Fifteen Years Ago
Fingal entered the Donmagh residence in Ashdown, immediately aware of his dusty boots on the freshly laid wooden floor. The kitchen was before him, equally new: the long wooden table with four chairs, the cabinets and counters, clean and sparkling, and the staircase leading to a landing upstairs. Another hallway beneath the stairs led elsewhere in the house, perhaps to the outside, towards the second structure.
The heat from the wood stove burrowed deep within him. He hadn’t realized how cold it had been outside, until now. Riona’s gaze widened at the stove and her face broke out in a delighted grin. Weeks of small campfires had taught the previously privileged child to appreciate a proper source of heat.
The smell and comfort of home was undoubtably present in this house, which filled Fingal with equal parts regret and fear. Anything that felt like home could be snatched from him at any time.
But perhaps, not at this moment. Not only had Fingal walked into a stranger’s home, he’d stumbled upon Nora and Donnoch’s reunion with their child.
The child was a healthy lad, swaddled in a knitted white blanket. Tufts of dark hair curled around his scalp and his face was contently plump. He was still waking from his nap. Nora held him to her chest and Donnoch cradled them both, silently, in the middle of the kitchen, as Brendan and Fingal remained at the door with nothing else to do but also take part in this intimate moment.
Connor was the child’s name, as if Fingal could forget, for that was all Nora would speak of during their long journey to Ashdown. Fingal wasn’t annoyed by this. Nora and Donnoch had risked much to have a child in wartime, and Nora had brazenly gone on dangerous missions while Connor was still in the womb. As if Donnoch or Brendan could’ve stopped her. But when Connor decided he’d like to see the world with his own eyes, in a three-day stand-off in the rocky flats outside of Catterborough, well, Donnoch had to draw the line somewhere. Connor couldn’t stay and fight with them. So, Donnoch had taken Connor, just days old, out of the crossfire and carried him all the way back here, to Ashdown, where he would be cared for by Donnoch’s parents. Nora had been devastated. She couldn’t go with them, as she had been severely wounded and weakened by the fight and the birth. It was a dark time. The separation had nearly driven her mad, until Donnoch returned, and even since, she’d never been the same.
That had been months ago – an eternity.
He set Riona down. Riona too seemed captivated by the tiny human in Nora’s arms. There probably weren’t many human babies in the castle during her mother’s reign. She looked up at Fingal, her gaze inquisitive.
Outside, something rumbled, followed by shouting. Nora gasped and covered Connor’s ears, yet Donnoch just smiled. He kissed Nora on the back of the head, and headed for the hallway beneath the stairs. “I thought I heard Mother’s voice. Probably minding the construction. I’ll go.”
Nora barely noticed his exit. She was whispering to Connor, tears rolling slowly down her face as she stroked his swaddled back. His head lulled slightly as he struggled to open his eyes. Brendan approached, hoping to finally hold his nephew, yet Nora turned from him to saunter listlessly about the room, like a tormented ghost.
“He probably needs more sleep,” Nora muttered, more to herself and Connor than the rest of them. “We’d all be lucky to get some, what with the work being done.”
“Do you know what they’re building?” Fingal asked.
“I think it’s some kind of store,” Nora replied distantly. She slowly paced the length of the table as Connor cooed.
“Why would they build a store when they already have a market closer to town?” Brendan asked.
Nora shrugged with one shoulder. “It doesn’t matter. We’re not staying here long, I hope. Donnoch said he’d build us a house, somewhere nice.”
Presumably that meant the Donmagh residence was not to Nora’s standards, Fingal mused. This seemed in contrast to just minutes ago, on the road, when she’d been excited to arrive at the stability that Ashdown had promised. He couldn’t really blame her. Seeing her child again, after all this time, must have put her desires into perspective. On the other hand, this house was a fine example of craft and skill, suitable for any family with young children. Fingal didn’t think Donnoch could build her much finer, not without considerable time and effort.
Riona finally mustered up some courage and approached Nora, blocking her path as she looked up at mother and child. “Can I meet him?”
It was probably the only thing Riona had ever asked of Nora, and she nearly teared at the half-fae’s request. Grinning, she knelt before Riona and positioned baby Connor so they could become properly acquainted. Connor, however, seemed more interested in returning to blissful slumber in his mother’s arms.
“Hello,” Riona said diplomatically to the sleepy babe. “Are you having a good dream or a bad dream?”
The baby’s eyes fluttered open and he looked at Riona with his large blue globes, taking in the half-fae child. “Gah!” Connor cooed, pointing lazily at her.
“What does that mean?” Riona asked him, frowning. “Did you have a good sleep or no?”
Connor sensing Riona’s confusion, curled his teeny fingers into a fist and babbled at her contentedly.
Riona swirled around and expected Fingal to provide an explanation for Connor’s undignified response.
Amused, Nora touched Riona’s shoulder gently. “He’s too little for words yet, Iris. Soon he’ll be babbling, just like you.” Her gaze was hopeful and full as she drank them both in. She ran her thumb across Connor’s forehead, looking at him as only a mother can at her child. “Though he’s so precious, just like this.”
Fingal felt like an intruder. He stared at the floor, at Riona’s bare feet. He’d have to get her some shoes. He’d thought that every day on their journey here, and yet, no market they’d passed through was good enough. Her perfect feet needed to be adorned with the sturdiest, toughest boots – and yet Fingal knew that he would never be able to afford such an item, as the perfect shoe for Riona existed only in his dreams.
Still, the responsible course of action would be to go to the pitiful Ashdown market to see what they had. Something was better than nothing at this point. That was the right thing to do. This house, this family—Nora and Brendan were his family, yes, but somehow, with Nora hovering over their new baby, with Donnoch’s family outside tending to the construction…
Fingal didn’t have a place here. And neither did Riona.
The creaking of a door elsewhere in the house. Then, shuffling of boots. Donnoch appeared from the hallway beneath the stairs once more, accompanied by an equally tall woman who shared his resemblance: sharp nose, penetrating gaze, and a sincere face lined from years of running her family’s multiple business affairs. She took her visitors in stride, eying them each for only a moment, saving her true smiles for Baby Connor and Riona.
“Hello,” she said warmly, clasping her hands together. “I am Maghlae. Donnoch’s mother. If ye wish to call me Mrs. Donmagh, ye can, though I admit, I still find it odd.”
On the Drahticht Isle, it was tradition for a child to combine and adopt his parents’ names as his own, and add it to a slew of combined names, which would also be recorded in their ancestral family tome. Connor’s full name would be Connor Donnochnora Donmagh, at the very least. The longer the full name, the more notable the lineage. This wasn’t unlike fae traditions, though pointing that out would ostracize one from polite conversation. With trade from the Isle at an all-time high, folks like Donnoch used only the first two or three names for convenience, taking the second or third as a family name, as family names were far more common on the continent. Once, Donnoch had admitted to Fingal that both his mother and father had twenty names each. A notable lineage, indeed.
“Nice to meet you, Maghlae,” Fingal said, bowing his head in respect. His hands were too dirty to shake, and as she did not offer first, Fingal assumed it best to keep his hands to himself. “I’m Fingal. This small one here is Riona.”
Riona wrinkled her nose before turning her gaze to Maghlae. Maghlae was lucky, as she earned one of Riona’s rare smiles.
“Well aren’t you pretty,” Maghlae said to Riona. She nodded approvingly to Fingal. “I’d not heard you’d had a child, Fingal.”
Donnoch had apparently filled in his family on their adventures, to a point. “I’m minding her, for now.”
“Ah.” No more needed to be said. Many children had been left orphaned by the war. Maghlae swiftly changed the subject as she sized up Brendan. “So, you’re the lad who’s lookin’ for fame and fortune?”
“Maybe,” Brendan said, with absolutely no modesty.
“Well, perhaps we can do something about that. Plenty of opportunity for those willing to put in the work, especially now. But before we get to that.” She touched Donnoch on the arm. “Has Donnoch told you I’ve invited the village over tonight? In honour of your arrival home, safe and sound?”
Fingal felt queasy. “We ran into Captain Stovel on the road. He mentioned he’d be stopping by.”
“Yes. Good. Everyone around is invited of course, including Captain Stovel and his men. All good lads, young too.”
His men? How many Imperial Guards were stationed in this small village? And more importantly—why? Ashdown’s military advantage was certainly not apparent to Fingal. It was nearly on the other side of the continent from the capital, without going to the Isle or the fae archipelagoes. What use did the human king have for flat, brown fields that seemed to yield no crops—or what did the former fae queen covet here that needed protecting?
Riona seemed to sense his unease and pursed her lips.
Fingal was about to inquire, but Brendan stole the floor. “So, what brought you here to Ashdown?” Brendan asked Maghlae.
Maghlae smiled slyly. “Ever since the Fires, the disaster that rendered much of this land far less fertile, land has been cheap. My husband and I believed this town was due for a boom. It’s only a day’s ride from Starlam Gorge, which is a draw. And while farming is difficult, it’s ripe for more academic purposes.”
“Aye, so you bought this shack and slapped some paint on it,” Donnoch said, amused.
“This is no shack!” Maghlae said, playfully slapping her son. “And we did a fair bit more than slapping on paint. Did I not just spend hours out there, herding workers, building your da’s vision of a library? Did I not affix these counters, these shelves, to the wall me-self?”
“That you did, Ma, that you did,” Donnoch said, trying to hide his amusement. “Though Da said the library was your idea. Not his.”
“Aye well. I’m payin’ for his vision. Bigger and bigger it keeps gettin’. How many books do you think you can keep here? Who do you think is goin’ to come here just to read? The fae aren’t, and they’re the only ones who can easily get here without trudging on those dirty road—and we all know the fae won’t come here anymore.”
The lighthearted fun drained, Nora and Donnoch exchanged painful glances. Maghlae had a point. Ashdown was not booming—yet—and it was possible it wouldn’t now that the fae had been forced off the continent. Humans could be voracious learners, yes, but who would come to Ashdown just to read a book they could easily find in the capital? It would take more investment, and more time to make Ashdown into a desirable destination for academics—if it became one at all.
“I’m sure there are plenty of families looking to settle,” Brendan said, trying to infuse the room with hope once more. “Especially veteran families, people like Nora and Donnoch. Looking for towns far away from the bustle of the cities, without fae influence, where they can start again.”
Nora stood and exchanged a worried glance with Donnoch. “Yes. People like us.” But not necessarily them, is what she didn’t say.
Maghlae smiled thinly, catching the meaning beneath Nora’s words. “Unless we can come up with a way to recoup our investment, this is a pit for airgid. While you’re both here, I expect you to pull your weight.” She huffed a sigh and strode past Riona, who had splayed out on the floor, playing with the hem of her cloak. “Excuse me, love. I’m goin’ outside to supervise again for a bit. Dinner will be ready in two hours and the guests will be here before that. Nora, get a pot and get somethin’ started, make sure it doesn’t boil over, and Donnoch, you make sure–”
Donnoch cut through his mother’s orders with a smile. “Maybe you should relax–”
She waved at him dismissively as she opened the front door. “Ah, you sit down and relax, you’ve had a long journey. I have a business to run.” With that, she was out the door again.
“Donnoch, I don’t want to work here!” Nora protested in a harsh whisper. “Or live here, in this house. I want to have our own house, raise our own family!”
Connor made an annoyed sound in solidarity with his mother.
“We don’t have to do anything,” Donnoch replied. “We can go anywhere you like. After we appease my mother. For a few days. I barely saw her when I deposited my son here, and far before that, she assumed me dead, as you remember. I have to honour my blood.”
“We can go to Drahticht Isle. Right?” Brendan chimed in, eager. “Your family, they can set me—er, us—up there?”
“Aye, we can see to that. If that’s what you want.” Donnoch tried to calm the ratcheting tensions between the Dorr siblings, yet he seemed barely up to the task. His gaze fell upon Fingal. “Do you have any particular idea of where you’d like to go from here?”
Fingal had hoped Donnoch wouldn’t ask, because he couldn’t give a satisfying answer. He could only stare at Riona. He could go with Brendan to the Drahticht Isle and seek work. Build his fortune. He could bring the girl. The two of them could do as Nora wanted, and build a house and live together.
This sense of freedom was wild territory for Fingal. He was used to fulfilling his immediate needs: seek shelter. Fight that fae coming at you. Hunt food. Don’t tell your friends you made a promise to the enemy queen.
“I should put Riona down for a nap,” Fingal said. It seemed like the right thing to say and to do, as a guardian of a two-year-old. A first step into the future.
Next time, on Wingtorn.
In the past, Riona isn’t tired.
Fingal feels trapped.
And Brendan just wants to have fun.
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