Its essence lingered thick in the air, pushing through trees far enough to reach the Wiskusset 17th’s march. For some, the smell was a fruit of innovation; for others, it was the stench of sacrilege. For Major Baxter, it meant a nightmare had manifested itself and no reinforcements were in sight.
The stone walls of Fort Howley rattled through the night with the peppering of hand-cannons and artillery fire. Adamas flame gorged on their stores and left ramparts charred beyond recognition. The Empire gave the Cedarmont 21st stationed at the historic Atelan-built castle no rest, cursing them through the night with repeated attacks from squadrons of their merciless Alchemists. By the break of dawn, the screams of Baxter’s men threatened to drown out every other sound. The antiquated stronghold showed every sign of its inevitable fall, highlighted by the neatly-ordered walls of Pracis infantry approaching in their crimson coats and bayonets pointed.
“Hold your stations! Hold! Stop running!”
The Major’s fraught voice peeled through the battery and he watched while his rooks dwindled and were targeted by continued Imperial fire. He glanced from a covered cannon portal he had taken refuge in. The smoke from enemy cannons choked the field and concealed the movement of troops with only the eerie sound of foot-beats and throttling muskets evidence of the rife struggle in progress.
“Major, the east rampart has been breached; we need to pull back, sir!” cried Captain Ambrosia from the stairwell.
“Major, two of our south-facing cannons have been destroyed! We’re getting overwhelmed!” called another, forgotten voice.
He could see it.
Red coats pressed closer, blinding blue light snapped from the muzzles of their guns as the footmen encroached. The orange feathers at his cheeks lifted indignantly, biting his lip to consider his next order. Falling back would almost guarantee Fort Howley’s surrender back to the Empire, but holding position this thin was quickly becoming a greater risk. His entire company would fall and die if they kept up their attempt to hold the fort.
Shouts came from the roof above, and Major Baxter put his thoughts aside to press his face carefully out of the cannon portal again. At first, he couldn’t believe his ears. And then he couldn’t believe his eyes.
With the trot of hooves and boots came the drag of a loud drumbeat and fife, the Wiskusset 17th regiment poured out of the artillery smog like wraiths lured by ire. The Major sharply turned to his company in the fort.
“Hold stations! Clear the way for the Colonel!”
Colonel Francis Emberfell held his sword forward, face set in grim determination as his blue gaze settled onto the scene before him. An agonized bellow launched his entire battalion into motion. Through the mist of the dawn his company charged from the tree line and descended onto the flanks of the Empire Company besieging the fort with a deafening battle cry.
The foot soldiers charged with passion bright in their eyes as their commander led those who were mounted straight into the flanks of the Empire. The drummer boys and fifers fell back into the forest and out of range of the slaughter.
Major Baxter watched from inside, transfixed, as the Wiskusset 17th’s mounted forces stayed in perfect, seamless formation and created a line of fallen behind them. They were worshipped in sunlight and their blue coats glowed in the morning air. Hooves of their horses fitted with bright adamas armor, trampled men underneath them and gored them open with their horns. It paved the way for their riders to smoothly slide down their sides and swing their long, curved swords in a dramatic arc, making room for infantry to charge with bayonets behind them.
“Major Baxter, their flanks are breaking! They’re trying to regroup inside the fort!”
The Cedarmont commander’s mouth pressed into a line. He lit his rifle and reloaded it as he turned back into the fort. To the chaos outside he would leave Colonel Emberfell to bring it under control. But to his own men on the inside, Baxter would bring it swiftly under heel. Like hell would they be driven from their birth-right by Pracis.
A red and silver coat darted below and right out of his vision. An alchemist stretched out an arm, prepared to toss a bright bottle stoppered with glowing adamas into the fray. Her ponytail flew in the sun, blonde hair tied in a tight bun and her face fierce. A tail twitched behind her, long and plumy with fur, her hood had fallen back to reveal the swivel of ears telling of an auris. She was young and Major Baxter only felt hate as he watched her go. Hate for the Empire that had made enemies of them all.
He pulled the trigger and watched blood bloom like a flower across her back. He made himself watch as she collapsed to the ground, pale cheek pressed to the dirt. She didn’t get up again.
War was a brutal and ugly thing. Major Baxter had to swallow the bile in his throat. He had seen many who he would have called brother or sister in this land fall in the name of the Empire. Freedom had a cost. Those costs came in blood and sweat and the tears of those who would never see their families again.
War raged in the fort, bright and painting the dawn light with the blood of Pracis and Atalaer that mixed down in the mud under their feet. The shouts of men drowned out any natural sound and Fort Howley’s white walls and battlements became painted in shots from canon fire. The perfect formation that Colonel Francis had begun this battle in had fallen apart as men and women fell beside him. Every injury, every death, felt like a personal blow to Francis’s heart. With a roar he charged a line of Imperials, sweeping down and slashing his sword in one, long stroke. Blood sprayed from their bodies, painting his legs and the side of his horse.
“Hold the line!” Francis thundered. The Colonel lifted his head at the encroaching sound and turned his steed about. “Ready men!”
The canon blasts pounded the earth and he despaired at the rumble beneath him. The men around him, Empire and colonist alike thrown to their backs by the force of it. A siege canon rolled forward, the blue lines of the adamas infused in them glowing brighter and brighter as the shot prepared. Panic gripped Francis’s chest and he turned, shouting to those around him as he heeled his horse.
“Out of the way! Get out of the way!”
The explosion rattled his ears as a bright blue adamas cannonball flew across the ground and landed several feet from him. The blast from the shockwave made his stallion stagger to the side with an anxious noise. His forces shrieked as they were blown into the air and horses were sent sprawling. Francis looked away from the gore of the scene and his horse hard once more to rally his men.
“We still have the day men! The sun is on our side and the wind is on our backs! Remind these people who we are!”
His men, still faltered by the blast, resounded in appraisal. Their eyes glowed and turned with him. They reformed at his back as they charged back into the chaos. The company had broken the lines of the Empire and Colonel Emberfell could see that Major Baxter’s men on the inside were pressing them out. He was sure he had seen alchemists spill down the walls to make quick escapes. No one was stupid enough to chase after them, more danger was found in a pinned alchemist when all alone then on an open battlefield. The alchemists were not known to be on the front lines, only behind to cause chaos and mayhem wherever their feet hit the earth.
Frustration clawed at Francis who did not like to see any enemy get away. But there were no horns of retreat from the officers of the Empire company. They had come to take the day or perish it seemed and Francis was only interested in the arrival of the latter. If it was blood they wanted. Then blood would they receive.
With a roar he spurred the creature under him, the horned head of his mount gave a toss as they charged forward and the blue markings on the horse’s sides glowed with fervor, “Let’s go, Octavius!”
It was brutal and messy and Francis wasn’t sure how many lives they were to take. The fog had cleared to be only shards of earth and adamas and steel that flew through the sky. The sun had risen to be hot on their backs and Francis’s hands felt slick with sweat and blood on his blade. For a brief moment of calm he paused and watched the carnage flow around him. The fort cheered as they threw the rest of the Empire from its doors. The arrival of the Wiskusset 17th had turned the tides of the battle and brought victory to the rebels inside. The blare of an officers horn was the final blow to strike the end of the battle.
Victory tasted bitter. Too many casualties littered the battlefield for Francis to call it true. But before he could sound off and begin the clearing of the fields, a soft cry met his ears. A sound that ordinarily would have been ignored.
His head turned and caught the jade green of Camilla’s tail as it disappeared to hide behind the remains of a canon. She pumped the ramrod of her pistol fiercely, her face set in a determined way. In hot pursuit was an Imperial soldier with no intent to heed the call for retreat.
Camilla’s head popped up, her eyes rounding at the enemy’s swift approach. She couldn’t load fast enough.
Francis glowered with indignation. His last bullets were in a corpse fifty yards east.
Disgust rose in the mounted Colonel. He would have no unwarranted blood shed on this day or any. A vicious noise hissed from his lips as he charged to intercept the attacker with his blade raised.
But the man moved, turned with such swiftness that Francis had no room to deflect. His gun rose up and a blast of bright blue adamas sparked from the end of the barrel.
A cry left Francis, all sense of the world lost itself as he flew from Octavius’s back and crashed into the ground below. The fall disoriented him before the pain bloomed violently from his leg and slapped him back to awareness. A whimper, pitiful and high left him as he scrambled and tried to drag himself up or move in sudden desperation. He had lost sense of where everything was and he was aware of the target still on his back. All he knew was the agony of being shot in the thigh by the adamas bullet and the fire that seared his flesh and bone at the contact.
“Don’t touch him!” Camilla’s voice was a scream of battle and did not waver. With blurry vision he watched her vault out from behind the canon with her pistol raised.
“Colonel Ralston sends his regards,” the enemy soldier hissed.
A flash of adamas fire made Francis’s head pound and ache and he shut his eyes against it. He heard the dull thud of something, someone falling and for a moment he reopened them in panic, fearful to see Camilla lying dead before him. But instead she ran toward him, with the Imperial lying sprawled spread-eagle in the muck with his eyes glazed sightlessly at the sky behind her. Octavius trotted back to them, throwing his head and whickering in panic. He stopped short right above his fallen rider.
Camilla leaned over Francis with wide eyes. “Colonel!”
“Mmm’a’right…” he hissed between his teeth as he tried to sit up and grip his bleeding leg. The fear of the soldier was gone, but the pain had only risen. Panting, frantic, Francis gasped and whimpered, shutting his eyes tight at the horrific sight. “Oh…by the earth…”
Camilla pressed his shoulders, laying him back into the mud and dirt with an apologetic look, “Jus’ lay back Colonel. Jus’ lay still! They comin’ now Colonel I promise. They comin’ to help and they’ll fix you up!”
Francis could not think of laying still. His head was consumed with fire, explosions and pain seared his very mind and soul. Camilla whispered under her breath and peeled his blood slicked fingers from the gore to instead press her scarf hard against the bullet wound. The shock of it joined his voice with the cacophony of dying soldiers.
Octavius huffed with an anxious twitch of his tail and a deep snort through his soft muzzle. He lowered his large head, careful with his horn as he lipped at Francis’s fuzzy cheek. Desperate, Francis gripped the bridle of the horse, groaning and trying not to struggle against Camilla tightening a bolt of cloth above the bullet wound.
“Where the bloody fuck are the medics?” he groaned. Octavius, loyal steed he was, did not move away from Francis pressing his forehead hard to his muzzle.
Camilla’s brows furrowed anxiously, “Soon. Soon Colonel.”
“Camilla…” Francis whispered, pain making his eyes dull and skin pale.
“M’here, Colonel.” She slipped a hand into his and squeezed hard. The young woman sounded terrified and her teeth chattered, “M’here.”
The Empire had truly retreated and now the long, arduous task of collecting the injured began. Adrian had known battle by this point, had been part of the medical units to scour the fields after battle for years now. The stink of flesh beginning to rot and blood mixed with mud had become a strange perfume he had grown used to. The fields of the dead was where true mercy could be found. Some soldiers were shot to be put from their misery, too far gone to ever survive their wounds or a trip into the fort. Many were taken by slings on either side of a horses back, trotted back up into the safety of Fort Howley. Here on the field, Pracissian and Atelan no longer mattered. Help would be given to whoever still lived and a swift and just death would be given to those who would not make it.
The remnants of the Wiskusset 17th’s camp were being sent into the Fort, Adrian about to go with them. But instead he had turned, eyes pleading as he caught the sleeve of their Medic Corporal Silversmith.
“Make use of me.”
The buzzards circled overhead, ready to prey on the dead. Silversmith looked to him for a moment with eyes that shined with worry and he simply gave a nod. The ropes that bound his hands to a cart were cut and together they darted out onto the field. Bonds of loyalty to a crown and the tethers of pride were dashed in Adrian when it came to the injured. Other oaths he had to human life were more important.
He poured water into the mouth of a soldier and watched the life leave her weary eyes. A canon had taken her legs and they both knew nothing would save her from this fate. She had asked only for clean water and a hand to hold. Who was he to deny her that?
Sometimes a sigh was all that was left when death finally came.
Already exhausted, sweaty, and stinking of muck and mud, Adrian lifted himself up. Now would be a time to flee, he thought. No one watched him or kept him here. They were too wrapped up in aiding the wounded and recovering from the Empire’s attack to notice where he was or if he left. It would be easy, he could make his way across the battlefield and just disappear into the forest and be gone.
Stomach hurtling down into his boots Adrian carefully stepped over the bodies and skirted around them while he held his jug of water tight. He had no provisions, no weapons, and no way to survive out in the wilderness. But it was better than staying and being hanged as a murderer.
He hunched down and pretended to be inspecting bodies as he carefully began to pick his way through the battlefield. As calmly as Adrian could handle, he casually turned away when rebels rushed by to pluck a groaning soldier from the ground. The less they saw of his face, the less likely they were to guess his intent.
Freedom felt so close, just a few yards away before he could disappear into nothingness. He found his eyes on it more and more intently, drawn towards the taste of fresh air from the field full of dead.
A hand caught his elbow that made him jolt in surprise. Absolute terror shuddered down to his toes. Had they seen him trying to escape? Did they know what he was trying to accomplish? Slowly, he turned, mouth set into a grim line as he tried not to look guilty.
Medic Corporal Silversmith was there, his round face serious as he began to drag Adrian across the field. “Come with me. I need your help with something important.”
Relief, followed by sharp despair, coursed through Adrian’s chest. Silversmith was a round faced and short man with obvious Pracis heritage, dark brown eyes, and even darker skin. His hair was a lighter color, a sweet and soft beige that came out in lovely, tight curls tied back by a brightly colored ribbon. Adrian would have found the aesthetic quite pleasing, if it weren’t for the fact of the long, bushy tail like a cats that swished back and forth fiercely. He wondered, in a giddy moment of his wash of emotions, if it ever got stepped on while he sat.
But the yelling that reached his ears brought Adrian away from such ideas.
Francis was being held down on a stretcher by several soldiers. He was wild, tail mud covered as he thrashed one leg. “If you take it I will shoot all of you!” he bellowed, voice risen to a madman’s scream, “I swear on the earth I will have you hanged for insubordination if you take it!”
Private Camilla Junia stood a few feet away, shaking in her boots with her feathers fanned out and her eyes huge on her small face. She held the Colonel’s horse desperately and chewed her lip. It was hard to imagine that this was the self-same man who had ridden out so proudly that morning as he raved and flailed with all that he had.
Adrian didn’t know what the source of it was, until his eyes dipped lower. A bullet wound, struck in the man’s left leg that had been splinted and tied tightly down to the stretcher while he thrashed. A sickened feeling made Adrian’s shoulders tense- the leg was being prepared to be amputated from the thigh.
Corporal Silversmith looked to Adrian and his hand gripped his elbow even tighter. Thumb pressed to the soft joint of flesh, “Can you help him?”
Adrian said nothing and only watched Francis pant and curse at the men who lifted him to take him to the fort. If they took Francis’s leg it would cripple him forever.
And the rebellion.
Silversmith jostled his arm, hard, and hissed between his teeth as he jerked it so hard he felt his shoulder pop. “Can you help him? I bloody saw you trying to leave- can you help him?”
So there it was. Adrian had been caught and whatever leverage Silversmith could use to get Adrian to continue being useful he would use. It would be Adrian’s choice then, his life or the Colonel’s?
The soldiers were bringing him closer now and up the hill while Francis looked at them all with rage. But those blue eyes, full of ice and fire, caught sight of Adrian. He knew what Adrian was, who he was to the Empire, and before they passed his hand flashed out. With a powerful grip Francis grabbed the lapel of his vest and dragged him down. So close that those blue eyes were all that Adrian could see.
“Save my leg. By the earth…by your gods please…” Francis panted, breath hot as it blew across Adrian’s chest. He whispered, low and trying for others not to hear his pleading, “Please.”
There were a hundred things Adrian would rather do than this. But he leaned back, gazing at Francis’s desperate face and the absolute agony that the Atelan man was in. Without thinking, he pressed a hand to Francis’s forehead, feeling the fever already raging there. The medic’s hand was still gripping his other elbow hard, twisting it behind him. Leaning away, Adrian looked to the man grimly. “Do you have a scalpel and morphine?”
The medic gave a jerky nod as his eyes blazed in relief.
Adrian would regret this, he was sure. Voice weary, he jerked his chin, “Get him inside and find me some refined adamas. Let us see if I can save it.”
Francis fell back against the cot, silent now and no longer fighting as they trekked their way up the muddy hill and off the battlefield. They entered through the heavily armed front doors that were covered in deep gouges from canon-fire. Fort Howley was awash with injured and soldiers who ran swiftly back and forth shouting orders. Repairs were already started while men and women reinforced the walls and dragged the injured into the infirmaries for those who were worst off. Adrian could see the gleam of orange and an officer’s jacket, up above where Major Baxter moved amongst his men with sleeves rolled up to work beside them.
As the doors of Fort Howley began to shut behind them, Adrian looked back only once. In the gleam of the morning he could see the forests he had almost escaped to and the freedom beyond it. As the heavy wood closed with a loud slam Adrian felt that thin hope of escape snap and with it his fate was sealed.