Fifteen Years Ago
With the capital retaken, and the Evil Queen slain, the day was won.
Citizen’s Brigade fighters and Imperial Guards alike were joined in song and celebration around the campfires in Azara Forest, sharing ales, swapping stories, making future plans. The happy soldiers and liberated slaves were beacons of joy in this long night.
Fingal wished he could share in the jubilation.
When he’d caught up with McKale and a shy but burly man called Bear, fellow members of his resistance cell who were also tasked with freeing the prisoners, there was little time for questions about the girl in Fingal’s arms. They led the thirty-odd imprisoned children, plus dozens more trapped in the Evil Queen’s dungeons, out the front entrance to the castle, which had been heavily battered by the Imperial Guard. Parts of the castle were on fire. While the fae militia had officially offered their surrender, there were those among its ranks that hadn’t received word, and continued to fight. It had been chaos. The streets of the capital, now once again allowed to be called Halsimarth, were filled with celebrating soldiers and citizens. Fae were being rounded up, caught in nets. Those that surrendered went quietly with the Imperial Guard to an underground prison, where their fate would be doled out.
Fingal was cognisant of little, only that he had to stay in the cart with the girl–and the other children–and ensure everyone got back to the resistance camp in Azara Forest safely. There, he could help them reunite with their families, or escort them back to the various scattered communities along the northern shore, from where most of them hailed.
That was tomorrow’s work. Tonight, tonight was a time to be merry. So everyone said.
The moon was full. The trees were large and bushy and black in the middle of Azara Forest. Multiple campfires throughout the clearing housed the celebrating Imperial Guards, all the surviving resistance cells, the prisoners they’d rescued, and countless other villagers, citizens of the capital—everyone and anyone affected by the war, celebrating that the capital had been retaken.
By all accounts, the humans had won the war.
Fingal wanted to feel victorious. The weight of the girl in his arms sobered any thought of merry-making tonight. She was with him now, away from the influence of the Evil Queen. Once his resistance cell returned the stolen children to their parents, he’d figure out what to do with the girl.
The Evil Queen had a daughter, and that daughter was in his arms.
The Evil Queen had been a mother.
That didn’t matter, he told himself as the girl rustled in his arms. Mothers and fathers alike could be terrible dictators. The girl was quiet and complacent, her telltale wings tucked safely beneath the stolen cloak. At least she wasn’t screaming like the others twice her age, running around the camp in the middle of the night.
Fingal heard snippets of toasts to the king, cries of joy as loved ones were reunited. There were only two people he cared about seeing.
If they hadn’t survived, he didn’t know what he’d—
“Fin. FIN! That you, you bastard, get over here!”
Grinning, Fingal turned, his free arm extended as he embraced his oldest friend, Brendan Dorr. “I’m glad the fae didn’t get you.”
“Aw, they never get me, you know, just stab em in the wing, that’s the trick, you see!”
Fingal shared the smile and laugh, though deep down, he wondered if that was appropriate conversation for the girl. She stirred and said nothing.
“Did you hear the news about the Evil Queen?” Brendan asked. He was grinning like in the old days, when Mother Zepline would allow them each a sweet on Godsday. He danced around Fingal like a fool, singing, “Zing ding, the queen is dead! Burned to death right in her bed!”
Alarmed, Fingal pressed the girl’s head against his chest. The girl gasped.
“Is that…true?” Fingal asked.
“A whole squad of Imperial Guards chased her up into one of the tower. Torched the place. No windows. No way she could’ve flown out!” Brendan was ecstatic. “Finally, Fin. Justice. For our families. For all our families!”
Easy for Brendan to say—he and Nora had clear memories of their mother and father. Fingal had flashes of faces. Names. Streets. Certainly no physical reminders. Only a feeling of loss and injustice surrounding his own mother’s death.
Brendan’s smile faded at Fingal’s lack of enthusiasm. “What’s wrong?”
The rest of the children had followed McKale and Bear to the fire. It would be suspicious if he held the girl for too long. “It’s just…it’s been a long day.”
“For all of us. I’m glad you made it out all right. Was worried there.” Brendan’s grin widened as he finally acknowledged the girl. She stared at him with her big, too-bright eyes. “Why hello there. Don’t worry, you’re safe with us now. What’s your name, love?”
Before the girl could answer truthfully, Fingal interjected, “She’s been mute since her mother…um…died in the castle.”
The girl said nothing. That was a blessing.
“Oh.” Brendan took a step back and quickly changed the subject. “Sorry, love. It’s going to be all right. Do you need me to take her?”
“No, it’s fine,” Fingal said. He felt her wings flutter against his chest, still hidden beneath the sciacath’s cloak. He hoped no one noticed. “I was…with her when it happened. She can stay with me. For now.”
Brendan smiled. “Look at you. I thought you hated children.”
He slapped him in the chest. “You certainly didn’t like them in the orphanage.”
It had just been him, Brendan, and Nora in the capital back then. Bleak as those times were, they were rosy compared to the carnage of war. Fingal glanced at the young girls and boys, ranging in age from eight to seventeen, dancing around the fires. “Yeah. Well, they were brats. These kids, they have families that are waiting for them in Cantlyn, and all the other places on the northern shore the fae raided.”
“You’re my family, Fingal.” Brendan was rarely serious, and when he was, he went full tilt, and swung back again. “What was it we called ourselves? The Fae Killers? The Fae….?”
“The Fae Slayers.” Fingal’s grip on the girl tightened. He hoped she didn’t take that personally.
A voice inside him rebuked his point: Why do you care? She’s just a child. Drop her at the fire. She’s adorable enough, one of the other fighters will claim her.
And then they’d discover she was fae.
“There she is!” Brendan called suddenly.
Two figures ran from the other side of the camp towards them. Fingal grinned. They’d survived! Nora and her new husband Donnoch rushed them. Nora tackled Brendan, and despite their height difference, she knocked him to the soft grass. They shared the same laugh, the same dark colouring and curly hair. Donnoch, being from the Drahticht Isle, was fair and freckled, with bright blue eyes. Fingal hadn’t known him long. Nora had met him on the Isle, when she’d gone to rescue a squad of Imperial Guards from the fae militia. She’d ended up rescuing Donnoch as well, a resistance member from a disbanded cell that everyone had given up on. They’d been together ever since. It brought joy to Fingal to see her happy and reunited with Brendan, her brother.
“You heard the news about the queen? Zing, ding, the queen is dead—!”
“Yes, yes, lad, we’ve heard the song, very good,” Donnoch said.
“Donnoch’s just mad he wasn’t there himself,” Nora said. She finally gave Brendan a reprieve. She took Donnoch’s hand and he helped her to her feet, grinning at Fingal. “Glad to see you survived kid duty.”
“He’s still on duty,” Brendan chided.
“I see that. I wanted that mission so badly, but…it’s probably best I was with the scouts in the woods,” Nora said. Her eyes welled as she stared at the girl. “I miss my baby.”
Donnoch looked adoringly at her. “He’s safe with my mother. He’ll be fine.”
“I know, I know,” Nora said impatiently. “I’m just so anxious. We haven’t received word from her in weeks. What if he’s said his first word? What if…what if Ashdown has been ransacked by the fae?”
“No one messes with Ashdown, not since the Fires,” Donnoch said with a smile. “I’m worried too, but Connor is fine, I promise…”
Donnoch wrapped a comforting arm around Nora and guided her away from Fingal and Brendan, towards the fire.
“She’s been like that ever since her baby was born,” Brendan said, shaking his head. “Guess I’d feel the same if I had a child.”
“If you ever have one.”
“Suppose there’s time for that now that the war is done. Not that the work is really done. Capital still has to be rebuilt.” He glanced around, his gaze lingering on the feminine faces in the firelight. “Don’t know if there’s anyone around here for me.”
“Nora found someone.”
“She got lucky, that she did.” He smiled, and clasped Fingal by the shoulder once more. “What are you going to do with the child?”
“I’ll uh…” Fingal had no idea. “I’ll take the child to her father in the morning. I believe he lives in Cantlyn, west of the capital. I’ll take the other children from there too.” It was the least he could do. Until he figured out what to do.
“You were always the reasonable one,” Brendan said. “Come on, sit with me by the fire, we can talk about our futures. Heard that Donnoch’s family in the Isle might have some work for me. Plenty to go around, if you want some.”
Fingal was touched by the offer. Brendan always counted him as a brother, without question, and Fingal was grateful.
He looked down at the girl as she rubbed her eyes. He’d almost forgotten she was still in his arms, she was so light.
If there was anyone he could tell about the girl, it would be Brendan. Although the grudge Brendan held against the fae was old, it was raw. After what they did to his family, how could it not be? He’d know what to do. Brendan always did the right thing. Eventually.
If I survive this, I’ll find you, the queen had said.
Unlikely. The queen was dead, she burned right in her bed.
“I’ll join you soon,” Fingal promised solemnly.
“Don’t be too long,” Brendan said with a wink. “I’ll get you a drink. Ale for you, watered-down ale for the child! There’s plenty. Good stuff too. The Imperial Guard is sharing their bounty with us lowly Brigade fighters!” He was already wandering away, drunk on happiness and glory.
“Yeah, I’ll be there,” Fingal called after him.
Brendan skipped off and hooped and hollered to the rest of the Brigade fighters and was met with cheer of equal measure. Fingal would join him and the others…eventually. There didn’t seem to be much to celebrate, not when he was lying to his best friends. His family.
Will she be loyal to her people, or her heart?
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He set the girl down on the grass. She was in her bare feet, he noticed for the first time. Otherwise, she seemed to have no scrapes or bruises. Good, because he didn’t know how to heal a half-breed.
“Why did you lie?” the girl asked.
He sighed. “I was afraid.”
He knelt down before her so his face was level with hers. “How about we play a game. If I answer a question, you have to answer one of mine. All right?”
The girl nodded solemnly. Good. She knew about games.
“Right then.” The girl had just found out her mother died. He couldn’t begin to think about explaining death to her. If she could comprehend it at all. “This is a camp of humans. When we’re in this camp, I’m going to call you by a fake name. But when it’s just the two of us, I’m going to call you by your real name. It will be a secret, between you and me. No one deserves to live forever under a fake name.” Fingal knew all too well what that was like. “Do you understand?”
“Good. What’s your name?”
Another blink. “Not fair. You asked two questions!”
“Oh. I suppose…that’s right.” He smiled. Nothing got past her. “Ask away.”
She looked thoughtful. “Why did Mama leave me?”
Of course she’d ask the hardest question. “Your mother had to…go away.” No, he had to be truthful with her. With the girl as clever as she was, likely the truth wouldn’t stay buried for long. “The castle was under attack. She left you in my protection. She had to stay. She…died.”
He wasn’t sure if she fully understood the gravity of death. He was older than she was when his mother had died, and it had taken days for reality to sink in, and more days for him to leave her body.
She looked to one of the roaring fires behind him. It burned brightly in her violet eyes. “The Imperial Guards got her and she died. Because of all the bad things she did to the humans and the fae.”
“Yes,” Fingal said slowly. “That’s right.”
“I still feel her. In here.” She placed a hand over her heart.
“We carry our parents with us. For good or for ill.” Hopefully, for good, Fingal thought. “So, what’s your name, girl? Your real name.”
“Mama called me Riona,” she said softly.
He inhaled sharply. Of course the evil fae queen would name her spawn after herself. “Right. Well, we can’t have anyone calling you that. How do you feel about…” He smiled. His birth mother’s name—no one would know that. It would do. “Iris?”
Next time, on Wingtorn.
Nora orders some new clothes.
Connor and his mother have a heart-to-heart—revealing disturbing new information.
Riona’s past is cast in a new light.