The sound of trumpets catapults Clef from a deep sleep to confounded panic. He sits up on his pallet, his heart in his throat. He glances around his small room, looking for some sort of explanation. Outside, the trumpets are still sounding. As the camp wakes, the pandemonium of war-torn confusion joins the high-pitched notes.
We’re under attack, he thinks, pulse racing. He scrambles out of bed, his bones protesting all those nights upon the hard, wooden pallet. The evening chill makes his bare skin pimple with gooseflesh. At least, he wants to believe the cold is the cause. Under attack…but how? How did they get so close? This is a question to which he has no answer; for now, he must live with the consequences.
Clef scrambles for his clothes. His breeches and robes are white slashed through with crimson, marking him as an Elder Brother of the Crescent. Despite his best efforts, they are stained with dirt and blood. Next he dons his belt, sturdy leather dyed a shade of dark red. Hanging from it are accouterments of his trade: phials, pouches, and charms. More supplies are stored in the satchel he grabs next, pulling its strap over his opposite shoulder. Finally, Clef gropes for his silver diadem. The crescent moon in its center is encircling a blood-red ruby—yet another identifier for his status. His prematurely silver hair is getting unruly; the band helps keep it in check.
It’s not taken him two minutes to get dressed, but it feels like an eternity has passed. The screams get louder, but not as overwhelming as the clash of steel against steel. Clef runs out of his room, nearly bowling over one of his subordinates in the process. He recognizes Julia, one of the Order’s novices. He’s pleased to note she has donned her robes as well, the white opal in her diadem gleaming in the candlelight.
“Brother,” she gasps, still twisting her long dark braid into a bun. “The alarm. How—?”
“I don’t know,” he replies, leading her to the main room. “I’d been informed our perimeter was secure. If the Tendovians have breached our defenses…” he trails off, leaving the implications where they fall. Julia doesn’t reply, but Clef can feel the anxiety radiating off her in waves. He understands; it mirrors his own.
The clinic in Baron Falls is small, and already crowded to capacity with wounded soldiers. Those with minor injuries are sleeping two to a bed—some even on the floor. Most are almond-skinned natives of the Embergrass Prairies, like Clef and Julia, but many are paler or darker with Northern and Southern blood. Not for the first time, Clef’s heart aches. His homeland is a veritable symbol of the good that can come of harmony, but once again it is merely a pawn in a Unification War.
“Baron Falls is a stronghold,” Julia says, babbling nervously at Clef’s heels. “Our backs are to mountains, and our river runs through fertile land. Tendoves knows the strategic advantages here. If they’re attacking, they must be—” she stops herself, but Clef knows what she had been about to say. Confident. Their Southern enemies wouldn’t have risked an assault unless they were certain of victory. The notion is not a comforting one.
“Forget that,” Clef says, using his most authoritative tone. “Organize the others. Gather supplies. Ask Cerie to help me check on the patients. We may need to start moving people.”
“Move them where?” Julia asks, sounding hopeless. “We’re cornered.”
He reaches out to grab her shoulders, shaking the fear out of her. “Not yet, we aren’t. Not yet.” He tries to pour as much bravery into his voice as possible—as much for his own sake as for hers. “You can only be defeated if you stop fighting. Now go!” Once he releases her, Julia scampers off to do as he’s asked. She’s still frightened, but she isn’t giving up.
Clef heads for the nearest bed, occupied by a former lancer. He is currently lame, and the prognosis for recovery is a poor one. Clef is dreading the thought of having to transport this man on such short notice, and under such duress. He sends a silent prayer to the Lady that it will not come to retreat.
“Leave me,” the soldier mumbles, voice tight with pain. The belladonna blend has worn off sometime during the night, leaving him sweaty and breathless, skin clammy to the touch.
Clef shakes his head, smoothing the young soldier’s hair from his brow. “It has not yet come to that,” he says, hoping he sounds soothing.
“It will. You know it will.” A coughing fit overtakes him, and Clef helps him calm down a sip of cold belladonna tea. “I recognize the trumpets. Tendoves is here.” Clef tries to shush him, but the soldier won’t have it. “They would not be here if they did not think they could take us. I would only slow you down,” he insists desperately, clawing at Clef’s sleeve. “Save someone else with the cart meant for me.”
“It has not yet come to that,” Clef hears himself repeating. He moves to the next bed, tearing his sleeve out of the soldier’s grasp. He finds himself returning to the phrase again and again, trying to ease the minds of those with more combat experience than he. The more he echoes it, the more doubt he feels. Clef has been stationed at Baron Falls for months, tending to the injured but never seeing the front lines. He’d been aware of the war’s severity, yes, but only tonight has it come knocking on his doorstep. Only tonight does the icy grip of fear seize his heart.