The pyre burned for hours. Its flames seemed to lick the sky, and Brea turned her horse and troopers away from the carnage. They rode for home, though she wasn't sure what that meant anymore. Smoke rose behind them, a dark reminder of her lord's betrayal.
Twenty-one cuirasses dangled along the flanks of the remaining horses. They would carry those and the blackjackets of their fallen to Deagan's Hold, a hollow shell of the soldiers who had died in their lord's service. The armor clanked and rattled like a discordant dirge.
"He betrayed me," she whispered to Farnick. "He betrayed us all."
Her friend grunted and shifted his weight atop his borrowed horse. "One hob's word and a few coins won't be enough."
"What will it take?"
"You speak of mutiny, sir," he said. "A clear violation of contract be needed for treachery."
"Yet the Prophets can be as perfidious as they like."
He was silent a moment, then said, "And now you speak blasphemy."
Brea sighed. "You won't help me."
It wasn't a question, and Farnick did not grace her with a response.
"How long then, how long until you brand me a traitor, old friend?" she asked.
"You have done nothing yet, sir. And when you do, I'll give you a day and a night to seek your proof." His voice was flat, but she read the sadness in the slump of his shoulders.
She didn’t know why Deagan had stooped so low as to hire hobgoblins. Was it to be rid of her? He would consider the deaths of her troopers acceptable losses, so long as his goals were achieved. She had witnessed her lord sacrifice soldiers and citizens in pursuit of a few leagues of land for his hold. To Deagan, they were but resources for him to manipulate, control, and do away with at his whim.
She had thought she was an exception.
"Why didn't he just have me hanged? Concoct some story. Why the deception?" she asked, almost absently.
Farnick shrugged. "I don't claim to understand the ways of Kalistocrats, but your squadron is loyal to you. I'm not the only one who remembers your deeds in the Goblinblood Wars, and many have served years under your command, sir. We would follow you."
"But not in mutiny."
"Aye." He paused, and then added, “Not yet."
She smiled at him and nodded her understanding. She would need to acquire proof beyond any doubt that Deagan had violated their contract. And considering how meticulous her lord was with his recordkeeping, she knew there would be something in his office. Some ledger or receipt of payment. Some scrap of paper where he signed away her squadron's lives.
The clatter of Blackjackets heralded their arrival. Soldiers on the battlements saw the empty cuirasses and nodded a sorrowful greeting. Citizens going about their daily chores stopped to stare. Brea's remaining troopers marched like a funeral procession. Nine of thirty: the numbers resounded in her mind alongside the faces of the fallen.
They rode straight to her lord’s keep and collected a crowd of onlookers who followed their bedraggled band. The commotion drew citizen and soldier alike, and Brea led them to the square below Deagan's balcony.
"My lord Callimedes," she called, loud enough for all to hear. She wasn't sure if Deagan would respond. Perhaps he might be too shocked that she yet lived. Perhaps he was too cowardly to face her in such a public display. Perhaps her audacity would see her hanged, her love be damned.
Two Blackjackets, whom Brea recognized as her lord's personal guards, stepped onto the balcony. They peered around and squinted knowingly at Brea below them.
After a moment, Lord Deagan Callimedes slid into view between his Blackjackets. Gold embroidery lined his elegant robes and sparkled in the afternoon sun. Jewels at his throat and fingers glittered. Though he seemed a bright star hovering above Brea's gloomy procession, she saw the dark cast of his features, the anger that hardened his eyes to chips of ice. Deagan's white-gloved hands gripped the balustrade tight enough she heard the wood creak.
Still, her breath caught at the sight of him, her heart giving a painful lurch.
"Captain." His voice rang across the square.
"An ambush, my lord. Twenty-one of your finest troopers taken at the hands of hobgoblins." She wanted all of the Mercenary League to hear of the dead, to know of their fallen brothers. Once she had proof, what was left of her squadron would not be enough. She needed every Blackjacket in Deagan's Hold to turn against him.
Her lord was silent a long moment. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft, and Brea couldn't tell if the gentleness there was for her or for show.
"Then we mourn tonight," he said, "but we also celebrate the safe return of those who live to serve Kalistrade another day. Come, give your report Captain, and let us prepare a memorial for my fallen Blackjackets."
With that he turned and disappeared into his keep.
Brea sighed and dismounted her horse. She nodded to Farnick and whispered, "A day and a night, old friend."
He inclined his head, saying nothing. He led her soldiers toward the barracks, while she climbed the steps toward her lord once more and wondered if that would be the last she saw of Farnick. If in the morning he would brand her a traitor and hunt her down.
Perhaps, she thought, it was no more than she deserved.
∗ ∗ ∗
Hot water soothed her battered body. A page had intercepted her and instructed that she should make herself presentable. It seemed no one was too happy with the muddy bootprints she'd left on her last visit, least of all her lord. He'd lent her use of his own bathing chambers, though she'd seen no sign of the man himself since her arrival.
She relaxed against the porcelain tub. Every once in a while, a page would enter, remove a bucket of stale water, and pour fresh, steaming water into her bath. Jasmine and white rose petals floated on the surface, scenting the air along with her skin. A decanter of chilled wine and a glass were placed on a table nearby.
"It's good to be a Prophet," she mused.
Though she avoided the wine for fear of poison, least of all a dulling of her wits, she delighted in the comfort of Deagan’s chambers. If he intended to manipulate her before killing her, she might as well enjoy herself. And if she planned to peruse his office for proof of his treachery, then she would need to employ the same cleverness and subtlety of a Kalistocrat. She would need to use whatever love he once had for her as a weapon. He had said her heart would be his undoing, and Brea needed to make that prophecy come true.
When her olive skin turned pink from scrubbing, she wrapped herself in a robe and padded to the door that led to Deagan's office. She paused to listen and, hearing no one on the other side, opened it.
Leather-bound books and papers were stacked with care atop his desk. Gold trinkets and statuettes carved from ivory decorated his shelves. A tapestry woven with the Prophecies of Kalistrade hung above the hearth. They had once laughed with devilish delight at that tapestry, tangled together below it before the hearth.
Now the fireplace stood empty and cold. Not even the plush carpets warmed her bare feet as she moved to his desk.
Dates marked the binding of each ledger. Every paper was labeled in his intricate script. Deagan was a man who enjoyed details. He memorized the annual harvests of each province in the same meticulous way his fingers knew the delicate slope of her jaw, the column of her throat, and the slow curve of her hips.
She opened the newest ledger and scanned row upon row of transactions. Most of the accounts were lost on her, but she knew enough to understand Deagan's wealth was far greater than she'd expected. If he was conducting the amount and volume of sales the ledger indicated, then he was amassing enough power to draw the eyes of other Prophets, perhaps even the High Prophet himself.
If any of the Kalistocrats looked too closely, they would discover her relationship with Deagan. Because it was a violation of the Prophecies for a Kalistocrat to have liaisons that might result in illegitimate heirs, they would strip her of her blackjacket and Deagan of his title. It was a risk she and Deagan had known, but his hold had been beneath the notice of his betters, a small keep on the border of dwarven territory. Inconsequential, until now.
His efforts to stamp her out of existence suddenly made all too much sense.
She flipped pages, seeking anything that might indicate the hiring of hobgoblins or his attempt to remove her without sullying his own hands. She found nothing.
"Looking for something, Captain?" Deagan's voice sounded from the bathing chambers. He leaned against the doorframe, swirling a glass of wine.
Brea had no answer for him, no clever excuse that would spare her. She longed for the clarity of war and a simple sword in her hand, for an opponent whose eyes she could meet, for whom her heart did not ache. In that moment, she feared her lord more than any murderous hobgoblin.
"Come, I wish to show you something," he said and turned his back to her.
She had no blade hidden in her robe, and even if she did, she wasn't sure she could use it on her lord. She followed him into his chambers, her heart dying a little with every step.
He motioned to the foot of his bed, where her armor lay atop her doublet and clothes. It had been cleaned and polished, oiled to a fine shine that reflected the evening sun that blazed through his chamber's window. The gold etchings seemed brilliant on the dark armor, and she wondered if the magical blessings had also been restored. Her new gorget had been scrubbed. The scratch where it had turned the hobgoblin's blade and saved her life was no more than a dimple she had to feel with her fingers to sense.
"You'll want to be clean and in full regalia for the memorial service," he said. "Go on."
Brea had never been shy, not during the months in battlefield encampments surrounded by hardened soldiers, nor in the presence of her lord. Shyness was a trait for noble ladies and their handmaidens, of which she was neither. But now when she grasped the cinch of her robe, she hesitated.
"What game is this?" she asked, the words leaving her throat before she could stop them.
He shook his head and sipped from his glass. "Dress, Captain."
As she removed her robe, Deagan went to his window and stared at the setting sun. Brea slipped on her clothing and pulled her arming doublet over her head. When she began strapping down the plate armor, her lord came to her.
"Allow me," he said and knelt before her. His elegant hands fastened the buckles of her greaves with ease. As he rose to assist with her gorget, she met his bloodshot eyes.
"Why?" she whispered.
He did not answer. Leaving her gauntlets on the bed, he took her hand and led her toward the window.
"There is talk of mutiny in your squadron, Captain," he said.
So he knew, had known before he caught her snooping in his study. For the first time, Brea considered the possibility of a spy among her ranks. Someone new whom Deagan had paid to report on her. She didn't want to believe in such a betrayal, but if her lord could break her heart, one of her brothers could easily break her trust.
"Some believe I have violated my contract with the Mercenary League," he continued, standing behind her as she faced the square below. A gallows had been erected, and townsfolk were gathering around it.
"So this is it then," she said, thankful that at least he had allowed her to dress as a soldier. The weight of the armor that had long protected her would now drag her to a quicker death.
"I cannot have betrayal in my ranks, Captain. It must be dealt with swiftly."
"Did you ever love me?"
His breath warmed the shell of her ear. A black-masked executioner stepped onto the gallows, tying the rope securely between the uprights. Brea saw her troopers interspersed with the crowd, Etrim's blond head next to Soltez's dark curls. Both were young and stupid enough to be her lord's lap dog. They came to watch her die.
"An example must be made," Deagan said. "Your squadron must know I do not tolerate treachery in my officers."
She nodded. "I would have died for you on the field. This will only be a little different."
"Watch. And then you must go...go far away." His breathing was labored now, and he took a step back from her.
She furrowed her brow and did as her lord ordered.
From the keep strode two of Deagan's personal Blackjackets carrying a short, struggling figure between them. The bald head and missing ear of her old friend were unmistakable.
"Farnick?" She whirled on Deagan, her stomach roiling with sickness. "No, it's me you want. Hang me."
His eyes glimmered, his face lined with pain. "You understand nothing."
She lunged at him, knocking him to the ground. Her hands clamped on his shoulders and rapped his head against the floor. "Release Farnick!"
Her lord whispered a single word, and the gorget closed around her throat. She let him go to fumble at the clasp, but it would not open.
Staggering to his feet, Deagan coughed and said, "Someone must be responsible for the threat of mutiny. Someone must pay. But not you..."
Brea rolled on the ground, fighting for air. The world around her became fuzzy and disjointed.
"I'd hoped you would violate your contract,” he continued, “and leave after the brigands...and when you didn’t, I steeled myself and sent you to the hobs to die. But didn’t die, and I knew couldn't bear to go through it all again, to see you swinging from a rope." He laughed. "You keep coming back. My weakness. My albatross."
He crouched before her. Spots colored her vision, but she could see tears streaking his beautiful face. From the square below, she heard the crowd murmur before going silent.
Farnick's gruff voice boomed with his final words. "'Tis been my honor to serve with the finest soldiers, the finest Captain, I have known."
A crack sounded as the trapdoor under his feet opened and the crossbeam bore his weight.
Brea felt her own tears roll down her face, felt Deagan catch one with a gentle fingertip. Then the world disappeared.
Coming Next Week: A friend in need in Chapter Four 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.