Saturday, June 29, 2019

Flash Fiction # 361 -- Connor of Northgate/45

Magra and Godewyn came to see him next, both with bows and frowns -- but he couldn't say they disapproved.  Connor had expected the two since they mostly ran the place and had the most power.  In truth, their reactions would be the ones he most had to measure.

Magra reached over and put a hand on his arm.  "We didn't really believe, but fear and loss can do strange things to a person's thoughts, Connor.  We know Ordin and Galen are evil --"

"Ordin is dead," Antisha said and stepped closer to Connor in a show of solidarity that linked Connor to the royal family.  "Galen killed his son for the
Godewyn gave a hiss of anger his eyes glaring.  For a moment Connor thought he didn't believe Princess Antisha's words, as though merely being with him was enough to discredit her.

"Galen has gone beyond the pale," Godewyn snarled, correcting Connor's misconception.  He had to stop thinking about such things.  "There had been rumors for some time about changes in him that were not for the better.  However, to kill his own son and heir, just to absorb the power?  This is more than any of us expected of him."

"He's done more," Druce said.  "Much more.  I trust word will come from the Royal Court soon."

Godewyn nodded.  He frowned at Connor.  "I don't know how I feel about you being heir, though I'm not surprised that Lord Northgate gave you the position.  I will not work against you, Lord Northgate, but I will decide if I am staying."

"And we'll decide if I am staying," he replied.  "I've already said it, Godewyn.  I won't stay if I am mistrusted."

The older man nodded and even took Connor at his word.

"The King and Queen didn't remove Connor," Antisha pointed out.  "All of you might be wise to consider the reasons."

"Maybe you can tell me why they didn't," Connor said.

"You showed both honor and courage at the court," she said.  "You can't deny it, Connor.  You saved the King.  And besides, Lord Northgate did name you as his heir, and at a difficult time.  He believed you were the one right for this position.  I've seen no reason to doubt it."

"And besides," Master Rion said from the doorway.  "Lord Northgate had been grooming him for this position for most of his life."

Connor looked to the man who had been their teacher and frowned, but he never doubted that Rion was telling the truth, at least as much as he understood it.

"I never knew," Connor said.

"I gave constant reports," Rion replied with a wave of his hand.  "Just the same, we had decided from the start not to tell you or the others.  We couldn't be certain how you would do, Connor, and there was no reason to put you under worse pressure. You always did well.  I dare say you know more about ruling, laws, and how to deal with people than Princess Antisha."

Antisha laughed which startled everyone but Connor.

"Oh, you are right there, sir.  I was never meant to rule, you know.  I've always been trained to other work."

"And I'm not surprised at all," Rion said.  "I am Master Rion.  I've had the pleasure of teaching these young ... students.  I use the term student lightly for most of them."

It was such an improvement in the atmosphere, and he saw even Godewyn smile.

Druce, however, leaned forward with a frown.  "There is one problem.  I have noticed that the Captain of the Guard hasn't come to you yet."

"Yes, I had noticed," Connor said.  "Don't push him, or the rest of the guard."

"This could be a real problem for you, Connor," Erlis added.  He gave a quick look around and noted the lack of guards.  "If the guards are not going to stand by you --"

"I have the rest of you," Connor replied.  The others glanced at each other with worry, and he saw both Druce and Nylia shake their heads.  Liam kept quiet and out of the way, but Connor trusted that if he did anything foolish, he would step in.  "We can't force them to protect me, and demanding that the guard do so would only put me in more danger if they had decided they were not going to serve me."

"But to keep them in here --" Nylia protested.

"I am not going to force them out if they don't make a move against me. I trust that the guards would still do their duty to protect others, and right now, we need that kind of force."

The others reluctantly agreed with that assessment.  Connor, being Lord of Northgate, was really the smaller of the problems they faced just now. Rion was the one who looked most pleased.  Maybe he had learned some lesson from the teacher and didn't even remember what it might be.  Or perhaps he had simply shown good sense, though some of his friends didn't look as though they believed it.

"I'm tired.  I'm going to my room -- my usual room."

"We'll set up the guard, then," Druce said as they all stood.

"I'll take the last watch myself," Connor said.  They didn't argue.  Likely they remembered that he had always been an early riser anyway.

A few minutes later, he was alone in his room, grateful to be somewhere normal.  There had been too many changes since the last time he slept in this bed.

The one thing he had not mentioned to the others was the feeling of power he had now, the pull of the Tower stone to him.  It knew he was the Lord of Northgate.  He only had to convince the others.

And himself.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Flash Fiction #360 -- Connor of Northgate/44

Chapter 14

Connor had not expected so many to be at Northgate when they arrived. He suspected that many people had come in from the outlying villages, and perhaps even farther. The streets of the town were far too busy.

This worried him at first, but he quickly saw the helpful side of having all these refugees.  His party looked as worn and bedraggled as everyone else, and they passed into the keep without any undue notice, though he knew that wouldn't last for long.  He would have to show himself, but if they could get all the way to the castle --

He'd thought they might make it before the little fairies found them.  The small creatures hadn't meant to create a problem.  They were, it seemed, happy to see Connor and shouted friend as they swarmed around him.

"Ride fast," Erlis said.  "Head for the keep. We'll hold others back."

"No," Connor said.  "I have to look strong.  The people are already worried."

"He's right," Antisha agreed and gave him a nod of approval. She understood about politics, of course, and how much of it was simply show.  "Ride slowly unless there is a problem."

They found a problem, of course.  Antisha had just moved to ride beside when something changed.  He could feel it and gave a startled look off to the right even before Antisha, or the others realized there was a problem.

Magic.  Deadly magic, in fact; he could feel the power that would steal life away, and he knew the spell was aimed at him and at Antisha, who happened to be with him.

He moved quickly and almost automatically.  He couldn't simply deflect the magic because it would kill others instead.  He had to contain and destroy, and though he knew the theory, he had never done anything like this.

He wasn't sure what he could do this until he felt the power of Northgate around him.  He knew his duty, and he moved so quickly that Antisha barely had time to lift her hand before his magic was already created and braiding around the other spell.  He tried to trace it back to the source, but that took too much attention, and he dared not lose his hold here.

"Damn. Good," Antisha whispered. She'd joined in the counterattack as well. The others were trying to calm the people around them -- people and other things.  He saw creatures he'd never seen at Northgate, but now wasn't the time to stop and gawk.

The magic felt too strong and if it had tried to take him outside of Northgate -- yes, he would have failed.  There was a sobering thought as the last of the assassin's magic died with a loud squeal, as if in protest.

By then, they had another problem.  People began yelling and screaming, and he saw a few started to fight.

"Stop!" he shouted.  He'd never said anything so loud in his life. The others backed away from each other in haste, staring back at him with some shock.  He wasn't sure if that was because he was their Lord now or if they were simply surprised to hear him make so much noise.  No matter.

"Do not make this easy for our enemies -- yes our enemies.  I was born here, and I have always been one of you. We don't need to turn on each other at a time like this."

For the moment, at least, he had their attention, and they listened to him.  They rode on to the keep, managing to climb the stairs without stumbling, though he wanted to stop and sleep right there.

Inside they faced the servants; nervous people.  Some looked at Connor as though he was some creature that had suddenly leapt through the door to devour them.  He couldn't imagine what they were thinking.  They'd known him all his life, and those stares, more than any, struck him to the heart.

"What's wrong?" he finally asked, looking to Isole.  She frowned and waved a hand as though to dismiss his words.  "Tell me."

"We have heard that you killed Lord Northgate to take his place," she said, meeting his eyes.

"How could you believe such a thing?" he asked, the pain evident in his voice.  Isole winced and bowed her head.  "Why would you believe it?"

"Human," she mumbled.

"You've known me all my life," he answered.  His friends were growing angry, but he waved them to calm.  "And I never chose this place.  If I could wish Lord Northgate back, I would.  But I didn't kill him."  He stopped and looked at the other faces.  "I will not remain as Lord of this Gate if I am mistrusted.  But you are stuck with me for now."

He turned and walked away, ignoring the sounds behind him for now.  He wanted to go to his rooms, but the smells from the dining hall drew him instead.  He couldn't say he was hungry, but it did give him a chance to sit down.  Servants brought food, and no one spoke at all for a while.  His companions were as worn as him.

"This won't work," he said softly, looking to Erlis and Druce who sat across from him.

"Give it time," Druce said, surprising him.  "There have obviously been lies at work here, Connor.  Or perhaps we should start calling you Lord Northgate."

"No," he said.  "Connor."

Druce nodded agreement.  "And that will help, you know.  It's going to allow others to remember who you are. Give it time," he repeated.

Connor thought that good advice in general, though he didn't believe it would make a difference.  He didn't want to be in this position.  The others didn't want him here.  That seemed an excellent reason to step down when he could do so without causing more problems.

Connor kept that thought to himself now and chewed doggedly at the bread he'd been holding in his hand for some time.

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.