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Fifteen years ago

“What are you doing in this passage, chos? Speak!”

Caught already. It had only been five minutes. That had to be the worst record ever.

Time to see if the intel was good.

Fingal spun on his boot heel—polished to a fault, thanks to Nora’s diligence—and faced the fae solider. He held the rank of sciacath, judging from the dashes on his right arm. A soldier of note. Fingal bowed—as he was pretending to be a chos, a foot soldier in the fae militia, he was the lowest of the low. Especially since he was a human. “Apologies, sir. I was sent by Scialeir Dylik to check on the prisoners, to count them and take them for processing.”

Thirty-two human children had been taken from various villages on the northern shore by the Evil Queen’s fae militia to be processed into servitude—a fancy fae way of saying slavery. Fingal’s resistance cell in the Citizen’s Brigade had taken it upon themselves to mount a rescue mission. More accurately, it was a mission sanctioned by the Imperial Guard, who believed there was more glory in sieging the castle instead of freeing dirty children from the castle dungeons. Cooperating with the Imperial Guard was a recent arrangement. Both the Imperial Guard and the Citizen’s Brigade fought the same war against the fae, but the Imperial Guard were too proud to let just anyone into their ranks. No one knew who started the official resistance, but as word spread of regular citizens taking up arms against their fae oppressors, Fingal and his friends formed their own cell to join the war effort. Fingal had no love for the Imperial Guard, and by carrying out small, targeted missions in fae-controlled cities across the continent, they were able to achieve small victories, even as human cities protected by the Imperial Guard fell to the Evil Queen’s forces. It was only a few months ago that the rightful (and human) King Ansgarid uniformly inducted Citizen’s Brigade members into the lower ranks of the Imperial Guard, at least until the war had been won.

Which might be tonight. The Imperial Guards at camp had been buzzing that this was the night that they would capture the Evil Queen, and make her suffer for all that she had done to the humans. That would be ideal, Fingal thought absently, as he stared at the sciacath before him now, but he was more concerned about rescuing the children in the dungeons. That was his mission, his sole focus. Get in, rescue the prisoners, and escape with minimal casualties, while the Imperial Guard stormed the castle to end the war.

That was the plan, anyway.

“I don’t recall a human chos being assigned to this wing of the palace,” the sciacath said, eying him suspiciously.

Humans did serve in the fae militia. Their rank could not exceed a verkain chos—one rank above chos—and more often than not, they were glorified slaves or servants, sent into the woods to scout ahead in dangerous combat situations. Human eyesight was sharper, so they made good foot soldiers for the fae. The free men who chose to serve the fae did so out of fear for their families. Those kinds of humans were far too common, especially within the past year, since the Evil Queen had taken Breuce, the largest human-only city on the continent.

“I just signed on,” Fingal explained to the suspicious fae. “I am Chos Moiris Rainworth. Recruited in Azara Forest, sir.”

Recruited was code for captured, of course. He hoped the fae appreciated his attention to detail.

The sciacath’s long pointy ear twitched. His skin tone was the lightest pink he’d seen—no doubt that contributed to his rank. “Your papers?”

Fingal retrieved them from his inner jacket pocket. The fae snatched them, inspecting them with his wide violet eyes, but his gaze flitted back and forth between Fingal and the creased parchment.

“These seem to be in order.” His tone denoted otherwise. “But I will have to clear them with the scialeir criona. New protocol.”

“Of course.” Uh oh. That meant trouble. The scialeir criona were the highest ranking officials in the fae militia—and Fingal had their faces seared into his brain, for they were few, and trusted implicitly by the Evil Queen. If they got wind of Fingal’s mission, not only would his friends be in trouble, but likely the children they’d come to rescue would suffer a far worse fate than slavery.

“This way.” The sciacath gestured for Fingal to walk in front—so that the fae could get the drop on him. This wasn’t the first fae-occupied place Fingal had infiltrated.

Hopefully, it would be his last.

He side-eyed the corridor. It was void of activity. Most of the fae militia were outside the castle, flitting from the ground to the tallest towers, scouring Azara Forest for Imperial Guard camps and taking out the members of the Citizen’s Brigade scaling the castle walls. The Citizen’s Brigade had scattered all around the capital tonight specifically to distract the fae militia, so the Imperial Guard could focus on the siege. He hoped it was worth it. But, to increase the odds of success, his resistance cell had split up to find separate ways into the castle. He hoped to find everyone safe in the dungeon soon. He just had to get rid of this annoyance first.

Fae hearing was impeccable. Their sight? Not so much. Investing in the soundless leather for his sheath had been expensive, but worth it. Within three steps, he drew his sickle-shaped kholpesh, and spun around.

His steel clashed with the fae blade. The fae took flight. The bastard might have wings, but he didn’t have a helmet. Fingal caught the sciacath on the side of the head with his wrist buckler, knocking him cold to the stone.

He waited for the fae to stir. He was still breathing—but he would be out for long enough. When he woke up, this castle would belong once more to King Ansgarid, first of his name,  the rightful ruler of the realm. The name Crionascia would be stripped from the capital and the city would once more be known as Halsimarth. Semantics for some, perhaps. But not to those who died for refusing to call the capital by its conquered fae name.

Resheathing his weapon, Fingal ran down the hall, trying to recall the palace layout. He had to find the servant stairs down into the dungeon. This wing was strangely quiet, while the floor beneath him rattled from the siege. Finally. It had started. Took those Imperials long enough. Perhaps the fae militia would focus their efforts on repelling the Imperial Guard while Fingal rejoined his resistance cell in the dungeons.

“You there.”

The female voice grabbed hold of his heart and his legs stopped working. He didn’t collapse. He couldn’t move. Behind him, he heard the fluttering of wings and the faint hum of fae magic. Not just any fae magic.

Her magic.

The Fae Queen Caetriona, or the Evil Queen as she was colloquially known throughout the human realm, flew towards Fingal Morpleth. He’d never seen her this close. Few had and lived to speak about her appearance: her large, alluring black irises, her sharp cheekbones, her lithe form draped in royal purple and blue fabric, accented with black. A heavy opal hung around her neck. Her hair, just as dark, flowed freely around her face and down her chest, partially hiding her long, pointed ears.

Fingal averted his gaze. That was how they controlled you—with their eyes. He’d learned the hard way. Besides, a human in servitude to the fae queen would never look directly at her, not unless he wanted to die.

On average, fae were three-quarters the height of humans, but as the fae could fly, they didn’t concern themselves with the trivial matter of height. She hovered in front of Fingal, inspecting his clean uniform, his rank, and his face. He wondered, briefly, how many human men had been captured solely for her entertainment, and if that would be his fate on this night, instead of dying in battle, which was the fate of many Citizen’s Brigade fighters and Imperial Guards before him.

With a snap of her bony fingers, the Evil Queen released Fingal from her magical grip.

At first, he thought she was going to punish him for besting the sciacath. Yet Queen Caetriona seemed largely unconcerned with the unconscious body of her man, mere feet away.

“Come. Come now,” said the queen, gesturing to her right, down the empty corridor.

Fingal contemplated running—until he noticed the human girl ahead of them, peering around the corner at him and the queen. She was no more than three. Her dark hair had been braided and pinned to her head, but due to battle or play, several strands had come loose. She gave the unconscious sciacath a passing glance. Likely it was not the first fallen man she’d seen tonight. Yet when she fully emerged from her hiding spot, Fingal drew back.

How…how could this be?

Lovely violet wings fluttered behind her as she stood, hand against the wall, staring up at Fingal in wonder.

“My daughter,” the queen said, as if it were a challenge.

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“Yes, my queen,” Fingal said.

Unlike her bony, sharply cheekboned fae mother—if indeed that was true—this girl was human. Human with violet wings.

“I know. She elicits that reaction from everyone. She is perfection, in body and mind,” the queen said proudly. “Truly my greatest achievement, a blend of both human and fae, after so many failures.”

The girl flinched, but the queen laughed, beckoning her closer. Nervously, the girl obeyed, and the queen wrapped her arms around the girl’s shoulders.

“Now then,” Caetriona said, both to the young girl and to Fingal, “the Imperial Guards are storming the castle. Our forces—we must fall back.”

“Yes, my queen,” Fingal said with uncertainty. The other members of his cell were expecting him down in the dungeons. He had a part to play. He had to escape the queen. No human had survived an audience with her—unless she permitted it.

Down the hall, from where the young girl had come, the frantic sounds of battle grew louder. Men and women, screaming. Steel against steel as both species rushed into the fray. Wings fluttering, boots scraping against the stone, bodies falling and not stirring again. Had the Imperial Guard made it through the doors?

The queen appeared alarmed. “Chos.” She said the rank with equal measures of uncertainty and suspicion. “You must take this child and get her out of the castle.”

“Why…why me, your majesty?” Fingal asked.

She seemed surprised he’d asked. “Because, dear one. You have the heart of a man who does what he’s told.”

A fire roared in his belly. That was not the kind of man he was. “Your majesty…”

“Do not prove me wrong,” she said sharply. “This child…she is my legacy. Keep her safe. If I should survive this massacre…” She glanced in the direction of the battle, afraid for her life, “I will find you.”

“Mama?” the child cried.

She grinned wickedly, ignoring the child.  “And if any harm comes to her, I’ll find you and kill you.”

“Mama—the men!”

“Yes, I know. It’s all right. Go with this soldier now.” Her voice was oddly kind. “Mama will be with you. Always.”

She took flight and released her child’s hand gently, and whipped around the corner, away from the battle, and up a flight of stairs. The girl trotted after her. Her wings fluttered, and for a brief moment, her feet lifted off the ground. But her biology was not suited for flying, or she was too young, or both. She fell to the stone floor and let out a battle cry worthy of any soldier.

By instinct, Fingal rushed to her side. He couldn’t abide her crying. Not when he had a mission. Not when she was so upset. He grasped the child’s arm, not because he was afraid she’d run away, but because he was afraid he’d abandon her.

If the fae took her, they’d learn she was Queen Caetriona’s child, whether from the child herself or through other means. At best, they’d keep her safe, use her as a pawn in their courtly games. At worst, they’d raise her to be Queen Caetriona the Second. Assuming that the fae in power would live after tonight’s battle.

Too many had died in this war. He couldn’t imagine another at this scale.

If he left her, she might…

No. Fingal couldn’t bear the thought. Too many had thought the same of him, when he was barely older than the child.

Another dark thought gripped his heart as he stared at the crying child.

He could kill her.

His sword hand trembled. She was just a child. A fae child, yes. A half-breed. But a child all the same. He had slain many soldiers on the battlefield, but all had had the anger and desperation of war in their eyes.

Not this girl. She was…innocent. No, that wasn’t it. It was said that fae had perfect memories and that even children could recall their birth in gory detail. He wondered how much this girl had seen, what horrors the Evil Queen had subjected her to.

It was also said that a fae child’s magic was dangerous and random: they were as dangerous as an explosive. If this child was truly a half-breed, one untouched by deformation, then she was a miracle. She could be taught the truth about her mother.

She could be taught to be good.

He scooped her up in his arms and held her close to his chest. She didn’t resist; she’d stopped crying, at least. She was unexpectedly light. Fae in more ways than one. He walked back towards the sciacath’s body and snatched his cloak, draping it around her and her wings. “Let’s get you out of here.”

Next time, on Wingtorn.

Riona shows her scars.

Connor takes the blame.

Someone is watching.

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