Fifteen Years Ago
“This…is Ashdown?” Brendan Dorr turned up his nose and gave Fingal Morpleth a wide-eyed look as the five travellers – including two-year-old Riona – surveyed their rural surroundings.
They had just passed through the Ashdown market. To say it was lackluster would be generous: a collection of patchy tents selling scrap metal, bits of food, and supplies for travellers like themselves. Now that they had ventured beyond the market, further down the road, there was nothing but brown fields, ravaged by time and rain. It looked like someone had begun planting a line of trees on either side of the dirt road, as if to hide the plain fields beyond, yet the work was unfinished and the planter had given up a quarter of a celim back. The road stretched on before them, presumably to houses and other nearby towns, though why anyone would choose to live in the middle of empty plains was beyond Fingal. He had grown up in the slums of the capital, and was used to the close quarters of rundown buildings and the safety that numbers provided.
“What are you going on about now, Brendan?” Nora grumbled, glancing over her shoulder at him. Like her brother Brendan, Nora had a tanned complexion, dark eyes, and dark curly hair that clung to her head. Nora and her husband Donnoch walked side-by-side in front of Fingal, Riona, and Brendan, occasionally whispering and giggling to one another, as lovers often did.
The road to Ashdown hadn’t been perilous – just long. No one had slept well during their trek over the last fortnight, from outside Cantlyn, through Azara Forest, down the southern part of the continent to the small village of Ashdown. Fingal had slept the least. He thought that with each passing day, it would become easier to keep the secret of the girl he held in his arms. And yet, his fear intensified with each sunrise, for this could be the day that Riona’s cloak slipped and revealed her wings to his closest friends, and then they would know he had lied to them – that he harboured not only a healthy half-fae, but the daughter of their greatest enemy.
All of this was far from his friends’ minds, of course. Brendan, Nora, and Donnoch trudged along the dirt road, happily oblivious as they neared their destination: the famed Donmagh residence.
“Didn’t Donnoch say that Ashdown was…you know…booming?” Brendan asked.
“I didn’t make any promises,” Donnoch said, throwing his hands up in the air innocently. “I didn’t choose to buy land here. My parents did.”
His parents owned multiple properties on the Drahticht Isle, and had for generations. Years ago, Donnoch’s family had bought land on the continent, here in Ashdown, presumably for a business venture, though neither Brendan nor Fingal could puzzle out what could be so appealing about empty fields and a barely-there town that hadn’t recovered from a devastating fire decades ago.
“I’m grateful we’re here,” Nora said, smiling at Donnoch and taking his hand. “It doesn’t matter where we are. As long as we’re all together.”
She looked at each of them in turn, and Fingal felt the now-familiar stab of guilt.
Nora’s gaze lingered on Riona, the two-year-old girl in Fingal’s arms. The girl’s eyelids fluttered sleepily, though Fingal suspected that was just for show. The fae slept far less than the humans, and Fingal noticed that when Nora turned her motherly gaze on Riona, the secret half-fae feigned a yawn and had mastered the art of pretending to sleep.
“You’re going to like it here,” Nora said to Riona, gesturing to the stretch of empty fields and the dirt. “Look at this. You can run around and play. I’m sure there must be a few other children your age too.”
Riona said nothing, as she usually did when Nora tried to engage her. She only spoke to Fingal, and occasionally to Brendan, especially when Nora and Donnoch weren’t around. She was a bright child and Fingal was relieved that this hadn’t gotten them into trouble – yet. Did Riona whisper in Fingal’s ear when bandits were near? Yes. Did this raise his companions’ suspicions? Yes – though such things were easily dismissed, as it was better to wipe the enemy’s blood from your sword than the blood of a friend. From what Fingal had gleaned, all fae had the potential for magic, far more than humans, and Riona as a half-fae seemed to have inherited some of her mother’s magical abilities.
How much of her mother’s magical abilities she had inherited remained to be seen.
Squinting, the girl shielded her eyes with a tiny hand and then pointed further down the road. “What’s that?”
Ahead, walking steadily towards them, was a stalky man. He wore formal Imperial Guard dress, which confused and undermined Fingal’s sense of the occasion. Was he supposed to wear his finest? Citizen’s Brigade members didn’t have an organized uniform like the Imperial Guard. They had what they had, and they’d made good use of it. Even during the desperate moment when the king had declared the Citizen’s Brigade members temporary, unofficial foot soldiers of the Imperial Guard, they had received no extra rations, uniforms, or weapons—despite what some Citizen’s Brigade members and Imperial Guards had boasted.
Nora’s face lit up with a grin. “Captain!”
She ran for him like an old friend, which troubled Fingal. He himself had a troubled relationship with the Imperial Guards, as they had done nothing for him as a boy on the streets of the capital. Donnoch followed Nora dutifully down the road towards the man. Brendan and Fingal exchanged a shrug – apparently Brendan knew this stranger as well as Fingal did.
Fingal side-eyed Riona to see if she had any insight, but she just chewed on her finger warily.
As Brendan and Fingal approached, Nora, Donnoch, and the Imperial Guard were already exchanging pleasantries. Fingal readjusted Riona in his arms. The girl was light, possibly due to her fae blood, but carrying her around – and having her this close to a captain of the Imperial Guard – made him uncomfortable.
The man smiled and held out a hand to Fingal. He was at least a decade older than Fingal, and he had small, pouty lips, partially hidden by a freshly trimmed beard. “I’m Captain Galen Stovel.”
“Fingal Morpleth,” Fingal said stiffly, meeting the Imperial Guard’s hand with equal vigor. Fingal escaped the handshake a moment too soon, which Galen noted with a slight squint. Fingal didn’t want to interact with the Imperial Guards longer than he had to, no matter how friendly this one might seem.
“Strange family name,” Captain Stovel noted. “Where are you from originally?”
“The capital,” Fingal replied.
“Ah.” This satisfied the captain, at least on the surface, though Fingal’s grip on Riona tightened. At least Halismarth was diverse enough to plausibly hide or erase his bloodline.
“Fingal grew up in the orphanage with us,” Nora explained pleasantly.
“You’re lucky to have a family name, then,” Captain Stovel said.
Fingal dignified that with a polite smile. He wasn’t about to tell an Imperial Guard about his past, even though Fingal had fought alongside them just weeks ago. Just because he was human, didn’t mean he could be trusted. The uniform affronted Fingal’s senses, bringing up painful memories of his mother that he couldn’t think of – not now, not when he had Riona to worry about.
The conversation had moved on. “I wasn’t expecting you here. The capital too large for you, Captain, or did your wife miss you so much that the king bowed to her demands?” Donnoch asked, good-naturedly. He clasped the large man on the shoulder. Donnoch had the height advantage on the captain, though the Imperial Guard held his own.
A hearty laugh escaped him, though it was for show. Fingal could see the sensitivity of the question in the captain’s uncomfortable gaze. “Adaline is strong-willed enough to bend the good king’s ear, I’ll give you that. The war is over, and the rebuilding has begun. There is work for me in the capital. I am home, briefly. I had to meet my son.”
Nora’s eyes immediately teared. She tugged harder on Donnoch as her ability to be patient waned. “Excuse me, Captain. You’ll forgive me, then, for I have to see mine.”
“Oh.” His face softened. “Yes, don’t let me keep you. I have to admit, I met the young fellow the other day, he is fine and healthy.”
“Thank you, Captain. Stop by later.” She pulled Donnoch from their conversation, and hand-in-hand, they ran together further down the road. Brendan, caught up in the excitement, followed his sister.
Captain Stovel gave Fingal a brisk nod. “You are staying at the house with the Donmaghs as well, Morpleth?”
“I am,” Fingal said, though he wished in that moment he weren’t.
“Then I’ll see you later. Perhaps I’ll bring my son ‘round. Give your daughter someone to play with.”
Captain Stovel was already off towards the market, before Fingal could salute or give him an official farewell – or tell the captain that Riona wasn’t really his daughter. It was just as well. Fingal picked up the pace. His friends were specks on the road as was their final destination, a coveted prize to all but Fingal, who only desired a fresh bed and a sleep free of worry.
The Donmagh residence was a two-storey, beautiful blue house with fresh white shutters and a brand-new door. If this house had been in the capital, it would be the envy of elite merchants and nobles. Out here, surrounded by fields and a nearby creeping forest, it seemed oddly placed, as if waiting for civilization to spring up around it. Moreover, its magnificence was dimmed by the half-complete adjoining structure. The frame suggested that, when complete, it would be just as large as the current house. Fingal couldn’t imagine why they would attach an identical house to an already existing home, especially when there was plenty of land for the structures to exist independently.
Fingal counted five men working on the building. Two were sitting on a pile of lumber, resting, while the other three were hammering, holding wood in place, and taking measurements.
In his arms, Riona seemed equally intrigued. “Can I go see?”
He readjusted her cloak so it was snug around her tiny body. He didn’t want her running around a potentially accident-prone construction site, nor did he want to expose her to anyone who might ask too many questions. “Maybe later.”
Riona seemed to sense his reluctance and pouted her lips in distaste. “I will go when you’re asleep.”
“No,” Fingal said in a low whisper as they approached the front door of the house. He tried to keep his composure. He didn’t want to appear as if he were scolding this suspiciously precocious two-year-old. “Stay close to me here. If there’s a captain stationed here in this town of nothing, who knows how many other Imperial Guards might be lurking. I can’t risk them seeing you.”
“They won’t see me,” Riona grumbled, though her tone suggested she would defer to his judgement – for now.
“Captain Stovel said he’d be coming by later. He’ll probably want to see you, especially if he has a child of his own. Perhaps you can show everyone how good you are at sleeping and you and I can hide away somewhere. All right?”
“You will hide with me?” Riona asked.
Fingal sighed and used a free hand to open the front door to the Donmagh residence. “You don’t miss anything, do you?”