Sunlight dripped from a tiny window into her cell. Brea lay on her doublet atop the cold ground and tried to remember how many days had passed. Four? Seven? A dozen or more? She had seen no one, heard only the moans of distant neighbors, and received no nourishment of any kind. The dungeons of Deagan's Hold were not a place to keep prisoners for questioning or before a trial, but a place to forget they had ever existed.
The brigand's face flashed in Brea's mind. His words that the dungeon offered a death worse than a sword lingered in her ears. His hollow cheeks lifted in laughter, his sunken eyes watching over her. She could not shake his image nor the inescapable knowledge that without food or water, she would lose her mind shortly before she died.
But Brea had taken precautions. Months in encampments with limited supplies had taught her how to survive. And in his arrogance, Deagan had left her fully armored. Her cuirass lay against the wall of her cell, its curve deep enough to catch a dribble of water that snaked down the stone. Those few drops of moisture had kept her alive, hoping that an opportunity to escape might present itself. She'd stayed quiet and calm, tried to conserve as much energy as possible, but another sunset slipped below the window and nothing changed.
Hope became a fleeting, foolish memory. Like love.
Footsteps echoed down the corridor. Brea lifted her head as torchlight flickered along the dank dungeon walls. The light grew closer, and she squinted. The resounding steps stopped in front of her cell.
"It's me, Captain," Etrim whispered and settled her torch in a nearby sconce.
Brea pushed herself to her feet. She wobbled, but steadied herself against the wall.
"I brought food and water, sir," Etrim said and shoved a hunk of bread through the barred window of the door. "And keys, most importantly, I have the gaoler's keys."
Brea considered it might be a trap. Etrim might have been the traitor in her own ranks, reporting to Deagan on her plan to stage a coup. But the lure of food and water made Brea’s stomach grumble in protest to her thoughts, and she accepted the bread.
"How's that?" she asked. The bread made her mouth water with what little moisture remained in her body. She took a tentative bite, chewed, and tore into the rest with all the ferocity of a starving animal.
Etrim fumbled with the keys, testing each one on the heavy gaoler's loop, and cursing under her breath as each failed to turn the lock. "Things have been bad, Captain, ever since Lieutenant..."
Her words died as she peered through the small window, meeting Brea's eyes. Farnick was truly dead then. Her old friend, hanged by her lover. The bread turned heavy in her stomach.
"The squadron," Etrim continued, "it's mutiny, sir. The lieutenant's death was a clear violation of our contract. No trial. Not even the slightest evidence. There."
The lock clicked. She pulled the door open with a creak, and Brea stumbled out.
"Let me, sir." Etrim slung Brea's arm over her shoulder and grabbed her torch.
Etrim managed to smile the same overeager grin she'd always had. Only now, in this wretched place, Brea found it comforting.
"So who planned my rescue?" Brea asked.
Etrim blushed. "I couldn't let you rot down here, Captain."
Brea squeezed the younger woman's shoulder as Etrim led them up and into Deagan's keep.
The great hall, which normally bustled with servants, sat empty save for the Blackjackets guarding the doors. They straightened as they saw Brea and saluted.
"Sir," one of them said, "Lord Callimedes has barricaded himself in his office with his personal guard."
Etrim helped Brea into a chair at a long, wooden table. A meager plate of jerky and parsnips was laid before her.
"How many?" Brea asked and reached for Etrim's waterskin.
"Four or five."
She nodded, nibbling on a bit of jerky. "And how many have taken arms against our lord?"
The man shrugged. "Maybe twice that. Most are staying out of it, sticking to the barracks or taverns until they see who wins."
"No doubt Deagan has sought outside help. He must realize he can't quell his soldiers on his own," she said.
"We've stopped any messengers from coming or going, sir."
Brea considered as she finished her first meal in so many days. "He'll find a way, if he hasn't already. I need to deal with him quickly."
She struggled to stand, and Etrim helped her to her feet.
"Captain," Etrim started, but didn't need to finish.
Brea knew she was too weak to face him. And perhaps she had always been, too weak and blinded by feelings she should never have possessed. None of that mattered now. She would finish this.
Something in her eyes must have told Etrim that her Captain would not back down today, for the young trooper nodded and said, "I'll get your sword and armor, sir."
"No," Brea said. "Leave the armor in the dungeon where it belongs. My sword will be enough. I will no longer bear the blackjacket."
∗ ∗ ∗
The climb up the stairs to Deagan's office was longer and more arduous than Brea remembered, even lacking the weight of her armor. Her legs ached nearly as much as her heart.
Etrim and two other Blackjackets flanked her. They carried a portable battering ram, but Brea paused outside the double-doors to knock. It seemed ridiculous, to announce herself before breaking in, but she wanted to hear what her former lord had to say.
"Deagan," she called. "Open the doors and surrender. Your troops might yet spare you."
Silence greeted her.
She sighed and nodded to her soldiers. "Break it down."
The slam of the ram pounded in time with her heart. Whatever affection she had for Deagan had died with Farnick and rotted in that cell, but there was a sadness there, a remorse over losing the possibility of something better. When the doors finally gave way, the tearing of timber became the scream Brea could not herself release.
She stepped over the threshold. Deagan stood with his back to the window from which he'd watched Farnick swing. Four Blackjackets formed a semicircle in front of him, their swords drawn. Among them stood Soltez, sword in hand despite his injury.
Brea frowned. She wondered if his injury had been staged, purposeful so he might scout ahead and lead them to the hobgoblin trap instead of remaining among her ranks.
"It's over," she said. "Don't risk your lives for a lord who has used your brothers like fodder for a few coins. Lay down your weapons."
She approached warily, her sword held before her. The men guarding Deagan hesitated a fraction at her words. Their posture turned unsure.
For his part, Prophet Deagan Callimedes looked regal in his white robes and jewels. He also appeared shocked and scared. In all their time together, Brea had never seen him lose his composure. Now he seemed an arrogant child, unwilling to admit defeat.
"Kill her," he ordered his men. Their hesitation disappeared, and they charged.
Brea moved faster without the weight of her armor, but she was also exposed and weary from her time in the dungeon. She sidestepped the blow and twisted awkwardly to dodge another. She caught sight of Etrim and the others who’d accompanied her from the corner of her eye. They danced with their own opponents.
Brea lifted her sword to parry as Soltez advanced on her. The block was well timed, and the clash of steel rang down her arms. She didn't want to kill him, this brother who’d abandoned her to remain loyal to his lord. Her reservations and weakened state would cost her, she knew.
As she spun to avoid another thrust and place herself behind Soltez, pain flared hot and violent across her hip. He’d caught her, but it was shallow enough for her to ignore. She brought the pommel of her sword down on the back of his head.
“Don’t do this,” she said.
The scout turned to face her, too slow by half. He swung his sword awkwardly, and Brea easily parried it.
“Our lord has betrayed us,” she said. She kept a low guard, waiting for the inexperienced soldier to make his decision.
“You’re the traitor.” Soltez’s words were slurred. He touched the back of his head with one hand as if to slow the dizziness her blow had delivered him. “The High Prophet will come, and he will reward my loyalty.”
Brea sighed. She almost admired his devotion. Years ago, she had been just like him, fanatical in her loyalty to the Kalistocrats. But war and sacrifice, love and betrayal had changed her. The Prophets were but men and women, nestled atop their piles of gold, sending their soldiers to die for scraps of power. They hid their bloodstained hands inside white gloves. Soltez was now part of their machinations, and his actions had caused her friend’s execution.
Soltez lunged at her. She stepped away with ease and drove her blade cleanly through the gap between his armor and lagging sword arm. It was precise, deep, and killed him instantly.
“I’m sorry, brother,” she said as he crumpled to the floor.
The other Blackjackets were occupied among themselves. She scanned the room for Deagan.
She would not have noticed him if it wasn't for the flash of golden embroidery trailing from under his desk. The hem of his robe peeked at her, beckoning her.
She marched around the desk and lifted his cowering form by his bejeweled lapels.
"Coward," she said, dragging him to face her.
He squirmed and tried to push her away. His hands were familiar, almost comforting, but his eyes shone with a cold fury.
"I am your lord," he said. "You can’t do this."
"You lost that title when you murdered my friend." She shoved him against the wall. The tapestry of the Prophecies draped overhead.
"You should have hanged me. If you couldn’t love me, you should have let me go," she said. “Instead you killed an innocent man. A good man.”
Something in his eyes softened. The sounds of battle around them melted. Deagan smiled, a small laugh escaping his lips.
"I did," he said. “For you. Had you but left then instead of attacking your lord...”
His voice drew her closer, the pain in his expression weakening her further. She could barely lift her longsword, and her muscles quivered with exhaustion.
"I loved you despite everything." He reached for her face.
A white-gloved hand cupped her cheek. She let herself fall into it, close her eyes, and sigh. In that moment, she realized he was telling to truth.
Brea turned her grip and thrust her longsword up through her lord's body.
"I loved Farnick like a brother," she said, watching his eyes widen in shock then empty of life. She followed him to the floor, slumping next to him and laying her head against his shoulder. His freehand released the dagger he'd palmed, and she watched it splatter into the pool of blood gathering around them.
Her hip throbbed. Her head swam from blood loss and exhaustion. But she could no more lie down and die now than she could've in her cell. She would survive.
"Captain?" Etrim stood over her, her hand extended in offering.
Brea grasped the young warrior’s bloodstained hand and staggered to her feet.
"No longer," Brea said. "I need to leave."
"I don't understand, sir?"
"Take what you can from his holdings and distribute it among our soldiers. Other Kalistocrats and their Blackjackets will arrive soon, and they'll claim whatever remains."
"Where will you go?" Etrim asked.
"I am a traitor. They’ll hunt me across Druma, and you will let them," she said, meeting Etrim’s gaze.
Hope glimmered in the young woman’s eyes. She recognized it from her own reflection, before Deagan, before the Goblinblood Wars.
"For all of this,” she said, her voice almost a whisper, “I am to blame. I’ll run until they find me, or I become too expensive to chase."
"I could go with you."
Brea smiled and shook her head. "I need you here, Etrim, to set things right. You're a fine trooper, and you'll make a fine Captain."
Even smeared in the blood of her fellow soldiers, Etrim's armor seemed clean. There were no golden etchings in the black, no magic from a lord to sully it. She wore her blackjacket with pride, and Brea hoped she would always keep her body armored, as well as her heart.
Coming Soon: An unexpected knight in an all-new Pathfinder Tales serial by Dylan Birtolo.
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.