She saw the smoke before she saw the city. A black veil rising above the sea and sky at the horizon. Chester had promised her the city would burn. Tay, the city-state to the north would have seen it too and sent reinforcements by now. That meant more soldiers heading into the city, more opportunistic thieves and looters. And, if what she had been told about the breadth of the rebellion was right, it meant more potential sympathisers for the monarchist cause. Many people would have fled their homes since last night, but some would have stayed. Some always do. No matter how bad things get some people refuse to leave their home. Bronwyn could never tell if they were the bravest or the most foolish. But here she was, rushing into to battle she was ill-equipped to handle. Brave or foolish? Monarch or Mage? The answers were almost upon her.
By the time Bronwyn reached the westway a steady stream of people were heading away from the city. Some pushed on toward the forest, or turned south away from the fighting. Others were already making camp in the fields by the side of the road. They wanted to be far enough away from the city to feel safe, but close enough to see what was happening, and probably to be the first to return.
She stayed to the edge of the road at first but as she came closer the crowds became heavier and she forded the crowds on horseback.
A last rush of citizens overwhelmed the weak guard at the gate, a remnant of the fighting force that Donovan had predicted would be further in the city. The attack was from within, not without, so the guard at the perimeter would be weak. Bronwyn gave up silent thanks for the wisdom of an old knight, abandoned her horse and took advantage of the confusion to slip inside the gate.
She ran hard down the nearest alleyway, turned and ran and turned again and rested. She was in. Now she had to get through the city to the tower on the cliff before it got too dark.
Bronwyn picked her streets carefully, choosing a route that avoided the main roads through the city (for they would be heavily patrolled) and avoiding the wealthy districts (where there would be looting).
She headed south along a side-street and ducked back when a patrol marched past followed by a Mage on horseback. Most of the soldiers were city guard from Lorin or Tay, but they were accompanied by two heavily armed soldiers of the Elemental Legion. The Mages personal army established to replace the White Lions.
They were forming a perimeter, and Bronwyn realised she was the wrong side of it.
She turned and ran back up the side-street in an effort to dodge past them before they planted their immovable feet in her way. Two more city guard were ahead of her already, arms held over their eyes they leaned into a sudden wind which gusted powerfully and drove stinging dirt and sand into their eyes.
The the wind dropped and the rebels attacked.
Two jumped through the windows of a house next to the street with a shout. Another leapt, screaming, from the roof swinging his axe in a vicious arc. The guards fell, and the rebels ran into Bronwyn’s side-street. When they saw Bronwyn they raised their weapons again until they heard a voice commanding them to be lowered.
A voice Bronwyn recognised.
“Bronwyn? What are you doing here? When they brought Morrigan back I feared something terrible had happened to you!”
“It did. What’s happened here?”
Chester signalled the rebel fighters to keep watch and took Bronwyn by the arm and pulled her into a doorway.
“Just what we expected. Morrigan has been taken to the tower for interrogation. The guards and legion are defending it and we haven’t been able to get close enough to challenge them. The smaller their circle the harder they are to beat. Why did you come back? Have you changed your mind?”
She shook his hand off her arm. “Everyone wants to change it for me.”
“You need to pick a side, Bronwyn.”
“Do I? What if I’m here on the side of the Mages?”
The rebels stiffened at this comment, but Chester shook his head and took her arm again.
“You’re not. You’re not stupid, Bronwyn.”
“Don’t tell me what I am or what I’m not!” She pulled her arm free again and shoved him away. “I’m here because I want to find out for myself. I know everyone can’t be right, but it means everyone can’t be wrong too.”
“What are you going to do? Ask Sallus to explain himself?”
“That’s exactly what I’m going to do. And you’re going to help me.”
“Help you? Against Sallus? We have to free Morrigan and escape. It’s too dangerous to challenge him.
“That’s why I’m not going it alone. You’re my counsel, correct? So you have an obligation to represent me as I face my accuser.”
“This is hardly like going before a tribunal.”
“It’s exactly like that. There will be questions and cross-examinations and a witness, a Guardian of the Peace: You.”
“Bronwyn, don’t be stupid! Can’t you see what’s going on?
“Can’t you? Soldiers walk the streets and monarchists fight Mage loyalists and you think this is the time to abandon the law? Am I the only Mage around here doing my job?! This is when we need it most. If you turn your back now on what is legal then you sully any claim you have to be doing the right thing. Sallus might be guilty. The Mages might be wrong. But murder will not put you on the right side of history, just the winning side. Now are you coming or not?”
The rebel soldiers looked at one another and then at Chester to await his answer.
“Fine,” he said. “We’ll go and find Sallus and have a nice conversation. I’m sure that will end well for all of us.”
“Good,” said Bronwyn, and resumed her journey to the tower. “Now stop being so sarcastic.”
Chester signalled the fighters and they crept through the alleyways of the city behind Bronwyn.
“Where are you going?” Chester asked after they had made several turns away from the main streets but were no closer to the tower.
The quintet huddled together in the burned out remains of a lean-to in the residential quarter. The looting and arson had been worst here as evidenced by the blackened timber frames that were all that was left standing of a house across the street.
“We need to circle around the tower. Remember the side entrance to the cells where we met? They won’t be as heavily guarded, but there must be a way to get into the tower from underneath.”
“How did you come up with a plan like that?”
“I didn’t, now shush. I hear something.”
They all ducked down as mounted guards thundered past heading in the direction of the square where the main roads from the residential quarter intersected the trades. A second group charged past seconds later.
“What do you think that’s about?” said Bronwyn.
“Doesn’t matter. We need to get to Morrigan,” said Chester. He rose to his feet. The three armed men rose with him.
Bronwyn rose too but her gaze followed the horses. “Someone’s going to get hurt.”
“Yes, us if we don’t get moving. Come on.” He grabbed her by the arm and made to pull her from their hiding place but she snatched her arm free.
“We need to go to the square. Someone might need our help.”
“They will have to take care of themselves. Let’s go.”
“That’s it, isn’t it? That’s why everyone hates us, because Mages like you won’t get your hands dirty. You’ll risk your lives for your own gain, to take power or keep it, but if someone else’s life is at risk you won’t step in.”
“We don’t have time,” he urged.
“If you don’t have time to give help where it’s needed then what are you using your time for?” Bronwyn squeezed past the fighters and started to run after the horses.
“Bronwyn! What are you doing!?”
“Guarding the peace.”
Bronwyn hugged the side of a bakery as she got closer to the square, and from here she could hear the fighting. When she crept to the corner of the building she could see it. Spears and other pole-arms were keeping the city guard a safe distance from the fortifications but the city soldiers had dismounted to climb over barricades of sacks and barrels erected by the rebels on two sides of the square, and now steel sang against steel and thudded against leather and wood as monarchists danced with the guards.
Bronwyn ran back up the street and around the bakery to approach the square from another side. She couldn’t just run in unarmed and join the fighting, but the defenders had lit fires on every corner to warm themselves. She just needed to get closer.
Bronwyn ignored the residual smell of the bakery. It had not baked anything for two days and bags of flour sat unused inside the open door. One lone rat scuttled along the wall of the building and darted inside.
She peeked around the next corner. The fighting was all contained within the barricade now. Bronwyn sprinted to the far end, crouched behind a barrel studded with nails and watched for her moment.
She had expected to see the city guard fight with more discipline and skill than the monarchists, but the defenders matched them blow for blow. Trained soldiers fought on both sides, brothers-in-arms driven apart by the ideology of their leaders. But the defenders were outnumbered and may have been here for some time. Disciplined they may be, but they were tired, and the city guard began to push them back.
Bronwyn reached out with her mind for the burning torch nearby and prepared herself. Donovan had said to focus any attack on the leaders. She identified the leader of this group by the ribbons pinned to his left shoulder. None of the other soldiers had that. He must be the man in charge.
She focussed her will and drew the flames from the torch to her hand.
Then the soldier fell to the ground, with an arrow buried deep in one eye.
The flames dissipated. Bronwyn searched for the archer beyond the barricade. There, on the roof was a figure. They drew back one arm and a half-second later another soldier fell, shot through the neck. The city guard stepped back, confused and leaderless. But before the monarchists could regroup and attack another man climbed to the top of barricade on the far side of the square.
He held aloft his broad white blade and roared.
A wave of fighters surged over the barricades behind him and swept through the city guard contained within the square. As soon as the last enemy fell Donovan bellowed an order. Half of his small army split into pairs and scrubbed the alleyways clean of soldiers while the rest immediately set about securing the square and reinforcing the barricade.
Bronwyn turned at the sound of footsteps rushing up behind her and feared she would be taken for an enemy mage. Instead of Donovan’s soldiers she saw Chester and his men.
“You ran. We had to.” Chester looked on the scene behind her and his eyes grew wide. “Is that…?”
“I thought he was dead!”
“He doesn’t look like anything could kill him, but I’m going to do my best. Come on, I’ll introduce you first.”
Bronwyn stepped out of the shadows and climbed slowly over the barricade, shouting for Donovan.
Chester looked on in awe. “Wait, you know him?” He blinked as the rest of Bronwyn’s words arrived in his brain. “Wait, you want to kill him?” He scrambled over the barricade too, fell off the other side and got up in time to see Bronwyn march up the knight twice her size and began verbally assaulting him.
“You left me behind! You ran away while I was asleep, like a coward!”
“Aye, that we did, little Mage, but I am no coward. Cautious, yes. We decided you could not be trusted after all.”
“What? You decided..? I didn’t know if I could trust you! You’re the one who abandoned your men.”
“A fact I live with every single day, Mage. Now will make it right. But you will not question my loyalty again.”
“I have no need to question your loyalty any more. I found your letters. I know few men who would have held to their oath like you did.”
Bronwyn braced herself for something, an angry retort or stinging rebuke for reading his private letters, but Donovan only said one thing as he turned his attention away from her and back to his men. “You are only supposed to deliver the mail, Mage.”
“What was that about?” Chester whispered in her ear. She jumped.
“Don’t creep up on me like that! It was nothing.”
“Didn’t sound like nothing. It sounded like-“
“What?” she snapped.
“Like something. What letters were you two talking about?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Bronwyn, you shouldn’t be keeping secrets from us. Not now!”
“I thought you city Mages loved your secrets. If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Donovan bellowed commands before Chester could reply. His voice deafened anyone near him as he shouted instructions. In groups of five the fighters broke away from the barricaded square and melted into the shadows of the city. Soon only a handful of men were left with Donovan in the centre of the square. Bronwyn, Chester and their three companions waited in one corner and wondered what plan was playing out before them.
Donovan pointed one gauntleted finger at them. “You. Mages. Come here.”
“Is he giving the orders now?” Chester asked Bronwyn as they obeyed.
“As far as everyone else here is concerned, yes he is.”
They stopped and Donovan turned and looked down at them.
“Has the plan changed?” Bronwyn said.
“Aye. A little. We found more help than expected. I’ve sent them out to poke at the legionnaires wall around the tower. Maybe we can pry something loose.”
“What can we do?”
“When we breach the tower we will need your help against the Mages inside. Until then stay here while we secure our own perimeter. This city could be ours by nightfall.” He barked an order to the remaining soldiers, “With me!” and marched down a side-street.
Leaving the Mages and their three fighters alone in the empty square.
“Ok, now what?” said Chester.
“Now we go. I’m not waiting here.”
“But Donovan said-“
“Donovan gave orders to soldiers, and I am no soldier. Come on.” Bronwyn hopped up on some steps made from sacks of flour from the bakery next door and made to jump down the other side. Instead she stopped at the top.
“More soldiers. Not ours.”
“City guard?” Chester scrambled inelegantly up the makeshift wall to join her. He saw what she saw. “Oh no.”
“There’s only four of them,” she said. Her words were hopeful. Her tone was not.
“We have to run,” said Chester.”
“We hold the defenses.”
“It won’t matter. Not against legionnaires.”
“It’s five against four, and we have the barricade.”
“Ten to one and we might have a chance. We’re not Battlemages, Bronwyn. And these men aren’t White Lions.”
“So you want to run? We have to hold this ground.”
“I want to live! They are Elemental Legion.”
“And we are Mages, Chester. The elements obey us!”
Chester tugged at her sleeve and pulled her back into the relative safety of the square. “I can make us some cover. Help me with these sacks.” He pulled Bronwyn down the last step and heaved at one corner of the rough material. Fine white flour spilled out and puffed little clouds into the air. Then he paused momentarily and Bronwyn felt the wind pick up around them. The flour rose in funnels as Chester gathered the air around him and focussed his will on forming a white cloud.
“Cut the sack open,” he ordered. “The more I have the better I can cover our escape.” The cloud of dust rose, swept higher by new eddies and the air around them whitened. Stray powder began to cover their skin and hair, but the central cloud hovered over the barricade wall before them, contained by the forces at Chester’s command.
One of the fighters hacked at the cloud with a knife, spilling more flour which Chester quickly gathered up. He backed away from the cloud and approaching legionnaires. “Start running!”
One of the fighters vaulted to the top of the barricade at the south side of the square and stood tall despite the wind buffeting him.
A crossbow bolt flew out of the cloud and bit deep into his leg. With a scream he fell back into the square.
Visible only as dark shadows in the fog, the Elemental Legion climbed over the barricade.
“Chester! Whatever you’re going to do, do it now!” Bronwyn shouted through the rising wind.
Chester continued to walk backward but the wind ebbed and the cloud began to fade.
Bronwyn didn’t run. She stood beside Chester as the Legion advanced.
“Be strong, Chester. We need more wind from behind us.”
“But that will blow the cover away.”
“It’s too late for that. Just keep the flour away from us. Trust me,” she said, and she looked toward the torch behind her, it’s flame writhing in the furious wind, and she gathered her will. “Now,” she said.
Chester grunted and fell forward like a heavy load had suddenly disappeared and the wind surged. The cloud of flour burst over the square. Bronwyn drew the flame from the torch behind her and through the lense of her mind focussed it into a spear of light, and threw it into the cloud.
The cloud exploded in a flash of yellow and white as the flour ignited. The blast ripped through the fog, consuming it in a sudden fury. The three Legionnaires still inside the cloud were thrown clear of the explosion and crashed against the walls of the bakery. They crumpled to the floor and lay still, caught in awkward poses forced upon them by their thick armour.
The last legionnaire, too close to them to be caught in the blast, attacked.
Chester’s companions leapt to his defense. The Legionnaire caught the incoming sword in his metal glove and parried the spear thrust at his neck. His backswing cut one fighter down with a single blow. He threw the stolen sword at the spearman and followed up with two more swings. The spearman gurgled his last breath and died. The Legionnaire turned back to Bronwyn and Chester.
Five heartbeats had passed.
Chester drew back his arms and the wind blasted through the street. The barricade began to topple but the knight was unmoved. His heavy armour rooted him firmly in place.
Bronwyn pulled at the torchlight once more and hurled fire at the knight. He flinched and stepped forward.
Chester stumbled with the effort and fell. The knight turned his attention to Bronwyn alone.
Bronwyn pulled again at the flames and a fireball burst from her hands against the metal skin. He grunted and swatted at the flames. He raised his sword and swung.
Bronwyn fell back and rolled away from a clumsy swing. The sword sparked on the cobblestones.
She kicked away and felt a stone wall at her back. Torches burned either side of her.
“Stop,” she ordered.
The Legionnaire raised his sword for the last time.
Bronwyn closed her eyes.
“Stop,” she pleaded.
The torchlight flared. For a moment it seemed like noon again. Streams of fire burst from every torch still burning and plunged into the legionnaire. His screams faded as quickly as his iron skin began to glow. The sword fell from his hands and landed on loose straw which smoldered on contact with the hot metal.
The legionnaire fell.
Bronwyn opened her eyes and looked into the helmet of the dead knight. What she saw sickened her. What she smelled made her retch. She wiped the saliva from her mouth and looked across the square at Chester. He blinked and looked around slowly at the dead bodies and carnage which surrounded them. Then he looked at Bronwyn.
“I thought you said you were no soldier.” Chester pulled Bronwyn to her feet. He shielded her from the sight of the dead bodies by standing in her eyeline. “Are you ok?” he said.
Bronwyn took a moment before answering. “I think so.”
“What did you do?”
“I..just used the fire.”
“I didn’t know Mages of the Flame could do that. Did you learn that in the colleges here?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?”
Bronwyn shook her head to clear her thoughts. “It doesn’t matter. We need to get to the college. To the tower. Donovan is on his way and the Legion are waiting.”
“We don’t have anyone left to help us get there.”
Bronwyn stepped back and pulled at her clothing to resettle layers which had been twisted out of position in the fight. From here she could see the smoking body.
“Then I guess we’re on our own.”
Chester picked up a sword and gave it a practise swing. “We need to run to catch up with Donovan.”
“We’re not going that way. We’ll go through the residential district and come at the tower from the north avenue.”
“Bu that’s where the Mages live. They’ll have Legionnaires guarding their homes because of the arson.”
“It’s the fastest way and it keeps us off the main road to the tower.”
He gestured with the sword. “How do we fight our way through them.”
Bronwyn put her hand on his arm and lowered the sword. “You won’t need that. We’re Mages. We use the elements. You said some of the houses had been burned down?”
“Yes but most of the fires will be out by now.”
“I only need one.”