Friday, January 11, 2019

Flash Fiction # 337 -- Connor of Northgate/21

Pomp and ceremony. 

Connor had never seen so much of it in his life.   He'd heard the local fae preparing nearly two hours before dawn, and if he hadn't felt as though he would be underfoot, Connor would have helped in whatever way he could.  He didn't like waiting for something to happen.

The breakfast bell rang.  Food wasn't top on his list for the morning, but joining the others appealed to him.  Liam wasn't at his door, but Connor couldn't be sure if he'd gone down earlier or not. 

He'd never known any place but Northgate, and the world of the fae.  Oddly, Ordin's taunt had awakened in him a need to know more about his people, the humans.  Once they were past the testing and the oaths, he'd have to ask Lord Northgate some questions.  They were probably long overdue.

Flowers and ribbons decorated the already crowded dining hall; he wasn't the only one anxious to get started today -- and maybe anxious to have everything over with as well.

He could wish the others a pleasant journey home, to be honest.  Even Ordin.  Get them all out of Northgate and life back to normal.

Liam sat at the table already, his hands circling a cup of tea as though winter cold had invaded the room.  He gave a weary nod as Connor arrived, Rendon and Erlis right behind him.  Connor looked around and found Nylia talking with Druce, both of them somber and nodding.  That was better than the glares of not so long ago at least.  She left him with a nod and came to Connor's table.

"Someone tried to get into your room last night," Liam said as Connor took the chair beside him.

He should have realized Liam would know.

"He didn't get in," Connor said with a shrug and purposely reached for a plate and food.  Liam still frowned.  "I locked the door, Liam.  Someone would have had to use magic to get in, and that would have brought half the keep.  Let's not worry about what might have happened if I hadn't been wise enough to realize my enemies might just walk in on me."

Liam nodded.  "They won't be here much longer," he said, though he didn't sound very assured.  That didn't help Connor's state of mind.

"You talked to Nylia about my visitor, didn't you?"

"It was either her or go straight to Lord Northgate," Liam replied, looking up with a steady stare.  "Someone else needed to know -- someone who might be able to find answers without drawing down anger.  You can't argue it, Connor.  It's already done."

He realized Liam truly worried about his safety, and he couldn't decide if that reflected something he had seen or just a feeling from the situation.  Connor hadn't missed the few glances that came his way as he entered the room.  Few of them had been friendly, but none had been outright hostile.

Of course, Ordin hadn't arrived yet.  He came in with Antisha at his side, and Connor had the feeling of a bad dog on a short leash.  Ordin barely had time to turn Connor's way, and glare before Antisha tapped him on the arm, and they walked past.

Connor forced himself not to grin though Nylia let out a quiet little laugh.

"Don't make this worse for me," he said, meeting her amused stare.

"Worse?  I think a little humor is what we all need, Connor."

"Oh yes.  I'm sure Ordin is ready for it, right?"

She gave a shrug and went to her own food.

Connor ate little, though he mostly played with his food while the others ate.  He couldn't imagine how they kept their appetites today.  Even without the other trouble going on, the swearing of an oath to the royal court was a serious matter.
Perhaps they were accepting the inevitable part.  This was almost done.  Connor and his friends had passed.  Anyone of the outsiders who hadn't passed would have left, but he'd not taken the time to really pay attention, and there was no one noticeable missing from the room.  His group had made it through.  So had Druce and those at his table.  So he didn't think anyone from Northgate hadn't made the cut this year.  Better and better.

The ceremony itself would be at noon.  Connor went with his friends out to the gardens; better that than to wait alone in his room and listen for someone at the door.

He hadn't realized how much that moment had bothered him until he found himself clinging to the company of others.  He didn't like the feeling at all, but he suspected this would pass in the next couple days when all the strangers were gone.

Life would be different, though.  Now that he was beyond the Testing, there would be guard duty more than classes.  Since no one stood the guard alone, his lack of magic wasn't nearly as important as his excellent eyesight.  He'd done well enough in the training that even Godewyn -- whom he suspected was not entirely happy at having a human in his charge -- had noted it and given his approval for Connor to join the Guard.

Connor planned to still spend time with Rion, though.  He wanted to learn more about the keep, the fae, and all the fascinating history he'd come to love.  Connor wanted to learn about the humans, too, though.  He thought Rion might be able to help him there as well.

Court dress was tiresome:  Lace cuffs and high collars, stiff boots, and bulky embroidered vests.  He dressed and came to the door a little anxious when he opened it for fear of what he would find on the other side.  Liam was leaving his room as well and looking far less comfortable than him.  That reminded Connor that his companion was not Keep-born and probably had never thought of himself dressed up in such finery.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Flash Fiction #336 -- Connor of Northgate/20

The room had gone silent at Liam's words.

Ordin's face reddened, and he reached for Liam. Connor caught his arm.  It would have gone to blows if Antisha and Nylia hadn't arrived.  Antisha grabbed her comrade by the shoulder and propelled him away from the table.  He almost swung back but got himself in control.

"Go sit down.  Now."

"You know he cheated, Tisha!"

"I know no such thing.  Connor explained exactly what he did, and I found it a more than reasonable answer."

"He's human!  Humans lie!"

Connor hadn't expected that line.  He had to grab Erlis by the arm this time.  Ordin spread anger like a plague. All the fae must feel it, Connor realized.

Antisha stared at her companion, saying nothing more.  Ordin bowed his head and stalked to the table where the rest of her group sat.

"I apologize for Ordin because he would only do so at my orders, and that's no apology at all."

She turned away before Connor had a chance to speak.

"At least they'll soon be out from underfoot," Nylia said as she patted Connor on the shoulder.  "Don't let him push you into something where he can justify using his powers."

"I hope never to see him again," Connor replied.

That settled the conversation.  They finished the meal in quiet.  Connor retired early, heading upstairs before any of the others, though Liam, as usual, trailing along with him.  The seer looked glum.

"You aren't letting Ordin bother you, are you?" Connor asked as they started up the last flight of stairs.  Lights flickered brightly in the lamps as the day grew dark and the light from the far window waned.  "Are you worried about how they treat you because you associate with me?"

"I'm safe," Liam said with a wave of his hand.  "Ordin can cause you trouble, Connor.  I'd never thought anyone would attack you for being human --"

"You didn't?  I've wondered why it took so long," Connor replied.  Liam looked startled.  "Really, Liam. This isn't a problem --"

Liam stopped moving and shook his head.  A vision?  Connor didn’t ask.  "I think it will be a problem," Liam finally said.  "If they suspect I'm helping you, Connor, then your life will be in danger.  Right now you are only Lord Northgate's odd ward. Tomorrow you take your oath, and people will realize you are a part of the society --"

"I shouldn't take the oath?"

"That would be unfair to you," Liam said.  "I will tell you this as a friend, not a Seer; you are safer inside society than outside it."

"He's right."

They both jumped, and Connor caught Liam before he slipped. Nylia stood half a floor behind them and looked amused by the reaction.

"You have gotten far too quiet," Connor accused. Nylia had obviously followed them for a reason.  "What's wrong now?"

"Antisha talked to me about Ordin.  He's going to be a problem, in case you missed that point.  She's not sure why, except that you might be a block between him and his goal."

"Which is -- no, let me guess.  He wants to be heir to Northgate."

"Good guess."  She looked down the stairs, but no one else appeared.  "Lord Northgate has repeatedly said he will choose someone from Northgate, which only makes sense, but Ordin thinks he can still win the position."

"Even Ordin can't believe he would choose me," Connor said with a shake of his head.

Nylia gave a little shrug.  "He isn't the first to suggest it."

"Have you people gone crazy?" Connor demanded and won a laugh from Liam this time.  "Or are you just trying to make my life difficult?"

"Oh, don't worry.  None of us who actually know you well have ever suggested it."

Connor laughed.  For a moment it felt more like the old days. She slapped him in the arm and gave a wry shake of her head.  "Antisha has hinted to me that Ordin will be more trouble and he might get out of hand.  She's warned him; but he's stubborn, spoiled, and convinced that your presence is an insult to him.  His family has had trouble with humans in the far past, but that's no reason for him to create this problem.  He's looking for a step up."

"And I'm an easy target."

She agreed with a more serious nod.  "Don't think about dropping out, though.  Ordin has annoyed Lord Northgate.  He can't win by his current behavior unless you let him."

Connor nodded.  Nylia went back downstairs and headed for her rooms.  Liam watched her, and then looked back at him.  "She's smart.  Listen to her."

Connor supposed that was Liam's way of stating what he wanted to without taking credit for it.

"I will consider what she said.  Still, it might be best for a single human to back out of this, you know.  You don't want the kind of trouble that will bring about a long time feud.  It's not worth it."

"Depends, really, on what the feud is actually over, doesn't it?" Liam asked as he paused by his door.  "You and I are pawns, Connor. We've trouble on the way, my friend, and it's coming from different areas, but ... I don't see it clearly.  I just feel a link."

Connor nodded and watched as Liam went into his room, a momentary flash of green and the scent of dirt and plants drifting out until the door closed.  Connor stood there a moment longer and then went into his room.  He pulled the lock into place; something he hadn't done before.  His intuition told him this wasn't a time to take chances.

Late in the night, he came awake to the sound of someone trying the door.  As he rose, he heard the rapid retreat of footsteps down the hall.  Connor didn't open the door to check, but he spent a sleepless night sitting by the window.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Flash Fiction #335 -- Connor of Northgate/19

Chapter Five

The next day was not as bad as Connor had expected.  In fact, the physical tests let him work off some of the anxious energy he'd built up since dinner the night before. Liam and Nylia had both checked his breakfast. Druce had stopped and thanked him for not creating trouble over his own stupidity.

"You lost your temper, that's all," Connor said with a bit of a shrug.  He could still feel a slight pull at the site of the wound -- humans didn't heal as quickly as fae, even with fae magic applied.  He ignored the discomfort.

"Lord Northgate talked to me about ... other problems," Druce added.  He glanced once at Nylia and then back at Connor.  "I'm sorry."

Druce walked away.  Nylia watched him go with a frown of her own.  Connor thought she might say something as well, but instead, she turned away and headed for her own first testing of the day.

Connor glanced at Liam.  Liam shrugged.

They went through three rounds of testing that day, and he did remarkably well on both the hand-to-hand bout and the one using swords.  However, Connor knew he could not pass the third test.  It included weapons and magic.

Rion pulled the lots; Connor drew Antisha.

Of course, he did.  This was the worst match either of them could make for various reasons.  Her people started to protest, but she gave him a curious look and then waved her hand which quieted the others.  He gave her a proper bow of his head; no admission he was different from the others, but just the same, he didn't want to make an enemy of this woman.

"I will step aside if you would prefer another match," he offered.

Antisha considered it for a moment as she looked him over.  "You intrigue me.  You've passed all your tests so far, and quite well, I've heard.  Let's see how you do in this case."

She might be playing with him, but he hadn't that feel for her attitude.  They took their places just before the round began.  Everyone would be watching Antisha, and for a moment he saw Lord Northgate give him a worried glance --

They started the test, both of them with swords.  Antisha moved slowly as she tested Connor, and finding he had some skill with the weapon, gave a quick smile and made him work harder.

Connor could tell they both enjoyed the pairing far more than he had expected.  She lifted her free hand once and then frowned --

"Don't hold back," he said, slightly breathless.

Antisha nodded and brought magic up to her fingers, calling it up faster than he had expected.  Even so, he used the sword itself to knock aside the first bolt -- not powerful enough to kill him, but it did sting through the hilt.  She swung with her sword, but he ducked that blow and gave her a bright smile.  She laughed and came in for another attack.

By the third time, he knew the feel of her style and knew that he had to do something drastic -- or let her win.  Connor didn't think she would appreciate if he didn't give his full effort.

Antisha swung with the sword and sent a spray of magic -- but Connor ducked both, turned his sword aside, and grabbed her leg.  She went down on her backside with a woof of surprise as he stood.

Her people were enraged.  Two of them grabbed him and knocked him to the ground --

"If he has so much as a cut, I'll have your ears pinned to a board and mounted in my room!" Antisha shouted as she surged to her feet.

They let him go.  Quickly.  He had to avoid cutting himself on his own sword, but he survived the testing.  Antisha had gone down, which meant he had won.  Now he had second thoughts.

Antisha offered her hand, and he took it, coming shakily to his feet. 

"That was not expected," she admitted.  "No one has ever actually grabbed at my leg before, but it was effective, wasn't it?"

"I couldn't fight the magic," he explained, putting up his sword.  Everyone watched them, shock on every face.  "And I couldn't outlast you.  Then I realized that Fae are used to fighting with swords and magic. I do well enough in the hand-to-hand fighting, and I knew if I threw that into a situation where you were used to sword and magic, I had a chance."

"Well done," she said.  She looked thoughtful.  "Something to consider in the future."

Antisha signaled the others, and they followed after her as she headed towards the chairs on the sideline.  A couple of them glared at him, but they dared do nothing in her presence.  He would make certain he had his friends with him until they left the court.  An easy answer.

The rest of the testing dwindled to a stop.  No one seemed unpleased. All everyone had to worry about was dinner tonight, oath taking tomorrow, and the final feast before the strangers in the keep packed up their bags and moved on.  Connor would be glad to see the last of them and get back to the point where all they need to worry over was an attack of trolls.

Dinner did not go well.

He hadn't seen Antisha, but Ordin -- one of her followers -- came to the table.  He leaned down and looked Connor straight in the face, his green eyes narrowed in anger. 

"You cheated.  I'm going to prove it."

"How could I have cheated?" Connor asked, lifting a hand to stop Erlis and Rendon from coming to his rescue.  "Magic?"

Ordin snorted with disgust.  "No, of course not.  Your kind can't touch magic.  You had outside help."

Ordin looked at Liam who met his glare with an even stare of his own.  "I don't play favorites."

"Then what are you doing at this table?"

"Sitting with the polite people."

Friday, December 21, 2018

Flash Fiction # 334 -- Coonor of Northgate/18

"You trust your friends," Lord Northgate said, and his head turned to look a little to the right.

Druce, of course.  Druce saw Lord Northgate's glance his way and looked appalled.  Druce bowed his head, his face pale.

"That altercation Druce and I had really had nothing to do with me, you know."

"Not you?" Lord Northgate asked, surprised by the answer.  He looked confused.  "But --"

"Not me, not because I am human," Connor added.  "I trust Druce.  He would never resort to poison."

"If not you then why --"
Connor sighed, sorry that he would have to bring this up.  He bowed his head a little and spoke quietly.  "Nylia."

Northgate's eyes narrowed before he nodded finally.  "Ah.  That makes more sense, in fact.  I'm glad.  I didn't want to distrust someone who had lived so long in my keep.  So, one of the outsiders?"

Northgate turned this question to Liam who still lingered at Connor's side.

"I would think so, sir," Liam replied and ran a hand through his hair. Then he got a distracted look that Connor recognized.  Liam saw things at that moment, but they seemed to be rushing by too quickly, and Liam only appeared to be more confused.  "Things almost took a strange twist tonight, sir.  I can't see how or why.  Everything is overlapping.  I don't know what happened.  I only know what would have happened."

"You did well, Liam."

"I hope so, sir.  I don't like to use my power to change things.  What if I'm wrong?"

"You think Connor's death would have served us better?"

Liam stopped and focused this time.  His head came up, and he steadied.  "No, it would not have been better for anyone, except perhaps the person who wanted him dead."

"Then you did well.  I know this is difficult for you; I know you fear of putting your own mark on the future rather than letting it happen.  Just the same, you did the right thing tonight."

"Yes, sir.  Thank you."

Lord Northgate walked away.  Rion, though, came over and moved with them for a while, a visible guard.  None of the others seemed to take it badly.
"You didn't ask how you did on the testing," Rion said when they'd found a quieter place at the edge of the room. 

"I passed," Connor said.  Then he frowned.  "Unless I didn't."

"What would make you think that?"

"I'm human.  How I did might not matter when you announced the news to the others."

Rion started to get angry.  Then he stopped and gave a little nod.  "Yes, I can see how that might occur to you.  However, as it happened, Connor lad, you did better than any of the others, edging out Antisha by a good fifteen percent."

"You will not tell her so," Connor said, worried again.

"Only if she asks."

"You think this will help me survive the rest of the testing?"

Rion gave a bright laugh, and Connor grinned, feeling his own worries lessen in Rion's good mood, which proved to be contagious.  Before this, the older fae had been their teacher and strict in his protocols.  They were changing relationships now, though.  The testing would make them all a full part of fae society.

Even him.  He was coming of age with the rest of his friends.

No one else tried to kill him that night, for which Connor felt grateful enough.  Rion and Godewyn both checked his room before he retired, and he felt like a child fearful of monsters under the bed.  It bothered him to have those feelings and to be helpless in the face of fae magic.

Helpless except for his powerful friends.  Liam went into the room with Connor when the others left.

"You saved my life.  Thank you.  I know that had to be hard --"

"No, it wasn't," Liam said and smiled.  He sat on his chair and leaned back, looking exhausted.  His eyes darted to the side for a moment, as though Liam saw something there.  Then he looked back at Connor.  "I did the right thing.  I had worried afterward, but I had seen the sudden, dark times that your death sent us into --"

"Surely not my death," Connor replied with a shake of his head.  He stripped off his vest and hung it over the chair, settling down by the desk.

"I will not say more," Liam replied, shaking his head as though he had already spoken too much.  "But I did the right thing, Connor.  All I can say as that you have to trust yourself in the future.  I won't always be able to help you.  That was a near thing."

"So if you are not around, I best not eat."

"Well, at the very least, I think people need to check your food, even if I am there.  I'm serious, Connor.  At least during the testing.  Afterward -- I'm really not sure if any of us will be safe after this is done."

"Well, there is a cheery future to look forward to."  He tried not to worry at the words -- tried not to make Liam feel any worse than he obviously did.  Then he thought again.  "Have you talked to Northgate about anything of what you've seen?"

"Yes, but I will not tell you."

"I don't expect you to.  I just wondered if you had found the path or not."

"I hope so.  I could be wrong.  I've looked to the left and the right.  Nothing good is on either side; not for a long, long time.  So far in the future, in fact, that it is mostly hope that makes me believe either way would eventually lead to something ... reasonable.  Even so, Connor --"

He stopped and shook his head.

Dark times coming, Connor thought with an unexpected shiver.  He looked to the window where the last light of day faded, shadows spreading across the keep.  Life was going to change, and maybe the Testing didn't matter so much after all.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Flash Fiction # 333 -- Connor of Northgate/17

"True," Liam agreed and smiled again.  "But tomorrow we do the physical tests --"

"And that is when I'm bound to not do as well," Connor replied.  "I can't match a fae using magic, you know."

"No, you can't," Liam agreed and looked straight at Connor, his head tilted slightly.  "But you can be yourself."

Connor started to ask what he meant, but Liam shook his head.  Then he stood and gave a stretch.  "We better get ready for tonight's feast.  We'll be on show again, Connor."

"Just a few more days and this will be over," he said.

Liam gave a distracted nod and walked out of the room.  Erlis watched him go and then looked back at Connor.  "He's not as helpful as I would like."

"Liam walks carefully," Connor said.  "I wouldn't want to be him."

"Would you want to be fae at all?"

"Yes, of course."

The answer surprised Erlis who sat up and looked at him with a different worry.  "We've never mistreated you, have we?"

"No.  However, that doesn't mean I am one of you, and that becomes more obvious as we grow older.  Yes, I would want to be fae because the fae world is all I know.  I don't know what it means to be human, except that it means being different."

"I'd never looked at it from your side," Erlis admitted.  "I never thought about the difference."

"Thank you."

Erlis smiled and stood.  "I'll see you downstairs then."

Connor dressed for the occasion in his best satins and lace, pulling his hair back so that it tied behind his head in a little wrap Nylia had made for him -- magic imbued, so it wrapped up on its own.

Having his hair pulled back this way hid his round ears, so different from the rest of the fae.  He'd noticed how that had helped when dealing with strangers who often couldn't help but stare at his ears.

Dinner started out well enough.  Rion announced that everyone had passed the test, so there was general frivolity from the twenty-three who had been sweating the announcement.
"Some of you could have done better," he said, but then gave an unexpected shrug -- so unlike him that it took the attention of everyone from Northgate Keep.  "But at least I'll not have to deal with any of you for the next ten years again."

That brought a bit of laughter, and Rion gave a nod to Lord Northgate and went back to his place.  Connor sat back and relaxed again.  He'd been sure he was fine, but it didn't hurt to have those words said aloud.

Unless, of course, the fae didn't care if the human did well or not.

That thought bothered him through part of the dinner.  He could not dismiss it and didn't know why such a doubt caught him now.

Or maybe he did.  Connor didn't glance much at the others in the room, but the strangers did bother him.  He'd lived all his life in a very small world where people didn't stare.  These strangers did, and Connor didn't see acceptance anywhere.  He hadn't expected it, but to face them was another matter.  He wanted everyone to go home.

That thought seemed childish; he purposely brushed the feeling aside and determined to finish the meal in a better mood.

Which might have worked if someone hadn't tried to poison him.

Servants brought food and took plates away.  Sometimes in the press of things they even used magic, so he wasn't surprised when one plate disappeared, and another appeared.  He lifted a fork --


Liam sat across from him with Lord Northgate at the head of the table to their left.  He stood and threw himself across the table as he knocked the plate to the floor.  The gold gave a loud clank.  Everyone stared.

Connor glanced at the floor and then stared as the food let off a yellowish smoke and began to eat through the floor like acid.

"No one move," Lord Northgate ordered.  "Except Liam.  Off the table.  Tell me what happened."

"I didn't see it -- not until just now," he said and shook his head as he slid back, both hands running through his hair and knocking bits of ivy aside.  "I'm sorry, Lord Northgate.  I don't know what happened."

"But you do know what would have happened if you hadn't stopped Connor."

He gave a wary nod, a glance at Connor, and then back to Lord Northgate.  "Nothing good would have come of his death, sir.  Nothing at all."

Northgate nodded.  Then he, Godewyn and Rion went to work trying to trace the food, but they lost the work in the miasma of magic all around them. 

Connor just sat back and said nothing, but he was going through his own list of people who might not be happy with him right now.

Druce?  Maybe, but he doubted it.  He suspected the newcomers as more likely, and let himself look over the various groups.  Most were looking his way, but then they had been from the start.  Antisha was the only one who met his eyes when he looked her way.

She didn't look happy.  Connor hoped that was because someone had tried to poison him and not because the plan had failed.  Did the royal court want him removed?

Connor looked away before she read anything in his look.  The questions remained though.

The dinner, luckily, was mostly over anyway.  The tables disappeared -- mostly by magic this time -- and the groups gathered to talk and listen to the excellent musicians Lord Northgate provided.

"You do not have to stay, Connor," Northgate said, his good hand resting on Connor's shoulder.  The man looked pale with anger.  "This is dangerous --"

"Yes, it is," Connor agreed.  "But I don't see that hiding will make me safer.  I'd rather be here with my friends."