I. Maiden Knight in Training

To her mother's dismay, at age five, Avis proudly declared she would become a knight. Her mother pressed her to give up dreams like that, but she couldn't stop the girl from hearing the townspeople tell tales about glorious knights saving damsels and going on daring quests. Avis could always be found wherever there was someone spinning a tale, even though none wanted her there. When she was noticed, her mother would come to collect her up and send her back to doing chores. Of course, she knew most knights were not like in the stories. She had learned every hiding place in the woods beyond her home for when strangers came into town. Blood ran down the roads frequently. But to her, those knights in the stories were as real as the ones who raided her village. All things came in good and bad, and she vowed to herself she would become a kind, chivalrous knight who children wouldn't have to hide from. She repeated this to herself as she hid in one of the nearby caves. A whistle from her mother meant she could return home. Two whistles done rapidly after that meant "return back to hiding". Avis listened closely. A single whistle. She dusted off and dashed back towards the house. With home already in view, she looked for her mother. Her mother came around to the back of the house, glancing back at something. Two whistles. Avis stopped dead in her tracks and ducked down. Here, there was practically nothing to hide well in. She stayed perfectly still as her mother had taught her. A knight rode up behind her mother. She expected her to run, but her mother did not move. The knight dismounted and removed his helmet. Long golden hair fell down his back. The shade was beautiful, a cleaner version of her own. His face suggested he was of a similar age as her mother, though healthier looking, and she had never seen a man with such handsome features come through their town before. Though she had never seen the faces of any of the knights who came through, she doubted most knights looked any different than anyone else she saw. His breastplate bore an emblem of a wolf surrounded by flames. The man with the beautiful face and the golden hair embraced her mother from behind. She was shocked to see this. Her mother couldn't be that kind of person. What would her father think if he saw this? She would get her answer soon enough. Her father came up from the farm just then. He glanced over at the pair and continued on into the house without a word. Her mother's expression, she noticed, matched her father's. She didn't look ashamed to be caught, nor happy to be with the knight. Her face was blank, as if she wasn't there at all. The handsome knight said something to her mother, but she was too far away to hear him. He led her mother into the house. Her father came back outside and returned to the farm. He showed no signs of concern or caring. She knew her mother would reprimand her for it, but she left her hiding spot and ran to her father. He paid no attention to her. "Father, who is that man?" She asked. He looked back at her, letting out a heavy sign. "Child, are you blind?" "What do you mean?" She didn't know what he could be referring to. Her father was always vague when he answered her. He shook his head and motioned for her to go on. "Your mother told you to stay out of sight. Get back in the woods before he sees you." "Is he going to do something to me?" Avis was still too young to understand what sorts of things happened to women when soldiers got after them. She understood it was different than what happened to the men, but not how. "No, child. He won't lay a hand on you." With that answer, he paid her no further attention. Avis contemplated why that may be. Mother gave her the signal to hide, but her father was telling her she wouldn't be hurt. For what reason did she need to hide then? Her thoughts returned to what she had seen earlier. Perhaps her mother did not want Avis to see her with that knight, but her mother was unashamed at her father seeing them together. What did it mean? She sat behind the house for a while, waiting to see the knight again. If he wouldn't harm her, then she wanted to ask him some questions herself before he left. It was unlikely he would stay long, she reasoned. Shortly before sunset, the knight with the golden hair left the home. Her mother followed behind him. Upon seeing Avis, she glared and motioned for the girl to go back to hiding. Avis ignored her and ran up to the knight. The man with the golden hair stared down at her, seemingly piecing together some puzzle she couldn't comprehend. He turned to her mother. "How long have you been hiding this one?" "She is five." Her mother turned her back to them both. "So, this is the third one, the girl. She will be the last." Avis didn't understand his words. She had heard her father mention an older brother once who ran away, but that only added up to two. "And still, you are here. When will be the last time for me, you beast?" Her mother raised her voice. The knight looked over his shoulder at her, but did not respond to her. He turned his attention back to Avis. "Girl, you want to become a knight." "How did you know that?" Avis asked. 'Did mother tell him?' "Oh, I know much of what you will become, little flame. I'm curious what lands you will burn. In time, your mother will tell you where to find me." He patted her on the head before mounting his horse. "Goodbye, maiden." "You've gotten what you wanted, beast. Now be on your way!" Her mother yelled. He said nothing to her and rode away. Avis went to her mother's side, but her mother would not look at her. She followed her mother inside, hoping she would speak more freely behind closed doors. "Mother, who was that knight?" Avis asked. Her mother shot her the same glare she had given her earlier. Her tone was harsh. "Child, look at your reflection. Do you really not recognize your own father?" "My father...? But how can he be? You're already married to someone else." Her father was Mahli, the old farmer. That was what she had always been told. "You'll understand when you're older." Her mother kept a large distance between them. "Who is he?" "The Black Wolf of Cailean, that's what they call him." Avis had heard that name in passing from some of the townspeople. "So, is he the one who sees over this land?" "Yes. I don't wish to speak any more of that beast. Go on your way now. I have dinner to cook." Avis tried to get her mother to tell her more, but she ignored her questions. For the time being, she let it go. How the world of adults worked was beyond her, but if her mother said that was her father, then that's who he was. She never cared much for Mahli, and a knight being her father made her dreams of becoming a knight seem a little more possible. Still, she wasn't sure if he was a good person or a bad person. His title suggested something sinister, but the title could be to intimidate enemies away. Her mother called him a beast. What had happened between them, she wondered. In town, she listened for any rumors about the knight. As always, her presence was never wanted and she was quickly forced out of anywhere she went. She decided instead to wait for him to return and went back to her daydreaming. Time passed, and he did not return. When her mother ordered her to hide, she kept herself close to home, waiting for him. One year, two years...soon, five years had passed and in all that time, he didn't once return. Her patience ran out, and she went back to pestering her mother with questions. Her mother was washing clothes by the stream. Avis kneeled down beside her. "Is my father never coming back?" For once, her mother laughed. "I should hope myself so lucky." "Why do you hate him so if he is my father?" "Why does him being your father mean I have to care for him?" Her mother was starting to get irritated. "If not, then how was I born?" Avis knew at this point the physical aspect of how children came to be in the world, but she still held on naively to the idea of marriage and love being tied into it. She knew it wasn't quite necessary, but from what she heard from the priest in town, absence of those elements meant bad things. The marriage element was missing, but she assumed love must at least be involved. Her mother scoffed at her. "Child, few are born from unions of love. Life isn't a fairytale." "Is father a bad person? Is that why you hate him?" She still didn't quite understand what her mother was trying to imply to her. "He's a horrible person. Now, forget about him." "I want to meet with him again. I have some questions for him, and he left last time before I could ask him anything." Avis played in the stream. "Besides, if he recognizes me as his child, I could become a knight." "No, you can't. You're a girl." Her mother rolled her eyes at her. "He said I could. And he would know more than you." She proudly proclaimed. This only angered her mother more. She threw down the red cloak she was washing onto the ground. "Girl, quit with your nonsense and leave me be. I don't have time for this." "He said you would tell me where to find him. I want to meet with him. Tell me the way, and I'll ask him myself about becoming a knight." Avis stood her ground. "Why are you so hellbent on that nonsense? You're a girl, and that's all anyone will ever see. Even if you were a boy, you know what they're really like." Avis jumped across to the other side of the stream. "I won't become a bad knight. I will be a just and pure knight." "Fine. You wish for it that bad? I will send you to him. Then you can see what monsters look like. Should you leave me to go to him, you no longer have a home here." Her mother stood up and turned away from her. She muttered under her breath. "All of you, you're all the same. I knew you'd leave me just like the other two." "If that is how it must be, Mother. I won't let anyone hold me back, not even you. But I don't understand why it must be this way. I love you dearly, Mother." Avis tried to hug her mother, but her mother pushed her away. This was nothing out of the ordinary. Her mother never embraced her. Avis had hoped since her mother was telling her she couldn't come back home, at least this once she would allow it. Briefly, Avis contemplated taking back her words, but her mother didn't like to hold her before she decided she would be a knight either. She resigned to it being something she simply couldn't have. "Take the long road out of town to the east and follow the path along the forest. His home is high upon a great hill. You should reach there before sunset if you go now." Her mother picked up the red cloak she had thrown on the ground and returned to washing. "Thank you. Goodbye, Mother." Avis started walking away. She slowed her steps to wait for her mother to say goodbye back. Her mother said nothing. Avis took the path as her mother had instructed her. Several travelers gave her strange looks. It was odd indeed to see a young girl walking those roads all alone. A family passing through stopped their wagon and offered her a ride, afraid the poor girl would be in danger if left alone. Avis told them where she was going. They were confused, but agreed to let her ride with them until that point. The mother in the family let Avis sit beside her as she nursed her newborn. "Little one, what are you doing all alone out here? Don't you know it's dangerous, especially for a pretty little girl, to travel alone?" The woman asked. "I'm going to see my father." Avis swayed her feet back and forth off the edge of the wagon. "Your father? Well, I'm sure your father wouldn't want you traveling by yourself. There's all sorts of wolves in the forest, you know." Wolves. Her father bore the symbol of a wolf. She tilted her head at the lady. "What do you mean? What's bad about wolves?" "They'll come and gobble you right up!" "I'll just cut them open if they try." Avis said with a smile. The couple was unnerved by the girl. When they reached the great hill, the woman let her off the wagon and patted her on the head. She and her husband waved goodbye to her. Avis easily strolled into the home. It was much larger than hers. It was so big she wondered if it was a castle. No one noticed her at first. She explored around for a while until a servant stopped her. "Little girl, what are you doing here?" The manservant asked. "I've come to see my father!" Avis declared. "Your father? And what is your father's name?" The servant narrowed his eyes. Avis realized she didn't actually know his name, merely what people called him. Since that was all she knew, she gave that as her response. "My father is the Black Wolf of Cailean. That's what my mother told me." "Go on your way, peasant girl. The master only has two children. He has no need for more brats pretending to be his bastard children." The servant grabbed her by the arm. "I'll see that you get back to the front." "No! I must see him! He is my father! I know he is! He'll tell you!" Avis struggled. The servant picked her up. "Oh, really? Well, we'll see about that. I'll take you to him. And if he denies you, I'll send you to the dungeon. How does that sound, little girl?" "I'm not scared. I know he is my father!" The man didn't deny her before. He even told her she would come here. Surely, she thought, there was no reason to fear. The servant was impressed by her audacity, but still unconvinced. He led Avis to a garden at the back of the home. The knight with the golden hair sat quietly in a chair having lunch by himself. The servant cleared his throat. The knight looked over at them as the servant spoke. "My lord, this girl...claims you are..." "Father..." Avis got free of the servant and ran up to her father. The servant stopped her just before she reached the chair he was seated in. "Oh, it's you, little flame. My, how you've grown already. Is it really time for you to be here so soon?" Her father smiled at her. He spoke then to the servant. "This one is indeed my child. But my good man, you are mistaken. This is my youngest son. I've had him disguise himself as a girl to keep him hidden. Isn't that right?" Avis played along. "Yes...I'm a boy! And I'm tired of wearing these silly dresses!" He stood up and rubbed her head. "Not to worry. I'll have you dressed properly soon enough. Have you come to stay with me? Or do you wish for me to choose someone for you to train under?" "I would like to stay with you, father." Avis replied. "Ah, the same choice as your brother Luke. Very well. Prepare a bedroom for my son. Please do it immediately. There are things I wish to discuss with my child alone." The servant bowed and went on his way. The warm persona the knight put forward disappeared the moment the servant left. The entire area suddenly felt colder. "So, you're choosing to stay. I don't care your reason. I don't care that you're here at all." "Why did you lie for me?" Avis asked. "If I had told the truth, you wouldn't have gotten what you wanted." He sat back down in his chair. Avis persisted in her questions. She had waited five years for him. She wasn't going to let him talk circles around her. "You said you didn't care that I'm here, so why do you care that I get what I want?" "I don't. I've simply accepted fate. If you've chosen that it will be through me you train, then that's how it is. There's no point to resisting." "Aren't you going to even ask me my name?" Avis grabbed on to the arm of his chair, staring him down. "I don't need to ask. It's for your benefit to tell me, little flame." He looked at her coldly. "It's Avis. And why do you keep calling me that?" "You'll understand in time." He sighed and got up again, wandering towards the edge of the garden. "We can begin your training tomorrow. From today onward, I will refer to you as my son. I expect you to dress in the clothes I provide for you. I shouldn't have to explain to you why. Don't expect mercy from me." Avis followed him. "You haven't given me your name." "It's Faolán. Now, little flame, we should get you dressed properly before too many others see you." He took hold of her hand and led her out of the garden. His hand was hot, hotter than any human she had ever come in contact with. Some of the village women often said people with cold hands had warm hearts. She wondered if this meant her father's heart was as cold as ice. Avis didn't mind the switch to boys' clothes. She actually liked wearing pants more than dresses. Her new room was as big as her old house, and her bed was massive. With all her excitement, Avis reminded herself that she needed to stay humble to achieve her goals. The things around her were welcomed changes, but not things she couldn't live without again. Still, she slept soundly in the big bed. When morning came, it started to sink in that she wasn't going back home and her mother wasn't going to come for her. Quietly, she cried for a while before getting ready. She greeted her father and asked to begin training. He shrugged and took her out to do so. She was given a training sword to start with and some light armor. The first day, he was completely relentless. Avis assumed he was trying to break her spirit. She forced herself to endure his harsh training. At the end of the day, she had more bruises on her than she could count. He was clearly overdoing it. She wondered to herself if he hated her for some reason she was unaware of. Each day was like this. Avis wasn't getting any stronger, but she was at least learning to dodge better. She wondered why he mostly fought with her rather than starting her off on training dummies. When she asked, he wouldn't give her a reason beyond, "This is how I trained Luke. He had no complaints." Weeks went by and Avis had developed a higher tolerance for pain. She had still yet to land a hit on him or counter at all. She tried not to get frustrated with herself, keeping her goal at the forefront of her mind. Her father, realizing she could handle the physical aspect of it, attacked her mentally next. "Is this the best you can do? I did better than this when I was seven. You'll need to toughen up more if you expect to be as strong as me." Avis was knocked down again by one of his hits. She got back up again. "I will get stronger. You're just going too fast!" "No, I'm not. You're weak. Stop making excuses for it." He kicked her down. "No fair! You didn't use your sword! That's cheating!" Avis fell back even harder. "Your enemies won't give a damn about that. If you play nice, you will die. Now, get up, or stay down and stay weak." Avis's legs were strained, making it hard for her to stand. She used her sword to pull herself back up. Her father knocked the sword out of her hands. She dropped back down immediately. Avis wanted to yell at him, but stopped herself. If she did, she would only be playing into his game. With all the strength she had in her, she rose up on her own and picked up her sword. There was no time for her to celebrate her small victory. As soon as she had readied herself, he had put her back on the ground again. After training, she would try to talk to him, but her father never seemed to want to talk about anything. He often simply told her to go to her room or bathe. After several months, she managed to get him to answer a question, even if he was completely vague. "How did you know all those years ago I would come here?" Avis asked him shortly before they began training for the day. "I've known since before you were born." He said. "How?" "If you have time to sit and think up questions, you have time to train harder. Now, be quiet and get back to your training." That was all she managed to get out of him that day. She was unsatisfied, but it was progress. Three years passed, and she still had not once managed to hit him. She could deal with that frustration. In time, she knew she could improve herself. She saw it now, even if it had only been a small amount. It was there. Every day, she reminded herself of the little victories she had managed to keep up her spirits. There were things, however, she could not conquer simply by training. For a while, she could conceal it, especially with her armor on. It had gotten to the point it was too obvious. Avis paced in her room, lost as to what she could do about her current problem. Nothing came to mind. She hid in her blankets to cover herself. "What am I going to do?" Around noon, her father visited her. She stayed hidden under the covers. He sat down on the bed with her. "Why have you been staying in your room all day?" "I can't hide it any more. I tried wearing three shirts but it doesn't work." Avis was so frustrated she wanted to cry, but she held back the tears. She wasn't about to look weak in front of him over something like this. "What doesn't...let me see." Avis let the blanket slide off her shoulders. Faolán noticed right away what she was trying to hide under all those shirts. "Hmm...this is a problem. Now, what to do..." "Why does this have to happen?" Avis covered the front of her chest with her arms. "You're becoming a woman. It's only natural." Faolán stood up. Something came to his mind. He got down some bandages that were left in Avis's room for her to use after training. "I have an idea. Take off your shirt." "What? No." Avis's face turned bright red. "I'm trying to help you. Take it off." "I don't want you to see me like that." Avis hid back under the sheets. "For God's sake, child. I'm your father. There won't be any lingering eyes, I can assure you." He pulled the blanket back off. "I know that, but it doesn't make it any less embarrassing!" She tried to hide herself again. She wanted to escape from the entire situation. "Let's just get this over with. I don't want to do this either. You want to go outside again, don't you?" He sat down beside her and unraveled the bandages. "Yes..." Avis resigned herself to what she had to do. She took off her shirt, quickly covering herself afterwards. "Lift your arms. I'll try to be ask quick as possible." Avis did as her father asked. She looked away from him, too embarrassed to face him. He made good on his promise, working quickly to bind her chest. "There. Can you breathe fine?" The cloth bandages squeezed her insides. She could barely breathe and there was a sharp pain in her ribs. She didn't want to let on the full extent of the pain to him. He would likely mock her for it, she assumed. "It's...it's a little painful." "Too tight then. Hold on. I'll loosen it up more." Faolán redid the bandages. "How about now?" Avis took a deep breath. It wasn't entirely painless. Her breasts still felt a little sore, but she didn't want to go through that process again and it was nowhere near as painful as the first attempt. "It's a little uncomfortable, but I can breathe alright." "You'll have to get used to it. Do you think you can do that on your own tomorrow?" "Yes...I think so." Avis hoped she could. She didn't want to go through that with him again. She quickly put her shirt back on. "I'll check on you tomorrow morning in case you need help." He looked deep in thought for a moment. "Since we're on the subject of you getting older, I want you to start lower your voice when you talk." "My voice?" "You're around the age when boys' voices change. It doesn't have to be consistent yet. In fact, that will probably make it more believable. But get used to doing it." He looked her over. "Now, the question is how tall are you going to be, and what sort of figure will you have. If you're too short and curvy, it will be very difficult to pass you off as a man when you're older." Avis had only started to fill out, and couldn't guess what she might look like as an adult. Her mother was on the thin side, but she wasn't sure if that was natural or from lack of food. She knew she would be tall, though. She had always been tall for her age. She proudly said, "I'll be tall. I'll be as tall as you." "I highly doubt that, but I am tall. If you're lucky, you'll take after me in height and maybe you can be as tall as an average man at best." Faolán said. Avis confidently countered his words. "No, I'm going to be as tall as you. I'm positive." "You can't really do anything about that. What you end up with is what you end up with. There's no getting around it." Her words were entirely childish, but she believed it. She had to be tall. Avis didn't consider it an option. "I will. I'll be the same height as you." In two years' time, Avis had kept her word, as impossible as it should have been. She had grown to be the exact same height as her father, though with a more slender build. Next to the knights and squires, she was on the upper end for height and completely towered over some of the teenage boys. While she boasted to her father about her height, he didn't care. Talking to her father about anything, Avis learned, was not very different than it had been with her mother. Training had gotten more intense as she got older. Whenever she thought she was making good progress, he found a way to make training even harder. The worst kind of training was when that lined up with a certain time of the month. She had avoided letting her father know about that. It was an awkward subject to bring up, and she kept it hidden well enough. One particularly bad morning, she felt completely drained the moment she woke up and her body was already in pain. She considered telling him she was too sick to do any training that day, but she knew her father wouldn't allow such an excuse. He would come down on her even harder if he knew her real reasoning. Avis forced herself to get up and get ready. "I can do this. I can't let him see me as weak." As expected, her abilities suffered severely. Faolán noticed quickly. "Feeling under the weather today?" Avis's breathing had gotten heavy after an hour of training. "I'm fine." "I've noticed a pattern. You seem to feel ill frequently when there's a full moon." Her father gave no hint of concern for her physical condition as he struck at her again. Avis countered, but just barely. The weight of the sword in her hand felt greater with each swing, and she was starting to lose her balance. "That is a coincidence." "Is that so?" He knocked the sword from her. As she looked over to where it had fallen, he hit her stomach with the hilt of his sword. Avis dropped to the ground in pain. Faolán kicked her sword over to her. "Any weakness will end your life. If you can't mask it, you will be defeated. If not by your enemy noticing, by your own loss of skill. Work through the fatigue and pain. You will know far greater agony in a real fight." Avis picked up her sword and lunged at him. Halfway to him, she got disoriented and fell forward. Her sword hit the ground again as her father caught her. She couldn't keep a hold of her thoughts, and remaining conscious was difficult. Faolán removed one of his gloves and felt the side of her face and then her forehead. "So, you have a fever too. How disoriented are you?" "I'm not. I can..." Avis could barely manage her words. It wasn't usually this bad. Avis ran through the last few days in her mind, contemplating what she might have done differently to weaken herself at such a critical time. "Don't lie to me." Faolán held on to her as he picked up her sword for her. He put in her hand and helped her stand back up. "Concentrate on your thoughts. No matter how scattered they become, you must refocus them. Even if it's only briefly, keep forcing yourself to realign the contents of your mind. It takes only a second of miscalculation to lose everything. When you are weakened, your greatest enemy is yourself. Never stop fighting yourself." Avis swung her sword again only for it to slip from her hands. With the clank of the metal on the ground, Avis feel to her knees soon after. She tried to catch her breath. "You're done for today." He picked up her sword for her. "No, I can still..." Avis grabbed at his sleeve. He sheathed her sword for her. "That's enough for now. We can continue tomorrow." "Wait...I'm not done..." "If we continue, you won't have enough strength to walk back own your own. I'm not carrying you back." He started to walk away from her. Avis struggled to get back up on her feet. He stopped and waited for her. "Here's another lesson for you. If you're too weak to win and you can leave, do it. You're at your limits. Go rest." Faolán was usually unconcerned with her, but she noticed he was intentionally walking slower than usual. He kept looking back at her over his shoulder. Avis pretended not to notice. She wasn't sure what this meant. When she reached her room, she collapsed on her bed. Now that she was resting, her body started feeling better. A bath would have been good, she thought, but Avis didn't have any energy left to take one. With her fever starting to subside, she retraced the last week. She had skipped breakfast several days to hurry along with training, and skipped lunch a few times as well. Avis reasoned that had made her weaker than usual. It seemed insignificant at the time. Her father likely would scold her for thinking so lightly of her physical condition. Once the sun had set, there was a knock at her door. Her father came into the room carrying a tray. He set the tray down on the bed. "What's this?" Avis sat up. "I brought you some broth and rose tea." He sat down and handed her the drink. Avis accepted it and took a sip. "Why?" "We're continuing tomorrow. You need to regain your strength as quickly as possible." After a moment of silence between them, he added, "Don't take this as an act of kindness. I'm simply doing what is necessary to continue our training." "You know, it's unnecessary to say such things. It makes it look like you're lying." Avis smiled. She wasn't sure what his real motives were. She decided to assume the best. "You can believe what you want. It's not my problem if you want to be a fool." He pulled up the bottom of her shirt and touched her stomach. His hand was strangely hotter than it usually was. "I didn't injure you here, did I?" "No, I don't think so." She considered jokingly telling him that she may never give him grandchildren now, but didn't think he would find it amusing. "Are you in pain?" "Not any more than normal. Actually, it feels a little better right now. You're very warm." The heat was easing her pain. "I usually am." He felt her forehead with the back of his other hand. "How's your fever?" "It's gone now." Faolán got up from the bed. "I'll see you in the morning then. You should turn in after you finish eating." "I will." Avis didn't know what to make of her father's behavior. He had been so cold and aggressive to her before. What was different about today, she wondered. This apparent kindness didn't continue into the next day. Things returned to how they were before. No matter what she did, he was never impressed with her. He didn't care about anything. When he ate, there was no joy or disgust. Gifts didn't sway him. Even the way he looked at people was completely empty. It wasn't an unfamiliar feeling. Avis was used to her mother's loveless way of parenting, and Mahli never showed her anything but disdain. As much as she was confused by him, she secretly hoped he might come to love her as his child. At the very least, she hoped for something other than indifference. When she was sixteen, she worked up the courage to confront him about this after one of their training sessions. She followed him back to his room instead of her own. He didn't bother to tell her to leave. It was an unspoken feeling between them that this issue was at a breaking point. Avis could no longer be content not knowing. She kept her voice steady despite her anxiousness. "People say your heart is the only part of you that's cold. Why is that?" "It's best if I don't care for anything." He simply said. "Why are you so against caring about others? Are you afraid someone will become your weakness?" He opened the doors to his balcony. "In a way, but not how you're thinking of it." "Father, please, explain to me. All these years, I've been here and I don't understand you any more than the day I met you. Why do you keep up a wall around you?" Avis followed him out onto the balcony. "If you really want to know, then I suppose I have no choice but to tell you. But, think carefully if you wish to know the answer. I know what you're after. I can see it in the way you look at me. You can't bond with me, and I can't give you love. And when I answer your question, you will only feel hatred for me." He had cut straight to what was weighing on her mind. Avis took a deep breath. "I will be the judge of that." "It is your choice, but you know what they call me. Are you prepared for what you are about to hear?" "I am." There was no going back now. She had to know the truth, no matter what it was. "Very well, but it is a very long tale." Faolán shut the doors of the balcony and stood by the edge facing the full moon. The moon illuminated the emptiness around them. Avis stayed close to him, unsure what was about to happen. He looked over at her before turning his gaze outward. "When I was a child, I met a fairy out in the garden one night. It was one of my younger brother's birthdays, but I had gotten bored at the party and went outside. When I was playing near the edge of the garden walls, a woman approached me. I thought she was a human at first. But when she drew close to me, I knew what she was. She kept most of herself hidden behind a dark cloak, and the night covered the rest of her. Only part of her face was visible from the moonlight, and those wings of hers that shone like stars. She offered me a rose to give to my younger brother for his birthday, the petals as dark as blood. Knowing what she was, I refused. That was what I had been told to do by the men of the church. Fairies are no different than demons, wicked heathens who want to corrupt and use me. I told her I wouldn't give my brother a gift from a monster. I regretted my words as soon as they left my mouth. That woman had the most horrid grin on her face. She laughed at me and said, 'Monster, am I? The only monster here is you.' I told her that was impossible. I was a good child, and went to church frequently. I never committed any sin. The rose in her hand caught fire. It burned until nothing but ash remained. She was untouched by the flames. 'All who walk this earth can be monsters. I will show you how much of a monster you can be.' She blew the ashes of the rose onto me. In that moment, my entire body burned. The pain subsided from most of my body. All of it poured into my heart. It was so painful I wanted to die. I remember looking up and seeing her looming over me. She burned the flowers around us and spread the ash into the air. It swirled around until a picture formed in it of a man. The fairy slipped behind me and whispered to me. 'I've given you a special gift, one to make you understand what it truly means to be a monster. Every time you think a single selfless thought, your body will burn. The kinder the thought, the deeper the burn. The only thing that will lessen your pain is complete selfishness. And should you ever perform a completely selfless act, the fire burning inside you will engulf you until there's nothing left. Now boy, do you really think you can stay pure?' I yelled at her. 'That's not fair. How is that supposed to prove anything? You're forcing me to have to do bad things!' She only laughed at me more. 'I'm not forcing you to do anything. If you really don't want to become a monster, the answer is obvious. But I have more gifts for you, little one. Listen...' The image of the man in the ash bore a mark on his back, the face of a wolf. The fairy continued. 'So all may know you as a monster, you will bare this mark. You are the wolf lurking just out of sight, the beast mothers warn their daughters of. Your face may hide who you are, but your back will bare the truth. For every cruel action you take, this mark will become clearer as the fire escapes out of you. And as all will see you for what you are, no one you love will ever return your feelings. The first woman you will come to love...' A silhouette of a young woman appeared in her magic. It was your mother, but I didn't know her yet. 'She will hate you most of all, but no other woman will ever bare you a child. Three by her you will have, and only three you will ever have.' The image changed to two men. I could see them both clearly, unlike the other visions she showed me that night. One of them was kneeling before the other. That one looked like me. The other one looked like a foreigner, and an aristocrat by his attire. They were underneath a rowan tree. 'The first one,' she said, 'will never walk the lands of man for long, for he belongs to us. He will not be taught your ways, and he will not grow to be like your kind. He is everything you can never be, and will not understand in your selfishness and judgement. The blood he spills will be great, but it is by mortal workings that such violence is committed.' The next image was of another man, this one standing before a tower. 'The second one will never know loyalty until he finds it in a form no one is capable of denying. He is a beast searching to be tamed, constantly wandering, seeking to satisfy his deep emptiness. He too will leave a trail of blood and destruction behind him.' The last image she showed me was of you. I know that now. There you were in a suit of armor, riding a horse ahead of a fire. For you, she said, 'And the third one, the last one, will need no guidance. Her path is clear before her, and her resolve is unbreakable. She will leave the confines of your human rules in a stream of flames. All three of your children will be loved and know a love most beings will never experience, the truest love that exists. And from that love, no children will be born. Your family line will end, and your name will be forgotten by man.' With that, the ash disappeared, and she slipped away into the darkness." Avis was shocked by this revelation. The curse disgusted her, as did the woman's actions. Her father's words had been careless that night, but Avis could not contain her contempt for someone doing something so cruel to a child. "That's a terrible thing to do to a child. But I do see two options for how to stay pure, though I dislike both choices." Faolán continued his story. "I knew the choices myself. I could become corrupted and free myself of pain, becoming a monster as she wanted. I could ignore the curse and stay good and pure, and let the curse take my life. Or I could do nothing at all, existing in a corrupted but harmless state. As you might expect, I was far too afraid of dying to take the noble path, but I didn't want to commit evil either. So, I tried to take the middle route between them. I learned a lot about myself and the nature of man by choosing that route. I had to consider every action I did. To my surprise, quite a lot of behaviors I expected to be selfless did not cause me any pain. As I became aware of my thoughts, I came to realize how often actions I did for others carried traces of selfish desires in them. Giving a flower to a girl because I wanted her to like me, helping out an adult because I wanted them to praise me...so many of my thoughts were at their core about me more than others. I started to feel safer. Then one night, my youngest brother's life was threatened. An assassin hired by an enemy of my father had been sent to kill him. I saw him coming after my brother, and I had the perfect opportunity to surprise him. My thoughts were only of how to get rid of that man and protect my brother. That was the first time since that night that my body burned. I finally had a selfless thought. If I followed through on saving him, I would die. I froze. That night, my brother died." "I am sorry." Avis considered the scenario herself. She couldn't imagine refusing to save someone, even if it meant death. But she knew most people couldn't act like that, and she reserved her judgement. After all, if she were to judge him for that, she would be judging him for simply being human. "Don't feel pity for me yet. I haven't gotten to the part you aren't going to want to hear. Do you know why they call me the Black Wolf of Cailean?" His voice lowered. There was something fragile in his last few words. "Is it for the mark the fairy put on your back?" "No, it isn't, even if that's what that woman intended to happen. I've let very few people see that. It wasn't always there either. The mark didn't appear until after I committed evil, and it wasn't as clear then. It becomes darker and more pronounced in regards to my actions. It is a suitable mark though, and serves to tell people exactly what my original crime was. Child, do you know how you came to be in this world?" He asked what she feared he would. At the back of her mind, she knew the answer. There was always a hint of what it was that she quietly kept hidden away in her mind. She couldn't bring herself to say it, and looked away from him. He took her silence as acknowledgment and continued. "I met your mother when she was taking a walk. She used to walk between my home and the edge of the forest on her way between villages. I happened to be playing by the woods that day. I remember thinking when I saw her, I'd never seen such a beautiful girl before. She wore this beautiful red cloak. It looked too expensive for a peasant, but I never asked her how she got it. I asked her to play with me, but she was busy. I asked her every time we met until one day she agreed to play with me, but only after she had finished all of her chores for the day. We agreed to meet in the woods at night. Nearly every night, I met with her. We played around under the moonlight and stars. She was a strange girl for me to be around. While I held a deep hatred for fairies, she loved them. She knew everything about them, how to gain their favor, how to outwit them. I was fascinated by her knowledge, despite my hatred. I wanted to see them how she did. Like a lot of young girls, she longed to see a unicorn and she wanted her wishes granted by a mermaid. Our play time soon became me listening to her stories. She became the first and only friend I ever had. I thought it might be alright, given how full of selfishness my thoughts were towards other children I played with and girls I had crushes on. I was wrong." "What changed?" He leaned forward, his eyes looking down over the side of the balcony. "I fell in love with her, though I didn't comprehend it at the time. There is a vast difference between the intensity of infatuation and the depth of love. You haven't been in love with anyone yet, have you?" "No, I haven't..." Avis hadn't had time to think of such things. Her every thought up until now had primarily focused on her training. In her current situation, even entertaining the idea of a relationship was absurd. "I'm sure you will come to know it in time." He looked up at the moon. "When it starts, everything is perfect, being around them makes you happy and nervous. That feeling is only temporary. If there's no deeper substance to the feeling, it ends there. It becomes love if you want to stay in spite of that perfect feeling leaving, and in spite of the pain being with them can cause you. Romantic love and friendship share far more in common than infatuation and romantic love do. As we were already friends, it was hard for me to notice the transition of my feelings. The period of that intensity didn't last long for me, and I assumed my devotion to her changing merely meant I thought of her as my best friend. And truly, that wasn't inaccurate either. I still didn't realize it when my body started to burn every time I met with her. I endured through it then. I didn't care if it hurt a little. So long as I wasn't dying, I could endure that much. The change in the focus of my thoughts was obvious. I had to add selfishness back into them to subdue the pain. I didn't mind that she may not like me more if I gave her flowers, but when the pain came, I would add in, 'but I hope she does'. Foolish as it sounds, yes, I still didn't grasp yet how I actually felt. My body was making the transition to adulthood, and my thoughts started to become more adult-like as well. I was still mostly wanting to hold hands at that age, but I looked at her differently than before. That was when I came to understand it. One night, she told me her parents had arranged a husband for her the previous year. Her wedding was originally planned for when she was older, but he was pushing the wedding to be sooner since he was in poor health at the time. Her family agreed to her marrying sooner. She told me that night as we were sneaking off together, and that she couldn't come see me any more. I was furious. I wanted her to stay with me. I remember telling her we should run away together, but she was too scared to run away...That was the night that I...that was the night our first child was conceived." Avis's chest felt tight and she felt sick. "I don't understand. You say you were her friend and you loved her. Why did you hurt her?" "I didn't want to hurt her. My every thought was of her. I loved her more than anyone..." "And she didn't love you back. Is that why? You just had to have her before someone else did?" Avis lashed out in her mother's defense. "It wasn't that. I was also very young then. Count back. Your oldest brother is ten years older than you, and you know how old I am. How old was I when he was conceived?" Avis sat and counted in her head. The number she arrived on turned her stomach. "Thirteen or fourteen...?" Faolán's voice grew softer as he told more of the story. "I was still very much a child myself and my understanding of the world was very limited. I didn't fully comprehend what I had done to her until I was older. All I actually wanted was for her to stay with me. I offered to let her marry me instead when she refused to run away with me, so she could live peacefully in my home never having to work again. She didn't believe that I was serious. That night, I confessed to her and she looked at me like I had committed the greatest betrayal to her then and there. 'I thought you were my friend,' she said to me. 'I am. And I also love you, with all my heart. Please, stay with me.' She turned away from me. 'You only want me for yourself.' I knew I should have let her go back home. I had confessed so suddenly at a time like that, of course she would be upset with me. I shouldn't have said anything about it. I considered telling her that I could find another way for her to escape, even if it wasn't with me. Even though that was how marriage and adulthood was, I didn't want her to be burdened with that. I wanted to set her free. It was at that thought, as I was about to speak those words, that my body burned in a way it hadn't before. This was more intense than that night with my younger brother. What I was about to offer her would be committing a selfless act. I still wanted to do it, despite the pain. I forced myself to say, "I'm sorry. If you don't wish to see me again, it's alright. Please, let me free you. I will give you any..." The more I spoke, the more pain I caused myself. I couldn't finish speaking. When I looked down at my body, I was terrified. Cracks started to appear on my skin. I could see the red hot fire underneath. My strong resolve fell apart like it was nothing. I did the most wicked thing I could think of at the time, hoping to undo it. I can still clearly remember what her screams sound like. That was the only time she ever screamed when I did it. I can remember the light of the full moon shining down on us. I stained her skin with the same red as her beautiful cloak. With every attempt at freeing herself from me, I left cuts and scratched. I ripped her dress to shreds. That night, the mark appeared. Her parents held the wedding for her and that man three days later." He did not face her as he spoke. The emptiness that was usually there in him had changed completely to something she didn't recognize. "Don't entertain any conflicting feelings for me, certainly not pity. That wasn't the end of my wickedness. Once I had committed that sin, I stopped caring altogether. When I wanted something, I took it. Whether that meant forcing myself on some girl or killing someone for having an item I wanted. I didn't care. Throughout the rest of my teenage years, I endlessly tormented everyone around me. Your mother was my only repeat victim. I couldn't care to pay attention to anyone else for more than the immediate moment. In time, I came to be satisfied by nothing. My cruelty only comes out now when I need to counteract a thought. As I care for nothing, that rarely occurs. Don't mistake that as me trying to be kind again. That wasn't a willing decision. I simply stopped caring entirely." "Did you though? My mother, you still visited her. Why do you continue to torture her alone?" With two older brothers aside from herself, her parents had three children together, and her oldest brother was ten years older than her. Her father had been tormenting her mother for over a decade. "She still invades my thoughts. Every now and then, I get the idea in my head that I need to go and offer her my life in exchange for what I've done. But when I see her, I repeat the cycle. It has always been like that with her." She could hear the bitterness and self-hatred in his words. Avis calmed the anger that had been building inside her. She reminded herself of the virtues she valued. As much pain as he had caused her mother and others, if she wanted to be a good knight, she needed to listen and push him. "You said you didn't care for anyone. You're still in love with her." "I've slept with many women hoping to drown out my thoughts of her. In the end, I can only think of her. And she will always hate me, as she should. With her, it doesn't matter if I care. It's a pointless feeling." Avis put her hand on his. "It would be best if you don't try to give her your life. Leave her be. If you wish to end your life, do it another way." "I want her to end my life." He spoke, a deep desperation in his words. "Is that not still your own selfishness?" She countered. "...I suppose you're right." The moon reflected brightly in his eyes. "I won't visit her again. That is what I should do for her at least, isn't it?" "Yes, I think so. Leave her be." Avis had managed without harming anyone to end her mother's cycle of torment. "I'm sure there is some other good you could do." Faolán moved his hand away from hers. "I think the only good I could do would be to put a noose around my neck." Avis felt guilty as she stood there with him. No matter how she dressed up the words about selflessness and goodness, she was instructing him on dying. The path left for her didn't satisfy her own sense of justice. She wanted to undo his curse so he could be free to do more than a single selfless act. As much as she hated what he had done, she couldn't bring herself to be angry either. All that came was pity, for both of her parents. He could tell her not to interpret his actions in any kind light, but she didn't believe him. "You aren't as heartless as you make yourself out to be." "I'm a coward. That's far worse. You would have gladly died that day if you were in my place. You are truly like a knight from a fairytale. I can see it in you. I suppose that makes that woman wrong though. Not everyone can become a monster. She and I just both happened to be ones." "I don't know if that's true either. And you were wrong. I don't hate you." Avis drew closer to him. "If you don't hate me, you are seeing goodness where there is not." "No, you are denying it to ease your own guilt. By accepting yourself as a monster, you alleviate the burden of changing. If her words hold any truth, and anyone can become a monster, then it is a choice. Surely, any monster can also choose to become good." Avis spoke with everything in her, saying the words she held most dearly in her own heart. "You're wasting your time, holy knight. It would be better spent rescuing princesses from other wolves." Her father was not impressed. He took hold of Avis's hand and put it to his neck. "Or perhaps, you should slay me." "That is still your own selfishness. If I kill you right now, the only pain I will alleviate is your own." She pulled her hand away. "You see everything, don't you?" He patted her on the head. "You're too kind for your own good. I wonder if that will destroy your heart one day." "I won't allow it." Avis gave no thought to that suggestion. "Father, how many people know about your curse?" "Aside from the woman who cursed me, only you, little flame. I've never told anyone else about this." Avis felt a little special when he said that. "Why not?" "I don't want any sympathy. If they knew, people might forgive actions I have committed that are unforgivable. I don't want that. You have to promise to keep this a secret." "I promise." After that night, Faolán seemed softer to her. He tried to hide it, but it was obvious to her. She wasn't completely sure how she felt about the things he had done in the past. At times, the anger returned, and at others, it was only sadness for the entire situation. It disturbed her that her father could commit such actions, especially to anyone he loved. Fear was such a controlling power over humans. Was there a fear inside of her that could lead her into such a destructive path? While her feelings remained conflicted and confused, she maintained her goals. Regardless of how she felt, she made it her duty to help him correct his ways. There had to be something she could do. She wondered about the extent of his thought manipulation on protecting himself, and what true selflessness really was. His insistence on what his thoughts underlying motivations were intrigued her. How much of what she did was selfless? In her case, wanting to be a chivalrous knight, if she helped people--was it for them, or in part for herself? On another full moon, after another intense training session, she shared the evening with her father over rose tea on his balcony. He had his guard down that night. Avis took advantage of it to get more information out of him about their family. "Tell me about my brothers. You must know more about them." She said. "Mother had mentioned Luke a few times, but I didn't know I had two siblings until I met you." "I'm not surprised she wouldn't talk about the first one." Avis sat by him, patiently waiting to hear the story. For this, she hoped it wouldn't disturb her as much as the last one. Faolán poured her another cup of tea. "Your eldest brother was spirited away by a naiad when he was an infant. When she told me that, it was the only time I ever saw any happiness in your mother after that moonlit night. He stayed in their world until he was ten. Then he returned to human lands seeking someone. The first time I met your oldest brother, he showed up in my garden one day demanding I acknowledge him as my son. I couldn't deny he was if he went around claiming such. He looked identical to me when I was a child. Your mother, Flannán, hadn't brought him nor had that nymph who snatched him away. He'd come on his own. He wanted to become a knight to serve a specific prince. I agreed to do what he wanted, since I saw no point in refusing him. I went with him to meet with the father of that prince, King Argus, who rules the lands north of here. He was visiting nearby at the time, as if the boy knew exactly when to find me. I'm sure those fairies had a hand in arranging that. The king was surprised to see me, as I don't serve him, but one of his allies, King Silvanus. I told him what my son wanted, and he was as confused as I was since the two boys had never met before. I understood it when I watched the two of them meet. When they met, I could feel a shift in the energy of the room. I remember specifically what your brother said to him that day. He didn't ask to serve him. 'Let me stay by your side for eternity.' That was what he said to him. It was ridiculous to hear such words from a ten year old. The prince was just as absurd with his words. 'You may have me for eternity if I may have you for eternity, but only if for eternity.' I don't think either of them understood what they were saying to each other. They were far too young. I knew this, but I also knew the future that was to come for my son. Even though they had never met before, he had offered himself in such a binding way. That prince couldn't be anyone else but the other man in that vision. The king assumed the two merely wanted to be good friends. There was no room for me to pretend it was not what it was after what happened next. Your brother did what I understood as an act that had meaning only to the kind who raised him. 'I accept. Give me your name, and you may have mine to keep.' 'I am Rowan. And your name?' 'My name is Robin. I won't let anyone else have you.' I left him in the care of the King, as the two boys refused to be separated after that." "I don't understand what that means." Avis tilted her head. "Names are very sacred to fairies. To give someone your name is to give them power over you. It is often reserved only among those closest to them, or those who have tricked it out of them. In a way, he was saying 'let me have all power over you'. A very arrogant request, and a risky one to return. The boy couldn't have known what that really meant, as such things hold no meaning in our realm. I had to wonder if he planned on stealing that boy away to a place it would." He continued. "I didn't see him or that prince again until they were much older. The prince was asking for my assistance in battle. Your brother stood beside him loyally, but refused to look me in the face. Come to think of it, he refused to look at much of anyone other than the prince. He put on a good act of being human, but there was something as off about him as the day I met him. I haven't seen him since that day." Avis wanted to know more about this mysterious older brother of hers. She asked, "Is there anything else? Where is he now?" "He is still serving that prince, as far as I know. He has quite a reputation." He offered to pour Avis another drink. She declined. She was too wrapped up in listening to the story to drink anything. "Your brother had acquired a title in that time, the Hellhound. From what I heard, it was rare for him to participate in battle. The prince ordered him not to. But when he did, the battlefield would be flooded with blood. I came to understand what the fairy meant about his violent nature." Avis thought to herself, 'Doesn't that mean he too became a monster?' Her father never addressed her eldest brother as such, but she couldn't understand why. He continued on to her other brother. "That's all I know about that one. Now, your other brother, Luke...that boy, what a mess. He came here shortly after your eldest brother. He only wanted to be a knight. I trained him up as such, but he didn't stay here long. He grew bored of me and wished to train under someone else and serve another king. So I let him go. From what I heard, after he left here, he spent most of his time drinking and looking for any bed other than his own to sleep in. As at night, during the day, he was never satisfied with anyone's company for long. He wasn't quite as destructive as I was. He didn't take anything by force. No, he was quite good at making people beg for his time. All his destructiveness was inflicted on himself. Several years after he left my care, I met him in a tavern. I took a seat beside him. He didn't look at me, so he had no idea who I was. 'You're going to need to buy me a drink before you start talking.' I was surprised that he didn't even look at who had sat down beside him before he said that. I expected him to have more standards than that, but he was clearly already drunk to begin with. 'I see you haven't changed much, son.' The way he looked at me then was a look of pure disgust. 'Well, well, I didn't expect you to come here to a place like this. Isn't terrorizing village women more your way? What do you want, anyway?' 'I just happened to be passing by and saw you.' I said. 'Well, you saw me. Now, if you have nothing else to say to me, be on your way. You're interrupting my fun.' He didn't want anything to do with me, so I let him be. No sooner did I stand up did another man take my seat and buy him a drink. I had heard how much he drunkenly whored around, but I'm not one to put too much belief in rumors. He had no shame in flirting with the man who sat down beside him. The two of them left the tavern long before I did." A pattern dawned on Avis. "Wait...both my brothers...only care for men? No children..." "A rather amusing joke on my fate. I have two sons fully capable of having children who only want to be embraced by someone they can never have children with. That leaves your situation to be uncovered. Fate loves sets of threes. Tell me girl, will it be three?" He leaned over to her and grinned. "What do you...are you asking me if I..." Avis's face flushed. "That is an indecent question." "I won't tell any priests. Of course, they wouldn't find it indecent unless they knew our secret. Actually, it would be more convenient for you if you kept your eyes on women since you are pretending to be a man." "I gaze upon no one. My heart is dedicated to justice." She downed her tea. He laughed. "You're far too young to be saying that. Wait a little while. If not love, you'll be wanting something else in time." "I would never! I don't have a need for such things." Avis put her nose in the air at the very suggestion. "That is easy for someone who's never fallen for anyone to say." It became a habit of theirs, particularly on days when training ended early, for the two of them to spend the evenings together simply talking. Faolán soon ran out of stories to tell, but Avis always found something for them to talk about. Her father still maintained that he didn't care about anything despite the laughter they shared. One day, when they were conducting a training exercise just beyond their home, the truth became impossible for Faolán to deny. The focus of the training was on climbing. For hours, Avis practiced. She didn't have any trouble during the actual training. Around sunset, Faolán decided it was enough for the day. The two of them rested at the top of the cliff for a while and talked as they usually did after training. "It's getting late. Let's head back." Faolán got up. "Alright." As Avis went to stand up, her feet slipped. Avis fell backward off the side of the cliff. Out of instinct, Faolán grabbed hold of Avis and pulled. His feet started to slip over the edge of the cliff. Midway through pulling her up, he stopped. His face could not disguise the pain he was feeling. His grip weakened. "You have to pull yourself up. I can't do it..." Avis realized what was happening. "Does it count if you stay still and I use you to get back up?" "I...I don't know...We can try that." Faolán stayed in place, loosening his grip on her. Avis grabbed a hold of his wrist and pulled herself up using his arm. She toppled forward onto the ground. Her father fell to his knees beside her. The sleeves of his shirt were stained with red. Avis panicked. "Please, don't die!" He clawed at his back. "I'm not dying...it's just...burning. It'll stop soon." The back of his shirt too turned red with blood. Avis helped him up. "Let me tend to your wounds." "There's no need for that." Blood dripped from his clothes onto the ground. "Please, let me help you!" Avis pleaded. "I need water. It's the only thing that dulls the pain a little." There were no waterways on the path back and no one around to help them get home quicker. Avis didn't know what to do. Nothing she could do then would help him. It pained her to see anyone in such a state of pain. His entire shirt had turned completely red by the time they returned. If no one else knew about the curse, she wondered what the servants must be thinking. She shook that thought from her mind. That wasn't important. She needed to get him water. Avis took him back to his room and ordered the servants to bring her several buckets of water, rags, and a tub. After she filled the tub, she had him get in it. She washed off his upper body. His arms had thin cuts along them and his back was so drenched in blood she couldn't see any wounds at all. She poured an entire bucket of water onto him. The water turned to steam on contact. As she washed off his back, the mark became visible to her. The face of a wolf covered the entirety of his back. Seeing the mark in person seemed too strange to be real. Avis poured another bucket of water onto his back. The tub overflowed with water. She washed the mark on his back. On closer inspection, the mark was really a deep burn wound shaped like a wolf. The raised scars were hardened and thick, and the centers were pitch black from his skin having been so deeply singed. As she washed, bits of the most heavily burnt skin flaked away to expose open flesh. Blood oozed out. She quickly grabbed a cloth to hold over it. "I'm sorry. I've opened up one of your wounds." "It's alright. They break open all the time. My shirts are usually stained with blood at the end of the day." Avis knew the servants had to have noticed this. She wanted to hit herself for not noticing all this time. "That must be very painful." "I don't really notice it any more." When she finished washing him, she carefully bandaged his wounds. "There's no need for that. They'll open up again soon enough." She took care not to wrap them too tightly. "That's no reason not to take care of yourself." "Do as you wish." After that day, Avis requested to wash his back and redress his bandages daily. As more time passed, her father opened up to her more about his troubles and she in turn did the same. There was still a large distance between them that she was unable to close. For the time being, she was content with what she had. It was more than she ever had as a child. Her training sessions, though still as strenuous as ever, were more enjoyable. She could make jokes with him and get him to smile at times. She dared not say it aloud, but in her heart, she considered him her father and her friend. The dark past they shared never left her mind, but she reminded herself of the virtues she held dear. It wasn't her place to judge other's misdoings. It was her duty to lead them back on the right path. That was the kind of life she wanted to live. Her father's gradual change gave her a glimmer of hope for her mother as well. Perhaps, one day, she could return and try to open up her mother's heart. While she wanted to make the world a better place by changing the hearts around her, she couldn't deny the selfishness she kept within herself. If not her mother or father, she wanted someone she could embrace freely. Near her eighteenth birthday, her father approached her about a sudden change for their situation. He woke her early in the morning. "I have good news for you. We're moving in with King Silvanus." Avis hadn't dressed herself properly yet. Her hair was a complete mess. She pushed the tangled strands in her face aside and yawned. "We're what? Why?" "Tensions among the kingdoms are high right now. The king wishes for his best men to be close by." He sat down on her bed. He handed her a brush. "Also, as a test of your abilities, the king wishes to give you a task to fulfill." Avis's eyes lit up at this. "The king does? But we have never met." "It doesn't matter. As far as he knows, you are my son. That's a good enough recommendation." "What is the task?" Avis brushed her hair. "You've been assigned to guard his daughter, Princess Flora. That sounds like the sort of task you would enjoy, doesn't it? You get to protect a maiden from intruders." Avis got out of bed. She picked out her clothes for the day. "How old is the princess?" "About your age, actually. It should do you some good to be around other women for a while instead of me all the time." "She won't know I'm a woman though." Avis picked out her nicest set of clothes to wear. Though she was pretending to be the son of a wealthy man, due to the nature of her training, most of her clothes were more on the ragged side. She also had a bad habit of not being particularly gentle with her clothing in general. "That hardly matters. I suppose in time too we shall know if it's a set of three." Her father came up from behind her. He pulled her hair back and braided it for her. "If what's..." Avis realized what he meant. Her cheeks burned. "Why must you be indecent?!" "And here I thought I had found the perfect gift for your eighteenth birthday." He teased. "You're ridiculous." Avis rubbed her eyes, still a little sleepy. He finished her braid and tied off her hair. "And what are you doing?" "If I'm going to see a princess, I should look my best." Avis said shyly. Faolán smirked. "So, three it is." "It is not!" They packed up their things and left that same morning. King Silvanus's castle was not far from their home. A few hours by carriage, and they had arrived. As the castle came into view, Avis's heart pounded in her ears. Her father sensed her nervousness and put his hand on her shoulder. "Remember your training and calm yourself. In battle, your greatest enemy is yourself." Avis was not afraid of the king. In her mind, all she could think of was the princess.
II. In the Garden