Chapter 6: Episode 25- "Breakout"
“Cora… It’s been a while.” The voice from beyond the castle portcullis gate was harshly intoned, weathered and scratchy, bearing the marks of a warrior’s life: hard living conditions, yelling orders from the frontlines of the battlefield, the strain and stress of war had taken its toll on the female voice.
“Not too long to forget someone who fought along side me from Gora to Tribeth.” Cora replied, instantly recognizing her friend on the other side of the gate. “Are you coming in?” Cora inquired casually, but in a hushed tone to match that of her old friend.
The hood shifted a little as the head within turned side to side, looking out for watching eyes or listening ears. “It may not be safe for me to do that. The war may be over for you, but for a some of us it is still as alive as ever.” There was a sadness in the female voice from the dark side of the gate. Cora’s face was illuminated by the gloomy light of a flame from the iron torch in its mount near the gate. The torch was for the convenience of the gatemen but was useless for two reasons. The first being that the East gate of the fortress palace was never used as it led only to some mountain passes no army and few travelers could successfully traverse. Secondly because, due to the first reason, no guards were ever posted at the East gate and the iron torch had rusted to the iron mount in which it sat.
The light the torch cast off, as inconsistently as it flickered, brushstrokes Cora’s well-tanned complexion with light touches of orange periodically. Half of her face was visible part of the time in the evening dark. But no one who knew her could ever mistake her prominent features: strong chin, bold, straight nose, smooth jaw line and loose lips offsetting a pair of piercing eyes. Her face was almost a contradiction in itself, but it made her hard to read, an invaluable asset for a general. Cora looked at the cloaked figure with understanding. The war had not ended the way Cora… or any resistance members would have liked. The Imperials acknowledged the independence of their Southern State and even called for cessation of conflict, but at the horrible price of the Peace Terms.
The Peace Terms were a set of conditions under which the termination of hostilities would apply. The Rebellion Leader was to surrender his generals to the Imperial Dynasty, never to return to the Southern State, and in return he was granted the daughter of the Imperial Ruler’s hand in marriage. The Imperial Dynasty knew the Rebellion Leader would not refuse, there was a history between himself and the lady Helena. Darwin Eten, the highest ranking general in the Rebellion, and surrogate leader after the fall of the previous leader during the raid of Lumeria, had been raised in the household of the Imperial Ruler. He had always been in love with Helena since they both were children. It was an easy deal for Darwin to make, and so he sold out Cora, Kaydaren, Isidris, and the others: sold them down the river like they were nothing to him at all.
Cora had lived in this fortress, this prison palace ever since. Confined of her own free will within the walls of this mountain getaway, far away from the action of the battlefront she craved. Cora had never felt quite at home anywhere else, but since leaving this fortress was tantamount to inciting war, she had little choice. Even as much as she longed for the rush of battle again, she could not live with the blood on her hands from willfully and selfishly throwing the Northern and Southern fronts into conflict. There were occasional skirmishes and conflicts over the years, each of which had Cora itching to join the fight, but she was trapped.
“I hear you’ve settled down, general. You’ve got a little one of your own now, eh?” The hooded voice softened from the talk of war as if remembering what it was like to talk of everyday things between two friends. The hood shifted down, noting the handmade charm on the ribbon chain around Cora’s neck, a necklace made by her daughter. A smile concealed within the shadow of the hood split across a fair face of a middle-aged woman with white-gold hair, singed by a recent run-in with a fire mage. The hood was not for Cora’s benefit, she knew. The woman before her was a renowned spook, a witch and mage hunter, one who specialized in raid missions others refused. This woman’s head was in high demand in every corner of Kodia, particularly by the Imperial Dynasty as she made a point to choose her targets by their affiliation and importance to the old Dynasty.
“Indeed. Is that what you’ve heard? And where would you hear a thing like that?” Cora questioned, unsure how much the rest of the world knew about her life, and if she was actually cut off from the outside or merely living in a glass cage: her life on display for onlookers to view.
“Places. Local places. Where the palace guards like to frequent for an ale or two every late night during their shift change.” The woman said, implying that it was not public knowledge, but she actually had to work a bit of her skills to obtain information of the kind.
“You really are good at what you do, Venatrix.” Cora smirked, remembering the old days, back when the war was all that they lived for. Venatrix and herself fighting side by side in the middle of scores of Imperial Soldiers.
“Well, I had to find you. If I pick up a few facts about an old friend along the way, well that’s just extra.” Venatrix chuckled lightly, a strand of her white-gold slipping outside of the hood for a moment before a cloaked hand whisked it back inside. Her distinctively colored hair was a dead give away to her identity. Just being here in a mysterious cloak was risky enough, Cora would be surprised if it was anyone else, but Vena was the best at what she did: which was the only reason she was alive today, and consequently, the reason Cora was alive also.
“Yes, I have a little girl. Her name is Kaylie.” Cora breathed out. “She is my one good thing left to live for in this world.” Sadness played in Cora’s voice as it broke across her face. She felt trapped and hated her life. She’d contemplated ending it, even as recently as when she had stood on the patio not a few hours ago. But Kaylie kept her breathing and hope and praying for an escape from this torturous life of being caged like a beast. Cora was a bird with a broken wing who could only envy other birds flying overhead.
“And the father…” Venatrix paused, wondering if Cora could or would respond to this assumption they both knew was the truth.
“…we all fight our own wars, Vena.” Cora’s voice grew dark, she lost the feeling in herself. “When they locked me in here, a part of me died and I just didn’t care anymore… about anything.”
Venatrix nodded from within the hood. She fully understood the situation. Some turned to drinking after the war and wasted their lives away looking for a way to forget the horrors of war, or for some, the horrors of life without war. Venatrix had thrown her passion into her trade and hunted down the Imperial mages that had wrecked such havoc during the war against the innocent common folk of the land, often simply to incite anger in the rebels and force them into conflict. The Imperial’s were rational but never humane, calculated but entirely insane. When it came to the lives of the people or the risk of losing their position of power and comfort, the Imperial Dynasty chose to sacrifice the people every time.
“Why did you come here, V?” Cora asked the question that had been present in her mind since the very moment she recognized who the hooded figure at the gate was. It was a valid question. Why was one the most, if not the very most, wanted member of the Rebellion, the most easily recognizable, and branded individual in Kodia showing up to an Imperial palace in a village favorable to the Imperial Dynasty; within earshot of the very people who wanted to removed her head from her shoulders, and a stone’s throw from the very place where the head removing would take place: Jong Kabur? Why was Venatrix here?
“What do you mean, ‘why am I here’? I’m here for you, Cora.” Venatrix tone increased, but was still hushed so as to not be heard by others nearby should anyone by awake and about within the fortress. “Unless there’s another general within the confines of this infernal Imperial prison that led the Resistance to victory over the Imperial dogs on more than twelve separate missions, the only general who’s name Ferron Errocath still fears to this day, the one general in all of great war who has never had one, not one failed mission. Is anyone else matching that description back there somewhere?” Venatrix scoffed a bit at the silence which ensued for several seconds as Cora tried to understand her purpose in coming. “I thought not. Cora, the new resistance needs you now.”
Cora took a step back impulsively at the offer. As tempting as it was to jump at such a thought of freedom, the chance to get out of these walls and running free with the wind in her hair and a sword in her hand, she had more than herself to consider. The were thousands of innocent villagers and soldiers from both sides of the battle lines whose lives would be in the balance of such a choice and whose blood would be upon her head. Besides that, there was Kaylie, her one good thing in the world, she would not wish that life on her daughter or risk her future on a war gamble that Cora’s side would win.
“No. No! I will not risk war for some delusions of vengeance against the Imperials.” Cora was actually taken aback that this was the reason for Venatrix, though she really hadn’t known what she expected to come from Venatrix’s presence here. The hooded figure shook her head and reached within her cloak to retrieve a sword, Cora’s sword: Gladwell. Many battles had been won by the efforts of this shining blade.
Venatrix offered the sheath bearing Cora’s beloved sword to its master through the bars of the portcullis. “War is already upon us. We have no need to risk inciting it for it has come back with a fury to pay us all tenfold for our part in the death and the carnage. War is owed your life and your blood, Cora Savoor. You cannot escape it.”
“What do you mean?” Cora asked cautiously, looking up from the sword in her grasp. She loved the feel of the handle in her grip again, it was normal, meant to be. “There is peace between the kingdoms so long as the Peace Terms are kept… have they been broken?”
“Worse. The Imperial Ruler is dead.” Venatrix’s hooded head lifted somewhat, it once again scanned around for any spies or onlookers. The night was dead and the silence might betray there conversation to a guard or palace resident within earshot in a room or an echoey hall. Cora was shocked, too stunned to speak. “He was slain by an assassin, some say that he was possessed of a demon. The entire court was slain by this assassin, he has usurped the throne and has declared was or the Southern State. Elias sent me to find you.”
“If this is true… then the Peace Terms are void, and there is no reason to remain here.” Cora was still slowly catching all the implications of this news.
“Forget the Peace Terms. There is a usurper marching the Imperial Dynasty into the Southern State as we speak. War is upon us, Cora. There are no more Peace Terms. There is no more peace!” Venatrix raised her voice a fraction but still kept it in check so as to not alert unwanted attention. The woman was paranoid but not without good cause. Such news could be dangerous to Cora. Not only was she free to leave the Northern Kingdom, but she was now far more valuable to the Imperial Dynasty than she even was before.
Cora was suddenly a leverage play and an asset of intelligence about the tactics and strategy of the Rebellion. This changed everything. Suddenly there were far more important things than suicide and tea parties. The world needed Cora Savoor one more time: the Rebellion called her back; war called her back. It was time to break out of this prison and live again.
“This changes… everything.” Cora said, dumbfounded.
“Yeah.” Venatrix just nodded knowingly. Once again they would find themselves fighting along side each other in a conflict for freedom against oppression, opposing those who abuse their power for their own gain. “You’re not safe here anymore, general. It’s time to come home, back to your family.”
“Family…” Suddenly it dawned on Cora, “not safe…” her eyes shot wide, “Kaylie!” Cora immediately turned and ran back the way she came, leaving Venatrix outside the gate to slink back into the shadows and disappear: her mission accomplished. Cora prayed with everything inside of her that Kaylie was still safe in her room. They needed to run away. It was finally time.