Ten minutes before the expected arrival of the teams, August jogged out of the Tower’s entrance and onto the green expanse of the castle grounds; The emerald blades beneath his boots looked unnatural in color, too vibrant to be real. His eyes darted over the handful of men around him.
The other team leaders with their respected sponsors were paired off, already in deep conversations about the mission ahead. One man stood alone off to the side, arms crossed and looking thoroughly disappointed as August made his way over, assuming he had been waiting from him. With a brief handshake, the man introduced himself as Captain Crestwood and his sponsor for the mission. The name came as a shock to August since he had heard of it plenty of times before—from passing whispers in the hallways or during one of Ronan’s re-tellings of some great mission in recent history—but had yet to see the man in person.
Crestwood was a captain of a group of soldiers that had recently returned from a reconnaissance mission in the far north. He was known to lead the same soldiers on every mission, deeming anyone else unworthy of his attention. It came to no surprise to anyone though, since one look at his hand-selected team, and one could tell there were no other soldiers that stood in comparison. The man was so adamant on his decisions that when one member of his team died out on a mission, Crestwood refused to replace him. He claimed that no one could replace the lost soldier without ruining the team’s dynamic.
Even though the man standing in front of him was of great merit, August had almost hoped Captain Ravard would have been the one to sponsor his team—the man being the only captain who knew of what August was capable of. He even admitted to being a bit sadden from the absence of Ravard on the castle ground all together. Yet, he was well aware of Ravard’s opposition to the entire mission—arguing that it was as good as sending men out on a death sentence—which probably made the war council weary enough to refuse his admittance on this mission. Still, the appearance of Crestwood—a tall man in his late forties, with close cut blond hair peppered with white throughout, clear blue eyes constantly narrowed in a look of distrust, and with a scar running down his tanned cheek—standing on the grounds after the war council’s meeting was slightly reassuring, even if a bit intimidating.
“You’re late,” Captain Crestwood said, shaking August from his thoughts.
August tilted his head down. “My apologies.”
“There is no excuse,” Crestwood said, brushing August off like a pesky fly. “We have lost precious time. You will be meeting your team any moment now, and we’ve yet to thoroughly discussed your mission. I expect you to meet me in front of the war council tomorrow morning at the break of dawn so that we may correct the situation.”
“Now stand in attention and keep your mouth shut.”
August bristled at the sudden command.
He had no other choice but to stand there—Crestwood a stoic boulder beside him—while the other teams continued discussing around them him. August could not help but think the Captain Crestwood was regretting his decision in volunteering to sponsor a team for this mission. There was also the chance Crestwood was specifically assigned to August as further proof that the Prince did not want him coming back from this mission. By pairing him with a captain that cared of no one but his precious eight, the Prince had set August up for failure. If even that were the Prince’s intentions, August still did not plan on sticking around long enough to become an easy target for the magic-users.
Unfortunately, with Crestwood as a sponsor, he would no doubt be tagging along in the company’s ride out to Nourtris. With such observant eyes of a seasoned captain watching his every step, August’s escape would become that much more difficult. He would find a way around this snag though, for if his thoughts about the Prince’s disposition were correct, his life would very much depend on it.
Suddenly, there was a swift smack at August’s left shoulder that had him stumbling forward a step. Regaining his balance, he glared back at the captain, the only one standing beside him.
Crestwood was crossing his arms once more, as he said, “Keep your mind on the present, boy.” The captain motioned with a nod of his head toward the door of the Tower. The three others leaders with their sponsors stood in silence, backs straight and facing the Tower’s entrance.
A group congregated in front of the door, all soldiers of varying builds. August rolled his shoulders back and straightened the front of his jacket with a couple efficient tugs, stepping back in line beside Crestwood. His gaze roved over the large group, taking in the shifting feet, the impatient hand flutters, but also those who stood unmovable, stock straight in the stance of the perfect soldier. Then, near the back, he caught a glimpse of chestnut hair, and green eyes squinted against the bright sun, as Ronan stepped out of the Tower’s shadow and onto the emerald green lawn.
Silence fell as a heavy curtain, closing off all the thoughts in August’s head. The only thing left was shock, alone to muster up its cloud of worry. What was Ronan doing here? Was he part of the mission? His heart raced, the beat joining in this discordant orchestra.
No, Ronan could not be here. He did not want Ronan to be a part of his team, or even a part of this mission. It’s true, they have been training side-by-side for years, and have become acquaintances of sorts. They knew how each fought, where the weaknesses were in each other and how to cover them. They would work perfectly together, able to constantly watch each other’s backs. Unfortunately, there was one drawback to know each other so well, since they knew what movements to expect from each other, they knew each’s thoughts.
If Ronan were on August’s team, he very well might be able to sense August’s plan to run away. If he tried to desert the company and Ronan took notice, August knew he would not be able to convince him to desert as well. While Ronan might not have liked the Queen in the beginning and still liked to rumble a compliant from time to time, through his training, August noticed how committed Ronan was becoming to the Queen’s ideals. Even without truly know the other side, Ronan agreed with the Queen and her desire to rid the world of magic users, believing in their corruption on the world, just like many other soldiers who came to the same realization.
Even with them being close, there was the chance that Ronan could turn August in, giving him a one-way ticket to the gallows—with no honey-dipped words from the Prince to save him this time. August did not want to have to put that pressure on Ronan, to dare him to choose between friendship and his duty to the Crown. That kind of choice would crush someone like Ronan. It was better to escape unnoticed, to have a clean cut of ties. August had hurt enough people already by his connection to them, he would not do it again. No, he could not be on the same team as Ronan.
Trying with all his might, August shoved the shock of the situation back behind the curtain of silence. He forced all his attention on General Aldrich who stood in front of the group of awaiting soldiers.
General Graham Aldrich—the leading general of Her Majesty’s Royal Army—stood there, his calculating stare boring into each of the team leaders, with a respectable nod to each of the captains. He wore the navy blue of a general, the only distinguishing quality to his rank besides the gold and silver metals adorning the breast of his jacket. Every uniform of the Royal Army consisted of the same practical breeches, tunic, jerkin, and jacket—the varying colors being the only indication of rank amongst soldiers.
The dark blue of Aldrich’s uniform stood in contrast against his steel gray hair and eyes. His clean-shaven face only emphasized the strong, sharp jawline. Beads of sweat from the heat of the day were already glistening against his dark skin. Even August could feel a bead running down the side of his own face as he fought the urge to wipe it way.
Aldrich clapped his hands together, gathering the attention of any wandering eyes amongst the groups. “As instructed, this is the time when you will all be separated into your respected teams for this mission. You will be given the rest of the day to gather your things. Tomorrow morning, you will all convene down at the stables to receive your steeds. We will then ride out to the Wall’s gates. That is all you need to know for the time being.”
August cringed at the thought of having to parade through the city to reach the gates. His mind drifted to his family, his mother and his two younger brothers. The twins would be thirteen by now. Would he pass by them, their rags hanging loose on their bodies? Are they even still alive? Stop, he chided himself, beating down the negative voices. They were alive, that much was certain. They were also safe from conscription, that much he did know, from looking at the list of recruits in the main hall of the Tower every day.
Still, guilt rose like sour bile at the back of his throat. If he deserted the company outside the Wall, he would also be leaving his family. Sure, he had been away for six years, but he had always thought of finding a way back to them. With this new chance popping up—this chance to escape, for freedom—he had grown selfish. He shook his head. It had to be this way, though. He had been a weakness to anyone connected to him, they would be better off without him or at least until he was strong enough to return.
“Will the leaders of each group take a step forward,” Aldrich said, bringing August’s mind back to the task at hand.
He took his one step before turning his gaze back to the group in front of him. The more he looked though, he realized that the group was just a bit too small. Taking a moment to count heads, August found only twelve people when there was meant to be sixteen. Before he could think further on it, Aldrich began to speak again.
“Will the members of Gallow’s team please step forward and join your leader.” He swept his arm to indicate the man—whose red hair curled thickly over the tops of his ears—standing to the far right of August. Three soldiers August did not know stepped forward and joined Lieutenant Gallow.
“Now the members of Young’s team.” Aldrich moved his arm to the man directly to August’s right. Black swirls of ink stood out against his olive skin, with stubble covering the lower half of his round face. August watched as three more men move in the direction of the next lieutenant. Ronan still stood with the remaining soldiers.
Aldrich called out for the soldiers of the last two groups—August’s and Lieutenant Foreglade’s—to go forth and meet their leaders. August tracked the steps of each soldier. Their bodies seemed to move slow enough, August thought he could see the tracks they left in the air. One soldier moved faster than the rest though. It was Ronan, jogging enthusiastically in August’s direction. Without meaning to, August began to shake his head, hoping to stop Ronan as he moved toward August, begging him to turn around. Everything was coming down around him. This could not be happening. Still, Ronan continued to approach, with a wide grin on his face.
Numbly, August registered two other soldiers making their way over to him. They both introduced themselves to Ronan and Captain Crestwood—who just gave a curt nod, barely noting their presence. August thoughts continue to corrode in a massive turmoil. Why did Ronan not tell him sooner? Was there anything August could say to turn him away from this mission?