Fifteen Years Ago
Fingal’s resistance cell had identified four rescued children from the palace who needed escorting to Cantlyn. Them, plus Riona, made five. Other resistance members took charge of other children, promising them safe passages to their communities. Unclaimed children who were too young to speak were briskly rounded up by the Imperials: Fingal wondered, briefly, if they’d be taken to Zepline’s in the capital or rehomed to Imperial soldier families. He tried not to dwell on it, for worrying about one child was enough.
They’d broken camp in the late morning, groggy but determined. Mostly it was Fingal who was determined. Brendan was still making merry when Fingal woke. He didn’t get much sleep either. Riona had slept against Fingal all night. Once, her cloak almost slipped off. The poor thing seemed susceptible to cold so it didn’t take much convincing for her to keep it on at all times.
Nora, Donnoch, and Brendan trudged along the road with Fingal and Riona and the children towards Cantlyn. Normally he’d be ecstatic to have his friends on an adventure. But between Nora’s obsessive mothering of the children, Donnoch dotting on Riona’s every move, and Brendan casting bluster on this or that future project, Fingal was starting to look forward to some peace and quiet.
“Fingal,” Riona said, tugging at his trouser leg. “How much further?”
They were close to the town of Cantlyn. They’d already dropped three children whose families had lived on the road. He hoped they wouldn’t have to go too far into the town to deliver the last one. Fingal was eager to finish the job and head on to…well, whatever came next after one fights in a terrible war. It was hard to give her a clear answer, since he didn’t know how long she was going to stay with him. All morning she’d been asking the same question. Better that than, “Why do I have wings and the rest of you don’t?” or “Why do I have to hide my wings?” which fortunately, hadn’t come up yet.
“Just up ahead a ways,” he said finally.
“She’s well spoken for a two-year-old,” Brendan said, who walked by his side. “Are you sure that’s how old she is?”
“I guess we can’t really be sure,” Fingal admitted. It wasn’t as if the Evil Queen had left him with many instructions when she’d thrust Riona into his care.
“I am two and three months,” Riona said to Brendan, somewhat indignantly, as she held up two and then three fingers.
“Oh, well then. You’re almost old enough to gather your own berries for supper,” Brendan said, winking at Fingal.
“Where are the berries?” Riona asked Fingal. “Can I have some?”
“Not so mute anymore,” Brendan quipped. “Over that shock quite quickly.”
“Seems that way,” Fingal said. “And Iris, we’ll get berries soon. I’ll show you how to find the oxenberries. They’re my favourite. You’ll like them.”
“Will I?” She seemed unsure. The daughter of a queen—a princess—probably didn’t forage for her supper that often.
“Yes,” Fingal said firmly. He hoped. She’d picked at some of the dried smoked meat in their rations in the morning. Perhaps she was used to richer food, whenever she snapped her little fingers. Or maybe the fae queen had magicked food into existence. He wasn’t sure how magic worked. If one could really wish food into existence, it would explain how the fae militia travelled light and had been able to descend upon the Imperial Guard and the resistance cells with silent ease.
Not anymore, he told himself. The war was over now. He had to remind himself of that, because it still didn’t seem real.
“Maybe she’s the daughter of a noble,” Brendan suggested. “Would explain her…talkativeness.”
It was hard to lie, especially to Brendan. “It all…happened so fast.”
“I’m tired,” Riona said, and in a lower voice, added, “Mama would carry me when I was tired.”
Yes, well, your mother had wings and killed anyone who didn’t fit her definition of perfection. Sighing, he scooped her up. She giggled—an annoyingly infectious, adorable sound—and it brought a smile to his face as he raced further down the dirt road with her, away from the others.
“It’s like flying!” she squealed.
He laughed. After years of war, of surviving on nothing but hope and the hope of being loved, it felt good to laugh again.
Ahead, the last child they needed to return ran too, faster than Fingal, towards a group of cottages nestled in the trees along the road. An older man and woman emerged from one of them: they couldn’t believe their eyes. It was a miracle. Their child had returned. They embraced him, showered him with kisses, and cried with joy.
Fingal slowed to a stop. Riona would never have that. He never had that.
“Go again, faster!” she said, tugging at his shirt and wriggling in his arms—oblivious to the reunion happening before them.
“That game is over for now,” he told her, tearing his gaze away from the happy family. The rest of the crew were several paces behind. Riona was the only child left in their care. He hadn’t just run ahead with her to keep her entertained. He did it to get a hold on what he needed to do. That was hard with Brendan by his side at every waking moment.
Fingal found a momentarily empty cottage beside a large bush and pushed in beside it. They had a minute at most before Nora, Donnoch, and Brendan questioned their whereabouts. He put her down and readjusted her so she faced him.
“Do you know who your father is?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No father. Only Mama, and the servants, and the purple men.”
Purple men. The militia guards, perhaps. It was a long shot. “No other family?”
She blinked. He took that as a no.
“No one else in the palace where you met me that you know, or like?”
She averted her gaze. “They died.”
Of course. War did that.
“Can I stay with you?” she asked suddenly.
Fingal’s heart was torn. He couldn’t say no to her. Yet he had a future out there. There was money to be made in the Drahticht Isle with Brendan. Maybe he could build a house there. The way Donnoch talked about it, it seemed like somewhere he could make a fresh start. He was still young and there was so much he felt he had missed out on in life. Wealth. A real family, in a warm house. Travel, not in formation or to run from enemies, but for leisure. It was all in reach now.
He could still do all those things with her, he realized. But he’d have to hide her wings. She’d have to live a lie, perhaps for the rest of her life. That was a lot of lying. A lot of time.
At the orphanage where Fingal had spent much of his childhood, Mother Zepline didn’t take in orphaned half-breeds as there weren’t enough beds or staff to give them appropriate care. From what he’d heard, most human-fae couples were left to deal with the ails of their half-breed children on their own, if they could conceive at all. During the war, many human-fae couples were forcefully separated in human cities, though their coupling was never strictly made illegal. Fingal had heard the stories. Half-breeds never lived long: he’d heard a tale of one reaching the age of twenty. Others argued thirty, at most. To have thirty years to your name, and malformed limbs, the inability to see, your mind no power to think—was that really a life? It was not Fingal’s place to say what life should be, as he had been born into and then fallen through the cracks of the poorest part of the capital, but he did know that kindness existed in all forms—human and fae.
The half-breeds he’d seen and heard about were not as energetic as this precious child though. The lifespan of a fae was twice that of humans. Perhaps when he was dying in his bed of advanced age, she’d be watching over him, caring for him, radiant and young.
It was a warming, pleasant thought.
Brendan appeared suddenly from around the cottage. “There you are.” He frowned. “You still have her.”
“Yeah,” Fingal said. He smiled with a kind of inner happiness he didn’t know he had. He could always build a bigger house. It didn’t really matter where.
“So…” Brendan glanced around the collection of cottages. “No takers for the child? I guess we’re still a little ways from Cantlyn proper, we could go further in…”
Nora and Donnoch brushed aside the bush. Great. All three of them had to be there to witness a momentous life decision.
Fingal took a deep breath and sat down on the grass. She wouldn’t stop staring at him with her big violet eyes. She longed for a love he wasn’t sure if he was ready to give—if he had any at all. How could he, a fatherless street rat turned orphan, turned resistance fighter, turned liar, protect the potentially dangerous daughter of their greatest enemy?
Will she be loyal to her people, or her heart?
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“Turns out, Iris’s father is also deceased,” he said, running a hand through the girl’s hair. “She has no other family in the village.”
“What are you going to do?” Brendan asked incredulously. “You’re not thinking of…keeping her, are you?”
The weight of keeping a half-breed two-year-old was not lost on Fingal.
Nora took Donnoch’s hand and squeezed it. “We can take the girl, Fingal.”
Donnoch was apparently not consulted on this decision. “Nora—”
“She’s just a child! We know what it’s like to be left without parents because of the enemy.” She smiled warmly at Riona, caressing her rosy cheeks with a weathered, war-torn hand. “She’d be a perfect playmate for Connor. I can be a mother for both of them.”
“Mama is with me,” Riona replied, placing a hand on her chest.
“I would never think of replacing your Mama,” Nora said kindly. “But she’s not coming back, sweetheart.”
Riona gripped Fingal’s leg. “I want to stay with Fingal.”
Nora seemed taken aback. “That decision isn’t up to you. Do you understand?”
“No!” The child stomped her bare foot in the grass. Fingal really needed to get her some shoes. “Fingal!”
Nora shrugged indignantly. “Well, we tried, Fingal. We could always take her. She’d get used to us, in time.”
Fingal wasn’t sure if Nora would get used to the girl. Not after what the fae militia did to Nora and Brendan’s parents.
“It’s all right. I’ll keep hold of her for now.” He scooped Riona up, rubbing her back. She’d need a nap soon. She could sleep in his arms on their way to Ashdown.
“A child is a lot of responsibility,” Nora said. Rejection never looked good on her. “If you need any help…”
“I think I can handle it.”
“Fine.” She turned and headed back to the road. “Next stop, Ashdown? I need to see my baby. No more detours.”
Donnoch dutifully followed her, while Brendan hung back. Not a minute later, Riona’s gentle snores tickled Fingal’s ear as she nuzzled into his shoulder.
“You know, you should throw Nora a bone. She just wants to feel useful,” he said, crossing his arms.
“Iris is my responsibility,” Fingal said as they stepped from behind the hut and back onto the road together. “With her parents gone, someone has to look after her. Why not me?”
“Hey. If that’s what you want, far be it from me to persuade you otherwise,” Brendan said, holding up his hands. “I just want to make sure you’re all right. That’s all. We only have so much happiness in this bleak world. Now that the war is over…we’ve got no more obligations. We’re free. You see what I’m saying?” Brendan was never one for attachments, besides the deep friendship they shared.
“I know,” Fingal said. “But imagine if someone…good had found us, when we were still living on the streets. Or right after your parents were killed. How that could have…you know…made us better.”
“Good? Better?” Brendan sneered. “I think we turned out all right. We just destroyed an Evil Queen. Won a war.”
There had to be a better name for Queen Caetriona than that. At least around the child. “I just think I have an opportunity to give her what I never had.”
Brendan smiled a little, and put a big arm around Fingal. “You’re a good lad, as Donnoch would say.”
As Riona held onto him tightly and the three of them strode down the path together after Nora and Donnoch, one thing was certain: if she was going to stay with him, she was going to have the childhood he never had. He was never letting her out of his sight.
Next time, on Wingtorn.
Riona cannot, will not give in.
A dressmaker makes an unreasonable request.
Ollivan arrives in a hurry with terrible, life-altering news.
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