Fifteen Years Ago
Fingal was back in the palace. It was Freedom Day, the evening they’d stormed the castle in the capital. Mist swirled at his feet. That wasn’t there before. He looked around the empty stone corridor for the sciacath he’d knocked unconscious. The mist had nearly hidden the floor. His weapons were gone, and he wasn’t wearing the fae uniform: he was in his fighter clothes, the clothes he’d worn when he was travelling within Azara Forest to Cantlyn, with the children they’d rescued. That was only a day or two ago at most.
Wait, that didn’t make sense, wasn’t he in the palace to rescue the children…?
Her voice—the fae queen’s voice—gripped him as it had before, kept him in place as she buzzed around him, circling like a bee to the flower. She hovered in front of him, grinning with her sharp dagger teeth, her eyes wide and terrifying.
This already happened. She gave him the girl, he took her…
Zing, ding, the queen is dead, burnt to death her right in her bed.
“Oh there was a fire,” Caetriona said. Her form appeared translucent now. “I burned, you’re right.”
“Why are you here, haunting me?” This was a dream, created by the fae’s evil spirit. Her magic was powerful indeed to haunt him beyond death itself. He had heard such stories whispered while in the orphanage, and had likely whispered them himself, if only to give the younger children a fright. He hoped she couldn’t hurt him here, in this dream-space. She wouldn’t dare, if Riona’s safety meant anything to her.
“Don’t worry. I won’t come after you. Not right now. Many other tasks to complete first, now that my precious child is safely out of the way. I trust you’re keeping good care of her?” Caetriona asked.
Fingal finally had the courage to ask the question that had been burdening him since he’d taken Riona from the castle. “Why give her to me—why not one of the fae?”
“I see into the hearts of all,” Caetriona said. “Imperfect as you are, you would never harm an innocent child, not when your heart knows the pain of abandonment. The fae would only see her for her title, and without my protection, they would destroy her or use her to lay claim to all that I have built. Does she talk about me?”
“No,” he said bitterly. “She will only know the pain you have wrought upon my people. You cannot tempt her with your darkness.”
“You can spin any story you like for her. She will learn the truth from me when she’s old enough to understand its complexities.”
“That will be difficult to do as a spirit in a dream.”
“True,” she said. “More easily done in the flesh.”
Fingal backed away and spun in a circle. The walls of the castle faded into darkness. There was only mist now. Even the spectral form of the queen had disappeared. “What is dead is dead. Not even the most powerful of magic can restore a life.” He would know, he’d researched it thoroughly.
“You’re right, of course. Good thing I’m not dead.”
He felt as though she’d dropped a stone in his stomach. “This is just a dream. You’re just a spirit. This is just a dream…”
“You can keep my child. For now,” she said. “But there will come a day when her magic will start to bloom. It could be tomorrow. It could be ten years from now. And you won’t be able to control her. Only then, will I come for her. Then, she will be ready to carry out what I could not.”
“I won’t let you get through to her, spirit.” he promised. “If that means feeding her sleeping potions to block her dreams, I will do it.”
She laughed. “You can try. Those drastic measures won’t be necessary.” She appeared again from the darkness and flapped her giant wings, disturbing the mist as she flew higher, into the lighter mist that now obscured the palace ceiling. “I’ll be watching you, Fingal Morpleth of Downtrodden Lane…”
He sat up in his bedroll. Sweat drenched his clothing. Riona, lying beside him, stared up with her insatiable, wide gaze. Even in the dark, her eyes shone. Her fae blood, rearing its beautiful but dangerous head.
“Bad dream,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
It wasn’t Freedom Day. He wasn’t in the capital. He was in the Azara Forest. Nora and Donnoch were soundly asleep, although Brendan’s bedroll beside theirs was empty. He must be in the bush. They were on their way to Ashdown to reunite with Donnoch’s parents.
His encounter had been a dream. The grass and the bedroll beneath him were real. The girl, beside him, she was real. The war, it had been real, but it was in the past now. So was the fae queen…or so he’d thought.
“It was about your mother,” Fingal said. It felt strange to talk about the fae queen in such a way. He had no context for what it was like to talk about a mother. Only a sense of emptiness. To talk about his own mother would destroy the sacredness of her memory.
Riona never judged him. “Mama is watching me.”
He frowned. “How do you know that?”
“I told you. Mama is with me. I feel her. Here.” She touched her heart again, as she’d done before.
A black dread spread from his chest to his extremities. “You mean…she can sense where you are?”
She made a face. “No.” Then: “Yes.” Then, resting her head on the grass, looking up at the twinkling stars: “If I’m close.”
Fingal began rolling up his bedroll as quickly as possible. “Where is she now?”
She blew raspberries. “Not close.”
“But how? She burned in the castle that day,” Fingal said desperately.
Riona gave him a look that said: you never listen to me. “She didn’t die.”
Will she be loyal to her people - or her heart?
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She didn’t die.
Those three words paralyzed him. He had to tell everyone. Someone. Nora and Donnoch and Brendan—they’d believe him. Especially if he showed them Riona’s wings. At first they’d be shocked that such a half-breed was possible, then they’d be angry with him for taking her under his care, until they realized that his actions were small transgressions in the face of the bigger threat of war. If they could see his way at all.
“We have to leave,” he said to the girl. “Come.”
“No.” She crossed her arms. “I’m tired.”
“You weren’t sleeping.”
“Sleeping now!” She squeezed her eyes shut and feigned snoring—loudly.
Rustling in the bush put Fingal on high alert. He snatched his knife from beneath his done-up bedroll and spun around. His hand was steady yet his knees buckled, anticipating the worst: a squad of fae, flying from the trees to slice him open or hurl magical fire that never died that could cook you from the inside out.
Yet it was only Brendan who emerged from the bushes lining the camp. In the light of the dying campfire, he appeared startled by Fingal’s weapon. His gaze swept their small camp. Nora slept in Donnoch’s arms by the remnants of their measly fire, though Fingal and Brendan were out of earshot of their snores.
“It’s just me. You’re all right,” Brendan said, holding his hands up defensively. He noted the rolled-up bed as he trudged out of the bush towards Fingal and Riona. “Are you…leaving us?”
“No,” Riona said.
Brendan’s gaze turned to the young girl. “Well, I’m pleased you’re not leaving us. How about you, Fin?”
He lowered the knife and rocked the hilt between his fingers. “I don’t want to,” he replied truthfully.
“So don’t.” Brendan shrugged. “Or do—I mean, I hope you don’t. Not since you said you were coming with us to Ashdown to see Nora and Donnoch settled. Unless you’ve gotten wind of some business opportunity and haven’t shared it with me.”
There had been endless discussions around the campfire and on the road about what the four of them were going to do, now that the king had officially disbanded the Citizen’s Brigade. The Imperial Guards were supposed to be focussed on coordinating rebuilding efforts and managing the deportation of remaining fae illegals in the large continental cities, as agreed upon by King Ansgarid himself and Riklar Dheediannil, one of the former Evil Fae Queen’s advisors, now acting as a spokesperson for the entire fae population.
“No,” Fingal said finally. “It was nothing. Forget it.” They had a long journey ahead to get to Ashdown. Best that he get some real sleep, one not interrupted by dead fae queens. He sat back down beside the girl. Even if he didn’t sleep, he could keep watch, which might be all his nerves would allow.
“You can tell me.” Brendan knelt beside him, putting a hand on the sleeping roll. “You know, I have them too. The nightmares.”
“I don’t know if they’re the same kind of nightmares,” Fingal replied honestly.
Brendan scoffed and shook his head. “Don’t go denying it. I hear you.” He shrugged. “Nora and Donnoch have them too, though they wouldn’t say so. They don’t want to talk about them. But I’ll say it. I have them. They feel real. In here, at night”—he jabbed a finger at his temple—“I go back to all the worst battles. Remember that fae, who got me in the side, a few months back? He gets me again, every night. Though some nights, the blade cuts deeper. Goes in, to the hilt, like it…”
He trailed off, remembering Riona was present. She stared up at him, her eyes wild and alert. “I have bad dreams too,” she told him.
Brendan smiled a little. “See? Why do the children get to be brutally honest, but not us?”
Fingal kept a watchful gaze on Riona. What if she said something about the Evil Queen? Even saying that she saw the queen in a dream might bring the idea to Brendan’s mind that she was still alive. He didn’t want to think about her at all. Thinking about her made her real.
“It’s not easy to talk about,” Fingal admitted.
“You can tell me whatever you want – when you’re ready.” Brendan stood, sighing, as he glanced over at Nora and Donnoch. “I’m not sleeping next to them again. Mind if I join you here?”
“Sure,” Fingal said, feeling like it wasn’t him that replied, but some distant version of himself, puppeting his lips and voice. He shuddered as a cold wind whipped through the camp and some of the ashes from the fire blew towards him. The nightmares took a while to fade, and it was unlikely he’d sleep again tonight. As Brendan gathered his sleeping roll by the fire, trying his best not to disturb Nora and Donnoch as they slept, Fingal unrolled his bed and settled in next to Riona once more.
“Go back to sleep,” he told her.
“I can’t,” she sulked, curling up on the soft grass, pulling her cloak closer around her neck.
“Then you can pretend,” he said. He checked to see if Brendan was still by the fire, out of earshot. “If you ever dream about your mother, you tell me, all right?”
The girl nodded solemnly, her eyes unblinking as Fingal shut his, hoping a dreamless sleep would come.
Next time, on Wingtorn.
Connor gets what he wants – with a terrible price.
Riona restarts an ancient order.
And the two set out on an adventure that will alter their lives forever.
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