Farnick rode at her side, the squadron of troopers behind them. His head was cleanly shaved. No trace of stubble lined his chin. Brea's armor hung heavy on her shoulders, the gorget tight against her throat. All was as it should be.
"Goblins," Farnick spat. "There be no goblins this close to Prophet's Home and dwarven lands."
"Let us hope not," Brea said.
"I pray there are. My steel's sharp and overdue for a taste of goblin blood."
She smiled, remembering the moment their friendship was forged during the war. In truth, she had thought him mad when he dived in front of a blow that would have killed her and, instead, shattered his helm and left his ear a tattered mess. A stranger and a dwarf, willing to give his life for no other reason than she was his superior officer, and he'd been assigned to her command. Several days later, Brea had offered a daring tactic to route the enemy, and Farnick was the first to volunteer. His trust in her and her bold strategies had saved them both more times than she could recall.
There was no warrior she would rather have at her side.
"Eager for glory, old friend?" she asked.
"Aye, sir, been too little glory in recent years."
"Peace times are not the place for glory."
He frowned. "Nor soldiers, I fear."
The land was hilly and thick with scrubgrass. Mountains loomed before them like great shadows on the horizon. The closer they traveled to the Five Kings, the more the ground dipped and rose. She'd ordered a loose formation and doubled the eyes along either side of her squadron.
Brea had sent Soltez ahead of the group; despite his lingering injury he was her best scout. He would not need his sword arm if he remained unseen. And in truth, she had never needed his sword, considering how unskilled he was in battle, but his eyes were sharp and his intellect honed finer than any blade. She knew he moved somewhere in the distance, though she saw only the occasional wave of high grasses, which might have been the wind.
Thus far there had been no sign of unusual goblin activity. There were always some greenies, prowling in packs for wayward travelers. But no goblin warband would attack an armed squadron like Brea's. Goblins were crazy, but not entirely stupid.
"Will we see greenies today, Captain?" Etrim spoke from behind her. The eagerness in the younger woman's voice made Brea feel ancient.
"Perhaps," she said.
The fresh leather of Etrim's saddle creaked. She held the reigns of Soltez's horse and guided it alongside of her.
"It will be an honor to fight at your side," Etrim said.
Farnick chuckled. "Glory and honor both, then. ’Tis a good day for dreams."
Brea said nothing. Her glory had faded with the end of the war, and she'd sacrificed any honor she once had the moment she laid her heart bare for her lord.
The grasses beside her stirred. She reached for her longsword and had almost unsheathed it when she noticed the unmistakable cap of dark curls that belonged to Soltez.
"One or two leagues north." Soltez paused to salute her, almost as an afterthought. "A settlement in the clearing of some trees. Seemed empty to me."
"Seemed empty or is empty?" Brea asked.
"Is, sir. Abandoned."
She nodded and motioned to the extra horse that Etrim led. "Mount up, soldier. You've done well."
Soltez struggled to seat his horse one-handed, and Etrim paused to help him. They fell back in the formation, two other troopers seamlessly taking their places.
The scrubgrass gave way to thick underbrush and tall trees. Brea was about to call for a dismount to hack a suitable path for the horses, but Soltez assured her the clearing was just ahead. They picked their way carefully through the brush, mindful of the horses' footing. Then the trees parted like a lover’s welcoming arms.
"This is no settlement," Brea murmured as she passed a lonely, cold campfire. A few logs and thatches of leaves were scattered nearby that could have been the remains of crude shelters. But those had fallen ages ago.
"’Tis quiet, sir," Farnick whispered beside her.
She took a breath and let her ears register what was missing. The wind had died, and no birds chirped in the trees. Something foul and familiar drifted in the still air, the rank stench of an old enemy.
"Goblins," she said, drawing her longsword. "Ambush! To arms! Ambush!"
From the dark depths of the trees, the creatures emerged.
∗ ∗ ∗
They were losing. Brea could sense it in the ebb and flow of battle. They'd been caught unawares and had no time to form a defensive line. Blackjackets collapsed around her. For every trooper that died, several enemies went with him. Still, the hobgoblins poured from the shadows, seemingly endless in their numbers.
She spotted not a single goblin among the ranks, only hobs. Scarred, gray-skinned beings that stood of a height to her and fought with a brutal single-mindedness. Their arms and armor were not the scavenged mish-mash their shorter cousins preferred, but as finely made as those of any regiment of soldiers.
Of all the vile creatures in the world, Brea hated and feared hobgoblins the most.
To her left, she heard Farnick grunt as he cut down another hob, only to have a new one take its place. The rest of her troopers were scattered throughout the clearing, lost in the blur of battle.
"To me!" she called, slicing a hobgoblin in front of her across the throat and urging her horse to trample the next. "Form rank!"
Horses screamed and toppled, throwing troopers to the ground. Metal clanged, and soldiers wailed. The stink of hobgoblins and death filled the air.
One hob lunged at Brea's mare, and she batted his sword aside. The creature growled, cursing in its native tongue, and leaped. It caught hold of her horse's mane, attempting to swing itself at Brea and dismount her. She kicked it in the chest, but that only gave the hobgoblin pause. Her mount bucked, and she struggled to keep the mare under control as the hob wrenched the poor thing’s neck with one hand, while the other raised a sword to strike.
The hob’s blade descended toward Brea’s face. Unable to bring her sword up quickly enough to block, she managed only to shift her weight. The sword missed her face by a breath and landed squarely upon her throat.
The gorget sang with the screech of steel scraping steel. A spark hit her chin and sizzled. But the blade turned. Her head rattled from the impact, though it remained attached to her shoulders.
Brea rotated her too-slow parry into a slash and stuck the hob in the side. Blood splattered both her and her mare. The hob’s grip slackened, and the creature tumbled to the ground.
She didn't have time to check the gorget for damage or to murmur thanks to Deagan for his well-considered gift. Her old friend appeared at her side, a comforting presence as her troopers finally made their way toward her.
"Just like the old days, sir," Farnick shouted over the chaos. He laughed as he blocked a blow and kicked a hobgoblin in the head, sending the creature sprawling under his horse's hooves.
Other troopers gathered slowly in a loose crown formation with Brea. Surrounded by her brothers, she could think of no better way to die.
The hobgoblin swarm blocked them in, swiping at their horses. It was not the first time she and Farnick had been outnumbered by goblin infantry, and she smiled as a plan formed.
"Farnick, do you remember the battle along the Keld?" she yelled.
"Which one, sir?"
"The one we rode away from, rather than crawled."
A knowing grin spread across his face. He gave a whoop and spurred his horse. Though smaller than the other warhorses in Brea's squadron, Farnick's mare barreled through the hobs, parting them like water. Without hesitation, she followed in his wake, the other troopers behind her. They sliced a path through their enemy. Even a swarm of hobgoblins was no match for heavy cavalry.
When they reached the end of the hobs, they turned at the tree line. Farnick fanned to the left, and Brea went opposite. Another swath of creatures fell under their horse's hooves.
Finally, a horn sounded. It bleated for the hobgoblins’ retreat.
"Ride them down!" Brea ordered her squadron. Still, a few hobs managed to disappear into the woods.
When it was over, she counted her remaining people.
"Nine," she said. "Nine of thirty."
Farnick limped over to her, his horse lost among the carnage. Aside from the gouge across his thigh, he seemed unharmed.
"Three score of hobs, I'd wager," he said. He stepped on a body, and it grunted. He raised his sword to strike. "An ugly one here, still breathing."
"Wait." Brea dismounted and stood over the hobgoblin. Both of his legs were broken, and a jagged wound across his brow wept blood. She crouched before his hideous face, studying it.
"Is you," the creature said in guttural Common.
"Do you know me?" Brea asked.
The hobgoblin laughed, his eyes black pinpricks in a bulbous face. "The female captain. Said you would come. Said you were fierce."
She inclined her head, suppressing her surprise. "Who said?"
He grew quiet. Only his labored breathing and the movements of her soldiers as they gathered the dead echoed through the clearing.
Brea grabbed a broken leg and squeezed. The hobgoblin howled.
"You were waiting for us," she said. "Who sent you?"
"Gold man," the hob wailed. He reached for his belt, and Brea leaned on his leg.
"Stay still," she said and grabbed the pouch near his hand. She handed it to Farnick so she could keep her attention on the hob.
"Gold man," he repeated. "Please."
"Captain?" Farnick held out his hand.
A flash of gold drew her eye, and Brea turned to see bloody coins in her friend's palm. The face she knew too well, the lines she had traced with her lips and fingertips, stared back at her in mockery. Stamped clearly on each coin was the stoic profile of her lord, Deagan Callimedes, stained with her brothers' lives.
Coming Next Week: A room with a view in Chapter Three 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.