Friday, December 28, 2018
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
"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
"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."
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
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."