Legacy Fiction - Path of Devastation

Path of Devastation was a narrative league that ran in 2015.

Chapter 1: Misdeeds

By William Shick

Almsbrook, Northern Cygnar South of Point Bourne, 609 AR

Samuel Briggsway lounged comfortably in his favorite corner booth near the back of the Muddy Swine, a giggling lady of the tavern’s upper hospitality floor pressing in on each side. Several empty mugs sat upon the table that separated the trio from the rest of the tavern. He tried to mentally calculate the tab as he let his fingers dance over his companions’ bare shoulders, but the alcoholic fog from the drinks muddled his thinking. After several failed attempts, he realized he didn’t give one damn about the total.

A Steelhead had no need to worry about the coin in his pockets—there was always more just a bloody scrum away. If he’d wanted to waste his life fretting over sums and ledgers, working his fingers to the bone, he would have just stayed back in Fennholm and worked in his family’s shop. He turned his attention fully to the ladies beside him.

One of the girls leaned over and whispered something in his ear, accentuating it with a delicate flick of her tongue. A mischievous grin turned up the corners of his mouth within his close-cropped beard.

“I knew there was a reason I liked you, Bella,” he said, his voice low. He pulled his arm free and reached for one of the mugs on the table. A scowl furrowed his features as he tipped it toward his lips only to feel no liquid hit his tongue. He brought the mug up to his eyes, the lines of his frown deepening as he examined the empty inside as if expecting the lack of drink to be some foul trick.

“I figured I’d find you here, Briggs.” The familiar voice cut through the mercenary’s good mood like a halberd through a torso. He brought the mug down and looked up into the familiar face of Sergeant Pemberton, kitted out in full Steelhead battledress.

“That’s ‘Lieutenant Briggsway’ to you, Sergeant,” Briggs shot back as he returned to a lounging position, carefully watching Ash’s face for any show of emotion. The Steelhead sergeant was as stoic as any a person he’d ever met. He could count on his fingers the number of times he’d seen Ash’s exterior crack since they were kids. He often wondered how they had ever become so close—but he had never once not been grateful that Morrow had seen fit to give him such a staunch friend for the last twenty-seven years of his life.

Ash raised an eyebrow at him. “Aren’t you supposed to be on duty, Lieutenant?”

“I am on duty, Sergeant,” Briggs waved to the tavern with a flourish, “watching over the fine people of Almsbrook, as we have been contracted to do by His Lordship Baron Hawthorne.”

“And we are so grateful for it!” one of the girls said. Her hand slid down to squeeze his thigh, causing Briggs to jump and then grin once more.

A commotion rose from the bar, nearer the front of the
tavern. Briggs’ smile turned into a twist of displeasure as he recognized the annoying bark of Tanner Murghold. As far as Briggs was concerned, Mughold was proof that the Steelheads would take anyone on who could hold a weapon and keep some semblance of a march step. Briggs looked past Ash and tuned his ears on Murghold’s sneer of a voice. As usual, the man was bickering over his tab. Apparently he felt the services rendered weren’t befitting the payment due.
“Sniveling half-sack of a man,” Briggs muttered. Ash turned to follow Brigg’s gaze momentarily before turning back to the table.

“Ladies,” the Steelhead sergeant said, nodding that it was time for them to go. The two let out a slight whine of protest, but Ash’s stern gaze got them up and moving.

Briggs made a theatric sigh. “Another time, my dears,” he said. He gently pressed a gold piece into each one’s delicate palm. Standing, he adjusted his steel cuirass and picked up his cavalry axe and blunderbuss from where they were leaning against the wall. “What?” he asked, feeling Ash’s stare on him.

“I was just wondering if you understood how these girls’ trade works. Because by the looks of you they’ve yet to render any actually services beyond escalating your bar tab.”

“Since when did I hire you on as my personal financier?” Briggs gave Ash an expectant look as he secured his weapons. The sergeant just shrugged. “So—besides interrupting my company, did you have a reason for tracking me down? Or did you just get that weird tingle in the back of your head that told you I was enjoying myself?”

“Is that what that is?” Ash asked. “I thought I just had chronic headaches. Didn’t realize the cause had been staring me in the face these last two decades.”

“Har, har,” Briggs said.

“A runner just came bearing captain’s orders. There’s a bit of trouble brewing on the southwest side of town. The captain needs us to help ‘placate the situation,’ as he put it. Basically, he wants you fine dandies to put on a nice pony show for the townsfolk.”

“We’ve been putting on a lot of pony shows lately,” Briggs said, the jovial tone dropping from his voice.

“Things have certainly been heating up since Baron Hawthorne and his retinue were called to Point Bourne. Rumor is the Khadorans breached the walls and the swans are in danger of losing the city and the Strategic Academy.”

“You’d expect that with Menites to the south, Khadorans to the north, and Cryxians to the west, the Cygnarans would think twice about stirring up the trollkin in the middle.”

“If it weren’t for the residual trouble with the nearby trollkin the Crael Valley incident kicked up, we wouldn’t have this contract right now, and your notion of ‘on duty’ company might be a lot less pleasant,” Ash said.

Briggs couldn’t deny that. Even when the baron and his standing forces had been here, this contract had been one of the easiest the company had had in years. They’d engaged in small skirmishes with hostile bands of trollkin only twice in the eight months they’d been stationed here. In the six weeks since the baron had left for Point Bourne, the Steelheads had effectively had the run of the town under Captain Miller. Briggs would have been lying if he said he hadn’t enjoyed the newfound freedom. In the interest of public safety, Captain Miller had ordered news of the baron’s departure kept as quiet as possible. He didn’t want to cause any undue distress to the population of Almsbrook.

Briggs wasn’t exactly sure about the captain’s strategy; since Hawthorne’s departure, he could feel a strain in the air that hadn’t been there even at the height of the trollkin scare. It was as if people knew something was wrong, but not knowing exactly what it was only made the whole situation worse. That tension was written on the faces of the local patrons and even in the touch of the working girls of the Swine. Several scuffles had already broken out between Steelheads and townsfolk, and Briggs felt sure they were a long way from settling into anything like normalcy. In the end, he was just glad it was Captain Miller’s problem to deal with and not his.

He grabbed a full mug from a passing server’s tray, gulped down the frothy amber liquid, and slapped a silver piece on the tray with a smile and a wink before the startled serving girl could so much as squeak out a protest.

As the pair of mercenaries made their way toward the door of the Swine, their path inevitably brought them ever closer to the ranting of Murghold. The man was now using every curse and colorful epithet learned over years of campaigning across western Immoren. Briggs’ face scrunched into a tighter frown the closer he got.

“Just leave it be. It’s not worth it,” Ash said into his ear as they closed in.

Briggs, however, wasn’t listening; his attention was locked on Murghold’s hand, which was wrapped painfully tight around the wrist of a working girl with fire-red hair. After nearly a year in service to the baron, Briggs had become acquainted with all of the Swine’s ladies; this was Meredith. To the girl’s credit, she wasn’t backing down despite the increasing threat in Murghold’s words.

“Look, soldier boy, I held up my part of the deal, which means I’m owed what I’m owed. It’s not my fault if a person who ain’t me isn’t able to stand up and do their part.”

“Why, you filthy little—” Murghold’s words were cut off by the Swine’s owner, a big, thick-necked, dark-skinned Thurian fellow named Decker.

“I think it’s time you paid the lady and left. No reason for this to get uncordial.”

“You listen here, you fat, worthless govnosos!” Murghold’s
voice fell to a growl and his face turned bright red as he spat
out the Khadoran insult.

“Briggs. Briggs!” Ash called futilely, but it was too late. Briggs didn’t even register his friend’s words as he interposed himself between Murghold and Meredith, using a sharp elbow to Murghold’s forearm to break his hold on the girl’s wrist.

“You fall into horse dung again, Murghold?” he asked, fixing the other Steelhead with his gaze.

Murghold made an incredulous choking noise. “What?”

“I just figured maybe that’s why you aren’t listening to these fine folks. Because you’ve got manure in your ears.” Briggs’ voice remained perfectly cool.

“Briggs, that’s enough.” Ash said, coming up next to him and scanning the tavern, which had suddenly become eerily quiet. Impending violence had that effect. “We need to be on our way anyway.” Briggs was well aware of the six other Steelheads slowly moving toward him and Murghold. He knew as well as Ash did that every one of them was from Murghold’s platoon.

“Aw, no need to fret, Sergeant. We’re just talking, lieutenant to lieutenant.” Briggs kept his eyes fixed on Murghold while using his peripheral vision to keep tabs on the other Steelheads.

“I think you should do what you always do, Briggs, and listen to your whore friend,” Murghold spat.

An exasperated sigh issued from Ash. “Idiot.”

Before the word was even out of Ash’s mouth, Brigg’s fist smashed into the side of Murghold’s face in a left cross that sent the other Steelhead reeling. Blood and spittle flew from his mouth as he stumbled away from the force of the impact.

Briggs chuckled. “You think he’d have seen that coming,” he shot over to Ash.

Turning back to Murghold he said, “My daddy always said, ‘You ain’t born with manners, you have to be taught ’em.’”

He caught a blur of movement out of the corner of his eye as two of Murghold’s crew moved to catch him from the side. Ash was there in a flash, smashing a mug from the bar into the head of one assailant before turning and catching the other with a powerful uppercut that took the man right off his feet. Briggs timed the thumps of the men hitting the ground as he ducked a wild haymaker from Murghold.

“You almost had those boys hit the ground perfectly synchronized.”

“Not my first time having to watch your ass,” Ash spat back before addressing the remainder of Murghold’s crew. “Look, gents, let’s let the lieutenants hash this out alone.”

“Yeah, no need to join your friends bleeding and embarrassed on the floor.” Briggs felt a grin split his face as he connected with another solid right on Murghold’s smarmy face.

“Thamar’s teeth, Briggs! Shut up!” Ash growled as the other four found their courage within their injured pride. The sergeant didn’t bother trying further appeals, however, and simply charged straight into the men, relying on fists to cool heads now. Despite being outnumbered, the fact that Ash was in full armor certainly helped even the odds. There were precious few spots that were vulnerable in a bout of fisticuffs, and that was without considering the Steelhead sergeant’s own incredible combat prowess. There were few within their company who could hope to stand toe-to-toe with Sergeant Ashley Pemberton in a fight of any kind.

Briggs was half surprised that his single jibe had been enough to encourage the rest of Murghold’s men to jump into the fray. None of these men were fresh off the recruitment line. They all knew what the sergeant was capable of and that good money said you needed at least an eight-to-one advantage in this kind of match up.

He grunted as one of Murghold’s jabs finally connected. Though the blow stung, it had nowhere near the necessary power behind it to cause any real damage. Briggs ignored the hit and used the opening to land his own strike right into Murghold’s nose. He felt the crunch of bone and cartilage beneath his knuckles. Murghold gave a pained yelp and fell to the floor, hands instinctively clutching his face.

Briggs stepped over Murghold. “Ready to apologize?”

Murghold held the hand not clutching his bloody nose up in submission.

“Good boy,” Briggs said.

He could hear Ash breathing slightly heavily behind him and turned to see the sergeant standing over the groaning bodies of the six Steelheads. Ash’s head was bare, revealing her cropped blonde hair. “You good?” he asked.

Stooping to retrieve her helmet from the tavern floor, she answered, “Remember those headaches I was talking about? Pretty sure the pain’s moved into my ass now, too.”

Briggs spread his arms open, palms up, in a show of contrition. Before he could say anything, a hulking, brutish figure half again as tall as a man and easily twice as wide stormed through the door.

“What in the Wurm’s beard is going on here?” Borok’s voiced boomed like thunder through the Muddy Swine. The former ogrun trench buster swept his iron-hard gaze across the smoky interior until it fell on Briggs and Pemberton standing over the forms of Murghold and his unit on the floor. “Briggsway, you want to explain?”

“Sir, just a little officer disagreement,” Briggs said, giving a cavalier shrug. “Lieutenant Murghold and I couldn’t agree on the appropriate tip. Being men of passionate convictions, things got a little heated.”

Borok glared hard at Briggs, but the Steelhead lieutenant didn’t flinch. The ogrun was a scary son of a bitch, made more so by his position as the captain’s trusted second, which granted him all the effective authority of the captain despite his NCO rank. Still, Briggs knew the regs. The worst he’d get in this instance was a couple nights in lockup. Murghold didn’t exactly have a lot of friendly witnesses around. Briggs had learned long ago that if you made a habit of bending the rules it was important to cultivate a lot of friends.

“Any other time, Lieutenant Briggsway, I might enjoy helping you work some of that passion out in the training ring. The sergeant was supposed to bring you posthaste.” The ogrun’s heavy brows furrowed. “Priority VIP inspection in the stables.”

“Priority VIP inspection?” Briggs repeated, his mood instantly changing at the code phrase. He reached down and hauled Murghold up by his collar. “You heard the man. Time to pay your tab.”

Murghold grunted, blood from his broken nose trickling down his face. Briggs walked him up to the bar, and Murghold dropped a few coins on the counter. Briggs winked back at Meredith as the gold chimed against the wooden surface: tink-tink-tink.

He wrapped his arm tight around Murghold’s shoulders and shook him jovially. “Let’s not be stingy with our tip! After all, we want to show some appreciation for these folks’ fine service today.”

Murghold shot him a murderous glare, but Briggs ignored him and continued his light flirtation with Meredith. He was unashamedly showboating at Murghold’s expense. It was true that he’d have taken any opportunity to punch Murghold’s weasel face, but given the circumstances he wasn’t about to let an opportunity for personal gain pass him by, either. After all, what was the point of good deeds if there was no profit in them?

Briggs gave Murghold a wide grin as the man grudgingly added several more coins to the pile, almost doubling the original payment. “Good man!” Briggs said, clapping him on the back. “Now—I have an inspection to get to, and it’s time for you to be someplace else.” He pushed Murghold toward the door, and Ash watched over the rest of the Steelheads as they pulled themselves to their feet and headed toward the exit, eyes carefully averted from the towering Borok. The ogrun moved only slightly away from the door, forcing them to shrink themselves as much as possible to squeeze through the narrow space.

Ash came up beside Briggs as he collected himself to leave and said, “You know, that last move just gave him more of a score to settle.”

Briggs winked at Meredith one last time, his mind on her particular talents. “Probably, but for how good it felt I’m willing to chance it.”

Ash flexed her hands, working out the soreness from the brawl before pulling on her gauntlets as she muttered under her breath, “Yeah, I’m sure you are.”

The stables where Briggs’ cavalry troop was barracked were bustling with activity as the Steelheads worked quickly to mount up. Borok hadn’t been able to provide much information beyond that there was trouble brewing in the southwest district of the town and the captain had ordered Briggs and his cavalry to quell public unrest.

Ash had already left to form up her squad and was making the march to that district now. Civilian policing wasn’t exactly the type of duty Briggs particularly enjoyed. He hadn’t signed with the Steelheads to be a glorified city watchman. That’s what he kept telling himself, anyway. If he were really honest, the root of his discontent was something far deeper. After all, this wasn’t the first time a contract had required that of his company. But the circumstances in Almsbrook over the last several weeks had simply felt different—wrong, even. He pushed the thoughts aside as he mounted his warhorse, a big brown and white mare he’d named Trigger.

He felt a tug on the saddle from below and looked down in time to see the green face of Tak, her long gobber ears protruding from the soft leather cap framing her wide head. “Straps look good, Lieutenant.”

“Told you before,Tak, you aren’t technically enlisted. Call me Briggs.”

Tak just smiled, her goblin features making the mundane expression look almost maniacal. Briggs had long ago decided it was the width of the gobber skull which gave their race the exaggerated features that led to them all looking a bit unhinged. Granted, a lot of gobbers he’d met actually were unhinged, at least by human standards, but he’d known Tak long enough to see that she was more on the human side of normal than most of her kin.

“Don’t stay out too late, Lieutenant. Got a mighty fine stew simmering for tonight,” Tak said, rubbing her hands together. “I was even able to find a hunk of—”

“Stop.” Briggs cut her off. “We’ve talked about this, too. I don’t want to know what’s in your cooking. Just make it taste as good as you do and leave it at that. Okay?”

Tak smiled again. “Aye, aye, Lieutenant!” She brought her hand up in a wild salute. “But how you humans can be so content with things when you don’t know what makes ’em tick, I’ll never understand.”

Briggs shrugged. Tak prepared the best-tasting food he’d ever experienced across all of Immoren, hands-down. After one particularly delicious meal while the company was in the field amid the Bloodsmeath March, weeks out from resupply, he’d made the mistake of asking what had been in it. It was nearly two weeks before he was able to eat anything she put on his plate, regardless of how delicious it smelled.

“Survival instinct, I suppose.” As he kicked Trigger into a trot, he added, “And call me Briggs!”

The ride to the troubled district went quickly with Briggs and his men pushing their steeds at a fast gallop through the relatively wide streets of Almsbrook. He could almost feel the change in the air as they entered the southwest district. The Steelheads were forced to slow as the streets became more crowded with townspeople. Something was definitely up.

Briggs called out for his men to be respectful of the people around but to not dally. It took almost as long to reach Captain Miller and the group of Steelheads in the large square at the heart of the district as it had for Briggs and his men to reach this part of the city from their barracks in the northern district. By the time they arrived, Briggs could tell this was not going to be a simple “pony show.” Townspeople pressed in on the square from all around, voices raised in agitation.

“Captain.” Briggs gave a quick salute as he pulled Trigger up beside Miller. Miller returned the salute with the crispness of a former Cygnaran officer.

“Lieutenant Briggsway. What kept you?”

“Going was a bit slow once we reached the area, sir,” Briggs said.

“My orders were to make haste, not be polite.”

“Aye, sir,” Briggs replied. It looks like there’s enough of a powder keg here without me and my men charging through unarmed civilians in the streets, he thought. He scanned the assembled Steelheads for Ash and found her standing next to the towering Borok. Her squad was working with a few others to hold back the press of the crowd. “Situation, sir?” Briggs asked.

“Civil unrest and disobedience, Lieutenant.” Miller spoke slowly and with emphasis, as if explaining to a particularly dense child.

Briggs swallowed the insubordinate remark that rose in his throat. Instead he said, “Do we know the cause, sir? Might help in calming the locals.”

“Sergeant Korvak and Privates Desalla and Odero have been accused of,” Miller paused, “improprieties with a local merchant’s daughter. When the people of the district discovered I had found our men not guilty of the crime, several of them decided to take matters into their own hands. Sergeant Korvak is dead and Desalla is severely injured.” Miller indicated the mob that surrounded them now. “Of course I immediately took the ringleaders into custody to be hanged.”
Briggs’ face drew into a frown. “Sir, isn’t this a matter for the local law? It seems that these matters are outside our authority—”

Miller cut him off harshly. “When they retaliated against my company they made it a personal matter. Make no mistake, with Baron Hawthorne gone, I am the power in Almsbrook. And I will not see it fall into insubordination on the word of some fishmonger’s daughter.”

The venom in Miller’s tone caught Briggs off guard. “Sir, what are you saying?”

“I’m ordering you to disperse this mob, Lieutenant. It’s time we made an example for the rest of the people of Almsbrook that this kind of challenge to my authority will not be tolerated.”

“If I may, sir,” Briggs began, but the captain was quicker.

“You may not, Lieutenant.” Miller fixed him with a hard stare. “You have your orders. Fulfill them, or I will find you in dereliction of duty and you will be hung right alongside the ringleaders of the lynch mob.”

Briggs swallowed hard and dropped his eyes from Miller’s gaze. He had no doubt Miller would follow through on his threat. “Yes, sir.”

Briggs turned Trigger about and called for his men, making sure to keep his eyes from the faces in the crowd. He hollered out, doing his best to make his voice carry as far as possible: “This assembly has been deemed dangerous to the public safety and unlawful. Please return to your homes immediately.”

Angry shouts answered him back, and he felt the impact of several stones against his armor. He tried once more, to no avail.

He addressed his men. He really didn’t have to try to keep from being heard over the increasing roar of the mob, but he did anyway. “When the order comes, do your best to avoid significant harm, boys.” He felt the foolish part of his brain continue to try to convince him that the final order would never come. That the crowd would see reason and disperse. His men all nodded in assent, but the unease in their eyes was clear. With such a density of people, there was no way harm wasn’t going to come to those who found themselves between Steelhead riders and their fellow townsfolk. Besides, Briggs and his unit were armed men trained for killing, not passive crowd control. Miller knew that. It was precisely why he had called them in.

Briggs locked his eyes on the houses and shops beyond the seething mass of people in the square, giving a small prayer of thanks that his elevated position made it easy to avoid looking into the faces of the people before him. He heard rather than saw the sharp report of military rifles being discharged as Miller bellowed the order for the Steelheads to move in after his final warning to the crowd. Instinctively he kicked the sides of Trigger and felt the half-ton of horseflesh spring into motion beneath him, building deadly momentum in a few heartbeats. He kept his eyes fixed above the crowd until the very last second, when the thunder of hooves met in a riotous clash with the panicked shouts of the people who were just realizing the folly of their choices that day.

He sighed to himself. He was going to have a lot fewer friends at the Swine once word of this got out.

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Chapter 2: Test of Restraint

By Aeyrn Rudel

Between Bainsmarket and Fort Whiterock, 609 AR

Borok watched a young cavalryman named Emmet Sterns come down the road, plumes of dust chasing after his horse. The Steelhead reined up next to the master sergeant, almost eye to eye on horseback with the massive ogrun standing on the ground.

“There’s a town,” Sterns said. “Three miles, give or take.” Borok glanced behind him. Lieutenant Samuel “Briggs” Briggsway sat astride his horse at the head of their very short column of Steelheads, Sergeant Ashley Pemberton marching alongside. They looked tired; all the platoon did. It wasn’t just fatigue, but the deeper ache of what they had been through. It had been a hard ride from Almsbrook, which they’d left four days ago in a hurry. They had defied the captain, but only after doing things to quell the civilian crowd that none of them would soon forget.

Briggsway, the only officer in their small troop, rode up to Borok and Sterns. He turned to the ogrun. “What’s your opinion, Master Sergeant?”

Though technically outranked, Borok had twice Briggs’ experience. He was used to officers deferring to his judgment—the smart ones, anyway. He’d spent ten years in the Cygnaran Army as a trench buster, gaining the rank of sergeant there. After mustering out, he’d joined the Steelheads and soldiered across western Immoren for another ten years. He’d refused to be made a lieutenant—he didn’t want to be involved in the nonsense that came with officer rank—so the company commander had made him master sergeant instead. No one else in the outfit, so far as he knew, had that title. It had brought a degree of respect, plus more pay.

“We’re low on feed for the horses,” Borok said. “That’s a problem.”

“Not just for the horses,” a high-pitched voice said from behind the lieutenant. “We’re low on food all around.” Borok leaned and saw the tiny form of Tak seated behind him on his horse. Though not technically part of their platoon, the gobber cook was part of the support crew for the company, those overlooked but essential personnel who kept anyunit running. When they’d fled Almsbrook, Tak had come along. Borok couldn’t blame her. Her friendship with them wouldn’t have done her any favors with Captain Miller.

Briggs swatted a fly from his face and frowned. “How big’s the town?” he asked Sterns.

“Hard to say,” the Steelhead replied. “Two hundred people?”

“I don’t know,” Ash said as she joined the small group. “Stopping at any sizable settlement will just make it easier for Miller to find us. We’re deserters now, after all.”

Borok shook his head. “We are not deserters, Sergeant,” he said.

Briggs snorted. “We left the captain. We left the company. We’re deserters,” he said. “Look, I made the same choice as all of you. It was the right thing to do, but let’s not dance around this and call it what it isn’t.”

Fury rose in Borok. He wanted to drag Briggs from his saddle, preferably by the neck, and squeeze the life out of him. The lieutenant was right, though. Perhaps they would be able to make the ranking officers at the Martenburg chapter house understand their reasons, but the simple truth was they’d broken their oaths.

“Lieutenant,” Borok said through clenched teeth, “I would advise that we keep talk of desertion to a minimum. We need to remind the soldiers they are still part of something. We need discipline.”

“He’s right, Briggs,” Ash said.

Briggs opened his mouth to respond, then seemed to think better of it and simply nodded, perhaps reacting to Borok’s anger. Despite a reputation for being cool-headed and reasonable—it was part of what made him an excellent NCO—the ogrun’s capacity for violence was well known. Everyone in the platoon had seen the master sergeant eviscerate a trollkin warrior with a single slash of his trench knife or smash a bonejack into scrap with the butt of his grenade launcher. Once, he had even accidentally shattered the jaw of an insubordinate recruit with a simple open-handed slap.

“Fair enough,” Briggs said after a pause.

Borok said, “As far as the town goes, I suggest we risk it. We need to resupply.”

Briggs nodded. “Agreed. I doubt Miller has sent word to the chapter at this point, and even if he has, they’re well behind us.” The lieutenant waved the rest of the troop forward.

Borok had seen the company’s maps of the region, and he was sure this town wasn’t on any of them. It was off the main roads and well away from the railway. Still, it was sizable for a backwater, maybe forty buildings along two roads that intersected in the main square.

This was inhospitable country: foothills at the northernmost stretch of the Upper Wyrmwall that gave way to flat scrub with the occasional stand of hardy oaks. Without much in the way of game here, Borok surmised the town made its living on subsistence farming, fishing a nearby stream, and maybe panning for gold or silver at the base of the Wyrmwall. A meager existence if he ever saw one.

He, Briggs, and Ash led the platoon into the town, the huge ogrun in front. There wasn’t a wall, but a makeshift guard post had been erected, recently by the look of it. It wasn’t much more than a hastily constructed box on stilts. Borok was sure a single hard shove would knock the whole thing over.

As they approached, a rifle barrel protruded from the shadows within the guard post, pointing down at them. “Stop right there!” a masculine voice called out, wavering with what could be fear or age. Borok guessed both. “Yellowhill is closed to outsiders.”

They reined up some twenty yards from the post. Borok looked past it into the town and saw the street ahead was empty, the buildings silent and dark. Something was wrong here.

“We do not mean you harm,” Borok said, and he held out both hands to show he wasn’t holding a weapon. He heard Ash give a soft order behind him and knew the rest of the platoon would be doing the same. “We just want to purchase or trade for supplies. That’s all.”

“We have nothing,” the voice responded. “The last group of raiders took everything.”

“We are not raiders,” Borok said. “We are Steelheads from the Martenburg chapter, headed home.”

There was a pause. “You’re mercs?”

Borok didn’t like the desperate hope he heard in that simple question. “Steelheads,” he said. “We have coin.”

A face appeared behind the rifle in the guard post: a man, closer to sixty than fifty, as Borok had suspected. Though lean and haggard, he seemed hale—not the look of one softened by ease or luxury. He lowered the rifle. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We’ve had some . . . problems of late.”

“There’s a war on,” Briggs said from behind Borok. “Everybody’s got problems.”

“My name’s Duncan,” the man said, ignoring Briggs, and climbed down from the guard post. He held his rifle, an older Cygnaran model, with his finger still on the trigger. “If you’ll fight for coin, you need to speak with Raylund Hicks. He runs things around here.”

“We are not looking for work,” Borok said. “Just supplies.”

“If you want supplies from this town”—Duncan spat—“you’ll have to fight for them.”

“We are not looking for a fight, either,” Borok said.

Duncan stared at Borok, his gaze hard, unflinching. The ogrun master sergeant couldn’t help but admire the man’s sand. “Well,” the old guard began, “Like your man there said, everybody’s got problems.”

Borok had to admit, Raylund Hicks knew how to win over mercs. The town constable had opened Yellowhill’s only tavern and had tapped three barrels of decent ale overlooked by the previous raiders. Thirteen Steelheads now sat, full mugs in hand, ready to listen to what the man had to say. He didn’t waste time getting to the point.

“Most of our young men and women have left, called to fight for king and country.” Raylund sat at the head of a long trestle table; behind him stood Duncan, the man they’d met at the guard post. Borok was seated to Raylund’s left, Briggs and Ash across from him on the constable’s right. “We had a militia of sorts that might have been able to handle our problem, but now we’ve got no option but to do what they want.”

“What is this problem, and who are ‘they’?” Briggs asked.

“Answer’s the same to both questions: farrow,” Raylund said. “They showed up about a month ago demanding tribute. Twenty or so, led by a big one calling himself Count Irontusk. They’ve taken most of our food.”

Borok looked across the table at Briggs, who shook his head.

“I sympathize, but we can’t get involved,” the lieutenant replied. “We’ve got reasons I’m not at liberty to discuss. We’ll buy what you have left if you want to sell it, maybe trade a few weapons, but that’s all we can do.”

“I’m sure you have your reasons,” Raylund said. “But if you don’t help us, these farrow are going to start taking more than food.”

“Like the lieutenant said, we can’t get involved,” Ash said.

“Look, I know a thing or two about farrow,” Raylund said. “I was with the rangers out of Fort Whiterock for twenty years, and I fought my share.”

Borok wasn’t surprised Raylund was ex-military. The man had that bearing.

“You don’t need to fight them,” the constable continued. “Just be here when they show up. Farrow like easy prey, and if they think we’re protected by something stronger, they’ll move on. Chances are they won’t come back for a good while.”

“That’s a gamble,” Borok said. “Our presence might just provoke them.”

A high-pitched voice rose from the end of the table. “Sir, if I might speak?”

“Don’t call me ‘sir,’ Tak. You’re not part of the platoon,” Briggs said half-automatically. “What do you have to say?”

Borok turned to stare at the diminutive gobber. He had forgotten she was even with them.

“The constable is right,” Tak said. “We dealt with a band of farrow a couple of years ago, when I was helping the Cygnaran Army.”

“Go on,” Borok said. He noted with interest that she hadn’t said “working for” or “cooking for” the army. What did “helping” mean? The little cook was a bit of a mystery.

“I saw this skirmish once, near Crael Valley,” she continued. “The trollkin had hired a bunch of farrow, but since the Cygnarans had superior numbers, the pig-faces didn’t stick around. Once it was clear they were on the losing side of the fight, they ran for the hills. They’re cowards, most of them.”

Borok had heard gobbers called the same thing, but he didn’t say as much. A murmur of consent went through the assembled Steelheads. The ale had made them more confident. Again, Borok looked across the table at Briggs. This time the lieutenant gave him a look he’d seen from many officers he’d fought with: pursed lips and a slight tilt of the head that said, “Your call.”

Raylund said quickly, “We’ll pay you half of what we were going to give them as tribute. Plus provisions, feed for your horses, maybe a bit of coin.”

Borok drew in a deep breath. His next words felt like poison on his tongue: wrong, dangerous. “All right, Constable,” he said, despite his misgivings. “We’ll do it.”

They stood in the town square facing south, where Raylund had said the farrow would come from. Borok stood behind six halberdiers, Sergeant Ash at their center. His trench knife was sheathed within easy reach at his hip, and he carried his grenade launcher in his right hand. His armor—breastplate, greaves, and pauldrons—was thick enough to stop a rifle bullet from the right angles. Raylund, Duncan, and a few other residents of Yellowhill stood behind them. These civilians were armed with a motley assortment of rifles and pistols, most of them older than their respective owners.

Briggs and the five other horsemen were out of sight, in one of the narrow alleys between buildings. The cavalry were the trump card. Borok and Ash would lure the farrow in with the smaller force on foot, then bring out the mounted warriors. Raylund said the farrow had no mounts of their own, and if things got ugly, the cavalry might make the difference.

“Here they come,” Raylund said. The ogrun heard the ex-ranger behind him pulling back the pin on his long rifle as a mob of farrow came into view. A huge specimen, probably seven feet tall, led them.

“You should be the one to speak to Count Irontusk,” Raylund told Borok. “Farrow respect size and strength.”

“Count Irontusk?” Ash said over her shoulder.

“Farrow warlords like titles,” Raylund said. “Even if they don’t have a clue what they actually mean.”

Borok felt the others tense and heard the clatter of armor as the halberdiers shifted their grips on their weapons.

“Easy,” Ash said. “Keep your halberds pointed at the sky until I say.”

Borok took stock of the farrow. There were around twenty, most armed with simple axes and clubs. He saw a few firearms, which looked crude as well. Count Irontusk held what looked to be a Caspian battle blade, balancing the heavy sword over one shoulder. He was one of the few farrow with any armor, a hodgepodge of plate and chain likely scavenged from past victims.

“Who are you?” Count Irontusk said in surprisingly good Cygnaran. He pointed his sword at Borok.

“I am Master Sergeant Borok Shatterhaft. Yellowhill is under our protection, Count Irontusk,” The farrow’s name sounded even more ridiculous when he said it aloud. “You will leave or you will die.”

The big farrow’s snout crinkled into a sneer. “You’re a big one, but you and your six warriors cannot turn aside Irontusk’s horde.”

“Twenty farrow is a horde?” Ash said under her breath.

“More than six,” Borok said. Ash put her fingers in her mouth and blew a sharp, shrill whistle. With a clatter of hooves on stone, Briggs and the rest of the cavalry rode up and formed a line next to the halberdiers.

Grunts and squeals rose up from the farrow, and some of them took a few uncertain steps back. Irontusk’s eyes narrowed. He bellowed something in the farrow tongue and stepped forward as the “horde” quieted. Borok felt a slight sense of relief; the farrow leader wanted to talk.

Ash nodded to Borok and Briggs. The cavalryman rode over to join them, and the three moved forward to meet Irontusk between their two respective forces.

They stopped ten feet from the farrow leader, who glared at them and then raised his sword in the air. “I have decided to be merciful!” he shouted. “This town has nothing left to offer us, and the horde will move on.”

This might actually work, Borok thought.

“But first, I demand tribute!” Irontusk added. His pronouncement was met with a chorus of squeals.

Borok’s relief evaporated. “What tribute?” he said. The big farrow looked over the three of them, and then his gaze fixed on Briggs. “That,” he said. “I want the gun.” He was pointing at the scabbarded blunderbuss on Briggs’ saddle.

Borok looked over at the lieutenant. “Give him your blunderbuss,” the ogrun said.

Briggs was frowning. He didn’t reach for the gun. The silence stretched, and Borok felt the tension mounting. Now he was staring at Briggs, wide-eyed. Don’t be stupid.

“First, Master Sergeant, I don’t take orders from you,” the lieutenant began. “Second, I’ve had this gun since I was a recruit. You can’t expect me to give it to this swine—” He didn’t get a chance to finish his insult.

“They refuse to pay!” Count Irontusk bellowed. “We will take our tribute—in blood!”

“Oh, hell,” Ash said. She began to back away. Borok followed, and Briggs wheeled his stallion back toward the rest of the cavalry. The farrow surged forward. The line of halberdiers opened up and then closed around the three, leveling their weapons at the enemy.

The farrow hit them a heartbeat later. Four were skewered on the points of halberds, but three managed to slide between the long shafts and get close enough to strike with their axes. Borok gutted one with his trench knife, and Ash opened the throat of another with a dagger. She slashed at the third farrow, but it dodged around her and buried its axe in the skull of the trooper to her left, a man named Jennings who had joined their platoon only a few months ago.

A shot rang out, and the farrow that had killed Jennings stumbled backward, a bullet hole above its right eye. Borok wasn’t sure where the shot had come from, but he heard more, then the throaty roar of a blunderbuss.

“Wedge!” Ash shouted, stepping over Jennings’ bleeding body and shoving her halberd forward. The remaining halberdiers formed a short triangle around her.

Borok pulled back and scanned the town square. It was chaos. The other farrow had split into groups of four and five and were plowing into the defenders. Many were engaging the cavalry at close range; things had gone bad so quickly, the Steelhead horsemen hadn’t been able to mount an effective charge. Borok looked for Irontusk and found him leading a large group of farrow toward three mounted Steelheads who were already beset.

Borok brought his grenade launcher up and pulled the trigger. The big gun thumped into his shoulder as it released a black plume of smoke and a thunderous roar. The heavy shell landed in the middle of the enemy and exploded, sending pieces of farrow flying in all directions. When the smoke cleared, he saw that Irontusk still lived, although the left side of the warlord’s face was burnt and blackened.

Ash and the halberdiers were holding their own, piling up enemy corpses. Briggs had rallied four of the cavalrymen, and they were pushing forward, cleaving farrow with their axes or blasting them with pistols.

Despite their casualties, the farrow did not break as anticipated. Their leader was still alive. Borok thought he could do something about that. Irontusk was charging toward a lone Steelhead cavalryman who had become separated from the rest. It was Sterns, keeping two farrow at bay with his axe and his horse’s slashing hooves.

Borok broke into a sprint, barreling across the square toward the farrow warlord and shouting. Irontusk ignored the challenge; he had almost reached Sterns, who had not seen the new threat.

Irontusk came up behind the Steelhead, his blade flashing in a murderous arc. Borok wasn’t going to get there in time. He watched as the blade struck Sterns in the back, saw the plume of blood as the man tumbled from his saddle. Two other farrow descended on the fallen horseman, their weapons rising and falling.

Borok loosed a guttural roar as he reached Sterns’s corpse, and the two enemies barely had time to glance up as seven hundred pounds of ogrun and armor smashed into them. He brained one farrow slashing with its axe. The weapon struck his breastplate with a dull clang but failed to penetrate. The ogrun master sergeant flipped his trench knife over into an icepick grip, stepped forward, and drove the blade through the top of the farrow’s skull. Its eyes rolled back in its head and it collapsed, yanking the weapon from Borok’s hand.

Irontusk chose this moment to attack. He leapt forward, slashing with his battle blade. There was no avoiding the farrow’s weapon, so Borok turned his right shoulder into it, taking the blow on his pauldron. The heavy steel crunched, and Borok felt a stab of pain and the warm trickle of blood down his arm. The farrow took a step back, exploiting his superior reach, and brought his blade up over his head for a killing blow. Not even the ogrun’s heavy armor would stop that next strike. Still, Borok thrust his grenade launcher up in a futile attempt to ward it off.

Sudden motion caught the corner of Borok’s eye, as Tak appeared behind the farrow warlord. She threw her body into the back of Irontusk’s legs, causing him to stumble. His blade hit the ground rather than splitting Borok’s skull to the teeth. The ogrun didn’t waste the momentary advantage. Throwing his grenade launcher aside, he bulled forward, wrapped both his arms around the farrow’s body, and squeezed. Although Irontusk was big for a farrow, Borok had two hundred pounds on him, and the ogrun’s immense strength was further enhanced by rage and adrenaline.

The inexorable grip forced Irontusk’s breath from his lungs in a stinking gasp, and Borok squeezed harder, grunting with the effort. The warlord squirmed and bit, but the ogrun did not relent. Borok felt the farrow’s breastplate buckle, then his ribcage, and Irontusk spewed blood as ribs pierced lungs. The warlord’s vertebrae shattered with a dull snap, and he went limp.

The ogrun master sergeant let the corpse fall to the ground. The muscles in his arms and back burned, and he was breathing in ragged gasps. Tak appeared at his side holding out his grenade launcher, her wide mouth set in a toothy grin. The weapon was nearly as big as she was. Borok reached down and took it from her. He didn’t have enough breath to speak, so he nodded his thanks.

The battle was over. Having seen Irontusk’s death, the remaining farrow were retreating, at first in something resembling an orderly withdrawal and then in panicked flight. Briggs and the rest of the cavalrymen began to give chase, but Ash’s voice rang out over the din. “Briggs, let them go!”

Briggs glared back at the sergeant, then reined in his mount and wheeled about. The horsemen rode back to count the dead.

Borok found Briggs standing with Ash over Jennings’ body. The sergeant was speaking softly, but it was clear she was upset as she pointed to the corpse. Briggs looked serious, maybe even sorry—but not sorry enough for Borok.

“You stupid son of a whore!” the ogrun shouted and rushed the lieutenant. Briggs’ eyes went wide and he stepped back, but Borok wrapped one massive fist around the lieutenant’s neck, yanking the man off his feet. Briggs needed to answer for the deaths of Jennings and Sterns and eleven men and women of Yellowhill. “Do you know what you did? Do you understand?”

Briggs couldn’t answer. He was trying desperately just to breathe.

“Master Sergeant!” Ash shouted from behind Borok.

Borok realized the rest of the Steelheads had gathered around them, staring, some with their hands on axe hafts or pistol butts. He sensed that the fate of the platoon was on a knife’s edge. That realization made him stop. Restraint was more important than Briggs getting what he deserved.

“Fine,” Borok said. He released Briggs, who fell to the ground gasping and sputtering.

Ash stepped close in front of the ogrun, blocking his view of Briggs. Her face was hard. Her voice was quiet but every bit as hard as her expression. “Get yourself together, Master Sergeant. The platoon needs you.”

Borok nodded. “Fine,” he said again. He was still angry— at himself for losing control, but mostly at Briggs, who had repeatedly proven he was unworthy of his officer’s commission.

“Help with the wounded,” Ash said and placed one hand on his chest, gently pushing him. Borok didn’t resist. He turned and walked away. He heard Briggs try to say something; he couldn’t make out the lieutenant’s words, but Ash’s response was loud and clear.

“Shut up, Briggs,” she said. “You bury them.”

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Chapter 3: Homecoming

By Zachary C. Parker

Tak watched the remnants of the platoon from the back of the column. Her elbows hung over the railing, and her chin rested on the backs of her diminutive hands. The only sounds were the monotonous beat of hooves and the creak of the supply cart, bucking and jostling beneath her with each dip in the road. Martenburg hung on the horizon, the shapes of its buildings offering no sign as to whether they would be welcomed or run off.

A week had passed since the clash with the farrow at Yellowhill, and still Master Sergeant Borok and the other Steelheads continued to keep their distance from Lieutenant Samuel Briggsway. Harsh words had flown between the lieutenant and the master sergeant after the dust had settled, and in the end Briggs had buried the dead alone. Sergeant Ashley Pemberton had forgiven her childhood friend, but he chose to ride alone.

The cart and the mule pulling it had been given to them in Yellowhill for services rendered. By now most of the supplies were gone. Only half a sack of flour and an armful of apples remained, but Tak had made do with far less. Like most gobbers, she had been raised to be resourceful. Humans too often looked inside the cart rather than beyond it, Tak reflected. The previous night she had lured a skigg from its hole with a sprinkle of blasting powder and used its guts—along with a few fistfuls of Cygnaran sweetgrass—as the basis for a stew. As foul as skiggs smelled, their insides could be savory when properly prepared. The platoon had eaten the meal without complaint.

“Good afternoon, Lieutenant,” Tak said. Lieutenant Briggsway had dropped out of his position in the column and was now keeping pace with the cart. He had a habit of drifting back when he wanted to talk.

“For the last time, you aren’t enlisted. Call me Briggs. Not ‘Lieutenant.’ Not ‘sir.’ Briggs.” He sounded gruff, but Tak knew it was mostly show.

“Almost to Martenburg,” Tak said. “Must be nice to go home.”

“I grew up there, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it home.”

“What would you call it?” Tak fished one of the remaining apples from the sack and tossed it to the lieutenant. His hand snapped up and caught it.

“Boring.” Briggs took a bite of the apple and chewed as he talked. “Tavern aside, the chapter house is the only point of interest—and it certainly will be interesting if the chapter decides to string us up for abandoning Captain Miller.”

After ordering the dispersal of the mob in Almsbrook, Captain Miller had initiated a downward spiral of war crimes and barbarism. Protests were met with gun lines and a wall of halberds, leaving dozens dead. Miller’s last order to the platoon had been to burn a Morrowan church at the center of town that had become a rallying point for the mob. Tak had watched as Lieutenant Briggsway torched the church over the protests of his men. She had seen his tormented expression. He had done it so none of the others would have to—Miller had threatened to hang anyone who defied him.

That night the platoon met in secret and decided to leave Almsbrook before the next sunrise. They could only hope the ranking Steelhead officer at Martenburg would consider the departure justified. Tak had been witness to many violent and deplorable acts in her youth, but it hurt her to see the company sink so low. She was there to meet the group at dawn, eager to go with them.

“The rest of the platoon seem glad to be returning, and Master Sergeant Borok thinks we can make our case.” Tak nodded to the head of the column, where the huge ogrun rode alongside

Sergeant Pemberton.

The apple crunched as the lieutenant took another bite. “The others have something worth going back to, and Borok still thinks he can salvage our jobs and find something worth fighting for. Coin and blood—that’s all there is in this line of work.”

“You don’t believe that,” Tak said. She watched his face for a reaction and wasn’t surprised when he looked off into the surrounding countryside.

Briggs placed a hand on the stock of the blunderbuss holstered on his hip and absently ran his fingers over the grain. The farrow warlord who fancied himself Count Irontusk had demanded the weapon as tribute for leaving Yellowhill in peace. The lieutenant had refused him, and his soldiers had died in the resulting battle. “Some people can’t come to grips with who they are. I’ve never had that problem.”

“You’ve been spending a lot of time back here with me lately,” Tak said. “Not that it’s my business, Lieutenant, but have you considered offering an apology and putting what happened in Yellowhill behind you?”

“You’re right, Tak.” Briggs leaned forward in the saddle and fed the remains of the apple to his horse before spurring the animal ahead. “It isn’t your business. And stop calling me Lieutenant.”

Martenburg was quiet, the many storefronts along its main street devoid of activity. Somehow the creak of the cart and the clop of hooves seemed louder than they had out on the open road, amplified by the absence of life in a normally lively town. The cavalry riders shifted nervously on their horses, and the Steelheads on foot glanced from left to right at each passing alleyway. Sergeant Pemberton marched alongside Master Sergeant Borok and spoke to the ogrun in hushed tones. Lieutenant Briggsway had ridden up beside them, his blunderbuss in one hand and the reins in the other. Something wasn’t right. Everyone could feel it.

Chapter houses typically took root in established cities, but Martenburg was an exception. Before the Steelheads, it had been nothing more than a cluster of farms with a dying mining operation. The town had grown with the mercenary company’s success. Soldiering was far more profitable than farming, and mercenary work had become the town’s primary industry. Local youth grew up with the notion of enlisting in the Cygnaran army and then returning home to throw in with the Steelheads.

As they continued up the road, the platoon closed ranks. Up ahead, the Steelhead standard hung from the flagpole of a squat, two-story building. The establishment across the street carried a sign declaring it the Winking Mauler, no doubt the tavern Briggs had mentioned. Tak found humor in the placement of the lieutenant’s two points of interest.

Those on horseback moved to secure their mounts to the rails in front of the chapter house. Ash ordered her halberdiers into a protective half-circle around the dismounted cavalry, blades at the ready.

“Where is everyone?” Tak asked. She clambered over the front of the cart and up the mule’s back until she was perched on the animal’s neck. The mule flicked its ears and gave a shake but soon settled, having grown accustomed to the gobber’s habits.

“Good question.” Briggs swung down from his saddle. “I didn’t expect a parade, but I didn’t expect this, either.”

Someone let out a raspy cough. It came from a bespectacled figure with wisps of white hair crowning his head who hung limp in nearby stocks. From previous visits to the chapter house, Tak recognized the old man as the company accountant. She had never spoken to him, but he could often be found there poring over a ledger, tilting his spectacles at the page with one hand and running the other anxiously over his pate. Even now, his fingers were stained with ink.

“Wilhelm?” Briggs holstered his blunderbuss and started for the accountant. “Thamar’s teeth. What’s going on here?”

A gunshot rang out, the sound reverberating from the boards of the various storefronts and echoing down the empty street. Their heads jerked up toward the rooftops, where a single smoking rifle pointed up in the air; others were aimed in the platoon’s direction from crouching marksmen.

“That’s far enough!” The chapter house doors swung outward and a man in a ragged duster stepped forth. He was young, with close-cropped hair and a crooked nose. A dozen Steelheads filed out behind him, and as many more exited the Winking Mauler. He spoke again. “That man is in my charge, as are all the people of Martenburg.”

“Lawson,” Briggs said, eyeing the man with open contempt. “Not a very warm welcome.”

“What is the meaning of this?” Master Sergeant Borok shouted. He pointed to the accountant. “I demand to know what crime this man has committed. He has kept this chapter’s books straight since before I was born.” He shouldered his way through the halberdiers. “Where is Commander Gamberlin? We must speak with him.”

“I’m commander here now,” Lawson said. “You can address your concerns to me.” A pendant bearing commander’s insignia hung from Lawson’s chest by a bit of ribbon pinned to the front of his duster. It looked wholly out of place. Most Steelhead officers, Tak knew, took such baubles from desk drawers only for the occasional ceremony or a trip to the founding house in Berck. She also felt certain the man had been a sergeant when they left.

“Ridiculous,” Lieutenant Briggsway said. “You’ve been bumped back to Private more times than you’ve pissed into the wind, and that’s saying something.”

Lawson took a step forward, his face reddened. “I’d hold your tongue, Briggs. Things have changed around here.”

Tak pulled a dog-eared book from a side bag and scrambled from the mule to stand beside Master Sergeant Borok. She opened the book and flipped through the pages, the ogrun’s shadow eclipsing her tiny form. “According to section three, article six of the Steelheads handbook, a chapter house may have only one commander. In the event that—”

“Commander Gamberlin has been relieved of duty,” Lawson interrupted. “That is all you need to know.” Before Tak could quote the accompanying rule that a new commander could only be selected from among existing captains, he withdrew a letter with a broken wax seal from an inside pocket. “I received word from Captain Miller this morning. His messenger arrived by horseback a few hours ago. Your presence here proves you are guilty of desertion, if not outright mutiny.”

The troopers looked at one another, unsure how to proceed. They had expected to reach Martenburg before word of their desertion, but the fight in Yellowhill had slowed them. Tak noted the grim faces of the opposing Steelheads. Like the pendant on Commander Lawson’s chest, there was something off about them. During the past year she had gotten a feel for the company, just as she had gotten to know the Cygnaran soldiers she had worked alongside. The men surrounding Lawson possessed a different air. It was something in the way they carried themselves. One of the men on the roof held his rifle against his hip, pointed away. Others leaned on their polearms rather than holding them at the ready. TheSteelheads had high standards—such slapdash behavior was quickly drilled out of recruits in basic training.

Borok said, “I can explain—”

“Arrest them!” Lawson interjected. “Keep them in the jailhouse until we put them on trial.”

The opposing Steelheads advanced. The platoon drew closer together and readied weapons, but the numbers were not in their favor, and the dismounted cavalry would be at a disadvantage.

One of Commander Lawson’s Steelheads moved to secure Briggs, but the lieutenant drew his blunderbuss and smashed its butt across the bridge of the soldier’s nose. The man sprawled in the dirt, grabbing at his face as blood gushed through his fingers. Rifles on the roof converged on the lieutenant.

“Back off!” Briggs shouted, pointing the blunderbuss at the opposing Steelheads one after another. Tak could feel the tension building within the platoon like a tightly wound spring. Ash and her halberdiers had assumed an aggressive stance, prepared to launch into action at the slightest provocation or a word from the lieutenant. The riflemen on the rooftops were the larger problem. Tak couldn’t be certain, since some of the faces were covered with helmets or goggles, but the platoon could be facing men and women they had previously served beside.

“Commander Lawson, if I may,” Borok said, his deep voice carrying. One massive hand rested on the stock of his grenade launcher, but he had yet to draw the weapon. “Captain Miller’s judgment was no longer reliable. He’d overstepped his bounds and turned his forces against those he had been contracted to defend. I’m ashamed to admit my part in it. Given the circumstances, I consider our departure justified. We were given unlawful orders.”

“I’m not interested in what you consider justified,” Lawson said. “Stand down or I’ll have you shot dead in the street. The jailhouse or the ground—what will it be?”

Tak moved to the lieutenant’s side and tugged on his trouser leg. “Something isn’t right,” she hissed. “These aren’t regular Steelheads. Not all of ’em, anyhow.”

Briggs held up a hand to silence Tak and nodded. “All right,” he said, looking from one rooftop to the next and then at the soldiers flanking Commander Lawson. He tossed the blunderbuss to the ground. “I know when I’m outgunned. We demand a fair hearing.” The rest of the platoon followed suit. Ash was the last, pitching her halberd into the dirt with a sour expression.

The opposing Steelheads shackled the members of the platoon. A runner was sent to retrieve a larger set of restraints for Master Sergeant Borok when the standard issue failed to encircle the ogrun’s wrists. One of Lawson’s men ordered Tak to bring her cart around to the back of the chapter house and unload the remainder of the supplies. After that, no one so much as looked at the gobber, let alone tried to arrest her; in the end she was left standing with the mule and the supply cart, watching as the others were led down the road to the jailhouse.

After depositing the supplies in the storeroom, Tak scouted out the interior of the chapter house to find the barracks nearly empty. Then she slipped away and waited until dark, hiding amid a haphazard stack of crates in a nearby alleyway as she pondered her options. Aside from the Steelheads, she had seen almost no sign of other townspeople. A few scant lanterns hung along the street, but most of them were broken and unlit, giving Martenburg a subdued appearance Tak didn’t care for. An off-kilter melody carried from the Winking Mauler, growing more out of tune the more Lawson’s Steelheads drank.

When it seemed safe, Tak crept from the alley and made her way to the stocks that held the chapter’s former accountant. He had managed to fall asleep and was snoring lightly. Tak gave his cheek a light slap, and the old man’s eyes fluttered open.

“You!” Wilhelm said with a tone of surprise. “How are you not locked up with the others?”

“I’m not technically part of the platoon,” Tak said with a smile. “Cooks have a way of not being noticed. A gobber cook is practically invisible. What about you? Why are you here?”

Wilhelm sighed. “Remember Marcellus Yannus? Headed up the local wagoneers’ outfit? A month ago he took an interest in the abandoned mine on the east end of town. Brought in a prospector who hit on some precious minerals down there, so he got it in his head to restart the mining operation. It’s been a while since the people of Martenburg had anything to look forward to besides soldiering and farming, and farming never pays much. He made some promises, bought a few rounds of drinks at the Winking Mauler, and the locals were sold.”

“He didn’t live up to his word?” She examined the lock as she spoke.

“Sure he did. Had people lining up for work and the mayor in his pocket. Things were great until contracts called most of the remaining Steelheads away. Captain Miller had been in Almsbrook for months, and the last of the men left to do some dirty work for the Cygnarans up north. That’s when Yannus made his move.

“I found Commander Gamberlin dead at his desk. Before I knew it, Lawson had taken charge, though clearly he was in no position to do so. He’s always been tight with Yannus, so I knew what was coming, but no one listened to me.”

The gobber looked around quickly, then unsheathed a small paring knife, removed a bobby pin from the lining of her cap, and set about picking the lock that held the stocks closed. “The men who follow him—they aren’t real Steelheads, are they?”

“Nothing but the dregs, half-wits willing to be bribed by Lawson. There isn’t a handful of salt among them. Those with any loyalty were arrested and hanged. They share a common grave in a nearby field. I was lucky Lawson and Yannus were satisfied with sticking me in here. Maybe they didn’t have it in them to kill an old man outright. Or maybe they just wanted to humiliate me first.

“The others are Yannus’ thugs dressed up to look legitimate. Lawson swore them in as quick as he could with not a day of training. They might know how to scrap in a back alley, but they aren’t Steelhead material. Thieves and bandits, mostly.”

Tak considered these details, a plan forming in her mind. “And the townspeople? The place looked deserted when we rode in.” She squinted at the lock and worked the bent pin back and forth.

“Mandatory labor in the mines,” Wilhelm replied. “Once Yannus had the chapter in his pocket, he didn’t bother making false promises about higher wages and prosperity for the town. Used his muscle to round up anyone who could work and sent them down to labor in that forsaken hole day and night. There was a time when the mayor might have stood up to them, but his title is meaningless now. Once Commander Gamberlin and the remaining Steelheads were gone, he convinced everyone else to do as Yannus and Lawson said.”

A click issued from the lock and it popped open. “There,” Tak said. She stood on her tiptoes and helped Wilhelm remove himself from the restraints.

“My thanks,” Wilhelm said. He straightened his glasses and rubbed at his wrists, trying to work the stiffness from his body. Now that he was upright, he looked ten years younger. Tak could imagine him leading the charge on some distant battlefield in his youth. “Where does a cook learn to pick a lock?”

“I picked up a few skills back in Five Fingers,” Tak said. “What about the messenger from Captain Miller, the one who carried the note about the desertion? Did he return to Almsbrook?”

Wilhelm massaged the back of his neck, wincing. “Yannus enlisted him shortly after he rode in. Offered to triple his wages. The man turned traitor on the spot.”

Tak nodded. Anyone who continued to serve Miller after Almsbrook had no scruples.

“The workers have recovered a number of precious stones from the mines. My guess is Yannus will gather what jewels he can and disappear. The rest of them will be left holding the bag when Miller or one of the other captains finally gets back to town. With the war on, that could be quite a while.” Wilhelm glanced around. “We should get out of here. If we hurry, we can slip away before Lawson and his lowlifes notice.”

“No,” Tak said, shaking her head. Her ears flopped from side to side. “My friends might go to the gallows tomorrow. I have to take care of this myself.”

The accountant laughed bitterly. “You and what army?”

Tak sheathed the paring knife and returned the bobby pin to her cap. “A good cook knows how to do more than pick a lock. Show me the way to this grave you mentioned.”

“Why?” Wilhelm asked.

“I have a recipe that requires a specific ingredient,” Tak said

with a wide grin.

The grave was shallower than Tak had expected, and it took little effort to unearth the first bodies. A hand already protruded from the soil when they arrived, several of its fingers chewed off above the first knuckle by some scavenger. The remaining fingers cast crooked shadows in the lamplight.

“Morrow preserve me,” Wilhelm said for the fifth time. He pressed a handkerchief to his nose and mouth. The Steelheads had been buried weeks earlier, and the smell was tremendous.

Tak hunkered down and peered at a corpse they had pulled from the ground. “Ah, here we are.” She held the lantern aloft, painting the deceased in its soft glow. A variety of insects crawled over the dead man’s body, wriggling both under and over his decaying uniform. A spider the size of a coin emerged from the man’s mouth and skittered into the dark.

“Whatever you’re doing, do it fast,” Wilhelm said. A smear of dirt covered the right lens of his spectacles, but he made no effort to clean it off.

Tak removed a pair of tongs from her belt and plucked a pale grub two inches long from the victim. She held it before her face and examined it as it flailed slowly, its stubby legs making circles in the air. Satisfied, she lifted the grub toward Wilhelm. The accountant held up a hand in a warding gesture.

“Grave grub,” Tak said. She dropped the wriggling creature into a pouch and plucked another from the corpse, this one nearly twice as fat. “They’re a delicacy on Hospice Island.”

“You couldn’t pay me to eat one of those things,” Wilhelm said, his face a shade of pale close to that of the grubs. There was also anger in his tone. Tak knew he was indignant about her digging up his fallen comrades. She sympathized, but this was her best chance to free the others.

“Cygnarans are so peculiar when it comes to food,” Tak said. “Some pay good coin for grave grubs done up in butter with a few spices.”

“Not me,” Wilhelm said. “You can keep them.”

“The grubs feed on corpses close to the surface, so they secrete a toxin to discourage birds and the like from eating them. Just touching one can cause paralysis. Proper preparation neutralizes the toxin, but accidents can happen.”

“And your plan is what?” Wilhelm asked. “You think the thugs guarding your friends will eat those things? Unlikely.”

“Have faith,” Tak said. She dropped another grub into the pouch on her hip. “You’ve never tasted my cooking. Now help me with the rest of these bodies. We’re going to need a lot more grubs.”

Tak held the platter of fried grave grubs above her head with one hand and rapped on the jailhouse door with the other. The grubs smelled positively delicious, their aroma similar to that of roasted pheasant. After pilfering the chapter house storeroom for fixings, she had cooked them up in the abandoned kitchen. Each lay on a piece of greenery, the stubby legs removed, seasoned with an enticing array of spices. Presentation was important; people eat with their eyes as much as their mouths. Skigg guts or grave grubs, Tak’s culinary skills could make someone’s mouth water at ten yards.

Behind her, the mule raked a hoof over the ground. In the cart were three kegs of ale, also taken from the storeroom. Tak had rolled them out the back door to where Wilhelm helped her load them into the cart. The accountant was gone now, riding for the neighboring chapter house in Corvis to report the situation.

Voices droned on behind the jailhouse door, and Tak knocked a second time. A moment later a slat in the door slid open, and a pair of eyes peered out into the dark. The eyes squinted, examining the mule before flicking to the kegs in the cart.

“Down here,” Tak said.

The guard shifted his gaze downward and eyed Tak suspiciously. “What’s this about? State your business.”

“Mr. Yannus sent me with drink,” Tak said. “He wanted to thank you for your continued service. No reason you shouldn’t get a little reward while everyone else is at the tavern.”

“Drink?” the guard asked, his interest piqued. He looked again to the cart. Tak could practically hear the man swallow at the thought of ale.

“Three whole kegs,” Tak said. “More than enough for the evening.”

For a moment the guard said nothing. There was the sound of sniffing. “Something smells delicious,” he said. “What have you got there?”

“Can’t rightly celebrate on an empty stomach.” Tak lifted the platter closer to the opening, fanning the grave grubs with her free hand.

There was a dull clang of a bolt being drawn, and the door swung open. “Hey,” the guard called over his shoulder, “the boss sent food and drink. Come give me a hand.”

Without hesitation, Tak stepped through the door. She held the food over her head, looking every part the servant. The guards heading out to retrieve the ale turned their heads to follow the wonderful smell wafting from the grubs as she passed, and more than one plucked a morsel from the platter.

At the end of the short hall stood the entrance to the cells, and there on the wall hung a ring of keys. Tak resisted the urge to rush to the aid of the others. Instead she turned off into what served as the guards’ quarters and set the platter in the center of a table nearly the length of the room. A moment later the ale was brought in. Tak set about pulling tankards and stacks of plates from a nearby shelf and distributing them. The humans paid her little attention and before long were engaged in boisterous conversation.

The grave grubs were as much a hit as the ale. As they ate, the Steelhead imposters mused about what animal produced such a texture. One of their number professed to having eaten a particular breed of snake that tasted similar. Another guessed goose and was scoffed at.

A large man with a double chin and bald head sat in front of the platter, helping himself to generous portions. He was halfway through his second tankard of ale when he smacked his lips, glanced about the table at his companions, and fell forward to plant his face amid what remained of the grubs. The impact was loud enough to silence the room.

The others looked from the collapsed man to one another and then to their mugs. Their eyes widened as they rubbed fingers over numb lips and pinched their cheeks. Since the early stages of the paralysis felt similar to the effects of alcohol, only now did the revelers suspect something was wrong. Some tried to rise from their seats, but their legs would not cooperate. Others drew weapons and staggered about the room in search of a foe that wasn’t there before weakness overtook them and they sprawled on the floor.

Tak slipped from the room even as someone barked out a half- intelligible question or order. At the end of the hall she used the handle of a broom to lift the key ring from its hook. She smiled as the mess of keys jangled in her hands. With a twist she unlocked the first of several barred doors.

“I’ll be damned,” a familiar voice said as Tak entered the cell area. Lieutenant Briggsway was on his feet and gripping the bars. “Tak, how did you get in here?” At his words, the others rushed to the bars of their cells and stared down at the gobber cook.

“Trade secret,” Tak replied as she slotted the key into the lock of the lieutenant’s cell. “Let’s get you out of here before my cooking wears off.” The door swung open, and the lieutenant and a halberdier named Kiel stepped out.

“We have company!” Master Sergeant Borok shouted. Tak turned in time to see three of their jailers stumble into the room, slowed but still moving. At the sight of the open cell, the frontrunner gave a shout to his fellows, and the three drew the weapons they had at hand, two with clubs and one a small blade.

“Open the cells!” the lieutenant told Tak, then charged headlong into the enemy despite having no weapon but his fists. Kiel followed, his face taut with a mix of fear and determination.

Lieutenant Briggsway took a club to the shoulder but landed a solid right hook to his opponent’s face. The halberdier ducked his head and plowed into the stomach of another guard before straightening, sending the man up and over him to crash onto the floor.

The club of the third connected with Briggs, spinning him around. The one Kiel had knocked down slashed up with a short sword to cut a gash across Kiel’s chest, sending him reeling as the guard stood. Tak glanced down at the ring of keys in her hand. Uncertainty filled her.

“Take these!” Tak thrust the ring of keys through the bars and into Ash’s hands. Then she drew her paring knife and joined the fray, ignoring the alarmed shouts of the others still locked in their cells.

The wounded halberdier awkwardly grappled with his opponent in a losing struggle to keep the sword’s edge from his throat. As Tak passed the pair, she slashed through the tendons just above the guard’s right ankle with one swift motion of the perfectly sharpened blade. He toppled with a cry of pain. Kiel fell back against the wall, holding a hand to his bleeding chest.

Tak was already on the move, darting between another set of legs. A club narrowly missed her, leaving the weapon’s wielder open to a series of sharp stabs to the gut that dropped him to his knees. The shouts of warning from the cells died, replaced with shocked silence.

Lieutenant Briggsway had managed to recover the dropped blade and lunged, driving the point into the side of the last remaining guard. Though wounded, he retaliated with a vicious backswing of a club that caught the lieutenant full in the face and sent him crashing into the bars of a nearby cell. Briggs lay dazed as the guard limped toward him and lifted the weapon again to crush his skull. Kiel shouted and took a step toward him, too late to intervene.

Time seemed to slow as Tak saw the killing strike begin. Without conscious effort, the paring knife spun in her hand until she gripped the blade between thumb and forefinger. Reflexes learned a lifetime ago on the streets of Five Fingers returned as her arm pulled back for a throw. With a snap of the wrist she sent the knife sailing forward.

The point struck the guard squarely in the throat, ending his attack mid-swing. With a last gurgling gasp, the man twisted and slumped to the floor, where he lay motionless.

Briggs pressed a hand to the side of his rapidly swelling face and stared unblinking at Tak as she labored to pull him to his feet. “To think we’ve had you cooking meals and saddling horses this whole time!”

She grimaced and said, “I’m just a cook, Lieutenant.”

He scowled at her. “You’re not ‘just’ anything,” he said. “You’re as much a member of the squad as I am.” She blinked at him in surprise. He continued, “You didn’t have to join us when we left Almsbrook, and you didn’t have to help get us out of here. I won’t forget it.”

He nodded before turning to help with freeing the others. They weren’t out of danger yet. Tak felt her heart hammering, but her hands were steady as she wiped the blood from her knife. She knew there would be plenty more blood to come before the day was through.

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Chapter 4: Cleaning House

By William Shick

Martenburg, Northern Cygnar, 609 AR

Ash watched as Privates Paterson and Rawls tended to Kiel’s chest wound. The cut had been deep and already the young Steelhead was looking pale from blood loss. Ash knew it was unlikely their comrade would survive.

Turning away from the scene, Ash hauled one of Lawson’s men off the ground, the one Tak had hamstrung during the fight. The man groaned in pain as Ash pulled him to his feet, a pool of crimson where he had been lying.

“Aren’t you going to see to my wounds?” The man slurred his words, still woozy from the grave grubs Tak had fed him. Ash frowned as she realized their effect was likely dulling the pain of his injury.

“It’d just be a waste of bandages, since you’ll be on the gallows come morning,” Ash said before shoving him into the cell she had so recently occupied. The thug yelped as he stumbled inside, his ankle buckling the instant it took his weight.

“Remind me never to piss you off, Sergeant.”

Ash turned to see Briggs, his face dominated by an ugly purple-blue swelling, dragging in another unconscious man. The hulking form of Master Sergeant Borok followed. While Briggs struggled with one man, the powerful ogrun hefted three as if each weighed no more than a bedroll.

Briggs tossed his man into a cell, then looked up and caught Ash staring. “Oh, come on, is it really that bad?” he asked, fingers gingerly probing his misshapen face.

“You certainly aren’t going to get any good-looks discounts from your tavern girls for awhile,” Ash said. The movement of Paterson and Rawls getting to their feet brought her attention back to them. The two stood solemnly over the now-lifeless Kiel. Ash clenched her fists as she looked at the dead kid. She was ready for a fight. More accurately, she needed a fight. “God damn it! What’s our move, Briggs?”

“According to Tak, Wilhelm is on his way to Corvis now to report Lawson to the main chapter house.”

“That’s at least a two-day ride for an experienced horseman. Call it four for Wilhelm. The man hasn’t been in the field since before we joined,” Ash said.

“Aye,” Borok agreed. “And once he gets there, there’s no guarantee they will do anything more than brand Lawson’s actions criminal, revoke the charter, and turn the matter over to the Cygnaran authorities.”

“And given how important Martenburg is, I’m sure the Swannies will act on that report with the utmost haste,” Briggs said.

“You have a better plan in mind, Lieutenant?” Borok asked. “I wouldn’t call it much of a plan. But I’m not about to sit around while another town—much less my hometown—is put under the thumb of a wannabe tyrant from our own chapter house again. Bad enough we just left Miller where he was, but at least he was a real captain. Now you want to leave Lawson, who is absolutely in violation of both Steelhead and Cygnaran law, too?”

Ash smiled. Briggs could be quite a motivator when he actually put his mind to it.

Borok nodded. “Point taken. So we clean up Lawson’s mess. Put our house back in order, at least enough so when and if the authorities get here we can show them we handled it ourselves like real Steelheads ought.”

“Excuse me, sirs,” Private Rawls chimed in. “I’m all for tossing Lawson and that snake Yannus into the cells here to rot. Martenburg is my home, too, and I’ve got two sisters here. If what Tak told us is true, they’ve been forced to work the mine for months now. But when we faced him before we were significantly outnumbered.”

“Kid’s got a point, Briggs,” Ash said. “Even as sloppy and thuggish as Lawson’s new recruits are, there are still a lot more of them than us.”

“Tak?” Briggs called.

“Yes, sir?” Tak answered from alongside Ash, surprising her. Suddenly it made perfect sense how the diminutive gobber had managed to spring them completely on her own.

“You told me Lawson and the majority of his men are at the Winking Mauler, reveling in their recent victory?”

“Yes, sir. They’ve been at it for some time now.”

Borok frowned. “Even with them drunk and unprepared, there’s a lot of risk barging in and starting a brawl.”

“The Winking Mauler is a lot of things, but spacious isn’t one of them,” Ash said. “Weapons are going to be a liability in there.”

Briggs grunted. “Who said anything about going inside? Lawson was kind enough to give us a choice before. I say we return the favor.”

Ash smiled as she realized what Briggs was proposing. “You want to burn them out?”

“Lawson and his cronies can choose: roast in the Mauler or step outside and meet their end on real Steelhead steel. So what do you think, Borok?” Briggs smiled as he looked to his master sergeant.

The ogrun scowled. “You’re right. That isn’t much of a plan.” Borok paused a moment and then nodded. “But it’s good enough.”

Briggs turned to Ash. “Sergeant Pemberton, get our men suited up and ready. We’ve got a party to crash.”

Ash snapped a crisp salute. “It’ll be my pleasure, Lieutenant.”

The sounds of drunken revelry coming from Lawson and his thugs easily carried through the thick timber walls of the Winking Mauler. Of course, it helped that the rest of the town was as still as the grave, Ash reflected. Those not currently slaving in the mines knew better than to be out at night given the current situation. The thought of that rat-bastard and his slime-bellied boss tarnishing the charter made her seethe.

She watched as Borok hefted a huge iron girder, nearly as long as he was tall, and placed it against the front doors, pinning them shut. As strong as her own feelings were, she could only imagine how Borok felt given his ogrun views on loyalty and duty to the institution he had adopted as his korune. She loved fighting as much as Briggs liked his “tavern ladies,” and there were few fights she would choose to avoid, but facing down the master sergeant when he was well and truly riled was one of them.

Looking up from the door, Ash saw Tak’s small, shadowy form scramble down from a tiny upper window. The window had once served as the tavern’s chimney, as the Mauler had been designed without any thought to ground- level windows. After all, why would any tavern owner worth his salt want to remind people there was anything outside the warmth, food, and drink of his establishment?

“Looks like the tavern is clear of any civilians, Lieutenant,” Tak said, keeping her voice low despite the noise emanating from the Mauler.

Briggs nodded. “Thanks, Tak.”

With a sharp hand motion, Briggs signaled several Steelheads carrying pots of lamp oil to move in and begin dousing the foundation of the building. While the dry timbers would catch fire well enough on their own, for the plan to work they needed the flames to grow quickly.

Once the oil was distributed, Briggs raised a torch and signaled for the other Steelheads carrying torches to move in alongside him. In moments the dark of the late night was washed away by massive flames roaring up the oil-soaked tavern walls.

Private Rawls stood next to Ash, halberd held ready, his brown eyes reflecting the orange glow of the quickly building inferno before them.

“Not to second-guess the lieutenant, but doesn’t this feel wrong to you, Sergeant?” he asked.

“Full disclosure, Rawls?” Ash said. “I always second-guess the lieutenant—at least when it comes to his personal choices. But when it comes to a fight, you can always trust Briggs to find a winning solution.”

“Yeah, but . . .” Rawls searched for the right words. Ash knew her men and their tics well. It was a skill any half- decent NCO had. Rawls’ chattiness was simply nerves for the coming fight, so she let him continue even though the handbook would say to enforce discipline. “I mean, it just doesn’t feel like an honorable fight—burning up the tavern and waiting to cut down any of them that manage to stumble out.”

His words brought a deep frown to Ash’s face. “Rawls,” she said, her voice taking on the hard NCO edge, which caused Rawls to snap to attention, “do you see any gleaming plate mail around here? I don’t know about you, but last time I checked I didn’t have a fancy bird tattooed on my ass right next to a portrait of good King Leto.”

Ash motioned with her halberd at the building. “The men in there weren’t concerned with an honorable fight when they ambushed us and threw us in a cell to hang come morning. The simple fact is that honor is an illusion, something used to convince fools it’s a noble thing to die in a fight that might have better been left alone. You want to run in there and face down the villain in some big final fight? To be the shining hero you always hear about in stories?”

Ash turned to watch the flames consuming the tavern. The sounds of revelry inside had turned into cries of panic and confusion. She could see the front door shudder as the men inside, blinded and choking on thick, oily smoke, tried desperately to push their way free of the burning building. But Borok had set the girder at a perfect angle between door and ground; the more they pushed, the tighter it held. With no escape possible from the front, a few of the quicker thinkers made their way to the rear service door, but that too was barred. After some desperate chopping, a few managed to break through the door and tumble out, coughing, only to be impaled on the points of readied halberds. Then the doorframe collapsed, leaving no escape.

Ash turned back to the young mercenary and looked him in the eye. “Take it from me, Rawls, the only thing honor will earn you is a one-way ticket to Urcaen, whether it’s in this fight or another one years from now. Every hero falls. You want to live a long and full life? Don’t worry about honor. Worry about winning, whatever it takes. We get to walk away from this. They don’t.”

Briggs stared longingly at the charred remains of the Winking Mauler from the window of the commander’s office in the Steelhead barracks. It had been two weeks since they burned down the tavern with Lawson and his thugs inside. Two weeks of life in Martenburg without a proper tavern to chase away the boredom that had quickly followed that night’s excitement.

With Lawson’s death, the few of his “Steelheads” that had been spared the fate of their comrades had disappeared, leaving Marcellus Yannus to face Briggs and a very angry town alone. Briggs had done the minimum required to ensure Yannus survived long enough for a trip to the gallows instead of being ripped apart by those thirsty for revenge on the man who had ruined their lives for the last several months.

Knowing that they were still potentially guilty of desertion as well as the technically illegal murder of a superior officer and fellow Steelheads, Borok had departed soon after Yannus’ hanging, along with Paterson and Rawls, to catch up with Wilhelm and take their case to the chapter house in Corvis.

And so Briggs, Ash, and the rest of the Steelheads who had left Almsbrook almost a month ago had been left with nothing but boredom to contend with while they waited for what would come next. Either the master sergeant would return with good news, or a platoon of Steelheads would arrive to arrest them.

It had been Borok and Wilhelm who had returned, carrying with them a letter bearing the seal of Corvis Chapter Commander Tyler Gains. To Briggs’ great surprise, the letter had been addressed to him.

That letter now lay behind him on the desk in the office, its seal broken and an open box containing a captain’s insignia atop it.

Briggs rubbed his left temple and squeezed his eyes shut as he reviewed the letter for the hundredth time in his mind, having read it enough times to memorize the entire thing.

Lieutenant Samuel Briggsway:

In light of recent events concerning the illicit actions of Private

Charles Lawson and Captain Almsworth Miller and the recent

deaths of Commander Gamberlin and Captains Allen Worthington

and Roger Corren, you are hereby promoted to Captain of the

Martenburg Steelhead Chapter. This is done on my authority,

with a request sent to the board of trustees in Berck for formal

ratification. Until such time as the chapter’s numbers are restored

and additional leadership is required, you are in sole command.

As your first task, we request that you assemble a force sufficient

to bring Captain Miller in for questioning or, if he resists, to

otherwise ensure he does not continue to defame the company’s

name. A generous bonus will be provided to you and your men

upon this task’s completion.

Congratulations, Captain Briggsway.

—Commander Tyler Gains of the Corvis Steelhead Chapter

Briggs was still in shock. Him a captain? He wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of it or run screaming in terror from the weight of the responsibility—and the boredom that would likely come with it.

A heavy knock at the door stirred him from his thoughts. “Enter,” he said.

Borok and Ash moved smartly into the room and snapped to attention. “Captain Briggsway, sir, you wished to see us?” Borok said, his eyes front and his back ramrod straight.

“Knock that off,” Briggs snapped. “It’s bad enough I have to suffer that from the men. I don’t need it from you two.” He sighed under his breath. “Thamar’s teeth, what I wouldn’t give for a hard drink and a soft woman.”

Ash raised an eyebrow. “Glad to see your newfound station hasn’t changed you, sir.”

“Laugh now, Sergeant,” Briggs shot back, “but if I’m getting saddled with this, don’t think you’re getting away free and clear.” Briggs grabbed a small box from the top drawer of the desk and threw it at her.

“Tossing jewelry at some women might get them to toss something back to you, Briggs,” Ash said with a wry grin, “but that kind of thing isn’t going to work on me.”

“Har, har,” Briggs said. “Just open it.”

She did, then looked at Briggs, her expression blank. “These are lieutenant’s bars.”

“Morrow’s breath, they are!” Briggs said with feigned surprise. “Look, if I’m going to have any chance of rebuilding this charter without running it into the ground, I need you—both of you—at my side to keep me in line.”

Briggs placed another box on the desk, and it was Borok’s turn to give him a skeptical look. “With all due respect, sir, you toss that at me and I will break your arm.”

Briggs sighed. “I figured as much, Master Sergeant. That’s why I’m not going to try to promote you. However, I am making you my XO. I need someone to get this place back up and running, and there’s no one I can think of in the entire chapter who’s more in love with the regs than you.”

The room was silent as the three stared at each other. It was Ash who finally broke the silence. “So we’re actually going to do this?”

Briggs swallowed. Damn, he wanted a drink. “It looks like we are, Lieutenant.”

Ash looked up, a mischievous smile on her face, and snapped the box in her hand shut with loud clap. “Well then, Captain, Morrow help us all.”

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