Still reeling from the explosion of magical energies Chester staggered across the room and scooped Bronwyn into his arms. She was breathing and her eyes flickered back and forth beneath their lids.
“Bronwyn? Can you hear me?” He tried shaking her gently to wake her.
“She pushed herself too far. She hasn’t been trained for this.”
“Morrigan? Are you ok?”
Morrigan pushed himself upright and paused. After a mental check of his body he climbed to his feet and wobbled. “I will be. Where’s Sallus?”
Through what little was left of the doorway Chester saw Sallus laying still surrounded by the splintered remains of the door. He was still breathing but unconscious. But where Bronwyn’s collapse was a mystery Sallus’ cause was obvious. The wall behind him was spattered with light, bloody raindrops where his skull had crashed into the stone. Chester’s nose wrinkled at the smell of burning in the air.
Bronwyn stirred. She opened her eyes in three long confused blinks as her brain put the pieces back together. She was on the floor. Chester was upside down. Her head hurt. She could hear the distant ringing of sword on shield. Sallus was…where?
She tried to rise but only got a few inches before giving up.
“Bronwyn? Are you ok?” said Chester.
“Did you break something? You’re not bleeding.”
“It hurts inside.”
“Can you get up?”
“I don’t know. Sallus?” she croaked.
“You beat him. I don’t know how.”
“He’s here. He’s recovering too.”
“Did we win?”
“Not yet,” said Morrigan.
“But we stopped Sallus,” said Chester.
Morrigan walked stiffly to the twisted remains of the window leading and looked down into the courtyard, now deep in twilight’s shadow. “There are still Mages and soldiers to fight. They won’t stop just because we tell them Sallus is defeated.”
“Who’s fighting?” said Bronwyn. She tried to rise again but Chester gently pressed her shoulders back to the floor. He found a cushion, wedged it under Bronwyn’s head and joined Morrigan at the window.
“Donovan and his men?” Bronwyn asked.
Chester stood on tiptoes for a better view. A great white sword swung in huge arcs, repelling two Elemental Legion. Another soldier, more ornately armoured than the rest, stood back from the rest. His sword point rested on the tiled floor like a cane. The balconies around the courtyard were beginning to fill with men armed with crossbows, and here and there a robed figure.
Chester bit his lip. “No. Just Donovan.”
The Legion were the best soldiers Donovan had ever fought. This was no great surprise. He had only selected the best when he captained the Lions, and he had trained Rydan his deputy in the skills required to turn a good fighter into a great one. The same deputy now stood at the back of the courtyard holding his helmet under one arm, and casually resting his other hand on the hilt of his own greatsword. He called out instructions to his men like the desperate battle in the courtyard was just another training session.
“Don’t be fooled by his swings. They are wide to draw you in. He’s not overbalanced. He knows how to use that sword. Don’t parry. I said don’t parry! Duck, evade, press him on the backswing. Take away his options. He has space. Close it. Close it! Don’t-“
A head that didn’t listed separated from a body that could no longer stand and bounced to a halt at Rydan’s feet.
The other Legionnaire stepped out of Donovan’s reach to catch his breath. Donovan held his blade one-handed at arms length and pointed at Rydan.
“Come and fight me yourself. Or is it true that those who cannot do can only teach?”
“Those who understand, teach. I don’t need to fight you. I just need to delay you.”
“Are you a coward?”
“I am wise. Still wiser than you. My reinforcements are arriving as we speak. And remember, you left your men three years ago. You’re the coward.”
Donovan pulled to the guard position and stepped forward. The earth shook and cracks ripped through the tiled floor. Off balance, he brought his foot down too soon on ground that wasn’t supposed to be there. Rydan mocked him with a salute and raised his hand to take in the mezzanine which surrounded the courtyard on three sides. Crossbows cocked and Mages stood ready. Two more Mages emerged from a doorway and stood behind Rydan. They planted a brazier in the ground.
Donovan saw the coals in the brazier glow, breathed the evening air, felt the earth beneath his feet and planted himself between the fountains in the north and south walls. He was surrounded by elements. Mages reinforced themselves with crossbows. They had the high ground and numbers on their side.
“Afraid to fight me yourself?” he taunted.
“A soldier fights only when he must. You taught me that. And I could fight you, but I don’t have to. I’ll sleep well tonight either way.”
“You betrayed us all.”
“It’s true. I did. Now I’ll make it up to you by making this quick.” He raised one arm. “Ready!”
Crossbows raised, and Mages gathered their power.
Rydan’s arm dropped.
Sallus’ was slowing them down. Chester and Bronwyn each an arm each and dragged his limp body across the entrance hall of the Mage tower. Morrigan walked slowly behind them. He held an expensive embroidered slipper in each hand, footwear which had popped free from Sallus’ feet as his heels had caught on the carpeted hallway outside his office. He steadied himself before attempting to lurch from pillar to pillar through the hall.
Bronwyn dropped Sallus’ arm and stretched by arching backward. “Morrigan, do you need to rest?”
“Yes, but we don’t have time. How’s your head?”
“It’s fine,” she said quickly and took up Sallus’ arm again. “Ready?”
“Ready,” said Chester.
“What if he wakes up?” Bronwyn said. Sallus snaked easily now over the polished floor. Maybe those robes were good for something after all.
“We hit him again?”
“If he wakes he won’t be much of a bother, I think,” said Sallus. “That was quite a blow you struck. You’ll have to explain how you did that one day.”
“One day,” said Bronwyn. She looked forward to the explanation as much as he did.
Chester’s ears pricked up. “I hear the fighting.”
“Quickly,” said Morrigan.
They picked up the pace. Bronwyn gritted her teeth and heaved the dead weight of the Mage for one last push, and ignored the pounding in her head.
The door to the rear courtyard was open. The sky above the wall was deep blue now. Soon stars would be visible. A soldier in ornate armour stood on the far side of the courtyard. He held one arm in the air and was saying something they couldn’t hear. On the mezzanine Mages and soldiers armed with crossbows gave their full attention to the man in white armour.
The soldier’s arm dropped.
Crossbow quarrels rained down on Donovan who twisted away, hoping the missiles would not find some chink in his armour. He shielded his head with one arm as he dropped to one knee. His sword became a staff. But his armour remained a wall. Only two shots penetrated the metal skin but neither one had enough power left to stab through the reinforced leather undercoat.
“Who is that?” said Bronwyn.
“That’s Rydan. The new captain of the Elemental Legion. Donovan’s usurper.”
“Donovan can’t fight them all on his own,” said Chester. He looked at Bronwyn. Bronwyn looked back.
“He’s not on his own,” she said. They dropped Sallus’ arms once again and strided toward the door.
“Wait,” said Morrigan. “You need him.”
“He wouldn’t help us even if he could,” said Bronwyn.
“He is more useful to you know than when he’s awake. Show them he’s beaten. Quickly!”
The two young Mages hurried back and took hold of Sallus. Morrigan helped by lifting his legs. But even the three of them working together was not enough to lift him clear of the ground, and his robed bottom still slid across the floor.
They ran straight into the courtyard as Donovan, defiant, rose to his feet once more. Crossbows reloaded and Mages prepared to strike.
Morrigan stepped into the courtyard.
“Rydan! Fellow Mages! Hear me. Sallus is defeated. The Legion is broken. The city is in flames. End this now. Lay down your weapons and-“
“Are you calling for our surrender?” laughed Rydan. “You have no leverage here.”
“I have him.” Morrigan stepped aside just as Chester and Bronwyn dropped Sallus on the paved walkway beneath the mezzanine in full view of the Mages. “Sallus is beaten. I am not asking for your surrender, but I am asking you to pause. We must find the sense in this madness before we lose everything.”
Donovan edged toward Morrigan, still looking for new threats around every corner.
“Your melodramatic speeches mean nothing. A treacherous Mage stands beside a treacherous knight and asks us to lay down our weapons? I see no reason to listen to either of you.”
“Sallus still lives,” said Bronwyn.
“And? His part in this is over, whether he lives or dies.”
“Too many have died already,” pleaded Morrigan.
“Then four more will make little difference,” said Rydan. He lifted his head to the forces at his command and shouted “End this.”
Morrigan acted first. He raised two fists to the sky with a shout. The courtyard fountains emptied. Walls of water rose into the sky and crashed heavily on the Mages and soldiers on the balconies. They fell back under the weight of the sudden deluge and slipped on the water underfoot.
Rydan picked up his sword and snapped an order to the Mages behind him. They drew fire from the brazier and sent flames streaking toward Morrigan. They looked like wings as they parted behind Rydan.
Morrigan fell to his knees, partly weakened with the effort of his magic, partly in self-defence as the fire rushed toward him.
Chester stepped up, and his desperate will forced the flames back on themselves as the wind roared through the courtyard.
Rydan settled his helmet in place and raised his sword.
Donovan raised his own but felt a hand on his arm.
“Be ready,” Donovan said, but the hand tugged him again.
“We are not to few to make a difference, my friend. Even now.”
Donovan looked at Morrigan with momentary confusion. Then he remembered their words three years before.
“Sallus is stopped this time,” he replied.
“So why do you fight?”
“Because I must. The war isn’t over.”
“It may never be over. But there are new fighters here to take your place.” Morrigan gestured at Bronwyn and Chester. “This is a different war now. They are young. Let them fight it.”
Donovan remembered everything.
“War is not just for the young, or death for the old.”
“And this thing may be the death of us all, Mage.”
“But there is always hope. If one knight can remember his oath…”
Donovan shifted his hands on the sword grip. “Aye,” he said grimly. “I remember.”
“Then let me hear the lion roar one more time.”
Rydan could wait no longer. He broke into a charge and raised his sword to strike. Donovan met him in three quick strides and parried the first blow. “I will not yield!”
“The fight is over, Donovan.”
“Not until the end. I taught you that much.”
Rydan leaned over their crossed swords and hissed at him. “I learned from you what failure was. I learned not to repeat your example.
“You betrayed us all.”
“I stayed loyal to Arden.”
“Your oath was to the king!”
“You abandoned your men.”
“You deceived me!” Swords rang out again.
“I beat you. I will beat you again.” Rydan broke from the engagement and shouted “Mages!”
The elements came to life.
The tiled floor broke open around Donovan. He avoided falling into the sudden sinkhole and dodged the pillar of earth which shot out of the ground. Water which had fallen back into the fountains hurled itself at him. The sudden slap of the waves knocked him to one side and the churned up earth became slick beneath his feet. The winds rose and blasted him full in the face. Donovan crossed his arms before him and pressed forward head bent low. Mages sent fireballs hurtling toward him and they exploded, one after the other, leaving blackened streaks on his white armour and knocking him on his back.
“Remember your oath, Donovan,” Morrigan shouted. He drew back one sleeve and gestured at the waters. Then he fell down too.
“Morrigan?” said Chester.
“I can’t. It’s too much. You two will have to help him.”
“Bronwyn?” said Chester.
But Bronwyn said nothing.
She stood between the pillars, Sallus at her feet, and watched the courtyard get torn apart under the magical energies controlled by the Mages. Real Mages. They had all the elements of the earth at their command. They had the higher ground. They had soldiers supporting them. And the captain of the Elemental Legion approached a prone Donovan less than thirty feet away.
“Bronwyn! Come on! We have to help!”
She was shaking her head. “We can’t stop them.”
“We can. We-” Chester paused as the earth shook again. Donovan rolled, only just avoiding Rydan’s boot. Morrigan was still shouting the words of the oath at the big knight. But they were surrounded. They were outnumbered.
But he refused to believe they were lost.
“Bronwyn, we have made it this far. We can’t stop now. You have to fight.”
“With what? I have no fire.”
“You did it before. Upstairs. Do it again.”
“Why not?” said Chester.
“I don’t know how.”
“You don’t…? Well, why not?”
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know how to do it again.”
“But what do you know? You are of the wind and the wind is everywhere. You’ve never known a world where you are not surrounded by your element all the time. It’s not like that for me. I need something to work with. And the only fire here is controlled by those two Mages.”
“Let’s go and get it.”
“Are you mad? We can’t get over there without being seen.”
“How close do you need to get?”
“Twenty feet? Maybe thirty.”
“Ok, get ready. Morrigan! Donovan! Bronwyn needs to get to those Mages.”
“I’m busy!” grunted Donovan as he grappled with Rydan. Mages on the mezzanine gathered their elements and readied for another strike.
“Get ready!” Chester repeated.
“But what’s your plan?” said Bronwyn.
“We’ll know in a minute. Go!”
Pushed on by nothing more than blind faith, Bronwyn ran out into the courtyard.
One soldier reacted quicker than the rest and shot at her. The quarrel missed and buried three-quarters of its length into the broken earth.
Rydan side-stepped Donovan’s blade and took a spiteful swing at Bronwyn. Donovan closed the gap between them with a quick step and crashed his shoulder into Rydan’s side. His swing missed, and Bronwyn made it past.
A fierce gust gathered the loose earth and broken tile of the courtyard floor and flung it up and around her. Mages and soldiers operated without clear leadership. Some targeted the woman running past their captain, others aimed at Donovan. Others attacked Chester. Dirt and sand whipped into their faces and Bronwyn ran through the eye of the sudden storm.
The Mages by the brazier had time to see all of this and prepare themselves. They stepped away from the brazier, drew the flames to themselves and hurled deadly fire at Bronwyn.
With only a thought Bronwyn caught the fireballs and turned them back against their masters. Their shocked looks lasted only until they were each hit full in the chest by the weapons of their own imagination.
Propelled by fear Bronwyn ran under the cover of the floor above and crashed into the sea wall of the courtyard. She spun around, pressed her back and palms against the cool stone and took in the scene from this new angle. Donovan and Rydan were still fighting, trading blow for blow for blow. It was ugly combat. Raw and unsophisticated. Behind them Chester was doing his best to defend himself now that Bronwyn was safely at the other side. But it wasn’t enough. Pushed back by attacks both magical and physical he retreated behind a pillar. Morrigan, she knew, was sat behind the other. Safely out of sight but able to contribute nothing.
Now the Mages and soldiers above had one target left and Rydan knew it. His attitude changed from attack to defence. He was looking for a way to escape the fight. If he did that Donovan would be alone in the open.
Donovan knew that too, she could tell. Every step Rydan made Donovan countered. Every escape was blocked, but therein was the dilemma. If Donovan killed Rydan now, if indeed he could, he would still be defenceless. It was the fight keeping him alive. Victory or defeat would bring Donovan to the same end.
So even here, in this final moment, Bronwyn realised she was still powerless. Even as she gathered the power around her she realised she could not do enough.
Not alone, anyway.
“Chester!” she yelled over the sound of fighting. She saw movement and he poked his head out from behind the pillar. “I need you.”
“You have a plan?”
“What is it?”
Bronwyn focussed her will on the brazier. It burned and sparked with a sudden infusion of power and the fire rose from it in a pillar to rival the stone supports. He hands became fists and the fire swirled and surged toward the two combatants in the centre of the courtyard.
“Help me!” she yelled.
“To do what?”
She guided the fire closer and it spread like a curtain unfurled and circled the duel. It closed off an escape route and forced Rydan back into the fight. He tried another direction and Bronwyn moved it again to head him off. The curtain began to circle the two men, trapping them in it’s slow vortex.
Then the wind picked up. One sudden gust steadied and swirled around the courtyard, building momentum, bouying the flames.
Bronwyn smiled. Chester understood.
She drew more power from the coals and it streamed into the cone of fire like a ribbon on a spool. Her gifts drew the flames higher, Chester’s spun them faster. And the spinning firestorm sealed Donovan and Rydan inside.
Rydan felt the heat. Donovan heard the roar and grinned behind his helmet. The churning wall of flame rippled in and out, coming closer and falling away again with each revolution, like a spinning top in its final seconds.
“What is this? How many Mages of the Flame do you have?” said Rydan.
“Just one. One faithful Mage is all I need.”
“So now you have the Mages obey you? You want this throne for yourself!”
“I want an end to this treachery.”
“Your oath meant nothing when it counted.”
“It means something now.”
“If you even remember it.”
“I remember everything.”
“Then tell me your oath. Let it be your dying roar.”
“Hear my roar, traitor! See my blade become my claw.” Donovan spun to build momentum and brought his blade around in a vicious upswing. Rydan parried, afraid of being driven back into the flames. “I will not yield. When their fury overtakes me I will not yield.” The ground shook beneath them, staggering both men, but both stayed on their feet. “When the ground beneath me shakes I plant my feet and will not yield.”
The Mages on the walls unleashed all they had. The ground shook. Waters from the fountains surged against the flames and hissed into steam. Winds blew but were swept into Chester’s vortex where the flames and the wind and taken on a life of their own. The burning tornado now greater than the sum of its parts.
Bronwyn held herself upright with one hand against a stone pillar. With her other hand she held up the flaming tornado. Chester’s gifts gave it shape, but she gave it life. The heat was intense now, but she controlled the heat. Somewhere, in the eye of the storm two men fought. She had to keep one of them alive so she drew the heat from the centre of the storm. She hoped it would be enough.
Rydan went on the attack. His sword crashed down again and again. Donovan deflected one blow, then another. The third he parried with the flat of his sword held aloft with one hand on the hilt and one on the blade. He quickly tipped his sword at an angle and slid his hand up the blade to trap Rydan’s weapon between gauntlet and crossguard.
Donovan said, “And though the storm my break upon me I will not yield.”
Rydan locked his elbow around Donovan’s blade and forced it low, then butted Donovan in the head.
“You will yield to me! Alone and defeated and ashamed you will yield.”
“I still have my Pride,” said Donovan, and with a roar he clamped one hand around Rydan’s neck and pulled down while his armoured knee rose up. Rydan’s head snapped back. Senseless, he staggered sideways, arms flailing.
Donovan took one step forward and kicked Rydan through the wall of flame.
“Sleep forever,” he said.
Bronwyn saw the body fall through the burning wall before Chester. The terrible heat ignited the body in a flash. A sword landed next to him. But it was not the white greatsword of the White Lions.
“It’s Rydan,” shouted Chester. “Donovan won. We can stop this now.”
But Bronwyn knew that if she let the fire die now Donovan would be exposed. Enemies still lined the floor above.
She was weakening from the effort now. Sweat dripped from her brow and pooled from her neck to run down her back. The fire would die anyway, with or without her.
Not without her, she decided.
Brownyn gathered her will for one last time, and the whirlwind exploded.
The shockwave filled every corner of the courtyard, and the fire followed. All the windows on the western wall of the tower shattered inward. The Mages on the mezzanine were thrown from their feet and hurled against the walls. Weapons were snatched from the hands of the soldiers. Chester and Bronwyn were each flung back from the focal point of the storm. Morrigan, seated behind a pillar was spared the worst of the blast.
The last of the flames flickered into nothing.
The last thing Bronwyn saw before she passed out was Donovan. The only man still standing. Alone, triumphant, the last White Lion roared.