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?”
“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.”
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.”
“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-”
“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.”