Squinting through his exhaustion, he peered down at the history book laid flat on his desk. He had an early shift in the library in the morning, yet he couldn’t resist staying up to read just one more book. Especially one about the Order of the Scia Cresent. The print was small and faded. The ancient order of the protector warriors and wielders of the fae court had accomplished much before they were eliminated in the war a decade and a half ago, and any of it could come up in the Tower entrance exam. The book itself was a first edition, but not from his parents’ press. They refused to print tomes about magic. Too dangerous, they thought. Magical words, made permanent on the page with the science of ink?
Connor sighed and closed the book. His parents were not as forward-thinking as he was. The sigh turned into a yawn as he blew out the candle on his desk. Just another few weeks, and then he’d be in the capital, and he would have access to all the magical tomes he could carry.
The crunching of wheels on gravel outside stayed his desires for rest. Leaving his desk, he crawled onto the bed to the window, where he could make out the outline of a carriage in front of the house, and the beginnings of rain.
Beneath him, the hushed voices of his parents became more urgent.
A delivery? Really?
Perhaps, Connor thought optimistically as he tip-toed across his bedroom, it was a magistrate here to tell his family that his request for aid had been received, and he wouldn’t have to pay to take the entrance exam at the Tower. Wouldn’t that be something? He barely had enough airgid saved as it was from working in the library – his parents paid him a pittance for sorting the tomes and dealing with the poets, scholars, and other patrons – and if he didn’t get an extra fifty airgid within the fortnight, he’d have to wait until next year to take that the exam. That wasn’t an option. He had to get out of Ashdown.
He grinned as he coaxed the creaky door to be quiet as he left his room. His smile faded. If he were a skilled wielder, he wouldn’t have to sneak. He’d just cast a silence spell on his feet. Except that silence spells were for second-year Tower students and he’d barely managed to master the entry level spells required for the exam.
The hallway stretched before him, bathed in the lamplight from the kitchen below. To Connor’s right was the landing and the stairs, and a railing that overlooked the kitchen and the front entrance of their modest wooden abode. He knelt before the railing like a prisoner who’d broken free from his cell.
A torrent of rain beat down on the two windows on either side of the door as his parents crowded the entrance. He’d thought they’d long retired for the night. Perhaps it was a delivery after all. Both were fully dressed in the day’s clothes: his petite mother’s fair hair neatly brushed behind her ears and cropped as haphazardly short as it was nearly two decades ago in the war, though she’d given up her greaves and worn leather armour for a long black dress and an ink-stained apron. Connor’s father, Donnoch, stood sentry by the door with his rolled-up white sleeves and pressed pants.
“We shouldn’t let them in,” Mother said. She parted the thick curtains and peered into the night, more worried than Connor had ever seen her before.
“That’s preposterous, Nora, he’s our—”
“Shh. Not another word.” She let the curtain fall back into place as if it had burned her. “We could pretend we didn’t get the message.”
“He knows we’re standing here, and if he doesn’t, she will. And with the rain—”
“Fine.” Mother pulled open the door. The shadow of a large man darkened the doorway and Connor made a fist, trying to remember the incantation for the basic fire spell. Mother sighed. “What are you—?”
“There’s little time,” said the mysterious man. His voice was deep and gruff, but not unfriendly. “May we…?”
The hesitant pause frightened Connor. His parents never turned away strangers, not even Hamlinda, the nosy shopkeeper, always wanting the next installment of war stories while the ink was fresh and still wet from the press. The door creaked, however, and the late night stranger stepped into the warm house.
Strangers, plural, Connor discovered as a smaller, but just as tall, robed person followed the large man inside. The man drew back his hood; neither Mother nor Da seemed pleased with his presence. But the second stranger, Mother fixed a stare so hostile that Connor barely recognized her. Although the second stranger was drenched, she didn’t remove her hood. She kept her delicate, pale hands clasped in front of her and her eyes cast down to the floor where puddles and muddy footprints ruined Connor’s hard work from earlier today.
“Were you followed?” Mother asked. She crossed the kitchen to the stove to put on some tea, ever hospitable, no matter the hour or the scowl that beset her face.
The man was about his parents’ age, perhaps a year or two younger. He had the look of a man who had been travelling and living in the forests, which excited Connor. The man had a full beard and so many twigs in his hair it was almost a nest. Perhaps he was a peddler. “I ensured we weren’t followed. Again, I’m sorry—”
“Stop apologizing, Fingal,” Da said. He clasped the man—Fingal’s—shoulder. “We’re just glad you’re safe.”
Fingal nodded and looked to the tall female stranger. “It’s all right.”
She shifted her weight, but didn’t speak.
Fingal cleared his throat. “Nora, Donnoch, I’m sure you—”
“We do,” Mother said shortly. “Why she’s still with you, after all this time—”
Da cut her off. “Shh, Connor is sleeping, we mustn’t disturb the lad with the past.”
Connor drew back quietly behind the corner. The past. Mother and Da rarely brought up their service in the human-fae war against the Evil Fae Queen. Since the war ended fifteen years ago, veterans and civilians alike had tales to tell, and going directly to scribes was no longer the most efficient way to spread them. They’d tell them to the poets, who would come to Connor’s parents there in Ashdown with their handwritten notebooks, where Mother and Da would set the type on the press. Copies would be printed and shipped by carriage to shops and vendors all over the realm. There were few working presses in the realm—Connor was lucky that his Mother and Da held such a prestigious, honorable profession—and that Da had a knack for fixing and maintaining the machine.
“What do you need?” Da asked. “Money? I can give you ten. Twenty, perhaps.”
The smell of lavender tea wafted up from below. Cups clinked and chairs drew across the floor as they settled in. Connor risked another peek. Mother remained standing at the stove—not unusual, as she was always the hostess—but Connor suspected it gave her a better vantage point, as she was of smaller stature. She looked less than pleased with Fingal, who was drinking the tea as if it was the only water he’d had in days. Da had sat next to Fingal. He hadn’t touched his tea.
The stranger in the hood remained at the door.
“I’ll take what you can spare, not a bill more,” Fingal replied finally. “I wouldn’t be here unless it was urgent, though airgid isn’t the issue.”
“You mean you wouldn’t put us in danger unless your life was on the line.”
Fingal set his cup down with a clank in the saucer. “Not my life.”
The girl’s hands unclasped and balled into fists.Mother sighed. “You can sit down. You must be cold. If you get cold.”
The girl nodded, seemingly grateful.
“Well? Take off your things, I’ll see that they’re dry.”
Another awkward pause. Mother tried to help her, but the stranger held up her hands, afraid. As if expecting to be attacked, Mother yelped and recoiled, nearly hitting her backside on the hot stove.
“Donnoch!” she cried.
Fingal leapt to his feet, not to aid Mother, but the strange hooded girl. “It’s all right. She won’t hurt you. We talked about this.”
She raised her head to Fingal, and with encouragement, she removed the heavy cloak and passed it to Mother.
Her black hair, half-soaked, fell down her chest. Her oversized white dress, muddied at the hem from travel, appeared to have been sewn from a bedsheet.
That was not all she had hidden beneath her heavy cloak. Fingal stepped back. A violet wing unfurled from the girl, nearly twice the width of her body, with fringed ends and a translucent white center. Then another, on the other side: her left wing was torn and only half there.
She was fae.
Yet she couldn’t be fae. That was impossible. No fae was that tall. She appeared to be Connor’s age, perhaps a year older. With fae, age was difficult to pinpoint. Her ears were small and rounded, like a human’s, yet her pale skin, tinted lavender, had that flawless quality that humans coveted. Her cheekbones were high and sharp, similar to the fae though, not as pronounced. She seemed too human to be fae.
A half-breed, then. Connor’s heart pounded fiercely. Half-breeds rarely survived to adulthood, if they survived at all. No half-breed had physical symmetry and all their mental faculties. Most human-fae couples he’d heard and read about refused to bear children because of the risks.
And yet, here she was. Seemingly fine.
Mother gripped the curtains and violently pulled them shut. The fae were not welcome in Ashdown. Too many veterans from the war lived here. Too many sour memories. Many belonging to the Imperial Guard had relatives who had fought and died at the Evil Queen Caetriona’s hand. “I thought you’d removed the wings,” she said to Fingal.
Removed. Connor’s stomach did flip-flops. He hadn’t interacted with the fae before–there was so little opportunity in Ashdown to do so–and he certainly had no idea who this one was, but only the worst of the fae had their wings removed. Besides death, it was the most extreme punishment inflicted in the fae lands. Or so Connor had read. They would have done it to the Evil Queen Caetriona, if the human forces hadn’t burned her castle to the ground with her in it to end the war.
The fae didn’t seem surprised or angry by Mother’s comment. Fingal was outraged. “I would never do that to her.”
“It would save you from sneaking around,” Da said, taking a sip of his tea.
“Has she become mute?” Mother asked.
“I can speak,” she said. Her voice was high and melodic, and gripped Connor’s guts, as if she was talking to him and not his mother. He hadn’t expected her to sound so young. She nodded at Fingal—they seemed to exchange a private conversation with merely a look—and he returned to his seat. “Riklar Dheediannil is gathering forces in the west and the south, making his way around the shorelines.”
“Are ye certain?” Donnoch asked.
“Saw them with our own eyes,” Fingal said.
“We couldn’t stay in Catterborough anymore,” the fae continued.
“Couldn’t you take her to the capital? Or any other town where fae and human cohabitation is more accepted?” Da said.
“The capital isn’t safe for anyone,” Fingal said. “And the level of cohabitation in the capital has been greatly exaggerated. Her forces, they are strong there.”
Something in the way Fingal said her made Connor’s stomach knot. He stared at his hands. His magic wasn’t strong enough to defend his family against whatever forces Fingal was talking about. In two weeks, after he took his entrance exam in the capital, he’d have access to classes at the Tower. Then perhaps Connor would be more prepared.
“This does not leave this room,” Mother said. “All it would take is one curious Imperial Guard…”
Her bright violet gaze locked with Connor’s as she pointed at the upper landing. “And what about him?”
Mother, Da, and Fingal looked up at Connor, stunned.
“Connor Donnochnora Donmagh!” Da roared. “What in the gods’ names are ye doing playing spy at this hour?”
Connor scrambled to his feet as Mother ran up the stairs to shoo him to bed. He sputtered, his tongue and mouth trying to form words, but nothing intelligible came. All he could think of was why a fae with a torn wing was cause for such secrecy.
And why, when she stared at him with her piercing violet eyes, he felt as though his soul was beached on the sand, lain dry for her to read.
Next time, on Wingtorn.
Connor’s dream of studying in the capital is put in jeopardy.
The mysterious young woman reveals more about her secret life.
Nora and Donnoch struggle to hide a painful truth.
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