The horse’s powerful body shifted as the beast moved forward with the rest of the group. August adjusted himself on the leather saddle, twisting the reins in his gloved hands. Captain Crestwood rode on the horse in front of him, while the rest of his team were behind. The clopping of hooves against cobblestone and the occasional shouted order from Aldrich were the only sounds coming from the company as they made their way to the Wall’s gate.
As they rode past the Financial District and through the city, a few people stopped to watch them go by. Many, though, just lowered their heads and scurried out of the way, faces dirty, clothes ragged. As they reached the outskirts of the city, the tan stone buildings and cobbled streets gave way to a dirt path with fields of sparse grass on either side. A few trees were scattered here and there, but were so spread out and bare limbed that they could not be considered a wood. The company moved on, August looking at the browning grass, thinking back on the emerald blades of the castle’s grounds. The Queen sat on a throne, but it was a throne built by the bones of those suffering in the city.
“So, the Prince really hand-picked you to be the leader, huh?” Finn asked, bringing his horse up beside August. “What are you, close friends?”
“Far from it,” August said, turning away from the grass to look at Finn.
“Were you brought in with the draft?” His mind no doubt going to the likely possibility of forced conscription being the only reason August was there.
August shook his head. “I was a special case.”
“Rather not say, a bit too personal.” He had to keep his distance from these people. He could not allow himself to get attached. Keep ties loose and brittle, easy to break without having to deal with much loss in the long run.
Finn took the hint and moved his horse back behind him in line with the others. August looked forward. They were getting close to the Wall now, its gray stone looming in front of them. It soared into the sky, easily the tallest structure anywhere in not just the city but the country. The sun had not yet reached the middle of the sky, which caused a shadow to stretch out from the base of the Wall in their direction. Within moments, the company moved into the shadow, temperature dropping, as they continued toward the series of gates set into the Wall.
Soldiers marched by, running through daily patrols and exercises, while a handful peeled away from the gates to check the company’s papers. These soldiers wore gray uniforms with a red slash across their chests—unlike the company’s dark green to blend with the forest on the other side. The one nearest to Aldrich stepped forward, saluting the general, before reviewing the papers handed to him.
“General,” the solider said, nodding to the man. After counting the company, he stepped back, calling out orders to those manning the gate house. August just managed to glimpse a man lean forward and pull back on a lever.
A series of bells rang out, as a loud clank broke through the morning air, setting the gears of the gate in motion. The gate was made of a series of weights, gears, and pulleys intricately positioned. Each weight adjusted itself accordingly, pulling the iron gate up into a slit in the Wall. The company moved forward. As they passed under the gate, the Wall’s stone swept over their heads. August looked up at the wooden beams in the glow of lanterns strategically placed throughout. His heart had begun to race thinking of the heavy expanse of rock above his head.
“Don’t think on it too hard. It could very well drive a man insane,” Soren said from somewhere behind him.
August shuddered, but put his head down, urging the horse onward, with a white-knuckled grip on the reins.
Just when he thought he would be stuck under the Wall forever, the other end came into view. The soldiers on this side opened the second gate, stamped Aldrich’s papers, and let the company through. Sunlight washed over August, as he let out a breath, he had not realized he had been holding.
The company moved back into position. Carriages of supplies were waiting outside the Wall for them, taking up the rear. Once the line of soldiers on horseback and carriages of supplies were organized, Aldrich held up a hand, ordering a halt. August pulled gently back on the horse’s reins, the creature responding in kind.
“The next orders are quite simple. We will make our way to the front lines, about a day’s ride away. As the sun sets, we will make camp wherever we can. We will reach the front lines midday tomorrow, as along as everything goes according to plan. Now, let’s move forward. We have a long ride ahead of us.”
With that, Aldrich turned his horse back around and set the company in motion. The four captains that sponsored each team moved to the front to flank Aldrich. Finn and Cade moved to each side of August, while Soren and Ronan stayed behind. When August turned to check on the two behind him, he noticed Soren staring intently at Cade.
Eyebrows scrunched in confusion, August looked to the boy riding beside him, but Cade kept his eyes forward. August did take note of Cade’s knuckles—white from clutching the reins of the horse—and his tanned skin looking a bit paler in hue. It was a possible he was just not used to riding horseback, August reasoned. He sat back in his saddle, letting his mind drift back to his plans on what he was going to do when he made a run for it.
As the sun continued on its track across the sky, the heat strong on August’s back and neck, an eerie silence fell over the troop. A cliff of burnt sienna rock soared skyward on the right side of them, while the left side gave away to a slope bordering a winding river at the base of the valley. August checked his sides, Finn and Cade still riding close by. Surrounded by this many people, he knew there was no way he could escape, but there was a sudden feeling in the pit of his stomach warning him that now was the time.
His eyes darted to the captains in front with Aldrich. Each had a hand on their swords. As the troop rounded a bent in the road, Aldrich raised an arm in the air, closing his hand into a tight fist. A line of archers behind the general withdrew their bows from their backs, each silently notching an arrow and pulling the string taunt. At one slight movement from Aldrich, the archers took off up a small trail that cut into the cliff-side, putting them on higher ground. From August’s left, he watched Finn withdrew his own crossbow, and nudged his horse forward to follow the others. With the bow in his hands, a deathly calm seemed to fall over Finn—giving August a glimpse at the deathly soldier hiding beneath that easy smile—each of his minor movements suddenly given meaning.
Around August, all the soldiers began to withdraw their swords. Most did not know what was around the corner, but by the looks of it, they were going to have to fight their way out of this. August’s mind screamed at him to escape. Escape in the chaos of the battle. His eyes darted around once again. There was nowhere for him to go, unless there was enough of a clearing beyond that corner. There had to be. He withdrew his blade in one clean motion. At the general’s signal, each horse reared and charged forward around the corner.