Everyone he’d ever known hated him. Except for Riona. A girl he’d only just met.
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They hadn’t found his parents’ bodies.
These six words had become a mantra to Connor Donmagh over the past several hours as he struggled to put one heavy foot in front of the other on the steep incline. He had already fallen three times, and his knees and shins would be scraped and bruised for days, yet he barely felt the pain. Every step he made was physical space between himself and the small village of Ashdown, where all that remained was a community that believed him a traitor, and the ashy remnants of his childhood home.
The forest outside of Ashdown stretched for at least five celim and ended near Drohoven, one of the small communities of humans on the continent. They were many, many days from the capital—their final destination—and they had no horses, no airgid, no food, and no allies.
Material concerns were far from Connor’s mind. He hadn’t said goodbye to his mother. Not a real goodbye. He had gone to the market to buy dresses for Riona—a convenient excuse to get Connor out of the house so his mother, Nora, could presumably exact revenge on the half-fae for murdering her brother. The last time he saw his father, Donnoch Donmagh, he had been disappointed in Connor for losing control of his untrained magic. Connor felt that disappointment strongly, as though he had inherited it. It was all he had left of his father and he grasped it desperately.
Ahead of him, Riona kept a steady pace. She bunched her loose-fitting dress, which was covered in a thick cloak, in her fists and skillfully navigated the rocky, rooted hill. She had more practice travelling through the rough woods. She had grown up on the run. If she hadn’t arrived with Fingal, her mysterious human guardian, the previous evening, his parents might’ve still been alive. Connor’s head spun. More had happened to him in this one day than in his entire short life.
His parents and his uncle had fought in the human-fae war nearly two decades ago, alongside Fingal. Sometime after the war, a rift had developed between them, involving Riona, perhaps due to her involvement in his uncle’s death. While Connor had grown up in relative safety in the small community of Ashdown with his parents, Fingal and Riona had been on the run for years from the revived fae militia, who, according to Riona at least, wished to restart the human-fae war. The fae militia also sought Riona as she was secretly the fugitive, impossible daughter of Evil Queen Caetriona—the tyrant who had started the human-fae war. Headed by a fae named Riklar Dheediannil, the militia had tracked her to Ashdown and had torched Connor’s childhood home—with Connor’s parents inside. Whether an accident or a deliberate message to Riona, it didn’t matter now. Connor’s parents were dead because their unresolved past had knocked on their door, and it had cost them their lives.
He was bound to the half-fae fugitive—for now. He feared her, coveted her connection to the Spirit Mother…yet he was also intrigued by her. He had taken her hand and saw the truth within her, for that was his secret power. She was not her mother’s daughter, as far as he could see. All she wanted was to protect him. And he, despite all that had happened, felt a certain obligation towards her as well, for she knew more about his parents’ past than he ever would. He would keep her safe—somehow. Though he was woefully underqualified, having little to no control over his own power.
To distract himself from the fae, the ache in his body from their brisk pace, and the painful weight of his grief, he concentrated on perfecting a light spell in the palm of his right hand. A transparent ball of red-orange light flickered, swirled around his fingers, and dissipated. It had no heat. He didn’t think he could bring himself to cast a fire spell again, as the smell of the burning library was permanently lodged in his nose.
His frustration mounted with each attempt. He could only manage red or orange. Expert magic wielders could conjure a solid rainbow and weave it about their bodies. A waste of magic, perhaps, but a beautiful one. The books he’d read on light conjuring said it was sometimes used as signals or flares in dangerous situations. It was also a spell he had to master for the Tower entrance exam—the only place to legally learn magic and acquire a coveted magic license.
Despite the events of the last day—the death of his parents, the arrival of the fugitive daughter of the former Evil Queen Caetriona, and the betrayal of his community—he still desperately wanted to attend the Tower and become a magic wielder.
And he hated himself for it.
His power. The stream of ice flying from his hands–from Riona’s hands too–saving the day too late.
Magical fire wasn’t like regular fire. His parents had faced terrible foes in the war. Sure, he didn’t know specifics, but he’d pieced together stories of their heroics late at night, listening to their whispers in the kitchen from his bedroom. Perhaps they realized the fae militia were coming and escaped before the fire licked up everything they owned. Fae were a more cunning foe than fire.
Ahead, Riona stopped to catch her breath, one slight hand gripping a thick birch tree for balance on the incline. They’d been climbing for most of the day and only twice did the forest level out. Connor had been too angry and too numb to request a break. No, better for her to think him strong, just in case he had to overtake her and…
And what? There was nothing left for him back in Ashdown but…ash.
Unless his parents were waiting for him in the ruins, unseen by the Imperial Guard and the fae militia. What if they had seen them coming and escaped? He imagined them fighting the fae, armored and fierce and bloody, as he imagined them being in the war.
It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that they’d escaped.
What if they thought he was dead?
What if they were waiting for him…back in Ashdown?
Riona rubbed her back where her hidden wings curled around her body, tucked away from the world. “The ground levels off a celim ahead. We should pick up the pace to make it there to make camp before it gets too dark.”
Connor’s lips trembled. He looked away before his emotions could run away with him. She was so calm. His parents were dead. How could she be so…heartless?
“Connor?” Tiny rocks cascaded down the incline as she carefully moved toward him. Her flawless face was marred with concern and curiosity.
It wasn’t real concern, he told himself. She didn’t know what it was like to have two parents who loved her. The only parents she had were an evil queen of legend and perhaps…Fingal.
“Tell me everything you know about Riklar Dheediannil,” he said, mustering his courage.
The question surprised her. Her eyebrows knitted into worry and her paranoid violet gaze flitted around the mess of trees, bushes, and canopies. “Be careful of what you say. There are ears everywhere.”
Connor didn’t care. He wanted Riklar and the fae militia to ambush him, so he could throw every untrained bit of magic their way. A crude, suicidal wish, perhaps. At least he would die fighting the man responsible for his parents’ death.
Seeing his resolve, Riona relented. “He was one of my mother’s trusted advisors. He lived in the castle. He was probably one of her lovers.” Although the word lovers evoked scandal in Connor’s mind, Riona said it dispassionately, as if it were a commonplace practice, like how to make tea or tie a knot. “He was—is—ruthless. Decisive. Power-hungry. But also—careful. Strategic. Clever. He often carried out secret missions for my mother, during the war. I don’t know what. She kept me out of that.”
Although Riona was only two-years-old when the war between humans and the fae ended, the fae had perfect memories. Riona was half-fae, and she seemed to have inherited this useful, yet terrifying trait.
“Do you think he knows we’re in this forest right now?” Connor asked.
Riona considered it. “He knows my magical scent as I know his. He would have known we tried to put out the fire, yet he didn’t attack us there. Perhaps he had already left, or he didn’t want to involve the Imperial Guard. So it’s possible he’s tracking us. I don’t sense him nearby, but he has alluded me before.”
Useless, then. Riklar and his fae militia could be anywhere. “If he wants to restart the war, or retake the capital, or—whatever his political aim—why waste time coming after the daughter of a supposedly dead queen? Yes. You have power. Yes, you’re a half-breed. But why not just storm the capital with the forces he has now?”
“All very good questions, ones Fingal and I have discussed until we found ourselves thinking in circles,” Riona replied.
“Does he think you have a claim to the throne in Halsimarth?”
She seemed taken aback by the suggestion. “Me?”
“You’re Queen Caetriona’s daughter. She was a tyrant, yes, but still a queen.”
A queen who Riona also claimed to be alive, which would have terrified Connor more if the threat of Riklar Dheediannil wasn’t more real and present.
“My mother’s time as queen means nothing to me.” One of her wings beneath the cloak twitched and she looked away. He felt her magic simmering beneath the earth, ready for her to use in a heartbeat. “I have no more claim to any throne, no more than you do. Nor would I want to rule. All I want is for us to be safe. Good…and safe.”
Connor was safe in Ashdown, before she came. He glanced down the incline, through the tall, stalky trees. The setting sun lit the way back to Ashdown, long hidden by the forest. “I should go back.”
An exasperated sigh escaped her. “I know it’s hard. But you have to put your feelings aside. If we don’t put distance between us and the Imperial Guard and the–”
“Put my feelings aside?” She was heartless. He knew it. He could barely keep the pain from his voice as he struggled to climb the incline towards the half-fae. “I just watched the only place I’ve ever lived burn. And what could we do about it? Nothing. What did my friends and community, the people I have known forever, do? Nothing. In fact, we made them believe that we’re the enemy.” Scrubbing his face with his hands, Connor’s guilt flooded him. “I’m weak.”
Everyone he’d ever known hated him.
Except for Riona. A girl he’d only just met.
She was his only link to his parents now—and to the man who had struck the match on the fire that had ravaged his home.
Her gaze flitted to the orangey skyline and then returned to him. “If we had stayed, they would have brought you in for questioning too. They’d imprison you for harbouring a fugitive fae. As for your parents”–she steeled her gaze–“I’m sorry. You can grieve for them after we finish our business in the capital.”
“Just like that, you want me to reschedule my grief for a more convenient hour?” He sneered as a cold wind whipped through the trees, chilling him to the bone. She was right about one thing, and one thing only: they’d have to camp soon. “Maybe Fingal can shut off his feelings when times are tough, but not me.”
She looked hurt at the mention of her protector. “Fingal can use his feelings to power his actions. He used them against our enemies.”
“I’m not a hardened warrior. That’s not the kind of protector–the kind of person–I want to be.”
Turning away from Connor, she drove a foot into the side of the incline forcefully. “I’m not asking you to be anyone. I’m asking you to be alert. If you let your grief cloud your judgment, with your magical abilities as raw as they are–”
“I see. You’re worried I’ll set the whole forest on fire if I’m upset? I’m untrained, not volatile!”
“Yes, and you nearly burned down the library. So forgive me if I’m a little on edge.”
Connor felt like she’d punched him in the gut. “First you call me untrained. Then you…” He couldn’t put it into words. Was she blaming him now for starting the fire that killed his parents? He couldn’t help but jump to that conclusion, for anger and guilt and fear were warm and easily accessible. It had just been a small explosion, a misuse of a magical tome. Yet it had been hours before the other magical fire had started.
What if somehow…it had been his fault?
He leaned against the nearest tree, the bark scraping his soft hands. He just wanted to go home. Or better yet, to wake from this nightmare. He whispered to the Spirit
Mother, promising he would never pick up a piece of adventurous fiction again, for every time he had, he had wished for a life of adventure and strife, for it had been better than the nothingness life he’d had in Ashdown.
Riona’s boots crunched on the rocks and the bits of grass poking through the otherwise rocky slope. She was coming closer. He felt her gaze on him, as it was filled with magic, and he couldn’t resist—he met it. There, he found no pity. Only fear.
“Someone’s coming,” she whispered.
The trees provided adequate cover, yet they did nothing for their loud arguing. Riona gestured to a bush up ahead; despite himself, Connor followed her, kicking up rocks and dirt as he scrambled for the relative safety of the bush. He might not trust Riona, but he did trust her magic. They huddled behind the thick, green bush. Her shoulder brushed his and he tried to ignore her closeness. While tall and imposing on the incline, she curled now into the fetal position: confident and still, not like a frightened mouse, but the cat that lies in wait for its dinner.
“Connor? I heard your voice.”
Out of the soaring firs stepped a familiar face, one Connor thought he’d never see again. Even though that same friend had thrust the knife into his hands and told him to kill
Riona, Connor felt a wash of grief anew for his friend. He had never steered Connor wrong. He had always been there for Connor, and as far as Connor could see, his friend was alone now.
And here he was, calling Connor’s name. A symbol of all he had lost.
Before Riona could stop him—before Connor could control his base impulses—he shot up out of the bushes. “Ollivan.”
The red and gold banner of the Imperial Guard draped over Ollivan’s chest blazed like an ugly wound. He raised his weapon—a long, thin sword with a decorated hilt, reserved for honoured officers only. His large, handsome face showed surprise at Connor’s sudden appearance, but he quickly steeled as he remembered his place as a would-be recruit to the Imperial Guard. “You’re both coming back to Ashdown with me.”