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CHAPTER SEVEN

CONNOR

This was not how Connor’s life was supposed to unfold.

He had seen so clearly, months ago, his future: walking into his dormitory at the Tower. They provided sparse, shared living for students who wished to study magic. He imagined bunks stacked ten beds high. He sketched out the faces he’d meet, their personalities and backstories. Together they fought bullies and learned spells and stayed up late reading forbidden texts—except they weren’t really forbidden anymore, as it was the Tower, and they were esteemed students.

He saw the years go by, and the friendships deepen, and the heartache and sorrow that come with first love. Then, he and his friends stood together, on the fateful day they were proclaimed official wielders by the Chief Magistrate, and Connor closed his eyes, feeling fulfilled and warm.

This fantasy shielded him, a kind of numbing escape from the increasingly dark forest, the roar of the river he found himself sitting by, and the rough, rocky grass beneath him. The trees stood sentry immediately behind and across the narrow river, another comfort he wasn’t ready to abandon. The events of the past day were catching up with him. All he wanted was to lie by the rushing comfort of the water and let sleep take him. If he deserved it, the magic of the Spirit Mother, also in slumber, would protect him. If not, well, he deserved whatever he got.

That life would never be his now. His parents wouldn’t see him become a great wielder. He’d never get to the Tower at this rate, and even if he did, the friends he’d conjured in his mind would never accept him. He’d have to lie, which he loathed to do, or tell the truth, which was worse. His community thought him a fae-controlled hostage at best and an evil-fae collaborating fugitive at worst.

He controlled nothing about his situation, his circumstances. And he was sitting there, doing nothing about it.

Regret surged through his veins. Each second, he thought, I should get up and return to Ollivan. And then that second passed, like the water rushing over the rocks before him, and another second came, and that feeling of I should go mounted, and yet his body did nothing.

He deserved to sit here, in this spot. His parents would never do anything ever again. So why should he?

Connor inhaled sharply at that. The thought had stabbed him where he was most tender, and the knife twisted deeper, reawakening his anger. His hand curled around several thin grass strands and he yanked them from their homes and tossed them into the river. The water swallowed them whole and carried them away to an unknown fate. Here he was, sitting sadly by a river, in a darkening forest, when his parents’ killer was out there, somewhere.

Although everything in him told him to sit and wallow, he leapt up in one swift movement—and nearly fell into the river. Unsteady, his legs half asleep, he waved his arms uncontrollably and found himself falling backward. Rounded rocks and patchy grass braced his fall, but he didn’t dwell on the ache that surged through him. Connor scrambled to his feet and dashed through the mess of trees, back the way he’d come. His body hurt, his soul hurt—everything hurt. But if he spent one more second by that river, he’d succumb to sleep, and that was somehow worse than feeling.

The yellow blanket of the sun blazed its final light in the west. He was terrible at finding his way, and he was fairly certain he had made a wrong turn, when the heated words of a man and a woman floated through the woodland. It could be bandits, he thought, and yet he moved towards them, eager to throw himself into the fray and do something, anything but nothing.

Through the thick trunks, he saw them. Ollivan, bound to a tree with a makeshift rope. Riona, her hand raised and fingers a light with white-hot, cackling magic. Not again.

Connor fell forward but caught himself on the trees as he scrambled down the slope. “No! Riona! Stop!”

She flinched – barely perceptible—and kept her hand aloft. Ollivan, his face pale, became less certain by the second that she would stand down. Connor skid across the grass and dirt and narrowly avoided rolling his ankle as he collapsed on the ground before her. But he climbed back up again and grabbed her arm. He wouldn’t let her hurt his friend. “Don’t kill him.”

Bad things happened to those with untrained magical ability and an unlimited well of anger. But a trained half-fae, even at their age? When she finally slid her gaze to his, he didn’t see anger, as he’d expected. On her pale, lavender face was pure terror. “You don’t know what it’s like for me. So until you do, don’t ever tell me what to do.”

She wrenched her arm, still white hot with magic rearing to be released, from his grip.

She was right—he didn’t know what it was like to be her. But she also wasn’t very forthcoming with information, either. Trust was a two-way street.

Which led him back to Ollivan. As Riona’s hand cooled and the magic returned to its source, Ollivan visibly relaxed—and then looked a little too relaxed. He didn’t want to admit it, but Riona had a point. He wanted desperately to trust his friend. Deep down, it was safer to leave him and continue through the woods to Drohoven. Ollivan wasn’t unskilled—he could fight off trouble if it found him. Maybe.

Riona sensed his indecision, which only frustrated her more. “If you untie him,” she said, “you are responsible for him. I don’t want him to speak to me. If he so much as looks at me…” She allowed her words to hang in the early evening air for both of their interpretations. She refused to face Ollivan, setting the sloping forest floor with a simmering glare. The remaining smell of her magic dissipated as she whisked by him, blazing her own path deeper into the woods.

Taking a chance, Riona glanced over her shoulder at Connor, but didn’t stop moving. “Come along. Quickly. We’ll go a ways before stopping for the night.”

Connor couldn’t help but shake his head. If Ollivan so much as looked at her, what was the worst thing she’d do? She’d nearly killed him already—would she actually go through with it? If he’d shown up a second later, would he have found Ollivan, dead? Or would she just abandon him to the forest? Even the way she’d left Connor to untie her complicated tree knots made his frustration bubble. She was a princess, all right. She might not be controlling him, or have a terrible agenda like her mother did, but if she thought that Connor was going to obey her every command, she had better think again.

Ollivan’s gaze followed Riona as she marched up the slope and out of earshot. “Glad you’re all right.”

Connor wasn’t all right. He was far from it. But he’d already broken down in front of Ollivan once today. He just nodded as his fingers undid the last the bindings and the rope collapsed on the forest floor.

Ollivan groaned as he stood, stretching. He didn’t run, as Connor suspected he might, but went and retrieved his sword, which was stuck in the ground some distance away. Armed once more, Connor felt on edge, yet Ollivan only stared down the hill, through the copses, towards Ashdown, and then up, where Riona had disappeared.

They needed to keep moving to find a safe place to camp. It was nearly dark and his body was aching for rest. Connor and Ollivan shared a look. Everything they could say had been said, and they knew that arguing about what to do was irrelevant in the face of surviving the night.

Connor started up the slope, and Ollivan reluctantly followed.

“Talk to me,” Ollivan said. “I need to know you’re in there.”

“I’m not being controlled,” Connor muttered. He was hungry. Exhausted. Overwhelmed and defeated. One step in front of another, just one more second of survival, and another and another. “Tell me you have some rations.”

Ollivan scrunched up his nose. “No. I didn’t think I’d be this…long.”

He could run and Connor would not be able to stop him. Yet Ollivan continued trudging uphill with Connor. Because that was what friends did, Connor thought sourly.

“She’s dangerous,” Ollivan said. Then, as an afterthought, almost in triumph, as he massaged his sore arms: “But don’t worry. She’s afraid of me.”

This struck a chord with Connor. He held his tongue as the two of them continued at a slower pace behind Riona, who briefly came into view up ahead. She paused and turned to gesture urgently at the two of them, before disappearing once again into the trees.

She’s dangerous, but don’t worry, she’s afraid of me.

Riona–afraid of Ollivan? Seemed a bit of a stretch. He’d thought he’d sensed something when he’d touched her arm, but his power was truth, not necessarily other emotions. Perhaps Ollivan was just mending his bruised ego. There weren’t many who could best him, even if Riona had an unfair magical advantage.

Ollivan lowered his voice as the two of them ascended. “Look. I can see that you’re not being directly controlled by her—right now. So here’s the plan. I’ll stick with you for a while. We’ll head towards Drohoven, like she wants. But when the moment is right, we can overpower her. And whether or not you want to go back to Ashdown, or get revenge on your parents—I’ll leave that up to you. I am not letting her roam around free, tying up other Imperial Guards and breaking the law of the land with her unlicensed magic.”

Connor felt numb. Even the evening air biting at his nose didn’t compare. “I…don’t know if that’s the right thing to do.”

“It is. Trust me,” Ollivan said confidently.

Connor wanted to trust him, and that was the problem. Ollivan wanted to turn Riona in to the Imperial Guard, to reap some kind of reward or glory. If someone knew the daughter of the former Queen Caetriona was wandering around, they’d pay big for that information, not to mention, for Riona herself. Riona may have contributed to his parents’ deaths, but she didn’t deserve to be captured for it. It was Riklar Dheediannil who had to pay.

Taking a deep breath, Connor sorted his thoughts and was about to explain what he knew about the fae militia who was after Riona and her guardian Fingal when his feet sunk into the ground. Connor frowned and looked down. No, he hadn’t sunk into the mud. There wasn’t any mud around here, just roots and rocks and moss. The sole of his foot had planted itself on the surface and was not budging. Ollivan trudged on up beyond him with a single-minded determination.

Connor pulled on his pant leg. His right foot felt incredibly heavy, as if it was not in his control. He took a deep whiff. No discernible magical scents.

If not a spell cast upon him, there was only one other explanation.

He recalled reading in one of his introductory texts, the print faded and the pages dog-eared, the concept of premonitions and magical forewarning. Academically, the ability to perceive the future was a myth. Yet there had been documented cases of fae and humans alike receiving strange warnings in their bodies, presumably from the Spirit Mother herself, immediately before terrible events. Human wielders dismissed the idea: in hindsight, of course a person will build foreboding into a dark tale. Many didn’t subscribe to the image of a creator slumbering beneath them in the first place, and that magic simply was, like air and water, yet Connor had been intrigued. Being awkward and clumsy himself, his body always seemed puppeted at times, so it was not a stretch for him to conclude in that very second that this was a sign.

Stop. Listen.

Doubt swarmed him immediately. He was untrained. He didn’t know anything, not really. He couldn’t control his body, much less his magic. His wasn’t a wielder, and the Tower would never accept him, he would never pass any exam, his friends would all turn their backs on him because he was not good enough to save his parents when it mattered most.

Up ahead, somewhere in the increasingly dark mass of tree trunks of the forest canopy, someone screamed. Connor knew, from the depths of his bones to the soles planted in the soil, that Riona was in trouble.

And then his feet were free, because his mind was focussed. Clear. He shot past Ollivan, whose confused cries bounced between the trees behind him. He felt Riona through the soil, heard her cry for help.

The long climb had left Connor faint yet he trudged on as he reached the top of the slope and burst through the trees, into a small clearing by the river. The same river he’d found earlier, likely, but further upstream. Here, the water was more aggressive and the riverbeds were deeper. The banks were steep enough to slide down and hide from approaching travellers. And from the prints in the ground, the terrified look on Riona’s face, and the attackers closing in around her, he saw immediately the events that had unfolded just seconds before his arrival.

Ollivan had even warned them. The Scavs. Once farmers and labourers, over time fell to a life of thievery, due to increased taxes, losing family and land in the war over a decade ago, or a need to satiate the taste for illicit adventure. Now, the Scavs hunted like wolves in forests across the continent. They fought and stole, even among each other, and valued no one but themselves as they lived off the land and the hard-earned riches of others.

Five men and women in torn, muddy clothes and leather armor surrounded Riona, thinking her easy prey. Now, seeing Connor, white-faced and barely armed, they turned their hungry gazes and dull shortswords in his direction, ready to pounce.

Next time, on Wingtorn.

Fingal attends a party

Riona reluctantly accepts an important responsibility

And something bottled simmers, waiting to be let out.

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