The Donmagh Printing House and Library, which was consequently attached to Connor’s home, was a ten-minute walk from the center of Ashdown. The well-travelled dirt road ran from Crogdan’s Hold on the southern end of the continent and connected all the small villages, including Ashdown. It eventually joined with the king’s road, running East-West, and ended in Halsimarth—the capital.
Connor and Ree strode along the dirt road. The sun had already reached its zenith. By the time Connor had stuffed his mouth full of bread and oxenberry jam and chosen an appropriate outfit worthy of the printer’s son, well, he only had himself to blame for their slow departure. Ree appeared to have no other clothes than what she’d arrived in, including her heavy cloak, which remained firmly around her, now thankfully dry after a night hanging over the stove. A shame, given the heat. Trees, neatly planted decades ago, lined the road and gave some relief to the sun–but not enough.
His boots stirred up dust on the dirt road. According to his research, the fae believed magic came from the Spirit Mother who slept deep underground. She’d been banished there by some other fae deity, cursed to sleep for eternity and dream the reality all living creatures now experienced.
Ree hadn’t said a word since they’d left. Connor wasn’t used to having a travelling companion, even if it was just to the market. This journey was probably nothing like what Ree was used to. Connor used his walks for quiet reflection about the spells in his books and imagining what life would be like when he finally left Ashdown and finished his levels at the Tower.
He couldn’t let this opportunity go to waste. He had three days to learn everything he could about her—so he could prepare himself for his eventual trip to the capital. It didn’t matter what his parents said: he’d find a way to make it happen. If that meant sneaking away on a grand adventure…well, he would do it. His parents would be furious, but once he was powerful enough to protect them from this new fae threat, they would be proud of him for taking the risk.
“Nice day,” Connor said, feeling stupid as soon as the words were out in the open. Surely there must have been something better to break the silence with. All the questions knocking about inside him weren’t ideal conversation starters: What is it like, being half-fae? Did you really kill someone?
“It’s pleasant,” she said.
“Right. I read that fae prefer the heat.”
“Yes, they do. We do.” She pursed her lips, casting him a nervous glance. Taking a deep breath, she added quickly, “Thank you for your hospitality.” She sounded relieved as soon as the words were out of her mouth, as if they were a burden.
“Of course,” he replied. “We don’t turn away strangers. I mean, friends.” Whichever they were supposed to be to his parents. Mother and Da nearly didn’t let them in, though, which also worried him.
He smiled at her, but she wouldn’t look at him. She seemed overly interested in her feet. Not to mention, having her hood up on a sunny day would cause some odd looks as well.
She was too quiet. It was suspicious. And infuriating.
“So…why did my parents want you to stay in the house?” he asked.
Taking a deep breath, she looked ahead to the road. “The fewer people that see me, the better.”
“Why? Because of your…?” He gestured to her back.
“There is that,” she admitted slowly. “Those can be hidden. My face, though. I have a…memorable face.”
“You do,” Connor said, half to himself, feeling foolish for saying anything at all. “I mean. It’s a nice face. I mean—” Great. Now his tongue wasn’t his own. He was a bumbling fool! He should have found a way to stay in the library, typesetting and stocking, so that his father or someone else would be here instead of him.
“My nice face is the problem,” she said. Her lips twitched in a hint of a smile. “My…fae blood…it’s powerful. Alluring. Even though people don’t know I’m fae by looking at me, they do sense that I’m something more than just human.”
Connor didn’t want to admit it, but he’d read his fair share of romances between humans and fae. All of the fae women were described as beautiful, lustful, and persuasive. He’d heard peddlers and poets raving of the fae women they’d met, how even though they were not as conventionally attractive as human women, they could seemingly seduce with a look. Connor felt embarrassed just thinking about it. It was best not to think of anything, as his knowledge of the fae was second-hand at best. Who knew what kind of power she held—perhaps she could sense his shameful, illicit thoughts. He blanketed his mind with apologies, just in case.
He pressed on with his questions. “Then why go outside at all?”
“It would be more suspicious for you to hide a guest. And…” She glanced at him then, with her deep violet eyes, and Connor felt their pull; he could fall into them if he’d only let himself. “Because like you, I can’t stay cooped up here forever.”
“You’ve seen far more of the world than I have, from the sounds of things,” he said.
“Yes. And I have to hide who I am to do so.”
She stopped. “Don’t be.”
“I was just—”
“I know what you were just. I’m telling you. I don’t need your sympathy. I get that enough from everyone.”
“Sorry,” he said again. “I mean, I…I just hate to see you so…bundled up…just because other people hate the fae so much.”
She bristled, though his words seemed to stay her anger. Judging from what happened with the lamps this morning when he was slightly upset, he didn’t want to see what happened when she was truly angry. “You mean that.”
“Yes. Of course I do. Why…wouldn’t I?”
“I…” She clasped her hands in front of her. This was what she did when she was nervous, he noted. “Most people lie.”
“I don’t,” Connor replied. He was a terrible liar. Lying seemed to manifest as a terrible pain in his gut. When he tried to lie, the truth pushed all other thoughts down, and choked him until it was released.
“You’d probably lie, if you had to,” she said.
Connor wasn’t sure about that. “I haven’t had to. My life isn’t that complicated.” Or it wasn’t, until she showed up.
“It’s a skill. When you get to the Tower, you’ll see that it’s useful.”
“Tell me more about the Tower.”
Her eyebrows knitted together. “It’s…in the center of the capital, attached to the palace.”
“So you have been there.”
“Once, and to the capital a handful of times.” Her frown deepened as she glanced back from where they came. “Do you hear that?”
He followed her gaze. It was just an empty dirt road with their tracks. The trees on the lane swayed gently in the breeze. “No? C’mon, my parents aren’t here. You can tell me what it’s really like. Is the Chief Magistrate as devious as everyone says? And the levels, do you have to adhere to them, or can you jump ahead if you’re—?”
She slapped a hand over his mouth, and with surprising strength, she gripped his fingers. “Listen.”
He did. He could hear the wind in the trees. The sound of her worried breath. The hum of magic from beneath the grass, calling to him—to her. Through that connection, he followed the road down the path, back towards his home, and felt the pounding of horse hooves, and the heavy wheels of an approaching wagon cart, on the verge of tipping over, hurrying towards them at top speed.
Then, with his ears: a horse whining. A young man, calling for help.
“We have to run,” she said.
Her voice echoed as he heard her with his ears and with his magic. It was truly the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard.
“Connor. Listen. We have to run.”
She gazed into his soul, as she had last night, when she’d caught him eavesdropping. Although her hand covered his mouth, he felt the ghost of her grip on his mind, urging him to follow her off the road, to the trees…and beyond.
He shook his head, breaking contact with Ree. Behind them, he could see clearly who was in trouble. The young man sitting in the cart was Ollivan, his friend. The horse was galloping out of control, and Ollivan was yelling, trying to get her to stop, yet he’d lost the reigns.
In ten seconds, the cart would overrun them.
Ree ran for the trees. Her thumping footsteps echoed in his heart. He understood. She couldn’t risk being discovered, even with the protection her cloak provided.He had to help Ollivan.
His body warmed and hummed: he felt the magic coming up from the earth, through his feet, and into his body. He held out his hand, extending the magic as the horse and cart galloped ever closer, ready to trample him. He was directly in the horse’s path, but he was determined not to move. He could save his friend with magic. He’d been practicing.
Connor felt as if he were watching the event unfold from outside his body. As if it was not him reaching for the out-of-control horse, but some trained apprentice sent from the Tower to save the day. Connor was but a passing bird, circling the scene.
“No, Connor!” Ree shouted. She too raised a hand, and he felt her pull magic from the earth. She was going to push the horse out of the way.
He couldn’t allow her to expose herself.
He could do this.
The brown mare was upon him. She reared and whinnied, her hooves large and black, spelling death for his body. Every instinct inside him urged him to move, but he remained still, focusing on the warmth in his palms.
“It’s all right, Apple. It’s all right…”
As he raised his hands, the mare began to calm. Magic or not, Connor had an affinity for animals—he could often sense their moods. It came in handy when they had to rent horses at the local stables for a day trip. He spoke quiet words to her, some he knew, others just gibberish from the earth that sounded soothing to the horse. She stayed, at first agitated at the obstacle in her way, and then, stilled. Connor touched her face, whispering stories to her about the trees, the town—about the young woman he’d met at midnight. He pressed his head against her face, feeling the energy of the earth enter the horse through her hooves and travel up her strong legs.
“Ah. Connor. You work miracles, every time.”
Ollivan’s voice broke Connor from his trance. He backed away from Apple, the mare, yet she didn’t seem to mind. She was calm now, and the cart had stopped.
Out of breath, but still eloquent as ever, Ollivan Stovel leapt to the ground from his seat at the wagon with a mischievous grin. Only Ollivan would enjoy almost being thrown from his cart.
“I’m just glad you’re all right,” Connor said, relieved. He brushed off his shirt: he’d gotten dirt on his chest from the scuffle. So much for looking like a respectable printers’ son.
“Was that magic you just used there?” Ollivan asked.
“I…I don’t know.” It was hard to explain to his non-magical friend what his magic felt like, especially when Ollivan only had a passing interest in the subject.
“Well, whatever it was, thank you.” Ollivan shook him. He was almost a head taller, a year older, and fifty pounds heavier: his good-natured shake rattled Connor’s insides. He smiled, nonetheless, glad that he’d been able to do some good. Ollivan was one of Connor’s oldest friends.
Ree stood by one of the elm trees, eying Ollivan and his empty cart suspiciously. She couldn’t hide: Ollivan had a keen eye, and lately, a keener eye for women their age.
“Hello,” Ollivan called to her. “It’s all right. My friend Connor got things under control. You can come up.”
Narrowing her gaze at his tone, Ree stepped from the shade, out of the ditch, and onto the road. She kept her hands tight and partially hidden within her cloak: no doubt to conceal any residual magic.
“I’m fine,” Ree said to Connor before the question could leave his lips.
“Ah. You two know each other?” Ollivan was surprised. In a town such as Ashdown, new faces were unusual, and most were peddlers, poets, or relatives of the residents.
“Yeah. She was scared by the horse,” Connor said, lifting his brows at Ree, and feeling the pain of the lie.
“I wasn’t afraid,” Ree said indignantly. “I was being clever, getting out of the way.”
“Yes well, Connor isn’t known for his smarts. Book smarts, perhaps.” Ollivan tried to rub Connor’s thick mop of hair, but Connor ducked just in time, feeling equally embarrassed and chuffed by his friend’s partial compliment. Ollivan stuck out his hand to Ree. “I’m Ollivan Stovel. I live down the road from Connor. Friends since birth, as they say.”
Ree stared at Ollivan’s hands. Oh no. Did she not know the meaning of the gesture?
Or worse: the magic in her hands. If Ollivan felt it…if he deduced that she was a fae…
Ree slowly held out her hand to Ollivan, and he took it gently, bowing as if he were an admiral and she were a queen. Connor’s feet felt warm. Why hadn’t he thought to do such a gentlemanly gesture when he’d first met her last night? That would have left a better impression. A better impression than that boy is spying on me and having his parents chase him to his room.
“You were saying, Connor?” Ollivan asked. He released Ree’s hand, finally.
Connor shook his head, trying to dismiss his insecurities. “Just wanted to introduce you. This is—”
“I’m Iris,” Ree said suddenly, nodding. Her hands retreated into her oversized cloak sleeves.
Connor frowned. Too late to go back on that now. “Yeah. This is Iris. She’s my…cousin.”
“Oh.” He relaxed somewhat. “Like the flower, in the north, near the capital. Iris. Unusual.” His gaze lingered on her too long. “I thought your uncle was killed in the war?”
“So…how is she related to you?”
Did it matter? “It’s on my Da’s side. One of his cousins is her father. They’re from the Isle.”
“Ah. That explains her…foreign look.” He grinned at her. “Drahticht Isle is a long ways from here. Welcome to Ashdown. How long are you staying?”
“Just a few days. I’m travelling with my…father.” That part of the fiction seemed to displease her, despite her being the one to inject it into the conversation.
“Taking the main road, then? Be careful, my father got word this morning of Scavs between here and Drohoven.” The Scavs were travelling bandits, greedy as they were clever, for they could survive off the land as they robbed opulent carriages heading along the southern roads, up towards the capital.
“Thank you for warning us,” Ree said politely, though her gaze said, why are we still talking to him?
“Just part of my duty. I’m in training, under my father, to be—”
“Part of the Imperial Guard,” Connor finished with a wry smile. Ollivan boasted about his future career plans to anyone who would listen. Like Connor, Ollivan had always known what he was going to do when he was old enough: a quality Connor admired very much about his childhood friend.
Ree, however, seemed less than impressed. She stiffened. “The Imperial Guard?”
There it was again. The fear of the Imperial Guard, the very force that included humans and fae, which served and protected the king’s realm. It wasn’t as if half-breeds were forbidden or hunted, especially since they barely survived to live a full life anyway. He remembered his mother’s concern: who did Fingal and Ree murder – if anyone –
“Yes. Oh, don’t look so worried. I promise I’ll cut your cousin some slack after my first year of service, when I earn the rank of private,” he said, winking at Connor. “I’ll be shipping out to the capital in two weeks for the formal recruit induction and the start of cadet training. Connor and I will be going in the same transport.” He clasped Connor on the shoulder and laughed.
His chest tightened. “Actually, Ollivan…I might not be able to go.”
“Why? Your fireballs are getting better.”
“It’s not that.” He hated admitting that money was tight. Printing stories made fine airgid, but the costs were so high. It was important work that didn’t leave much at the end of the day for a family of three. “My parents don’t want me to go. They think it’s…dangerous.”
Ollivan chuckled. “The Tower? Well, sure. Magic is dangerous. That’s why it’s in the capital, under the eye of the Chief Magistrate, and the king and his trusted guards, of course.”
Everything was so easy for Ollivan. His father had spent years during and after the war serving the king personally in the capital before an injury to his foot made him unfit for service. Now he made his base here, and travelled around the neighbouring villages, recruiting young men and women into the service with promises of glory—even though the Glory Days of the War, as they called them, were long gone. Meanwhile, Connor’s parents held little love for the glorification of the human-fae war—despite their part in spreading it—and seemed to want Connor to remain in Ashdown forever.
Connor cleared his throat. They were on a schedule: no need to make his parents more irritated. “We’re on our way to the paper supplier.”
“Ah, let me give you a ride then. You’re putting in a delivery?”
“Picking one up, actually.” He hesitated. “I don’t want to put you out.”
“Think nothing of it. I was going in to pick up some potatoes and feed for the horses we rented this week. We always treat Mr. Sopranik at the stables. It’s good for business.” He winked at Ree. “We can load everything up in the cart and save you a couple of trips. Hop on. You too, Iris. A lady such as yourself needs to save her feet.”
“A lady such as myself?” Ree questioned, raising a dark eyebrow.
But Ollivan didn’t hear her. He climbed back up into the seat. Ollivan was used to speaking to the young women in the surrounding villages. He’d told Connor weeks ago that he kept receiving small tokens on his doorstep, or sent via travelling poet or peddler. Sweets, letters, scented papers. As sweets were a luxury, Connor hadn’t put any thought to buying any for anyone, even for himself. Every bill he had saved was put toward his dream of becoming a wielder.
Connor leaned towards Ree, wondering what kind of sweets she preferred, if she’d even tried any. “He means…he thinks you’re a noblewoman.”
She looked concerned. “I know what he means.”
His cheeks felt hot against the breeze. “Sorry.”
“Didn’t we already have a conversation about apologies?”
“What are you whispering about to her down there?” Ollivan asked with a curious smile. “The daylight’s wasting. Iris, you can sit up front with me, if you like. There’s room.”
Of course there was. Barely. Connor didn’t think the young woman who ran for the trees at the sight of a stranger would want to share a seat with one. He was right. Ree bowed her head in thanks to Ollivan and followed Connor around to the back of the cart.
Connor grabbed hold of the cart and climbed up with ease: he turned to help Ree, who had already extended a hand to him. He clasped it and helped her up.
Although tall for a fae, her face was level with his. She gave him a small smile. “Thanks.”
His hands were warm, as were hers. Not the warmth of nerves: the warmth that came with magic. Her touch seemed to make him more aware of his connection to the earth.
As though she sensed he was thinking about his magic, she pulled away, and sat down on the splintery wooden planks that comprised the cart. “We should probably get moving.”
Ollivan collected the reigns. “Wise words. Sit down, Connor, or you’ll be thrown, and I don’t think Iris is as good with horses as you are!”
Next time, on Wingtorn.
An important piece of the past is revealed.
Fingal is caught infiltrating the castle during the liberation.
An evil queen makes a surprising request.
A young girl’s fate is changed forever.