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."

Friday, December 07, 2018

Flash Fiction # 332 -- Connor of Northgate/16

Chapter Four

The Testing turned out to be an interesting event in far too many ways.  First was the ceremonial aspects; the fae did love pomp, especially when they had a reason for a show of display.  Lord Northgate spared nothing on making this an exceptional event. Magic glittered everywhere, and the Lord of the Keep had hired the best fae chefs for the meals, featuring cuisine that Connor had never seen before.  Liam said a lot of them were traditional dishes from the other keeps and even from the wild lands.  Liam seemed touched by that gesture.  He had missed the food of home.

The opening ceremonies turned out to be a trial, though. Connor and Liam, being Lord Northgate's wards, had the place of honor with him. They drew stares, both of them.  Some were not happy with them, and he could see that in a few eyes.  However, they both kept to their best behavior, even after they left the stand and moved out into the crowd.  Liam stayed close to him, and Connor suspected it might be because no one could corner Liam when he was with someone else. 

They'd had no idea who would come for the testing, and it turned out to be a larger group than he had thought.  And there was one person in particular who drew even more attention than either him and Liam.

Her name was Antisha.  He'd heard the name before, but it wasn't until the second time he saw her, with a group of other fae at her back, that he realized she was the daughter of the King and Queen of the fae.  Princess Antisha -- though the fae didn't use that term often among the title much themselves except at the royal court itself.  Although she had others who were apparently not just following her, but worked as guards as well, there seemed to be nothing too pretentious about the young woman.  She was polite enough to Connor and Liam, though she kept her distance after the initial introduction.

"I should have expected her," Lord Northgate said later in the evening.  He lifted his head in Antisha's direction, but Connor didn't have to look to see whom he meant.  "I admit I have not paid much attention to the ages of offspring, even at the Royal Court.  I hope she won't be trouble."

Lord Northgate's eyes started to flicker to Liam, but he caught himself in time. 

"I don't intend to provoke her," Connor said.  "And I suspect I'm the biggest potential problem here."

"Sometimes things are not in our control," Liam said.

Well, that sounded ominous enough that they both looked at him.  Liam ducked his head and said no more.

The rest of the evening went well, though.  People even stopped looking at the two of them.  Everyone retired late.

The next day went reasonably well, despite the first part of the testing.  When he was younger, Connor -- and many of his fae companions -- had imagined that coming of age meant doing anything they wanted with magic.

He hadn't imagined history tests.  Geography.  Mathematics.  He did very well, though, and for a good reason.  He'd spent too much of the last few years determined to be as good as the fae with whom he lived, at least in areas that he could master.  He had no magic, but he did have a good brain, and he used it.

Rion gave the tests, of course.  With magic involved, there was no way to cheat, of course.  Connor had started the test in a panic.  He had thought they all had when the papers first arrived.  However, once he sat down at the desk and began to read through the questions, he calmed.

With quill in hand, he dipped into the ink and began to write.  Elegant letters; this would be on record, and he would not put in anything crudely done.  He might have been done faster if he hadn't taken so much time with the lettering, but even so, Connor thought he might be the first.

Rion gave him a nod of appreciation when he took up the paper.  If someone didn't pass, they would have to wait for the next testing in ten years.  For a fae, that really wasn't so long.  For him ... the thought sent a cold chill through him.

Everything must have gone well, though. Rion dismissed them in the late afternoon.  They straggled out of the Main Hall, all of them looking worn.  Liam and Connor went straight, and he signaled Liam to come into his room if he wanted, too worn to even make a coherent invitation.  He saw Erlis down the hall and waved him in as well.

"I am glad I never have to go through that again," Erlis said as he sprawled on the bed.  "Gods of all creation, that was torture.  I thought we were above such things!"

Liam gave a little laugh of agreement and sat in his favorite chair.  Connor took the one by the desk.  He still had a book sitting there on the history of the testing and shoved it away with distaste.

"Tomorrow is going to be worse," Erlis said with a moan.

Liam gave such an emphatic nod that both Connor and Erlis looked at him with open worry.  He noticed the look and gave a little laugh.

"We'll all survive."

"Well, that's reassuring.  Not promising, but reassuring," Connor said.

"Do we trust him to tell us the truth?" Erlis asked, one eyebrow raised.

Liam looked shocked at the idea, which set Connor laughing.  He felt better for it.

"I didn't mind this test so much," he admitted and won a snort of amusement from Erlis.  "And that means?"

"You love books.  You spend more time reading than anyone except maybe Master Rion himself.  Of course, this test didn't bother you."

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Flash Fiction #331 -- Connor of Northgate/15

Liam sat for a moment in silence before he looked at Rendon.  "I don't do favors," Liam replied, his voice steady.  "Not when it comes to seeing things."

Rendon gave a decisive nod, and the look of distrust cleared from his face.  "No, I suppose not.  Too dangerous."

Liam nodded before Connor said anything, and he hoped that would be the last of that kind of trouble.  Connor didn't want people to think he got tips from Liam.  That would put them both in danger.  Having been stabbed by Druce should help counter that idea, though.

There would soon be other things to worry about anyway.  His discussion with Liam about the testing made Connor worry more about what would happen than he had before.  He would take part now, for whatever good that would do him.  After dinner, he wandered up to the archives and asked for information.  Rion, who kept the archives, only gave a nod and hurried off.  Apparently, he was used to Connor asking for odd things.

Rion returned not long afterward with a couple ancient tomes in hand, and the pages already marked.  He handed them both over with a shake of his head.

"You know more about the history of Northgate than any of the young fae here, Connor.  I despair of them.  I really do."

"I always assumed that they just knew things somehow.  Family stories, things like that."

"And by magic?" Rion asked with a tilt of his head.  Though Rion didn't look it (no fae did), he was very old, and sometimes Connor could see the age in his face.  He did now.  There was no lying to this man, even in something this small.

"Yes, I did assume magic gave them some knowledge that I have never grasped," Connor admitted.  "Maybe that was naive on my part, but it is hard for me to see where the magic begins and ends."

Rion nodded, and his eyes narrowed.  "You are not unhappy here."

"Should I be?  This is a wondrous place, you know."

"The trouble with Druce --"

"Was not because I'm human.  Druce is truly sorry and apologized."

Rion looked uncertain, but Connor didn't go into more detail about something that was surely embarrassing to Druce without Connor making matters worse.  He took the tomes and headed up to his room.  Liam had just started up the stairs as well.  The Seer looked exhausted in a way that made Connor think Liam had experienced more visions.  They seemed to wear him out when they came too strongly.

Connor didn't ask.  He just walked Liam to his friend's room, and Liam parted company with a nod.  Distracted, Connor thought.  He didn't ask why.

The reading turned out to be fascinating.  Connor hadn't realized that each of the Gate Keeps had their own functions in fae society.  Testing and allegiance happened at Northgate, warrior testing (which was far more complex than the simple tests here) was done at Eastgate, along with an assignment to the various areas of the army.  The binding of mates took place in Southgate, along with ceremonies surrounding those occasions.  Westgate was the link to the temple, where both priests and priestesses were sworn to their service.  Seers, it seemed, usually went there.  He would be sorry to see Liam go.

The Royal Court placed close to the center of the Gate Keeps, kept control of the army, could order a mating dissolved (though they couldn't order a couple to take vows), and even the temple was answerable to them in some degree.  They also held the right to name or remove any of the Lords or Ladies of the Gates.  At this central court, a piece of each stone that fueled the High Gate Towers was also in place, and there a new Lord swore his oath.

Connor had known some of this information in general, but the books went into more detail and added some of the histories of the times before the gates were set and sealed to their lords.  Those days were filled with Chaos when fae fought against each other as much as against any outside force.

Connor tried to imagine a war of magic and didn't like even the little he saw.  He knew there was an area, far to the south and beyond even the Southgate Keep, where everything had been decimated, and a thousand years later the place still remained a plain of desolation and dust.

They did not ever want to fall back to that age of chaos and barbarity. Connor had never imagined the elves at such a state.  Humans, yes.  He'd read about humans and their wars, but he would never understand why the fae had gone that road as well.

Except there used to be more humans in the land.  Not born here, as he had been, but visitors sometimes.

The way that thought linked suddenly to the wars frightened him, fearing the mere presence of his kind could be a catalyst for conflict.  Perhaps there were reasons for the dislike that some of the others showed him.  He'd never thought about it before; never considered he was one of those humans, like the people who killed one another.

Connor sat on the chair and shivered at the thought.  Had his parents --

No.  They'd come to the aid of a stranger. And Lord Northgate would not have kept him here if he would have been a danger to the land.

Connor sat back, taking slow breaths and looked out the window, past the courtyard and towards the forested hills beyond.  He'd never been that far.  Never been to the human lands, either.  He knew little of this world, but it was still the only place he even partially understood.

This was his home.  He belonged here.  He would do nothing to cause problems here.

Connor didn't need to.  The trolls were on the move again, and he worried like everyone else that it meant trouble on the horizon.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Flash Fictoin #330 -- Connor of Northgate/14

"I suppose I better start preparing for the testing, then," Connor said, realizing now that he couldn't get out of it.  "I doubt I'll do well since I have no magic and they'll be using theirs."

"Maybe," Liam said.  "I honestly don't see what happens there."

"So nothing drastic goes wrong."

"I'd like to think so, but you can't trust any vision of the future filled with blackness and holes.  Anything can happen in those dark spots, and anything can change, so sometimes what I do see becomes only a path not taken.  Too many variables."

"And they still want you to make predictions."

"I am all they have to see trouble coming.  And yes, I do sense trouble coming, but then so do the rest of you with the increase in troll activity.  Things are on the move, Connor.  We have to prepare as best we can, and I might -- might -- be able to give some warning when something big happens."

"And you will without worrying about the consequences?"

"If I see that my words will cause worse problems, I won't --" he stopped and then shook his head, distracted for a moment.  This had, in fact, been the longest conversation they'd had without such an interruption.  Liam blinked and sighed.  "I have to watch the paths carefully and try to trace what is done that brings about what result.  It's not easy."

"Do you write them down?"

"No.  All that I've read about other Seers make that point -- never write it down.  Others can find the material and use it to shape things the way they think it should go."

"That's happened in the past?"

He frowned as though he didn't want to say, but then nodded.  "Yes.  At least 500 years ago.  The last Seer was growing older, and he didn't trust his memory.  He kept a journal for the last years and wrote down paths and even before he died it fell into other hands.  And yes, things changed.  It's when the trolls first became a real problem.  The journal was burnt, though.  We'll never know what might have been different."

"But you're sure we took a wrong path."

"We took a path that veered," he replied with a slight wave of his hand.  "It's the path we are on now, for good or bad.  It's not wrong; it's just what we have instead of what we might have had.  However, I won't make that kind of mistake."
Connor had never had this long of a coherent discussion with Liam.  His companion -- his friend -- clearly focused very hard right now on explaining to him this troubling situation.

"I won't ask you to say anything," Connor said.  He leaned back in his chair.  "You can trust me."

Liam looked up and gave an unexpected smile. 

"Yes, I can. You are wiser than some."

Connor didn't ask for those names, though Liam obviously waited for the question.

They had a quiet afternoon, spending some of it out in the gardens just beyond the kitchen door.  He'd only passed through here a few times and didn't realize how calm the place could be.  Liam seemed far less pressured here.  Oddly, Connor felt the same.  He'd never realized how much he had worried about what others thought of him until now, and how much he had kept himself in check because he didn't want anything he did to reflect poorly on Lord Northgate.

Druce was at dinner that night, but he never glanced at their table.  Nylia looked enraged, though, which didn't help.  Connor finally reached over and tapped her hand, drawing her glare from the dinner plate which did not deserve such anger.  The food had been excellent tonight.

"Let it go, Ny," he said softly -- something he'd never said to her before.  "Let this go and --"

"You don't understand," she said, her voice so soft the others might not have heard.  "This doesn't have anything to do with you --"

"I know.  I am just ... convenient.  Nonetheless, let this go for all our sakes.  You don't want to make things worse."

She looked up, glaring -- and then stopped and looked shocked.  "Gods of all, you're right.  Others would take this up and make it into something against you, our human."

"I suddenly feel like a pet cat you've taken in."

She laughed, so bright a sound that the feeling in the room seemed to grow easier. They finished their meal in a much better mood, and Connor thought this might pass without any rupture of the relationships at Northgate.

Then, as dinner came towards an end, Druce stood and crossed to them.  Connor found himself coming close to a curse, thinking Druce meant --

But no.
"I apologize," he said, and the words sounded sincere in a way only fae could mean them, hinting at emotions that were almost manifest with magic.  "I apologize to you, Connor.  And to all of you."

He bowed, not just his head, but a more profound action that showed contrition, and then he spun and left the room before any of them could speak.

"Nylia --" Connor began.

"I'll go talk to him," she said with a shake of her head.  "I don't want this to get worse."

She hurried out after Druce, her golden red hair flowing in ringlets across her back.  Tall, thin -- majestic, Connor thought.  He could see why Druce had fallen in love with her.

Erlis and Rendon had watched them both go.  Erlis glanced at him and nodded, having obviously understood the problem better than Connor had until Liam pointed it out.

Rendon looked at Liam, though, who was still nibbling at his food.  He gave a slight frown and then looked at Connor.

"If Liam had told me, I would have been more careful about getting stabbed by someone who was just angry at the world."

Rendon looked shocked, then nodded.  "Sorry.  That was my imagination running away with odd ideas."

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Flash Fiction #329 -- Connor of Northgate/13

Connor started to say something, then thought through what he'd just learned.  "You don't want to change things, but you just told me about Druce."

"After the fact.  I'd seen Nylia and Druce a long time before I came here. I saw myself sitting here and talking to you, though I hadn't seen much else."

"What sort of work do they expect you to do?" Connor finally asked.

"To make certain the fae lands remain safe, even if it means pointing people to a certain path.  I have to choose those battles wisely."

Connor nodded and finally slipped off the tunic, tossing it into the corner by his clothes trunk.  He doubted it could be salvaged.  He pulled out another tunic and put it on, feeling chilled still.

"Should I worry about Druce?" he finally asked.

"He won't do anything that will hurt his honor.  It's already taken a blow, but as long as you make nothing of the incident, the others will pass this off to the troubles that always arise as a fae comes of age.  If he had killed you though, it was something that would have hanged over him long after --"

Liam stopped, his breath catching.

"Long after I'm dead.  I'm human, not fae.  My days are numbered from the start."

Liam nodded, paler than he had been since his first days at the Keep.  From the bleakness, Connor wondered if Liam had seen his death -- but he asked nothing.

"Don't ask --" Liam stopped and nodded.  "You are wiser than most. Let us discuss other things.  I heard something about the testing next month.  What is this?"

"It has to do with the Royal Court. I suppose you don't deal with that very often in the Wildlands, right?"

"Not if we can avoid it," he said and gave a wry look to the walls around him.  "We don't like to live by anything but the rules of nature.  What will happen?"

"I was barely six the last time the testing happened. I remember sword fights to test prowess, I guess.  No blood is drawn."  He touched his own wound but hardly felt any pain.  "Fae who had just come of age came here from many places.  I guess Northgate has always hosted the testing.  I should find out why."

"Does it matter?" Liam asked.

"I like answers," Connor replied with a bit of a shrug.  "Searching for them keeps me busy."

"And out of sight."

He gave a nod of agreement.  "I learned that was wise the last year or so.  Lord Northgate and most of his people have always treated me well, but I don't want to cause trouble."

"I won't argue the point. You and I face the same problem; people don't know what to expect of us yet.  I've been told I will not be taking part in the testing, but there will be the pledges afterward, where all of us who have come of age  will be expected to swear our allegiance to the Royal Court."

"And that bothers you?"

"It bothers me on a personal level.  I am still a wildlander at heart, you know.  I still dream about the forests and the hills.  I still want to go home, but I know that they won't have me."

Connor had not expected to hear that sound of pain and loss, and Liam plainly regretted the words a moment later.  He lifted a hand before Connor could say anything.

"You could at least let me say something before you let me know it will do no good," Connor said and found himself amused by the words.

Liam laughed.  "I drove my sisters crazy, you know."

"Sisters?" Connor hadn't considered such things.  Family?  He had none, and he never looked for others to have them either.  Here at the keep family seemed to be connections that spread in wider circles than immediate blood relatives.

"Two sisters.  Twins.  Older than me by a decade and jealous when I first started getting noticed, though that ended quickly.  I think they were sorry to see me leave, but they never said so."

"I'm sorry.  I never thought --"

Liam gave a little shrug and then looked up again.  "There's going to be trouble at the testing and the pledges, because this time you are of age, too."

"I know," he said and leaned back.  "I planned to talk to Lord Northgate about it -- about what we should do.  If we should pretend that I don't really exist and keep out of the way --"

"No."  The word came out with more force than Connor expected.  "No, that will not help.  It will only make Lord Northgate appear to be weak -- or worse, that he's trying to hide you.  There are a lot of people interested in you, Connor.  You are the only human ever born to one of the Gate Keeps.  You belong to this place as much as Druce does, and oddly he would not disagree."

"You don't think I should stay out of the way?"

"Hide is the word you mean, and when you say that word, instead of skirting around it, you will know it won't come to any good."

"Yes.  You're right."  Connor sighed and decided he must avoid the easier and calmer answer.  "I don't want to be the cause of trouble, but it seems as though whatever I do, it's going to create a problem.  I thought I might ask Lord Northgate to send me back to the human world.  I don't know anything about it, but it might be the best way to --"

Liam looked up, and the worry on his face stopped Connor in mid-sentence again.  "If you went back, you would not be here when Lord Northgate needs you most."

That sounded dire.  Connor started to ask, but Liam shook his head, his mouth clamped shut as though he feared he had already crossed some line he should have avoided.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Flash Fiction #328 -- Connor of Northgate/12

Connor turned back to his classwork, intently staring at the page, and trying to parse words that danced around in his head and made no sense at all.  He finally closed his eyes.

The class passed quickly, and the group headed down to sword practice.  That suited Connor better today.

They changed partners daily. As luck would have it, Connor drew Druce who glared before they even started.

When Godewyn gave the signal, Druce leapt straight at Connor. If he hadn't been ready, Connor would have taken an injury and more than a bruise. The cutting edge had been aimed high enough to hit his neck.

Godewyn hadn't seen the interplay.  Connor would have to fight his own battle.  He was ready for it, in fact.  He probably had as much pent-up frustration as his sparring partner.  His sword came back in a practiced swing that seemed to surprise and annoy Druce.  However, Druce was quicker.

Connor took a cut in the arm after Godewyn called time. Druce never heard the order, his grim look giving way to pleasure as he forced Connor back a step and another.

 Godewyn waved magic that sent Druce stumbling back, cursing --

"Druce put down that sword and walk away."

Godewyn's voice sounded cold, precise --and deadly.  He held his hand up, magic still playing at his fingers.  Druce growled, started to come forward again -- and then finally realized the situation. The others stared at him, some of them shocked and dismayed that he had so lost his honor.

And he had.  Druce would have to work hard to recover from this attack.  He threw the sword aside and stalked away.  Nyla reached out with one ankle and tripped him.  He went stumbling into the corridor and cursed all the louder.

Godewyn came to Connor and took his arm in hand, magic slipping up over the wound and burying the pain.

"That was unforgivable," Nyla said with a shake of her head.

"Not so serious as that," Connor replied.  With the pain gone, his own thoughts cleared.  "His emotions just got the better of him for a moment. This has been building for a long time, and I might be partly to blame.  I've made it plain I'm no happier with him than he is with me."

Godewyn frowned but didn't disagree.  "You are to rest, today and tomorrow --"

"The cut wasn't that bad!"

"Rest," Godewyn insisted.  "Give everyone a chance to calm."

That, at least, made sense.  Conor bowed to the others and left the field, his tunic cut and still wet with blood, but the wound itself mostly healed.  Connor admitted to himself that he was feeling a little light-headed as well, so he made his way slowly up the stairs to his room.

Liam waited by the door.

"You knew this was going to happen," Connor said as he opened his door and signaled his companion inside.

"Yes," Liam replied, his head hanging, the hair forming a veil again.  "I'm sorry."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Things would have changed," he said with a shake of his head.  "There was worse that might have happened.  Sit down.  You're pale."

Connor settled on the chair by his desk.  He was, for a brief moment, angry with Liam -- but he pulled that back in line.  Liam was only an easy target.

"What would have changed?" he asked.  "And sit down.  You make me nervous, standing there like you're ready to bolt."

Liam took another chair.  He looked up finally, and Connor saw relief and determination in his face.  "There were so many factors, Connor --"

"Even for so small an incident as this?" he asked and began to unlace the tunic, anxious to have it off.

"Even for this, but mostly because you are more important here at Northgate than you admit."

"The only importance I have is in making trouble, I fear."

Liam started to say something.  He stopped and shook his head.  "You mean that."

"Yes, of course.  I'm human Liam.  I don't have any fae power, and being powerless means that my friends have to protect me while my enemies only have to wait for the right moment."

"Oh yes, as long as none of them care much about their own honor."

"True.  So I don't have to worry too much about Druce on that account, even though I am human and he might --"

"This has nothing to do with you being human," he said.

"I'm sure Druce --"

"He's not angry over you being human," Liam said and sounded so assured that it stopped Connor from saying more.  "Druce is mad because Nylia smiles at you and not at him."

"Nylia smiles -- oh."  Connor shook his head in disbelief.  "We're just friends.  All of us were friends."

"Druce is interested in more.  Nylia said she isn't, and he took that to heart.  He left the group in hopes that he'd get over it.  He hasn't."

This was not the kind of problem Connor had ever considered facing, and he sat there staring at Liam, half expecting him to say this was only a guess.  He didn't.  Liam looked certain.

"What would have happened if you told me before now?"

"You might have not gone to practice today, and Druce would have grown more annoyed.  He might have met you somewhere in the halls, and the confrontation would have been worse and without witness.  Or you might have gone, knowing Druce was going to attack you and annoyed him into thinking you didn't trust him.  Remember, he didn't plan to attack you. It came in a moment of frustration and anger.  Or you might have grown angry and attacked him to save yourself -- but no one else would have seen it that way.  Or --"

"That must drive you crazy," Connor said.  "How can you tell which path to take?"

"That's actually the easy part.  It's the one where I do nothing at all."

Friday, November 02, 2018

Flash Fiction #327-- Connor of Northgate/11

Chapter 3

Liam fit in well enough after the first few days.  Everyone had been uneasy, including Liam himself, but they soon grew calmer.  Spring spread to summer, which was pleasant enough.

Other changes came, though.  Nylia, not surprisingly, was the first to start feeling the change that came with the awakening of her powers.  She went into seclusion with older fae who would teach her how to control the magic that could get too quickly out of hand.  Rendon went next and Erlis not long afterward, leaving the nightly table empty of all but Connor and Liam.

He suspected Liam would soon go into retreat as well because the Seer did have other magical powers.  Connor tried not to let his own feelings show about the changes.  It was no more their fault that they were fae than his that he was human.  This was as inevitable as the sun rising, and Rion had been talking to him about it for months already.

But still -- still it hurt.  The friends he had known all his life had finally gone to a place he could not follow.  Connor sat awake at night and tried to curb the anger that threatened to take him.  He tried not to watch Liam with anxiousness, waiting for him to go away too.

As though they wouldn't come back.

He knew they would.  Others went through this right of passage.  Children were usually born every ten years, groups born to each age.  Connor had been lucky that he came when one group was barely a few months older than him.  He had fitted in.

Until now.

Erlis was the first to come back.  Connor and Liam found him at the table waiting for dinner.  He looked up and gave so bright a smile that Connor forgot all the worries he'd had about changes.

"It's good to be back," Erlis said as they settled in their places.  The others aren't out yet?  I can't believe I tamed the beast before Nylia!"

Erlis spent dinner telling them humorous stories about magic gone wrong. Even those beyond their table laughed. Druce did not, but then he had not gotten his call to power yet, either.  He glared at all of them.

Stuck being no better than human, Connor thought with a bit of a smirk.  He tried not to feel better for it.

Instead, he studied Erlis, who had changed in subtle ways.  He sat up straighter as though he had grown taller.  His face had lost any sign of indecision and confusion.  Adult, Connor thought and wondered how he would become an adult.  How did I happen to humans? 

Was there anyone he could ask?

The idea slipped away from him over the next few days.  Nylia showed up within ten days, and she too had some funny tales to tell, once Erlis shared some of his own again.
They drew attention and drew Connor into the stories with them.  They made him a part of this time, even when he could not share it.  He liked them more for it.

On the night after Rendon finally came wandering in as well, and shared his own jokes, it seemed that all was back to normal again.  Despite that they now had magic, they were the same.  Maybe wiser -- maybe that was needed to control magic -- but still the same as they had been the month before.

Liam often walked with him up the stairs.  He was calmer, too, though he still sometimes missed a step or turned his head to listen to something the rest of them could not see or hear.

"They are good friends," Liam said as they stopped by their doors.  "I hadn't thought to feel so much a part of this place.  And I don't fear my own magic so much now."

"Good.  Will you have a problem?"

"Some," he admitted and leaned against the door jamb.  He pushed his hair back out of his face.  Connor had started thinking he sometimes used the hair as a veil, hiding as best he could.  "I've been reading all I can about other seers, but it turns out they all had different problems.  Quite a few of them died when their magic came, though."


He had not meant to sound so worried and upset, and it drew Liam's startled look this time.
 "It's all right. They were mostly seers who had been alone.  Cast out from their people.  I have help here.  Rion and Lord Northgate both have already taken considerable time with me.  More so than my own people would."

"You will be all right."

"I think so," he said and gave a sudden bright smile.  "Either that or I have a very active imagination when it comes to seeing the future."

He almost asked -- but he stopped himself.

"Oh, you are wiser than most.  Even Nylia has asked for some hints.  And Druce demanded I tell him, but that came to a quick end when Rion got hold of him and took him straight to Lord Northgate.  He hasn't talked to me since.  We better get some rest.  Tomorrow --"

He stopped and blinked, then shook his head and went into his room without saying another word.

That, Connor decided, was going to be annoying.

Connor didn't sleep well, woke up early, and went down to breakfast with Liam, who was always quiet in the mornings.  It had made him wonder how well his friend slept most nights.

Breakfast and the morning class were normal, which he realized, would not be going on much longer.  As the others gained more control of their powers, they would go off to serve in their chosen places at the keep.

And what would he do?  Perpetual student?  Growing old here --

Which was something else he didn't think much about.  He would grow old and die. The others would not.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Flash Fiction #326 -- Connor of Northgate/10

Connor considered the statement and the worry in his new friend's face.  "And if I were going to fall from a cliff, you wouldn't warn me?"

"Would it make a difference?  Should it make a difference?  Should I have the power to change the future with a word?  What if I made up some story for my own gain?"

"Would you?"

"No.  Not now at least.  Later?  Who is to say what I might do later?"

They went up another flight of stairs.  Liam seemed more bothered with each step.

"You didn't answer my question," Connor finally said.  "This is not where  you want to be, is it?"

"I want to be free in the woods, but it's not a safe place for me.  I can't control when or what I see, and it's dangerous to be blind there.  They say I have a power that is rare and precious, and at the same time, everyone does their best to make certain I am not anywhere near them.  Where should I want to be?"

"Somewhere safe for a while.  You might not stay at the Keep for long, you know.  Lord Northgate will help you to find your way and get control."

"Yes.  Yes, you are right." The words seemed to reassure Liam, which surprised Connor and made him wonder what Liam saw and didn't see and what he understood about his own future.  Maybe they'd speak of it, later when his new friend was calmer and more settled in this new place.

Magra stepped from the room as they arrived.  She offered a bright smile.  "Well, there you are.  I hope the room meets your needs, young man.  If not, let us know.  Connor," she finished with a nod to him before she went on about her own business.

Liam stood by the door, looking at it with apparent consternation.

"What's wrong?"

"Something stupid," he admitted and bowed his head.  "I am a wildland fae, no matter what else.  I have never slept in a building before."

"Oh," Connor said. "This will be quite an adventure then, won't it?"

"Adventure?  Is that what I should call this insanity that ripped me from all I knew and gave me into the hands of total strangers?"

There -- there was the line he had been probing for all night.  He understood the real depth of what Liam felt with those words.

"I will help you make it into an adventure," Connor suggested.  "I will make sure that you are not alone here, either -- for all the good a human can do in some cases.  Also, remember that I am Lord Northgate's ward and you are now his foster son.  That gives us a power of a certain sort."

"The kind that Druce craves," Liam said.  "And no, I don't need any special power to see that in him.  He's jealous."

"Nylia says the same thing," he replied.  "Shall we go in?  Or would you rather go in by yourself?"

"Despite the fear of sounding childish, I would be happy if you would go in with me.  All this stone around us makes me uneasy.  I know it's silly.  Northgate is as old as the wind itself and not given to crushing fae out of hand.  But still --"

Connor gave a little laugh and finally pushed the door open, and blinked at something surprising.

Plants everywhere.  The scent of them filled the room and drifted out into the hall.  Liam looked startled and then took a step into the room ahead of Connor, glancing around with surprise and pleasure.

"This -- this is not what the other rooms are like?" he asked.

"Not at all.  Obviously, Magra and Lord Northgate anticipated that you would feel more comfortable in a garden than a bedroom."  He gave a little laugh.  "This is wonderful!  I've never been farther than the village, you know."

"Never?" he seemed shocked.  "Not even to the woods?"

"No.  There's been talk about going on a journey next spring, but Lord Northgate doesn't travel.  I think the others have been waiting until I grew older and have a chance of taking care of myself, even without magic."

Liam gave a distracted nod.  He had walked to one of the plants and brushed his hand against it, giving a contented sigh.  Connor left him in silence for a little while, and finally, Liam went and sat down on the edge of the bed, looking back at him with a nod.  He seemed more at ease than he had all night.

"I can do this," Liam finally said.  "I can anchor myself to this room and the plants that have no past or future. They give me a chance to let go, you know.  They don't care what I might say or see."

"You can trust us."

"I can trust you," he corrected.  "I don't trust everyone, but neither do you.  You aren't a fool.  Go get some rest.  I can sleep here, at least.  I can let go and be safe in this room.  And we'll have time to talk again tomorrow, and the next day.  And for a long time after that -- I can promise you that much."

Connor smiled as he stood.  "I'm glad to hear it.  Come across and knock on the door when you get up tomorrow.  I'll take you on a tour of the keep before we go to class."

"Class," he said and looked startled.
"It's not bad.  I think you'll like it.  It will give you a chance to learn more about Northgate and meet the others."

"Class," he said again and this time with a sigh.

Connor went back out of the room and across to his own.  He felt unexpectedly drained by the day.  The only dreams he had was of life in places he had never been, but he could imagine.

He slept well.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Flash Fiction #325 -- Connor of Northgate/9

Liam said little during the dinner -- not unfriendly, but more as though he studied them to see what was permitted.  Connor's friends soon joked and laughed again, and even Liam smiled more than once.

Connor had the feeling that maybe Liam didn't often relax.

As they stood to leave the dining hall, Connor noticed how Liam lost his link to now again.  Connor had started to take note of the changes which had occurred sometimes as they ate; the flickering of his eyes, the way the pupils grew larger, and how he moved out of step with what was around him.  Connor caught him by the arm when Liam almost blundered straight into his chair.  He wondered how Liam had avoided broken bones before now, though perhaps that was part of the problem -- just keeping Liam alive.

"Thank you.  That was very kind, Honor."

Druce, who had been passing nearby broke out into rude, loud laughter.  "Honor!  Him?"

Connor looked into the young man's face.  "I think I should be very proud to be called Honor by someone who glimpses the future."

Druce went red all the way to the tips of his pointed ears, and Connor feared they were about to come to blows.  However, his new companions, all older than Druce, and maybe wiser, caught him by the arm and took him away.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry --" Liam began.  He looked frightened and half ill.  "That happens around me.  I say things --"

"Don't worry," Erlis said with a tap on Liam's arm, a friendly touch and a smile.  "Truth is that was a long time coming between Connor and Druce, and I'm rather glad to see it go in Connor's favor.  Druce made a fool of himself and in front of a lot of others.  No harm done, except to his ego -- and trust me, Druce has ego enough to recover from this little confrontation.  Druce will get over it."

From the look Liam gave Erlis, Connor feared those last words were not going to prove true.

No matter.  Erlis had been right in one respect; this had been coming for a long time now.  He was sorry Liam got caught up in this mess, and right on the night of his arrival, but he said nothing.

Lord Northgate caught up with them at the door. 

"All is well?" he asked.  Connor had no doubt he'd heard about the little byplay already.

"Fine, thank you," Connor said and was purposely less formal.  He thought it would help if Liam realized they could be friendly here. 

"Good," Northgate smiled brightly.  Then he stopped.  "I think I have made a mistake I'm going to rectify right now.  Magra?  Can you have our new friend's room moved to the spot across from Connor's suite?"

"Oh yes," Magra said and gave a quick nod.  "Yes, that will work very well."

"If neither of you has any complaints?" Northgate asked.

"None from me," Connor said with a smile.

"I am honored that you took me in at all, sir," Liam said, which was more than he had said for most of the night.  His hand went to brush at his hair; a nervous gesture, Connor thought.  "I am grateful for the help and advice I will find here.  I need to be helped to the right path.  It's hard to see where to turn when so much else is crowding in."

"I don't envy you this power," Northgate replied.  Magra had already rushed off, calling to Isole and a few others. They would have the rooms changed quickly.  "If you are troubled, though, you can come to me at any time.  I'll help you as best I can.  And I'm sending to the Royal Court for more information.  They've had seers there in the past, and I think they might have some words of wisdom for all of us."

Connor suddenly wondered if Seers were so rare that Liam might be the only one alive.    He hadn't considered it, which made Liam a rarity indeed.  Maybe as much so as the only human ever born to the Keep of Northgate.

The others bade them good night.  Connor and Liam headed up the stairs to the rooms.  However, Connor paused at the first landing and looked at Liam, frowning this time.

"You don't want to be here, do you?"

"I want --" Liam began, then shook his head in dismay as though he had already said too much.

"You can talk to me.  I'm not like any of the others."

"You are different, but it's not because you are human. You have made yourself open to understanding.  The others -- most fae, in fact, -- are set in their ways.  They are not willing to open doors to things they don't understand.  It's part of their nature and no fault of theirs.  That so many have accepted you here comes from having seen you grow up among them.  You aren't really different, you know.  But that ... that will change.  They are coming of age, your friends."

"I know.  My friends will come into their magic and leave me behind."

"No."  He said the word with such determination that it caught Connor by surprise.  "No.  Your true friends will never leave you behind.  However, they will be changed in ways that will be obvious and sometimes painful.  I know."

"Ah."  He started up again but looked at Liam.  "The voice of one who has lived through it, in his own way."

"I had friends," he said with a sigh.  "We ran the woods together; climbed the trees, swimming in the ponds.  Then I changed, and they were worried about what I would see in them.  Especially after I saw Alisin fall from the cliff.  I tried to warn him.  He survived, though barely.  And changed.  And now the others --"

He stopped midway up the stairs and shook his head, giving Connor a look of worry again.  "I don't want to make the same mistake here."

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Flash Fiction #324 -- Connor of Northgate/8

The fae introduced themselves to Lord Northgate, but Connor paid little attention.  The woman pointed to Liam and gave his name, but no more.  Connor stayed out of the way; if they thought this little of one of their own for being different, they wouldn't think much of him at all.

Godewyn gave him a nod when Connor stepped out of the way and made no show.  Everyone swept past him, Liam coming at the rear, a bag slung over his shoulder and looking more like a forgotten servant than the person around whom all this excitement revolved.  He was not very tall, his dark eyes looking downward, and a fall of black hair hiding half his face.

Liam looked his way and nodded.  "I'm Liam."

"Connor," he said with a bow of his head. 



Liam nodded and fell in beside him.  He looked distracted as he glanced to his right and nodded as though someone spoke to him.  Afterward, he sighed, his head bowed.

"It's hard, sometimes, to track the now and not the then."

Connor didn't know quite what that meant, but he thought he would learn.  He almost asked a question, but someone came up to the right of Liam.

"The rest of us won't be staying long," the man said.

And Liam gave the same nod he had a moment before.

So, that was worth noting.  Liam had trouble telling the real from the unreal -- or not unreal, but not yet happened.

Once in the Great Hall, Lord Northgate took formal custody of his new fosterling.  The rest of Liam's group left with such haste that it shocked the others.

Liam went to the door to see them off.  Lord Northgate followed and signaled Connor along as well.  The others quickly rode out the gate, not even staying for dinner.  Liam looked just as happy to see them go.

"Well, are you up for a good meal, young man?" Lord Northgate asked, giving him a friendly smile at last.  Apparently having the rest of the Wildland fae away didn't bother him much either.

"Thank you, yes," Liam said with a bow of his head.  Well-mannered.  Some of Connor's friends had told him the wild fae didn't know about court rituals and common politeness. Liam knew, even if the others were not quite as polite.

Liam had trouble fully connecting to here and now, though.  He apparently had to concentrate, but in a lapse, he took a misstep as they entered the dining hall, and nearly went down.

Connor caught him before he fell and Liam gave him a grateful nod.  "Thank you."

"You can sit at Connor's table if you like.  You should meet his friends.  You'll be spending a great deal of time with them, I think," Lord Northgate said with a nod towards the table at the side of the room.

"If it won't bother them?" Liam asked, looking to Connor.

"If it does, they'll get over it," he replied -- an honest answer, which was better than telling Liam there would be no trouble at all.  He would not lie.

Liam went with him to the table, concentrating while he introduced Nylia, Erlis, and Rendon. Erlis moved slightly to make room on the bench where he and Connor usually sat. Most groups had six or more to a table, but the four of them had always had this spot to themselves.

"I will not tell you anything you do not want to hear," Liam said before he sat down.  "That I promise you.  Never on purpose, at least -- but I am sometimes lost in the visions, and I can't help what I say.  Sometimes what I say is not what you think -- my people learned that quickly enough and were glad to be rid of me rather than trying to second-guess everything."

Bitterness there.  Connor wondered about Liam's family, and if they had been with the group.

"Sit down," Nylia said with a wave of her arm.  Gracious, really, and smiling.  "Sit down and have dinner."

The other two nodded, less certain, but that had always been their way.  That they still sat with Connor, though, showed them open to things outside their normal world. There had been others -- like Druce, who had taken leave of their table a couple years before when he began to understand that human meant.

Connor happened to be looking Druce's way as Liam settled into the chair.  Druce glared, but then he often did, and Connor didn't think it was Liam who won that look tonight.

The people serving tonight brought the food to the table, polite and quick.

"Let us be thankful to all creation for the gifts of the table tonight," Lord Northgate said, giving the nightly blessing.  "Let us live in abundance and peace, and do naught which is evil in the eyes of any."

Liam nodded, his eyes lingering on the Lord of Northgate, the man who now ruled his life.  Connor had studied what fostering meant, and usually, it was the passing of a child --an heir -- on to another keep so the child would be raised by strangers, and not spoiled by his or her parents.

Lord Northgate had no heirs, though.  None of the other lords had fostered children here, either. Connor had assumed it was because Northgate was a dangerous place.  Tonight, though, he wondered if the reason might be because of the human who lived here.

The meal went well.  Liam relaxed, and although there were lapses when he stared or started, he remained polite and quiet.  Connor hoped he became more used to them as the days went by.

The meal went long as everyone relaxed.  That felt good after the last few days when everyone worried about the coming of the seer and what he might see in them.  None had said it, but they couldn't help but think those thoughts, Connor realized.  He had as well.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Flash Fiction #323 -- Connor of Northgate/7

Conner stared down where they took the bodies from the cart.  He felt no love for trolls, who had killed both his parents.  He also knew that being near the creatures, even dead, gave him nightmares that he didn't want to relive.

Now wasn't the time to drag them back to the light. Instead, Connor took up the book he had been studying about the Fae High Court.  He'd feared it would be boring when Rion, the teacher who saw over his generation, handed the collection to Connor.

Instead, the tales proved to be fantastic adventures, deeds of wonder, hope -- and treachery.  He had read more than half of it already.  The stories called to him in an odd way; it wasn't always magic that won against evil.

The day went normally enough, despite the whispers and worries that spread through the keep.  No classes and no training today, it being a tenth day anyway.  Conner spent some time in the library but hadn't found much on seers.  He didn't bother to ask the others; they speculated so much that he realized he'd done more research than any of them.

The day drifted to a gray and blustery mid-afternoon.  Clouds scuttled across the bright sky and a brisk breeze blew past cracks.  People had stopped whispering about the boy and speculated on the weather again, which was always changeable.  Connor went to his room.  He had an excellent view from his window and saw anyone coming into the courtyard.

The party arrived late; almost the hour of dinner, which he had feared would be held up, much to his stomach's dismay.  Connor heard Lord Northgate and his people heading down the hall to greet the strangers as the gate opened.

Connor almost joined them, but he had not been invited.  He knew how to act appropriately in court, and one did not push his way into the Lord's retinue, though some who knew better still did so.  Connor waited until Lord Northgate was well down the stairs and then followed, along with others probably hoping for a short ceremony and a long dinner.
Connor paused as others took their places in the High Hall.  His own position was at the front row of benches, before the Northgate throne. Lord Northgate's own children would sit there once he married.  For now, his human ward held the place of honor.  That infuriated some visitors -- and a few locals as well, though they rarely dared say anything to him and never to Northgate.

Connor started for the bench, but instead, he move to the double doors where his benefactor and a few others stood. He kept back, but Lord Northgate gave a signal with his left hand.  The right, as always, rested in a silken sling.  He'd taken that injury in the same battle that had killed Connors parents.  It would never heal.   heard the word poison whispered sometimes, and it seemed a dire word, and something others wanted to ignore.  He never asked.

Connor came forward and gave a proper little bow of his head.

"Good to have you here, Connor," Northgate said and meant those words.  Truth was a power that came clearly to Fae words.  "The boy is going to be troubled enough, and I fear the others are going to be wary of him because of his gift."

"I thought so as well, my Lord," Connor said softly.  He looked out the partly open door. They were just dismounting now, a dozen fae with one smaller figure in their midst.  "I thought we might have some things in common, the two of us being different and neither really belonging here."

He hadn't expected Lord Northgate's hand to come down on his shoulder, the fingers tightening and drawing Connor's startled attention.  There was a look in the man's face that he had never seen before.

"This is your home, Connor," he said, his voice soft.  "You do belong here.  I can't deny you are different than the fae children, but I don't ever want you to feel as though you don't belong."

"That was badly worded on my part," he said in haste.  He didn't want Northgate upset. The man had always -- always -- been more than kind to him.  "I can't imagine any other life. I am different, and so is Liam from what I learned.  It might help him to realize he's not the only one."

Lord Northgate gave a pensive nod.  Godewyn, standing beside him, looked bothered and gave Connor a frown, though he couldn't of a reprimand or only an agreement that things were not, indeed, normal.

No matter.  The group started up to the steps to the Keep's great outer doors, which stood open already.  A group of four fae led the way, all of them in the bright colors and varied styles of the Wildlands.

"Lord Northgate," the woman in the lead said, bowing her head to him.  "We are grateful that you are willing to help us with our problem."

The tone of the words almost made Connor wince. They apparently wanted Liam out of their hands, and they weren't trying to hide the fact. He looked past the woman and the others and saw Liam lingering a step lower, looking up at the Keep with a bit of worry.  He would never have lived in such a place, Connor realized. In the Wildlands they didn't even live in cottages, but only temporary huts and tents.

"It is an honor to have him here," Northgate replied with the words steady and the truth a power in themselves.  Connor saw Liam look his way with surprise. "The gifts of the Seer are difficult to bear, and I hope that we might make this coming into power easier for him."

The woman gave a nod, half-distracted, as though she genuinely didn't care.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Flash Fiction # 322 -- Connor of Northgate/6

Chapter Two

Growing up at Northgate was an adventure.  Connor had understood that from the time he began to walk and got into trouble like all the other children at the keep.  He wasn't the only one often reprimanded by an older fae and sent back out of the armory or out of Askela's kitchens.
He had friends among the half-dozen fae children born to the Northgate Keep. Human not fae the adults would sometimes say of him, though as a child he hadn't understood.  When he grew a little older, Lord Northgate, to whom Connor was a ward, said it had to do with magic, which humans didn't have.

At first Connor thought that made him less than the fae, and he felt sadness his ten-year-old mind couldn't quite grasp and understand.  That passed, though, as his friends sought him out and dragged him along to more adventures.

"I don't care if you are human," Nylia said with a lift of her head, her golden hair swinging back to show those curved ears, so different from his own.

Connor's hair was almost as blond, at least, so he didn't stand out too much.  Nylia was a year older than the rest of them and seemed wiser for it.
Erlis and Renden muttered agreements.

"You belong to Northgate.  You were born here.  My mother says your parents were very, very brave and saved Lord Northgate.  She said you deserve all the honor we couldn't give to them because they died."

He'd heard the tale from Lord Northgate, but listening to the words from Nylia made the story different. "I would rather have honor for myself," he finally said.

"That you'll have to gain on your own.  However, being human isn't bad," Nylia said and looked directly into his eyes.  "Don't ever let them tell you so."

And then they went on and played some more.

At fifteen, the first serious change took place in his life.  It came unexpectedly, though.  Lord Northgate had agreed to foster a young fae from the wild lands -- areas outside the keeps and even outside the villages.

"Liam is a seer," Lord Northgate said to the gathered court the day before the newcomer arrived.  People looked shocked and worried.  "He's just coming into his power and obviously confused.  Liam had no early training and no one realized his power until it began to seriously manifest.  I expect all of you to treat him well and help him through this time.  A seer has a difficult task, sorting through the visions to learn what is real, what is possible and what is only his imagination."

The others nodded, looking troubled as they slipped away.  Connor went with Erlis and Rendon, both of whom looked bothered.

"I know what a seer is," Connor said.  "Why is that a problem?"

"Because sometimes they can tell you things you don't want to know," Erlis replied, shaking his head with worry.  "And sometimes they can even tell you things you shouldn't know, and then you try to change the future.  That's dangerous, especially for the fae."

Rendon nodded as well.  "I heard he's Nylia's age.  That means we'll be dealing with him. I wouldn't want his power, and I really don't want to deal with him, either."

"We'll all start coming into our powers soon," Erlis said.

Then he looked at Connor, shock in his face, as though he only now realized Connor would not have powers.

They walked on in silence to dinner.  The table where Connor and his friends sat remained quiet that night, and Connor felt as though he had lost something precious with the arrival of Liam.  He thought he ought to be angry at the intrusion.

That night, sitting on the bed where he had been born, Connor thought about what it meant to be different from the others.  This Liam would have that taint, too. First, he was an outsider, and he couldn't remember the last time anyone had moved into the Keep. They had visitors, of course, but people didn't stay.  Even the people from the Royal Court only came now and then, looked things over, and returned to the safer keeps and castles.

Yes, safer. Connor hadn't thought that through, either.  He knew that there had been trolls and an invasion and the death of many people besides his parents.

Connor went to the window and looked down at the courtyard below.  People moved there with bobbing lights trailing above them like glowing birds on a leash. 

He would never make that light.

He felt cold then; cold at the very essential difference between him and his friends and the one thing he could not change.

Like Liam couldn't change.  That thought brought him back to his original musings about how he and Liam were perhaps a bit alike.  They could not change the difference that set them apart.  Maybe he shouldn't be upset at the arrival of this strange fae. Perhaps, for Lord Northgate's sake if nothing else, he should make no judgments and see if he could befriend this stranger.

Connor didn't know much about the wild lands except it was where some of the odder magical creatures lived who didn't like to be in the cities and castles.  In truth, he had never been far beyond the keep's walls in all his life, and he'd never thought much about it.  This was home.

Connor slept lightly that night, awoke before dawn and dressed.  He sat by the window and waited. Not long after sunrise, he heard the sound of others arriving, but that would not be Liam -- not at first light.

In the faint light he could see several huge creatures, all of them dead and strung across a wagon.  Sounds erupted from the castle and he saw others rushing out.  The guards had plainly found Trolls in the nearby hills.

Connor stood.  Then he settled in the chair again.  They did not need him underfoot.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Flash Fiction #321 -- Connor of Northgate/5

Lord Northgate did as she ordered, letting his mind clear as he accepted that he had survived to make it home.  He recalled everything, and the anger must have shown in his eyes, though he hadn't the strength to make any other show.  Magra gave a grim nod, though, as if understanding his mood. She said nothing.

He sipped tea imbued with herbs and magic.  They'd taken him to his own rooms, and he looked about the tapestry covered-walls and at the window thrown open to the warmth and bright light.  He had expected a storm still, and that made him wonder how long he'd lain here, senseless. He didn't worry about himself, though.

"The woman -- Clarice," he said softly.

Her eyes told him the truth before she spoke.  "The poison got into her system, Lord Northgate.  We've done our best to keep it from the child as well, but she cannot live much longer.  The healers say it is best if the child is born within the hour.  A little young to be brought into the world, but the healers will keep him safe.  No, be still.  The poison, Lord Northgate -- the healers even from the Queen herself could not get it from your system.  They've found a way to hold it at bay.  It will not kill you.  Not yet."

The news sent a chill through him, but he still moved to sit up.  Magra clucked her tongue in protest but finally helped him.  The room spun, and he gasped, but he stayed conscious.

"I must see Clarice before she dies," he said; horrible words.  Humans lived such short lives, and that always bothered the fae, but to have the lives cut short by foul magic, and to have lost those precious years to help protect him was a heavy weight on his soul.

Magra went to the door and called others.  She might have used magic, but they were used to doing things for themselves here at home.  Magic was for other places; to use it too often made a fae lazy and eventually deadened his very soul.  They were not merely creatures of magic, the fae.  They were bodies as well, which Lord Northgate knew too well as he tried to stand.

He tottered to his feet before Godewyn and Tage arrived.  Both looked ready to argue, but Magra silenced them before they began to protest.

"He needs to see the fine lady who helped save him.  There will not be another chance."

So they gathered him up, Magra adding a little magic to help him as he moved.  They went through the dark, cool halls of Northgate Keep, a place of loss and sorrow today.  He would have to ask about all those who had died here.

He would have to find out how and why this had happened.  This had not been merely an attack of trolls, a random outbreak of their old hostilities.  They had poison and needles to deliver death that could not be countered, and trolls would not have managed that subtlety on their own.  Something had set the trolls on this path and given them the power to arrive on the wind.

He would find the answer.

They arrived at the door to a guest suite, not very far from his own rooms though it had felt like miles.  A soft knock brought Isole out, tears in her eyes.  She bowed her head to Lord Northgate and took one ragged breath before she spoke.

"The child comes now, my Lord.  You cannot go in to see her until this is done.  She is courageous, is Clarice.  Calm.  She knows she will die, but the child will live.  Sit here. This will not take long."

With a wave of her hand, she made a bench for him; a kindness and he settled there, trying to calm the hard beats of his heart and the dread that came over him, knowing death lingered only a doorway beyond.

Isole went back inside the room.  He caught a glimpse of a bed, of several healers, of Clarice's dark hair falling across a pillow.

They waited in silence.

Not long.  He heard the cry of the child, a quick protest at being born.  A good cry, for all the trouble that came with this birth.  He sounded strong.

Isole arrived almost immediately at the door.  Her eyes were dry now but her face bleak.

"Quickly, sir.  There is little time."

He stood without help, the others hurrying to keep up with him as he crossed through the door and into the room.

Clarice looked to him and gave a little nod, as though she had no more strength.  He could see her eyes fluttering and felt the magic that kept her from the pain that would have dragged her down and made this moment anything but calm.  He gave a grateful nod to the healers, all of whom stood in a solemn array to the far side of the bed now.  One of them held the baby, wrapped in a blanket of spring green.  The child moved.  The healer laid the bundle upon the bed, nestled in the woman's weak arm.

"You -- you will take care of him?" she whispered, looking to Lord Northgate.  The words were bare sounds, her eyes flickering.  "Promise you will --"

"I give you my promise that I will do all to keep the child from harm," he said.

Magra and Isole both took startled gasps.  He had put power into those words, and such a promise meant more than words to a fae.  He had taken the child fully and completely into his care.  He thought that somehow Clarice might have understood as well.

"What will you name the child?" he asked, fearing each breath would be the last.

"Chad liked Connor," she whispered, tears of loss in her eyes.

"Connor," he said with a bow of his head.

By the time he looked up, she had died.