From the Barrens, Part 2
Murderdale, the Barrens, Winter Y380

She skidded to a stop, tucking her body behind a rock face to hide from the incoming barrage of arrows as two whistled past her ear. Listening to the shouts from the line, her hands fished out a bandage to start wrapping around her knuckles where the blood was starting to seep from the grazes there. ‘Cover it for now, clean it later, pray infection doesn’t set in.’

She watched as more of the Towerjacks fell back, slowly giving ground. She trusted that Andrea’s plans would work; she peered round the rock cut to see the fresh line of troops and crossbows ready to cover the retreating soldiers.

Vitória listened briefly, counting the clatter of arrows hitting rocks, took a deep breath, then broke cover to resume the retreat.

***

She set out the bowl of water and tossed the old bandages onto the fire, settling into a curled up ball in the armchair with a pair of tweezers and a square of clean linen.

“How’s your hand?” Lupo carefully set down the large tray of breads, meats and cheeses between them before he shrugged out of his coat and got comfortable in the adjacent chair.

“Stings. But I’m fine.” She slowly began washing her knuckles and cleaning the wound, brows creased. “What about your arm?”

“It is bruised but not cut. Be sore tomorrow, is all I need to worry about.” Lupo stuck his finger through the rent in his coat sleeve, wiggling it through the hole with such a down turned face that Vitória couldn’t keep from giggling.

“A few stitches and it’ll be good as new.”

“We talking about you, or my coat?”

“I don’t…” She fell silent as she bit her lip, focusing, and pulled a shard of flint from where it had impacted between her knuckles with a whimper. She had seen those taken to the surgery tent, the blood soaking the ground; though Beatrix ensured it was well run, she would do anything to avoid that place. “I don’t think it needs stitches…” she dunked her hand into the water, feeling the herbs brewed into it sting sharply, then pressed some gauze to the wound, cleaning away the rest of the dirt.

“Let me be the judge.” Lupo quickly caught her hand and looked at it, feeling around the edges of where the shard had impacted. She bit down a wince, refusing to acknowledge the pain with him so close, but it was an effort to not snatch her hand back, ‘What, Vitórialike an injured fox wanting to run away and lick their wounds?’

“Yeah. A stitch will keep it closed enough and mean better chances of not getting it infected.”

“I don’t want–” Lupo looked up at her, sharply. “I don’t think it needs–” His eyebrow raised in such a good impression of Rodrigo that she swallowed the rest of the sentence with a gulp. “I hate physicks.”

***

“D’you think anyone would notice if a lone little briar was to just… fall … off one of the ramparts? It is such a long, long way down.”

Her footsteps quickened when she felt the first cracks in her composure. There was a particular way of walking she had picked up from the family which was especially effective in this situation, and a quick shift of expression to one of I-will-end-you soon had people near jumping out of the way as she passed through the corridors.

Reaching her quarters, she shut the door with a hurried slam and leaned against it with her shoulder, sliding the lock firmly shut, testing that no one could force it open as her mask broke away from her face. ‘Get a grip, Vitória.’

She leaned her temple to the door, feeling a shiver start down her spine, followed by a second. Palms held the door shut while her mind raced. ‘Don’t panic. Don’t panic.’

It was perfectly rational to feel threatened. And she had had months to learn– both the best and worst practices of– how to compartmentalize and release emotions as best as she could, being a briar.

‘Just breathe, stop panicking.’

She slid down to the floor, curling her trembling arms around her knees, pulling into a ball and counting the thuds in her chest. She had not let them see her afraid, or intimidated; they didn’t deserve to see her shaken by the comment. Pride had kept her afloat. But alone, and afterwards?

She just needed to sit and shake for a little while.

***

“What is he like?” She leaned back from the dinner table, swirling her glass of wine, shifting seamlessly from fellow soldier to professional cicisbeo.

“Oh, um…” Lupo seemed taken aback at the shift in her demeanour, or perhaps it was the question that caught him more by surprise.

“Virtuous, honest, loyal to a fault.” She smiled outwardly, but inside she frowned; anyone could be said to be those things and she’d not know anything more about what made them tick.

“He has a temper on him, but it is reserved purely for the battlefield.” Lupo flicked his ear tip and grinned. “Swear he should have been born with pointy ears.” ‘How did he feel about Briars, then?’

“He has his faults, but who doesn’t. He can be slow to trust but that’s not always a bad thing. He’s vigilant, but then, you already knew that.” Lupo pushed his food about with his fork.

“What can I say? He’s one of my best soldiers, friend and brother; he embodies the spirit of the Tower far better than I do myself.”

She sipped at her wine, the bitter currant notes souring on her tongue. The spirit of the Tower. For a moment, she had forgot that this was to be a political match. She set her glass down.

“Yes, but what does he enjoy, what are his hobbies, what games does he play?” She forced a chuckle. “You could be describing a watchtower, Lupo.”

“He likes to travel?”

“So I’ll never see him.”

“Chess, he used to play often,” Lupo said after a thought.

“I am terrible at chess.”

“He enjoys evenings in taverns, like the rest of us, and singing songs. He can’t sing but doesn’t stop him trying. Kinda like me only when he gets drunk he doesn’t sing in tune.”

“Now, that I can work with.”

***

“There’s no one else?” The Lance-Captain frowned, gripping the hilt of his sword as he protested the assignment.

“No, there isn’t, and I don’t like your tone.” Fiora was a slight woman but damn! The Commander could stare down an ogre.

Vitória leaned against the wall, arms folded across her chest, waiting out this latest insult. It would have been amusing to watch, if she could pretended they were talking about anyone else. But the knowledge that she was the subject still tore at her pride.

“The Lance would prefer a physick who…” Commander Fiora van Holmauer raised an eyebrow, daring the lancer to finish the sentence.

“… Can keep up with us.”

“She can.  Anything else?”

“But she’s a–”

‘Say it. I dare you, say it. Say I’m a Briar. Say it.’

Maybe your glory-addled brain isn’t getting this. She is going with you, because there isn’t another combat-ready physick who is willing to. You seen to be racking up a reputation. And if you are SO willing to lead your troops into danger without a physick to attend to you then I question both your wisdom and your loyalty. And if I hear one more word from your lips that isn’t ‘Yes Commander, certainly, Ser,’ then I will do all in my power to ensure that you are sent back to Dawn with a testimony of just how gloriously you acquitted yourself on this Crusade, as a precursor to an inquisition into your Virtue. And I will get her to lead it.” Fiora pointed to Vitória, who struggled to keep her expression neutral.

The Lancer glared at her, turned his face and quickly retreated, ignoring Vitória completely.  Fiora ran her fingers through her bangs, then set her hands on her hips. “Are you absolutely sure that you still want to go, considering…”

“It’s fine. Some of the Bleeding Hearts are going along, they’ll keep an eye out for me.”

“I’ll have to tell the General about him. Something’s going to come to a head, and soon.”

“Would you really have done all those things?”

“Well, he was pissing me off!” Fiora sighed, shaking her hands out, letting go of the tension in her shoulders. “We’ve had 29 reports of disloyalty, dissention, or unbecoming conduct this season, all from Dawnish pillocks who can’t stand the only help they’re going to get. Maze’s end, does this happen every season? Ungrateful wretches.”

“Damned ungrateful.” Vitória touched her elbow gratefully, then let her get back to her paperwork. “Tell Andrea I’ll be back for dinner tomorrow.”

“Will do.”

***

Her fingers packed the wound with a poultice of marrowort.

“Okay, get up, start running.”

She got up and ran to the next wounded soldier, dragging him backwards while the front line tried to press back against the orcs long enough for their friend to rise. The orders were becoming jumbled, each ear hearing a different command from a different Captain.  Fall back. Push forward. Hold the line. Retreat.

It was easy for her to slip amongst soldiers who were begrudging her presence there, all for a little bark. They might not say her name, they might not look her in the eye or acknowledge her there, but they did still need her. They bled like any other soldier.

“You.” An arm grabbed her leathers as she slipped past, jerking her around, then let go as quick as possible, as if afraid of taint. “There’s two soldiers down around that ridge, get them back on their feet while we distract them from the other side.”

Her eyes scanned from the cold glare of the Lance-Captain to the ridge, surveying it in a moment before she set off, unsure why the hairs on her neck were standing on edge. ‘Just your pride, Vitória. It’s not you. It’s HIM. Smug asshat. Do the job to hand.’  She barely took notice that she was the only one not retreating.

She slipped through the ranks as they retreated and formed up, glad for the rock cover as she made it closer to where the soldiers were down. She ducked around one orc as they charged at a knight, slipping down the hill where the bodies were still on the ground.

She touched the first, shivering at the deep wound left down the Bravo’s neck. She looked the woman over, felt for a pulse she knew was not there. Vitória scrambled across to the second body, knowing the chest was too still, and the blood from the wounds dripped but did not beat with a pulse. ‘Already dead.’

She went to move, but her hand paused, images flashing quickly before her eyes. A bit of cloth used as a makeshift bandage. Used potion bottle.  A smudge of blood like someone cupped a cheek in grief, in goodbye. Nothing of value left behind.‘This doesn’t add up. They were….’

Vitória jumped up and ran back around the ridge edge, looking for the distraction she didn’t think was coming. Something swung down and cracked the back of her skull, the world spun before it faded.

‘Already dead.’

***

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