, she thought. Yorrin had been a strong advocate of Alaina’s plan, but he had the ignorant zeal of the religious layman. Alaina felt entirely too aware of the many Torathi figures—priests, holy warriors, even saintly molts of Torath—that had entrusted their lives to the holy scriptures and died for it.
Torath helps those who help themselves. No matter how often Alaina recalled the words, one of the most essential in all of the Faith, she still found it helpful to remind herself. Borthul’s binding spells are far more likely to contain a Thaumati demon than any scripture. It’s foolish to think that the ninth psalm from the Book of Tanniyn, or Avram’s Refrain from the Ammudim, can ward off a demon.
Despite her internal fear, Alaina approached Piotr calmly. She laid the vellum down with care, and the smith examined it with a critical eye.
On the other hand, we are helping ourselves, aren’t we? She thought. Borthul’s spells are exactly that. And it’s not that Torath will not help us. His compassion is infinite, as is his power to help… so long as we are not giving in to mindless faith. So perhaps this is exactly right. Practical magic to solve the problem, inasmuch as we know how. And a call for Torath to help us, should Borthul’s wardings and bindings prove insufficient.
Alaina was far from the first person to grapple with understanding God’s plan. It was an old problem in the Torathi Church. She was not so arrogant as to think she would solve it. In the end, she could only do as she always had: trust in her reason and in God’s.
“These, here,” Borthul said, pointing out certain runic sigils that he had scribed. “They must be done first. I must speak the words at the appropriate moments, so I won’t be able to hold your hand. You must execute them all perfectly. Exactly as they appear here, do you understand? A small error could be catastrophic.”
“I do not know this word,” Piotr said bluntly. “Is bad, da?”
“Yes yes, of course it’s bad,” Borthul grumbled.
The smith glanced at Alaina. “And you, priestess? Your words must be exact, and in precise order?”
She smiled. “As exact as you can make them, goodman,” she answered in Ruskan. “But God is more forgiving than ancient magic, I think. Do your best, and I’m sure it will be sufficient.”
Piotr smiled back, the expression crinkling his weathered face. He turned back to where he had laid Kholodny on a workbench, and hefted the sword. He did so with what Alaina suspected was uncharacteristic hesitation, handling the sword as if might bite him at any moment.
That may be wiser than he knows. I don’t have Borthul’s wizard’s sight, but I can still feel the evil emanating from that blade. Alaina felt her jaw tighten, and she willed herself to relax. Evil may be my own biases. A demon borne of Thaumati magic and a dying man’s bones strikes me as supremely evil, but I think all that I really sense from the sword is energy. Dangerous, most definitely. But I’m not sure it has the will or intent to be called evil. It may be that it simply is.
She couldn’t say for certain. Spending too much time around Thaumati magic set Alaina on edge, and she was growing increasingly sure that she was irrational on the subject. Too much pain and sorrow—Iosif’s death, the viciousness and danger of the aurin goblins, and now the bloody mayhem caused by the Yerevani cult.
Borthul is an expert on the subject, and even he agrees that Thaumati sorcery is inherently dangerous. Corrupting, maddening. Destructive. All the scriptures say the same. She shivered. No, I don’t think it’s just my own fears speaking. There is evil there.
Piotr took the sheets of vellum and held them up alongside the sword. Eyeballing the size and shape, clearly trying to get a feel for the work ahead. It took a while of back and forth with Borthul before they were both satisfied that Piotr would be able to fit Borthul’s runic inscriptions on the flat of the blade.
Aleksandr was watching them argue in stern silence. His lips were a tight line, his brow furrowed. Alaina slipped up alongside him and squeezed his hand.
“You alright?” She asked softly
He nodded. “Da,” he said. Then his mouth curled into a frown. “Maybe not,” he admitted. “I am feeling… helpless. I have let down my family—my father. Many generations of Kerensky have carried Kholodny safely. I am the first to damage it.”
“It’ll be alright,” Alaina said. “It’s fixable.”
“Maybe. I dislike relying upon Borthul and Piotr to fix my mistake,” Aleksandr said.
“Was it a mistake?” Alaina asked. “Truly? Would you do things differently, if you could go back?”
Aleksandr did not reply for some time. It was obvious he was carefully considering her words.
He is not a man to jump to conclusions, Alaina thought. When challenged, he honestly considers the challenge. He’s so… introspective. Wise, for one so young. That was something she had heard before, said by other priests about Alaina herself. Aleksandr’s even younger than I am, by at least a few years.
“No,” Aleksandr finally said. “I would not. It had to be done.”
“Of course it did.” Alaina realized she was staring At Aleksandr a little too intensely. Calm down, woman, she told herself. Your time together is running short. The last thing you need is to get even more smitten with this man.
If Aleksandr noticed her staring, he didn’t show it. “Da,” he said. He gave a single nod. His expression still looked grim and determined, but when he met Alaina’s gaze his eyes sparkled. “Thank you, Alaina. That cult, it was too dangerous. Is no telling how many might have died if they were left unchecked. Evil such as them must be opposed, no matter the cost.”
“Kerensky,” Piotr barked.
Aleksandr blinked, shifting his focus immediately. “Da?”
“Come,” the smith said, “Is time.”
“Of course,” Aleksandr extricated his hand from Alaina’s and crossed the smithy to join Piotr.
They were to begin with the Gnomic spells, which meant that time passed slowly to Alaina. There were enough men crowding the Kerensky longsword as it was, with the smiths working and Yorrin dipping in and out to jot down notes. Borthul stood nearby, watching critically out of the corner of his eyes. He had taken out his book of magic, now, and begun murmuring incantations. Alaina kept her distance.
Still, she saw them work from afar. They heated the steel and Piotr hammered away under Borthul’s watchful eye. He etched inscriptions using a thin chisel and a heavy mallet, with Aleksandr joining in when Piotr needed more than two hands. One of his apprentices worked the forge nonstop, keeping the coals roaring with heat. As time wore on, Borthul’s chanting grew louder and more pronounced.
Alaina felt a stirring in the air. The hair on her arms and the back of her neck stood on end. She thought she saw a shimmering in the air around the sword, though perhaps it was just the heat. The air grew thick, oppressive with heat. As Borthul’s chanting continued, however, she felt the energy begin to subside. Whatever he was doing, she thought perhaps it was working.
Working or not, it took hours.
Finally, Piotr shooed Borthul away and summoned Alaina. This went much faster, or at least it felt faster. Alaina’s specifications were nowhere near as exact as Borthul’s had been. She directed them as they inscribed the lines onto the blade, and she intoned a few verses as they worked.
Please, God, lend us just a little of your protection, she pled internally as she spoke words of scripture. He may not be a believer, but you value deeds and wisdom over blind faith. If ever a man was worthy of your blessings, it is Aleksandr. He has selflessly worked to further your interests and slay your foes. He is good, Torath. Grant him this mercy, please.
Soon, this side was finished as well. Alaina stepped back, getting out of their way. Borthul had collapsed onto a bench, breathing heavily, clearly drained. Alaina felt fine, physically. In truth she felt little other than anxious concern for Aleksandr, and for Kholodny.
Piotr and Aleksandr hammered out the blade a little, to ensure it had not warped in the process, then quenched it. Piotr immediately reheated it then quenched it a second time, explaining to Aleksandr and Yorrin that this was an important part of reworking true steel without damaging it.
Once it was quenched and dried, Piotr hefted the blade again and held it up to the lamplights that his apprentice had lit while they worked.
Alaina’s eyes widened at the sight of Kholodny. She could hear Aleksandr heave a sigh of relief.
“The blade—it isn’t black any more,” she said. She closed her mouth in embarrassment. They can see that.
Still, it was a relief. The blade was a familiar lustrous silver-gray. Multi-shaded ripples limned the blade, drinking in the orange lamplight.
Well, it mostly isn’t black, Alaina amended her stupid outburst internally.
Piotr handed the blade to Aleksandr. As he turned the sword a few times in his hands, Alaina noted the inscriptions on both sides. They stood out starkly on the gray steel for one key reason: the inscriptions were still soot black. The lettering was as dark as the blade had been before. In a way it almost looked as if the core of Kholodny was somehow black, and Piotr’s etching had simply revealed it. It was an unsettling sight.
“Strange,” Aleksandr said, running a finger along one of the inscriptions. “I—I will not pretend I like this.” He sighed. “But is better than before. Borthul—Alaina, did—did it work? Is the demon gone?”
“Not gone,” Borthul corrected. His voice came out in a wheeze. “Bound, Kerensky. Bound.”
“Da, yes, is what I mean,” Aleksandr said. A trace of impatience crept into his voice. “Is the demon bound, then?”
Borthul nodded. “Seems so,” he said. “I don’t feel its presence roiling around madly any longer, at least.”
Aleksandr glanced at Alaina. She gave him quick nod. “I—I’m not the expert Borthul is,” she said. “But I agree. I felt… something before, certainly. It’s gone now, or much subdued.”
Aleksandr closed his eyes. He gripped the hilt tightly with his right hand, and traced the etched letters with his left. He whispered something inaudible.
“Is done, then?” Piotr asked. “Good?”
Aleksandr opened his eyes, nodding. “It seems so,” he said.
“Good. The edge will need work,” Piotr said. He motioned Aleksandr to his workbench.
Aleksandr nodded. “Da,” he said. “Of course. Thank you.”
Piotr shrugged. “No need,” he said. “That sword—is an excellent piece. True steel, the best I have ever seen. A shame, what happened to it. I am glad I could help, even if it was…” Piotr cast a skeptical glance at Borthul. “Strange. Anyway. You are good student, Kerensky.”
Aleksandr smiled. “You are a good teacher.”
“Heh,” Piotr grinned. “Keep at it. You could be a smith yet, with practice. If you need nothing else, I will leave you now. Stay as long as you like. Sasha will clean up the tools.”
Aleksandr nodded, and Piotr strode out of the smithy and towards the adjacent building where he lived.
Aleksandr glanced around the room, and his gaze lingered on Borthul. “Yorrin…”
The small man nodded. “On it,” he said. He nudged Borthul. “Come on, old man, let’s get you to bed.”
Borthul was too exhausted to object to Yorrin’s disrespect. That, or he was finally used to it. In either case, Yorrin escorted him out of the smithy.
And like that, they were alone. Or at least, mostly alone. The young apprentice moved in and out of the smithy, gathering tools and tidying up.
Aleksandr hunkered over Kholodny. He oiled the blade and began carefully honing the edge. Alaina moved to stand beside him.
“Thank you,” he said without looking up.
“I didn’t do much,” Alaina said. “I felt the change in the air, when Borthul worked his spells. I think he gets the credit for this. The scripture—it’s a nice thought, perhaps it will grant you luck, but I don’t think it really helped to bind the demon’s energy.”
“Maybe,” Aleksandr said. “Even so. Thank you. Not just for this.”
“I’m the one that owes you thanks, Aleksandr,” Alaina said. “You’ve done so much more for me than you had to. You fought through so much to get me here. You saved my life, more than once. You found justice for Iosif. You—” Her voice caught in her throat. She could feel a flush in her cheeks as she found the courage to speak her next words. “You’ve given me such love and kindness as I could never have imagined.”
Aleksandr paused. He was still looking down at the sword, not meeting Alaina’s eyes. She was thankful. I don’t know if I could say this otherwise.
“I know you’re leaving soon,” she said. “You will find others that need your help, and Yerevan is not your home. I would never ask you to stay.” Her mouth felt dry. She swallowed nervously. “But I wanted—no, I had to tell you. What I told you, the night you went to face the cult… I meant it. I love you, Aleksandr. We cannot be together for much longer, and—that’s alright. Such things happen. But I do love you, for all you’ve done for me. For who you are. And if you return to Yerevan, I should be happy to see you.”
Aleksandr finally looked up from his sword. His expression was hard to read. His mouth was closed, hidden behind his beard. His brow was a little furrowed, almost sad-looking. But his eyes… Alaina felt her stomach flutter when she looked into his eyes. They looked straight through to her soul.
“I have never courted before. I do not know how to—how to speak to women, really,” Aleksandr said. “But—”
“That’s one of many things that makes you so charming,” Alaina said. Realizing that he felt just as awkward and nervous as she did helped to renew her confidence. “You speak to me as you do anyone else. As an equal. So… just speak. Tell me what you think. You don’t need to pretty it up.”
Aleksandr nodded. “Very well,” he said. “I think I love you as well. And… I will definitely return to see you. As soon and as often as I am able.”
“Good,” Alaina said, smiling. “Then I just have one more question, I think.”
“Hm?” Aleksandr cocked his head.
“The last two nights I’ve spent listening to Borthul babble endlessly about Gnomic spells and Thaumati demons. The quarters Bayard Dmitri has given me are fine, but they are sorely lacking in one thing.”
She reached out, running her fingers through Aleksandr’s beard and sliding her hand around to cup the back of his neck. She smiled when she saw the blush hit his cheeks.
“Um,” Aleksandr said.
“Will you remedy that lack for me, Aleksandr?” Alaina asked. The forge fire had died down, but Alaina felt more heat now than ever. She bit her lip as she waited for Aleksandr’s reply.
“Da,” he said. “I would be happy to.”
This will hurt a great deal when he leaves, she reminded herself.
She leaned in, crushing her lips against his. She felt his broad arms sweep around her, pulling her into a tight embrace.
I don’t care, she replied.