The Iron Flower – Laurie Forest

Welcome to the Resistance. Vice Chancellor Quillen’s words echo in my mind as I bow my head against the driving wind and hurry through the torchlit University streets. I pull my cloak taut, no longer daunted by the wanted posters nailed up all over the city. Instead, I’m overcome by a renewed sense of urgency and purpose. I need to find Yvan. I have to tell him that Professor Kristian and Vice Chancellor Quillen are going to help my friend Tierney and her family escape to the Eastern Realm. Yvan was the one who suggested that I go to our history teacher, so Yvan must know about Professor Kristian’s connection to the Resistance. And like Tierney, Yvan clearly has Fae blood. He needs to get out of the Western Realm, too. A sudden rush of emotion swamps over me at the thought of Yvan leaving for good. My steps slow, and tears sting at my eyes as I come to a halt beside a torch post and brace myself against it. Pellets of snow fall from the pitch-black sky, their icy points needling the exposed skin of my face and hands as the torch spits crackling sparks into the frozen air. I struggle to catch my breath, the full force of Gardneria suddenly pressing down, threatening to engulf everyone I love. A cluster of Alfsigr Elfin scholars silently pass by without even a cursory glance my way, their ivory cloaks wrapped tight as they glide like phantoms through the gauzy veil of falling snow. I watch their pale forms blur, then blend into the misty white as I force myself to take deep breaths and beat back the tears.

Urging myself into motion, I resume my advance down the snow-slicked streets. Eventually, I come to the winding path that leads to the rear entrance of the main kitchen, and a wave of blessed warmth envelops me the moment I step inside. I glance around hopefully for Yvan, but find only Fernyllia, the Kitchen Mistress, scouring the remnants of sticky bread dough off one of the long tables. “Ah, Elloren.” Fernyllia greets me with a warm smile, her pale rose face beaming, strands of white hair escaping her bun. “What brings you here at this late hour?” Her calm demeanor is so at odds with my roiling emotions that my thoughts scramble for a moment. “I’m looking for Yvan.” Fernyllia gestures toward the back door with her bristled brush. “I asked him to bring some waste to the pigs. There’s a few more buckets to go out.

I suppose if you and I were to both grab one or two, we could finish the task, save him a couple trips?” “Of course,” I agree eagerly. “You go on ahead. I’ll be right behind you.” I hoist two of the heavy buckets, the muscles in my arms easily absorbing the weight after months of kitchen work. I shoulder open the back door and make my way up the hill toward the livestock barn, a frosty wind swirling the glittering snow up around me. As I step inside the barn’s door, the sound of muffled conversation reaches my ears. Cautiously, I move toward the voices and peer through the wooden handles of propped-up rakes and hoes and shovels. Two familiar faces come into view, and I freeze. Yvan and Iris. Yvan’s expression is serious, as is hers, their eyes intent on each other.

And they’re standing close together—too close. “They’re going to start iron-testing everyone,” Iris says to Yvan in a quavering voice. “You know they will. I have to get out. I have to get out now.” My thoughts spin into confusion as the meaning of her words sweeps through me. Iris Morgaine is… Fae? I struggle to remember even one time I’ve seen Iris touch iron in the kitchen and realize that, unlike Yvan, she never goes near the iron pots or the stove. She’s always preparing pastries and bread. Always. If she’s so afraid of being iron-tested… Iris might be full-blooded Fae.

Glamoured, just like Tierney. Iris begins to cry as she looks up at Yvan imploringly. He pulls her into a gentle embrace, murmuring softly to her as his strong arms hold her close, bending his head down over her shoulder, his tousled brown hair mingling with strands of her golden locks. A stinging ache rushes through me, along with the unbidden and thoroughly selfish desire to be the one encircled by Yvan’s arms—and the sudden, fierce wish to not look exactly like my cursed grandmother. Maybe then Yvan would want me instead. You’ve no right to feel this way, I rage against myself. He’s not yours. Iris tilts her head and kisses Yvan’s neck, nuzzling against him with a soft moan. Yvan stiffens, his eyes widening as his lips part in evident surprise. “Iris…” He moves slightly away from her as a frustrated longing for him, so raw that it hurts, explodes inside me.

Suddenly, as if sensing my torrent of emotion, Yvan looks straight at me, his fiery green eyes locking hard on to mine with blazing recognition. And I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that somehow, he can read the full intensity of my feelings for him. Horror and humiliation cut through me. I drop the scrap buckets and run from the barn, out into the snowy night, nearly knocking over a very surprised Fernyllia as I sprint past, almost losing my footing on the snowy hill. Tears stream down my face as I race into the kitchen and out through the empty dining hall, my breath coming in ragged gasps as I run down corridors and finally duck into a deserted lecture room, collapsing onto one of the many chairs in the dark space and crumpling onto the desk before me. I bury my head in my arms and break down into great, shuddering sobs that strain painfully at my ribs and choke the air from my lungs. I’ve let myself fall for him. And he’ll never want me. The pain of Yvan’s continued rejection is like a thundering ache, and I’m wholly unprepared for the force of it. Lost in misery, I’m not aware of Fernyllia’s quiet presence until I glimpse her out of the corner of my eye and feel her calloused hand on my shoulder.

The chair next to mine scrapes against the stone floor as she sits down beside me. “You care for him, don’t you, child?” Fernyllia asks, her voice kind. I squeeze my eyes tightly together and nod stiffly. She rubs my back gently, murmuring softly in Uriskal. “I don’t want to be Gardnerian,” I finally manage, internally raging, not wanting to wear my black Gardnerian garb ever again. Not wanting the heinous white armband, an unspoken gesture of support for High Mage Marcus Vogel, around my arm. Not wanting any part of the cruel tyranny my people have inflicted on others. Wanting to be free of all of it. Wanting Yvan. Fernyllia is quiet for a moment.

“We don’t get to choose what we are,” she says finally, her voice low. “But we do get to choose who we are.” I look up to find her staring at me intently. “Did you know I was married once?” Fernyllia asks with a slight, nostalgic smile. “Before the Realm War, that is.” Her face grows troubled, the wrinkles around her eyes tightening. “Then your people came and killed all our men. After it was over, they rounded up the survivors and put us to work for the Gardnerians.” Fernyllia grows quiet for a moment. Then, in a whisper, she adds, “They took my young son down, as well.

” My breath catches in my throat. “Life can be very unfair,” she says, her voice strained. Shame ripples through me. My problems pale in comparison to Fernyllia’s. She’s been through so much, yet she’s still strong, still working to help others. And here I am, feeling sorry for myself. Chastened, I swallow back my tears, straighten and struggle to pull myself together. “That’s it, Elloren Gardner,” Fernyllia says, her expression steely, but not unkind. “Buck up. My granddaughter, Fern… I want something more for her.

More than being a servant to the Gardnerians and told she’s worth less than nothing. I want her to be free of mind and free of body, the former being the hardest part for any of us. They don’t have your mind, though—do they, Elloren?” I meet her gaze squarely and shake my head. “Good,” she says, pleased. “You make sure it stays that way. There’s much work to be done. A lot needs to change so that my Fern can have a good life.” MAGE COUNCIL RULING #103 Any information regarding the seizure of an unbroken military dragon from the Gardnerian Fourth Division Base must be immediately reported to the Mage Council. Involvement in the theft of military dragons is punishable by execution. CHAPTER ONE OUTSIDER “Vogel’s closed the Gardnerian border tight.

” Silence fills the kitchen’s sizable storeroom as Professor Kristian’s words sink in. He meets each of our eyes in turn, his hands clasped on the broad table before him. Tierney and I exchange an anxious glance. Part of our Resistance group surrounds the wooden table, our exhausted faces lit by the guttering lamps. Yvan sits across from me, next to Iris, a tight line of tension between his eyes, and I struggle to resist the pull of my gaze toward him. Behind Yvan, Fernyllia leans against shelves stocked with preserves, her rose-hued eyes locked on Jules Kristian, her arms crossed in front of her stout body. Bleddyn Arterra hangs back in the shadows, glowering, her face cast deep green in the lambent light. Vice Chancellor Lucretia Quillen is perched primly beside Jules, her sharp face cool and composed. There’s only a few of us here—we can’t often meet in large groups without rousing suspicion. So, it’s become our responsibility to relay messages to the other small Resistance groups throughout Verpacia, including my brothers and the friends who helped us rescue Naga, the unbroken military dragon Yvan had befriended.

“The Mage Guard is patrolling their border day and night,” Jules continues gravely. He hesitates for a moment. “And now they’re using trained hydreenas to hunt down Fae.” “Hydreenas?” Tierney echoes fearfully. She’s sitting beside me, her face tight as a bowstring. Her terror is understandable—the huge, boar-shaped beasts are both horrifyingly vicious and able to track scents over long distances. “Vogel’s got the help of the local Gardnerian population, too,” Lucretia says ominously. “He’s placed a hefty price on the heads of any glamoured Fae.” The black silk of her Gardnerian tunic glistens in the lamplight. She’s camouflaged just like Tierney, and like I usually am when I’m not working in the kitchens—in a black Gardnerian tunic over a long ebony skirt, a white band of fabric cinched tightly around her upper arm.

The white band worn by supporters of High Mage Marcus Vogel. It’s imperative that our fellow Gardnerians believe we’re on their side, in order to protect the Resistance. Still, I can’t help feeling sick every time I have to don one of those armbands. I’m only days into working for the Verpacian Resistance, but I know that it’s led by Jules, Lucretia and Fernyllia. There’s a Keltic arm of the Resistance that carries out acts of sabotage against the Gardnerian and Alfsigr forces, but the Verpacian group mainly works to evacuate refugees through Verpacia and out of the Western Realm. Fear of both the Gardnerian and Alfsigr militaries runs high everywhere, so the Verpacian Resistance is small, under-armed and overwhelmed. Our only potential advantage is an unbroken military dragon with catastrophically shattered legs and wings. The situation is daunting, to say the least. I massage my temple in an attempt to soothe my unrelenting headache. The yeasty aroma of rising dough and the leafy smell of dried herbs waft in from the kitchen, along with an embrace of warmth that provides only slim comfort.

I’ve been in foul spirits all day. I bolted awake at dawn in a cold sweat, my blankets roped tight around my limbs as my mind shook off yet another terrible nightmare. The same nightmare that’s been haunting me for days. Disoriented, I grasped for details of the frightening dream as they started to fly away, faint as wisps of smoke. A battlefield beneath a reddened sky, a malefic hooded figure roaming toward me as I cowered behind a blackened dead tree, a white wand gripped in my hand. Now, many hours later, all that remains of the nightmare is a lingering sense of dread and the vague, unsettling feeling that something dark is searching for me. “Any word on the Verpacian Council election?” Bleddyn asks. Fernyllia gives her a somber look. “The Gardnerians are now the vast majority.” “Ancient One,” I breathe out in dismay as Iris huffs angrily, her lovely hazel eyes filling with outrage.

And fear. Yvan places his hand comfortingly on her arm, and I shake off the prick of envy that rises in me. “We all knew that was coming.” Tierney’s words are acerbic, her mouth twisted into a half sneer. “The Verpacian Council has been a lost cause for a while now.” But it’s more than just a lost cause—it’s an unmitigated disaster.

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