Donovan and his men swept through the streets of the city as the sun sank lower in the sky and the shadow of the tower lengthened over the town. Armed patrols were brushed aside by the rebels and mounted scouts shot from their seats by Lydia who leapt between rooftops covering the men below with her bow.
He halted at the corner of the next street. The rebel forces hugged the walls of the buildings behind him. Lydia quickly lay down on the dry thatch.
Ahead of them was the grand plaza of the tower. Inside the tower were their goals. One to save and one to capture.
But between them and the high gated wall was the Legion.
“Bronwyn, slow down!” Chester breathed hard as he struggled to keep up with Bronwyn. She moved effortlessly through the charred streets of the residential district far more quickly than Chester was used to.
“You spend too long in a chair.”
Chester heard a noise and glanced over his shoulder. “There’s soldiers behind us. Hurry up!”
“We can stop them.”
“We’re Mages. We’re not meant for this.”
Bronwyn turned on him, raised her arms and brought the smouldering ruins of the houses around them to full flame. The met above her, touching just long enough to form an arch of fire, then the arch collapsed into a swirling ball of fury. Bronwyn launched it down the street over Chester’s head. It caught the first soldier full in the chest. It knocked him down and burst apart with a roar. The fireball caught his companions in the blast. They panicked, dropped their weapons and ran back the way they had come, shrieking and frantically patting themselves to put out the flames.
“But we’re good at it!”
Chester pointed behind her. “Look out!”
This time Chester reacted first. He swept one arm behind him and drew it forward, as if making a wave in a pool. The wind picked up out of nowhere. It kicked up ash and dirt from the burned out buildings beside him. He flung his right arm forward. He pulled Bronwyn to one side with his left. The cloud of debris blasted into the faces of another patrol, blinding and choking them with ten thousand tiny missiles.
His follow through had left him face to face with Bronwyn, both his arms around her.
“That’s better isn’t it?” she said with a strange smile.
“Using our gifts like this.”
“To fight people?”
“They don’t think I’m useless now.”
“I don’t think that.”
Bronwyn blinked and saw Chester for the first time. “Get your hands off me!” She stepped out of his accidental embrace and shoved his arms away from her. “Come on. We’re nearly there.”
The defenders were arranged in a semi-circle around the plaza. From here they presented as a wall of steel, able to see in all directions. Mounted sergeants patrolled the centre of the paved area. They were the mobile eyes and ears, able to respond to threats and direct their men to crush any challengers where they appeared.
The legion were expecting small undisciplined groups of rebel fighters and had spread their forces accordingly.
It was a weakness Donovan intended to exploit.
They were not expecting to face down a giant of a knight charging at them. His full armour, still white and fresh where dirt and dents had been avoided, flashed once in the setting sun before he plunged into the shadow of the tower which loomed over the plaza.
Donovan became the tip of the spear as his rag-tag army charged the line of Legionnaires.
He carried his great blade low behind him. As his met the enemy line he swung up. One Legionnaire was flung backward. The down swing took out another. His plated shoulder barged into a third.
The line was broken.
The sergeants wheeled their horses around and whistled orders. The Legionnaires in the plaza raised arms and converged on Donovan and his men.
“Aye, to me!”
His blade was so heavy few of the legionnaires could parry it. The lucky few deflected the sword enough that it glanced off their armour. The men that tried to counter the full weight of the sword crumbled underneath it. Donovan stepped and swung, stepped and swung through the oncoming soldiers. The farmer cutting his way through the field.
Bronwyn and Chester snuck into the north side of the plaza in time to see the ring of soldiers melting away. A huge commotion was taking place in the shadow of the gate. Rebel fighters took on legionnaires three to one in an effort to overcome their disadvantages in skill, equipment and tactics. In the centre of the battle Donovan took on Legionnaires one to three. His white blade rose and fell.
His enemies only fell.
“We have to help them,” said Chester.
“We have to get inside,” insisted Bronwyn.
“How? We don’t have a key!”
A roar from the other side of the plaza cut of any reply Chester might have had.
Legionnaire reinforcements had arrived.
Donovan hacked through the last of his opposition and turned at the sound. More Elemental Legion marched around the corner of the tower. The man at their head was all too familiar.
Donovan surveyed his theatre. The men were in disarray. As the fighting had spread they had lost all cohesion. If the Legion charged them now they would be crushed under their boots. They needed to regroup.
He held aloft his sword with one arm. “Retreat! Fall back! On me.” Donovan moved to the north side of the plaza, sweeping aside the remnants of the opposition with blade and boot and metal fist.
Behind him the Legion continued their steady march through the plaza. Wounded rebel fighters were snuffed out and the ground reclaimed.
Their captain shouted orders and a dozen Legionnaires broke into a charge.
“To the streets!” Donovan ordered. The fighters fled the plaza and lost themselves among the streets and houses once more.
Bronwyn ran across the plaza to meet him. “Donovan! Over here.”
“Bronwyn? Quick, hide among the buildings. They are coming.”
“Why are you running. You were winning.”
“Aye, we were. We have lost our advantage and our numbers in the open. We will draw them into the maze.”
“We don’t have time for that.”
“We will take the time we need to stay alive, Mage. Now be quick. Here they are.”
Two Legionnaires reached Donovan at the same time. He pushed Bronwyn to safety and brought his sword to meet theirs. But they had momentum on their side and Donovan stepped backward with every swing.
A blast of wind staggered one of the soldiers and knocked him off balance just long enough for Donovan to knock him to the ground. Now it was one against one. Donovan turned his full attention to the soldier still on his feet. The soldier thrust his blade forward. Donovan met it with his own vertical blade and turned. The two swords sang as metal scraped against metal. Before the soldier could draw back his weapon Donovan brought up the fisted gauntlet of his right hand and slammed his forearm down on the enemy blade while dropping to one knee. Short hooks on his forearm caught the sword and yanked it from the soldier’s grip. As he stood up again Donovan swung his fist back into the soldier’s face. He fell next to his companion, and Donovan killed them both.
Chester lowered his outstretched arm. Donovan nodded at him. Then he took Bronwyn by the arm and pulled her into the streets. “Now hide, until we have regained our advantage.”
The streets around them echoed with the sounds of fighting. Rebel soldiers lay in wait as the Legionnaires approached and attacked them from side streets and by leaping off rooftops.
Lydia moved silently from one unburned thatched roof to another. Her perfect aim shooting arrows through cracks in armour and striking them in exposed necks and armpits.
Bronwyn and Chester ran hand in hand. Fighting at every turn pushed them further away from the tower and back toward the burned out houses.
Two rebel soldiers crashed into them at a crossroads as they fled a Legionnaire and their hands were torn apart.
The enemy soldier turned on Chester and raised his weapon. Chester cried out in fear and flung both hands forward. His eyes squeezed tight shut. The Legionnaire was forced back by the sudden furious wind and turned his back on it. In front of him was Bronwyn. The wind whipped her hair up as she too stepped backward and shielded her eyes from the wind.
Chester opened his eyes. “Behind you!”
Bronwyn looked around. Another Legionnaire was marching toward her. Two more approached from the left and right.
“Run!” she shouted.
Chester didn’t run. He looked at the burned remains of the city and saw Bronwyn’s hope. A new wind rose through the streets, gentle and coaxing. It flowed over and through the embers of the ruins and gave new life to the fire within. Flames bloomed from the charred wood, and Bronwyn saw it.
The first Legionnaire swung his sword down. Bronwyn pivoted out of the way and snatched the first thread of flame from behind him. Another soldier attacked and she ducked. With her other hand she drew forth another fire. She knit them together as she turned and dodged a third strike. She called on more fire, and the flames began to spiral around her as she turned. The fourth Legionnaire held back too long before attacking, and Bronwyn drew in a fourth thread, then a fifth. And then a sixth. The Soldiers hesitated. No training had prepared them for this. The first raised his sword again.
Bronwyn faced the oncoming soldier. She lowered her hands. The ring of fire exploded. The blast knocked the Legionnaires from their feet and sent them tumbling through the air to crash to the ground.
She looked at Chester. “Let’s go.”
They retraced their steps at a run. Donovan’s plan seemed to have worked. The few Legionnaires left standing were soon overwhelmed by surprise attacks among the labyrinthine streets.
Back at the entrance to the plaza Donovan was gathering reports from his remaining forces.
“We are a quarter of what we were and a tenth of what we need,” he growled.
Lydia arrived and delivered her own report. “Their captain has retreated into the tower. He ordered most of his men back into the city to hunt out the rebels. There are no soldiers left in the plaza. I see only one defender on the wall. A Mage.”
“One Mage can’t stop us now,” said a soldier.
“One Mage can be more dangerous than you think,” said Chester with one eye on Bronwyn.
“Can you shoot him from here?” Donovan asked Lydia.
“I need a better angle. He’s too high.”
“Mages, go with her and bring him down. My men and I will take the gates.”
“No, I have a better idea,” said Bronwyn. “Use the side gate to the cells. They are expecting you to go through the main gate.”
“Agreed,” said Donovan after only a moment’s thought. “But you need to take out their Mage first.”
“Agreed,” she said.
Lydia led the way as they darted through the street behind the houses that boarded the plaza. She kicked open the back door of the last house. “I need a distraction,” she said.”
“I need fire,” said Bronwyn.
“You’ll have it,” said Lydia, and vanished up the stairs.
Chester waved Bronwyn over to the corner of the house. He peered round it and scanned the wall of the tower looking for the Mage.
“Do you see him?” said Bronwyn.
“Yes, but not much of him. Do you think Lydia can hit him from here?”
“I need fire first.”
Right on cue they heard breaking glass and then a soft thump. The thatched roof of the house across the street began to flicker. Bronwyn willed the flames higher and stronger and flung a fireball at the Mage behind his wall.
The fireball shot across the plaza in streak of yellow-orange flame. The Mage on the wall gestured and a pillar of earth burst from the ground. The fireball slammed into the obstacle and and burst in a cloud of flame and dirt.
“I think he is of the earth,” said Chester.
Bronwyn ignored his unhelpful observation and sent another fireball soaring toward the Mage. Again the earth rose up and shielded him before Bronwyn’s attack could even get halfway.
“I hope Lydia is having better luck than this,” she said.
Her answer came at once. An arrow sailed high into the air and curved down toward the Mage. It clattered harmlessly against the wall two feet to his left. Another arrow followed in the same high arc, giving the Mage plenty of time to step out of the way.
“Why isn’t she just shooting him?” said Bronwyn.
Lydia answered this question with a flat shot at the wall, but the crenellations covered the Mage well enough that this shot also missed.
Then the Mage responded. They saw him raise one hand toward them and the earth shook. The ground in front of Lydia’s house tore open and a crack raced through the building. Bronwyn heard Lydia’s frightened shout and then the house lurched forward and the roof collapsed. A cloud of dust puffed from the wreckage.
Bronwyn readied another fireball but the ground beneath her shook again and she fell against Chester and the wall. The flames she had knit together evaporated in the low sun.
They climbed to their feet using each other for support.
“I need to see if she’s alive,” said Bronwyn.
“No, not yet,” said Chester. “We have to stop him first. He’ll bring down the building if he sees you go inside.”
“But I can’t hit him from here.”
“Did you see what Lydia was doing? She tried to shoot over the wall. Try that.”
“I can’t curve them.”
Chester stepped away to give Bronwyn room. “Do it. Aim high.”
Bronwyn drew the fire from the roof one more time and wove a new burning sphere and launched it high over the wall. This time the Mage ignored an obvious miss. Then the wind picked up through the plaza. Trees and flags bent in the sudden gale. Bronwyn’s fireball curved sharply and hurtled toward the wall. It hit too high and crashed into a flag draped from the roof of the building, setting it alight.
“You missed,” said Bronwyn.
“No I wanted an easy target.”
“He was our target.”
Chester held up one finger. “Wait.”
The supporting ropes quickly snapped as they burned, unable to hold up the immense weight of the fabric. The wind gusted again. It pulled the away from the wall and dropped it on the battlements, just missing the Mage.
“You still missed.” Bronwyn ran into the plaza, stretching out to feel the flames on the wall, to touch them enough to make them obey her. Then they were in her hand. The Mage on the wall raised his hands. Bronwyn raised hers and showed him one accusing palm. The burning flag brightened suddenly and a wall of flame surged around the battlements. The Mage vanished.
Bronwyn lowered her hand and stared at it in puzzlement. Now she couldn’t feel the flames. There was no familiar burning glow on her skin. The walls were too high, the fire too small. So how-
“Bronwyn!” shouted Chester. “Lydia’s alive. Just hurt.” He ducked under the broken and fragile front door with one arm around their archer friend. She leaned heavily on him. Her left leg was white with dust. The fabric shredded. The skin beneath bloodied.
Bronwyn rushed back, thoughts of the battle pushed from her mind.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” said Lydia.
Chester looked at Bronwyn with a worried expression. “If she had said that without gritting her teeth or squeezing my arm to death I might have believed her.”
“I’ve had worse.”
Bronwyn examined Lydia’s leg. “I don’t think it’s broken. But it must be painful. She can’t walk.”
“I can. Just help me,” said Lydia.
“Have you got her?” Bronwyn said she and Chester lifted Lydia to her feet between them.
“I don’t need to walk to shoot,” said Lydia.
“Right now there’s nothing to shoot,” said Chester. “It’s quiet.”
“Did they retreat into the tower?” said Bronwyn.
“I don’t know. Does that mean we’re winning?” Chester replied.
“They’re playing for time,” Lydia grunted. “They think you can’t break a siege before their reinforcements arrive.”
“How do you know they have reinforcements?” Bronwyn asked.
“Of course they have reinforcements on their way. Do you think this city will be the only one in flames. News will have spread to the nearby cities. They will have their own rebels to deal with but the seat of power is here. The fighting will be concentrated here. And everyone knows that except you two Mages.”
“We’re not Battlemages,” said Chester. “We don’t have training in war.”
“Clearly,” said Lydia. She extricated herself from between the shoulders of the Mages and hopped awkwardly to the remains of the front wall. She surveyed the damage to the city and saw Bronwyn’s fire still burning at the top of the wall. “Although you’ve done some damage considering your backgrounds in mail delivery and whatever it is you do.” She waved a hand at Chester.
“I serve the law,” he said by way of explanation.
“How many do you think you’re about to break?”
Lydia pointed at the tower. “When you storm the tower and end this. That’s what has to happen now. You need to control that building and the government before this city is overwhelmed. You’ve done well to get this far but now you need to finish it. By legal means or otherwise.”
“Only by legal means,” Bronwyn insisted. “Sallus needs to live.”
Lydia shrugged. “You do whatever you need to do. Just do it fast. The sun is setting and they have the high ground.”
“We need to get inside,” Bronwyn said.
Chester pointed at movement across the plaza. “Donovan is coming back.”
They met Donovan and his remaining men at the corner wall of the Mage tower. To Bronwyn’s right was the side door to the cells she had recently occupied and beyond that the cliff wall of the city. On her left was the broad expanse of the central plaza and the wide road leading up to the tall gates of the tower, now shut.
“I could see your work even from over there, Mage,” said Bronwyn. “You both did well. Now we need to get inside. The gate will be heavily fortified and defended though. Prepare yourselves. Bronwyn, can you help us?”
Bronwyn realised later this was the first time anyone had asked for her help. Like she had something valuable to contribute. It felt good, and odd.
But she shook her head. “Not through there, but there is a smaller side door that leads to the cells, and the wall is still burning.”
“Morrigan may be in there,” Donovan mused.
Chester nodded his agreement. “It’s the most likely place,” he said.
“No more talking,” said Bronwyn. “Lydia’s right. This needs to end.”
She walked toward the small door to the cells. The heavy orange sun shone full on her face casting her long shadow all the way back to Chester. He hurried after her. He watched as she casually raised her left hand up. Saw the fire stream down to her fist. Saw her fling the power she had tightly gathered at the strong wooden door. Flinched as the barrier exploded inward and coughed as the dust from the blast clouded around them.
“See? Magic,” said Bronwyn.