Corthos sat alone in the room he shared with Merrigold on the properties he had bought from Belcara, looking out the window over the water. Merry had gone with Vivian and Isabelle to get Isabelle’s dress for the Ball completed, and he sat at his desk now – a map of Kintargo in front of him, with etchings and writing all across it. It cross-referenced a sheet of paper next to him, an early battle plan that he was drafting. He compared it to the Chelish battle plans next to him, looking for weaknesses and comparing. As he read between the two, his hand moved rapidly, his quill hurrying along. He dipped it in once more, clucking his tongue when it came out dry. He reached down into the desk to retrieve a new inkpot, opening the bottom drawer and pausing.
Sitting there beneath his inkpots was a latched box, covered in deep blue and silver, emblazoned with the crossed wine glass and dagger beneath the open eye crest of The Coufreyac – a mercenary and militia group that had operated out of Kantaria for years. As far as he knew, they still did – it would seem unfathomable that they might have ceased. He paused, raising the box out with shaking hands. He set it next to the battle plans, feeling his breath catch even as he subconsciously reached for the key. He hadn’t opened the box in years, but the memories had always stayed close by. It had been different in those days….his trembling hands put the key into the lock, and he opened the box hesitantly. Reaching in, he withdrew four items slowly.
He had only been a man of seventeen – and even that, just barely – when he had been sent from House Tanessen to start his military career. He had found himself leading four other souls in the Coufreyac, acting quietly in rebellion against House Narikopolus in an effort to disrupt the slave trade. He had been sent out, still wet behind the ears, and given command because of his name. On his arrival, it had been clear that they did not respect him immediately, and he had tried to earn that respect – which he had done, slowly. Charming nobility during the day and moving to strike up barricades and free captured souls at night, he had found himself with a purpose. He looked down on the items laying in front of him and lifted one. The first was a small brooch showing the signs of Saint Cuthbert, stained with blood and mud. That had belonged to Pria Fennial.
Pria had been his first ally when he had joined the Coufreyac. Hardly much older than himself, she had been in her early twenties – a former temple worker for Saint Cuthbert who had felt a religious calling to pick up a mace and fight for her beliefs. She had been the first friend he had found there, and over the year that he learned to lead, she had been the most loyal. Many night had been spent talking and arguing about religion and the world at large, and she had always encouraged him to share his opinions. ‘Even if they are not the right words, the words from the heart are the strongest ones.’ She had always told him to avoid compromising himself for anything, and to stand to his beliefs. For a year straight, these conversations happened nightly, the two testing each others wits and ideologies on a regular basis, growing to know and respect each other. On his eighteenth birthday, she had set to making a man of him. He would never forget her, a sweet smile and a comforting touch as she led him into her tent. The next morning, she had told him how she thought of him as a young man with a great path ahead of him, and how she wanted to stand at his side. They had sworn to each other to get through the years that they had agreed to do with the Coufreyac, to fight until those in slavery were freed. He felt a heavy and deep pain in his very being as his fingers traced over the brooch, the long dried blood still seeming warm and sticking. He set it down slowly.
The second item was a bronze handled razor, the handle engraved with an inscription in Orrikesh that he had always meant to get sorted out. This had belonged to Durgan Mastbreaker – a man bordering on seven feet tall who Corthos had seen drink entire tankards of ale when they traveled. Durgan had been the first half-orc that Corthos had ever laid eyes on, and the larger man had challenged him from the first day. According to Pria, that was common – Durgan had an issue with authority and always had seemed to believe that Pria was in charge. She had said once that it was a culture difference, but Corthos had set to convince Durgan to respect him. He had challenged the half-orc to a contest of drink, and had lost severely. The pair had settled it in a grappling match in the midst of the encampent, Corthos scrambling like mad to keep himself away from the laughing Durgan. It had only been after Durgan had tired himself out that Corthos had been able to start fighting back, although it ended in – at best – a stalemate. Durgan had been one of the most fearsome fighters that Corthos had ever met, and he never once believed that he had truly beaten the man – he had simply let Corthos win. He moved the closed razor around in his hand, feeling the heavy weight. He had seen Mastbreaker fight down to his last breath – even when his urgrosh had been dropped, he had fought back with anything he could get his hands on. Corthos lowered the razor.
The third item was a small book – a journal, really. All handwritten notes in a neat and organized script alongside skilled drawings of flora and fauna, notes organized neatly alongside formulae and equations. These were the detailed ideas of Camila Vielmond – the closest in age to him, having been barely past sixteen when he had joined. She had always been cautious, wanting to avoid any major dangers that the Coufreyac had found themselves in. She was the daughter of an alchemist, and had joined the Coufreyac to try and see the world. He remembered her well…they had spent time trying to work together on shared knowledges, him telling her of military ideas and the nobility in exchange for her teaching him about the various wonders that she could concoct with the right ingredients. He still remembered the first box of fireworks that she had crafted, and how they had spent an evening setting them off alongside Durgan, watching as the half-orc repeatedly tested his pain tolerance by holding them as long as he could, always laughing with satisfaction when they finally burst in the air. Camila had been the first to trust him, and he had always appreciated that. She had told him of her faith in his leadership, of her respect for his military mind. Camila…she had given complete faith in his ability to lead them. He lowered the book, tears falling past his eyes and dashing against the table.
The entire bottom of the box still held a sash and cloak of blue and silver, neatly folded and set aside. He had been given it the day before they were ambushed by Lauric Cressida, the man who had taught him how to best use his weapon. He had never gotten to wear the commander’s crest, having had no souls to command afterwards. He took it from the box slowly, setting it out over the map of Kintargo before lowering his head down onto it. He closed his eyes, and he felt as though he were back there in a moment – moving along the Jeni. The day had started peacefully enough, the troop moving slowly to allow Camila a chance to sketch the water lilies and take her samples as Lauric had given Corthos updated information on movements and setting. It had all seemed so easy at that point – he had found a slave route from the city out along the Jeni a week before, and they had been waiting for something big to come. The rumors in the town had been that the slavers had planned to move a high-value payload down the Jeni, a daughter of a minor noble to be used in the brothels of Kintargo, and that there was a large amount of coin at stake.
Looking back, it had all seemed so simple. A trap designed to pull Alessa out into the open, but he had jumped at the chance for glory. He had laid the plan out – a simple idea, that they would create a barricade within the pathway itself, something that could be triggered in an instant and brought down to block the slaver’s caravan for an easy picking. Even then, he should have known better – he remembered setting the barricade up with Lauric, the two men joking and laughing at the concept. He had expected nothing more than slavers, not the expert bows of Narikopolus huntsmen. They had set themselves in wait, and it had been hours before they had seen the first carriages of the caravan come forward. They had seemed underprotected, no guardsmen following them, and Lauric had suggested that he take a moment to read the situation before they acted. Corthos had shook the idea off, and he had never forgiven himself for what came next. He had turned to Camila, sweet and trusting Camila, and had asked her to walk in front of the carriages. It was a bait trap that he had pulled before, but this time the carriages were not simply slavers.
If only he had listened to the rumors in the town, to the ideas of the land. These men were not searching for simple mercenaries, they were lying in wait for an adversary that they had hunted for months. Corthos had seen the first bowman rise out of the woods, his arrowhead nocked back as he rose. He had felt a sound start to rise and then die in his throat as he had moved from their hiding space, trying to run after Camila. His lack of silence caused her to turn to look for him, reaching for her blade behind her book. That was all that the yeoman had needed. His first arrow was let loose, striking Camila between her shoulder blades with a ripping flutter of fabric. She had cried out, stumbling forward with the force of the blow, hand reaching out towards Corthos in surprise even as a second arrow was launched towards her. This one hit lower in her back, and he could see her face as she fell towards the ground – wide-eyed and fearful, her mouth questioning. He found his voice, his words screaming out in choking half-sobs. “Retreat! Fall back!” He had scooped her up into his arms, trying to pull her away from the fight. As he did, she had turned to look up at him. Her lips moved ever so slightly, and he could hear her clearly. “Why?” The third arrow had silenced her questioning, hitting her in the neck with enough force to tumble them both to the ground. He had lost his focus before he felt something heavy and powerful lift him to his feet.
Durgan stepped back from him, one large hand hurling a throwing axe into the woods, met with a scream. Two arrows stuck out of his shoulder, and he reached back past them to grab his urgrosh. With a heavy grunt, he snapped the shafts of the arrows as he pulled the weapon forward. “Retreat, Tanessen. You retreat. I will take the rear. Durgan Mastbreaker DOES NOT FEAR YOU!” Durgen had shoved Corthos then, one arm swinging the urgrosh around even while the other lifted the still form of Camila. He had seemed to shield it, even as Corthos had run. He had no weapon now, and he watched behind him as men came out from one caravan, seeming to swarm at Durgan. Several flew back in the air, and even at this distance, he could see the grey-skinned hulking figure seem to slow. When his wounds were too heavy to use his urgrosh, Durgan had fought with whatever was handy – rocks, sticks, his fists. Corthos had found out later that it had taken over a dozen trained soldiers to take the orc down, and they had lost at least six fighting him.
His running had let Lauric and Pria catch him, and they had fallen back to camp together. They had hurried, trying secure what they could – that was when he had taken the box of goods and hidden it, wanting to be certain that he could find it again later. They should have continued to run, but Corthos had refused. In words that still haunted him, he had told Lauric that he would not run any further. That they could route the enemy and recover Durgan and Camila, that they needed to. Lauric had given him a sad look that he had not recognized then, but he knew too well now – but he had agreed to listen to his commander. They had circled the wood, trying to get behind the crew themselves, and when they were in position, Corthos had hesitated, stuttering his step and accidentally giving an early signal.
He thought about that moment often, in the wee hours of the morning. If he had not hesitated – if he had acted decisively, if he had not second-guessed – would things have been different? He had hesitated, and in his hesitation he had revealed them. There was no way for them to move fast enough to counteract the fact that they were not in a rhythm or unison. Lauric had come out of the woods first, his blade clashing with a trackers and parrying expertly. But even as Cortho and Pria burst from the words, they numbers had begun to overwhelm Lauric. He fell, first to a knee and then back up as Corthos grabbed a short sword. He came to Lauric’s aid, trying to help him to fight the trackers off, and he had felt the warm blood striking his shoulders before he had heard Lauric fall. A slash across his own back had driven him into the dirt, and he had rolled over to see a tall and thin man sneering down at him. “Wait for Alessa on the other side, you worthle—” His words had been silenced by a heavy mace colliding with his chest and knocking him flat. Pria had grabbed Corthos and ran, her breathing heavy and ragged as they had crashed though the woods. They had run for what felt like miles before they had stopped in a small clearing by the Jeni. It was there that Corthos had realized Pria was bleeding heavily.
He had helped her out of her breastplate, pausing as he saw the wounds over her. He had knelt next to her, sobbing and apologizing, and she had held him close – her voice little more than a whisper. ‘I know, I know. I know. Shhh…Corthos, please. I will see them all on the other side of this world. If this is it, we die as martyrs for freedom, and there is no more noble death.’ He had sat with her a long time as she labored for breath, trying to help her. But when her eyes had closed, and the breathing had become too shallow, he had taken her brooch from her cloak and stolen back to camp. He had recovered his goods and fled for Kintargo, arriving on Geoff’s doorstep days later looking disheveled and scarred. Geoff had taken him in, listened without judgement, and felt more of a pity for the boy than most would have thought possible. He had known better – a boy of Corthos’ temperament was not going to succeed on the battlefield. He had listened as Corthos had sobbed and cursed himself, night after night, and he had convinced the Alabaster Academy to take him in. Eliza had been instrumental – she had been the only one that Corthos had been willing to talk to about anything that had happened on the battlefield.
But Geoff had known that pain and struggle. And some men were honed by it, and some were broken by it. Corthos raised his head slowly, putting the items back into the box in a reverse order. He held the commanders cloak out for a moment, speaking softly. “Camila….Durgan…..Lauric…..Pria. I failed you all. But I will try to be a better man, I will not allow it to happen again. But I wish I had you here for advice. I will wear this cloak when we take Kintargo, so that if I pass, I will find you easily on the other side. To die a martyr for freedom would be better than I have ever deserved.” He folded it carefully, putting it back into the box before setting it back beneath his inkpots. He began to review his battleplan again, tears staining the paper at points. He could not fail again. He would not allow himself.
Rexus had once asked him why he worked as though he had no time left, and he had never answered. He had never told Rexus of that day with the Coufreyac – he couldn’t. Not even Merry knew of them. As far as he was aware, Gwen had never even received the entire story. He looked down at his hands, shaking and covered in ink, and for a moment – the ink looked crimson. Shuddering, he reached for the hazemind for the first time since La’reth.
Soon enough, it was a blur.