Monday, March 30, 2015

Chapter Two: Choices

“Well, Your Majesty?” Count Wallenberg asked, tapping his silver cane on the ground. “What will it be? Are you going to come quietly, or are my men going to have to get quite uncivilised?”
A storm raged in Sara's heart, which didn't even have to do with the revelation that Oleg was the tsar of Baikalia; in hindsight, she could've guessed that. The knowledge that the overly fancy man with his oddly white hair was responsible for her mother's death and the recent attack on Sylene that had almost desecrated Zemyna's temple was what set her ablaze. “You killed my mother, syknaskyle!” she shouted, running towards him. “I will rip-”
Be quiet, girl,” Wallenberg snapped, stepping towards his great, white horse. “If you come any closer, I will simply ride off and give my men the order to attack.”
Sara stopped reluctantly, trying to kill the count with her eyes instead.
Wallenberg twirled his silver cane around. “Well, Your Majesty?”
Oleg glowered at him. “What will you do if I surrender? Hold Baikalia hostage using me? Kill me and engineer a succession crisis? Sell me to whichever country bids the most?”
Wallenberg smiled. “All I can tell you at the moment is that you won't be harmed. We shall discuss the rest drinking wine together in a more appropriate setting rather than shouting at each other in some pagan peasant's mudfields.”
“No,” Oleg said, “we shan't. I don't know who you are or what you're a count of, but let me tell you who I am. I am Oleg Grigorovitch Ramutsov. My grandfather single-handedly dragged Baikalia out of its civil war and destroyed the occupying Polgarian armies when he was but a teenager. My father kept the peace when unrest in the church threatened to tear the empire apart. I attacked the Rumiyan Sultanate itself and wrested control of our coasts from them. Do you really think I would surrender to you?”
“You would if you were wise.”
“Wise? Ha! I will not surrender myself to let you do with Baikalia what you wish. I will die like a Ramutsov. But, should I survive, you will face the wrath of the tsar!”
“So uncivilised,” Wallenberg said, mounting his horse. “This is your last warning. Come with me, or my men will kill-”
“They'll kill no-one,” Sara said. “We will defend ourse-”
“Be quiet when your betters are talking!” Wallenberg snapped.
Oleg laughed. “Betters? You? In the few hours since I've met this girl, she has demonstrated more courage and compassion than I would wager your entire house has displayed since the Dark Age!”
“Good,” Wallenberg said, coldly, “she'll need that courage, if that's your choice.”
“It is.”
“In that case, I'll try to have you captured alive, but I can't make any guarantees.”
“Then I will be proud to die fighting alongside worthy warriors!”
Wallenberg scoffed. “Three peasants; one of them an old man, one a young boy, and the third a girl. If these pass for warriors in Baikalia, I don't expect your empire to survive you very long.”
Sara's father spoke for the first time. “Please, sir. Leave my children out of this. I-”
“Be quiet. Good day, my men attack in a few minutes.”
“Yeah,” Sara shouted after him as he rode away, over the hill, “I'll bet it'll be just your men attacking, kiaule! Don't want to risk getting blood on your own fancy coat, do you?! And if-”
Her father put a hand on her shoulder. “Sara. Nothing we can do about him. We'd better get out of here, if we still can.”
“Fine.”
“Mr. Zukas,” Oleg said, “do you have any weapons at your farm?”
“Only dad's old spear from the battle of Vinda, Your Majesty,” Sara said.
“Do not call me 'Your Majesty',” Oleg said, as they ran back to the farmhouse. “'Oleg' will do.”
“Uh, wwwell, it feels very weird to address the tsar of Baikalia by his first name.” Of course, it felt very weird to be talking to the tsar of Baikalia in the first place.
“Then you will have to get used to it.”
Sara and Karolis ran into the stables, quickly saddling and leading the exhausted horses out once more. They sniffed and neighed angrily. “Don't be like that,” Sara said, “I'm tired too, but we'll have to pull through a little longer.”
“Sara,” Karolis asked, “what in the name of all the stars is going on?”
“No time to explain,” Sara said, starting to feel guilt gnawing at her for raising this much trouble by helping Oleg as she realised she'd put them all, not just herself, in danger. If her father or brother died because of her sticking her nose in other people's business...
They led the horses outside just as almost a dozen raiders rode over the hill. Sara's father, armed with his old spear, mounted one of the horses and told Karolis to sit behind him. Sara mounted the other one, grabbing a loose plank from the stable wall as a makeshift weapon and sharing the horse with Oleg. “You ride, and I'll beat their heads in, Your Ma- er, Oleg!”
“Right!” Gunshots echoed loudly through the small valley and splinters rained from Sara's plank as one of them tore through the old wood. They tried to flee at first, but the exhausted and overloaded horse wasn't moving nearly as fast as the raiders, who caught up quickly. They hadn't gone far when Oleg suddenly turned the horse around sharply, letting Sara surprise a raider with a swing of her plank that knocked him straight off his horse and into the dirt.
Another raider just about collided with them, briefly crushing Sara's leg between the two horses as he wildly stabbed his blade at the beast instead of its riders, cutting a deep red wound into its shoulder. The horse neighed, its eyes rolling in panic and pain, and reared up, throwing Sara and Oleg off as it limped away, leaving a trail of blood.
Sara dived between a forest of horse legs as the raider tried to trample her, a fire ablaze in her mind, and grabbed the backsword of the raider she'd knocked down earlier, swinging it at the first human leg she saw. There was a yell of pain as she began to attack the raider who'd taken them down and was currently trying to kill Oleg. She wielded the blade above her with both hands, bracing against the powerful impacts of the raider's sword. “You-” she growled, crossing blades with the man again and again, “hurt – my – hor- Aargh!”
The swords slid over each other's length with a metal scrape, the raider's blade finding Sara's hilt, barely bumping over the guard, and cleft into Sara's knuckles. She gritted her teeth, swinging the blade again with only her right hand to the raider's surprise, and hit him in the arm, which made him drop his blade. The raider made his horse dash forward, and Sara only barely avoided getting trampled by the beast, but was still knocked down by its great impact.
The raider fell off his horse, stone dead, and landed on the ground next to Sara as a dozen gunshots sounded. Another raider shouted a command, and the forest of horse legs around her galloped away. Now Sara could see why they fled: a larger group of riders had come over the hill, pursuing them. She stood up, her bones creaking and her hand bleeding, but still alive, and quickly thanked Zemyna for her survival. Her father and Karolis were unharmed, safe on their horse, and decided to follow Sara's wounded horse after making sure she was alright.
A bearded horseman trailed behind the others and stopped before Oleg, who was only a little worse for wear. “Thank heavens you're alright, Your Majesty, we've searched for you all day.”
The Baikalian stood up straight to his great length, an impassive, statuesque look on his face. “The tsar thanks you for your aid. He is unharmed. Where is Admiral Fyodorovitch?”
“I saw his carriage on the road behind this hill, Your Majesty.”
“Thank you. Continue your pursuit.”
As the rider left, Oleg visibly relaxed and immediately looked far more human. He walked towards Sara, who was wrapping a piece of cloth around her hand. “And for the second time this day, you fight for me. You truly are a fierce warrior.”
“Stop saying that, Oleg,” Sara said, still feeling ashamed to address the tsar like that.
Oleg smiled. “I will stop.”
“Thanks.”
“Come along,” he said, “I want to introduce you to some friends of mine.”
“Friends of yours?” Sara stiffened. “I don't know if that's such a good idea...”
Oleg grinned. “Do not worry; they are not the kind of people you might think. I am sure they'll like you.”
“Alright...” Sara said, starting to feel quite nervous. She tried to take her mind off the prospect of appearing before some kind of nobles. “Oleg? Why were you walking alone on the road? You being a tsar and all.”
Oleg shrugged. “I wanted to see if the people here were any different than in Baikalia. I'm travelling to learn from other nations, and while I'm just passing through Pagania, I still wanted to have a look around. And how right I was! I've already seen things no-one in Baikalia has!”
Sara raised her eyebrows. “You mean wheelbarrows.”
Oleg clapped his hands enthusiastically. “Yes, yes! What a remarkable invention! But there is also you. No woman in Baikalia would be like you.”
Sara rolled her eyes. “Really now?”
Oleg nodded. “In Baikalia, women do not fight, nor are they supposed to even speak to men, other than their husbands and fathers. According to our customs – well, our church, really - women are weak, stupid, childlike, and wicked, and should be protected from themselves. A woman's job is to have a lot of children and do whatever her father or husband commands her to. If possible, she shouldn't even be allowed to leave her home.”
“That's horrible!”
Oleg nodded. “It's something I have been trying to change. My mother, you see, grew up in the household of a Fontouran trader. I knew already from her that matters are very different in the South, and probably rightly so. Still, to be rescued by a woman a mere day past our own borders was... unexpected.”
Sara sniffed. “Well, if things are that different in Baikalia, you should prepare for a lot of surprises.”
“Things need to modernise, but-”
“And this church,” Sara said, “do you think its teachings are correct?”
Oleg shrugged. “Certainly not all of them. But yes, I am a believer.”
“What does that mean?” Sara asked. “Do you or don't you follow your god?”
“Well, does your own religion have no aspects you disagree with, or that you think should change?”
Sara frowned. “Of course not, the gods are good and wise, and it's not my place to question them.”
“You don't disagree with anything they teach?”
“Nothing,” Sara said. “I am but a mortal; I couldn't disagree with the gods.”
Oleg shrugged. “Perhaps.”
They walked in silence for a little while before Sara began to wonder about something else. “Why didn't you say who you were? We could probably have arranged for the king to provide some sort of escort for you.”
Oleg grinned. “And then I'd have to visit every single noble on the way south. And every one of them would treat me like the tsar, and I would have to act like him.”
“Buuuut... You are the tsar.”
“Yes, but that doesn't mean I want to have to act like it every day of my life. If people know you're the tsar, they make you go through all kinds of ceremonies, and you always have to be formal and serious. It's no fun, and it'd also mean I'd never see any commoners. And it's the commoners who build the ships, fight the wars, and construct the cities, isn't it? I can't learn much if I'm cooped up with nobles all the time.”
“I suppose that makes sense. I'd never thought of kings and stuff getting bored with everyone treating them like, wwwell, a king.”
Oleg chuckled. “It's dreary.”
Sara smiled. “It can't be that bad. What about the cake?”
“You get a lot less cake than you might expect when you're tsar.”
Sara smiled as she saw her father slowly ride towards them. “Sara, Your Majesty, are you alright?”
“Ah, mr. Zukas, another brave comrade in arms! How is your horse?”
Sara's father kept his eyes off the tsar nervously. “My son's taking care of her, Your Majesty. We think she will recover.”
“I believe my men shot one of the raiders, so why don't you keep his horse as a token of my gratitude?”
Sara's father almost fell off his horse. “Oh, that's a great idea, sir!” Sara rolled her eyes, seeing the look on her father's face; the look usually associated with a lot of money. “Oh, I'm sorry, I should dismount and let you ride, sir!”
Oleg chuckled. “Not at all, not at all. Believe me, I have ridden enough for today.”
Her father dismounted anyway, leading the tired horse on by hand. They reached the edge of their fields, near the place where Sara had been ploughing that morning. On the road ahead, at the forest's edge, a large, brown carriage with six horses stood still. As Oleg approached, its ornate door opened and a girl in a magnificent, flowing, white dress stepped out.
Sara couldn't help feeling a distinct pang of jealousy, despite Zemyna's teachings, as she compared the brilliant, silky white gown with her own brown, sowed-together patchwork of a leather outfit. To make things worse, it clung to the girl's figure, showing off the curve of her full hips, where Sara's eyes lingered with annoyance as her hand almost automatically shot to her belt, feeling her own bony hips – or rather the lack of them. The dress was topped with a massive, fluffy, white fur collar, which in turn framed a head of long, curly, black hair. In between, it was easy to miss the triangular face of a young woman. Between her somewhat pointy face, her curved eyebrows, and asymmetric smirk, she had a sly look about her that Sara found very unpleasant.
Sara had never seen a garment so immaculately white, and it quickly became obvious to her the girl had never worked a day in her life to get it dirty. Her pale skin and thin, muscle-less body were further evidence. Sara reminded herself Zemyna had made every human unique and perfect in their own role, and that she should feel neither inferior nor superior to this girl, who was just as perfect for her role as Sara was for hers... but she couldn't help it. She just found something about the girl despicable.
It was only then that she realised the girl was scrutinising her the same way. She briefly made eye contact and found her own dislike mirrored in large, green eyes in a pointy, sly face. “Oleg!” the girl said. “We thought we'd lost you.”
Oleg made a faux apologetic bow. “I decided to explore this land.”
The girl gave an asymmetric smirk, her full lips pulling to the left side only. “Aww, you should've told me, I would've loved to come. But at least, I see you've brought the local wildlife for me to study.” She suddenly darted forward, grabbing Sara by the shoulders and looking at her face from as close as she could get, short as she was, her eyes huge and wide. “It seems to be an old serf and his walking scarecrow!”
“Scarecrow?!” Sara snapped, as she grabbed the girl's hands, finding them delicate and white, Sara's own calloused hands probably the roughest things she'd ever touched.
“And it talks too!” she said, giggling. “The South really is a place full of wondrous technology! Can it do any tricks?”
“I'll show you a trick,” Sara growled, barely restraining herself from hitting Cristina.
“Now, now, Cristina,” Oleg said, stifling his laughter, “do not be so rude to my new friend. I wouldn't have been here without her, you know.”
“My apologies,” Cristina said, offering her hand to Sara with that stupid, asymmetric smirk on her face. Sara took the pale, cold hand, squeezing it quite a bit harder than necessary, “just a joke. I'm Cristina Fontana, the tsar's old friend and scientific advisor.”
Sara forced her mouth into a smile, even as her frown stayed in place. “Sara Zukaite.”
“Nice to meet you, Sara Zukaite.” The girl turned her back on Sara and walked back to the carriage, her hips swinging in a way Sara was completely certain was intentional and meant to add insult to insult. She was beginning to doubt whether Zemyna could really have created such an unspeakably vile person, or if Cristina had perhaps stepped out of a bewitched dung heap fully formed one black day. The girl shook her head, her curls gleaming elegantly in the light as they shifted their position, and Sara blew a strand of her own tangled, blonde hair out of her face with annoyance.
Only then did she realise a second person had stepped out of the carriage; a fairly young man in clothes with overly bright colours that clashed unpleasantly with each other. His hair, oddly, was grey despite his age, and very long and curly. It seemed to be growing out of his scalp at a slight angle too. He gave Sara a curt nod. “Admiral Fyodorovitch. Did you say you wouldn't be here without this girl, Oleg?”
“Indeed not! I was attacked by bandits this morning, and she came to my aid,” Oleg said, quickly explaining the day's events to his friends. Cristina's curved eyebrows rose in an expression Sara would like to think was both jealous and impressed. Fyodorovitch, on the other hand, frowned more and more. He scratched his head. Sara could almost swear his entire haircut moved as he did so. Maybe Baikalian hair worked differently? Oleg's seemed normal enough, but maybe she just hadn't noticed yet. “This could be very bad news, Oleg. If this Wallenberg is hunting for you, you could be in great danger.”
“Nonsense,” Oleg said.
“Oleg, all of Baikalia would be in great danger if you were captured or killed.”
“Um, I agree with the admiral,” Sara said, feeling a blush come to her cheeks to be intruding in a conversation between such important people. “Count Wallenberg could very well try again, if your men don't catch him.”
The admiral nodded, and once again Sara was almost sure his whole haircut moved. “The girl is right, Oleg. Maybe we should go back and take an escort with us? Baikalia is only a day away.”
“No,” Oleg said. “There are two hundred of us, and Wallenberg only has a dozen men or so.”
“Two hundred?” Sara asked. “Where are they?”
Cristina rolled her eyes. “We don't all travel in a single column, we're not an army. We'll see everyone again in Polwa.”
“Well, then they're not going to do you much good, are they?”
“It will be fine,” Oleg said. “Enough travel with us to keep me safe. Besides, now I have you to protect me as well.”
It took Sara a second to realise whom he was talking about. “Wait, me?!”
“Ah, sorry, I forgot to ask you. Sara, would you like to travel south with us?”
“Uhhh-”
“Oleg,” Admiral Fyodorovitch said with surprising urgency, “don't you think you're being rash? You've known this girl less than a day.”
“Ah, but she has already demonstrated more valour and loyalty than a lot of my own subjects!”
“Yeah,” Cristina said, “but it's still only one day. She could be a spy, for all you know.”
“She is not,” Oleg said, “and I may know her only one day, but that's all the more reason for her to join us. It will allow me more time to befriend her.”
“But-”
“This is the tsar's will,” Oleg said calmly.
“Of course, Oleg,” Fyodorovitch said.
Oleg turned back to Sara, who'd been frozen in place. “Well? Would you like to join us?”
“Wwwell, um, this is my home... I don't think I-”
“Sorry, sirs, madam,” Sara's father interrupted her. “Would you mind if I had a quick chat with my daughter?”
“Of course not,” Oleg said.
Her father led her a small distance away from the Baikalians. “Were you going to say no?”
“Wwwell, yes,” Sara said. “You know I can't go with him, dad.”
“And why not?”
“Because I belong here. You need me on the farm.”
“We can do without you, Sara. Don't worry about us. That horse is going to sell for a lot of money, you know. That should help.”
Sara sighed. “I still belong here.”
He placed his hands on her shoulders. “Sara, you've just been given a huge opportunity. That's the tsar of Baikalia, and he likes you. Becoming his friend, or more, could turn out very well for you. He might make you a noblewoman, or rich at the very least. And if he doesn't do it, plenty of people would be willing to pay handsomely to have the ear of the tsar through you.”
Sara rolled her eyes. “You think about money far too much, dad.”
“I just want you to have a good life, Sara. This could be your chance to escape a life of backbreaking work and poverty. If my little girl becomes a rich, pampered noble lady, that would fulfil all my dreams.”
Sara had to suppress a shudder at the thought of becoming like Cristina. “Dad... I'm a farmer. Zemyna creates us all to play a certain role in the world. We can't change who we are. And that's alright, being a farmer is a good life.”
Her father smiled wistfully. “You sound just like your mother. She too was far too fond of Zemyna's teachings. Don't forget there are four other gods looking over us, Sara. Dievas helps those who help themselves. Perkunas teaches us we can become whatever we want to. We're not bound to the role we're born in.”
Sara sniffed. “You can't build a house on stars and air. Give me the solid support of the Earth any day.”
He sighed. “Some day, you'll learn that too much faith in Zemyna can be stifling. It's your life, not a house. Change brings opportunities, not just dangers.”
“But-”
“Sara, I want you to go with the tsar.”
Sara's breathing quickened as she pictured the idea of leaving everything she knew behind. “But dad... I don't want to go. This is my home, there's nothing for me in the south, nor in Baikalia... I've got everything I want right here, in Pagania: home, the farm, you...”
He gave her a hug, his bald head only reaching up to her nose. “I know, Sara. Leaving home is never easy, and I'll miss you too. When I was summoned to fight the Rumiyans, I didn't want to go either. In fact, I was horrified, I begged my father to please help me get out of my duty somehow.”
“You?”
“Yes. But I had no choice; it was my duty, and so I went. And I would never have met your mother if I'd backed out.”
“You might've died just as easily,” Sara muttered.
“I know. But think about what you've been given. A chance to become a friend of a tsar, maybe even his wi-”
Sara pulled her nose up. “I'm not going to court him, dad. I'm not interested.”
“Then just be his friend, alright? This is not a chance many get. I want you to take it.”
Sara sighed, staring at the precious earth of their farm that she'd soon have to leave behind, probably forever. “Then I will do as you ask...”
Her father gave her an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “Listen, Sara, I'm just looking out for your own best interests. I really want you to give this a try. But if you really don't want to keep going, you don't have to follow him to the ends of the Earth. That girl said they were going to Polwa. Why don't you go that far at least?”
Sara drew a sharp breath, an idea coming to her that dispelled her fear. “Do you think the tsar will meet King Tiberius?”
“I don't know, but if he's not planning to, you could convince him.”
“If Oleg told the king about Wallenberg's raiders,” Sara said, “I bet he would do something about them!”
“Precisely! The king probably doesn't even know about them in the first place. We're so far from Polwa here.”
Sara felt a fire rising through her veins. “Then I'll make sure he finds out! I'll make sure he finds out all they did, and makes them face justice! That, at least, is a worthy reason to leave.”
Her father smiled. “That's my girl.”
The fire in her veins quickly made space for ice as she realised she'd actually have to do this, actually have to say goodbye to everything soon. “I-I'm just not sure, if-”
“Sara, give it a try. Please. You will regret it eventually if you don't grasp this chance, believe me. I want you to promise me you won't return unless the tsar tells you to or you really think it's the right choice.”
Sara nodded tremulously. Cold sweat was pouring down her back and her scalp tingled as her hair tried to stand on end, but her father was so sure of this, looking at her so expectantly. She didn't dare tell him how terrified she was, didn't want to let him down. She took a deep breath. “I promise. I'll make you proud, dad, and I'll make sure Count Wallenberg pays for what he did to mum...”

Monday, March 23, 2015

Chapter One: The Traveller

A gunshot sounded over the tired breaths of the horses pulling the plough, startling Sara out of her daydream. She looked about the brown, muddy field for the source of the noise as she stopped the plough, hopping off and grabbing the rake for protection. She couldn't see far, as this part of the farm lay in a small valley, but she could hear the clang of swords hitting each other from the direction of the forest's edge, behind one of the small hillocks surrounding her. Her heart ignited in bitter fury as she realised it could only be the raiders again, the anger she'd felt ever since her mother's funeral returning in full force. Before she knew what she was doing, she was running for the sounds, picking up a shovel she'd used earlier that morning for good measure.


On the small, unpaved road between the Zukas family's fields and the dense pine forest, a thin, very tall man was fighting off three assailants in long, black coats. He was clearly a capable swordsman, but his left arm was bleeding from a bullet wound and he was outnumbered and surrounded. Sara hesitated. Her father would want her to come back to the farmhouse and let him summon the whole town to fight off the raiders together. But by that time, this man would be a lanky corpse, and the raiders would've claimed another victim without getting what they deserved.


Sara muttered a prayer to Zemyna and ran down the hillock, clutching the rake and shovel hard and making her knuckles go white. She began to swing the shovel for the back of one of the raiders' heads as she ran, but the one on the tall stranger's other side shouted a warning. Her target ducked at the last moment, her shovel swinging into thin air and unbalancing her with its weight. The raider tried to capitalise on her miss with a stab to her neck, but Sara was already swinging her rake as well. The thin backsword met the wooden handle of the rake with great force, breaking in two pieces with an unpleasant twang as its single edge hewed deep into the wood. The raider stared at half his blade with a dumbfounded expression on his clean-shaven face as Sara recovered her balance, swung the shovel around, and hit him first in the stomach and then in the face with its handle.


Sara jumped back at the flash of a blade in the corner of her left eye, and thus avoided getting skewered by the second raider, who had turned his attention to her, letting the red-coated stranger duel the raider on his other side. A sharp pain shot up her leg as the sword's backswing managed to nick her in the thigh, opening a cut. The backsword swung for her once more and she stumbled back, her heel hitting something and tripping her. She planted the shovel firmly in the ground as she fell, catching her fall and transferring her momentum into a kick at her advancing enemy's kneecaps. As he howled in pain, she swung the rake at him clumsily, doing more damage to the rake, which lost most of its teeth, than her enemy, who was mainly just thrown back by the force of the swing.


The third raider exploded in red as the tall man managed to skewer him with his smallsword. The raider Sara had just thrown back with her rake looked ready to rejoin the fight, when he saw his comrade's death. He looked from Sara to the stranger and back, then thought better of it and sprinted off, northwards. It was only then that Sara noticed the one she'd knocked out first had stood up again and was running in the same direction, still a bit wobbly and unbalanced. As much as Sara would've liked to pursue them and send them right after her mother, she didn't; exhausted and thanking Zemyna they'd won. She put down the tools, letting the sore muscles in her arms and back rest and panting for air. The cut in her leg had soaked her brown breeches around the wound, but wasn't bleeding badly.


The stranger was clutching his left arm, which was bleeding rather more. “Are you alright?” Sara asked.


He turned to face her. She found herself in the unfamiliar situation of having to look up to talk to someone, as he was almost a head taller than her. His weaving, brown hair was a little messy after the fight, and he had a small, curled moustache. He was also younger than she'd thought, no older than 25. “For the most part, yes,” he said, with a thick accent that made his Rs roll. “Thank you very much for your help.”


“These kalakutpisai have been getting far too bold lately,” Sara said, starting to feel awash with and proud of her victory, “it's about time someone taught them a lesson.” She frowned, seeing blood leak out from between the stranger's fingers where he clutched his arm. “You should visit Zemyna's temple with that arm and ask for her blessing.”


“This Zemyna,” the stranger asked, “is she a wizard?”


“Wizard?” Sara pronounced the unfamiliar word. “N-no, Zemyna is the goddess of the Earth, and- you don't know her?”


“I am a stranger to these lands,” he said. “Can someone in the temple use magic to heal me?”


“Of course, magic is what the gods do,” Sara said, unable to believe his ignorance. “How-”


“After him!” a distant voice sounded from the north. “He's getting away!”


Several voices answered. Sara froze. So many raiders, and so close to her home? They had to lead them away right now. “Quick, this way!” she said, beginning to run back up the hillock. The stranger's great strides quickly let him catch up to her. “Give me your sword!” she said as they came to the plough. The stranger did so, and Sara cut through the leather straps binding the horses to the plough and each other without hesitation. She climbed up on the back of one of them using the remnants of its harness.


“No saddle?” the stranger asked.


Sara rolled her eyes. “Forgot to put it on. Hurry up!”


As hoofbeats of the raiders' horses approached, the stranger climbed up, and they set out in gallop, quickly finding out why people usually rode with saddles. They held on for dear life as the horses ran across the field, not towards Sara's home, but towards town. Within a few seconds it felt as if the bones in the horse's back were directly battering against those of her hips, as if there was no flesh in between. Eight bandits were after them, on properly equipped warhorses used to running, rather than sturdy plough beasts. Loud gunshots sounded and the horses heaved in panic. “My name's Sara Zukaite!” Sara shouted. “What's yours?!”


The stranger, looking rather comical in a tight hug to a galloping horse not that much larger than him, his red coat flapping in the wind like a giant bird's wings, shouted back. “Oleg Grigorovitch!”


Sara led them into the open forest as they'd reached the edge of the fields, birds and small animals fleeing from the horses and sticks breaking underfoot. “You're Baikalian?!”


Oleg chuckled. “You sound surprised!”


“Wwwell,” Sara said, doing her best to steer the horse safely through the forest using straps from the harness as a bridle, “we don't get many Baikalians around here. Besides, you, er, well-”


Oleg smiled. “I am not what you imagine a Baikalian to be like. You expected a big, hairy brute dressed in furs, with his mind stuck in the Dark Age!”


Sara felt a blush come to her face, though she was probably flushed with exhaustion and excitement anyway. “Wwwell...”


“It is alright,” Oleg said, his horse barely dodging a massive oak, “that's what most Baikalians are actually like! And that, you see, is why I'm on this journey. To learn of the ways of the South and bring the Age of Enlightenment to Baikalia! ...At least, that is what the ambassadors are on this journey for. Did I mention I am an aide to admiral Fyodorovitch, ambassador of the tsar?”


“Ambassadors?”


“The tsar has sent 200 of the finest minds in Baikalia to the south to serve as a great embassy and to-”


Sara sat up in surprise, and almost got brained by a thick branch for it. “Couldn't you have mentioned that before?! Where's your master? We should be running towards him for help!


“Yes, I thought of that myself,” Oleg said, almost sliding off his horse and clutching it tighter in an odd hug. “He's in the north, on the other side of these bandits!”


A pack of sleeping wolves awoke with a shock as the horses ran past, fleeing themselves with snarls and whines. “Why are they so hell-bent on you, anyway?”


“For the ransom! Which they must think I would fetch them, but I would not, as I am just an aide to admiral Fyodorovitch!”


Sara frowned. “You... mentioned that.”


She looked behind as they left the forest, and found the bandits almost on top of them, the first barely the length of his horse away. Sara spurred her exhausted horse on as best she could, foam dripping out of the creature's mouth. It was probably feeling at least as sore as she was, after the saddle-less ride, but it only had a little further to go. The first bandit to overtake them focussed entirely on Oleg, almost within a sword length of his horse, and for a moment, something inside Sara told her to keep going, to just get to Sylene herself, warn the town, and quite coincidentally not run any risk herself.


She steered her horse towards the bandit and swung Oleg's sword, as thin as a toothpick and surprisingly light, at the bandit, who effortlessly blocked her swing. “Don't swing it!” Oleg shouted. “It's for stabbing with!”


Sara blocked the strikes the bandit swung at her, her entire being vibrating with the force of every strike of metal on metal. “Don't-” she said, swinging the sword again and again as hard as she could, only to meet more steel, “-complain- about-” the thin blade shattered in two, Sara only holding a pointless rod of shard-edged steel on a hilt now ...Oh.”


The bandit grinned nastily at her, the need to avoid a tree that they each rode on one side of all that prevented him from stabbing her immediately. As they rejoined each other after the tree, his sword was ready, like an executioner's blade. Instead of fighting him, Sara cut through the strap of his saddle in one strike. With a surprised yelp, the bandit fell off the other side of his horse, saddle and all. His horse took a sharp turn to the right, colliding with a second bandit.


Sylene was only just ahead, its hodgepodge of straw roofs overlooking the land from the top of its hill. “Raiders!” Sara shouted. “To arms! To arms!”


Their pursuers didn't give up. Good, Sara thought, if they wanted to underestimate the people here, let them. Another raider almost caught up, his blade ready to strike. Sara lunged at him, dropping the pointless toothpick of a sword, and grabbed his sword hand with both of hers. She struggled against his strength, the blade's sharp edge slowly coming closer to her face as they both gritted their teeth. Sara's horse was starting to turn left, her legs being pulled away as she hung more and more over the empty space between them. She cursed under her breath, trying to steer the horse back with her legs while struggling with the raider. The knife came closer, and she was being pulled off her horse.


Oleg slowed down, coming over on the other side of the raider, and hit him on the head. The raider let go of his sword, and so did Sara, letting him fall to the ground as she managed to regain her balance on the horse. “Raiders!” she shouted again. “To arms!”


Faces looked out of windows in shock and townspeople, from merchants to farmers, stopped what they were doing as the chase continued into the straw-covered streets. The town quickly took up Sara's alarm, and people got whatever worked as a weapon out of their houses, from old war-weapons like pole-arms and bows to all kinds of tools used in their trade. The bandits quickly changed their mind as arrows began flying and their horses suddenly ran serious risk of being tripped by a retired soldier with a polearm. They turned back as people wielding farming equipment, old weapons, and bows began to form a welcoming committee.


The raiders galloped away for their lives, pursued by arrows and gunshots, and Sara and Oleg stopped their horses. Sara exchanged a few words with a few of the people she knew, thanking them for their help as business as usual quickly returned. She stiffly managed to get off her horse, her tailbone terribly sore by now, and took a few steps, walking as if her legs had been replaced with brooms. Oleg began to laugh as he saw it. “You look like a scarecrow brought to life! Even the hair fits!”


“Yeah? Well, you look like-” at that moment, Oleg, trying to climb off his horse, instead fell off and landed in the mud. Sara burst out with laughter.


The lanky Baikalian got up, and stepped rapidly towards Sara. For one moment, she thought he might get furious. Instead, she received a quick, rib-cracking hug as he laughed loudly. “This is fantastic! This is just what I travel for!”


Sara raised an eyebrow as she gave Oleg's horse a grateful pat on the flank and led both of the exhausted creatures to some water. “To... be held up by bandits, barely escape, and fall off a horse?”


Oleg ignored her, giddy with joy. “To see what the South is like for myself, to drink in the Age of Reason! See a different, better world, and bring it back to Baikalia! I had no idea I would already find that world here in Pagania, barely across my own borders!”


Sara looked around the village to see what she'd missed. “Wwwell...”


“So early in my journey, I already find a mighty female warrior who can defeat multiple swordsmen and ride horses to victory in a thrilling battle!”


Sara kept looking around, half expecting Saule herself descending from the sky in burning battle armour, before it hit her who he meant. “Wait, me?!” she burst out with laughter. “Me?! I'm no warrior, zertva, I'm just a farmer.”


“No farmer fights this well!” Oleg said. “You fight like a warrior.”


Sara rolled her eyes, blushing a little. “Everyone learns to defend themselves here.” In case Baikalians, among others, attack us, she added mentally.


Oleg laughed again. “What a land, where even the women are warriors!”


“Look, I'm not-” she stopped, noticing how badly blood-soaked his sleeve was. She had completely forgotten, as it was easy to miss the slight discolouration of a red sleeve. “Never mind that, we need to get you to Zemyna's temple right now.”


Oleg looked at his arm almost surprised, suddenly appearing to remember his wound. “Yes, good idea. Please lead the way.”


After quickly tying the horses to a fence, Sara took Oleg to the temple, which to an outside might've looked a lot like someone's garden. It had been mostly rebuilt from the raiders' recent attack on it; the old trees that stood around it and whose roots formed the walls showing only a bit of fire damage. Its roof stood barely higher than the ground, most of the temple being underground, where Zemyna was strongest. Plants grew upon the temple's turfed roof, spring's first flowers already coming up. Suddenly, Sara realised a problem. “Wait, you're Baikalian! You don't serve the true gods...”


Oleg looked at her inquisitively. “Am I not allowed entry?”


“Wwwell, you are, but Zemyna probably shan't bless you... This is bad, if that wound doesn't get help...”


A small smile played on Oleg's face. “I may be able to persuade her.”


Sara shrugged. “It's worth a try. If your heart is pure, Zemyna might still bless you. Listen, do exactly as I do in there.”


She found the stairs of Earth, ducking to enter the low temple, which smelled musky and old. She felt her spirits rise with awe for Zemyna and her power as she entered the underground chamber, where the only light came from green-tinted windows near the low ceiling. She felt safe and at home between the roots of the great trees and the mushrooms that grew everywhere, even on the stone altar in the centre of the temple. There were no corners, everything emulating the Earth herself. Neither Sara nor Oleg could stand up quite straight, but the aspect of Zemyna was a short, old woman and had no such trouble. She was busy doing something to one of the roots in the wall, her back turned to the entrance.


Sara humbly kneeled before the altar, not looking at the aspect, and Oleg followed suit. She closed her eyes in silent prayer, then spoke up. “Zemyna, mother of all mankind, please hear your humble daughter. I ask you to give your blessings to this injured man. I have always served you as best I could, honoured the Earth, as well as the seas, the skies, the Sun, and the stars. Please, grant me this request.”


The old woman slowly walked towards Oleg and looked at him. Sara shuddered with her power as she put a hand on her shoulder. “This man is not a believer, Sara. Zemyna can do nothing for him. You should not concern yourself with his fate.”


“Would Zemyna perhaps look more kindly upon me,” Oleg said, flashing a shining gold coin, “if I contributed to the support of her temple?”


The aspect hesitated in mid-step.


Sara looked at Oleg in shock. He couldn't think the gods would want money? But he grinned and produced a second coin. “Naturally, I will provide further support to Zemyna if she sees fit to heal Sara's wound incurred in my defence as well.”


The old woman snatched the two coins from his hand and examined them. “Perkunas teaches us piety comes in many forms... Zemyna will heed his words and bless you.”


The mushrooms glowed an eerie, multicoloured light as the aspect focussed deeply. The cut on Sara's leg burned sharply as the power of the Earth itself coursed through her and healed her wound. A small rip in her breeches and some dried up blood was the only evidence that she had ever been wounded. She bowed her head in gratitude. “Praised be Zemyna's miracle.”


She got up slowly as the mushrooms dimmed, still not looking at the aspect, and motioned for Oleg to do the same. He hit his head on the ceiling as they climbed back out of the temple, their wounds healed. “That was close,” Sara said. “I almost thought Zemyna wouldn't bless you there.”


Oleg gave a wry smile. “It is my experience that gold can persuade both the denizens of Earth and those of the heavens.”


Sara frowned at him. “Zemyna only saw fit to bless you because you showed your good side by contributing to her temple.”


“The old woman,” Oleg said, “who was she? Was she a priest of Zemyna?”


“An aspect of her,” Sara said. “Every now and then, a child with the power of the gods gets born. They are small parts of the five gods themselves, able to use their magic.”


Oleg nodded. “We call such people sorcerers in Baikalia, but we don't believe their powers to be divine. In fact, our church believes they are wicked and their magic evil.”


“That's horrible!”


Oleg shrugged. “I'll be the first to admit our church, like just about everything in Baikalia, needs to modernise. This is why I've come to the south, to see the different practices and skills here. Why the ambassadors have come south. I am their aide.”


“So you said. You should probably return to your ambassadors through the fields, in case the raiders wait for you on the road.” As they reached the rested horses again, Sara groaned, seeing the remnants of their harnesses. Her decisions didn't seem so well thought-out, now that the rush of action had passed. “Oh no, dad's gonna kill me... The plough, the rake...”


“Do not worry,” Oleg said, “I will explain to him what you did, and that he should be proud of his daughter. I believe it's on the way to the ambassadors anyway?”


“I think so,” Sara said, as she untied the horses and started walking through the fields, “thanks.”


“Never let it be said that Oleg Grigorovitch doesn't reward those who serve him well.”


Sara eyed him suspiciously. “Are you really an aide to an ambassador, Oleg?”


Oleg looked straight ahead. “Yes, yes, yes, I am. To admiral Fyodorovitch.”


“Right. Admiral Fyodorovitch. A Baikalian admiral.”


“Yes.”


“An admiral from a land-locked empire.”


Oleg's face brightened. “Indeed, the first ever! He's only recently been appointed by the tsar. It is the tsar's hope that we, the men he has sent on this great embassy to the south, will learn to build and sail ships!”


Sara raised an eyebrow. “Why?”


“Because the tsar loves ships, and the sea! He has dreamt of the sea ever since he first saw a fisherman's old boat when he was a young lad, all but banished by his wicked half-sister to the Brakozhenzhe estate.”


“He... did?” Sara asked, a bit taken aback by the flood of words.


“Indeed, indeed! He did not even know what it was, and when it was explained to him, he worked all winter with his own, calloused workman-hands to repair it, then took it all the way to lake Zoronya in spring to discover for himself the joy of sailing the waters. Since that spring, he has longed for him and all other Baikalians to learn to build the great ships of the South together, and to create a great fleet and sail the oceans, explore new lands, and-” He suddenly paused his rant. “Um, that is what the admiral has told me, anyway. He is a close friend of the tsar, which is why he was chosen to be our first admiral.”


“Right...” Sara said, “the admiral.”


“Yes, the admiral,” he said.


“You know,” Sara said, “I don't believe you. Why are you really here, Oleg? Who are you?”


“I am Oleg Grigorovitch, aide to-”


“Look, I don't really care who you really are,” Sara said. “If you don't want to tell, that's fine by me. I want to know what you have to do with the raiders, and if you know anything about them.”


“I don't know-”


“They were so hell-bent on you. If you know anything, tell me. Those kaliu vaikai killed my mother, tried to burn down the temple, and if you know anything about-”


“Sara,” Oleg said firmly, interrupting her without raising his voice, “I knew nothing of these raiders before they attacked me this morning. I swear this, on my word of honour.”


“Oh,” Sara said. “Okay. Sorry, I just suddenly wondered if... wwwell...”


The Baikalian nodded sympathetically. “I understand. My own mother died only a few years ago. You never truly realise how much you love someone and depend on them until they're gone, do you?”


Sara clutched the mane of one of the horses, a hollow pain stabbing her around the stomach. “She was just... going to the market when they appeared. Shot her down like an animal. They didn't even bother taking what little money she had. Sorry, I know this is none of your business, but-”


“I understand. A loss like that affects anyone heavily. I didn't even get along well with my mother. She was always keeping me down, telling me I had to be someone I did not want to be, discouraging my dreams. But since the day she died, I've regretted my disagreements with her.”


The barking of Artur and Petras greeted Sara as they climbed the small mound on which her home stood. The big, brown dogs came running at her, jumping happily before they noticed Oleg and started growling and barking. “Artur, Petras, down! Oleg is a friend!”


The dogs still growled a bit, but backed down, walking with Sara to her family's wooden farmhouse. A bald, bearded man in simple, brown leather clothes like Sara's own emerged from the stables behind it. “Sara, where have you been?! Who is this?! What happened to the horses?!”


Sara nervously ran a hand through her tangled, blonde hair. “Um, h-hi, dad. Well, er, there were bandits, you see, and-”


“Your daughter saved my life, mr. Zukaite,” Oleg said. “I was attacked by bandits on the road, and she did not hesitate to come to my aid. She fought them off and helped me to flee by- why are you laughing?”


“Dad's mr. Zukas,” Sara giggled, “Zukaite is the feminine form.”


A small blush appeared on Oleg's face. “I'm sorry, mr. Zukas. You shouldn't be angry at your daughter, but proud. And I believe this will cover the costs of a new plough.”


The face of Sara's father lit up as Oleg offered him a golden coin. “Yes, I think it will. Do not be worried, sir, I am more than graceful my daughter bravely assistified a gentleman such as yourself. In fact, I would be honoured if you was to regale our humble abbot by staying for dinner.”


Sara rolled her eyes, but said nothing.


Oleg's eyes lit up. “Of course I will! It will be my first meal in the South; I can't wait to see what strange and modern delicacies are eaten here!”


Sara chuckled as she took the horses to their stable. “Don't get your hopes up.”


When she got back from the stable, she saw her younger brother, Karolis, returning to the farmhouse with an empty wheelbarrow. As Oleg spotted him, he suddenly set off in a sprint towards the boy and yanked the handles of the wheelbarrow out of his hand, almost pushing him over. “Hey, who are you?!”


Oleg drove the wheelbarrow back and forth, eyes wide with amazement, tilting it from side to side. “What is this great Southern invention?!” he exclaimed. “How does it work? What is it used for? What is it made of? How much does it cost? Draw me an assembly plan of it!”


Sara followed him at a run. “Oleg, what are you doing? It's just a wheelbarrow.”


“Who's this doodle, Sara?” Karolis asked.


“Wheel... barrow...” Oleg slowly pronounced, tapping his feet with excitement. “We do not have this fantastic thing in Baikalia! I must have it!”


He drove the wheelbarrow in circles a few times at running speed. “Look, Oleg, put it down already. You're trampling the ground!”


Oleg obeyed, putting it down for just a second, before gasping in shock and lifting the wheelbarrow up again. “It has feet! It has little feet to stand on when you don't use it! This is the most wonderful object I have encountered in my life! I must take this back to Baikalia, it will change everything!”


“Oleg, could you maybe not-”


Someone coughed pretentiously. “Excuse me for interrupting this little discussion.” A sharp-nosed man in a gold-embroidered blue coat stood in the middle of the field, looking extremely out of place. His powdered, tightly-curled white hair and silver walking stick couldn't contrast more with the muddy field and wooden farmers' home.


“Who are you?” Sara, Oleg, and Karolis said in unison.


A sly smile played around the pompous man's thin lips. “Count Wallenberg, at your service, your highness.”


A shock went through Sara's system. “Wait, 'your highness'?”


Oleg's face twitched. “I... do not know who you-”


“Please, your highness, let's not fool around. You may have evaded-”


“He called you 'your highness' again,” Sara said.


Oleg sighed. “I know. I suppose you were close to guessing it yourself anyway. Let me reintroduce myself: I am Oleg, tsar of all the Baikalias. Nono, do not kneel, please. Why do you think I travel incognito in the first-”


“Be quiet,” the count snapped.


An angry frown descended on Oleg's face. “How dare you-”


“If you would please stop interrupting me, and listen! You escaped my men this morning-”


Your men?!”


“Be quiet! My men have this farm surrounded. Tsar Oleg, you are to come with me, or I have them kill these stinking peasants and beat you into submission before taking you with us anyway.”