By the time Ollivan’s cart arrived at the Donmagh library and residence, the joint buildings were ashy skeletons in the grass, enveloped in angry red-orange flames.
Connor leapt from the back of the cart and ran for the wreckage. “Mother! Da!”
Three Imperial guards threw buckets of water on the rapidly deteriorating structure, yet it did nothing to calm the flames. The familiar scent of magic hit him then. Magical fire was not dimmed by regular water. It could burn in the harshest of conditions. Only magic could subdue magic.
This was not one of his accidents.
Someone had done this deliberately.
He ran toward the hungry flames, eagerly eating the remaining bones of the house. He couldn’t see their bodies – or much of anything. Ash blew in the wind, stinging his eyes. Could they have escaped? The smoke was overwhelming. His vision blurred with tears. Sweat poured down his face.
“Been at this for twenty minutes, still no change,” one of the men yelled to Galen, Ollivan’s father.
Indeed, it seemed the fire was localized to just the house. It hadn’t spread along the grass, or to the trees in the distance, even though the wind was strong enough to carry it there.
Ollivan’s voice sounded above the rest. “Connor, don’t—”
The voices of Ollivan and his father’s Imperial Guards faded into the rush of magic. He’d read somewhere that each person left a particular scent on a cast spell. He coughed. He felt dizzy. If he could isolate the scent amidst the chaos…
A strong grip caught him by the arm and dragged him from the wreckage as an Imperial Guard threw another bucket of water on the fire. He stumbled backwards, but Ree held him upright.
“Listen,” she said, her voice the only clear tone ringing in the noise. “We have to leave.”
“Leave?” He shook his head. “Mother and Da…”
She gazed sadly at what used to be his home. “I think they’re gone.”
He wrenched himself from her grip. “You did this.”
“No, please Connor—”
“You knew my mother was going to betray you.”
Ree recoiled. “What?”
Ollivan appeared at Connor’s side, bucket in hand. “Grab one. I think it’s working.”
Connor gripped his best friend. “It’s not. It’s a magical fire. Do they know where my parents are?”
He looked uncomfortable. “You’re not…thinking straight. We have to put out the fire.”
“I’m fine,” Connor said.
He never even got to say goodbye.
The flames licking at the grass flared. Perhaps it would spread to the town if they didn’t get it under control.
“Tell me what happened,” Connor demanded.
Ree’s voice was sombre but soft. Her eyes were closed, but they moved beneath her eyelids. “I don’t…sense them.”
“You’re sure?” Connor asked desperately.
She opened her eyes. “I’m sorry, Connor. Nothing.”
He turned back to the smoldering remains of his home. He couldn’t see if his parents were among the fiery debris, but everywhere he looked, he could see them. The future he would never have. The past, recorded meticulously in thousands of tomes—lost forever.
The Imperial Guards were still fruitlessly tossing water on the flames.
Ree came around to his side. He was nervous. She had him where she wanted him: weak. Desperate. Hurt. While he didn’t believe she was strong enough to start the fire while standing in the market, it was her presence in Ashdown that caused this.
Not to mention, his own magic. His accident earlier could have attracted the fae militia.
It was easier to blame her.
She stared at him—the same look she’d given him when they’d first met. Her eyes were deep pools, and he fell into them momentarily, before remembering his mother’s warning: she could control him if she wanted. Her beauty, her blood, was a weapon.
Instead she faced the burning remains. A torrent whipped suddenly through the field, blowing the fire onto the grass. Ree’s cloak blew back. Her wings, eager to escape their prison, fluttered and shone in the light of the magical flames. Palms facing the raging fire, she closed her eyes and connected to the sleeping Spirit Mother beneath the soil, the source of all magic.
“No,” he said to Ree. He couldn’t let her summon more destruction, not when it meant he would lose her too.
Yet it wasn’t fire she wrought. A cooling mist shot from her hands, spraying high and landing on the spreading flames.
She was trying to help.
He mimicked her stance and tried to concentrate. Magic was a relationship between the user and the Spirit Mother. The stronger that bond, the stronger the magic. He could sense her through the earth. Her bond was strong. His was middling, but he had to do his part.
He recalled the time Mother and Da took him to a nearby stream that flowed into the Starlam Gorge nearly a day’s ride south of Ashdown. He’d been…what, six? Uncle Brendan had still been alive. He was supposed to visit that day, he wasn’t there yet. Da had held Connor in the water while he splashed around. Tiny fish darted around his chubby legs. The rocks were slippery and slimy beneath him, but it was fine, Da held him, Mother was there, telling him stories about the water cress she’d slain and eaten during the war, then moving on to the story of how she and Donnoch Donmagh fell in love…
The water from the river came up through the earth—it was all the same water, after all—up through him, and out his hands. It was sporadic, but it was there. He dared not open his eyes. He couldn’t lose the image of his parents, so young and happy. They had him. He had them. They wouldn’t have let him go.
Beside him, he could feel Ree’s stream. It was stronger, more confident. All at once, her scent was clear to him: floral, like a fresh rose, with an earthy undertone. It had not been there before; it was an extra layer, soothing the already present smells in the smoke. She hadn’t started the fire. She’d been telling the truth. She was using her strength to aid him.
He wished he didn’t need her help. Someday, he’d be as strong as she was.
As her magic dissipated and the fire subsided, a pungent, spicy smell wafted into the air. Connor couldn’t identify it: it was unlike anything he’d ever encountered. A foreign taste filled his mouth and made him want to puke. The signature of the attacker, potent as the smoke. His knees quivered. The stronger the smell, the stronger the wielder.
He would remember this moment. He would find the person responsible, find the people who did this to his parents, and make them pay.
When he opened his eyes, the dark smoke nearly blinded him. The fire, once a raging force, had dissipated into red coals. Even the charred remains of the house had collapsed into a heap of black ash. Wind picked up the remains and carried it around the field. His gaze adjusted. The Imperial Guard were shielding their faces and shouting, demanding orders.
Ree grabbed his arm once again. “This is our chance. There’s nothing here anymore. We have to leave, before we are captured or killed.”
He would be a criminal if he left. Harbouring a half-fae with no magic license and a history of (maybe) murdering uncles. This was his home. He’d known these people his whole life. They’d understand why he had to keep Ree a secret.
The air was still hazy, but Ollivan, his father Galen, and the other Imperials adjusted, and Connor realized Ree was right: their brief window of escape had been shuttered.
“Fae,” said Galen, though his tone was unsure. “Arrest her.”
Connor stepped in front of Ree. “No. She didn’t start this.”
Ollivan came between his father’s men with his hands up. “Don’t resist, Connor. Your family was harbouring a fae fugitive. You knew she was fae, that she is an illegal magic user, and didn’t even tell me.”
“There’s more at work here,” Connor said. “There are people after her.”
“She’ll be safer with us. I’m sorry,” Ollivan said, drawing his weapon. “We have to take her in.”
Connor had been gone less than half an hour. This fire had devoured the house between now and then. The smoke was thick now, though it would have taken time to spread, taken time for the smoke to rise and be noticed by the neighbours. Ollivan lived a five-minute ride down the road, but he would have had to connect the horse to the cart, and ride all the way from his house into town…where he somehow knew that Connor and Ree were shopping.
He had to trust his gut.
“You could have just taken a horse,” he muttered to his friend, frowning.
“What?” Ollivan asked, confused.
He gestured to the cart. “You were already here, weren’t you. With your father and his men. You drove them here. You were here waiting to take Ree away. I knew she was fae. But so did you. You must have seen who started this fire.”
“It started upstairs,” Ollivan said numbly, glancing between him and Ree. “We didn’t see anyone. It was magic, and there are no registered, fully licensed wielders living in Ashdown, and no one with a magic license checked in with my father within the last few days. Clearly she’s wielding magic without a license.” He gestured his weapon towards Ree. “We have to take her in, at least for questioning.”
“This isn’t right,” Connor said. Although he was afraid, he held his ground. “She helped me. If she hadn’t been here, the fire would have spread to the town. We would have all died or forced to abandon our homes before the Imperial wielders arrived. She doesn’t deserve this treatment.”
Ollivan looked just as torn. “No matter how she looks, she has wings, Connor. She’s fae. Your parents are dead because of her presence. If we let her stay, who knows how many others will come and cause trouble?”
How many others. Connor could scarcely believe his ears.
His parents were dead.
“No.” He retreated backwards. The grass beneath him felt hot, as though the fire were still raging.
Ollivan sighed. “I won’t strike you down. That’s not honorable. But you know I’m right. The fae bring trouble to Ashdown—to the world—they always have, for the past four hundred years. Here, take it.” He threw his knife at Connor’s feet. “Strike her down while you can.”
Glancing at Ree beside him, he stooped to retrieve the knife. It had an Imperial crest on the hilt. No doubt a present from Ollivan’s father.
Before he could even think of doing anything with the knife, Ree grabbed him from behind, her wings a flutter. At first he thought she was going to take off with him in tow. No—instead, magic sizzled in her left hand.
“I’ll kill him,” she said. She held her palm to the side of his head. “Drop your weapons.”
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