From his vantage point, August could see a camp site spread out in front of them. Five large canvas tents were circling a large fire encased by a twisted metal grill. A coop of chickens were pinned off to the side, each of them fluttering in the presence of the company. August watched as a line of men, two-men-deep, approached the company with their arms raised. But this was not a surrender. August felt as if the energy from the world around him was being leached away and condensed in front of the men. Magicians.
“Archers!” Aldrich yelled. August heard the faint breath of release as a cloud of arrows fell upon the people. Before the arrows could strike, five magicians broke from the group and turned toward the incoming cloud. Within two feet of the men, the arrows were suddenly diverted, as if swatted away by a large hand, or a gust of wind. The five magicians made another move, sending a force of wind cutting over the overhang, pushing the archers back.
“Charge!” Aldrich commanded. The men around August gave a war cry and charged forward. He hesitated, as he noticed the thick woods on the back side of the camp. If he made it in there, no one would ever be able to find him. Plus, everyone was now distracted in battle, they would not notice if one man went missing. His horse shifted beneath August, eager to join in the onslaught.
The Queen’s men had reached the magicians, forcing some of the men to lower their hands and draw swords in such close combat. The clash of metal rang out, but it was the plumes of fire and spouts of water coming from the magicians that pushed the men back. The only ones who seemed to be able to hold their ground were the four Immunes of the Royal Legion. Whenever the fire or water would come at them, some invisible shield would appear, diverting the magic.
“Blackwell!” Finn screamed back at August, as he rushed down the hill with the rest of the archers. They had put away their bows in exchange for swords. They galloped past August, joining the rest of the men. Finn pulled his horse up short, beside August. “Now’s not the time to freeze up.”
He slapped August on the shoulder before riding forward into the fray. Finn misunderstood August’s hesitation, but did get one thing right. He could not freeze, he had to act, since there was no way he was going to be able to reach the woods with a group of magicians in the way. August adjusted his sword, before giving his horse a swift kick. The horse exploded in a burst of speed, sending him into the middle of battle.
Even though the other men of the company had initial problems, they were finally making ground. For having such power at their disposal, the magicians seemed to be holding back, whether by choice or not, but that restraint gifted an opening for the Queen’s army to charge through.
August could see the captains charging forward, with the other men, while General Aldrich held back. He would fight if any broke through the lines, but for the most part he stood back from the fighting. As a general to the entire Royal Army, his life was more important than the rest of them. At the same time, August felt a bitterness bubble up in him. They had to protect the life of a general while their lives were expendable.
A flash of metal brought August back to the present, as a sword slashed at his horse’s leg. The horse stumbled, throwing August from its back. He hit the ground hard, the air gone from his lungs. While gasping to restart his lungs, a wave of vertigo hit as he tried to stand. Clenching through the pain, August got to his feet, the world continuing to spin.
The magician who had attacked his horse, now came charging at him. August tried to regain his balance, while swinging his sword in a large arch. The man lunged back, just beyond the blade’s reach, before darting back through August’s defense. He could not move in time, as the magician’s sword came down in a deathly slash.
There was a clash of metal against metal as August watched Cade force the man back, before tossing the blade in his hand in favor of twin daggers. Quicker than both August and the magician could track, Cade dashed forward and swept a blade across the man’s neck. Blood spurted out as the man collapsed to the ground. Cade whipped around, searching August for an injury. August waved him away, as the world finally stopped spinning. With a swift nod, Cade disappeared into the chaos once more.
August tried to locate his horse among the fray, but knew it was a lost cause. There was no way he would be able to escape fast enough now without being noticed and tracked down. They would probably shoot him before he even reached the tree line. August huffed and turned back to the battle.
The Queen’s army had gained the upper hand. Bodies of dead magicians covered the ground, pools of blood spreading out and soaking the grass. The few of them left were slowly being surrounded, herded in like cattle. They continued to attack, but with each strike from a magician, another body dropped under a soldier’s blade. Only two men were left standing. That was when it happened.
One man turned and whispered something to the other. The other man nodded once, closing his eyes and turning away in regret. In a flash of blinding light, the second man disappeared. A hawk darted up into the sky and soared east.
“Archers take aim!” Aldrich yelled, but it was too late. By the time the archers drew their bows, the hawk was out of range. With a shout of rage, Aldrich pushed past the men surrounding the last magician and ran his sword through the man’s chest. Coughing up a mouthful of blood, the man’s body slumped forward on the blade. August swore he saw a look of victory flash across the man’s face before the life left his eyes. Aldrich withdrew his sword and kicked the body away. As it hit the ground, a strange silence fell over the group. It was then that a scream came from one of the tents.
Everyone turned as one, to see a small girl, with her hand now over her mouth and tears streaming down her face. An arm lashed out from the tent behind her, dragging her back inside. Aldrich pointed his bloody sword at the tent. Without a word, the captains detached themselves from the group and made their way to the tent.
Five children were dragged into the clearing, in front of the still roaring fire at the middle of the camp. They were all wrapped in patched clothes much too big for their slim frames. The captains threw them down in front of the fire, pointing their swords at the children as they huddled together. The girl that had screamed was dragged further out by Crestwood, until she was in front of Aldrich. As Crestwood stepped away, Aldrich bent before the girl. She stayed still and silent, but her wide eyes taking in the scene and the tears still running down her face spoke to how terrified she was. Aldrich withdrew a dagger from his waist and placed it calmly under the girl’s chin.
August could see the girl’s lip begin to trembled. He clenched his fist at his side. This did not seem right. The magician’s might be their target in the war, but they said nothing about killing children. Especially those clearly starving and full of fright.
Memories of his own childhood flashed through his mind: running from the guards when the sun set, shaking from undernourishment and the fear of being caught, and having to calm his brothers as tears ran down their cheeks—their frail bodies trembling from the nightmare that was their reality. No child should have to live and die like this, with pure terror in their eyes.
Most of the children huddled in front of them looked to be around the same age as his brothers, and had the same look as the twins on their faces when August told them their father was not coming back. It was what drove him to join the raids. What would their faces look like it they knew about his plans to run away? He shook his head, trying to rid himself of the image. He could not allow himself to think like that. They would be much better off without him.
Even if he could not let himself dwell on his family, he could at least try to help these children. He took a step forward, but before he could move more, four large bodies shoved through the crowd. The four members of the Royal Legion approached Aldrich. One shoved the general away with one arm, while plunking the sword from the general’s grip with his other hand. Two others went to block the captains from the rest of the children. August watched as Soren bent to the girl and lifted her up in his giant arms.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Aldrich spat, spittle flying from his mouth in rage.
“You will not kill innocent children,” Soren said, deep voice reverberating like an earthquake across the ground.
“You were ordered to kill magic users, Immunes,” Aldrich stated, their title dripping like acid from his mouth. He stepped forward, shaking his finger in their direction. “You are not allowed to go against direct orders from the Queen.”
The Immune who disarmed Aldrich nodded. “You are right, we cannot and have not gone against direct orders. We were commanded to kill anyone using magic against us. These children have not. They are too young to even know how to use it.”
“These children are to be spared,” Soren added.
Aldrich was red in the face. “You will not command me.”
Although Aldrich might pretend to hold power over these men, he had no direct say. Plus, if it came down to a fight, the Immunes could easily end them all. August could see the general figuring this out for himself, as his mind scrambled through what to do next. Aldrich’s gaze moved between the children and the four Immunes towering over him.
The general put his hands out in front of him. His face was wiped clean off all emotion. A calm smile began to spread across his face as he said, “Fine. We shall spare the children. I will even have one of the supply wagons escort them back to Varis. The Queen will no doubt be pleased with new subjects for the doctors.”
Soren and the rest of the Immunes stood there, saying nothing, a look of defeat across their faces. August could not understand. They wanted to save these children, yet did not speak out against the implication of them being experimented on. Why are they not moving against the general? Why have they stopped fighting? This also brought forth the question of what experiments the Queen was performing and for what purpose. How has he not noticed this before? And that was when it hit him. The fifth Tower, the one place August had yet to get into or even gather any information on. He looked back at the Immunes, eyes wide. In fighting back against the general, these Immunes had worsened the fate of these children.
August watched on in horror, as Soren approached Aldrich with the girl still in his arms. His jaw was clenched, while his eyes bored daggers at the general, but still he bent forward and place the girl down in front of him.
Just as Aldrich reached for the girl, a yell called out. An older boy from the group was charging at them, a jagged piece of rock clutched in his hand. He managed to get within a foot of Aldrich, before the general swatted the rock away. His hand swung back and grabbed the boy’s face, his grip tight under the boy’s chin.
“You will be the first,” Aldrich spat at the boy. The general stood and commanded a few men forward to bind the children’s hands, gag their mouths, and bring them to the supply carriage at the back of the line. He commanded the driver to turn back and head straight to Varis, sending a few archers along as well.
August watched all this, feet frozen to the ground. The carriage disappeared back around the corner. The tents around the camp were set aflame. The chickens were killed and plucked. Any weapons were scavenged from the fallen bodies. The four Immunes moved along somberly, yet stayed silent. Finn led one of the spare horses over to him. August climbed up on the saddle, turning away from the woods and following the troop onward, as the faces of those helpless children swam through his mind.