He was damn sure he didn't have a thing left to live for. And he was more than fine with it.


1. The Earth Child

Marna Welridge Haverford couldn’t keep a pair of shoes on her youngest child in the summer if her health depended on it. Briar’s hurried excuse as he took off through the grass in pursuit of a butterfly was that he liked to feel the grass beneath his bare toes.

                “I like to feel it growing, Mama,” was his explanation when she had pressed him for more.

                “You can’t feel the grass grow, Briar,” Marna said.

                Rather than diminish the light in those large, lime-colored eyes, it had brightened. “Yes, I can, Mama. Every little bit.” Briar had taken off at that point, leaving Marna perplexed.

                While Briar alternated between chasing butterflies and lying on the grass on his belly or back, depending on which he’d rather look at, the sky or the ground, Marna sat at the small wrought-iron table by the fence. Pennfold was a large enough village to have a designated play yard for all children under the age of twelve, provided there was at least one adult in the vicinity. It was only Briar and Marna today, as Marna’s husband had taken Lily to the greenhouses with him when he’d left for work that morning.

                There was an excited squeal to her left, and Marna looked over in time to see another little form streaking across the open space to tackle her son from behind. Briar picked himself up, and the two little boys began chasing each other, their happy chatter fading to babble by the time it reached her ears.

                Coryn Millner lowered her heavily pregnant self into the chair opposite Marna with a sigh. “Is it too much to hope for that he tires himself out?”

                Marna chuckled, her gray eyes searching automatically for Briar until she found him, verifying he was alright. “No. I’m hoping Briar goes down for a sleep this afternoon.” She looked over at Coryn. “You, dear, look like you’re ready to pop.”

                “I feel it.” Coryn draped a hand over her prominent baby bulge with a sigh. “The boys have been so good, though.”

                Marna had been blessed with two children, Briar and his older sister, Lily. The two of them could be a handful. She couldn’t fathom Coryn’s house with three children, another on the way, and a husband.

                It was one of the reasons the two of them met frequently for much-needed female time.

                Coryn watched the boys as they explored the play field, tired of chasing butterflies. Oak saplings were sticking proudly up from little plots of dirt, and they were what had drawn the boys’ attention. The trees were Red’s touch, and it had been his deft hand that had planted them for the village to provide additional shade when they were large enough.

                Briar crouched, prodding the sapling gently with his fingers. Endy stood to the side, watching with wide brown eyes as the small Fae child whispered to the leaves. The plant shuddered, spontaneously growing another half an inch. Briar fell backward onto his rear with a squeal, rubbing at his eyes. Endy continued to stare, his eyes moving between Briar and the sapling.

                “We’re having Endy tested the next time the mage comes through,” Coryn said gently, one hand absently stroking her belly. “Maybe you should get Briar tested as well.”

                 Marna tucked strands of her ginger hair behind her ears. “He’s not the firstborn. It should have shown with Lily if one of ours was to be a thela.” She refused to meet Coryn’s sharp look. “Red doesn’t adhere to magic. He won’t tolerate it in the house, let alone allow one of his children to be tested for it.”

                Endy plopped down on his bottom next to his best friend, poking at the sapling as well. It underwent no such growth at his touch as it had at Briar’s, and far from being discouraged, he seemed more inclined to keep poking away. Briar leaned against the human’s shoulder, clearly content.

                “This may be beyond his control, Marna.” Coryn reached across the table to wrap slim fingers around her friend’s wrist. “That child has a gift.”

                “I know.” She did, too. She could sooner deny the fact her son had magic as the sun refused to rise in the east. “But Red won’t stand for it.” He didn’t trust magic, despite being Fae himself, and there was nothing anyone was going to do about it.

                Coryn looked over at the two tawny heads bent together over the sapling – which had another spontaneous growth spurt – and then looked toward the sky. Cyren above, she didn’t how someone has beautiful and open-minded as Marna could handle living under the same roof as someone who would blatantly deny the gift his child had been graced with.

                “I still think you should reconsider.”

                “It would be the same as disowning him, and six is a little young to be wandering through the wilds of Kelleran alone.” Marna gently took her wrist from Coryn’s grasp, crossing her arms over her chest. “No. We’ll pray to Cyren it goes away.”

                Coryn snorted derisively. What a pitiful thing to pray for.


                Endy slid into his seat next to Briar before the last bell tolled for the start of the academic day, slouching. He’d hit a growth spurt recently, and his thirteen-year-old body hadn’t quite figured out what to do with the sudden acquirement of more height and arm length. As a result, he was more than mildly jealous as Briar seemed to grow at a steady pace over the course of his early teen years, rather than it short spurts at random intervals. He didn’t have to worry about slouching so as not to get a quill tip to the back of the neck in agitation from the girls behind them.

                In fact, Briar’s posture was very nearly perfect for the early hour. It usually took about halfway through the morning before the Fae could lift his head up from where it rested on his arms on the desk. Today, Briar sat straight and tall, hands folded calmly in his lap and his watery green eyes –


                Scooting his chair forward to get a better view, Endy truly looked at his friend’s face. Green eyes with a hint of almond-shape, as was characteristic of all Fae, stared straight ahead, despite being red-rimmed. There were barely seen tear-tracks down his flushed cheeks, and beneath an aquiline nose his lower lip wobbled periodically. His dark linen shirt was larger at the collar, a clear indication it was meant for someone broader in the shoulders.

                Endy put the pieces together rather quickly and his jaw dropped slightly. “Briar…”

                Briar smiled stiffly. “I had to fetch a hickory this morning.”

                Their instructor walked in, gave them all a sharp look, and began writing on the slate. Endy leaned in closer and whispered, “I’m looking during our break.”

                “Like hell,” Briar breathed, leveling his chin when Marsden, their gray-haired tutor, fixed them with a glare. It was, perhaps, the reason they had held a front row seat for many years.

                “Problems, Havordford?”

                “No, sir.”

                “Good. Keep your mouth shut.”

                Briar swallowed thickly with a jerky nod.


                True to his word, during the midmorning break between lessons, Endy pulled Briar into a secluded washroom and locked the door behind them. It was little more than a closet with a toilet and sink, but it would do, and Endy had selected it only for its privacy.

                “What the hell did he do to you?”

                Briar sighed, scrubbing at his cheeks. “Nothing that’s not within his rights as my father.” He leaned the edge of his shoulder carefully against the stone wall. “I had a little accident last night.” He didn’t dare to breathe as Endy moved behind him, gently lifting the hem of his borrowed shirt toward his shoulders. It didn’t move very far before he heard a hiss, and Briar bit his lip to stay silent. The coarse linen tugged at broken skin; most of it was barely scabbed over enough to stop bleeding. It was why his mother had handed him one of Red’s darker shirts.

                She refused to look at him, too, but Briar did his best not to dwell on it.

                “Did anyone clean these?”

                “No. It would have torn the clots off and there’d be blood all over.” Briar sniffed, looking at the window high near the ceiling. Light streamed in, creating a neat square on the rough floor, and he stood outside of it.

                “What happened, Briar?” Endy carefully tucked the tail of the shirt in the back of his friend’s breeches, mindful to not do it too tightly.

                “I had a fight with Lily.” The Fae straightened, arms loose at his sides. It put too much pressure on his shoulders if he crossed them like he desperately wanted to.

                “Fighting with your sister doesn’t get you this kind of lashing.” Endy wrapped his hand around Briar’s wrist and squeezed.

                “I lost control,” he whispered to the floor. He closed his eyes, resting his forehead against the cool stone. “Red had this special hybridized plant he was trying to grow, as the current mage in residence is Earth-tinted. He takes it back and forth to the greenhouses with him every morning, and every evening it sits on our table, this little pot of dirt. He wants to prove that being good with plants – being a good nurseryman – doesn’t take magic at all.” Briar swallowed, his mouth dry. “Lily was…she was so annoying, prattling on about how good she is with mathematics and that she’ll make something of herself and do our family proud, even though she’s a girl. That she doesn’t have to sin to be accounted for something. That’s what magic is to them. A sin.”

                Endy slid his hand down, working to open Briar’s clenched fist.

                “I was so frustrated with her that it just…it spread. I didn’t mean for it to spread, but it spread because it needed somewhere to go.”

                “How bad?” Endy whispered.

                “Fully flowering.” Briar’s voice broke on the last word. “Three weeks of hard work destroyed in one night because my sister can’t keep her mouth shut and I can’t control my own temper.” He relaxed his grip, allowing his hand to slide palm to palm with Endy’s. “Is this normal?”

                Endy leaned his forehead against the bony part of Briar’s shoulder and nodded against the rough fabric. How the Fae could stand to have it on the marks on his back was beyond him. “Mage Uren says magic gets difficult to control when we come into young adulthood.”

                “Wonderful,” Briar muttered. “So I have as much control over my magic as I do about the mess in my sheets in the morning.” His body was doing strange things and his father refused to talk to him about it besides the gruff, “You’ll get used to it,” Red had issued one evening when a red-faced Briar had tried to start the conversation. “I hope this doesn’t last long.”

                “It doesn’t,” Endy said softly. “It gets better.” He almost tacked on “all of it” but he wasn’t sure. Briar had a beautiful gift and his father, rather than embrace it and cultivate it like he so carefully tended his plants, would rather attempt to beat it out of him than allow it – and his son – to flourish.

                Briar turned his head enough to rest his cheek against Endy’s tawny hair. Here, in the locked washroom with his best friend, he was safe. Safe from Red and the hickory switch, safe from hiding his magic from the world, safe from the needling remarks of his sister. Endy himself radiated quiet and calm, and Briar was never more thankful for it than he was then.

                These were the moments which made having magic tolerable.



                Briar sprinkled more flour onto his workspace and flopped the pile of dough down, pausing long enough to crack his knuckles before beginning to knead. He’d started working in Thomas’s bakery in the early spring, months ago, now, only days before the summer equinox – and Briar’s sixteenth birthday – and he loved it.

                Not nearly as much as he would have loved to be along the plants in Red’s greenhouses, but Red’s refusal of the innocent suggestion was law. As Briar had gone a good long while without a trip to the shed to find a hickory and have a talk, he considered the bakery the next best thing to working with plants.

                And yeast was a plant, wasn’t it?

                Kneading was nothing more than muscle memory by that point, and Briar lifted his head, glancing around the small shop for Thomas. A juicy curse to his left drew his attention, and true enough, there was Thomas’s lanky form wedged behind one of the massive ovens. Only his leg, olive-toned beneath the knee of his breeches, was visible to Briar at his angle, and he chuckled.

                Berta, as she was affectionately known, was Thomas’s largest oven. She was also the first to grace his bakery when he renovated after purchasing the building from its previous owner. Thomas and Berta had a semi-violent relationship in which she would get moody and refuse to light or maintain temperature, and Thomas would swear and good-naturedly thump her while trying to sort out the problem.

                In the end, Thomas always extinguished her fire and re-lit her. It involved what little fire magic he was able to control, and a whole lot of careful wind-shaping. Air was to Thomas what the Earth was to Briar.

                “Briar?” Thomas righted himself with a grunt, wiping his hands on the apron around his waist.

                The Fae looked over, never pausing in his kneading. “Yes, Thomas?”

                “Do you have the gift of magic?”

                Briar froze. Either he was getting careless again, or Thomas was very, very astute. His lime-colored eyes found the dough beneath his hands. “Uh…” The uncomplicated answer was yes. He’d been born with magic. Was he permitted to use it? No, and therein lie the complicated answer. Yes and no. Instructor Marsden, with his cynical sense of humor, would have termed it the Haverford Paradox, if they were speaking of philosophy. Briar was almost as dismal at philosophy as he was at mathematics.

                Thomas nudged Berta’s wide bottom with the back of his shoe. “I’m not asking if you use it, Briar, I’m asking if you have it.”

                “Yes.” He released the dough and stepped back when he realized he was squeezing it more forcefully than it deserved. “I have it but I’m not – I don’t use it.”

                Thomas grunted, absently rubbing one of his pointed ears. “Don’t use, can’t control, or aren’t supposed to?”

                Briar scratched at what stubble he had on his jaw. He’d neglected to shave that morning, another small rebellion against his father, who insisted any son of his was going to be clean-shaven and smart-looking. Like a “proper Fae gentlemale.”He looked down at his shoes, stalling for time, and noticed the laces were fraying badly.

                “Briar.” Thomas waited until the younger male looked up, meeting his warm brown eyes. “I’m not out to get you into trouble. I’d simply like to know what you can do.”

                He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “A lot. I can do a lot.”

                “Are you evenly spaced or focused?” It was mage-speak, and Briar knew enough from having been around Endy practicing for various tests to understand what Thomas was getting after.

                “I’m Earth-focused, with enough water ability to find a source of it in deep woods and enough fire to make a small flame. I have nothing with air.” Briar wiped sweaty palms on his breeches, leaving white handprints behind on the black fabric. He found it easier to look at Thomas’s nose than his face as a whole. “I can grow almost anything. Depending on what it is, I sometimes don’t need a starter seed.”

                Thomas relaxed his posture. “That speaks of power, Briar. It speaks of very deep power.”

                Briar shrugged.

                “If I’m overstepping my boundaries, don’t hesitate to let me know about it,” the older male started. Briar didn’t dare breathe. “But if you’re an Earth-focused mage, why, in Cyren’s good name, are you working in a bakery instead of at your father’s greenhouses?”

                The younger Fae lifted his head, almost defiantly meeting Thomas’s eyes. “Because my father doesn’t tolerate magic in his house.” He swallowed thickly. “Even if it’s his own child.”

                Thomas whistled lowly. “And yet you have some modicum of control over your gift.”

                “Hard-fought.” His shoulders twitched in memory, the lines across his back a phantom ache. He rarely went to the swimming hole in the heat of the summer. There were too many others from the village lounging about on the banks or floating idly in the cool water, and females were the only ones who kept their shirts or shifts on while swimming. Briar had no desire to parade his jig-sawed back for all of Pennfold to see. Instead, he and Endy would sneak away in the night to escape the lingering humidity, and any others down by the swimming hole at that hour were there just as secretively as they were, and did well to keep their distance.

                Endy was still the only non-blood relation to have seen the state of Briar’s back and know the cause. He was also the only one to clean the wounds when Briar had a new “conversation” with his father in the shed.

                Thomas pushed off from Berta and walked slowly toward Briar. He lay a steady hand on each thin shoulder. “This place is, and will always be, a safe place for you, Briar. You do not have to hide here.”

                He nodded, so surprised to be drawn into a hug he stiffened. His mother was the one who showed the most physical affection toward him and Lily. Red had rarely hugged him, even as a child. Thomas’s hold was warm and strong, and Briar relaxed enough to let his forehead rest on the other male’s shoulder. Briar had the niggling feeling he’d remember this day in particular for the rest of his life.

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