He settled the saddle on his mare’s back, securing it with hands that trembled even with his heaviest gloves on. His saddlebags and blankets were next; they sounded too loud as they rattled together in the silent barn, with no other sounds except the snorts of his father’s horses. His breath left puffs of steam in the frigid air, but he knew he couldn’t go back inside. Any minute now, they’d find the blood. Not the sword, though. He was keeping that; after all, it was his by right.
“Sir, where are you going this early?”
He twitched before he realized—oh, it was just a stable boy. “Out. Make sure to seal the stable after me, before the storm hits.”
The boy looked faintly insulted that his lord’s son would even think he’d forget such a thing, but he bowed low anyway. “Of course, sir. Safe travels.”
He swung himself up into the saddle easily, patted his mare’s neck, and nudged her into a walk. The barn doors hung open before him, packed-dirt floor stretching to a packed-dirt road that sliced straight across his family’s fields to freedom. The wind was picking up; he tugged his cloak a little tighter around his shoulders and pulled his hat down over his eyes.
From within the house, someone screamed. The wail was taken up by others, and resolved into words.
“Baron Dyatlov has been murdered!”
He spurred his mare to a canter, and then to a gallop. She ate up the distance, wind streaming through her mane and rushing in his ears until he almost couldn’t hear the screams behind him. He closed his ears to their echoes; that place wasn’t his home anymore.
The howling snowstorm covered his tracks.
Three days later, he reached the outskirts of the Heterodyne camp—though “camp” was understating it a bit. It was more like a sprawling city of tents, horses, and men with absolutely nothing in common (not even their uniforms! His father would have been horrified) except a certain nasty gleam in their eyes that suggested they’d be more than happy to see him relieved of either his valuables or his life. He steered his horse around them, ignoring the babbling languages he didn’t recognize, until he found the recruiter’s tent.
It was easy to find. It was the one where the assembled men looked like they’d just bought (or stolen) their weapons the day before. More importantly, the man glowering at them all across his folding table was doing his yelling in good, clear Russian. “Four good limbs, at least one working eye—can you write your name? Just make an X here then—good, the beer tent’s to your left. Next! Come on, who wants to fight for the winning side?”
A man on a horse in a crowd of infantry could set his own pace. He made his way through the crowd, nudging people in the shoulder when he had to, in order to finally dismount in front of the recruiter.* “I want to ride with the Jaegers.”
The recruiter eyed him up and down, assessing his crimson silk waistcoat, travel-stained linen shirt, and the profusion of lace at his throat before his eyes skittered to the sword at his hip. “At least you brought your own horse. Right, sign here or make a mark or whatever and we’ll see if you can use that sword of yours.”
A pen was shoved into his hand; before he could think about it, he was signing his name with his customary flourish. He cursed himself almost immediately (what if they were looking for him?) but the damage was done.
The recruiter grinned, revealing several missing teeth. “Welcome to serving the Heterodynes, beer tent’s on your left, if you wake up missing your fancy clothes it’s your own fault. Next!”
He led his horse off, realizing as he did so that he didn’t really need the beer tent pointed out; the smell of sour ale and frying sausages was so strong he was fairly sure he could find it blindfolded. The conversations flowing around him were mostly in Romanian; here and there he caught snatches of German, and wished he’d paid attention to his tutor.** There was some Russian, and he flinched and ducked his head when he heard a murmur of “Baron Dyatlov’s boys.”
He was sitting in the warm, smoky tent, sipping a surprisingly good beer, when a Jaeger sat down next to him with a grin that showed entirely too many fangs. “Hoy!” There was more after that, but it was in Romanian.
He froze. He’d seen Jaegers in the camp—at a distance—but he hadn’t realized they were quite so…toothy. Granted, this one wasn’t especially monstrous-looking, but there was a horn curling up from one side of his head. Mentally groping for the right words, he risked an answer in German. “Sorry, what? I don’t speak Romanian.”
The Jaeger blinked at him, head tilting like a curious (and overly large) puppy, before realization seemed to dawn. “Ho, hyu iz a local boy! Hy vas vondering eef hyu vos new. Hyu look new.”
He bristled a little. “I just signed up, yes.”
“Aww, hyu iz a baby. Hyu iz sure hyu iz old enough to fight, kid?”
A twitch was starting up somewhere in his left eyelid, and he reached for his sword. This Jaeger didn’t look much older than him! “I’m twenty years old! And you can’t talk, how old are you?”
The Jaeger smirked. “Hy iz fifty-five. Kid. Mebbe hyu should come bek later, vhen hyu iz stronger.”
It was a stupid idea. He knew it was a stupid idea as he was doing it. Still, some sense of honor demanded he at least had to try to answer the rudeness with action, and he’d always had a good right hook. Calling the man’s mother ten kinds of a whore was probably a little excessive, though.
The Jaeger picked himself up, rubbing his cheek, and started to laugh. “Hy like hyu! Vot vos all dat hyu vos sayink?”
He blinked, some of the fury draining out of him. “You’ve been in Russia for how long and nobody’s taught you of the language?”
“…Some. Mostly, hyu know, ‘ho no der Jaegermonsters are comink’ und ‘please dun kill us.’ Nottink useful.”
He considered this. “…I’ll teach you the useful ones if you teach me Romanian.”
“Deal!” He held out a clawed, calloused hand. “Hy iz Ognian.”
He shook it. “Maxim.”
* It wasn’t as graceful as he liked. He almost fell off.
** In his defense, his sister’s piano instructor really had been extraordinarily lovely; it was hardly unexpected that he’d want to pay more attention to her than to stuffy old Herr Blutbach.