Friday, June 14, 2019

Flash Fiction # 359 -- Connor of Northgate/43

"I think I'll need more training from Rion.  And everyone else.  Especially with the magic because I don't know what it does.  It just ... sits there.  Sometimes it feels as though something moves within me.  Is it like that for the rest of you?"

"Not really; our magic is not something added later.  This might explain why people like gate lords are different.  That special power isn't simply amplifying what we have, but adding something different to it."

They spent the next few hours talking about the different forms of magic.  Understanding how the fae magic worked helped Connor, and by the time they finally camped, he at least felt he could examine his own changes and begin to make sense of them.

The centaurs insisted on taking the watch and leaving the 'two legs' to sleep.  They didn't treat Connor any differently than they treated the others, despite being human and being a gate lord.  They didn't treat Antisha any differently either, even though she was from the royal family.

He slept well, mostly from exhaustion.  The next morning they were on their way before the sun rose.  He didn't need Liam to tell him they were riding into danger.

"They will know you are gone by now," Braslyn said when they stopped by a brook.  "This is where we part company.  You follow the brook, staying in the water, and disturbing as little as you can.  Do not use magic, my friends.  They'll sense that. And it would be best if you went on foot."

Connor had already guessed that part and was already climbing down from his mount. The others muttered quietly but did the same.  All in all, it made sense.  Anyone who came after them would see the horses went on with the centaurs, and this was no different a brook than a half dozen they'd already crossed.

Braslyn reached over and put a hand on Connor's shoulder.  The centaur looked worried.  "Take care.  All of you.  Galen has allies in many places, and there is no telling who might side with him.  Be very careful."

Connor didn't think this was a warning they really needed, but he took it to heart anyway.  He didn't want to mistrust everyone, but he supposed he would have to look at even people he had known all this life.  Not everyone at Northgate had been happy to have him around.  Even if they hadn't backed Galen before, they might now.

That was a sobering thought and one he didn't want to consider.  Connor didn't want to make enemies of people who perhaps just like him.  He wanted to be fair.  He wanted to do this right.

At least it was warm enough that trudging around in a brook wasn't too bad.  He twisted his ankle a couple times on the loose rocks, but they went several miles before they climbed back out, and then over a log where they wouldn't leave prints in the mud.

They hurried into the woods and rested, listening for any sounds out of the ordinary.  Connor hoped the others could tell because everything sounded odd to him.  He had to rely on them.

"We should head northeast from here," Antisha said.  She knew the land better than any of them.  "That will keep us to the hills, which is a rougher country, but we're less likely to be seen there.  More cover."

Antisha looked at Connor as though she expected him to say something wise.  So he did.

"You lead the way, Antisha," he said.  "I don't think any of the rest of us know this area so well."

They all agreed. Antisha looked relieved. Did she really think he would try to take command in a situation where he knew so very little?  Or did she worry more about the others?  They were all going to cooperate with her and hope to survive.

Druce walked with Nylia. They'd apparently made a reconciliation at some point.  Connor was glad to see it because he wanted calm within the group.

Connor knew that he needed to be able to trust these people, and none of them dared be influenced by their emotional state. It bothered him, to look at his friends and try to imagine how he might mistrust them.  How they might turn against him.

Or worse, how he might use them.

"You look glum again, Connor. It worries me when you look glum," Nylia said with a slap on his back.

"I don't trust myself," he said.

Connor hadn't expected the others to look shocked.  How could they not realize the problem?  He had no idea what he was doing, and after watching Galen, he realized how easy it would be to hunt after power for his own survival.  He looked at them in more shock than they gave him, and realized that he didn't understand them at all at that moment.

"You shouldn't worry, Connor," Nylia said and gave him a bright smile.  "You have us to help you through this. Even that fool Druce has finally come around.  But you have always been wise enough, you know.  So I'm going to ask you something we haven't bothered to say yet.  What do you think we should do?"

Connor knew the answer and decided to go ahead and say it. He had to trust that they would disagree with him if he were, really, not wise.

"We need to ride straight through to Northgate," Connor said, though he hated the thought of that journey.  "Galen thinks we are with the centaurs by now, but that won't last for long.  Northgate is the only advantage we have, and we need to get to what safety we have."

"Yes," Erlis agreed.  He was already preparing to start out again.  No questions asked. Antisha even nodded agreement.

"And teach me magic -- anything I can do with the power I have.  This may come down to a confrontation."

And they didn't argue about that, either.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Flash Fiction # 358 -- Connor of Northgate/42

Chapter Thirteen

Conner heard the commotion in the main hall as voices and stomping centaur hooves echoed through the building.  He winced and stepped behind Erlis, who was less likely to be recognized. They already had guard cloaks in hand and Connor hastily put his on to cover up better.  Liam did the same.

Druce stood with them, which surprised Connor, who was glad to have him back. But damn, he missed Rendon.  Nyla and Antisha were keeping watch at the corner of the hall and Connor watched for their signal.

The trouble escalated, and the centaurs stomped out of the building cursing Galen. Connor had the feeling they were rather enjoying the show.

The centaurs left, not so much at odds with the king, but in a hurry to get back to their own lands before Galen struck again. Having the princess with them made sense in this case.

The centaurs and fae rode hard through the city, and the horses seemed to have some joy at keeping up with the centaurs. Everyone slowed when they reached the first edge of the woods.  Braslyn dropped back to ride by Connor and Antisha.  He looked relieved.

"That went well," Braslyn said.  He glanced over his shoulder and nodded.  "We know Galen has people in the city and maybe at the court, too.  We must be careful, Lord Northgate."

He winced at the name.  "Call me Connor."

"It is no easy change, the shift of power.  Especially on those who must take up the roll."

"Especially for someone who never looked to have such a future."  Connor stared ahead into the dark forest. "I don't know how I got to be here."

They rode in silence once in the forest, all of them apparently grateful for the calm.   This wouldn't last, of course, but at least for a little while, Connor could let others keep the watch while he thought about his future.

Connor had always thought he would be a retainer at Northgate.  He had worried about growing older while his magical companions did not.  Now he had to wonder about age and magic.

Connor also had to start thinking about his own heir.  Given the situation, it was not something that he would dare leave for long.  Connor would discuss what to do with Antisha as soon as they had a little time alone.  He would name someone.

If he survived long enough.

Antisha looked as though she had been born to the saddle.  Liam looked like he might be even less happy than Connor. They hadn't spread out far, and the path wide enough for two.  Connor rode up beside Liam.

"I would think you could have envisioned a slightly less painful future," Connor said.

Druce, riding past them, laughed agreement.

"I could see a future where I stayed at the palace and lived quite nicely until everything went to hell."

Connor glanced his way.  No, he was not joking.  "I guess there are worse things."

"There always are," Liam admitted.  He stared ahead, but apparently not at the world around him.  A moment later, Liam shook his head and frowned.  "I don't know what's going to happen, Connor.  I really don't.  There are too many paths."

"We don't expect you to show us the way, Liam.  We understand about the different paths.  We just hope that you'll be able to point out a bad choice so we can make a correction in time."

"Yes.  Good."  Liam stared again.  Connor feared his friend would fall off the horse if he didn't pay more attention.

"Don't try so hard," Connor added.  That drew Liam's startled attention.  "Seriously, Liam.  I trust you and your power, and if something is going to go wrong, I believe you will let us know -- if you see it.  Just remember that fae have survived troubles and disasters without seers.  This isn't entirely in your hands."

"True.  Yes."  Liam took a deeper breath and sat up straighter.  "It's easy to worry about how badly I could fail."

"You can't fail us.  We still have to make the decisions, even if you tell us what you think we should do."

Liam nodded and took a deeper breath again.  Connor left him to his thoughts and moved ahead to ride by Erlis.  He looked bleak as well, but when he saw Connor, he seemed to give himself a little shake.

"It's going to be different, going home without Rendon there."

"I know," Connor said with a sigh.  "None of it seems right.  And all of this for me?  Because of me?"

"No," Erlis replied and looked startled by the words.  "Of course, it's not about you.  It's because Galen wants to rule everything.  You just happen to be in his way.  Any of us would have been.  All of us, in fact, are in his way."

"True.  Yes.  This is just --"

"More trouble than any of us saw coming," Erlis said.  He looked at Liam and shook his head.  "I don't expect that it will get better for a while.  We believe that you will do well for us."

"I don't see how you could think such a thing."

"And you focus too much on magic," Erlis replied.  This wasn't a discussion Connor wanted to have, but at least it helped to pass the time. "Rion always said you were the best student."

"I always assumed he was trying to make me feel better for not being like the rest of you."

"Really?  You would think Rion that shallow?"

That thought did startle him. "I suppose not."

"Right," Erlis said with a definite nod.  "You were always better at catching on to what he taught.  The rest of us were good enough, but you were the star student. It used to embarrass me that the human did so much better at understanding the world."

"Ha.  I could answer the test questions.  That didn't mean I really understood anything."

"There is that side," Erlis admitted but grinned.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Flash Fiction # 357 -- Connor of Northgate/41

 "Connor, there is something you haven't seemed to grasp," Nylia said. "Yes, we are all fey, and we have powers that we are born with, and some stronger than others.  Those are powers you cannot have or understand.  However, the gate powers are not the same.  They are physically passed on to the new lord.  Any of us would face the same problems as you, though, granted we might have a little better understanding.  I don't see where that precludes you from learning, though."

Connor hadn't considered that aspect of this mess.  Maybe if he'd had some time before the change --but no one had expected such a disaster.

"Thank you.  This has been confusing. I still think if one of you had been there with us--"

"It still would have gone to you," Antisha said. "Lord Northgate had discussed the possibility with my father two years ago to make certain of the laws.  You would have been the heir.  No one expected you to take the rule of the gate for a long time, though."

More news he hadn't expected, but it made more sense of things. If Lord Northgate hadn't thought Connor capable of the work, he could have let the power go back to the stone, and the king and court would have dealt with the problem of installing a new lord.

Connor felt a sense of calm for the first time since this trouble began.

"The journey back to Northgate isn't going to be easy," Earlis added. "Is the king going to give us guards?"

"No," Antisha said.  That drew everyone's attention.  "He's going to give us a chance to get away unnoticed, instead."

"Oh yes, every wise," Conner said.

"Is it?" Erlis asked and looked confused.

"A few soldiers wouldn't be enough to help us.  An entire army would invite attack.  Far better if we can get clear and head for home with little notice."

"How are we ever going to slip away?" Nylia asked.

"The king is sending a few guards and me with the Centaurs when they go home."

"I thought you said -- Oh." Erlis smiled.  "We play guards.  The centaur lands are between us and home."

"The centaurs will denounce having a human as a gate lord," she added with a smile.  "This is completely for show. We don't want you involved in that part of the game, Connor.  If you were there, it would have to go to a battle between Braslyn and you.  Without your presence, the Centaurs can leave in anger.  I've always been a favorite with them, so it won't look odd for me to go along to smooth things over.  You'll act as a set of guards hastily called to go along.  I trust you won't have a problem wearing the uniform of the King's Own?"

"An honor," Connor replied with a bow of his head.  Then he looked at Liam.  "You are very quiet."

"I am reassessing my position," Liam replied.  The words sounded oddly straight forward and without any hesitation. Liam sat up straighter. "I've been worried about taking people to the wrong path, you know. I looked at everything, looked again, and finally gave so little advice that I might as well not have been with you at all."

"But -" Antisha began.

Liam lifted his hand and silenced everyone.  "I need to reconsider why I'm here.  There is a reason, and it's not simply so that you carry me around from place to place.  Here is what I see: one path leads to Galen winning. That is not the path we want.  I will try my best to keep us from that path, but I cannot see far, you know.  Everything branches."

"But you are willing to give us some direction this time," Connor said.

"Yes.  Because I saw the chaos and the way thins might have gone without direction.  I am a seer.  There are not many in our history.  It's time I step forward and do my duty."

"You did not help Galen," Nylia said.

"No, I did not. If Galen had killed me for holding back, you would have been no worse off for not having me, especially if I wasn't willing to give you any real advice.  That's changing."

"So, you think we're doing the right thing?" Erlis asked.

"I think you are doing the wisest thing under the circumstances. I don't know what will happen.  If I see something you should know, I'll tell you."

"Fair enough," Connor replied.  "I won't badger you for answers."

Liam gave a slight smile.

"Be ready," Antisha said as she stood.  "Which would you prefer?  Tomorrow night or before dawn?"

They all looked around the room.  Erlis was the one who gave a sigh finally.  "I suspect it would go better at a regular time?  People would suspect a line if we left before dawn."

"That's what I think," Antisha said.  She glanced at Liam but then shook her head.  "No, I don't need you to tell us when we are doing something that is obviously smart.  I'll bring your uniforms tonight. We'll work out the details tomorrow."

"One last day of living well," Nylia said with a sigh.  She stood and stretched.  "I'll see you at dinner."

The others wandered out, though Liam stayed until last. "I can't guarantee that everything will go well," he said as he stopped by the door.  "Even if I push you in the direction I think is best, there are far too many possible changes.  We have to be careful, Connor.  You have to look at possibilities, too.  Talk to me about them.  The paths I see are just shadows; knowing some specific possibilities can help define them."

Connor nodded.  Liam left.

Connor sat by the desk for a moment longer.  So much to take in.

Light played along the tips of his fingers.  Connor took a deep breath and calmed.  He hadn't failed yet.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Flash Fiction #356 -- Connor of Northgate/40

Chapter Twelve

"He can't mean to keep me on as Lord Northgate," Connor said, sitting at the desk in the rooms he'd been assigned.  "That's just not possible."

The others looked at him as though he had gone crazy.  Druce, Nylia, Erlis, Liam -- even Antisha stared with disbelief.

"Why not?" Nylia asked.

"I'm human!" he all but shouted.  The servant, just coming into the room, gave him an odd look.  The battle had been three days before, and Connor had been increasingly worried. They would be heading back to Northgate soon, and that meant the king would name a new lord before then.

"You need to calm," Erlis said.  "Accept whatever happens next.  We're behind you, Connor."

"You are Lord Northgate," Antisha said.  The others still sometimes looked a little worried to be in the company of the princess.  "The situation might change, but I've seen no sign that my father intends to remove you from the post.  So you must start acting -- and believing -- that Northgate is in your hands."

"I can barely control the magic," he admitted, though that had been obvious over the last few days.  The others were helping, but it was not easy.

"That's no different than what the rest of us experienced when we first felt our own magic awakening," Erlis reminded him.  "You remember the trouble poor Rendon had."

That brought bittersweet smiles to all of them.  Connor would miss him.  For a moment, emotions surged, but he fought it back before he had more than a little flash of light at his fingertips.

"Sorry," he said.

"You are doing very well," Antisha replied.

"This is not what I ever wanted."  Connor put both his hands on the desk and closed his eyes, fighting back panic and anger.  "I'm not sure it's what I should be doing."

"None of us know for certain.  But Lord Northgate named you his heir, Connor," Nylia said.  "We intend to honor that choice."

"It may have been that I was the only one there, you know," he said.  "If one of you had been there --"

"I don't think that's true," Erlis replied.  "I have always thought he was going to name you."

"That's crazy.  I'm human."

"If you can learn to control the magic, then there is no reason why you can't hold the position," Antisha replied.  The others nodded agreement.  "If you cannot learn, then we'll deal with the problem.  And yes, that is exactly what my father said."

Connor started to speak.  He stopped.  Maybe this was something he needn't worry about just now.  Control the magic.  After all, he hadn't asked anyone if he could be rid of it and just be human again.

Because he didn't want to lose the magic?  He'd spent many years wishing he could be like the others.  Now that he had the chance, maybe he should work to at least try and understand what it meant.

"We'll be leaving for Northgate tomorrow morning," Antisha announced and drew everyone's attention again.  "Yes, I am going back with you.  I'll report to my father on everything that happens so you can consider me an official spy."

Connor laughed.  "I have been wondering what your official position might be."
"I am Princess Antisha," she said with a lift of her head.  "Royal Spy.  It suits me.  I was always snooping on my brothers and getting them into trouble."

"Good of you to warn us what to expect, then," Nylia said with a grin.

"Well, I don't expect you'll be sneaking extra cookies from the kitchen, but you never know."

They all laughed. The servants went about their work, giving them curious looks.  Connor hadn't tried to hide anything from them; it seemed unwise, knowing how the servants gossiped back at Northgate.

The others knew about losing Lord Northgate by now.  They knew about Connor, too.  Word had gone there as fast as possible.

Conner had to wonder what they were thinking; they had been loyal to Lord Northgate, and while many had always been kind to him, he suspected having a human lord was a different matter entirely.

"You're brooding," Antisha warned.

"He's been doing that a lot," Nylia added.

"I do not brood.  I simply think a great deal about the future."

"Implying there is nothing good in the future,"  Antisha added.  "Given that look on your face."

Connor wondered if she had gone quite entirely crazy.  He tried to come up with something to say that would help them see the full depth of the problems.  Finally, he simply waved his hand in frustration.  "I'm human!"

Earlis was the one to pat him on the shoulder.  "We had noticed."

"I don't see how you can all take this so lightly," he admitted.

"Most of us have known you a long time," Nylia said with a glance at Antisha who was the only newcomer to the group.  "Should we mistrust you?"

Connor looked over at Antisha.  She smiled.

"I am a spy.  I get to reserve judgment.  "However, do remember that we have worked together at a time you had no idea you would be the next Lord of Northgate. My father was especially pleased with how you kept the power of Northgate out of Galen and Ordin's hands.  You will get your chance at fulfilling Lord Northgate's wish that you be his heir."

"He should have prepared me.  I have no training."

"You have had exactly the same training as the rest of us," Earlis said.

"Except for that rather important magical stuff," Connor pointed out with some frustration.

"And you really think that's what makes a gate lord?" Nylia asked.

"I -- I don't know.  You can't tell me it's not important."

Nylia leaned forward, all humor disappearing from her face.  Connor could hear the sounds of others preparing for trouble.  They still had the problem of Lord Galen lose out there with the trolls and the power of his own gate to call upon.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Flash Fictione # 355 -- Connor of Northgate/39

Galen shouted a curse as he drew his sword.  However, he didn't attack Connor, who had anticipated his move.  Instead, he leapt at the king.

Connor threw himself between them.  He had no weapon, and though he did have magic, he had no training to use it. He tried to fend off the sword and took a bad cut across his arm, but he threw the man off.

Ordin leapt and attacked him -- with magic.

"You won't win!"

As though they played some game.  Connor fended off Galen and felt a painful brush of power from Ordin. He fell to the floor.

Connor rolled over and saw that a guard had a sword at Lord Galen's throat.  Liam had attacked Ordin, knocking him down with a blast of power.

The King and Queen both stood calmly by, and the look they gave Galen was not one of an ally.

"I am not a fool," the king said.  "You put on a fine show for those poor people out there, but I knew the power of Northgate hadn't returned to the stone.  That meant there was something untrue in your tale, Galen."

"I -- I didn't kill Lord Northgate," Connor said with a hand on his bleeding arm as he sat up.  "I didn't kill Antisha."

"I know. Neither did Ordin, though he tried hard enough. Ah, there you are, daughter."

Antisha entered the room with Nylia, Erlis, and Druce.  She looked pale and bruised, which proved how serious her injuries must have been since magic had not completely healed her.
"We've freed all the others, father," she said with a bow of her head and then a glare at Galen.  "You'll not be taking power from them anymore."

Ordin panicked, but Galen didn't, and that worried Connor as he struggled to his feet.

Galen turned and leapt at the king, but when everyone shifted to stop him, he grabbed the queen instead.  A knife went to her throat.

"Not a complete loss," Galen said, as though mumbling to himself.  He smiled, and the knife nicked the queen's neck.  "One bit of magic or movement, and I'll kill her."

Connor didn't doubt him -- but then he didn't doubt that he'd kill the queen anyway.  They would need to move, but carefully.

"Ordin, come here," Galen said. 

The guard let go of Ordin.  Antisha twitched as though to grab him, but she must have known he really couldn't be that important to his father.  Which made Connor wonder why the man bothered.

They soon found out.  Ordin came to stand by his father and flashed a smug smile at the others.  He should have been watching Galen instead.  His father used a tendril of magic to hold the queen while he reached over and slapped Ordin on the side of the neck.  A seal went into place, and with barely a whisper, Galen drew magic from his son.

Three heartbeats, perhaps.  Not fast enough for anyone to move.  Ordin fell dead on the floor beside Connor.  He still looked smug.

Galen's hand glowed; he had all the power he needed.  He swept the room with a wall of fire that might have engulfed everyone if the king hadn't acted as quickly.

Galen hadn't expected it, and for a moment he was distracted -- barely a moment, but the queen used it to break the magic rope and shove his arm aside so that the blade was no longer at her neck.

At the same time, Connor surged forward and attacked the man.  He was in no shape to take him on, but Connor did provide another moment of distraction before Galen sent him flying across the room.  He expected to hit the wall with enough force to break bones.

Instead, Antisha's magic caught Connor and dropped him to the floor with a thump.  She went to her knees beside him, clearly too worn from even that little bit of magic.

"Thanks," he whispered.  His arm still bled.  He was not going to be conscious much longer.

Liam knelt beside Connor and did quick work with the wound, healing it enough that he no longer feared to close his eyes and never waking again.  He nodded his thanks, but by then Galen was fending off the others with little trouble. Galen had gained considerable power from his son. The best the rest of them could hope to do was to wear him down --

"He's trying to get to the window!" Connor shouted, struggling to get to his feet once more.

Galen was close -- too close for anyone to stop him.  Something appeared at the window outside the window.  The enormous ugly face of a troll peered in, having obviously climbed up the outer wall.  Connor could hear arrows hitting against the building, but nothing struck the troll.  Magic obviously kept him safe.

Galen through himself at the troll, who grabbed him by the arm and yanked him out.  It could not have been comfortable, but it was effective.  Magic from the king splattered against the window frame and shot bright light out into the world.  People yelled more, but the two were already out of sight.

"Damn!" the king shouted.

"Language," the queen said with a shake of her head.

"Language be damned!  I want that traitor caught and stopped!"

"Then you had better go talk to people.  I'll take care of things here."

The king stalked across the room, heading for the door with his guards at his back.  At least two had fallen, and Connor thought they must be dead.  He hated to see the waste.

The king, unexpectedly, stopped beside Connor, who belatedly bowed his head while Antisha caught his arm before he fell over.

The king put a hand on Connor's shoulder.  He looked up out of shock more than anything.

"Well done, boy," he said with a nod.  Then his look changed.  "Well done, Lord Northgate."

The king walked out of the room.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Flash Fiction # 354 -- Connor of Northgate/38

Chapter 11

Except for a few nervous horses, the inner courtyard of the castle seemed quiet and almost deserted.  A few soldiers moved quickly to take up spots guarding the prisoners, but they remained silent and aloof.  Not surly, though.  They did not look at the cages with any of the contempt that Connor had come to expect from all fae when they looked at him.

Ordin and Galan had gone inside the building. They had left Connor in the cage, as well as Liam who had finally sat up, bent over and coughing -- so miserable that one of the guards passed him a flask of water.  They did not do the same with Connor.

Nevertheless, Connor felt calmer, safer and even more comfortable.  That likely came just from being still and being out of the range of angry people.

The night turned even colder so that he huddle down in a ball, and he could hear sounds of trouble not far away in the city, though he couldn't be certain if it were a riot or an attack.  Magic streaked through the air, but the castle had protection against such outward attacks.

Connor bowed his head and looked away from the soldiers.  Although the others had left, he knew this was not the time to press his case.  He had to be wise and careful.

Whatever was happening with Ordin and Galan, they took their time at it.  Liam had looked his way, shook his head once, and curled up to sleep again.  Connor badly wanted to talk to his companion, but the fact that Liam kept quiet meant he knew better than to speak about the problems, too.

The cold and dark night seemed too long already, as though time had slowed or stopped.  The sounds of the city died away, though.  Connor finally slept, dreams and nightmares braiding their way through his troubled mind.

"Do what you can," Lord Northgate said.  "You are all that I had hoped you would be.  Take care."

Connor woke with a start, the words still clear in his mind.  He felt oddly at peace just then, despite the situation.  The dawn had come, and the soldiers had moved to take him and Liam from the cages.

Neither Connor nor Liam could walk at first.  Galen had come out of the castle and stood close by, a fierce glare on his face.  "Don't trust either of them.  They're tricky little bastards.  If so many hadn't fallen for their act --"

"Yes, Lord Galen," the soldier in charge said as the soldiers hurried the two prisoners up into the building. "We have heard, but the King will not pass judgment without even the worst enemies standing before him."

"Yes, of course," Galen said, though his face flushed slightly.  Was he worried?  Or just angry that the King didn't take the situation at his word?

The soldiers escorted Connor and Liam up the stairs and into the castle, and they were not even unreasonably cruel.  They didn't let Liam close to him, though.  Connor would have liked at least a sign -- or maybe not.  He couldn't really hope for any good to come of this, could he? 

The interior of the castle was a surprising hive of activity, with servants looking worn and frantic. They must have been at work all night.  The world had seemed almost peaceful until that moment.

The majestic walls of white stone were laced with random lines of black and stretched forward in long halls, past closed doors, and open archways.  They did not stop at any of these places, but went to nearly the center of the enormous building and started up the stairwell.  People cleared the way, dark looks cast their way.

The soldiers took them up to the Court of Judgment.  The room was as Lord Northgate had described the place to him once -- a large, circular area with an intricate pattern on the floor and four pedestals marking the four cardinal points.  Each stand was topped with a piece of the stones of power associated with the appropriate gatekeep.

The King, Queen, Galen, and Ordin stood in the middle of the room.  The guards brought the two -- the only two prisoners, he saw -- and dropped them to their knees before the King.

Connor had met the man before; tall, powerful even for a fae, and rarely given to showing emotion.  What Connor saw now didn't give him much hope.

"The trolls have been turned loose in the lands of the fae," the man said, his voice rich with anger.  "And I am told you have killed my daughter and Lord Northgate."

Connor looked up at those words and couldn't hide the anger in his face; a stupid reaction, he supposed.  It probably made him look defiant rather than enraged at the accusation.

"I did not --"

"How can you listen to this creature?" Ordin demanded.  "Humans lie.  He will never speak the truth and --"

The King did not let Ordin finish.  "We dare not allow the power of Lord Northgate to be left untouched, not in this situation.  And since Lord Northgate was murdered, it will be the job of his replacement to deal with the killer," the King said, looking at Connor.

Connor felt cold at that thought because he knew who was going to claim the position.  Ordin looked smug again before he gave a bow of his head to the King and moved towards the north stone, lifting his head and putting his hands on the stone.

Nothing happened.

Connor rose from his knees to his feet and touched the seal on his chest.  It disappeared in a flash of light.

"That won't do you any good," he said.  "I was named the heir by Lord Northgate himself.  I have the power."

"But -- but you said you had lost it!  That you couldn't hold it!" Ordin shouted, his hand on his sword.

"I lied."

Friday, May 03, 2019

Flash Fiction # 353 -- Connor of Northgate/37

Connor threw himself into the corner of the cage with such force that he probably bruised his back.  No matter; he couldn't get free, and the trolls wouldn't have trouble tearing apart the cage to get him.  He was about to shout a warning and demand a weapon so they could stand together against this enemy.

Then Ordin walked up to the trolls and gave a nod of his head.  They growled and bowed their heads in return.  Connor's fear turned to rage that was twice as strong as the previous emotion.  He had known they were working together at Northgate.  This closeness seemed worse, though, to invite the trolls into their camp.

"Now you see our true strength," Galen said with a laugh.  "You never had a chance against such power as ours."

Connor didn't answer, but the look he gave Ordin was enough. Ordin snarled and probably would have done something unpleasant if his father hadn't called to him.  Ordin went slowly; not very brave when it came to greeting their allies.

Connor had heard that people would do anything for power, but until now he hadn't thought of the depths to which some would go.  Galen spoke with the trolls, and Connor couldn't hear what the man said, but the trolls made satisfied sounds.

Galen handed over four humans and two centaurs.  The trolls killed them there and took the dismembered bodies away.

Ordin didn't come back to the cage to gloat.

Other trolls arrived that night, but they weren't paid in the flesh of prisoners.  Galen and his allies spoke quietly and whatever plans hey made would mean trouble for the fae world.

Nothing Connor could do.  He sat back in the darkest corner of his cage and bowed his head.  Even the presence of trolls couldn't overcome the weight of exhaustion.  He would save his strength.  He would do something ... Later.

The trolls left camp an hour before dawn, disappearing like nightmares in the night.  Liam awoke, but he only shook his head and curled up again.  Whatever Liam saw, either in the real world or in his visions, he had chosen not to face it.

No option for Connor.  He couldn't bring himself to look away as the others prepared to head out.  He heard Galen shouting encouragement to his people; they were only a day from their destination.

Connor realized this part would be over soon, but as they came down from the hills, he began to see the ruins of cottages, and then villages.  There were few people at first and then more and more as they caught up with refugees, most of them heading for the city.

He wondered how Galen and Ordin were going to get his prisoners through the mass, but it proved easy.  All he had to do was lie.

"We caught them at Northgate, in league with the Trolls!" Galen shouted.  "The human and his allies!  We're taking them to the city!  Make way!  Make way!"

The crowds parted slowly, but they yelled and threw rocks.  Few of them could get through the bars of the cage, but Connor did feel sorry for the captured villagers and the centaurs. The sight of the weeping children finally put some stop to the anger.

How could they believe such lies?

In the heat of such horrific trouble, they were not going to look too closely when presented with an enemy.  The king of the fae wouldn't be so easily taken in?

Connor noted the increased destruction along the way, including a few troll bodies.  The war had come here, too.  He considered shouting that Galen and Ordin were the ones working with the trolls.  They wouldn't believe the human, though.  Humans lied -- Ordin would be quick to point that out.

Connor still had hope in Liam.  He looked back at the other cage, but Liam was lying flat, and not even wincing when rocks hit him.  Connor wanted to call out and tell the people to leave him alone, but they wouldn't have listened to him anyway.

The crowds slowed them down.  So did the signs of recent trouble.  Galen stopped to help with some of the wounded, and his solicitous lies won even others over.

Ordin smirked, though.  Connor could wish for others to look at the son, and see the truth in his eyes.  His father finally sent Ordin to help feed frightened children, which he clearly didn't want to do, but the son didn't disobey.

They did not make it to the city that day, but they could see the tall buildings in the distance.  That night they camped among refugees, and Connor knew Galen's men would not protect the 'prisoners' since the fewer of them that survived, the better.  He had to do something --

The King's Guard arrived before things got out of hand.  They listened to Galen and then prepared to escort the entire group to the castle.  He thought Galen didn't look happy, but Ordin appeared to be so worried that his father again sent him off on some useless work.

The group moved on through the night.  Not surprisingly, the trolls attacked, as though trying to free their allies, but they were quickly sent retreating.  Even a couple of the guards mentioned that it hadn't been a very dangerous attack.

The dark still held when the party reached the gate and let within the walls of the city.  Refugees had filled the streets, but they cleared quickly from the Royal Road as the soldiers headed up towards the castle.  Whatever was going to happen would soon be over.

Connor had to hope for a chance to make this right and to avenge Lord Northgate's death at the hands of these traitors.  However, he was human.  Connor had never felt the weight of his birth until they crossed through the barbican and into the castle. This was the epitome of a fae place, and too much still depended on him, the outsider.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Flash Fiction # 352 -- Connor of Northgate/36

Chapter Ten

Connor couldn't breathe as magic raced through him, looking for the core no human held.  The light must have blinded the others -- they all threw up their arms and retreated in haste.

Connor had to get control because he could destroy everything for miles around. That would not honor Lord Northgate.

You can do this, Lord Northgate whispered almost as though he were there.

Connor bowed his head and clenched his fists, willing calm and trying to get hold of it.  He looked up to find Centaurs converging on him.  One kicked Ordin down. He saw Anthisa, wounded, secured to the back of one.

"Up!" Braslyn shouted and grabbed his arm.

"I cannot --" Connor looked down at the dead body.  Was it starting to fade?  Going.

"Don't let it be for nothing!"

Take hold.  You can do this.

Another grabbed Connor and threw him on Braslyn's back.  Then they were riding.  Connor hardly had the sense to hold on.  The magic was more powerful than the world around him.  He had never been trained. 

He had watched others and even studied a little about humans with magic, but he wasn't prepared.

Braslyn rode straight through the woods for miles, hardly slowing, and then out again.  By then the centaurs were winded and slowed.  Another caught up with them, his arm bleeding.

"Chaos back there," the centaur said as another wrapped the wound.  "I heard Galen order Antisha found and killed along with the human.  Best that they not be found together."

"Take Antisha --"

"We will, boy."  Then Braslyn stopped and stood very still.  "You are Lord Northgate now."

"No," he whispered as power moved in him.  "No.   He can't be gone --"

Connor saw Antisha and two centaurs disappear into the woods. Braslyn moved faster and in another direction.  Connor wanted to say something, but he couldn't think straight.

They barely made it another mile or two before Galen caught up with them.

If Connor had had time to understand what had happened to him when Lord Northgate took his hand, he might have had a chance to hold the man off.  Instead, he felt a knife of power hit him in the back.  Braslyn couldn't hold him.  He fell.

"Go!" Connor ordered, breathlessly and put his hand on the centaur's flank.  "Go.  He's after me.  You still know the truth!"

Braslyn gave a shout of anger -- but he ran.

Connor was on my knees when Galen arrived.  Connor lifted his hands and created magic, but it fizzled away.  He dropped his head, gasping.

"I couldn't hold on to it.  I couldn't hold Lord Northgate's gift --"

Galen grabbed him by the arm and magic surged through Connor's body.  He thought he was going to die -- but no.

"Gone?  I can still feel something -- but no, not the power of the fae that would hold Northgate.  The fool did nothing but waste our time.  The power will go back to the stone, as we always intended anyway.  And you, boy, are going to do exactly what we say."

Galen pulled open the front of Connor's tunic and slapped his hand over his chest.  Connor could feel the seal settling over him, and he bowed his head, not trying to fight this man.

Galen dragged him back to the camp and put him in the cage Lord Northgate had been not so long before.  If he hadn't taken him out, would he have survived?

No.  Galen had said Lord Northgate was always meant to die so the power would return to the stone at court.

Liam twitched. Connor suspected he had a vision, and wished he could have joined in and seen the future.

Connor settled into a corner of the cage and bowed his head, exhausted and angry.  Lost.  He had always counted on the others around him; he hadn't even realized how much until now.  He didn't have that core of magic like the other fae.  What Lord Northgate gave him had been lost inside.

Liam remained unresponsive in the other cage.  Connor worried.  Then he worried more when he saw Ordin arrive and talk to his father.  Galen's hand went to his son's shoulder, and he saw Ordin smile.

Not good news, then.  Had they lost Antisha?  Damn.

Ordin came to the cage and poked at him with a stick.  "So, human, you lose.  I wanted to kill you, but my father thinks you're better alive.  Is that true, human?"


Ordin laughed and poked at Connor and then Liam but by then the camp was ready to move, and Ordin wasn't going to walk.  He mounted a sealed Centaur, laughing.

The trip proved to be more miserable than the journey with his friends. They moved quickly, and the wheels on the cage hit every bump and hole.  Connor felt bruised and miserable before they went more than a mile.

Connor thought about all his years at Northgate, calling back everything he'd learned so he could perhaps still deal with this trouble.

They didn't stop until mid-morning of the next day having traveled into some foothills.  Forests drew shadows over them, and Connor suspected they had rushed here to get to cover.  They were near to the court now, and Galen worried.

"They'll arrive," Galen said as he and another of his people walked past.

Ordin had grabbed something to eat and crawled into blankets to sleep.  Connor decided to sleep as well. He looked over at Liam who had finally uncurled but didn't appear any more wakeful than before. The smell of food proved to be torture, but of course, he wasn't given any or any water.  Connor wondered how long Liam had gone without either.

He thought about all those years at Northgate as he fell asleep, and awoke to darkness, flickering lights, and frantic people.  Shadows moved like things alive while sparks flew up from three different fire, and in the glow of embers, he saw a dozen figures -- huge and ungainly.

The trolls had arrived.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Flash Fiction # 351 -- Connor of Northgate/35

Antisha stared at the captive centaurs, her face dark with anger. "Yes, they're thin because of the magic Ordin and Galan steal from them," she said.  Rage showed in her eyes, and her voice had grown a little louder.  She fell silent as someone walked by, though.  They sat very still, but the person never looked their way.

"Isn't this a dangerous place to be with the magic you've used here?" Connor asked, waving a hand towards the odd ceiling above them.

"Galan and Ordin are using an excessive amount of magic to keep everyone under control," she said.  Her face changed and showed more worry.  "They have Lord Northgate and Liam, Connor."

Connor started to move out of reaction, but Antisha caught his arm with a hiss of warning.  He stopped, dragging in one ragged breath and another.  He gave a quick nod, and she let go of his arm, though her hand hovered nearby, waiting for him to make another stupid move.

"What can we do?" he finally asked.

She nodded to the Centaurs.  "I had hoped the villagers would be closer and I could get them free -- yes, many of them are sealed as well, though not the children.  They don't have power enough for the bastards to steal.  The Centaurs are going to be tricky, but I'll have to try and get at least a few of them free of the seals and hope they can get to the others."

Antisha started to move, but Connor stopped her this time.  She looked at him with a stare that reminded Connor she was powerful in many ways.  He still held on.

"I'll do it.  Tell me what to do," Connor whispered.  "I'll get them free."

"Why --"

"Because I don't have magic, and I might go unnoticed. If they do catch me, you are better prepared to rescue me than I would be to rescue you.  That's all this is about, Antisha."

She looked at him, considering the words, and the nodded.  "You're right.  It's easy to do.  See that roan there at the end?  That's Braslyn.  He knows me.  Before you do anything, whisper to him that I've sent you and that he has to remain still until you get a few others free. Then slap the seal.  It should crack and break.  Be quick, Connor.  If the guard sees that the seal is gone, we'll all have to move."

"Where is Lord Northgate?" Connor asked.

"There," she pointed toward the center of the camp.  "Caged, both he and Liam.  Be careful, Connor.  You and I have a lot of work to do."

Connor didn't waste time, though walking into the enemy camp was not something he had planned to do.  He moved carefully up to the roan. The head almost bowed, fighting the control on him.
"Be still," Connor whispered.  "Antisha sent me.  I'll get you free and get some of the others as well, and then you can start moving."

Connor did not know if the Centaur understood him or not.  He had to take the chance though.  He slapped the seal, and it disintegrated in a flash of little sparkles.  The Centaur shivered, and Connor looked around in haste, expecting someone to have seen.

"Be fast," Braslyn said, his voice not as quiet as Connor would have liked.

Connor moved on to the next one and then another and had just started on the fourth when trouble came their way. He heard the shouts but didn't see what had happened.  Centaurs began to move.  He threw himself away from the center of trouble, spotted the cages and headed straight for them.

He found Liam first.  He had started to stand, though he didn't get far.  Connor reached for the lock.

"No," Liam said.  His voice didn't hide his pain.   Connor could see bruises and suspected worse.  "No.  Get Lord Northgate.  Get away."

"Liam --"

"Go!  There is no other chance.  Be strong.  I'm sorry."

Connor wanted to argue, but this was Liam, and there might be a good reason to do what the seer ordered.  He went for Lord Northgate and would come back for Liam.  Lord Northgate was already trying to get the lock open, though he couldn't really reach it.  Connor tore the lock off and pulled Lord Northgate from the cage.  He was not in as bad of shape as Liam, but he still had trouble keeping to his feet.

He'd had every intention of going back for Liam, but Galen and Ordin both were heading straight for them.  Connor took hold of Lord Northgate and darted away from the camp.  They wouldn't have much cover, but if he could get to the stand of trees on the far side of the stream, he spotted on the other side of the camp.

Connor should have had a better plan.  He should have had something prepared, but all he could do was run and pull Lord Northgate with him.

They were not going to get clear of this mess.  Connor spun when he heard the shouts and running feet coming too close.  Ordin shouted and threw a blast of power straight at Connor.  He wouldn't survive.

Lord Northgate threw himself in front of Connor, trying desperately to raise a shield.  He deflected some of the power but the shield died, and Lord Northgate took most of the hit.  He went down to his knees.

And then he fell forward, unmoving.

The shock stopped Ordin, which saved Connor as he knelt and turned the man over.  He was pale and almost still, but his eyes opened, and he took a ragged breath.

"I had meant -- something different.  Always intended for you --"  Lord Northgate gasped and lifted his hand and Connor took it.  "Remember our afternoons when you were young, Connor.  I name you my heir."

His hand tightened, and the power of Northgate flowed into Connor as the man died.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Flash Fiction # 350 -- Connor of Northgate/34

Connor awoke at dawn to the sound of something rustling in the grass nearby, but when he sat up, whatever it had been darted away in haste.  Nothing large, at least.

Connor ached from having hunched over to sleep and barely managed not to moan as he slowly stood.  If something watched him, he didn't want to sound weak.

He breakfasted on dried berries and water from the pack.  He tried not to think about home just then. Friends had died.  Nothing would be the same at Northgate.

The realization hit him harder than he had expected.  He walked with his head bowed and not paying enough attention and only looked up again when he came to a stream that had been hidden in the stands of grass. 

Connor hadn't expected anything so wide and deep and hadn't even noticed the scraggly line of trees that marked the course.

A bridge sat not far down the steam.  It looked like a  steady bridge of solid rock --

As Connor neared, a gnarled, dirt brown face looked out from under the edge.

They both yelped.

"Human!" the creature shouted, and Connor heard the bustle of others in the shadow of the bridge.  "Human here!"

Gnome. Connor had only met only two at Northgate, and while they could be fierce in a battle, they weren't usually a problem.  Connor gave a very proper bow.

"I'm following after my friends, trying to catch up with them," Connor said softly.

"And which are your friends?"

Smart Gnome.

"The ones who are hunted," he admitted.  "And the villagers who didn't give me to the enemy."
The face peered intently, lips pursed as he considered the answer.  Gnomes weren't given to taking sides; they usually only fought out of necessity.  This one considered things at great depth while Connor watched nervously for trouble.

"It's evil what they did to the centaurs.  Go.  Save them."

Connor had no idea what the gnome meant, except that magic must be used to keep the centaurs under control. That might be evil enough.

He crossed the bridge and kept going, aware of the chatter of Gnomes behind him. He glanced back and saw only one gnome face watching him, and nothing following after.

Connor hadn't expected to start catching up with the others, but he soon realized that for whatever reason, Galen had taken the entire village with him and those people were slowing him down. In another two hours, he began to hear them -- and realized he was far too close.  He fell back, stopping by the side of the trail and trying to decide what he should do next.

The night was coming.  Connor knew he would do better to hold back and wait for darkness before he got closer.  He very carefully moved off the trail by a half dozen steps, breaking as few of the stalks as possible.  There he sat down and bowed his head, weary now that he let himself rest.

He was getting too used to resting out in the open, alone in a hostile world.  Connor had no doubt dangerous 'things' were out there not far away.  Just because he had chanced to get away from Ordin and Galen didn't mean he was safe from the rest of the world.

Connor slept in snatches which seemed worse than no sleep at all.  The sudden surge from sleep to wake so often gave him a headache, and he despaired of ever seeing the shadows change and nightfall.

He finally slept for a little longer.  When he came awake, twilight had spread around him, the shadows nearly disappearing in the coming dark.  He stretched a little and slowly stood, trying to listen for any sound of something too near.

Nothing.  Even the sound of those he had followed was lost, though Connor thought he could see a light farther down the trail and maybe to the right.  He suspected the trail twisted there, but he would have to be careful.  Galen and Ordin would put out guards or at least magic to make certain no one came upon them.

Connor went down the trail as far as he dared, listening to the sounds of the camp that were almost clear enough to tell what people said.  Then he again moved carefully into the weeds until he found a path made by animals, though smaller than him.  It provided a little room for him to move and draw less attention.  He even slid along on his side part of the way, pushing his pack ahead of him.

Then he unexpectedly came to a larger, open area; a bubble with the tops of grass above him, and full plants on all sides, but enough room to sit up.  He also found Antisha there, turning with a start and then offering him a bright smile as she waved him forward.

"You are alive!" she said and slapped him on the shoulder, her voice a whisper that couldn't be heard above the nearby sounds.  "We couldn't be certain, you know."

"What are you doing here?  Where are the others?"

"I sent everyone on," she said and glanced out at a camp, barely seen through the grass.  "I have a duty, though.  I can't let Galen and Ordin continue what they're doing.  How did you get past the magic wards they put up?"

"Pure luck," he admitted.  "They didn't go off.  How did you?"

"I was already here when they made camp," she explained.  "There wasn't likely to be another place anywhere else along the road.  Look at the Centaurs.  What do you see out of place?"

Connor crawled forward and tilted his head so he could see the Centaurs.  They stood in a line not far away, their heads up.  Thin, he thought.

"What are those glowing spots on their chests?"

"Seals," she said with disgust.  "Galen and Ordin have full control over the Centaurs, and also drain power from them."

"Which is why they are so thin?"

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Flash Fiction # 349 -- Connor of Northgate/33

Chapter Nine
By midmorning of the third day, Connor finally felt well enough to leave the cave.  He gathered a few things he could carry; some dried fruit, a jug of water and a blanket.  He'd pay them back for the loan.

Connor's arm still ached, but not with the constant pain that had threatened to make him ill and weak.  The fever had passed as well.  He felt clear-headed for the first time since the attack on Northgate.

For the first time in his life, Connor really considered that he might not have the ability to think like the fae.  He began to suspect there were aspects of magic involved that he couldn't see or feel and that they were so inherent to --

Inherent.  Inherit.

Lord Northgate had not named an heir.

Connor stopped at one of the crossroads in the little maze and considered how that affected what had happened. He'd read histories about how Lords had sometimes taken the lands of another.  He'd never heard of it done with the Gate Lords, but that didn't mean it couldn't happen.  Was there anything that would stop someone?

The Gate Stones?

The stone in the High Tower held a special power connected to the keep.  When a Lord named an heir, that person must feel the pull of the stone, though not so strong as the Lord did.  The power passed when the Lord of the Keep died, or when he was removed from power by the High Court.  Smaller pieces of the Keep stones were kept at the High Court, and if the Lord died without an heir -- or the heir died at the same times, as had happened in battle -- then the new person was named at court. The piece of stone held untapped energy that returned to it when no one else took up the power.

Were Galin and Ordin following them, or were they already heading for the Royal Court to claim the keep?  Was Lord Northgate already dead?

The thought angered and chilled him.

Connor knew nothing of the Royal court.  Would they accept Ordin and Galen?  Would they be able to convince the Royal Court that one of them should be Lord of Northgate?

Connor suddenly realized he didn't know how fae thought.  He could live among them, and he felt he understood much of what they did -- but at this crucial break, he couldn't say if the Royal Court would give over the keep to Ordin and Galen since they had won the battle.

Could it be that simple?

Connor didn't want to think so.  He also had to believe Lord Northgate still lived.

By the time Connor reached the village, he could tell something had gone wrong.  He couldn't hear a single sound, as he waited at the edge of the maze, crouched over and staring out at the corner of the buildings.  Nothing moved, and he could see signs of trouble even from here.

Connor carefully removed the stand of grass and as carefully put it back into place.  Then he crept into the village and looked around.  There was no one around and no sign of bodies -- but then there wouldn't be.  When fae died, the magic that held them together dissipated, and took the thin shell with it.
He could see they had put up a fight against the enemy, including the centaurs which had apparently trampled through, their hoof marks plain in the mud.

This would have happened with or without Connor being here.  The others would have come this way anyway, so it was stupid for him to feel any guilt.  Still, he thought about Liam's sister and wished he had at least asked her name.  He thought about Liam, too.  Lord Northgate.
This was fae business, he thought suddenly.  This was the fae world and their troubles, and there was nothing a human could do to help.

Especially if he crawled away and didn't try.

Connor found a few more bits of food and packed them away in the blanket he used as a sling.  He still had no idea how far he had to go or what trouble he might find.  Connor knew that some of the fae creatures considered it stealing to take so much as a berry from their bushes.  He'd counted on the others knowing what was safe and what wasn't until now.  He'd have to be very careful after this.

Connor had no trouble finding the path that the others had taken away from the village.  In fact, they had knocked down grass and made a new trail heading almost due south.  He found the tracks of fae with the centaurs; enough of them that he thought they must be a good part of the villagers.

Connor followed after them through the silent grasslands where everything had seemed to disappear.  He didn't hear a single bird and nothing rustled through the brush.  All the creatures of the area had been spooked.

The villagers hadn't given him away.  Some had seen Liam's sister take Connor to someplace safe.

He didn't understand what was going on and that left him feeling uneasy.  This wasn't his place.  He'd spent very little time away from the Keep, but at least he knew some of the basics of survival.  He even knew what creatures to watch out for, and kept an eye open for any griffins sailing almost silently through the sky.  However, he saw nothing at all.

Connor was better for the days of rest, at least. The trail was easy to see, though he walked long into the night without spotting any of those he followed.  Connor did find an area where the grass didn't grow and settled down under his blanket by the side of a boulder, hoping he would be less noticeable there.  He even slept, too exhausted to keep awake and listen for things that didn't seem to be around anyway.  Even the breeze was nearly still.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Flash Fiction # 348 -- Connor of Northgate/32

Connor wondered if they should argue with these people because going to the village might not be safe for any of them.  On the other hand, they were going to ride which meant no more walking for a while.

There might be another problem.

"I am a human," Connor said before anyone had mounted.  "Is that a problem?"

"None for us, Connor of Northgate," the man in charge said, and he who took Connor up behind him.

Connor hadn't ridden much in his life.  He was grateful for it now as he looked back, trying to spot the enemy.  Were they close?  Would they catch them on the run?

They galloped along the trail towards the village, though at one point the man signaled a few -- those not carrying the refugees -- to head off on another path.

"They'll go to the Centaurs and tell them the trouble.  We get along well enough with them.  They were the ones who spotted you and sent us running this way."

"Good," Connor said.  He didn't waste any more words.

They rode for far too long, and dusk had reached the world before Connor saw the village.  It was no more than a few huts with no walls and no defenses.  He looked around with worry as he slid from the horse, grateful to be back on his feet again.

"Trolls," Connor said, looking at the others.  "This place won't stand up to the trolls.  We dare not stay --"

"We have magic, Connor.  And we'll use it here.  You need to rest, all of you, for at least a few hours.  We'll go on before dawn."

That sounded like a perilously long time, and yet not nearly long enough to sleep.  Connor didn't know what to think.

The others took matters in hand.  Connor went with Erlis to a hut of brightly woven cloth, the door open to the fading sunlight.  There he threw himself down amid soft, fragrant blankets too tired to even care what happened next.  He felt ill and feared the fever was coming back again.

Didn't care.

"He shouldn't travel," someone said.

Connor awoke slowly, his throat aching, his body trembling.  He blinked, looking around at the crowd of faces.  He didn't know many of them, but he focused on Nylia and Druce.  They both looked haggard and worried.

"Connor?" Nylia said softly.

"Go," he said softly.  "Go on.  Need to get to the others."

"We'll keep him as safe as we can," a stranger said.  She had a lovely voice, and Connor wanted to believe her.

"Connor's right," Antisha said.  She sounded worried, but he couldn't say it was about him.  "We'll send someone back for him as soon as we can."

"Connor --" Nylia said again.  Then her hand tightened on his arm.  "Get well.  We'll see you soon."

He watched, weak and narrow-eyed, as they left.  Then the others went out of the hut, whispering things he couldn't quite hear.  He wanted to follow, but he couldn't even sit up.  Connor dropped back down, worried about being among strangers, but too weak to do more than close his eyes.

A day passed.  Part of another.  He sipped broth and worked at conserving his energy and thinking of ways to escape if he needed to.  They didn't seem friendly, these Wildlanders, but he'd heard all his life that they were quiet and reticent people.  He tried not to take their reactions to him personally.

Late on the third day, a young woman came in who looked vaguely familiar, though he couldn't say where from.  She seemed nervous.

"The Centaurs are coming, and they have riders," she whispered.

He shook his head.  Centaurs did not take riders -- not of their own free will.

"Magic," he whispered and started to get to his feet.  He was wobbly but able to stand.

She nodded, glancing nervously at the door.  "Come with me.  We'll hide."

He didn't argue, letting her lead him outside and behind the hut.  He only barely glanced at the little village and noted that everyone was at work as though nothing were going on.  Wise people.

"Take me where I can hide," he said softly.  "Then go.  They can't trace me since I'm human."

"Oh."  She looked at him, her eyes wide.  "You know Liam?  He's my older brother."

Don't forget me.

"I know him well," he said, trying not to sound winded, only a few steps away from the building.

"I worry about him.  Everyone else says he can avoid trouble, but he never did, you know.  He always did what was right.  Though I do wish he would have told me who I'll marry.  It would save so much trouble."

He smiled a little.  They were already at the edge of the grass, but if they headed into it --

She bent and pulled several stalks straight up.  The ground came with them, revealing a small tunnel within the stems on the other side.  Connor went in first and started to tell her not to follow, but she had already crawled in and put the line of grass back into place.

"Careful now.  If you brush against the plants, they'll move and give us away."

"You should go back."

"Not until I'm sure you are safe."

He crawled as fast as he dared, hoping they didn't have to go far.  It turned out there was a maze of little paths through the tall grass, and from the prints, they were used by more than just the Wildlanders.  He hoped they didn't run into anything that might give them away.

She directed him down to a stream bank and into a small cave.  It had supplies -- a place where they must take shelter sometimes in a dangerous area.  Or maybe this was their winter home.  It had a well-lived look.

"Stay here.  I'll come back for you."

He nodded and settled in.

He waited a day.  And another.

She didn't come back.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Flash Fiction # 347 -- Connor of Northgate/31

Connor could see a few stands of tall trees that rose like islands in a sea of sun-dried grasses.  Things moved there, in the shadows of the trees.  Soon something charged off in haste, bounding through the tall cover, though he could not see clearly.

"Centaur," Erlis warned.  "And I have to wonder where he's running and to whom he will report."

Druce stared ahead. "I see a trail just ahead, but it must lead straight to the stand of trees where the Centaur ran.  I don't think we want to walk right up to them."

"Not wise," Antisha agreed.  She tried to push hair back out of her eyes and snarled when it wouldn't stay back.  "The centaurs sometimes go wild if something upsets them.  We don't want to walk in uninvited -- and no, Connor, you would not make a difference in this.  I've known many at court."

Connor had never met a centaur and wasn't going to argue.  He and his companions kept going, and within the hour they found another path, leading into the tall grass that rose up to their waists and higher in places.

"Here looks like a good place to cross," Druce said.  "I can't say where this path goes, but at least not straight to a centaur camp."

"What about my friend here?" Connor said with a hand reaching towards his pocket.

The fairy leapt out onto his palm and looked around as he gave a little stretch.  Antisha came closer, and the fairy spoke in a quick rush of words and pointed to a taller tree a few feet away.  Connor got the idea and limped over to it. The fairy leapt up onto the trunk and scrambled upwards, soon sitting in a clump of leaves and looking content.

"He'll be all right?" Connor asked.

"Yes.  His people can find him," Nylia explained with a gentle hand on Connor's shoulder.  "And he's strong enough now to get to cover."

"Safer here than with us," Druce added.  "Fairies are woodland creatures.  There's not much cover out in the grasslands."

Connor took one last look to make sure the fairy was safe, and then he started away.  Connor wanted to rest, and if they stood still for too long by the tree, he was going to climb up and sleep as well.

Druce led them into the grass.  He glanced back once after a few steps, but he couldn't see the fairy so he had to think the little guy would be safe enough there.

Connor concentrated on the path instead.  While this one didn't have as much debris as they had to avoid in the woods, and while it took a relatively straight course, it was still not easy.  Ruts were worn into the soil, and burrs attached themselves every time he brushed against the tall grass, clinging to hair, arms, and clothing.  There was no relief from the sunlight which beat down on them all through the day.

Connor fought to keep his temper in hand.  Druce occasionally cursed softly and then shook his head as though he regretted the outburst.  They would have to rest soon; Connor wasn't the only one limping.  The sun passed overhead, noon and beyond, but nothing different showed in their westerly direction, though sometimes the path turned a bit south, giving them their only hope of reaching anywhere.

But not today. 

The heat and sunlight made his head pound.  No -- that was the sound of hooves, and they were coming far too close!

Druce signaled everyone to stop as he looked frantically around, but there was nowhere they could hide that wouldn't leave a clear trail.

"We could split up," Erlis suggested, but then he shook his head.  "None of us would get far.  Can you see them, Druce?"

Druce, at the front of the line, was looking up over the taller stalks of grass.  "I can see shapes.  At least a dozen of them."

Nothing more to do except to rest and wait.  Connor seriously wanted to sit down, but since none of the others did, he stood his ground, so to speak.  He did bow his head and close his eyes.  That proved to be unwise.  He almost fell asleep on his feet.

Nylia caught him by the arm and gave him a nod of commiseration.  She didn't look any happier.  He tried to worry about what would happen now.  Were they going to fight?  Magic would call even more enemies to them.

Could Antisha talk their way out of this?  She was trying to look presentable, even daring a few touches of magic.  Centaurs were big on show, he remembered.  What would they think of the human in the group?  Maybe he should hide since he might not be noticed --

He looked around, but there was nowhere to go that wouldn't be noticed.  Best, he supposed, just to face this with the rest of them.

There was a bend in the trail not far ahead.  Connor hadn't noticed until now, but it kept the new group from sight until they turned --

Not centaurs.

"Wildlanders," Nylia said, relief in her voice.  "Horses."

He hadn't quite believed it until they had neared, and the people dropped down from the horses.  The Wildlanders looked almost as stunned to find the group here as Connor, and his companions felt.

"He said we should watch for you in the late summer," someone said and sounded shocked.  "He said there would be trouble."

Connor recognized the man.  "You were one of the people who brought Liam to Northgate."

"Yes," the man said, nodding emphatically.  "And he told us to watch for you.  He said that we must get you to safety.  I didn't believe him because he couldn't say what was wrong."

"Northgate Keep came under attack," Antisha explained.  "It happened at the close of the Testing.  Galen and his son brought in trolls.  We are not safe company."

"Come.  We'll get you to the village."

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Flash Fiction # 346 -- Connor of Northgate/30

Chapter Eight

The others were more used to traveling in the woods than Connor who hadn't been cognizant of the first few days.  He found his nerves frayed by every odd sound. The others appeared to be more resigned to the state of their lives, and Connor did his best to copy their attitudes -- and not to snarl in disgust at dirt and snarled hair.

They made good time pushing through the brush and following along the edges of streams while creatures watched from the woods.  Somewhere dangerous enough that they chose a different path for a few hours.  As long as the fae did nothing to provoke trouble, neither did the woodland creatures.

And so a pair of nesting griffins let them pass with barely a snarl, and a unicorn looked askance at them, a single bright eye blinking in the cover of leaves, and the tip of his horn glittering with magic.  They all gave him a cautious bow, and he snorted once but didn't move.

The fairies helped.  They traveled along with the group, and Antisha thought they might have sent word ahead that the refugees were not trouble. 

Connor felt better again as sunset neared. The others said they were not far from the grasslands, though that was no place of safety.  It was a destination, though. After eight days in the woods, they were finally going to reach somewhere. The sight of the woods had started to feel claustrophobic to Connor, and the fear that he -- not the others -- would trespass where he shouldn't plagued him when he should be resting.

Trouble came at sunset on the eighth day.  Connor hadn't heard the sounds of the fairies, but they arrived in a rush, the call of frantic voices startling him.  One, he saw, was carried by others, one wing mangled and the other gone.

"What happened?" Connor reached out with his hands and hey deposited the injured fairy into his palms.  Connor made no sharp movements.

Antisha listened to the battle of voices and shook her head with a little dismay.  "I think it must be Galen or Ordin.  The fairy's don't see people the way we do; it's all scent and colors to them. I can't think of anyone else who would have done such a thing to fairies, demanding news about us."

"How far away?" Erlis asked.

"Half a day back.  There are several more of them than there are of us, and better supplied."  She frowned and looked to the south and home, but shook her head.  "We wouldn't have made it that far anyway."

The fairies swarmed up into the air again and began to dart one way or another in frantic haste.  The one Connor held lifted his head and then dropped back down, clearly too exhausted and weak even to be carried.

"Shall I keep him?  I can put him in my pocket for now."

"Yes, good," Anthisa said and talked to the fairies again.  They gave shouts, loud noises for them, and then headed into the woods at a slight angle to where they were going.

"We better keep moving.  The fairies were right -- they dare not stay anywhere too long for fear it will attention.  They're heading to a spot near the grasslands where an old ogre lives in a cave.  If they can lead Galen there, he's going to have his hands full for a while."

"Brave little creatures," Erlis said with a smile.  He tore off some cloth from his tunic and helped make a bed for the fairy in the front pocket of Conner's vest.  The fairy settled in, looking over the edge as they moved on, and seemed content enough.  "It will take a while, but his wings will grow back.  I think we're going to have to keep going through the night.  You up to it, Connor?"

"I'll go for as long as I can. If I can't keep up, take our friend here and keep moving."

"We will not --"

"Yes, you will.  He can't find me.  Come back later if you have to, but the rest of you have to stay far enough ahead that he can't sense you.  That's the problem, isn't it?"

Antisha sighed.  "Yes, it is.  We'll see what happens.  We aren't slowing yet."

Connor didn't argue.  He didn't want to be left behind because some of the creatures of the woods only tolerated him while he was in the company of the fae. He didn't say so, but his friends were not stupid.  They'd have thought of it, too.

They rested for only a few moments during the long night.  A lone fairy came to tell them the others had followed the false path, but it wouldn't hold them for long, and their anger might well give them strength.

Connor and his friends had to reach the grasslands, though they wouldn't be safe out in the open.  At least, though, they would have a chance to see what was coming, and they could make better time, which might help.

They were all exhausted. Connor wasn't the only one stumbling at every step.  The sounds grew louder around them, and he feared something was coming --

It was.  Sunrise turned grays to greens and a gold ahead of them that made him blink and think the sun was very bright --

The trees had begun to thin. The gold was the grasslands in the distance, beyond a range of scrub brush.  Connor stared in silence, still moving forward.  No one else said anything either, until they came to a stumbling stop near the edge of the taller trees, the vista still broken by young growth trying to take the edge of the grasslands.

"Here," Antisha said.  She stared ahead and then shook her head.  "We made it here.  Now?"

She appeared almost too shocked to do anything more. 

"Keep to the edge until we find a trail," Druce said and started out heading southward along the line of trees.