For background, see Winding Down.
Sir Duncan, the head of the squire school, stood in front of the huge fort portcullis with his large hand on the shoulder of a squire. The portcullis was up and the squire looked terrified.
Everyone was gathered in the courtyard before them. We were packed wall to wall, tucked neatly within our respective groups. We murmured amongst ourselves while we waited for the big knight to speak.
“Who’s that Duncan’s got with him?” Philip asked me.
“I think that’s Thomas, from Group Omega,” I said back. The boy looked no more than sixteen, with long brown hair, a heavy build, and an unfortunate case of acne.
“Attention!” Sir Duncan bellowed. Immediately, every squire’s heels slid together and we squared our shoulders. “Sir!” we chorused.
The big knight was not in a good mood. He cast his small eyes over every one of our faces before speaking. “The customs of our land,” he said, “declare that knights are heroes of the king. Only the best young men may be selected for this title.” He spread a hand and pointed out several squires in the crowd. “Young men like Charles, David, and Nathaniel. Some of our strongest.”
“Nate, that’s you,” muttered Philip with a flick of a smile. My face remained flat. Despite the public recognition of my skills, I was apprehensive. If Duncan was leading to where I thought he was leading to…
“Those who are not worthy do not belong in knighthood.” The knight’s hand tightened on Thomas’s shoulder. “Those who use magic… are not worthy.”
Sick dread punched me in the stomach.“This boy, Thomas Herring, one you may have considered your equal” he said, “is a magic user.”
Feet shuffled uneasily but not a word escaped our lips. Sweat slipped down the back of my neck, and I tried to swallow my fear. Another magic user. Another one who’d tried to hide his powers. Another one who’d been caught.
“Demonstrate,” was all Duncan said to the squire before stepping back.
Thomas closed his eyes and took a slow breath in resignation. He reached one hand to the sky.
There was a tremendous clap of thunder and a brilliant flash of light. A bolt of pure, crackling lightning shot from the heavens, into the boy’s awaiting hand. He clenched his fist around it, and it flashed again.
When the spots faded from our eyes, Thomas stood before us, holding a spear of rippling lightning with both hands.
There was a collective intake of breath. The boy spread his fingers, and the lightning dissipated into charged air and ozone. He closed his eyes in defeat.
“Your sword,” said Duncan. Thomas slowly reached to his side, where his sword hung by his belt, and grabbed it by the hilt, drawing it out of its sheath with the rasp of iron on leather. When he held it in his hands, he gave it to the big knight.
Sir Duncan snatched it up and said “Thomas Herring, you are hereby expelled from the squire school.” He looked to two of his fellow knights. “Take him away,” he said to them.
The young squire was grabbed by his elbows and led rather unkindly under the portcullis, to an awaiting wagon to take him home. The portcullis clanged and rattled shut, slowly, slowly, until Thomas was cut off from us by the lattice of iron.
“Let his expulsion be a warning to all,” said Duncan. “Magic users do not belong in the king’s army. They do not belong in knighthood.” He rubbed his face. “If any of you, like Thomas, think you can hide magic from us, I am allotting you twelve hours grace to leave this squire school and never return. Dismissed.”
We relaxed from attention, but I was still as tense as I’d ever been. As our group headed back to the barracks, Philip leaned over to me.
“Are you gonna take the grace period?” he asked in a hushed voice. “Nate, it’s your best bet. He’ll find out sooner or later. Why don’t you just go home when you have the chance?”
I clenched my jaw. My determination set the fire magic in my veins roiling. “No,” I said. “This is my home.”
I would stay, even if I could be the next squire expelled for using magic. I would not slink away tonight like a coward. Even more than magic users, cowards do not belong in knighthood.