The girl was safe, but not for long.
Fingal pulled the black cloth over his nose and mouth to protect himself from the cool night air as he rode. The wind nipped at an old wound on his arm, but he itched it away. He leaned back in his carriage seat and listened to the horses’ hooves against the gritty road, and the crunching of the wheels beneath him. The road was full of potholes, but fortunately he didn’t have to worry about jostling anyone in the empty carriage.
It had been a long three days, tracking down the bandits, extracting information and airgid, but it had been worth it. He’d been able to secure entrance to the capital. Passage papers had been the recent bureaucratic annoyance instated by King Ansgarid. They were required for anyone entering the capital. They had to be signed by the Chief Magistrate too, and Fingal knew there was no chance of that happening. Fortunately the bandits were cooperative, after some violent persuasion, and he’d secured suitable noble papers for him and the girl. They even listed Riona as his sister. A far better charade than father and daughter, or gods forbid, husband and wife. No doubt it wouldn’t be the last hurdle they’d face. At least this time, he’d thought ahead and handled this particular annoyance before entering the capital.
In less than an hour he’d be back in Ashdown. Riona had a habit of running away, especially when placed so close to the woods. He smiled. Even at seventeen, she thought that by keeping her distance, she was keeping him safe. Someday, when she finally realized how small the world was, she’d think differently. He hoped Nora and Donnoch and their young lad had kept her occupied. They had a long, storied history, yet at the end of the day, he was certain Nora would do the right thing for Riona. At least, she’d always tried, in her own way.
A quick late-night meal with Nora and Donnoch, then he and Riona would be back on the road for the capital. They’d need to stop in Drohoven for food and supplies, and to pick up an old friend, but after that, it was time to go to the Tower and begin their true mission:
Assassinate the king.
The trees surrounded the road, creating impenetrable dark corners that not even moonlight could overcome. The horses hesitated, their ears perking up as they slowed. Fingal straightened and listened, tightening his grip on the reins. Twigs crunched in the woods beneath heavy footfall. Holding his breath, he reached for his khopesh, the sickle-sword attached to the sheath on his back.
The carriage rattled. Fingal glanced over his shoulder. The next thing he knew a giant slab of flesh descended upon him, pushing him sideways to the edge of the seat. Digging his fingernails into the wood, he barely avoided falling under the turning wheels of the carriage. He grabbed the reins while another attacker hopped on to the passenger carriage, threw open the door, and started ransacking the meager supplies.
Fingal wasn’t about to let go, not while the bandits controlled the horse. A third bandit flew up from the shadows onto the driver seat and towered over Fingal.
“Where is the girl?” the bandit asked.
Fingal’s stomach turned. These weren’t just bandits. Their tall, slanted ears, their pointy teeth, their graceful movements—and of course, their large, razor-sharp wings gave them away as fae. The kind of fae Fingal wanted to avoid tangling with.
The kind that wanted to take Riona away from him.
Fingal clenched his teeth and tried to pull himself up. The fae, donned with the fiery pips on his collar, signifying the fae militia, lifted his boot and brought it down on Fingal’s fingers. There was a crunching sound as they flattened beneath the soldier’s sole. Fingal cried out, unable to suppress the urge.
“I said, where is the girl?” he repeated.
He forced himself to glare at his attacker and forget his fingers. He’d been through worse.
The fae sneered and shook his head. “Fine. We’ll find her ourselves. Even if it means burning down every village from here to the capital.”
Releasing Fingal’s crushed fingers from beneath his boot, the fae kicked him in the face, sending him and two of his teeth flying off the carriage. Fingal landed on his back in the dirt. His back cracked in the most terrible way. In the distance, he heard the laughter of the militia as they wheeled down the road in his stolen carriage.
Fingal lay there for a time, his vision swimming, his ears ringing, and his body unresponsive. With great pain and difficulty, he turned his head to face Ashdown. Within the hour, the fae militia would be there.
He had to warn her.
He tried to reach out to the girl with his mind, but the halo of blood around him made that difficult. What good was this connection they had if he couldn’t use it now, at their darkest hour?
He couldn’t save her. Not this time.
Sorry, Riona, he thought, as the night slipped away.
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