By Joana Hill
A seemingly calm day is interrupted when soldiers invade Claire’s city to burn down the library in an attempt to destroy the free exchange of magic knowledge.
I could hear shouting outside. It should’ve been the first sign that something was wrong, but I still sat there at my desk. There was a group of cute little magicians, no older than eight probably, looking at the old magic books as their teachers told them someday they could cast those spells too. Powerful ones that could change the weather or turn regular metal into gold. They were the sort of things hardly anyone could do these days, but there was a certain pride I had in them being told that they could do it one day.
It was better to encourage the next generation than make them settle. At least, that was how I always saw things.
I had recognized the teacher right away, mostly because I saw her every day: my girlfriend, Aurora. She was ten times better at magic than I was, but instead of working as a soldier or on the counsel, she wanted to teach. She said that they needed people who knew what they were doing to teach the kids, that just telling them how to do things instead of showing them was useless. And so she worked, day after day, to make sure they had the best magic education possible.
With no other patrons trying to grab my attention (most of them were probably buried in the stacks with their own research) I had found myself just watching Aurora and her class as she introduced new spells.
At least until I heard the shouting outside again.
“…Claire? What’s going on?” Aurora had stepped away from the children, leaving her assistant to watch them. I shrugged helplessly and stood from my desk to see for myself; we were in a better part of the city, but it was still likely just a street brawl. I assured the children who were asking about it as well that it would be alright, that I’d see for myself and have officers come if we needed it.
My heart dropped, however, when I got outside and saw the fire. Raiders. Or rather, soldiers from another land, come to raid Oriel. Without the walls and heavy doors between us, I could really hear it now, the people screaming, the soldiers yelling orders or to just get out of the way. They were setting things in their way ablaze, and even some people who weren’t fast enough. I could feel myself shaking at the scene.
And I shook even harder when I heard them say the library was the target.
Aurora was behind me, taking my hand as she watched them get closer and closer, bringing destruction with them. Before they could reach the library steps, however, Oriel soldiers intercepted them.
They were far outnumbered. I knew they wouldn’t last long. But it would give us enough time to escape. I couldn’t sound the alarm or they’d realize what we were doing.
“Rori, I need you to get the kids out, along with anyone else who’s in here,” I said, pulling the door shut and turning to take Aurora’s hand. She frowned at me, but I took her other hand and squeezed them. “I have a plan.” It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was one. I hoped we had enough time. “If you encounter any of the staff, tell them to grab every book and scroll they can and run.”
“Claire, you need to get out, too!” She frowned deeply, staring down at our hands and then up into my eyes.
Before I could respond, there came a pounding at the door. I let go of Aurora’s hands and moved to bar the doors. She helped, pushing everything against it she could reach that wasn’t bolted to the floor. “Go!”
Aurora still didn’t want to, I could tell. But she had the children to protect. Their lives were worth much more to the world. And so was hers. I pushed her until she did as she was told and ran to collect the children with her assistant.
Meanwhile, the foreign soldiers were beating the door. I could feel it moving behind me even with all that was between us. If they were determined to set this place on fire, they could still do it from the outside, or break the windows.
Damn it all.
The loud shattering made me turn. They’d finally figured out to climb up and smash a window, and there was a soldier.
“Alright, men, you have your orders. Burn it all.”
I knew that was what they wanted when they said the library was their target, but it still made me gasp. The first soldier who’d made it in turned to me, narrowing his eyes. “Do you intend on fighting us?”
Fighting? I could barely use healing magic, let alone something destructive. Aurora would’ve been a better choice here, but she had followed my order to get the children out. As I stood there trembling, trying to decide what to do, another soldier approached and grabbed me.
“If she works here, she can be considered a rebel. The general will decide what to do with her.”
My eyes went wide. A rebel? I didn’t even jaywalk. But that didn’t seem to matter to them, because before I knew it, I had a sword to my throat and two other soldiers grabbed me and tied me up.
I could do nothing but lay in the corner they’d tossed me as they started setting the shelves ablaze. The fire spread, climbing up to burn the shelves and books up at the top, destroying centuries of knowledge.
“Stop it!” I shouted, but they were having none of that. Soon one of the soldiers who’d tied me up had a gag over my mouth as well, muffling my words of protest. Tears rolled down my cheeks as they started to move to another section, leaving me alone with my two captors.
The soldiers reveled in the destruction. I could hear their shouts of accomplishment as they lit more shelves. In my frustration I kicked out at one of the men watching over me. I barely got him, but he slashed at me for my effort, leaving a gash across my face.
There was blood in my eyes. And then cries of pain before two thuds around me.
“Oh Claire, I shouldn’t have left you.” I couldn’t see her through the blood, but I did feel her reach to undo the gag. Finally, with nothing to prevent me, I screamed. I screamed even as she healed the gash on my face and dragged me to a water fountain to flush out my eyes. I stopped screaming, finally, when I could see her.
“They called me a rebel,” I said, my voice hoarse. “Rori, do you know what’s going on?”
“There’s been an upset in the capital,” she said, gently petting my hair. “They’re fighting. The new faction wants to make it so civilians don’t have access to magic. That’s what one of the soldiers said. Before I knocked him out, anyway.”
I couldn’t help but smile, despite that I was still feeling the effects of my brief capture and the sword to my flesh. Without thinking, I reached up. There was still a scar. The slash must have been deeper than Aurora could fully heal.
When the news finally registered, though, I was seeing red in a different sort of way.
“How dare they!” I marched over to one of my former captors and pulled the sword from his slack hand. If they were trying to destroy knowledge, they’d get a fight for it. I expected Aurora to protest, but instead, she was right behind me as I marched for the part of the library the soldiers had left for. I could hear the chaos outside as the soldiers who hadn’t come inside fought with local soldiers and civilians alike, but my focus was on my own task. The only other thing I noticed was Aurora casting a spell to put the fire out where it was already burning.
There were ten soldiers. Even with Aurora, we were outnumbered. And I was only marginally better with a sword than I was magic. But I didn’t care as I went running, fueled by rage. The group I went for first saw me and met my blade with theirs.
“I will draw my last breath to protect this place!” I said, pushing against the resistence. Aurora was behind me again and she cast her own fire, making the soldier stopping me cry out as his gloves singed and burned.
“How do you like that?” Aurora asked as I turned my sword around and slammed the handle against his head, hard enough to knock him out cold. Aurora cast a wind spell and he and two of his conscious comrades were sent flying out the nearby doors, slamming into the grand maple tree outside. The ones who were conscious before no longer were now.
I was ready to fight again, but the soldiers left ran.
“Cowards!” Aurora called as they dropped their torches. She quickly put them out herself so their fire wouldn’t spread as the soldiers removed the barricades and continued to run.
The fight outside was not going in their favor. There were unconscious soldiers (and perhaps one or two dead ones) on the steps of the library, but the citizens, the ones who learned magic and were considered rebels under this attempted rule, were pushing the army out with the very magic they were trying to quash. Buildings burned, rubble lay in the streets, but it was easy to tell we were winning as the foreign soldiers were pushed further and further from the library.
I wanted to join, but as I stepped out into the fresh air, I found my knees buckling. I very nearly tumbled down the stairs and onto one of our local soldiers, but Aurora grabbed me.
“Claire, please let me take you home.” She glanced off into the distance. She, too, could tell that the soldiers had underestimated this city’s want to protect itself and its magic. “They’ve got this.”
“…yeah.” I let out a very tired breath, before tumbling backwards into her arms. We were safe.