August grew up having a neutral opinion of magic. He had not seen it much himself and therefore did not know how to judge it. In actuality, he was not even aware of its existence until attending his first military training as a cadet; It was also where he had finally gotten the full detailed account of the war between Segrelia and Medra, since any specific details were brushed thoroughly under the rug. In the military though, the mantra of: “Cursed magic. Cut. Maim. Bleed. Kill,” was drilled into his brain day after day.
After a while in his mind, a dark shadow seeped into his view of magic, but did not justify a war against it. He trained out of necessity. He could not give the captains any reason that could send him to the gallows. It was why he always tried to stay separate from everyone, to not create any unneeded connection. Stay alone, stay focused. Stay in the middle of the pack. But the Prince had not forgotten him. The Prince had chosen him to go on this mission. Even if he disagreed with everything being done, he had to stay alive, to make it back to his family. That was until the thoughts of escape plagued his mind.
After choking down a piece of chicken and a few mouthfuls of chopped carrots, August stood, excused himself, and left the tent. A few soldiers had dragged logs out to surround a larger campfire in the center of the camp—all staring at the flames in silence, passing a bottle with amber liquid sloshing inside. One loudly spoke out, offering August the bottle, but he waved the man off, moving toward the training dummies set up on the edge of the forest. Although the sun was setting, the scattered fires gave off enough light to see by. Unsheathing his sword, August calmed his breathing. Focus.
A deep breath in. A flash of metal. A thud of the sword hitting wood. Breathe. Another swing. A flash of blue eyes. A small girl standing in front of him. The sword cutting deep into her thin arm. August shook his head. The girl disappeared. Focus. A low swipe of the sword. Long blond hair, the same color as his own. His mother stood in front of him. The sword swung low, slicing through her leg. August blinked. His mother disappeared. He took a step back, breath ragged, bile rising in the back of his throat. He slapped himself across the face, rolled his shoulders back, and centered his feet once more. This time, as he looked up, the Queen was staring at him. Her pale blond hair piled high on her head, icy blue eyes narrowed in disgust. August swung his sword. The diamonds hanging around her neck fell, as a red line blossomed on her pale skin. Blood stained her blue corset purple. She slumped forward, the life draining from her eyes.
“You have some anger issues, huh?” August whipped around at the noise, quickly finding his sword pointing at Ronan’s throat. Ronan raised his hands, eyes wide. “Hang on there, I’m only kidding.”
Deep breaths raged through August’s lungs, as he lowered his sword.
“I’m sorry,” he said, turning back around. The Queen was gone, in her place was a headless dummy. His eyes drifted to the woods in front of him, the trees doused in shadows. A pale moon hung above the tree line, lighting a pathway through the undergrowth. He looked back at Ronan, concern still etched across his face. August sheathed his sword.
“Why are you here, Ronan?”
“What do you mean? I’m here to check up on you.” Ronan stepped forward, slipping his hands in his pockets. “Look, I know you’re the brooding type, but this time it seems different. What’s been going on with you?”
August looked down, focusing on the dirt dusting his boots. “Why did you agree to this mission?” he asked, voice quiet.
“I agreed because that’s what we are here for. Why are you being like this all of the sudden? Was this what you wanted to talk about before we left? Do you not want me here?”
“No, Ronan!” August yelled. A few soldiers still by the fire glanced their way, but quickly lost interest. He lowered his voice once more. “You weren’t supposed to be here. You were supposed to stay back in Varis. Where you would be—”
“Bored? Disappointed in myself? Feeling unworthy?” Ronan interrupted.
“You know that wouldn’t be true. You aren’t safe in the Queen’s Army. Plus, we’re soldiers, I was bound to receive a mission at some point.” Ronan paused and looked at August, squinting his eyes. “Is this some egotistical thing? Are you afraid I’m here to steal your glory?”
August threw his arms up in exasperation. “Do you not understand what I’m saying? They picked an inexperienced soldier as the leader of a team for such a high-risked mission. They don’t expect me to succeed, Ronan. This is just an easy cover up. I’m not supposed to return from this.”
“Why wouldn’t they want you to return?”
“Because, I’m nothing but a traitor to the crown. I never wanted to be a part of the army, but it was either that or the gallows.”
“So,” Ronan paused, searching for the right words, “why did you accept this mission, then? Even though you knew it was just going to be a death sentence.” There was a moment of silence between the two; August not knowing how to explain and Ronan unable to read the emotions flashing through August’s eyes. August looked back to the forest, the leaves rustling in a night breeze, beckoning him to run. When he turned back around to speak, he noticed that Ronan’s glaze had followed his.
“You were going to run away,” Ronan said. August nodded. “You’re just going to abandon this team?”
“I never planned for you to be here.”
“But what about the rest of them still back in that tent?” Ronan said, voice heated. “You would really just drop everything and run? You said it yourself, this is a death mission, you would let them continue, with one less soldier?! As a team there’s still a chance we could make it through, but you’re just giving up?”
“I never asked for this!” August yelled back, matching Ronan’s tone. “I never wanted it to come down to this. None of this was supposed to mean anything to me. None of you were meant to mean anything to me.” August paused, his breathing erratic spurts, punching its way out of his lungs.
Ronan took a step back and tilted his chin toward the woods. “So, go.”
He shook his head. “No more excuses, August. You made it clear where you stand. Go. You wanted to cut ties, so do it.”
August took a moment, staring at his only friend. The only one he let come close. There was a chance that he would not have survived the battle today. Even though they had won, they still lost five soldiers—five bodies draped in white, void of life. Ronan could have been one of those bodies. August’s hands started to shake as a lump clogged his throat. Ronan could have been one of those bodies. He saw the glare in his friend’s eyes, knowing he was holding back, knowing that he was trying to understand, but also realizing there was nothing more to be said.
He thought of the rest of his team, as he heard the soft echoes of laughter filtering out from their tent. His heart gave a lurch at the thought of one of them being killed. They might have only had a small amount of time with each other, but ties linking them had appeared without his knowing. They were counting on him to be a leader. If he walked away now, he would just be accepting his role as the weak link, the one that tore everything apart. No, a defiant voice rose in his head—one he had not heard in a while.
He was not the one that took his father away, he was not the one to darken Ronan’s mind, and he was not the one that sentenced children to be experiments. Everything went back to the Queen—everything always did. She was the one to blame, she was the poison. If he ran, it would not solve anything. He would not find some miraculous cure, would not find the antidote to this problem. His family, friends, and anything else he cared about would still be trapped under her rule, while he was off on a fool’s mission.
As his old hatred grew tenfold, thoughts of escape started to flutter away. A deserted plan, but not a missed opportunity. He would not fail; he would not back down.
“Ronan?” August walked up to his friend and clapped a hand down on his shoulder. “I’m not going anywhere.”