Riona rose up from the bushes, grabbed Connor, and hooked her arm around his neck. This had been her ploy in Ashdown so they could escape together, unharmed. She pulled magic from the Spirit Mother, gathering an icy force in her palm. The faint scent of roses filled his nostrils and he stiffened—not just because he believed she would really hurt him. That was always a possibility. It was because if Riklar’s senses were acute, perhaps he would sense their presence, and he would come to face Connor. The possibility terrified and excited Connor, as he desperately sought revenge.
Ollivan hesitated at Riona’s show of force. “Let him be.”
“It’s all right,” Connor said, trying to remain neutral.
“It’s not though,” Ollivan said, unconvinced. He gestured to the bush and then pointed his sword at Riona. “You seem cozy with him, now that I’m here.”
“I see you have new armour. A new weapon.” Riona’s voice was slippery and cool in Connor’s ear. The flesh on his arm pimpled at the sound. “A reward for cooperating with the Imperial Guard, I take it?”
“An incentive. A leg up on a path I was already walking.” Ollivan took a step closer, but Riona matched him, awkwardly dragging Connor backwards. She seemed eager to keep a generous distance between them. The scent of her magic grew stronger. His nose was in a rose garden.
“You wouldn’t kill him,” Ollivan said snidely. He shifted his gaze to Connor. “She wouldn’t, right? She would’ve done so already, if that were her intention. Am I right? Why would she keep you alive, I wonder?”
“Go home, Ollivan,” Connor choked out as Riona tightened her grip on his neck.
“I’m not leaving without you,” Ollivan said, though his tone was cold.
He felt Riona weighing their options. Ollivan took a step closer and she didn’t budge. Her magic hummed around him. Connor saw the hair on Ollivan’s arm rise. As non-magical as his friend was, his body knew when a powerful wielder was in touch with the Spirit Mother.
Finally, Ollivan sighed. He didn’t lower his weapon, but he spoke directly to Connor. “You’re being controlled. You have more sense than running off with some fae you just met. So I’m here to rescue you.”
“No. Go home,” Connor repeated, less forcefully this time. The word was painful in his mouth, and his throat tightened not from Riona’s grip, but from an unreleased sob.
Thinking he was getting through to poor Connor’s addled mind, Ollivan broke his steely manner and lowered his weapon, ever so slightly. “I won’t leave you. We won’t let your parents’ deaths be in vain.”
That was all it took. Connor drew a shaky breath and the sobs overtook him. Riona couldn’t hold him any longer. She recoiled as she released him. Connor fell hard onto the rocky, uneven forest floor, tears rolling off him like hard rain. Forehead pressed into the ground, he relived the heat of the fire and the conversation he’d had with his mother just hours before. She had lied to him. She’d told him she had no intention of hurting Riona. That they wanted to help her. But for some reason he didn’t understand, she had lied and then died in a fire that could have been prevented if that half-fae had never showed up, if only his parents hadn’t ever met Fingal, he wouldn’t be here, crying in front of his friend…
Then, Ollivan was above him, and the weight of his hand came upon his back. “I know. I’m here to help you.”
Ollivan’s voice faded into a swirl of fear. Connor was already in so much pain. Deciphering the difference between truth and lies seemed impossible. His special power—to discern between the two with a mere touch—was useless in his moment of pure despair.
Riona did nothing to help him. She was near impossible to read. She probably thought him weak for breaking down in front of her. After all, she didn’t care about his feelings.
That much was clear already. She wanted him to be a warrior-wielder, a protector, a replacement Fingal.
“Stop,” Connor said, bleary-eyed, still lost in his thoughts. He rose to his knees and Ollivan’s hand fell off his back, but Connor retrieved it, holding it with strength and purpose. He had to know. He couldn’t wallow like this forever. “I want to go home. But tell me. Truthfully. What will happen to me if I return? And to…uh…R—Iris?” He fumbled with Riona’s fake name.
Ollivan didn’t think it strange that Connor held his hand. In fact, he tightened his grip, encouraged by the sign of friendship. “I won’t let anything happen to you. We know the fae has control of your mind. That’s what they do.” He cast a weary glance in Riona’s direction. Even Connor could feel her icy glare, but she didn’t interfere with their interaction. “Powerful magic killed your parents. Her magic. That’s clear, even to me. And my father knows that. We’ll take you in. I know you wanted to go to the Tower…but…we all need time to grieve. We can protect you.”
Everything Ollivan said, he believed to be true. And yet…Connor sensed something deeper beyond his friend’s conviction. A motivation that he wasn’t sharing, and was attempting to hide from the both of them.
Ollivan lowered his voice and continued. “My father is personally helping his men go through the rubble. The rest are out here looking for you and the fae. If you would both just come back with me, I can prove to my father that there’s still hope for you.”
If you would both just come back with me…
There it was, in those words, the doorway to the lie. “I’ll come back with you. But the fae isn’t what you think. Let her continue on.”
Frustrated, Ollivan let go of Connor’s hand and shook his shoulders, as if trying to wake him from a vivid dream. “No! She has to come back with me!”
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Riona replied, crossing her arms and leaning against the nearest tree.
“Yes, you are!” Ollivan said, more forcefully this time.
“What will you do to her if she goes back with you?” Connor interrupted, pressing his hand against his friend’s once more.
“She’s committed multiple crimes. So I’ll turn her over to my father and he will decide her punishment,” Ollivan said. He seemed confused by the question.
Connor bristled. There was the lie, bald-faced and plain. Ollivan had no intention of turning Riona over to Galen Stovel, captain in the Imperial Guard. There was a bigger picture here. Connor thought quickly. “Has your father told anyone about her presence in Ashdown?”
Behind him, Riona’s weight shifted.
Now Ollivan looked nervous. “Look, just come with me, both of you, and it’ll be easier on everyone.”
If Captain Galen Stovel had spread a warning beyond Ashdown about an unusual fae, there would be Imperial Guards looking for them in Drohoven and in every town between here and the capital. Worse, if Ollivan wasn’t planning on turning Riona over to his father—who was he really working for? Someone with a higher rank than captain? Those people were few and far between, as far as Connor knew, yet certainly they wielded considerable influence. If they got their hands on Riona…or found out about his own truth-discerning power…
Ollivan wore the uniform of an Imperial Guard now. He had gotten what he’d always wanted. No doubt he’d receive a handsome reward for capturing the strange fae and secret daughter of a former tyrant. His concern for Connor seemed genuine enough, but he knew his friend well enough to know that advancement in the Imperial Guard was his true desire.
It was best to stay away from all of that. Get to the capital. Learn magic. Kill Riklar Dheediannil to avenge his parents’ deaths. That was Connor’s plan, and everything else was a distraction.
Slowly, Connor patted Ollivan on the shoulder. In that brief moment, he felt his best friend’s fear—and his resolve—and despite the pain Riona had wrought, Connor couldn’t allow Ollivan to carry out his mission. Not before Connor completed his. And for that, whether Connor liked it or not, he needed Riona alive and present with him. “I think we’re going to stay here.”
Riona must have sensed Ollivan’s duplicity as well—how could she not, she was far more powerful than he was—and her hand lit up in red and orange flames.
The situation was out of his control. It happened all too fast. Riona launched herself from the tree, her hands blazing with fire, ready to consume Ollivan—her new enemy. Connor recoiled. The sight of it, the smokey smell, it sent him back to just hours ago, when everything he had loved had perished.
He couldn’t lose Ollivan too. No matter his intentions.
“Don’t!” Connor shouted.
At the sound of his voice, Riona hesitated. That split second was the advantage Ollivan needed. He raised his sword, readying his swing as he lunged at Riona. She backstepped to avoid him but not far enough—a tree was behind her, constricting her movement. Connor rushed forward, raising his hands, closing his eyes, pulling magic without restraint or purpose from the ground. In that moment, he had one goal: keep everyone alive.
The intensity of his magic mirrored his emotions. All of the anger and the fear he felt poured into a steady stream of icy smoke that streamed from his fingers, at both Riona and Ollivan. Riona gasped and dove nimbly behind the bush. Yet Ollivan turned to face Connor, a mix of horror and surprise on his face, and became caught up in the force of Connor’s magic. Like a smokey gale, the magic shoved Ollivan backward, slamming his body into a thick tree. Groaning, Ollivan slid down the tree and came to a standstill, his head heavy against his shoulder. His sword tumbled to the ground with a thud.
For a long moment, neither Riona nor Connor moved. Connor’s shallow breath deepened as he realized what he had done.
He’d used magic against his best friend.
He’d called out to the Spirit Mother, and she had responded—aggressively. With a power that he couldn’t control.
Connor trembled. Ollivan wasn’t moving.
He’d killed him. His parents were dead and now his oldest friend lay cold in the middle of the forest.
Riona moved swiftly to Ollivan’s side and pressed her pale lavender fingers against his neck. She evaluated him as Connor waited, numb and unable to speak.
“He’s alive,” she said, bunching her dress and lifting herself up. She appraised Connor now, her gaze searching him from the curls upon his head to his shaking knees. “We have to keep moving. Maybe we can reach Drohoven before Captain Stovel’s men. If he got this far, then so have others.”
Her words were icy. Using a neighbouring tree to brace himself, he thought through his options. “I’m not leaving him here.”
Riona was unmoved. “He almost killed me.”
“My parents are dead. He was trying to…help.” But Ollivan didn’t know Riona like Connor did. If Connor just had a moment to explain everything to his friend, then he’d understand why they were on the run. Why his parents had hidden Riona—despite their misgivings. Why Connor needed her alive to help him. Ollivan’s intentions were good. Just misplaced. “Ollivan is my friend.”
“Not anymore.” She started to move away, further up the steep hill.
“I’m not leaving him here for bandits to find!” Connor said.
“It’s more likely that the Imperial Guards will find him and take him back to Ashdown.”
“You don’t know that.” Connor didn’t budge from his friend’s side. “Like you said. Riklar and the fae militia could be in these very woods, using magic to mask their scents.”
“That’s not how it works.” Though she sounded uncertain.
“I don’t care how it works. I care about Ollivan’s well being.” And yet his friend was on the forest floor, unconscious, by his hand. Because he had tried to hurt Riona. She was right. Ollivan nearly killed her, with no thought. To him, she was just a powerful fae wielder. Not a person. He ran his hands through his hair. Riona was right about another thing too: he needed training. He couldn’t control himself. He was a danger to everyone. Especially his friend. “I’m going to clear my head. Ollivan had better be here when I get back.”
Riona started after him. “Connor. You can’t go off alone!”
He hesitated, and then averted his gaze to the mess of trees. “I’m already alone.”