Bree, Part 1

Hey, folks! So I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to get in a writeup this weekend, I’m afraid. Instead I’m going to go ahead and post a couple pieces of short fiction about Bree, a mercenary soldier I came up with for a fantasy setting.

Literature and entertainment are full of stories of that classic character who runs away from home to pursue their dreams. Depending on the type of story, they’re either wildly successful—saving the kingdom or marrying the prince or princess or whatever—or they become horribly disillusioned after trying their best and failing. But what about stories where the protag just does kind of average. They’re competent in their chosen field, but not exceptional. They settle down in a comfortable romance with someone who makes them happy, but who can’t exactly give them the world on a silver plate. I kind of ran with this idea for a quick story I wrote. It’s a short, one-scene fantasy story—I imagine the setting to be similar to the Sword Coast from the Forgotten Realms, series. It’s kind of rough, and I’m not super happy with the ending, but it was an interesting quick study. (Part 2)

“Ian?” Jen’s voice urged quietly, waking him. “Ian, you have a visitor.”

“What’s that?” Ian mumbled, reflexively adjusting his quilts. Jen grimaced as he coughed twice from the exertion. He blinked the sleep from his lids, focusing on his wife’s eyes above him.

“You have an unexpected visitor,” she explained, taking his hand and sitting on the stool beside their bed. “Our daughter, Bree, has come to visit you. I… think she genuinely wants to see you one last time. She said she’ll understand if you don’t want to see her.”

Ian frowned at the ceiling as he considered. So his prodigal daughter had returned to visit him on his deathbed. He hadn’t seen or heard from Bree in almost seventeen years and wasn’t sure how many years it had been since he’d even really thought about her. His initial assumption was that she must have heard he was dying and come to ensure her place in his will. But for his daughter to admit she’d understand if he didn’t want to see her—that wasn’t exactly the attitude of someone who’s trying to schmooze her way back into the inheritance.

At sixteen, she’d run away to become an adventuress or a knight errant or a paladin or whatever romantic damned notion she’d gotten from those books her grandmother left her. Bree was determined that she was going to learn to fight brigands and slay dragons and rescue princesses in towers. Before and for a long while after she left, her cousins used to joke and place bets over whether she would be slain by orcs, eaten by gnolls, or captured by Drow slavers. After years of not hearing from her, the joke became less funny.

“How does she look? Does she seem alright?” he asked his wife after a moment.

“Older, stronger,” Jen admitted, smiling tiredly. “She might be an inch or two taller, as well—or maybe she’s just standing straighter than she used to. I think even without the uniform she’d look like a soldier.”

“What kind of uniform?” Ian asked, frowning up at her.

“Chainmail with a cream-and-burgundy surcoat,” she told him, shrugging. “So, whatever city or guild or company that represents.”

He exhaled, mentally bracing himself. “Alright, tell Bree I’ll see her,” he decided, quietly, reluctantly.

Jen merely nodded, keeping her tired smile. Wishing he knew what to expect, Ian closed his eyes and tried to breathe evenly as his wife left the room.

“Poppa?” inquired the voice he’d never expected to hear again. He opened his eyes and slowly turned his head as his daughter stepped cautiously through the bedroom door.

Though the burgundy surcoat looked more like crimson to Ian, Bree looked much as Jen had described: older, stronger, and wearing infantry armor. The mail hauberk was elbow-length at the sleeves and knee-length at the hem, with a broadsword belted at her waist. She wore a grey travel-cloak, black boots, gloves tucked into her belt, and a dark grey arming shirt and hose under her mail.

He realized his daughter had definitely grown taller during her absence, but was sturdier and broader as well, particularly across her chest and shoulders. Her height and build filled up a doorway as easily as either of her brothers. Bree’s face looked darker and somewhat leathered from whatever adventures or campaigns she’d traveled on, and Ian counted three scars on her face, as well as two on her neck and a notch in her left ear—which made him wonder how many scars he couldn’t see. The dark-chocolate braid that had once reached her waist was short now, not much past her shoulders.

“Daughter,” he finally answered her, gesturing to the nearby stool. She smiled slightly and sat beside his bed. “Your hair is shorter,” he commented.

“It fits under a mail coif or kettle helm better,” she explained, her smile looking more genuine. She looked away as her smile fell. “I’m sorry, Poppa,” Bree admitted, blinking and fighting back a tear. “I’m not sorry for leaving, but I’m sorry for how I left. You were stubborn, and I was angry, immature, and stubborn, and I said things I shouldn’t have.”

“I’m sorry, too,” he agreed, trying not to relive their last fight. “We both said things we shouldn’t have. How… how did you know to come?”

“Laura wrote me,” Bree said, meaning her twin sister. She tucked a knee to her chest and rested her boot heel on the edge of her stool. “She said you’d been injured and were sick from the infection—something about a barn blowing over?”

Ian nodded, coughing. “Farmer Chalice, you remember him? He hired our shop to help shore up that old barn of his for that big windstorm two weeks back. The storm blew the barn on our heads before we’d finished. Killed his boy Abel and a couple horses, broke your brother Ryan’s arm, and bloodied up everyone else. I ended up with two cracked ribs and three rusty nails in my right hip. The apothecary gave me stuff to make me comfortable and keep the fever down, but there’s nothing more he can do for the infection.”

“I’m so sorry, Poppa,” she whispered, shaking her head and blinking back the tears. “I should have written letters to more than just Laura. I should have come back and visited sooner. But I didn’t know if you were still angry, and I knew that everyone else would want me to come back to stay.”

“I didn’t know you and Laura were even still writing each other,” he said, unable to think of anything else to say.

“A dozen or so letters, nothing regular,” she admitted, resting her chin on her knee.

“You know, it wasn’t just our hearts you broke,” Ian chided, unable to control his smirk. “There’s four or five of the local lads and three of the local lasses who all had their eyes on you and were plenty broke-up that you left.”

His daughter chuckled. “Only three lasses?” she asked, her smile returning. “I’m pretty sure I kissed at least twice that many.”

“Three that I know of,” he shrugged his good shoulder. “You look a proper infantrywoman, by the way,” he added, indicating her mail and surcoat. “That means you turned paladin or adventuress on us? Rescue any princesses from towers?”

“Fell a little short of ‘paladin,’ I’m afraid,” Bree admitted, perhaps laughing at herself a bit. “I’m just a corporal in a pike cohort for Lady Theodora’s mercenary company.”

“I think I’ve heard of them,” he mused aloud.

“We do sell-sword work all up and down the coast,” she explained, “but our winter headquarters is near Vestin with three training sites and recruiting stations as far north as Daggerpoint. We specialize in mixed infantry with archer and spell-caster support—between eight- and twelve-hundred standing at any one time. We have some pretty basic siege weaponry, mainly to supplement our clients’ sieges, rather than lay down our own. No regular cavalry, though, just a few squads of scout cavalry.”

“Mostly human, or do you recruit far enough north to get a lot of elves and dwarves as well?” Ian asked, genuinely curious.

Bree chewed at the inside of her cheek as she considered. “I’d say maybe sixty-five to seventy percent are human or part-human,” she estimated. “Many of our archers and wizards and a lot of our lighter infantry and scouts are elves, and a lot of our best pikes and heavy-to-medium infantry are dwarves.” She laughed. “And our best scout-cavalry squadron is made up of a bunch of loony halflings on wolves and riding-dogs.”

“Isn’t your Lady Theodora the one with the bodyguard of Amazon fighters?” Ian asked, trying to remember where he’d heard about this woman.

“Her banner-guard consists of forty elite heavy infantrywomen, if that’s what you’re referring to,” Bree told him, frowning thoughtfully. “And there’re a few dwarves and elves and a couple Tiefling gals in that unit. They get to wear full-plate armor and train to fight with claymores or broadswords and shields, depending on the mission. I tried out twice for a position in the banner-guard, but was never skilled enough to make the cut.”

As strong and competent as his daughter looked in her uniform, Ian could only imagine how powerful the women in the banner-guard must be.

“So you’re not just trained as a pike woman, then?”

Bree shook her head. “No, pikes are great for open-field warfare or for corking or uncorking a bottleneck, but there’s other times when they’re just a pain,” she admitted. “Any kind of cluttered terrain makes them worse than useless, and one can’t exactly climb a scaling ladder or storm an entrenchment with one. When we can’t use pikes, the captains give us kite-shields and make medium infantry of us, since we all carry short swords or broadswords anyway.”

“I assume mercenary work pays well?” Ian inquired next. “As your father, I just want to be sure you’re making a good living,” he added.

“Over three times what our local militia makes,” she laughed, looking smug. “And they hate us for it. We get paid twice-monthly wages plus a share in any spoils taken during campaigns. As a corporal, I get about seven percent more than the regulars. And my wife makes reasonable money by making and mending costumes for the local theatre house.”

“Wait,” he sat up an inch, hissing painfully as his ribs protested. “Sorry,” he muttered, still grimacing. “I just… you startled me. I had no idea you were married.”

“Oh my gods,” Bree murmured, placing a hand over her mouth. “Laura never told you? Yes, a little over ten years ago I married Becca, a half-elven widow with two little daughters. They’re twelve and fifteen now,” she added. “Her husband Orrin was a sergeant in my pike cohort, back before I made corporal. He fell in battle about a week after their second daughter was born. While Lady Theodora keeps a policy of compensating the families of her fallen soldiers, it’s also a tradition for individual cohorts to take up a collection of our own for bereft families of our comrades. I offered to deliver the money to Orrin’s widow, even though I’d never met her and barely knew Orrin.” Bree smiled sadly, as if at bittersweet memories.

“Becca thanked me for the money,” she continued. “And I… I felt for her, you know? A young widow with a toddler and a newborn baby, I just felt so badly for her. So I accepted when she invited me in for tea. We talked for a long while, and I comforted her whenever she wept. And she invited me to please come back for tea again sometime. And I came back to see her during my next leave, and then during my leave after that, and the one after that. And she kept inviting me to come back. After the first few visits, I found I preferred drinking tea with Becca over drinking ale with the other mercenaries. Soon she started loaning me books, which I didn’t have many of at the time.”

“Which is a surefire way to win your affection,” Ian added, trying not to chuckle.

“To be sure,” Bree agreed, laughing. “It was nice,” she admitted. “It was this pleasant, comfortable, almost sisterly friendship that I didn’t really get from drinking with any of the gals in the company. A… friendship like I hadn’t had since leaving Laura behind,” she added, regret forming on her face. “I suppose it was around three-and-a-half or four months seeing each other when I took her to the theatre with me. It was some silly tragedy play—a forbidden-love tale between an elf prince and a half-elf commoner.”

“The kind where half the characters end up dead by the end?” Ian asked.

She seemed to think about it for a moment. “Yeah, I would guess it to be around half,” she confirmed. “I wore my dress uniform, and Becca wore a dark blue dress with a black corset. She’s kind of tiny, even for a half-elf,” Bree added. “She’s not even as tall as my shoulders, and sitting at the theatre that night, we learned that we fit together really well with my arm around her and her head against my shoulder. I kept my arm around her as I walked her home. I… uh, I kissed Becca goodnight for the first time when we got to her house. And… we didn’t want to stop kissing,” she confessed, blushing. “I, ah, woke up in her bed the next morning. I suppose you could say our courtship began in earnest after that.”

That’s my girl, Ian grinned to himself. “How did you end up married?” he needed to know.

“I bought her a house,” Bree smiled nostalgically.

He raised his brows. “Really?”

She nodded. “One night, around a year after we’d first met, I asked Becca how she was getting along financially. She admitted that things weren’t good. Her landlord had raised their rent again, and her seamstress work wasn’t enough to support them without Orrin’s income. She’d gone through all of the money from Lady Theodora and from our cohort. And she’d gone through most of the money she and Orrin had been saving to pay for their daughters’ schooling once they got older—which I know broke her heart to do.”

Ian grimaced sympathetically as she spoke. In a smaller town or village, it was common for a community to work together to help support their disenfranchised. In a big city like Vestin, it was painfully easy for a destitute widow to slip between the cracks. “So you bought her a house?” he shook his head, grinning and proud of his daughter.

Bree laughed. “I did,” she smiled. “I had a lot of unspent pay still in the company treasury, and I volunteered for extra patrols and other duties for the next three weeks to save up even more. When I had close to enough, I withdrew most of it and borrowed a little more to buy a house that I’d seen for sale. It’s not much larger than her old house, but it’s in a better part of the city, not far from the theatre—where Becca later got a job as a seamstress.”

“And you proposed to her after that?”

“She proposed to me,” Bree clarified, laughing. “I told Becca what I’d done and showed her the house. She started weeping and wrapped her arms around me, tucked her head to my chest, and whispered ‘marry me.’ And eight months later when we could afford it again, we did exactly that. A lot of Becca’s family didn’t come—her mother didn’t really approve of her daughter marrying some peasant woman—Orrin was from yeoman stock, you see—and I wasn’t sure where I stood with my family to know if I should invite you. Which I’m still sorry for,” she added. “But the wedding was still nice; we had a few of her family and friends as well as some of my colleagues from the company. Her daughters both got to wear pretty dresses and participate in the ceremony. Though, they were both kind of young to remember.” She laughed again. “That was when they started calling me ‘Soldier Mom,’ come to think of it.”

Ian smiled despite the sudden, slightly uncomfortable realization that he’d had granddaughters this entire time without knowing. For Bree’s sake, he decided not to mention anything. “I hope I get to meet them,” he said instead.

“You will, Poppa,” Bree assured him, smiling with a tear on her cheek. “They’re staying with Laura’s family, but should be here tomorrow. I thought it would be good for them to get to know their aunt and cousins. I came early to make sure… make sure it was alright for us to see you.”

“It’s alright,” he assured her, feeling relieved at the purpose of his daughter’s visit—relieved that he hadn’t had to ask Jen to show their daughter the door. “I look forward to meeting them.”

“I’m glad,” Bree said, looking more relaxed at the sentiment. “I know this was a lot to take in, and I wasn’t sure how you’d handle everything. I just… I thought it best to make sure, you know.”

“You were doing reconnaissance,” Ian offered the analogy. “Makes sense: you’re a career military girl.”

Bree laughed again. “Yeah, good way to look at it.”

“Stay for supper?” he offered. “We can put you up for the night, too. And your family when they get here tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Poppa,” she said, kneeling beside the bed to give him a hug. She kept her arms around his shoulders to avoid his damaged ribs.

“Let your momma know. Your brothers will be back soon, and over supper you can tell us all war stories,” he suggested.

“I will,” she assured him. “Love you, Poppa,” she added as she stood to leave.

Ian smiled as he settled back in to his pillow, feeling a little better about the world in general.

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