Everything was black. Awareness crept back into Marra, and with that awareness came pain. Even before she dared to open her eyes, she felt it in her ribs every time she sucked in air. It took her a few moments before she realized that she could in fact breathe, that the pain was not so unbearable that it would kill her. She eased her eyes open, trying to make sense of the hazy blobs of color around her. It was green and brown with flecks of blue. As her vision cleared, she realized she was looking up at the tree cover and the clear sky beyond.
Suppressing a groan, Marra turned her head to the side, trying to take in her surroundings. Her neck twinged at the motion and she winced to keep from crying out. A gasp escaped her lips, which only served to remind her of the pain in her ribs. She heard a voice as if from far away.
"She's alive. Bring the healer."
Marra wasn't able to keep track of what happened next. Everything was a blur of activity and noise around her. At one point she heard someone murmuring a prayer, but she couldn't make out any of the words. Two hands applied pressure to her ribs, making her hiss. Heat spread out from those hands, a warming and soothing radiance that nudged the pain away. After a few seconds, it no longer hurt to take a breath. Marra breathed in deeply, relishing in the simple fact that she could to do so. She opened her eyes just as the healer walked away to tend to others.
Once she was able to prop herself up and slide against a tree for support, Marra took stock of the situation. Their small band looked to be bruised and beaten, but relatively unscathed. One of the wagons had lost a wheel, and a few horses had been killed in the battle, but all of the knights and their retinue survived. A few were injured, but Marra seemed to have suffered the worst of the injuries. She saw her armor lying in the dirt beside her, the breastplate cracked from the impact of the blow. She still wore her chainmail, but her arm armor and pauldrons had been stripped from her and now rested in a careless heap.
As the group finished recovering from the attack, Adarrius walked over and stood at Marra's feet, looking down at her. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end and she wanted to squirm, but she managed to raise her chin to look him in the eyes. She needed to play the part and be strong.
"Sir?" she asked.
"Where did you learn to fight?"
"From my father."
At least that statement was true. She hoped that it would match with her story. Did the knights of Lastwall have an academy? For once she wished she had paid more attention to international politics and other forms of government.
"Sir Tarl thought that was sufficient to have you knighted and serve under him?"
"He presented you with armor and sword based on your prowess with a blade and courage in battle?"
Where were these questions coming from? Marra pushed herself up off the ground and stood before her superior officer. Her ribs no longer hurt and she felt recovered from the injury—fit enough to charge into battle right then if need be.
"Then can you explain to me why you're wearing his armor?"
Adarrius kicked at the breastplate so that it rolled over. The only thing that seemed out of place was the crack, running across from the left side before it splintered into two branches, one going toward the head and the other dropping toward the waist. She didn't know what he meant to indicate, so she tried to keep calm and not respond to the accusation.
When she didn't speak, he continued. "I thought it was suspicious when you had the same etchings on your leather, but didn't think too much of it since you're from the same house. But now this. Did you know that Sir Tarl was gravely injured fighting orcs about a week ago, and it dented his armor in this exact same pattern? We repaired it of course, but the steel was weaker where it bent. Don't you find it suspicious that your armor just happened to break in the same way?"
The color left Marra's cheeks and she felt a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature in the air. It felt like winter had grasped her heart and spread snow through her veins. She opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out.
"Enough. We'll deal with your treachery when we reach Tamran."
Adarrius grabbed her by the wrist and jerked her forward so hard she stumbled to keep from falling on her face. She didn't even bother to resist. What would be the point and what could she possibly say? This was the risk she had known she was taking and her ruse had been called out. Adarrius shoved her into the back of the rear wagon, then bound her wrists together and tied them to the bench. Her discarded armor and sword were put into the wagon across from her, laid down with much more care than she had been given.
With a lurch, the wagon started moving again. Marra's mind whirled as they journeyed along and the wagon lurched over every bump in the road. What could she do? Perhaps she could appeal to Palrion and see if he'd be willing to help her escape, but that seemed unlikely. Their alliance had been one of convenience. Now that she was a criminal destined for the gallows, why should he side with her? It would be simple enough for him to distance himself and she wasn't about to try to threaten him. Besides, who would believe a criminal over a trusted squire?
Marra lost track of time as they journeyed along. Every creak of the wagon or clop of the horse sounded like one step closer to her death. So it was that when the wagon pulled to a sudden stop, it barely registered. It took the shouts and wordless screams of an enraged charge to pull her back to the present and jerk her head up.
A whistling sound filled the air followed by several arrows striking into wood, tearing through fabric, and slamming into bodies both horse and human. She heard Adarrius trying to shout commands over the chaos, but the general noise of pitched battle overpowered everything else. Marra stood up and twisted around to peer through one of the tears in the wagon covering.
Molthuni! It was the Molthuni masquerading as bandits! They probably thought a caravan this protected would be carrying something worthwhile. Rage filled Marra as she recognized one of the same men who rode into her village months ago. She jerked at the rope holding her wrists, but it was bound too tight and bit into her skin. She jerked again, planting her foot against the bench and trying to pull free with sheer force. The bonds continued to hold.
Movement at the back of the wagon caught her eye. Several of the squires rounded the corner and ducked down near the opening, using the wagon as cover. She recognized Palrion in the group and caught his attention.
"Palrion, cut me free. I have to fight the Molthuni!"
"Don't do it! She's an imposter!"
"She wants to run off with the bandits."
"Maybe she's a bandit! A spy!"
Marra ignored the comments of the other squires and kept her gaze locked on Palrion's, imploring him with every fiber of her being to trust her in this. She needed to help. The Molthuni could not be allowed to escape. He had to believe her.
With a sigh, Palrion shoved the other squires away long enough to draw the knife from his belt and slide it between her wrists. The rope snapped as soon as he was halfway through the first strand. She thanked him with a nod, grabbing the sword from the wagon bed and jumping out the back over the stunned squires. As soon as her feet hit the ground she turned to her left, looking at the battle in front of her.
It was pitched and the knights appeared to be losing. They were well trained and better armored, but the Molthuni had the advantage of numbers and were fighting in formations that showed they were far from simple bandits. So far, no one had noticed her at the back of the wagon.
As she was debating the best course of action, Marra caught another flash of the man who had attacked her village. He was at the rear of one of the formations, his back facing her. She only caught a glimpse of his face in profile, but it was a face burned into memory. Marra charged, gripping the blade in both hands.
When she was a few strides away, she let loose a battle cry and raised the sword high over her shoulder. The man turned around just in time to see the blade drop in a deadly arc before it cut through the side of his neck. He collapsed, surprise still on his face.
The man's death caused the two warriors in front of him to turn, opening them up to attacks from the knights they were facing. They didn't last long against the combined force of the knights' assault and Marra's fury. Soon she found herself standing next to the knights in the middle of three corpses.
But there was no time for questions or commendations. Marra turned away from the knights to face her next opponent. A Molthuni woman chopped at her with an axe, aiming for her skull. Marra sidestepped out of harm's way. Before the Molthuni could lift her weapon, Marra grabbed the woman's arm. Marra used the momentum of her spin to drive the pommel of her sword into the woman's mouth. The force of the blow lifted the Molthuni off the ground. She fell hard on her back, and lay still. Marra moved on without giving her victim a second glance.
Just under the tree line, past the fighting, Marra saw a man dressed in leather and thick animal hides watching the battle. His hand rested on the handle of a large axe with the tip embedded in the dirt next to him. He watched the scene unfolding before him with a critical eye. As his gaze swept around to Marra, his lip curled in a snarl and he barked out a command that she couldn't hear. Several of the Molthuni in the back responded by turning from their adversaries and circling around to face her.
Three of them advanced on her, and Marra hesitated, the odds bringing a bit of reason back to her senses. She stumbled aside as someone shoved her out of the way. It was Adarrius. She didn't realize he was one of the knights she had helped.
"Get to the leader! We'll handle these bandits."
Marra rushed forward, dodging around the Molthuni. They tried to intercept her, but Adarrius and his companion fell on them and forced them to engage. Marra found herself alone, cut off from her allies as she charged toward the Molthuni commander. He widened his stance and hefted the axe into both hands, setting himself for her charge.
As she got within range, he stepped forward, sweeping the axe before him in a large arc. Marra stepped back, managing to get out of the way before the axe head cut into her midsection. There was no way her chainmail would protect her from such a blow. She tried to advance behind the back of the axe when the leader was exposed, but he swung the weapon around his head and brought it down almost on top of her before she managed to attack him. She sprang to the side, lifting her sword above her in both hands to try to ward the blow to her right.
The axe struck the sword with a clash she felt in her arms even more than heard. It took all her strength not to let go of the weapon as it vibrated. The axe struck the ground with a shower of dirt. With a grunt, the leader flexed his shoulder and tore the axe free, swinging it up at Marra's face. She threw her shoulders back, toppling to the ground as the weapon cut through the air inches from her cheek.
The leader wasted no time, stepping forward as he tried to stomp on Marra's sword arm. She rolled away, flicking the blade up and slicing it across his thigh. She felt the weapon cut through his leggings and was rewarded with a howl as he staggered forward, giving her time to rise to her feet.
When she turned to face him, he was already sweeping the axe down at her shoulder. She ducked under it, instinct forcing her to bring up the sword to deflect the axe even a slight degree. This time when the weapons struck, there was a high-pitched snap and the tip of her sword flew through the air. She glanced at the piece left in her hand, shocked that the steel betrayed her. The leader pressed his advantage, driving the butt of his weapon into her midsection.
She bent over from the force of the blow and reached out to steady herself, her hand falling on his shoulder. He snarled and shrugged her off. He slammed the butt into her gut again, this time with more force. Marra brought her right hand up, driving the broken sword deep into his side, sliding it through the armor and between his ribs. His eyes went wide and he looked down at her as the axe fell from his fingers. He pushed her away, and she stumbled back, letting go of the hilt. The Molthuni leader looked at the weapon in his side, clutched it with both hands, and then collapsed to the ground.
For several seconds, Marra stood over the body, her lungs heaving for air. Exhausted, she collapsed to her knees, the thrill of battle unable to carry her any further. She heard the fighting die down behind her, but didn't have the energy to see which side had been victorious. Slow footsteps came up behind her and a light hand rested on her shoulder. Twisting back, she saw Adarrius.
"Well done. You fought with valor and honor. I don't know if we would have survived without your aid. But there is still the matter of impersonating a knight. That is a crime that I'm not able to pardon."
Marra nodded, unable to speak. She was not ready to be bound again in the wagon, but had no energy to resist. She felt the pressure of his sword resting against her shoulder. It was an odd sensation. The blade rested close enough to her bare neck that she could feel both the cold of the steel and the heat of the fresh blood. Her skin prickled.
"Rise, Dame Marra."
There were no words to express what she was feeling. She tried to think of something to say, but nothing seemed good enough. Instead, she chose to rise to her feet, her face reddening when she realized her knees were shaking. Adarrius reached out a hand to help steady her.
"Now, let us see to our wounded and then you can tell me what would inspire someone to take the risk of impersonating a knight."
Coming Soon: Deadly intrigue in a sample chapter from Liane Merciel's brand-new Pathfinder Tales novel, Nightblade!
Dylan Birtolo is the author of the Sheynan fantasy trilogy, as well as numerous short stories in anthologies such as Time Traveled Tales and Human for a Day. Find him online at dylanbirtolo.com.
Illustration by Jacob Walker.