The tip of her longsword carved a channel along the beachhead of Lake Encarthan. She dragged the weapon, held it listlessly in her hand. Hers were dark, dirtied hands that knew the weight of good steel, the heft of a man's heart. She remembered a time when she was clean, though she could not recall the feeling of pristine boot soles, nor of a soul unstained.
The slope of the sands made her stagger. To an observer, she might have appeared a poorly crafted iron golem, a lurching, jerky warrior inside a black-plated shell. As she reached the shoreline, she stumbled to her knees.
Rays of sunlight glinted off the lake. Ripples rolled slow and heavy around her calves. It was too beautiful a sight, too bright a day for what lay behind her, for what she and her squadron had done. But that was the way of Druma, to dress atrocity in finery and call it good business. She supposed the weather should be no different than the Prophets.
The surf whispered over her legs, soaking the padding underneath through the gaps in her armor. She stayed there as though in supplication to the lake, but did not pray to any god. For a servant of the Kalistocrats, there was no god above the High Prophet, and no one who cared to hear her pleas.
She breathed evenly to slow the thrum of her heart. The air tasted of fish and copper and death. It lay thick on her tongue like bad wine, but Brea drank it down, allowed it to fill her.
"I did this," she said.
The water washed the blood from her greaves. Tendrils of red slipped through the blue, snaking away from her like streamers in one of her lord's parades.
Her lord, Prophet Deagan Callimedes, would be home now, toiling behind his desk. She imagined Deagan's smooth, tawny cheek lifted in a grin. His wide-set eyes, bright as winter's sky and just as cold. White-gloved hands cupping her face, twined in her hair. The smell of jasmine and rose petals. The faint taste of blackberry wine. His mouth.
Brea unbuckled her mail. Each section splashed as it fell. The sword—forgotten by her busy fingers—sank at her side like an offering to a wishing well. When only the arming doublet remained, she slumped forward on her hands and watched the blood stain the rhythmic tide. The lives she had taken danced in the water's reflection. Her victim's pain echoed in the bruises yellowing her olive skin, in the burn of her muscles.
They'd overridden the so-called brigands at first light. Her heavy cavalry had crushed bone and spirit before she called the dismount and began the slaughter. She swung her sword like an automaton, slicing through meager armor and severing frail limbs. When her arms had wearied, Brea used her armored body as a weapon, trampling any in her path.
Segments of that mail lingered around her now. The black cuirass still glowed a pale gold with the dying embers of magic.
It, too, had started clean, gleaming fiercely with her lord's blessings. When she'd received her promotion to Captain, Brea had been honored to receive his gift. The cuirass comforted her, protected her. Through it, Deagan had finally demonstrated his love for her.
It was her blackjacket. Her albatross.
"I did this for you," she told the lake in place of her lord.
Behind her, a man cleared his throat. "Captain?"
Brea recognized Farnick's gruff voice. He had been her lieutenant since the Goblinblood Wars, where he lost an ear saving her life. Older than her by two score and half her height, Farnick was the only dwarf in her squadron and likely her only friend.
"He'll be pleased, sir." His round face drew down despite his words, and the ruddy stubble coating his jaw only darkened his expression. In spite of his heritage, Farnick kept his head and face shaved. Those whiskers were a testament to their hard march to Lake Encarthan.
"He is never pleased," she said.
Farnick grunted. "We're fortunate then, to focus on battle and damned the results. We'll be receiving his ire either way."
A slow smile fought its way to her lips. "How are the troops?"
"Soltez was wounded, bucked from his horse by his own idiocy. He'll live. The rest are uninjured and gathering a pyre."
"Morale?" she asked.
He hesitated and shifted the helm he carried from one arm to the other. "As well as can be expected, sir. We've never run down peasants before, think they're not taking well to the idea."
"They're not alone." She pulled herself to her feet and stood before him, drenched and drained of will. They exchanged a look that said they understood one another as only those who have spilled blood together might. "I will speak to Lord Callimedes."
Farnick grunted again. "No, then I doubt he'll be pleased."
Brea nodded. Remaining in her soaked doublet and riding boots, she strode from the water toward her squadron, toward the silent dead. She did not witness the final magic fade from her blackjacket, nor hear the sorrowful sigh of its passing, but in her bones she felt it die among the waves.
∗ ∗ ∗
They arrived to silence, not fanfare. The procession of her bedraggled squadron was nothing for the citizens of Deagan's Hold to celebrate, for the dark armor of the Mercenary League heralded only death. Above them, the guards manning the battlements nodded in greeting. They, too, knew the cold will and hot lash her lord favored. Only the scent of baker's morning bread comforted Brea as she led her soldiers home.
"I'll handle the squadron," Farnick told her as they rode. He had gathered her discarded armor, dried it by the pyre, and strapped it securely to Brea's horse. Though the thought of wearing the blackjacket again didn't make her happy, she knew it was for the best.
Deagan would not tolerate such a disregard for his gifts.
"Have Etrim see to the horses," she said. "She has a way with them."
"Aye. The lass will make a fine trooper one day."
Brea unhooked her belt pouch and tossed it at Farnick. "Have both the soldiers and horses fed well tonight."
He weighed the pouch in his hand, then reached in to withdraw a single coin. It was perfectly round and stamped on the front with the profile of their lord.
"He looks nicer in gold," Farnick said. "Softer, almost motherly, aye?"
She laughed, but said nothing in response. He slipped the coin in the bag and stuck it under his breastplate.
"I swear I'll only buy a bit of ale, sir," he said. "For the horses, of course."
They rode the rest of the way in companionable quiet, only the clack of horseshoes sounding over the cobblestone street. When they neared the barracks, Brea split from her squadron and turned toward her lord's keep. She was dirty with grime, her doublet still damp and smelling of mildew. Her boots left muddy footprints on priceless rugs as she walked, uncontested, to Deagan's office.
He did not look up from his desk as she entered, but said, "Is it done?"
A strange sadness colored his voice. He stared intently at the stack of papers before him, but Brea noted a rim of red around his eyes.
"It is, my lord," she said.
His head lifted as she spoke, and for a moment an emotion she could not name flickered across his expression. Then a mask smoothed over his face, cold and calm and always assured.
"Brea," he said on a sigh. "Tell me."
She stood stock straight as she gave her report. "The brigands were found and dispatched. They were but ragged men and women, a few families. The wagon taken from your caravan has been returned, but its cargo is rotten. Food, my lord. They stole only food."
"Only food." He rose from his desk. "It is food that feeds my citizens; its sale pays my soldiers. Only food bought you that armor. Only food keeps my hold profitable."
She remained motionless as he approached. He touched her shoulder briefly and inspected his hand. The white glove showed wet and dirty fingertips. His mouth formed a hard line, which only made his beauty more severe.
"What would you suggest, Captain?" he asked. "That I let thieves pillage freely if they are hungry? Let them take what is rightfully mine out of pity?"
"They didn't need to die."
He raised a single dark brow. "I did not kill them, soldier. You did."
Brea closed her eyes, her chin dropping. The screams of the brigands echoed through her mind. They would not suffer the loss of their goods, spoiled or not, nor would they be taken under arrest. A man had shouted that the dungeons were a worse death than the sword. His face was clear in Brea's memory, thinned by starvation yet too stubborn to die. It was he who had drawn the first blade, incited his fellows, but it was her longsword that sank deep in his chest.
"We were under orders," she said to the floor.
"And if you do not like my orders, then violate your contract and leave."
Her heart lurched, her head rising to meet his pale gaze. No love lay in his eyes now, no indication that he had ever looked upon her with more than disdain. Then, he sighed and rested his hands on either side of her face.
"Brea," he whispered as his expression relaxed, the hard planes of his face softening into the features of the man she knew, not the Prophet she served.
He wiped the soot and blood from her cheeks, ruining his gloves. "You are the best of my Blackjackets. My most loyal soldier."
Instinctively, she tilted into his touch. These were the moments she craved, the rare times when he reminded her of why she loved him. She said nothing, too afraid a word from her might freeze his sudden warmth.
"I shouldn't tolerate your insolence," he said without rancor. "But you are my weakness, you do know that? Your heart will be my undoing."
He kissed her slow, tasting of rich wine and promises he could not keep. She lost herself for a moment, forgot the blood staining her fingernails and the sweat of battle still clinging to her. When he pushed her gently away, she was unsurprised. He went to his desk again and opened a drawer. From it he lifted a gorget, black as her breastplate but too large for her by half. When he placed it around her neck and whispered a word, the armor shrank. It fit snugly against her skin.
"For you," he said. "To keep you safe when you leave in the morning for the Five Kings Mountains."
Brea caressed the sleek steel of the gorget, her brow furrowing. "My squadron's only just returned."
"And they should have a good night's rest before setting out at dawn." He moved away from her, placed his hands on his desk's marble top, and leaned over his papers once more. "There have been reports of goblin settlements. The Five Kings are too close to my territory for us to sit idly and do nothing. My caravans may be at risk."
"Of course, my lord, but there've been no instances of goblins living near our borders for years."
Deagan stared at her. The man disappeared, leaving only the Prophet in his white robes. "I suggest you clean up, sleep, and do not test my generosity again this day."
He dismissed her with a wave, and Brea wandered out of his keep. It was not her place to question, she knew, but she could taste blackberry wine on her tongue and feel the heat of his hands against her skin. She reached for the gorget and unclasped it. It fell open in her palms, still sized perfectly to her, and clean, so much cleaner than the hands that cradled it.
She walked toward the barracks, toward her troopers and the news that there would not be time to recover. They would march at dawn, and she would discover if this new gorget was another way for her lord to show his true affections for her—or if it was little more than a slave's collar.
Coming Next Week: Love and betrayal in Chapter Two of Stephanie Lorée's "Armored."
Stephanie Lorée is an author whose short stories have appeared in various anthologies and online publications, and in 2013, she was a finalist for Writers of the Future. She also works as a freelance editor. Visit her website at stephaniemloree.com.
Illustration by Dion Harris.