II. In the Garden
The only child of King Silvanus and being a girl, Princess Flora had only ever been seen as an asset for her father to negotiate with. He didn't need to tell her he wished he had a son instead. The way he kept her locked away from the public said everything. He called her his precious treasure to the masses, and she found it quite fitting. To him, she was no different than the crown he wore on his head or the gold that decorated his throne. Flora's mother, Sarah, had died giving birth to her. Her father's second wife, Maria, after several failed pregnancies, died in her last one. The child could not be saved. His third wife, Lana, had several miscarriages, and the three children she was able to give birth to died of illness within their first year. Just that year, Lana had lost another baby. The people whispered Flora had cursed them. A rumor spread around that she was a changeling come to cause misfortune for all. As time went on, her father kept his distance more. Her castle prison was her sanctuary. She spent all her time guarded away in a small castle directly beside her father's own, behind stone walls she was forbidden to leave. At the back of the castle, she stayed in the old garden. She always loved flowers, but she had another reason for staying there. Unknown to her servants and guards, a part of the old wall was broken there--enough for her to escape at times. The garden had long disguised this secret exit on both sides. As everyone's eyes were always on the entrance, she would run off into the forest beyond the walls when she wanted to get away. Still, she always returned home. There was nowhere for her to go, and no way she could free herself. An invisible chain had been placed on her when she entered the world. When her father finally had her go through with her arranged marriage, she would leave this place forever and be kept in a new prison. Until that day, Flora decided she would keep tending to the flowers as she always had and ignore the world beyond her walls. Time was fleeting. She may not ever have what she dreamt of, but for now, at least she could still dream. Her father had visitors at this time. They were people coming to help with the war rather than that man who was her fiancé. She didn't expect any to come her way. On this day, there was a wolf in the garden. She recognized this beast in human form. He often spoke kindly to her father or anyone else he wished to persuade. At other times, he was ruthless and apathetic, taking anything he could for himself without care. He went by the name of Faolán, and they called him the Black Wolf. He bore the symbol of a wolf in flames, his clothes in colors of black, gray, and red. His hair was the color of the sun, the only brightness in his appearance, to lure in his victims. His eyes were the same shade as wood, matching perfectly with the casket those who were less fortunate in their meetings with him would soon come to know. Those who were not born of noble birth saw him as a devil, a beautiful Lucifer walking through their home looking for souls to take with him. The noblemen loved him. They found his cruelty to the lower class people to be entertaining. Her father considered him his favorite knight and always spoke highly of him. He was, as her father put it, "exactly what the kingdom needs". Her servant girls hid whenever he was near. The Black Wolf had a particular taste for women. Most of his general violence knew no target. Anyone in his way would suffer. However, if the wolf was seeking to satisfy his lust, the hunt began. The girls told her those attacked for that often were more likely to live than the others, but wished for death instead. From the rumors spread around, he didn't care if he took a noblewoman or even princess. Flora didn't believe all of that. Faolán was definitely an ordinary human, though there was something bewitched about him. None of her servants had ever been attacked by him either. She assumed there was a great deal of truth in what sort of things people spoke in low voices, but whispers are easy to mishear. That didn't stop her from distrusting him. Truth or a lie, she knew there was something strange about him. She had no intentions of openly greeting the Black Wolf into her personal realm. As he approached her, she prepared herself. The princess pulled a dagger from underneath her sash. Faolán grabbed her by the wrist and forced open her palm. The dagger dropped to the ground. He laughed at her. "I've slain hundreds of men. Do you really think I'd let a little girl do me in with such a tiny blade?" "Let go of me, beast!" Flora yelled loudly. She knew he wouldn't listen to her, but someone else might hear her. She struggled hard to get free. The difference in their strengths was too vast for her to escape. "Calm yourself. I haven't come to violate you, if that's what you're thinking. You belong to my employer. I would only do so under his order, and you've already been arranged to be traded off to the prince to the east." He let go of her. "Besides that, you're a child. I have no interest in someone so young." "I am not a child. I'll be seventeen in less than a month." "That is too young for me." Faolán picked up her dagger and returned it to her. "Lady, I've brought you a gift." Flora kept the dagger in her hands. "A gift?" "Someone to guard you and keep you company." "I don't need some man watching me." Her father already kept her in a guarded place. The idea of even more people coming in to hover around her infuriated her. "Your father has requested for someone to keep an eye on you, especially with tensions high between the kingdoms right now and the war still going. You are a very easy target." Faolán motioned to someone out of Flora's sight. "Avis, come here and greet the princess." Another person came into the garden. Flora could see the resemblance to Faolán immediately. The hair and eyes matched, and they shared many of the same facial features. This boy looked close to her age, but Flora was certain she heard that Faolán's sons were both much older than her. They carried nasty rumors about them as well. This one looked like he had never been in battle. He was timid and his movements were a little clumsy. He attempted to avoid stepping on her flowers along the way, nearly tripping a few times. Flora couldn't help but find it amusing to watch. As the man was about to bow to her, he tripped and fell on top of one of her rose bushes. He quickly got back up and dusted himself off. He attempted to bow to her again, this time on his knees. "Hello...my lady...It is a pleasure to meet you." The young man's face was bright red, and his voice hovered between a whisper and a stutter. "You are more beautiful than father said...Not that I wish to pursue you...you already being betrothed. I am here as your loyal guardian. I...I am sorry if I offended..." Faolán shook his head. "Son, pull yourself together. She's not that beautiful." "Rude!" Flora hit Faolán on the arm. He didn't notice. "Well, you're not." "But she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen." The man's hair was messy from having fallen. His braid had loosened and stray strands clung to his face. Thorns and leaves were stuck to his tabard. He was still bowing before the princess, shifting between looking at her and averting his eyes. "I am sorry, Princess. I'm sure men bother you all the time. Please, forgive me." "None have ever been as sweet as you." Flora looked closely at the man. She had suspected something was off when she watched him move. Up close, her suspicions were confirmed. "Of course, none have ever been quite so feminine either, my lady." "I...I am...sorry, but you are mistaken. I am a man!" Flora looked to Faolán. "Are you playing a trick on me? The disguise is good, but you know very well I've never been fooled by any illusion." "Keep it a secret, Princess. My daughter very much wishes to become a knight. It would be terrible if she were to lose that opportunity at this point." He smiled at her. Flora was unnerved by this display. She had only personally spoke with him a handful of times, but from what she observed from afar, he didn't bother keeping up this sort of persona to anyone who wasn't his own personal servants or noblemen. He had even been cold to her step-mother. She assumed perhaps the act was being put forward for his daughter. The woman, however, she found entertaining. She wanted to know more about this female knight-in-training. She spoke to the woman. "Very well. I accept you as my guardian. But don't think that means you, Wolf, are welcome here because I'm allowing your child to be here." "I wouldn't imagine it would. I'll leave you two alone. And my dear son, do not do anything indecent to the princess. The king will have both our heads for it." Faolán joked as he walked away from them. "I would never do such a thing!" The woman, Avis, attempted to stand up but tripped over her own feet and fell in front of Flora. "If you say so, Avis. But you and I both know...sets of three." He laughed. Flora had no idea what nonsense he was talking about. "Would you quit being so indecent!" Avis shouted. She turned back to Flora and got back into a kneeling position, keeping her eyes averted. "I am sorry you had to see that. My father has poor manners and is very inappropriate at times." "Oh, never mind him and his foolishness." Flora circled around Avis. Now that she knew the awkward stranger in her garden was a woman, she wanted a much better look at her. The armor hid away most of what she wanted to see. It was disappointing. However, Avis could not hide her face. The resemblance to Faolán was uncanny, but that man's features were far more beautiful when paired with Avis's rounder face and eyes and softer complexion. "A female knight? I quite like the idea. The armor suits you well. I wonder, how do you hide your figure when you are not wearing it?" "My clothes are cut to hide my more feminine aspects, and I keep my chest bound." "I see. That's rather unfortunate. I'm sure you're much more beautiful without the binding." Flora played with Avis's braid. Avis spoke in a very soft tone. She bowed her head even further. "Well, I don't...particularly have much to see there anyway...Training has made my chest more muscular than a normal woman." "I'm sure you would still look better that way. I'd like to see you some time without your disguise on. I don't think men's attire looks bad on you, but it's a shame you have to hide your natural figure." Flora sat in front of Avis, trying to get Avis to look at her. "I'm curious. Why do you want to be a knight?" Avis faced the ground. "I want to protect the weak and spread goodness, and always live valiantly." "Is that your real reason?" "Yes. I have wished for that as long as I can remember." "Well, you act noble enough. I have to say, you are by far the most chivalrous sounding one I've ever met. Unfortunately, that may make you ill-fitted to be a knight. I can't see your pure kindness lasting long once you see how the others behave." Flora could imagine what sort of upbringing this woman must have had to be the way she was. There was no doubt the woman before her had never been in a battle. "Princess, do not mistake me for being some naive child. I know what horrors exist in the world, but I choose not to be frightened by them. All of humanity is capable of good and evil. Even if it is difficult, I will do what I feel is right and I won't let the darkness inside others corrupt my heart. It is my hope that perhaps I can bring some light to theirs in the process." Avis's voice lost its nervousness as she spoke about her ambitions. Flora found it cute and exceptionally naive. "Very noble indeed. For your sake, I hope you can achieve such miracles. I have seen so little true kindness in my life." Avis still kept her gaze on the ground, but her words became more confident the more she spoke. "Princess, if there is any way I can lighten your burden in life, please allow me." "You are very sweet, at least. I'm afraid not even someone like you can alleviate my burden. No one can." Flora stood back up. "Isn't there any way I can make your life even a little easier?" Avis looked up at her, then quickly looked away again. Flora decided to play a joke on the knight-in-training. "Hmm...for now, how about a kiss?" "A kiss?!" Avis's voice suddenly went a higher pitch. 'So that's her real voice.' Flora laughed. She held her hand out to Avis. "On my hand." "Oh, if that is what you wish." Avis took her hand and kissed it. Flora could tell the woman was blushing even more than earlier. Her ears were red. Avis lingered there longer than she expected. "Does that satisfy you, Princess?" "Very much so, my guardian. Please, rise. I wish to see your face properly." "Yes, my princess." Avis stood up as she was instructed. She brushed aside the hair in her face. When their eyes met, Flora couldn't breathe. In that gaze, she saw beyond those earth colored eyes. Her mind was filled with water and her body was floating on a boat. What she felt wasn't love or fear, or any other such emotion. It was something too vast and overpowering for Flora to understand. The feeling consumed her. Avis was as motionless and transfixed as Flora. The green of Flora's eyes showed her a forest in flames. She could smell the woods burning. Her body was surrounded by a scorching heat. Yet, she did not fear it. It simply was, and she could not look away. A single thought existed in both of them. Avis was the first to voice it. "I want to stay with you always." Flora took hold of both of Avis's hands. "Please, stay with me." After a few moments, the intense feeling faded back and was replaced with something else. A desperation neither could explain. Avis stayed near Flora for the rest of the day. Their interactions were mostly wordless. Avis didn't know what to say to the princess, and Flora found Avis's shyness too adorable to push anything out of her. That night, when the two went to their separate rooms, Flora couldn't stop grinning. She lay in her bed daydreaming about the next day. Before she went to sleep, she took out a small box she kept hidden away. A beautiful white lily lay inside the box. She hummed an old melody she had nearly forgotten. "Are you that one?" Avis was more conflicted over the day. Her heart wouldn't stop pounding and she still felt nervous. This feeling was completely new to her. She remembered what her father told her about romance, infatuation, and friendship. What she was experiencing certainly wasn't friendly. In all her years, why was she suddenly overcome with this, she wondered. That strange vision from earlier bothered her too. The fairy woman's prophecy entered her mind. All of her father's children were supposed to find true love. She sighed and turned over in her bed. 'Or it's merely infatuation. How am I supposed to know? Surely, this isn't it. I don't even know her.' Avis put her pillow over her head in frustration. "Sets of three...ridiculous...I can't be in love." As she said this, she thought about the princess. Her every feature was already imprinted into her mind. Before she realized it, her thoughts went somewhere indecent. Embarrassed, Avis tried to push those thoughts away. Her body was already reacting to them. She threw the pillow across the room. "What's wrong with me?" No matter how she tried, the thoughts would not leave her. The second day, Avis spoke only a little more. Most of her words came out as canned and half-stuttered. "Do you n-need anything, Princess? I will get you any...anything you desire...wish for." Avis was very self-conscious about her word choice. "Ah, could you fetch me some water? That would be nice." Flora was always at peace, tending to her garden. She was patient with Avis. Years of cultivating had taught her the value of waiting. "Yes, Princess." Avis was glad for moments like this during the day. While she enjoyed being around Flora, her feelings overwhelmed her. Running errands gave her time to let those feelings subside for a while. Her internal dance of anxious joy rushed over her as soon as she would be on her way back to the princess. The shifting ebb and flow within her body grew in intensity each time she returned. Avis presented the water to Flora on her knees, her head down. That was how a knight should behave to a noblewoman. That was how it happened in the stories she loved as a child. She had no other frame of reference for what to do. Flora would giggle each time she did so. Near the end of the day, Flora offered her hand to kiss as a reward for Avis's service. Avis declined. "I can't accept that, my princess. It is my duty to serve you." "Pleasing me is part of serving me. It will please me to reward you." Flora could read well into Avis's personality. It was easy for her to find the right words to sway Avis. Avis got on her knees and kissed Flora's hand. She lingered longer than she had the first day, exactly as Flora expected. Before turning in for the night, Avis trained in her room to the point of exhaustion. She hoped to diminish her excited state. Her body was tired, but her mind remained active. She tossed late into the night. Sleep came for her briefly and then the sun was in her eyes again. Her body was not weak nor sleepy. The overwhelming feeling had increased. Before breakfast, she trained for a while again. This became a ritual of hers as the days passed. Over the next week, Avis slowly started to speak more to the princess. She was still very awkward and her anxiousness had not left her. Flora too began to try and get Avis to open up more. Flora was always sitting in the garden on a stone bench when Avis came to see her in the morning. Avis had initially kept a large distance between them. She stood a little closer each day. In the morning, she would greet her. Late into the first week, Avis stood a foot away from the bench on the side opposite of where Flora was sitting. "Good morning, Princess...did you sleep well?" Flora put her hand on the spot beside her. "Yes, I did, Avis. Come, why don't you join me down here and we can talk more?" "Ah, well, I think it would be more appropriate for me to stand...I am not worthy to sit beside you." Avis meant her words, but more than that she was too shy to sit beside the princess. "Oh, please, won't you? It would make me very happy. It's so much easier to talk to someone when they're near. Please, sit." Flora patted the spot as she begged Avis. Avis wanted to take the seat there. She couldn't get herself to do it. In her awkwardness, she kneeled before Flora instead, bowing her head deeply. "I am sorry, my princess. Will this do as a compromise?" Flora laughed. "Hardly! I can't talk with you normally if you're way down there. Oh, please, won't you sit with me?" Avis reluctantly sat at the edge of the bench. Flora allowed the distance for the time being. Avis was so nervous Flora didn't want to scare her away on accident. Avis blushed. She kept her hands between her legs. "Does this please you, Princess?" Flora picked a rose from the bush beside them and placed it between them. Avis did not know why and did not ask. The rose was a beautiful red shade. Flora kept her fingers on the petals. "Yes, this pleases me greatly. Thank you. If I may ask you for another request, will you please sit with me until lunch? The weather is very pleasant today. I'd like to enjoy the scenery with someone." "If it pleases you." Avis tapped her fingers against the bench. Flora had gone quiet after that, staring off at the flowers. Avis mimicked her. Sitting quiet like this was something she was unaccustomed to. Her days had always been busy with things to do. Sitting quietly, she didn't know what to do with herself. She shifted her eyes back and forth between the flowers and Flora to see what Flora was doing, looking for clues on how to behave herself. Flora noticed her watching. "Are you bored, Lady?" "Ah, no, Princess. And you needn't address me as Lady. My name is enough. It leaves less room for accidents." Avis pulled her arms and legs in closer to her center. "I simply have never...sat still for so long before. I'm not sure what to do." "I believe that is boredom, Avis." Flora wasn't angry. She was more amused than anything. "No, I'm not bored! I wish to enjoy what you are enjoying. I simply do not know how to do so...please, instruct me." Avis bowed her head again. "It's not a lesson to be learned. All you need to do is relax. Empty your mind and watch the wind, listen. You will understand in time." Flora spoke with a sense of wisdom Avis had never known before. "I will try." Avis did her best to follow what Flora said. She stared out at the plants before them. Flowers were pretty, but not anything she had paid so much attention to before. She knew the names of so few of them. The little birds and other small animals that visited, she knew even less of them. Most of the animals she knew were for farming, hunting, and fishing. She recognized the hare that hid behind the trunk of a mimosa tree. The tiny creature was very young. It nibbled at the clovers. The hare was surprisingly close to them. Avis had only gotten this close to one alive before while hunting once with her father. A few wrens joined the rabbit, sifting through the grass. A light wind blew through the garden. It barely moved her hair, but it was enough to push the rose between them against Avis's thigh. She picked it up without thinking. She could smell the scent of it, though it was still far from her face. As she noticed it, the rest of the garden gradually came to her attention. Each scent stood out, though she could not name what they belonged to. With every breath, she took in something new. "Isn't it beautiful?" Flora said, breaking the flow of Avis's thoughts. For a moment, without her noticing, Avis's nervousness had subsided. With only three words, Flora had brought back the tension and racing inside of her. She blanked for a moment on how to respond. "Ye-yes, Princess." "It is almost time for lunch, don't you think? Will you please escort me back?" Flora rose from the bench. "Yes, Princess." Avis placed the flower back down on the bench. Flora laughed under her breath at Avis's obliviousness. She said nothing of it. At the beginning of their second week together, Flora asked for Avis to sit with her and talk again. Avis was reluctant as she still didn't know how to behave around the princess. She kept a good amount of distance between them. Flora noticed and moved over closer to her on the bench. Avis did not try to move away nor did she get any closer. Flora placed another red rose between them. Avis looked down at it but did not touch it. Flora subtly pushed it towards Avis. "Avis, you seem like a nice person. It's hard to believe you're that man's daughter. Was your mother a kind woman?" "My mother..." Avis paused. The way she spoke suggested sadness. "She was very...cold, at times. But I think she did care. She just didn't know how to express herself well." "Where is she now?" Flora asked. "I think she's still where she was when I left. I haven't seen her in years." "Why not?" Avis pulled her knees up to her chest. "We weren't on good terms when I left, and...well, it's complicated to explain..." "I wonder then...where your kindness came from. Certainly not your father. How do you stand to be around him?" Flora asked mostly to find out more about the mysterious devil wolf. Avis would know more than her servants, though as his daughter, likely would be just as biased. Combined, Flora hoped to get a better understanding of what was the reality of the matter. "He is not cruel to me. He can be kind at times. But he is still...well, I'm hoping I can set him on the right path again. I have made some progress with him." Avis spoke more confidently about him than her mother. There was a subtle pain in her words. "Progress? You mean you're attempting to save him?" "It's my duty to do so. I wish to save everyone I can, no matter what their past or present may be." Avis spoke nobly to the point Flora had to contain her laughter. In her declaration, Avis revealed what Flora was seeking. "So, you are well aware of his crimes." "Yes. I understand why you may find him a deplorable person, and I..." Avis looked away. "My feelings about him are also...complicated..." "I suppose if you could tame that beast, perhaps you are stronger than I thought." Flora slid a little closer to Avis on the bench. Avis did not move away from her. She wanted to get closer too, but she was too embarrassed to make the move. Flora undid her sash. Inside it, she had hidden another red rose. This time, she gave it to Avis directly. "This is a gift for you." Avis hesitated to take it. "What for?" "Avis, do you know anything about the language of flowers?" She twirled the rose in her hand. "Different flowers and colors send different messages to the receiver of the gift. This is my message to you." Avis accepted the gift. "Thank you, but I am afraid I know nothing of such things." "That's alright. I can teach you about all the flowers in time. I wonder, what do you think it means?" Avis felt over the soft petals. She had an inkling of what it might mean, but she thought it too arrogant to voice. She humbly replied, "I'm afraid I don't know, Princess. I am sure you will get the message across to me in time." Flora expected that answer. It was too soon for Avis to say what she wanted to hear. She could tell by the look on Avis's face that the message had gotten across to her quite well. "I hope so. It is time for us to return back. Please, escort me to the castle." "Yes, Princess." The rose was kept in a vase by Avis's window. It was beautiful the first few days, but wilted soon after. Avis kept some of the dried petals underneath her pillow. She could not rationalize why she did it. Faolán was called away to run errands for King Silvanus frequently during the first month. With him away, Avis spent even more time alone with Flora. While she could not enjoy Flora's company too late into the night, she had started accompanying Flora on nightly walks before bed. They spoke less at night than during the day. Flora enjoyed the quietness of nighttime, and Avis was happy to be near her. Avis attempted to see the scenery as Flora did, much as she had in the garden. The night air became a familiar friend, as did the stars. One night, Flora requested something more of Avis. "May I hold onto your arm as we walk back?" "I...I'm not sure if that is appropriate...what would your father think?" Avis was glad the night hid her face. "It's alright if it's you. You were brought here to keep me safe. No one will say anything if you keep me close." "If you think it will be alright...then, please." Avis held her arm up. Flora slipped her arm around Avis's. She wanted to lean against her, but it was too early for that. Avis heard her heartbeat ringing in her ears. She knew no one would think anything of it. On some level, Avis hoped it meant something. The thought pierced through her mental defenses briefly before she shut it away again. This time, Avis walked Flora back to her bedroom door rather than to the hallway where their paths parted. Flora undid the sash around her waist and presented it to Avis. "Don't open this until you are alone." Avis kept it close to her heart. She hurried to her room. Her feet carried her on faster than her mind told her to move. Her door was kept locked as she opened the sash on her bed. Petals upon petals of red fell out across her sheets. Avis lay amongst them, taking in the scent around her. It harmonized perfectly with the night air and Flora's own scent lingering on the sash. The scent was so strong Avis' entire body burned. She fell asleep with the sash beside her pillow. In the morning, she returned the sash and thanked Flora for the gift. By the end of the first month, Avis kept no distance between her and Flora. She knew what was consuming her. It was obvious. Accepting it was another matter, regardless of how she behaved with the princess. It didn't bother her that Flora was a woman. She was more aggravated at how her entire mind was suddenly out of her control. She was simultaneously more frustrated and happier than she had ever been. Perhaps, she thought, there was someone who really would want to embrace her. Or perhaps Flora never would, or anyone at all. She laughed at that fairy woman's prophecy. "I thought I was supposed to be the one who knew what I wanted. My path is clear, right? What a joke...If this is clear, what did my brothers go through?" Avis accepted that she couldn't control her emotions at the time. In a few more months, what she was feeling now would likely start fading. There was no curse binding her to monitoring her thoughts like her father. The question remained how she would feel when the current rush of feelings calmed. While she hated losing control of herself, a part of her feared that when that time came, all of her feelings would disappear entirely. She didn't want the happiness she felt in that moment to ever fade away. Afraid, Avis wasted no moment with the princess. She navigated through her awkwardness as best as could. Her nightly training helped her sleep more easily, and her morning routine calmed her nerves somewhat. It was irrational, but Avis worried that doing such things may diminish that stream of feelings. She tried stopping for a while, but it made her too anxious. That pattern became her somewhat comfortable way of managing herself. It came over her gradually. The intensity slowly whittled down as the months passed. Avis's fluttering heartbeat returned to normal and her anxiousness disappeared. Her desire to stay with the princess did not. Avis chose not to dwell on accepting what was becoming clearer to her. The feeling itself now was undeniable. What that meant in regards to her fate, she still did not know. She let Flora lead her through each day without concern over the prophecy or the future. In time, she knew, the answers she sought would come to her on their own. During the mornings, Flora often leaned against Avis on the bench. Avis was content with the rate of their growing closeness. She was still somewhat awkward. In the mornings, she often wished to put her arms around Flora, but that was still too much for her. Sometime in late Autumn, Flora fell asleep against her in the morning. Avis was unsurprised. Flora had looked tired when she came to the garden that morning. She had mentioned staying up late to watch falling stars. Flora's hair tangled over her own created a beautiful contrast. It reminded her of the sunbeams scattered by trees in a forest. The small warmth Avis gained from Flora resting against her set off demanding wants inside her. She wanted to know the full extent of that feeling. Flora woke from her nap, sleepily rubbing her eyes. "Ah, I fell asleep. I'm sorry, Avis." "It's alright, Princess. You can rest all you want. I will keep you safe." Avis took a deep breath. She wanted to ask her now if she could hold her. "Princess..." "Yes?" Flora glanced up at her. Avis found her courage had abandoned her again. She forced out any words she could. "Did you have a nice dream?" "Mmm...I can't remember." Flora nuzzled against Avis's side. "What about you? What are your dreams about?" 'You.' Avis couldn't say it. She looked away from her. "I don't really remember mine either." Flora saw through every one of her lies. When winter was nearing, Flora felt it would be safe to let Avis into one of her other special places. She decided to reveal her secret at the back of the garden. It wasn't about trust. Flora knew Avis was trustworthy early on. That place was somewhere she had not shared with anyone, save one. Letting Avis come to that place was a very special gift to give. "Come with me. I want to show you something." Flora tugged at her hand as she led her to the back of the garden. "Where are you taking me, Princess?" Avis asked. "Somewhere special." Flora took her behind a series of tall bushes and out through the wall. Avis knew it was forbidden for Flora to leave the walls. She could be severely punished for allowing her to do so. Avis couldn't find it in herself to care. Flora took her down to waterfall that went into a small river. The path there was mostly overgrown. Branches caught in her hair several times and she walked through a spider's web. She was impressed and worried that Flora went to a place like this. It would be all too easy for an enemy assassin to attack the princess out here. Avis watched Flora as she dipped her feet in the water. "Isn't it pretty here?" "Yes, it is beautiful. Do you come here by yourself often?" Avis asked. "Not anymore. I used to come out here a lot before you arrived. Are you going to tell my father?" Flora stepped back out of the river. "I won't say anything. But, perhaps it would be best if when you wanted to come here, I escorted you." "Thank you, Avis." Flora rushed over to Avis and hugged her. Avis wanted to hold her back, but was unsure if it was appropriate for her to. Hesitantly, she put her arms around the princess's waist. Flora rested her head against Avis. This was the first time anyone had ever hugged Avis. She didn't want to let go. Flora looked up at her with a glance that was neither happy nor upset. Unconsciously, Avis leaned forward, wanting to meet with what she did not yet understand. She stopped herself before they kissed. "I'm sorry. I...that was indecent of me." Avis backed away from Flora and bowed. 'What am I doing?' Flora laughed. "I wouldn't have stopped you." "It is still inappropriate of me. I am serving you. It is for you to decide what I should do." Avis bowed deeper. As winter came, the garden became barren. Flora didn't want to spend any time outside when the flowers were gone. She had Avis keep her company in the library during that time. Avis could read, but she didn't spend much time in her father's library. She was too preoccupied with learning to fight well. Flora loved books, especially old stories. King Silvanus had bought her many books to keep her entertained. Flora would sit by the window and read to Avis. Flora would occasionally get out a bound book she wrote in herself. Since she was forbidden to leave the castle, she often asked visitors to tell her stories they knew. She would write them down in the book to revisit. Avis had heard several of the ones in the bound book, though many were new to her. The ones she recognized were the sort she heard visiting tailors and cobblers tell when she still lived with her mother. Hearing those tales brought back a pain she thought she had overcome. Avis counted the years. It had been eight years since she last saw her mother. Restless from being inside, on occasion during the winter, Flora would want to sneak off beyond the wall. Avis gave into her whims despite it being riskier for them to leave with the foliage mostly gone. Flora would play around in the water and tell her other stories from her book that she had memorized. Before returning home, Flora would change her clothes as they were often very wet from the river. On a particularly windy evening, while she was changing, Flora said something that surprised Avis. "Let me see you one day as you really are. I want to know." "Princess, I can't do that. Someone might see." Avis insisted. More than being caught, she was embarrassed to let Flora see her undressed. "No one comes out here." Avis compromised. "Perhaps one day...but not today." "Alright...but I am a little disappointed..." Flora teased. "I'm sorry, Princess. Something like that is...I'm very..." Avis fidgeted with her hands. "Shy? That's alright. I'm sure it will fade the more time we spend together." Flora finished dressing and took hold of Avis's arm. "Let's return." The two hurried back to the castle as a storm came in and spent the remaining part of the day in the library. When they got inside, the sky drenched the lands. Avis and Flora watched the rain from the library window. Darkness came quickly, but as they were already inside, they stayed together long into the night. As Flora's garden and the river had become special places, the library too became one of Avis's favorite places to be. With Avis around, Flora got the idea to finally properly organize the books in the library. Few people went to it, and the ones who had, Flora included, were less than careful about where they put the books back at. It took several days to finish. Flora was pleased with the results. The library looked much cleaner, and Flora found several books she thought she had lost years ago. Flora was so happy about the results, she wanted a bit of a reward to herself for accomplishing it. She disguised her intentions as a reward for Avis. "Thank you for helping me with the books, Avis. Would you like a reward?" "Pleasing you is enough, Princess." Avis said politely. "But I insist. Can I not please you a little?" Flora batted her eyes at Avis, pouting. Avis couldn't resist her. She ran through several ideas in her head, trying to find one that would be appropriate. "Then...may I hold your hand?" "Yes, you may." Flora offered her hand. Avis held Flora's hand against her face. Flora's hand was warm, a different kind of warmth than her father's. Properly, she should have asked for what she did after that, but Avis was wanting more of a reward herself. She kissed Flora's hand slowly several times. Flora grinned. Around mid-winter, Flora asked Avis to stay with her in her bedroom. She claimed she was feeling ill. Avis agreed. Flora sat on her bed and invited Avis to sit beside her. Avis would definitely be reprimanded for doing such a thing. No one ever checked on them, so that concern was tossed aside. "Princess, what is this about?" Avis had dressed herself in less than usual. She noticed Flora had as well. While Avis didn't think anything indecent was going to occur, she found herself preparing for it just in case. She couldn't justify it to herself why she had done so. Her body blocked out rational thoughts when it came to the matter. "I wanted to give you something." Flora had the biggest grin on her face. She put her hands close together. A bright light appeared in between them. It started small and grew until the light touched both of her palms. In an instant, the light flashed hotly, then vanished. In the space between her hands, a single rose stem floated. Flora took hold of it and offered it to Avis. "This is for you. A gift. A rose that will never fade." Avis examined the rose. The texture of the petals were like any other rose, however, the petals were so vibrant they didn't seem real and the scent was the most beautiful one she had ever encountered. "You know magic?" Flora moved over on the bed to lean against Avis. "Only a little. I can make the flowers and trees grow and move as I want. Mostly, I use it to help them grow a little faster. I don't use my magic in winter, well, except for small things like this." Avis sniffed the flower closely. Something in the scent reminded her of the way Flora smelled herself. "Why not? You could have a garden full of flowers all year long." "Flowers are not meant to live like that. It would be wrong of me to change their inherent nature. If I were to do so, all the insects and birds would become confused. In upsetting their patterns, I would then alter the ones of those that eat them." Flora ran her fingers over the petals of the rose. She pressed herself closer against Avis. "This little magic with this rose is a little different. I've kept it stuck in time, and it will never fade and die, nor is it truly alive anymore. It is not connected to the earth, so it will not affect the outside world." "It is very beautiful. Where did you learn to do something like that?" Avis asked. She was enjoying the closeness between them. "From a kind woman in the woods." "In the woods?" Avis thought of her father and his curse. She started to worry about what Flora may have been involved in to learn such a feat. "I'll tell you my secret, of how I learned to do magic." Flora wrapped her arm around Avis's and looked up at her. "Do you want to hear?" "Yes." Flora began her story. "When I was a little girl, I was wandering in the forest picking flowers. I heard a horse nearby so I hid in the bushes. When the horse came into view, it was a beautiful white mare with a golden horn atop her head. Her rider was a woman in a dark cloak with hair the color of the earth and wings like starlight. I came out of the bushes, seeing there to be no reason to fear anyone who could ride a unicorn. I bowed to the lady and asked her if I could ride with her on her pretty mare in exchange for the flowers I had picked. She agreed and picked me up. We rode together for a long time, and she took me to a beautiful garden. There were brownies and pixies playing around and two more unicorns were resting underneath a tree. A pretty naiad came to see us from the river. I remember her singing. She asked the fairy lady, 'Is this one you are keeping?' 'I haven't decided yet. She is a pretty one, isn't she?' The fairy lady said. 'Yes, she has very pretty hair. Little girl, will you let me braid it?' I said yes and the fairy lady handed me over to her. While the nymph braided my hair, the fairy lady watched us. The nymph put a water lily in my hair when she finished and showed me off. 'Look at how pretty you are now!' I played with them all for a long while. As sunset was approaching, I started to get tired. The fairy lady came and asked me if I wanted to go home. I said, 'Yes, but you don't have to carry me back. Please tell me the way, and I will be fine. Thank you for playing with me.' She seemed a little disappointed at my answer. I think she wanted to keep me for herself. Sometimes, I wondered what would have happened if I had told her I wanted to stay. I said goodbye to everyone, content with the flower gift already left in my hair and the happy memory. The fairy lady offered to give me a ride back. I accepted, as she sounded very sad that I was leaving, and we rode back to the forest just behind the castle. She placed me down on in front of a river and stood in the water. She offered me a rose as a parting gift. A red rose as deep and dark as blood. She had created it out of nothingness in her hands. I had never seen anything so beautiful before. I thanked her for the gift, and I told her, 'I wish I could make beautiful flowers the way you do. Your magic is so pretty.' 'Sweet child, I will grant you your wish.' As she spoke, the rose in my hand turned to water and flowed through my skin into my veins. It hurt at first, but the pain subsided and my entire body was overcome with a happiness I can't describe. She petted my head. 'Little one, every time you wish to see flowers, simply envision them and call them with your heart. The earth will do your bidding.' I thanked her again, and she added a warning. 'There is one more thing you should know. A gift like this is very special, and very powerful. Do not abuse it. The earth has its own way of working. Treat it with respect. You mustn't grow entire gardens in winter, and you mustn't use the trees and ground to rule over others. This is a gift of beauty and protection.' 'I promise I will only use it for good.' I said to her. 'You are such a good child I will give you one more gift.' She touched the river. The water turned a brilliant gold and then an image appeared in it. I saw pictures like shadows. One was of a young woman surrounded by flowers. 'This will be your shield. When the time comes, and you wish to leave this place forever, you will not need to take up a sword. When you choose to find a land of your own, the land behind you will turn to ash.' Fire burned down the garden and everything around it. I was scared. 'Why? Why must everything burn?' She spoke gently to me. 'I told you, little one. The earth has its own way of working. You mustn't fear the destruction you see before you. Just as winter is followed by spring, fire makes way for new life as well. Rain will come and wash away the ashes, and a new cycle will begin.' I was still afraid, but I accepted her reasoning. 'Where will I go from there?' I saw a boat floating on gentle waves. 'The water will carry you there. Don't dwell on where you go, but what brings you peace.' And then it all disappeared. She went with it. I found myself alone in the woods with only that white water lily." Avis was amazed by the story, and disturbed. Flora had been kind to the fairy and been greatly rewarded, but even at that end, the fairy clearly considered snatching her away for her own entertainment. If Flora had reacted even a little different, she could have ended up with a curse like her father or be dead. Some from the other realm, she heard, eat children alive. Flora was very lucky that day ended how it did. There was no point in telling this to Flora. Flora saw it as a special memory, and Avis wasn't going to ruin it for her. She lay back on the bed, pulling Flora down with her. "That's a wonderful story. The water lily, is it like this rose?" "Yes. I still have it. I keep it hidden away. Do you want to see?" Flora started to get up. Avis pulled her back down against her. "Perhaps later. I'm feeling a little drowsy from the weather. Can't we stay like this for a while?" Flora lay back down. It was not often Avis would be so forward. She needed to enjoy it while it lasted. She curled up against her and rested her head on Avis's chest. "You have permission to hold me, if you wish." Avis did so without hesitation. She was surprised with herself. Being in Flora's room, she thought, must have made her act a little more boldly. It was a very private location, making it all too easy for her to forget her place. Flora listened to Avis's heartbeat. "You're less reserved today. I like it." "My apologies, Princess." Flora caught a sudden change in the beat's rhythm. "Don't apologize for such a thing." Flora played with Avis's hair. "It's alright. No one will come here." Nothing indecent happened, as Avis expected. They spent most of the day laying together and talking over trivial things. Avis kept the rose in a small box, as Flora did with the lily. She forgot to ask Flora to let her see that special flower. She could ask another day. The box was kept by her bed. Before she went to sleep, she smelled the bloom again. The scent kept her mind on her time with Flora that day. With that scent near, she drifted into a wonderful dream where she was holding hands with Flora in the garden. Lately, she often dreamt of that. Her private time with the princess was interrupted by her father. He had returned from doing some work for the king. "Do you want to go on a quest with me?" Faolán expected Avis to jump at the word 'quest'. He grinned. "A dragon's been spotted in the area. We're the closest to it. Others will be hunting it for sure, but perhaps we can beat them to it." "A dragon...that sounds like fun." Avis reacted as expected. She paused for a moment, thinking something over. "But what about Princess Flora? I am supposed to guard her." "Do you wish for her to go with you?" Faolán kept his back to her to hide his smile. "I thought she wasn't allowed out of here." "I can get the king's permission to allow her to observe our task. The king is very fond of me." He rubbed his chin. "We will need to disguise her, however. It would be dangerous if anyone recognized her." "How should we disguise her?" "Oh, I have an idea." After getting the king's approval, Faolán got to work on creating a disguise for the princess. Avis helped her dress and put up her hair. Flora found pants strange and binding her chest one of the more uncomfortable things she had experienced in life. The armor Avis put on her was heavier than she expected. She disliked the helmet most of all. "Well, what do you think? Does she pass for a man?" Avis presented Flora to her father. "Hmm...a boy, maybe, but not a man. Well, it'll have to do. All that matters is no one suspects she's the princess." Faolán gave her another look over. "Straighten your back more. Keep your shoulders straight too. Let me see you walk." Flora walked passed him. Faolán crossed his arms and gave her a disapproving look. "You're moving your hips too much. Work on that. We don't have much time right now to perfect things. Well, Florence, are you ready to leave?" "Yes, sir!" Flora said. "Oh, and lower your voice." He added. "Yes, sir!" Flora tried again. She blushed, embarrassed at the way she sounded. "How was that?" "Decent enough." Faolán came up from behind her and straightened her shoulders. "Keep them like this. Look at Avis. Try to make yourself look like her." Flora did her best to get used to her attire. She hadn't traveled far from her home in so long that she didn't mind having to endure the uncomfortableness of her disguise. Where they were heading was a mostly uninhabited area. After a certain distance from the castle, Faolán gave Flora approval to speak in her normal voice. Traveling with Avis excited her, but she was worried over the Black Wolf heading their tiny party, especially when it would come time to rest at night. Faolán rode slightly ahead of them. He glanced back at Avis. "Avis, have you noticed? With each of us and our horses, it's like we're in sets of three." Avis took a piece of bread from her bag and threw it at her father. "Shut up with your nonsense." He caught it. "So, Flora..." "Do not speak so casually to me, Wolf. Address me as Princess or Princess Flora." Flora corrected him. "Very well, Princess." Faolán didn't bother to hide how little he cared. "How has my daughter been treating you?" "She has been very kind to me. Not at all what I expected from someone you had a hand in raising." Flora replied. She was intentionally rude in her response. "That's very good to hear." Faolán took a bite of the bread. "You two will be sharing a tent tonight. I will sleep outside and act as a barrier. I assume you are alright with this arrangement, Princess?" "That will be fine." "It should take us three days to reach the beast." Avis threw another piece of bread at him. He dodged it. "That one was coincidence." "What is with you two and the number three?" Flora asked Avis, perplexed. "Uh...it's sort of a...well...it's something stupid he keeps teasing me about. Don't worry about it!" Avis felt her cheeks burn. There was no way she could ever tell Flora the reason. When nightfall came, they made camp. Flora retired quickly to the tent. Sleeping on the ground didn't bother her. She actually enjoyed taking naps out in the garden, and she liked being outside at night. Since she was going to sleep, she was finally able to take off her disguise. Avis joined her soon after, undoing the binding underneath her shirt before she lay down. The shirt was too loose for Flora to get a good look, but she could see a little bit of what Avis's real figure was like. Avis was excited to be sharing a tent with Flora, and nervous. She wanted to cuddle Flora, but was too shy to ask. Flora lay quietly against her. Avis took Flora's contact to mean it was alright for her to hold her back. She drifted off into sleep sooner than she expected, enjoying all of Flora's warmth around her. Late into the night, Faolán opened the tent to check on them. Fast asleep, they were both still holding tightly on to one another. Avis's expression was of a content carelessness. He closed the tent and whispered, "May you hold on to what I cannot." On the third day, Faolán located the dragon's cave. The dragon was sleeping atop a massive hoard of gold. Charred corpses and dirty bones littered the area just beyond the cave. He noted that some of them bore the king's symbol. Others, judging from their brokenness, appeared to have been snatched up and dropped from the air. The stray body parts belonged to all age ranges, with many being of children that couldn't have been an older than four or five. Dry blood painted the rocks. It was a gruesome sight, and would do well to test how much Avis could stomach before she entered a battle against human enemies. He led them over to the location. Flora's eyes watered as she covered her mouth in shock. Avis too, held back tears. She averted her eyes from the sight, but did not flinch or show any other signs of disgust. Faolán stood in front of Flora. "Princess, I want you to stay back. Avis and I will handle the beast." "Can I not help in any way?" Flora asked. She was not suited to something like this, she knew, but she didn't want to stand by helplessly while Avis put herself in danger. "You have no training in combat. You will only weaken us as you are." He led her back into the woods to keep her hidden. "Don't worry, Princess. We'll be fine." Avis reassured her. Flora remained unconvinced. She ducked down and watched them. Faolán went in first. Flora didn't know anything about slaying dragons. Avis and her father hadn't spoken much about what they were planning to do. She assumed they must have already talked in advanced about this sort of thing. Avis had gone in a different direction than her father. She hid herself while he got in close to the beast's head. He aimed his sword at the creature's eye. Before he could pierce into it, Avis whistled at him. Faolán quickly got back away from the beast as a stream of fire shot forward. The beast had been pretending to sleep. It rose from its hoard and charged at him. He ran back while Avis attacked one of its back legs. The dragon knocked her away with tail. It changed directions, turning its attention to Avis. Faolán ran towards the beast only to suddenly fall to his knees. Flora watched in confusion. She couldn't see anything that would have tripped him and he didn't appear to have been injured in his legs. He dropped his sword and clawed at his back. Blood stained through his clothes. The beast sniffed in the air and turned back around, drawn in by the smell of his fresh blood. Avis followed. It was faster than her, pinning Faolán down to the ground with ease. With its long tongue, the beast licked at the blood on his arms. He reached for his sword but could not get it. The dragon bit down on Faolán's breastplate and ripped it off. Faolán used the beast's momentary distraction with the armor to attempt to get away. The dragon noticed him quickly and knocked him back down on the ground and pressed down against his back with its claws. The sharp, thick claws ripped open his shirt. His scarred, marked back was on full display for Flora to see. "A black wolf..." She said under her breath. The skin of his back cracked open. A hot red and orange simmered underneath, blood oozing out. Avis cut deeply into the dragon's leg. The beast lifted its leg back in pain. She didn't have time to dislodge her sword. She helped her father up. He scolded her. "Don't worry about me. Protect yourself." The beast was enraged. Its mouth smoked as it bore its fangs at them. Avis could see the flames coming up its throat. She braced herself for the worst. As the flames shot out of the dragon's mouth, the trees moved to shield them. From the ground below, roots wrapped around the dragon's legs and climbed up its body to shut its mouth. More roots came through the soil, coiling around the beast's entire body until it fell over. Flora was standing above them, her hands extended out and glowing with a bright, pure white light. Faolán picked up his sword and sliced through the dragon's neck. When the head dropped to the ground, the rest of the body ignited into flames. Flora ran down to them, pleased with herself. "Why didn't you tell me she knew magic?" Faolán, completely shocked,turned to Avis as he picked up the beast's head. "I didn't know she could do that! I only thought she could make pretty flowers with it!" Avis couldn't believe what had happened herself. "The black wolf..." Flora got a closer look at Faolán's back. She touched the burned skin on his back. "You really are bewitched." "Princess, forget what you've seen. My problem is mine alone." Her father spoke coldly to her. Avis hadn't heard him use that tone with her in a long time. She wanted to help him wash, but knew he would forbid it while Flora was near. "Avis, I forbid you from telling her the details." Avis pleaded with him. Her knowing his secret had helped ease some of his burden. Another person could make it less painful for him to deal with. "But father...surely, there's no harm in her knowing the nature of your curse. Princess Flora wouldn't tell anyone." "That's not the issue!" He walked away from them both. "We're returning, now." Avis was hurt by his behavior. He had been so much kinder to her as time went on. She wondered if that was now over. She had gained Flora's kindness. She thought to herself. 'Am I only allowed one?' Before she let that thought linger, she reminded herself that her father had never once held her. She conceded to his coldness. With a soft voice, she replied, "Yes, sir." He stood still as she spoke. He started to turn his head to look at her, but stopped himself and kept walking forward. The trip back was quiet. Flora didn't ask for any more details. She decided to wait until she was alone with Avis. Faolán presented the dragon's head to Silvanus and told him how the beast was slain, sans details related to "Florence" participating in the slaying of the beast. Silvanus was pleased and asked how the princess handled the trip. Faolán said nothing that would prevent Flora from coming on future trips. When he was satisfied with Faolán's recounting of the events, he revealed he already had another task lined up for Faolán. Faolán left without saying a word to Avis. Avis stayed quiet in the time after. Flora didn't understand what had happened, but she did her best to comfort Avis. When Avis had started to return to her usual self, Flora asked her about the mark. Against her father's wishes, Avis told her the story, with the details about her and her brothers' fates left out, and what training under him had been like. Flora listened closely. "You know, I am sure that he loves you." Flora said, leaning against Avis. "If he does, I am only a burden to him, a source of a pain and fear." Avis sighed. "Well, of course you are. But whether he was cursed or not, that would not change." Avis's eyes widened. "I suppose that's true. I don't know if he sees it that way though." "He'll be kind to you again in time. He clearly adores you." Flora created a white rose with her magic and placed it in Avis's hand. Avis stared down at the fragile petals. "I wonder..." At the edge of King Silvanus's land, Faolán met with a neighboring lord. His name was Egret, a close friend of King Argus, one of Silvanus's allies. Silvanus had ordered him to speak with Egret about business related to the war. He had never liked Egret. He was a vile man simply for the sake of being vile. His behavior reminded Faolán of what he himself was like as a teenager. Egret was actually much older than him, and seemed to grow crueler with each passing year. Faolán greeted Egret from atop his horse. "Lord Egret, it's been a while." "That it has, Black Wolf. I heard you were training up someone while we were all busy at King Philip's. You were the only person in our allied kingdoms who did not come." Egret too stayed mounted. "My apologies. I wasn't aware such a meeting was going to be held when I left." Faolán bowed. "Well, you missed quite the meeting. Someone's trying to do us in from within. You better watch your back. This person you're training, are you sure you can trust him?" Egret spit on the ground. He got out a flask and took a swig of something Faolán could smell was alcoholic. "Yes, he's my son." "You have another son? I thought you only had the two, that sodomite and the one they call the Hellhound. Where've you been keeping this one all this time? You never remarried after Reina was killed." Faolán flinched. "Well, as you know, marriage is not a requirement to produce children." "Ha! I can't say much myself. I'm sure I have plenty of bastard children I've never met." Egret laughed. "Don't let your guard down. Family can be more deadly than strangers. How do you know this son of yours will stay on your side?" "He's far too meek." "Let's hope that's true. How old is this boy? We are in the middle of a war, you know. Every man counts." Egret spoke the words Faolán had been dreading. "My son is eighteen." Faolán considered lying, but there was no point. Silvanus already knew around how old Avis was. There was always a chance Silvanus would demand her go into battle too. "Don't you think it's about time he fights alongside the rest of us? And you too, for that matter. You've been absent more than others." Egret sneered. "My king has given his approval. I don't need yours, Lord Egret. I appreciate you coming here to deliver that information, but I won't tolerate you imposing on me in ways only my king is allowed to." Faolán was in no mood to play nice with Egret, especially with no one else around to see them. "Oh, seems I've struck a nerve. We'll see how long you get to run free in Silvanus's woods, Wolf, once I have King Argus demand King Silvanus have you and your boy join the others." Egret spit again. "I will see you again soon, Wolf." "I should hope I am not so unlucky to see your face again any time soon. Be gone now." Faolán started to unsheathe his sword. Egret laughed and rode off. Amongst their allied kingdoms, King Argus was the de facto leader, having control of the most land and two of the kingdom's most powerful warriors along with Lord Egret always supporting him. Egret himself was a fearsome opponent to face in combat. By pure skill and raw power, Faolán was certain he could defeat the man, but Egret's true strength lied in his underhanded tactics. Egret coming here at all meant Argus was already going to push for Silvanus to send them out into the field. This was merely a warning. By the time Faolán had returned to Silvanus's castle, a messenger had already arrived from Argus requesting he meet with him about the war effort. In less than an hour of arriving, he left again. At the smaller castle, Flora had convinced Avis to sneak off with her again. To Avis's surprise, when they got to the river, Flora took off her clothes and jumped in. Avis rushed into the water to pull her out. "Princess, what are you doing? It's too cold to bathe in the river right now!" "I'll be fine. I've done it before." Flora had a devious grin on her face. "Let's take a bath together." "I can't bathe with a princess!" Avis stepped back out of the water. "No one will know." "More importantly, this is no place for you to be bathing! What would the king say!" Avis changed the subject. "I don't care what my father thinks." Flora swam around in the water without a care. "Won't you join me?" Avis did want to join Flora. It would be inappropriate and risky for her to do so. She glanced around to make sure no one had followed them. "Oh, alright. But only to protect you in the water." Avis went in to bathe with Flora. Flora stared at Avis for a long time when she undressed. Avis expected Flora to find her body unattractive. She wasn't as curvy as Flora. Every inch of her body was toned. Her breasts were smaller than Flora's, and she was already extremely tall. This suited her needs well most of the time. That was how she had wanted it before. Still, she did not consider herself a beautiful woman and sometimes hated catching glimpses of her own reflection. Flora smiled. "I knew you would look better without all those things covering you up." "Princess, you don't need to spare my feelings." Avis sunk into the water to hide herself. "What are you talking about? You're beautiful." The way Flora looked at her was different than before. Her smile seemed kind, but Avis couldn't believe her words. "I don't think most would agree with you. A lady isn't supposed to look like this." Avis had always kept that to herself. She did not regret doing what she did. It was necessary. However, she did feel envious of Flora, and sometimes wished she were beautiful herself. "Why not?" Flora rose out of the water and took hold of Avis's hands. "You've been wearing all that so long you're not seeing yourself anymore. Look in the water. Do you really think your reflection is ugly?" "I don't know..." In her reflection, Avis mostly saw a weaker version of her father. "Why do you need to look like everyone else? I don't care that you're tall or strong. Neither of those things detract from your beauty." Flora cupped Avis's face with her hands. "Do you really mean that, Princess?" Avis's eyes met with Flora's. There was no dishonesty hidden in them. In that moment, the most beautiful woman Avis had ever met was telling her she was beautiful. It seemed impossible. "You are the most beautiful woman I have ever known." Flora pressed her forehead against Avis's, gazing into her eyes. Avis could not look away from Flora as she spoke. "You are right that not all would agree with me, but does that really matter? Is my admiration not worth more than that of a stranger?" Those words meant much to her, but Avis did not know how to express herself. She looked away. "Well, if you say it's true..." Soon, the weather started to warm slightly. Faolán returned with a heavy weight on his mind. The order to send Avis and himself into the field had not yet come, but he knew it was only a matter of time. He had been cold to Avis the last time they interacted. That too consumed his thoughts. She made him weak. If he let her in again at a time like this, he could end up getting himself killed. If he didn't, she may die in his place. The fairy woman's prediction had yet to completely come to pass. The princess, he had no doubts, was the other half to the final set of three. That only left the trail of fire Avis was to leave behind. He had an idea of how that might occur, but it was too early for that. Despite everything he had seen, he couldn't convince himself that it was all fated to be. What a perfectly cruel trick, he thought, it would be for that fairy to have expected him to become so comfortable with the prediction that he allowed her to lose her life. Or further still, that him debating this in the first place was exactly as she expected him to do, forcing him to be what guaranteed her survival in the first place. Death terrified him. He had long cast aside his beliefs in an afterlife and salvation. He had seen too many corpses and cruelties to believe in such a thing, many of those caused by himself. The world around him, whether he participated in the awfulness or not, was drenched in evil doings. Avis's inherent kindness would not spare her from the suffering of dying nor the maggots and birds picking apart every trace of her beauty, and no eternity would await her for enduring such a fate. At least, he saw no reason why there would be such a thing. To die in flames, that was his fate. A painful, deserved death. He was absolutely terrified of meeting that end, but for once, there was a fear equal to that one. In time, it would overshadow his other fear. He could see it with every day that passed. There was no reason to deny it anymore. This too, he knew, must be his fate. It caused him pain to smile around her and laugh with her, and it pained him to watched her suffer. His life was filled with so much more pain since Avis came to train with him. Yet, he had never felt happier. That bit of selfishness in wanting to spend his days near her for that happiness was what kept him from completely burning away. For now, he would try to keep her happy. When the order finally came, she would need all of that to keep from breaking. He had arrived home very early in the morning. Avis hadn't left her room yet. He woke her from her sleep and sat on the side of her bed. "I've returned, little flame." "How was your trip?" Avis rubbed her eyes. She sat up, half-asleep. "Lord Egret and King Argus are as arrogant and insufferable as ever. I met King Argus's younger son, Prince Wren, as well. Seems he hasn't quite sorted out what he wants to do in his position as the spare. I gave him a few words of advice. Oh, that reminds me..." Faolán handed her a book. "I brought you a present. Here, it's a book for you to study." "What sort of studying?" She yawned. Avis opened the book without looking at the cover. She was greeted by several extremely indecent images. "Is this a joke?" "I thought you might be needing it in the future. This one has some positions in it just for women with other women." He turned the pages until he found some pictures for that. "I don't need this!" Avis pushed it back to him. "Come now. There's no reason to go into it blindly." "I'm not going to...do that sort of thing." Avis lay down and pulled the blankets over her head. "Well, keep it anyway. Education like that is hard to come by." He pulled the blankets back off of her. "You only brought this to laugh at my reaction." Avis rolled over to face the wall. "I really was thinking of helping you. And a little about embarrassing you. But only a little." He laughed. "How have things been going with Princess Flora?" "Fine." Avis stretched. She sat up and brushed her hair. "Have you kissed yet?" He asked. "No, we haven't. That's not my place to do such a thing." Avis kept from him how many times she had kissed Flora's hand and held her. Though she did want more than that. "I really doubt she cares about things like that." "I won't do anything she doesn't ask me for. That is what I should do if I am to become a proper knight." It was awkward having this conversation with her father, but she had no one else to talk about such things with. Her words carried more ambiguity than earlier in part because she really did wish to confess her wants to someone. "Well, if you won't ask, then I suppose she has no choice but to ask you. That poor girl is clearly frustrated." Avis didn't respond to him. She pretended not to hear what he said. "You know she wants to fool around with you." "That's enough of that. I have my duty to the princess to fulfill. I need to change." "Very well. I'll leave you." He slipped the book into her bag as he left. Avis got up and dressed herself. She walked out to the garden. She noticed her bag felt heavier than it should have. She opened it and found the book inside. Avis took it out and contemplated tossing it somewhere. As she was looking around for a good location, Flora saw her. "Avis, what do you have there?" Flora took the book right out of her hands. "Ah...Princess! Don't!" Avis tried to get it back, but it was too late. Flora was busy flipping through the pages. "My father gave it to me as a joke earlier. I haven't gotten around to..." "Ooh, look at this..." Flora pointed to one of the pictures in the book. "I think I'd want to try that." "Princess..." Avis hadn't expected such a reaction out of Flora. Flora had always been more forward than her, but this was being outright blatant. Avis was curious herself what would please the princess and looked closer at what Flora had pointed to. She pointed to the same picture. "This one?" "I wonder what it would feel like." The picture was of two women who were in a position Avis wasn't sure how to even get in with their most intimate parts rubbing against each other. The picture itself aroused her. Flora flipped to the next page, which had more pictures of women together. "Though these all look like fun, don't you think?" "I don't know. I haven't really thought about such things much." Avis had desires, but she tried to keep them locked away. She didn't want such things to cloud her judgement, and moreover, she was mostly embarrassed by it. "Hmm...this one...I've done this to myself before. Have you ever done this?" Flora showed her a picture of one of the women touching the other woman between her legs with her hands. "Not...really." "What do you mean by that? Have you or not?" Flora nudged her. "Well, I have, but not for very long." It had mostly been absentmindedly. When she was a younger teen, she discovered that touching herself there felt good, and she did it every now and then for a little while. It felt nice, but she often ended up embarrassed by what she was doing and stopped after a short while. "You should try doing it longer." Flora leaned over and whispered into her ear. "It feels really good at the end." "Good?" "Really good." Flora smirked. "Do you want me to show you some time?" "Ah, no, Princess. I'm sure I can figure it out on my own." Avis shook her head. As much as she had thought about how she would do such things with Flora if she wanted it, in truth, she was too embarrassed by such things to really be able to go through with it no matter how much she wanted it. That night, Avis looked through the book more thoroughly. Many of the pictures in the book did not interest her. She found the male form unappealing. She flipped forward to the page she looked at earlier with Flora. Flora's comment about doing something to herself got Avis curious. Avis hadn't touched herself much before. She had done so absentmindedly sometimes, but only briefly and she wasn't really thinking deeply about what she was doing. It felt good though. Avis tried it again, rubbing herself much longer than she had in the past. She read over the description of what to do with the book in her other hand. She wanted to stop herself. She was doing something completely indecent. The longer she did it, the better it felt. She didn't have anything particular in mind. Avis concentrated on what motions intensified the feeling. She looked back again at the book. The picture that Flora had pointed to earlier, she tried imagining what that might feel like. She moved her hands faster. 'How do I know when I've reached the end?' About five minutes later, Avis realized what the "end" was. Avis caught her breath. She felt down further. She hadn't been this wet before. The amount of fluids embarrassed her. 'Does Flora do this all the time?' Her mind immediately wandered to very indecent things involving Flora. Avis shook those thoughts from her mind and cleaned up. With warmer days soon to be ahead, Flora had been returning to the garden to get it ready for Spring. Avis had been helping her prepare. While they were working on the garden, Avis confessed what she had done. "Princess, um, I tried that thing again last night." "Oh, really? Doesn't it feel good?" "Yes, it does. I don't mean to be indecent, but how did you figure that out?" Avis asked, her face red. "Ah, it was mostly by accident. I was messing around at night before bed without really thinking about it, and I kept going at it, and then...well. Though that time wasn't as good as I can get it to happen now." Avis listened closely, very interested in hearing that it could feel even better. "To be honest, it wasn't all that long ago I figured it out myself. I was a little mad." "About what?" "When I was younger, people told me how children were conceived. They never told me about that. I would have much rather learned about that." She sighed and held on to Avis's arm. "You're lucky, Avis. I don't want to have children. The idea of it nauseates me." "I'm sorry, Princess. Though I have a burden to deal with myself I am not looking forward to." Her father had mentioned it to her a few times, and they had yet to come up with a solution. "If I keep up this act, I will be expected to marry a woman at some point and have heirs. I don't know how I'm going to...get around that." Flora laughed. "Your wife will be quite surprised on your wedding night." "I wish I were of a more noble birth. Perhaps, then I could marry you and we wouldn't be physically able to have children. We could simply say one of us was infertile." Avis meant every word she said in both a chivalrous manner and out of her desire to be with Flora always. Flora's face lit up. "You would want to marry me?" Avis stood up from the bench and got in from of Flora. She kneeled before Flora, taking hold of her hand. "I would do anything to serve you, my princess." "You are very kind, Avis. I wish I could marry you instead of that prince. My father may favor your father over his other men, but he would never allow me to marry a knight when plenty of princes already wish for my hand." Flora caressed Avis's face. She shared a tender gaze with Avis, a mix of bitterness and desperation flowing through her. She took a deep breath and prepared herself for what she was about to do. "Avis, may I ask something of you?" "Yes, princess?" There would be no going back once she said the words. As they were, their daily lives sat in a comfortable ambiguity. It was dissatisfying, yet safe. Flora wanted more. Her normal confidence folded underneath her fears and her words came out timidly. "Do you love me?" "Of course I do." The tension was building in Avis too. She longed for this moment, and it terrified her. "I mean as myself, Flora. Not as a princess you serve." Flora clarified, to remove all possible ambiguity left. "Yes, I do." Avis got up from her knees and embraced Flora. She pulled away shortly after. "Was it alright for me to do that?" "Yes." Flora had only one more thing left to say. "I want you to be my lover." "If that is what will make you happy." Avis said. "What about your happiness?" Flora asked. "Whether you allow me such a privilege or keep me at a distance, so long as I can do for you what you wish, I will be happy. Though I would be much happier accepting this than being away from you. If the day comes when you wish to hold someone else's hand, I would take you there myself." Flora couldn't have imagined Avis giving her any other response. "That is far too noble a gesture for anyone to expect." She touched Avis's face again. "So then, you do accept?" "Yes. May I hold you again?" There was a bit of shyness in Avis's tone. "You don't need to ask permission now." Avis held her tightly, and Flora did in return. The scent of freshly turned earth, broken stems, and the cold breeze imprinted into her mind alongside the faint scent of roses on Flora's neck and the soft, faded look of the sky. She wanted the moment to never end, to be encased outside of time forever like the beautiful rose in the box beside her bed. Her dreams were filled with that beautiful sky. In the morning, that peaceful sky left her mind. Her father met with her in her room at dawn. He had a grim look on his face. She knew exactly what he was going to say to her. "The king wishes for you to accompany me during the next campaign." His voice was empty of feeling. "You mean...into battle?" Her heart raced. "Yes. This is what I've been training you for. Are you ready?" He put his hand on hers. It was burning hot, more than usual. "Who will watch over the princess?" Defending the kingdom was what she had sworn she would do as a child, but she did not want to leave Flora's side for a moment, especially not now. It was selfish of her to try to get out of her duty. Avis ignored her guilt. "Security will be increased while we are away." He held her hand tighter. "You should say your goodbyes for now. It may be months or longer before we return." Her father's affection confirmed her fears. This time, she would have to leave Flora's side. "I see. I need to change." He left her alone. Dressing herself had never seemed like such a long process before. She dreaded each step towards Flora, repeating her goals to herself as she walked. This was what she wanted. This was part of being a knight. She had to do this, for her kingdom, and for her princess. That was the noble thing to do. Flora was waiting alone in the empty garden, cutting away at the dead stems. She saw Avis coming towards her. A deep loneliness hung in her gaze. Avis spoke softly. "Princess..." "I heard the news." Flora's voice was also soft. "I'm afraid I won't be able to meet with you again for a while." Avis thought of a way to comfort Flora. "Is there anything I can do for you before I leave?" Flora's response was quick and demanding. "Kiss me." "If you wish, Princess." Avis took Flora's hand and leaned down to kiss it. Flora pulled her hand away. "I don't mean like that. Kiss me as my lover." "Princess..." "That is what I want. When you return, I will grant you a gift. Myself. You may have me." Flora touched Avis's lips. "What do you mean, Princess?" Avis understood what she meant perfectly well. "I will let you know me, all of me." Flora gestured over her entire body. "Is that not a suitable reward for returning home victorious?" "I don't want that as a reward." Avis no longer felt embarrassed over wanting to hold Flora in such an intimate way. She wanted it, and knew she could act on it. The circumstances though, she wanted it to be from pure want and love, without any obligations attached. A reward would not satisfy her. "I only want to make you happy." Flora knew well what to say. "Then will you if it makes me happy?" "Yes." Avis agreed. "I look forward to your return." Flora held back her tears. "As do I." Avis embraced Flora, all of her pain spilling over into her movements. She kissed Flora passionately. This was the first time she had kissed someone romantically, and she wasn't sure if she was doing it well. She tried her best to guess what would feel best and followed any cues she could pick up on from Flora. Warm tears met with her lips as Flora couldn't hold back her sadness any longer. That night, Avis packed her things. In the morning, she left with her father and several of the other soldiers to meet up with the rest of Silvanus's men and Egret's army. Only a handful of people had been kept back by Silvanus, for his own protection. Truly, there was no need for them to be on the battlefield as Silvanus had already sent a significant portion of his men, but Silvanus feared angering Argus and Egret. This was a display of power by Argus, and one Faolán worried about. Argus and Egret were well known as conquerors, snatching up any land they could. Silvanus was their ally, but Faolán didn't trust those two enough to feel safe leaving their land so unguarded. Faolán put his worry over that aside. He had a greater fear in his mind. Avis rode beside him in silence. He could feel the loneliness around her. "Did you say goodbye to the princess?" "Yes." Avis said in her real voice. He would normally get on to her for doing that in a place where someone might overhear her, but he chose not to say anything about it. "Did the book help?" He whispered, attempting to lighten the mood. "We only kissed." Avis said. She rolled her eyes at him. "Not that I would tell you otherwise." "So, then are you lying now?" He poked at her arm. "No, I am not!" She hit him on the arm back. "Quit trying to embarrass me." "You should use your time to the fullest. The king will have her married off before you know it." "I know that." Avis didn't want to think about such things. Someone else touching Flora the way she did against Flora's wishes made her burn inside with a deep rage she had not known before. "I just don't want to rush through things." "Is she the one? Your true love." Faolán asked, mostly to see how Avis would react. "How am I supposed to know that?" Avis, of course, had no doubts at this point. She could not entertain ever holding anyone else. Avis's mood improved as they talked. Several hours into the ride and Avis was wishing she was home. She hadn't considered how long they would be traveling for or what the accommodations would be. It dawned on her as the trip went on and she regretted how much she had to drink before they left. Avis couldn't hold it much longer. She gritted her teeth. "Father, um, I..." "Something wrong?" He asked. "I...where are we stopping?" "Wherever we can find a suitable area to set up camp. Why?" "Is that any time soon?!" Her voice grew more agitated. "That probably won't be for a couple of hours." Faolán noticed Avis sitting uncomfortably on top of her horse. She was hunched over and her face displayed a pained look. He shook his head. "If you need to piss, just take off and come back." "Why do you need to be so vulgar?" Avis raised her voice slightly. "You keep acting like this and you're going to give yourself away. I'm far from being the most vulgar person here." He waved towards the woods. "Just go. We won't be far." "That's not the issue." Avis didn't want to ask. She hated it and she knew it made her look childish. "You're worried with so many men around someone might see you." He sighed. "I'll go with you. I was going to stop soon myself anyway." The two of them left the other men and went a ways into the woods. Faolán checked the surrounding area for any other people. When he gave Avis the okay, he watched the direction opposite of the one Avis was facing. Avis hated the situation, but felt better physically. She had been holding it in since that morning, having been too embarrassed to ask Faolán to come with her earlier. "This is the most embarrassing moment of my life." Avis pulled up her pants. "It's not my fault." Faolán said, still watching the other direction. "Perhaps we can figure out something for you to use so you can stand." "That's even more embarrassing!" Avis cringed at the thought. That was far too unfeminine for her. "Why? That's how I do it." He shrugged. "You're a man!" Avis yelled. "You're pretending to be a man." He countered. "Not because I want to." Avis stood beside her father as she fixed her tabard. "Let's just go back." "You think this is bad? You know we're going to have to bathe in private together, right?" "What?!" Avis's face went pale. "It's too risky to leave you alone." He mounted his horse. Avis was completely horrified by the idea. She was fine with helping him bathe. She washed his wounds so often that seeing him unclothed didn't bother her. Him seeing her exposed was another matter entirely. "When will this be over again?" "I'd say...if we're lucky, two or three months, but most likely much longer than that. Argus and Egret intend to use us as much as possible." He assumed they would likely not return until autumn or the next winter. Spring would certainly not be spent at the castle. "Why couldn't we go slay a dragon or save a town from a curse? Why this..." Avis whined. "You wanted to be a knight. This is what we do. Sorry it doesn't live up to your expectation." Faolán found Avis's complaints childish. He expected as much. In time, she would get used to this sort of thing. Whether or not she could adjust to real combat would be another matter entirely. Avis got on her horse. "You don't really think someone would do anything to me, do you?" "As someone who's done many horrible things, I can assure you, someone among those men will want to." A deep sense of shame overcame him. How many men's daughters had he done such things to? While he tried to drown himself in apathy, the hatred for his past crimes always simmered underneath that disguise. Now in a position where he needed to keep his own daughter protected, the disgust for himself seized his mind and turned his worries into deeper fears. When it was time to make camp, Avis had another complaint. He let her get them all out now, trying to balance letting her vent and reminding her of why those things she complained about mattered. The next big complaint was about the tent. For her safety, they would be sharing a tent. Avis was less than thrilled. "People are going to think I'm a child who can't do anything without my father around." "You are a child." He patted her on the head, then went inside the tent. She followed him inside. "I'm eighteen. When is old enough for you to stop thinking of me that way?" "That's not my reason for this. I'm your buffer. If someone should happen into the tent for any reason at an inconvenient time, I can distract them." He gave her a cold stare. "If you were found alone, you would be lucky if all that happened was them reporting you." "I can defend myself." Avis crossed her arms. She sat down on one of the cots in the tent and pouted. "That may be, but it would be best to avoid needing to in the first place." He sat down beside her. "Everyone here will be sharing some kind of resource. You worrying so deeply over it is what's childish." "If you think it would be for the best." Avis softened her tone. "I...I feel like they're going to mock me for it." "They might. Does it matter to you? You're not so weak you will be bothered by someone else's words, are you?" He put his arm around her. "No. I'm sorry. I've been doing nothing but complain all the way here. This has all been very...uncomfortable." Avis wanted him to give her a hug or to hug him, but she held back from asking or doing so. "You'll get used to it. Let's get ready for bed, alright? We'll need to be up at dawn again tomorrow." "Alright..." Avis got ready for bed. She tried to convince herself she didn't care that her father could see, but it didn't work. She turned away from him as she changed, constantly glancing over her shoulder to see if he looked at her. He kept his back to her, facing the entrance of the tent. She felt a little silly for worrying so much over this. She crawled into the cot. Avis stared up at the top of the tent. She could hear men laughing and arguing outside. Laying there, she suddenly felt vulnerable. She couldn't sleep. It had also been a long while since she was able to spend so much time with her father. His behavior towards her had been strange lately. She thought they were closer. He had become so cold to her after the incident with the dragon, and then suddenly warm again not long after. It made no sense to her. Perhaps, she wondered, he was treating her the same way he treated his servants and the king. Avis reminded herself of why everything had gone wrong with the dragon. He must have wanted to save her then. The coldness may have been to protect himself. She couldn't be sure. There was something else she had been wondering about. It occurred to her when Flora brought up marriage. Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness. She saw that her father was awake too. He stared listlessly up at the top of the tent like she had been doing. Breaking the silence in the tent, she asked. "Father, can I ask you something?" "What is it?" He sounded distracted. "Why are you unmarried? I know you do not love anyone other than my mother, but someone in your position is normally married." He paused for a moment before answering her. "I was married once, a long time ago." Given his reaction, Avis debating on whether she should ask for more details. He had told her so many painful things already. She decided to push the issue. "What happened?" Faolán got up from the cot and lit a candle. He sat back down on the cot facing her. His face was blank. "I took her life." Avis sat up. The answer didn't surprise her. "Why?" "I didn't..." He started over. "I told you before, I am a monster. I'm a coward, and in the end, I always put myself first." Avis got up from the cot. She sat down beside him, placing her hand on his. "You can tell me what happened. You've already told me so many other things." "You won't leave me be until I tell you." "No, I won't." Avis smiled at him. "I don't understand why you want to hear such things." He pulled his hand away from her and kept his gaze on the floor. "I was twenty then, and I was starting to calm down from my cruelty. We were engaged for a while before then, and my parents moved our wedding sooner in hopes that it would help settle me down. She was fifteen, and completely terrified of me. Not that I blamed her for feeling that way. In the time we spent together before the wedding, I started to pity her. On our wedding night, I took her out into the woods. I wanted to free her. I shouldn't have taken her out that night." Avis felt a heavy pain in her chest. She thought of her mother. "What went wrong?" "As I had done when I was a child, I had relearned to insert selfish motives into my kinder thoughts and pay attention to every underlying intention inside me. Outside of my attempts to fix things with Flannán, I hadn't needed to monitor my thoughts in that way for a long time. It took time to train my mind to do so. When Reina and I married, I thought I had myself completely under control, possibly enough I could finally correct things with your mother. When I took Reina out that night, I was going to help her run away. She was in love with a farm boy who lived nearby. It was a cold and moonless night. The sky hid the stars well. I took her out into that vast darkness late into the night. I don't know what she thought was going to happen. There were a lot of strange rumors about me, exaggerated ideas due to my violent doings. Around then, I had gained the reputation of being a demon straight from Hell, my real form a black hound or wolf, and my face an illusion. You know how people are about woods. It's full of shadows and unknowns. A demon taking her into the woods. I'm sure she was afraid for her soul more than anything. When I had taken her far from the castle, I helped her down from my horse. She was shaking so much. I tried to tell her I was setting her free. She mistook what I meant. Like the others, she believed I really was a demon, and I had come to collect her soul. I remember her lifting up her dress and begging with tears in her eyes. 'I'll do anything you want. Please don't take me away.' Her terror broke open something inside me. Many women had pleaded with me like that before. This time was different. I had come to know her well, despite the distance she kept between us during our engagement. While she cried there in front of me, I saw Flannán. The moon was suddenly full above me and everything was covered in red. I could feel the texture of her red cloak in my hands. It was in my mind, it had to have been. It seemed so real. I wanted to get away from that place. My mind raced, and my control over my thoughts waned. I started shouting at Reina to leave, run far away from me, or I would hurt her. She was too afraid to move. She just stood there in place, crying. 'Please don't kill me. Please, I'll do what you want.' The more terrified she was, the more my mind became cluttered. I grabbed her shoulders and yelled at her. I didn't mean to. 'Listen to me. I'm trying to help you. You have to get away from me. Don't you understand?!' She only cried more. I knew if this continued, I would do something to hurt her. In my fear of doing so, I lost my control. I grabbed her wrist and led her towards a nearby village. I said to her, 'You have to escape. I'm doing this to protect you.' My body started to burn as I walked with her. Her voice changed to one too familiar. All I heard was Flannán screaming at me, the same as that night. I let go of her and turned around. All I saw before me was Flannán, looking the same as she was that night. That red cloak covered her. The texture was there again in my hands. I looked down and saw nothing, but I could still feel it there. I got out my knife. I tried to say to her, 'Please kill me.' I was only able to get out the word 'please' before my skin started to crack open. I dropped to my knees and tried to say it again. My body burned deeper. I couldn't take it any longer. I can't remember what happened clearly after that. The next thing I knew, I was sitting beside her with my knife still in hand, covered in blood. Reina lay in front of me, cold and bleeding. She had already stopped breathing when I realized what I had done. I don't know how long I sat beside her. Everything was red and bright. I could see the moon illuminating what I had done. When I looked in the stream beside us, the sky was empty. And yet, my body cast a shadow over hers--the shadow of a wolf. I dug her a grave with my bare hands. The moon never left me. When I returned the next morning, I was covered in blood and dirt. My parents would not speak to me, and have since never spoken to me again. The rest of my family soon distanced themselves from me. I thought it was best this way. Anyone I cared for, even in the slightest, I would in time come to hurt or allow to be hurt. It was best for me to be alone. I chose never to get married again after that. Her family never sought action against me. I came to learn her family had only agreed to the marriage to begin with because they were afraid of what might happen to them if they refused. While I was still a teenager, I could terrify grown men with power. It was after that incident I realized how much of a monster I really was. When I look in the mirror, I do not see a human. I am what they say I am, a beast disguised as a man. I told you before I simply stopped caring for anything. I lied to you. I chose apathy. I should have killed myself, but I am and always have been a coward. No matter how I wish to offer up my life, I'm too worthless to let even that happen." Avis didn't realize she was crying until her father wiped her tears away. She couldn't say anything in response. "I'm sorry. I intended to keep you at a distance, but I have failed yet again. I had hoped you wouldn't have asked about that at a time like this. I wanted your mind to be free from as many painful thoughts as possible before..." He looked away from her again. "Tomorrow, you will know a pain you have not felt before. It will be greater than the one you are feeling now. Please, go on and rest. Hate me if you must, but do not pity me." "I have never hated you." Avis started to cry again. She couldn't hold back her tears. She always tried so hard not to cry in front of him. "Avis, go to sleep." He blew out the candle. She did as she was told. Morning came quickly. At dawn, she was dressed in her armor, sitting atop her horse beside her father's. Avis stared out at the army before them. She couldn't count how many people were there. An eerie quietness came over the land in the moment before the battle began. When it started, she wasn't as quick to act as the others. It was happening too fast for her. Everything around her was chaos. She tried to focus on what she was supposed to be doing, but she couldn't concentrate. Her horse bucked her. With a thud, she hit the ground in a muddy puddle of blood. The impact knocked the wind out of her. People scattered away from her injured horse. Avis reached for her sword and stood up quickly. Someone came at her. Her mind blanked, overcome with fear. Avis reacted swiftly, dodging and cutting through. Blood splattered everywhere as the man's body fell back against the wet earth. Avis stared down at the blood covering her. The man's body lay before her, sliced open. She could still see his innards desperately trying to work in vain. Her stomach turned and her hands shook. From the left, another blade was coming down on her. She couldn't move. Avis stood watching. The man's swing seemed to move in slow motion. Before he could strike her, she was splashed with blood again. A shining wolf in flames was painted red before her. Faolán paid no attention to her, cutting through to the next soldier. Someone yelled from behind her, "Boy, what are you just standing there for? Move your ass!" Everything moved too fast. Avis panicked and blindly swung at anyone who came near her. She kept swinging until everyone stopped. When she looked around, mangled corpses, broken bits of metal, and blood filled the vast field. She was completely covered in a cold crimson. Avis let her sword hang loosely in her palm, every part of her shaking. People were cheering. She wanted to throw up. "Avis, what's wrong?" Faolán put his hands on her shoulders from behind. She flinched and turned around with her sword pointed at him. He saw the terror still in her eyes. Calmly, he took her sword and sheathed it for her. "You should wash yourself off." Avis did not respond to him. "Let's go. We can't have anyone see. I'll guard the front while you bathe." Avis followed him, still unable to say anything. The world around her didn't seem real. It was a bad dream. She wanted to tell herself that, but she knew it was a lie. Avis undressed herself, facing the back of the tent. She washed herself with a wet rag and a bucket of water. Faolán kept his back to her, watching the entrance of the tent as he cleaned himself. "Do you need any help?" He asked. Avis said nothing. She scrubbed her skin where the blood had long since washed away. She could still see it in her mind. She scrubbed harder and harder until her skin started to turn red. Faolán made quick work of washing and drying off. He started to get dressed. After he put on his pants, Faolán looked back at her, worried about her silence. Seeing what she was doing, he took hold of her hand. "That's enough. You're only hurting yourself. Let me have it." Avis let go of the rag. He took it from her and tossed it in the bucket. He placed a towel on her back. "Dry yourself off and get dressed." She went through the motions without thinking and retreated to her cot. Avis didn't bother binding her chest. Her clothes hung haphazardly on her. With a blanket covering her, she put her knees to her chest. Faolán sat down beside her. "This feeling will pass. This is your duty now. Protecting the kingdom often means taking someone else's life." It was completely gone, but Avis couldn't unsee the blood splatter that had been there. The smell of it was everywhere. "Shh." He held her shoulders again. "Go ahead and sleep. We move forward tomorrow. You must prepare yourself. There will be many more battles before we return home." Avis lay down. Sleep would not come to her. She quietly listened to her father move around the tent. When all the light was gone outside and she couldn't hear her father moving around anymore, she started to cry. She kept quiet. She didn't want him to know. He would tell her exactly what she didn't want to hear--the same thing her mother told her, and the same that Flora warned her about. A light brightened the room. Faolán had lit a candle. Avis pulled the blanket over her head to hide her face. The blanket was pulled off of her. She waited for him to mock her. The look on his face was one of pity. He held out his arms. "Come here, my little flame." Avis didn't hesitate. She clung to him tightly, letting out all she had been holding in. He held her and patted her head as she cried. "I can take you home." "No." "You don't have to force yourself." His body temperature rose as he held on to her. "This is my duty to the king." She said. Her words were full of emptiness. "Avis...that's enough of that. Let me take you home." "Why aren't you saying it?!" Avis hit her fists against his chest. "Why won't you tell me to get over it? That I'm being weak? Why won't you tell me this is what I asked for?! You think I can't handle it at all!" "I know you can. Avis, tell me again, why do you want to become a knight? Is it to fulfill some ridiculous code to a king and a church? Didn't you want something more than that? You don't have to serve Silvanus and fight in this foolish war to be what you want. You're enough as you are." He tried to pull her close again. Avis pushed him away. "I promised the princess I would return victorious. I won't break my vow." Faolán let her go. "You know it too, then? Avis, I can't stop where this will lead you. But know that wherever your heart takes you, you will not become a monster." "Father, I already am." She cried again. In shame, she hid her face. "If you think that makes you a monster, you have yet to know how truly dark this world is." He put his hand on her shoulder. "Here, let me fix you something to eat. You didn't eat any dinner." "I'm not hungry." "Avis, I've told you before about watching your health. You need every bit of strength you can get. Have you not been paying attention to the night sky?" He asked. She dried off her face. "No. Why?" "The moon is almost full." He pulled back the opening of the tent to reveal the night sky. A nearly perfect circle illuminated them. "I can't save you in battle. Your spirit is weak right now. Do not allow your body to be just as frail." "Yes, sir." "It's only going to get harder from here. Focus your thoughts. Don't let them control you." Avis noticed the change in color of her father's shirt. "You're bleeding again." "So I am." He glanced at his sleeves. "It's alright. I don't mind this much pain." Avis knew the cause for the blood. She felt even weaker. She forced herself to eat. Avis dreaded their next battle, and there were more to come after that. She couldn't pretend there wasn't a face underneath the helmets of the soldiers before her. Their pasts were a mystery to her. She knew in her heart most of them were simply there because they were poor and needed money to send back home. The way they fought was no different than the soldiers standing beside her. Their motives, their needs, their pain--it was all the same. The only thing separating them from the soldiers she stood by was nothing more than a matter of differing banners. It would be so much easier if she could convince herself they were different, but she could not lie to herself. She found another way to think of it. It was a job they were being paid for. Every person who came there that day knew the risks and what it was that would be asked of them. If she didn't take their life, it could be hers instead. Dying here wouldn't accomplish any of her goals, and it was impossible for her to help everyone. At the moment, she served King Silvanus, and more than him, Princess Flora. To keep the princess safe, Avis had to fight for her. The noble knights in the stories she used to hear sometimes had to take life for a cause. Some things were not avoidable. To keep Flora safe, that was why she was fighting. She repeated that to herself in her head hundreds of times. When the battles were over, she scrubbed away all of the blood and lamented the loss of life that came with each fight. It was an agonizing existence. All of this fighting seemed unnecessary to her. Avis dreamt of being back at the castle with Flora constantly. As disgusted as she was with what she had to do, it would be worth it to preserve that tiny sanctuary for Flora. It disturbed her to realize she could convince herself to do such things for Flora. If Flora saw her in battle, it would disgust her, and Avis knew she would keep on fighting despite that for the sake of Flora's life. How cruel could she become if it meant keeping Flora safe? She thought of her oldest brother. It was clear to her when that fairy mentioned his violence that it must have been for the sake of that prince. To spill so much blood for one life, his devotion must have been deeper than she could imagine. Fear had made a monster out of her father, but was her brother too not a monster crafted by love? She gave herself reasons for what she was doing. Even for Flora, she knew the loss of life was still wrong. She would keep moving forward despite that. Did that make her actions good or evil? Months passed before they could return. Avis mastered her thoughts far more in those months than all the years she trained under her father. Her embarrassment over having to spend so much private time with her father also stopped mattering to her. She didn't care about the tent issue. In retrospect, she realized her father was right to call her childish for caring. The bathing issue didn't bother her by then either. She had gotten so used to it that she stopped thinking about it altogether. She would endure anything to keep Flora safe. While she had learned to deal with that, she felt an overwhelming sense of relief when her father told her late into one afternoon that they were no longer needed out in the field. "It is time for us to return to the king." Avis had something else on her mind other than Flora that day. "Father, this is close to our home, isn't it?" He looked around. "Yes, it is." "I would like to ask your permission for something." "What is it?" Avis was uncertain how her father would react to her request. She spoke softly. "I would like to visit my mother." He looked away from her. "I see. You may go. I'll let the king and your princess know where you are." "Is it really alright?" She asked. "I won't deny you from seeing your mother." "Thank you. I will return soon." She bowed to him and rode ahead. With her nineteenth birthday having passed, it had been nine years since she had seen her mother. Not much had changed since she left. She followed the same familiar roads. There were many children, as there always were, running about, and those she remembered as children were now grown. They toiled away in the same work their parents had done. With her helmet on, no one would recognize her. As she did not dismount nor hurry through town, the people mostly kept away from her but did not hide. She found her mother outside her old home, tending to the earth. She had aged so much in that time, more than her father had. Her mother's brown hair had faded completely to gray. Avis dismounted and approached her. "Come to torment me again, little wolf?" Her mother didn't face her. Avis removed her helmet. "No, mother. It is me." She looked back at her for a moment and returned to what she was doing. Her mother was as cold to her as before. "It makes no difference. Why do you return?" Avis was not discouraged by her mother's demeanor. She had managed to get her father to open up and be kind to her. There was a chance she could do the same with her mother. "I came to see you." "For what purpose?" "Father has told me much about his past, but I want to understand you as well. If you will allow me, please." Avis bowed to her. "Don't put up your formalities. You won't leave me be until then. Come, let's speak somewhere else." Her mother dusted off her palms and walked into the woods. Avis followed her. When they reached the great river near the village, her mother stopped and sat down in front of the water. "What did you want to know?" Avis sat too, keeping distance between them out of humility. "You must be angry at me for what I've become." "You're wrong. I don't feel anything for you. I never have." Her words stung. Avis flinched as she spoke. "I don't feel anything toward anyone." "I know your life has been hard, but did that mean you needed to become cold to me too?" Avis wanted to move closer to her. She held herself back. "Look around you, child. You should know by now what the world is really like. You weren't born from love, so why do you expect it?" "I am not responsible for my father's actions." Avis said, a bit of anger coming out of her. She felt guilt in letting it out. Anger wouldn't get her any closer to understanding her mother's pain. She reminded herself not to let her own pain overshadow the reason she had come there. "It doesn't matter. You've set yourself on the same path. You were born looking like him, and you're here before me now looking like him." Flannán snapped at her. "Tell me, do you think my mother loved me? Or my father? I was traded off as a piece of tarnished property to the lowest bidder. If you didn't disguise yourself as you are, you would be no different." "Does it have to be that way?" "That is the way of man's world." Flannán's agitation grew. "Mother, please. Let me understand you. I don't come here to torment you. I want to know who you really are, and if you will let me, I want to help you." Avis bowed again. "What help could you possibly give me?" Her mother sneered at her. "I don't know. I can't answer that until I know what it is you want." She let herself move slightly closer to her mother. "I don't want anything other than to be left alone!" She yelled. "If that is what you truly wish, Mother, then after I leave, I will not visit you again." Avis felt her hopes fading. It may be impossible after all, she thought. "I've already asked for Father to do so." Her mother finally looked at her. "What is it you want me to say to you that you don't already know? You know how you were born, and how your brothers were born. He violated me, the same as that man who pretended to be your father." "What...Mahli...?" Avis's mouth hung open. "Why are you shocked? Has living like that made you so blind to reality? There is no difference to me between what that wolf did and what my husband did. I held no love for either, and I had no right to refuse either. My husband simply had approval from the church. Don't kid yourself into thinking they are the only ones either. My father was the first to violate me. That's why he had settled with Mahli to begin with. I was already damaged." Her mother plucked a flower from the ground before her and tossed it into the river. Avis was unnerved by how easily her mother could say all these things. The revelation about her grandfather disturbed her most of all. "Why would he do such a thing?" "Because he wanted to fix me. It's fine to break me if it's to fix a sin." She gave Avis a wicked smile filled with hatred. "That wolf couldn't tell you about that because he never knew. Do you know why I own this cloak?" Avis had that heavy feeling in her heart again. She had to hear her mother out, no matter how painful the truth would be. "No." "My father paid a lot of money for it, to dress me in to impress older men with after he did it. I wasn't as valuable anymore. I needed to come with a little more. I don't know how he acquired it. He wouldn't say, but I knew it wasn't in a proper way. The jewels on this are worth more than my home and anything my father ever owned. It never stains and never wears. It's a wicked thing." She showed off the jewels on the cloak. It had never occurred to Avis before, but her mother often wore that cloak. Her father mentioned shredding her dress to pieces that night and her mother wearing that cloak. There wasn't a hint of damage on it. "I still don't understand...why did he do something like that to you?" Avis asked, a nervousness building in her voice. "I loved someone taboo in more than one way." Her mother ran her fingers over the cloak. "I needed to be corrected. He was 'showing me my place' as a woman. All he showed me that night was terror. Do you know what my mother did?" Avis shook her head. Flannán stared out at the river. "Nothing. She simply left the house and went to wash clothes." "Mother...I am sorry..." Avis's voice was barely above a whisper. "The next day, she told me I should get used to it and behave myself properly from now on. Then she told me to be grateful father was doing everything in his power to find me a suitable husband. That day, I understood it. There was no such thing as love in the adult world. Children are born to work and grow to bear more children to work. There is no meaning to it." Avis realized something as her mother spoke. This anger her mother was letting out was different than when she yelled at her as a child. She was venting to her. In all this time, her mother had been keeping this pain inside all alone. "I'm sorry..." Avis moved to be beside her. She tried to hold her mother's hand. "But I know love does exist among people. It may not always be something they can have, but it doesn't mean it doesn't exist." "If no one can have it, then it is a pointless feeling." Her mother swatted Avis's hand away. "Just as friendships are pointless. People only care about what they can steal and trade to keep for themselves. Your father was no different. I thought he would be different since he was still a child, but he is the same as all the others. He's the cruelest one I've known. The others didn't pretend to care." A sad thought crossed Avis's mind. "Was he your only friend?" "Yes, he was. The entire village knew about me. Everyone already thought I was strange to begin with. No one was surprised when my father and mother asked the unmarried men around town to consider me despite being impure. Within a week, everyone knew. I remember so many women whispering behind my back that I was a whore." Avis noticed tears welling in her mother's eyes. "Did no one ask how it happened? You were so young..." "No one cared. I was a strange girl no one liked. Why wouldn't they say it was because I'm a whore? When my father dressed me up in that red cloak, they only laughed behind me. Of course I would wear red. That little wolf didn't know any of that. That's why I thought maybe he would be my friend. I could still be pure in his eyes. He didn't laugh at me when I told him I wanted to see a unicorn. For a time, when we spoke, it seemed like it could still happen despite my impurity." Her mother finally broke down into tears. Avis felt her own eyes watering watching her. "Then one night, he revealed himself to be nothing more than a beast. When I came home that night, I was covered in blood and my dress was so ripped I left it behind. I came home in nothing but this damn cloak. It still had not a single blemish on it." "Why do you still keep it on you? You should get rid of this awful thing." Avis held back her tears. She needed to be strong while her mother was like this. "It is the only thing of value I own. Look around the edges. There used to be jewels here." She showed her empty spots along the edges. "Whenever we needed more money, Mahli would take one off and sell it. Of course, he can't take anymore now." "Why not? Did something happen?" Avis asked. "He is dead. He died a few months ago. None of my family want me anymore, and no man in the village is interested in marry me. I had to do something I never wanted to do to keep my home." She curled up into herself, burying her head in her knees. "I sent a letter to your father for help." That was the first Avis had heard of that. "He never mentioned you contacting him." "He didn't come down here. He sent an official to guarantee no one took my property. I've been receiving money from him monthly. Don't you see, girl? I have no pride. I used you, a child I had already abandoned, as leverage to get assets from a man who violated me. I begged him." Her shoulders shook as she cried. Avis hesitated. She was certain her mother would likely push her away again. She tried anyway and gave her mother a hug. "Mother, you do not need to be ashamed. There was little you could do, and he owes you that at least for the suffering he caused you." Flannán did not push her away. She cried for a while longer. Her voice became softer. "Would you have done it?" "I don't know what I would have done." Avis stroked her head and nuzzled against her. "There is a reason pride is both a virtue and a vice." Her mother picked up on something. That wasn't the answer Avis would have given her as a child. "You've changed, haven't you? What have you done, girl?" Avis said aloud what she wanted to hide from the world. "Upon order by the king, I have taken life." Her mother looked up at her. Avis could tell Flannán was searching for something in her, but she did not know what. Her mother gave her a pitying look. "I told you. There's nothing noble in being a knight. Those tales were all just stories." "I know." Avis wanted to look away from her, but she forced herself not to. "Mother...may I ask who it was that you loved?" Her mother stared out at the river again. "I've never loved any human." "You mean to say...you've loved someone who is not human?" "The one I love lives in the river. The most beautiful person I have ever seen. Her hair is blue like the sky and her eyes are the color of leaves. Her skin is a perfect shade in between green and blue, muted like the water. I always snuck off to watch her dance in the waterfall when I was a child. She would sing such beautiful songs. I could watch her forever..." Her mother's tone changed. It was almost childish. "The one you love is the river nymph..." Avis remembered her father telling her about how much her mother loved to talk about fairies. She was a bit taken aback that her mother too cared not for men. She felt a little more at ease upon hearing that. "She spoke to me once. When I was ten, a white horse approached me. It was so beautiful I almost mistook it for being a unicorn. When I went to touch it, she came out from the water and grabbed me. She bore fangs and claws at the horse. The horse turned into a man and left. I realized later he was a kelpie come to catch me for his dinner." Her mother's eyes had a sparkle to them. Avis had never seen her like this before. She glowed in a way, almost looking younger. "She put me back on the land and gave me a gift, a water lily. She told me to go straight home and never go near that creature again. I did as she said, but I couldn't get myself to thank her. She was so beautiful, my voice lost itself. I've never told anyone about her. She was my precious secret until my father caught me watching her." At the mention of her grandfather again, Avis put the pieces together of what her mother's "taboo love" was and what her grandfather's words meant. It sickened her. Another detail lined up too perfectly. "Mother, Father told me my eldest brother was taken by a water nymph. Did you...?" She didn't deny it. "I left him for her to take. I was so young then, just a few months shy of turning fifteen. And there I was with a baby. No one expected me to live through childbirth. Somehow, I managed." Avis tried to imagine what that must have been like. She had heard of so many women dying while giving birth, and how painful the experience was in general. Memories from childhood of priests coming to give women their last rites when it was time for them to deliver came back to her. Her mother was younger than she was now for two pregnancies. "You must be very strong. That had to have been so difficult to endure." "It was. Once the baby was there, I didn't know what to do with him. I didn't want a child, and when I looked at him, all I saw was that wolf. I didn't even give him a name. I know that fairies liked golden things and taking children. I hoped if I left a little blond child down by the river, she would take him. She didn't see me, but I watched her as she took him away. She left me another gift that day, a second water lily." Her mother took out a small box from the pouch she was carrying. She opened it. Inside were two water lilies, appearing as if they had just been picked. "I've kept them all this time. They're the closest thing I have to any magic. They never need anything and they don't wilt. It's my only glimpse of eternity and goodness." She had it, a way to set her mother free. She could finally do what her father had failed to do. "Mother, have you ever considered asking her to steal you away?" "I can't ask her anything." Her mother shut the box. "But why? You love her so." "She is too beautiful for me to burden. If I were worthy of her, my voice would free me. I remain where I am, as I have always been and always will be." Flannán put the box back away and sighed. "Mother, I too know a love that I cannot keep. I am not sure what to do." Avis confessed. She hoped it would open up her mother more. "What keeps you apart?" "The one I love is engaged to someone else, and a woman. I cannot drop my act of being a man and live with her freely, nor can I take her in my current status. I am a knight, and she is a princess promised to a prince." Her cheeks flushed. Her father knew about her feelings for Flora, and teased her often, but she had never said how she felt about her so directly. Her heart pounded in her head, though she knew her mother would not judge her for it. "Take your own advice then. Steal her." "Steal her..." Avis didn't expect to have her words thrown back at her. She wondered if Flora would accept such a thing. Avis put those thoughts aside for the time being. She needed to set her mother free. Avis stood up. "Mother, I cannot bear to see you as you are when your freedom can so easily be had. Please, let me free you." "You can't free me." Her mother's words became cold again. "I will. There's no reason for you to stay here. Come with me." She grabbed her mother's wrist and pulled her forward. "What are you doing? Let go of me!" Flannán struggled, but Avis was much stronger than her mother. "I'm going to make sure you get stolen." She led her mother down the river. She didn't know where the river nymph lived, but her mother mentioned the waterfall. To her luck, the nymph was there again that day, singing as she danced on top of the rocks in front of the water. Avis bowed and spoke formally. "Excuse me, oh beautiful naiad. May I please have a moment of your time?" The nymph got down from the rocks and went over to them. She immediately touched Avis's hair. "Oh, what a pretty girl you are. You have such shiny, golden hair. I didn't know humans let girls be knights." Avis looked over herself. There was nothing to give her away that she could see. "Well, they don't. I am in disguise...though you clearly saw through it. If I am not imposing too much, I wish to speak with you." "You may child. What do you wish for?" The naiad's voice was calm. "Would you consider taking my mother away to your lands? She has admired you for a very long time, and the human world is no place for her." Avis pulled her mother forward to show her off. Flannán's face had turned a deep red. She stayed completely silent. "Take her? Does she wish to be a companion of mine? I must warn you. I am loyal, but my heart is loyal to many. That is my way." The naiad was more accepting of her offer than Avis expected. "My mother will be loyal." Avis said. "I don't ask for loyalty in return. If she wishes to leave me, she may. The stream only flows in one direction. I cannot fight against it. I won't stop her from leaving, and I would not turn her away for returning." She turned to Flannán, circling around her. "Pretty lady...you carry my magic on you. I can sense it. May I see what it is you have?" Flannán handed her the box of flowers, her hands shaking as she gave it to her. The nymph opened it and touched the first flower. Her eyes and the flowers glowed a blue color. "I see. So, you are the girl I rescued that day." She touched the other flower. "And this..." The naiad moved her hand away. Her eyes and the flowers both returned to normal. Tears welled in her eyes. She touched Flannán's face. "You gave me my son. Such a wonderful gift. Thank you." Flannán stood still. Her eyes never left the nymph's face. "What's this...this cloak of yours is also magic. A dark magic." The nymph touched the cloak. She quickly withdrew her hand. "This cloak was paid for by your father with part of you in exchange." "What do you mean?" Avis asked. "He cut a lock of your hair when you were sleeping and he took his sheets he stained with your blood. He gave them to a sorcerer to create this illusion. This cloak is nothing more than glamoured rags. This illusion feeds off your essence, your very soul itself. You cannot be happy so long as it exists." As she spoke to Flannán, both Flannán and Avis examined the cloak. It looked ordinary to both of them. "So, there is something magical about it. How do we stop it?" Avis felt over the texture of it. There was something off about it she couldn't place. It was scratching, almost like broken glass. "Pretty lady, do you wish to stay with me?" The nymph did not respond to Avis. She spoke to Flannán. Flannán still shook. She glanced over at Avis and then back at the nymph. With all of her strength, she spoke. "...Please...steal me..." "Then, we must rid you of this." The nymph smiled warmly at her. Her hands glowed. Part of the river rose up and wrapped around the cloak. It soaked through it, then splashed down to the ground, the cloak falling away with it. When it hit the ground, it turned to ash and the water ran back to the river. It took the ashes away with it. The nymph put her hands down. "I will have no such darkness in my home." Flannán dropped to her knees, gasping. "Mother...are you alright?" Avis knelt down beside her. "I can feel it...something I've been missing...what is this..." Flannán stared down at her hands. Avis couldn't see any differences. "The chains around you have been broken. Come, Lady." The nymph offered her a hand. "May I have your name?" Flannán took hold of her hand. "My name? I am Flannán. May I...ask your name?" "I will cover my ears if you wish, lady!" Avis bowed. "Sweet girl. You brought me a gift. I can see that you will do no ill will to me. I will tell you both my name. I am Liliana." She walked to the waterfall and pulled it back as if it were a curtain. "Come, let me show you my real home." Behind the waterfall was what looked like another land entirely. It was greener and full of flowers despite it being midway through Autumn. She climbed upon the rocks and walked into that place. Avis took her mother's hand and led her through the water and onto the other side. On the other side, there were more flowers. Fruits hung plentifully from trees. Another river flowed from a parallel waterfall. Avis thought of her oldest brother and what living in this place must have been like. Flora also entered her mind. She must have seen something like this when she was spirited away as a child. Something white caught her attention. Flannán had gone still again. A white mare with a golden horn atop her head pranced in front of them. Liliana called the creature over to her and petted it. She led the beautiful creature over to them. Liliana presented the unicorn to them. "You may touch her." "But I'm...I'm not..." Her mother stuttered her words. Avis took hold of her mother's hand and placed it on the unicorn's muzzle. The creature looked at her with its deep blue eyes and rubbed its head against her. Flannán could not speak again. Her fears were replaced with an overwhelming sensation of awe. A tear slid down her cheek. Flannán petted the unicorn for a long time. While she did so, Liliana prepared something inside a golden cup. She presented it to Flannán. "This is a gift. If you wish to stay longer, I will give you a different one. For now, this should give you more time." She handed her the cup. "What do you mean by time?" Avis asked her. Flannán drank from the cup. As she drank, her skin brightened. Her wrinkles faded away and her gray hair returned to brown. The woman before Avis appeared to be around the same age as herself. Flannán saw her hair and ran over to the river to see her reflection. "You have made me young again..." She cupped water from the river into her hands and stared at her reflection closer up. The nymph smiled again. "Of course. How can you know if you wish to stay if your time is so short? Human life is too fleeting. I have reversed your time a little. If you choose to truly stay with me, I can stop it forever." Flannán kneeled before Liliana. She held her hand. "Thank you...you are so kind...What can I possibly give you in return?" "You have already given me a greater gift than anyone who has ever asked to stay by my side. You do not need to do anything else to gain my favor. I am eternally grateful to you." She leaned over and kissed Flannán. Avis felt out of place watching them. She asked the nymph if she could open up the waterfall for her to leave. Before she left, her mother spoke with her one last time. "Avis...why did you do this for me?" Her mother stood between her and the exit. Avis hugged her tightly. "It's simple, Mother. I love you." "I have done nothing to earn that love." She hugged back. "Love doesn't have to be earned." "I'm sorry, Avis. I was never a good mother to you, or any of my children. It was so hard for me to see you beyond seeing him." A tear fell from her face. "I know that, Mother. I do not blame you nor hold any ill will against you. Please, from now on, make yourself happy. That is what will bring me happiness." She kissed her mother on the cheek. "Thank you." Flannán didn't want to let go of her. "Please forgive me..." "Mother, I already have." Avis struggled to let go herself. She smiled at her again. "It is time for you to let your heart heal. Go on, now." "Avis, please do not become like I did. If you have already found love, steal her away. I know you could bring her happiness others only speak of in fairytales." With that, they said their goodbyes. Once Avis crossed to the other side, the waterfall returned to normal. She knew that she would never see her mother again. Her heart was filled with a heavy sadness matched equally with happiness. The journey from there was a quiet one. She said goodbye too to that place she had known as home when she was young. There was nothing left for her to return to here. Finally, she returned to Silvanus's castle. The sky was gray, a soft rumble in the distance. Her father greeted her after she reported in to the king. "You've returned. How was your visit?" He walked with her toward Flora's castle. Avis smirked. "You won't need to send her money anymore." "She told you about that?" Faolán stopped in place. "Yes. It won't be necessary now." "Oh, so she has remarried then." He said, continuing to walk alongside her. "No." Avis's grin grew wider. "I set her free." "What do you mean you set her free?" "I took her to the place her heart always longed for." Avis's words were filled with pride. "You took her to the fairy realm?" Faolán had something else in mind when she revealed this. "Something could have happened to you." "It's alright. I'm a warrior, after all. I'm not afraid to go into dangerous places." Avis tapped her hand on her scabbard. "You're still not invincible. You must be careful in going to such places." He reminded her. Faolán lowered his voice after that. "Was she happy when she left?" "Yes. I've never seen her so happy before." Avis beamed. "Oh, and she got to meet a unicorn after all." "Really? Was she able to touch the beast?" "I made sure she did." "Avis...thank you." His words carried a fragileness to them. "I'm glad she was able to find happiness again after I...tormented her so..." "How has Princess Flora been?" Avis asked. "The princess has been waiting for you. Go on and see her." He lightly hit her on the back to nudge her forward. Avis ran ahead of him, still grinning. He watched her go, in awe of her. "My little flame, how deeply you'll scorch the earth...I can see it." Avis ran straight for the garden. It wasn't as empty as in winter, but some of the flowers had stopped blooming. There were still many left that had bloomed again in Autumn. The roses were at their fullest. Flora stood in the middle of the garden, tending to a red rose bush. "Princess!" Avis called out to her. "Avis!" Flora dropped her gardening tools and ran over to her. She wrapped her arms around her, kissing her deeply. "It's been so long!" Avis met her with several short kisses after that. "I'm sorry, Princess. I kept you waiting. I went to see my mother on the way back." "How did it go?" Flora rested her head against Avis. "I freed her." "What do you mean?" "Well, it's a long story...do you want to hear it? I think you'll like the ending." Avis told her about meeting with her mother and all that she learned about her. Flora listened silently, completely absorbed in the tale. She shed a few tears during certain parts of the story. Flora asked nothing about the war or fighting. She told Avis of how lonely she was without her there, and how the flowers kept her company when Spring returned. Avis complained to Flora about the living arrangements she was stuck with. They both laughed about it. Flora commented that she couldn't imagine having to share a tent with her father, much less change or bathe near him. They talked about trivial things for a while, both having something else in their mind the whole time, waiting for the other to say it. Flora expected Avis to be too shy and knew she would have to make the first move. "Ah, Princess, I'm sorry. I missed your birthday. I never got you a gift." Avis said, scratching the back of her head. "That's alright. I missed yours too. Speaking of gifts..." Flora pulled Avis down into the grass. "Avis, do you remember what we promised before you left?" "Yes..." Avis's heartbeat rang in her ears. "Do you want me to fulfill your wish now?" "So formal. It's cute. You're always so..." Avis slid up the lower part of Flora's dress. "Princess, don't think you need to treat me so gently. I am not innocent nor am I pure. I've been thinking about you since the day I left...about the way you'll look when I touch you." Avis went in for a deep kiss. Flora met her halfway, her mouth open. The sensation of Flora's tongue on hers was unusual and exciting. She wanted more. Avis removed her armor. Her sword was left abandoned beside them, covered by her discarded clothes. Flora was grinning at her, her face a deep red. Her clothes were tossed on top of Avis's. Avis went straight for another kiss as she felt over Flora's breasts. The scent of the flowers in the air and the approaching rainstorm mixed with that of Flora's body. A sweet, earthy scent. It reminded her of the first time she visited the garden over a year ago. Flora's scent dominated the wildness around them. Avis was overcome with it, her body ached from being so close to the source. Her hands explored everything, running her fingers through the princess's hair to feeling inside somewhere far more intimate. Her fingers were able to slide in more easily than she expected. Flora was already very wet. Flora felt over Avis's breasts with one hand and in between Avis's legs with the other. Avis broke Flora's contact as she kissed a trail down Flora's body. When she reached where her fingers were, she licked above it. Flora gasped in response. Avis licked more before she tried sucking. She kept her fingers inside, sliding them back and forth as she worked above that with her mouth. Flora got louder. Excited by the sound of Flora's voice, Avis acted on what she had been wanting. She sat up and spread open Flora's legs. Carefully, she positioned herself on top of Flora, their body's aligned exactly as she wanted them to be. She moved, letting the way her body felt dictate the flow of it. The contact between them was burning hot and slick, their fluids mixing together. A sensation was building up inside Avis. Her back arched as the sensation grew. Flora grabbed hold of Avis's thigh and the grass, grinding faster against her. When her movements were at their most erratic, Flora let out a soft moan. The sound of Flora's moaning set Avis over the edge. Her mind went blank. She didn't disguise her voice. Her concern over being caught disappeared. All she could feel was physical. The intense pleasure completely overwhelmed her. The times when she had touched herself paled in comparison. Avis collapsed down in the grass beside Flora. All of her energy was spent. Flora rested against her chest and giggled. Avis couldn't stop herself from having a silly smile on her face. She wrapped her arm around Flora. "I need to get dressed. I can't have anyone know I'm a woman." Avis said. "Can't we stay like this a little longer? We're already covered by the flowers." Flora begged. Avis couldn't refuse the look Flora was giving her. "Well, maybe a little longer..." Avis lingered there with Flora longer than she should have. She remembered there was a meeting she needed to attend with the king, and judging by the sun, she was already late. She kissed Flora goodbye and threw her clothes back on. Her hair was still a complete mess when she reached the other castle. Avis straightened up her appearance as she went to the meeting the king was holding that day. Her hair and clothes were still somewhat disheveled, but she had no time to make herself completely presentable. As she usually stood near the back during these meetings, no one seemed to notice. There was nothing of importance to her in the meeting. She let her mind wander to earlier. Her father noticed how late she was and the messiness of her presentation. The happy, dazed look on her face confirmed his suspicions. When the meeting ended, Faolán stopped her in the hall. "Just a moment." "What is it?" Avis stopped. He pulled a few petals and leaves from her hair and grinned. "What were you getting up to earlier?" "None of your business." "You needn't be ashamed." "I am not ashamed. It's not something I wish to talk with you about." Once again, her father had gotten her to admit what she did not want to say. She wanted to smack herself. "Very well." He lowered his voice. "Did the book help you any?" "I didn't look at it!" Avis lied. "If you say so." He leaned over and whispered to her. "I don't think red suits you well." "I'm not wearing any red." Avis looked over herself, confused. "Oh, and here I thought you had become partial to fixing up your face." Avis's cheeks burned. "Leave me be." By the end of the year, the war ended. King Silvanus was less than thrilled, having wanted to steal more land for himself. His main allies Egret and Argus were no longer able to help him. Argus's lands were now ruled by one of his sons, Wren, who ended the war and had no interest in allowing any battles near his home. With Egret, his wife, and only legitimate son dead, the land was in control of his daughter, Rosabella. She quickly married the newly crowned King Wren and joined their lands as one. This left only King Philip, his most distant ally, to turn to, and he was busy rebuilding his army. The two kept in constant contact about plans for taking King Brion's kingdom, which was now being ruled by his son Mark after the king's death, and dividing it between themselves. Much to their luck, the man Flora was engaged to had decided to become allies with King Brion shortly after the war. Though that kingdom never fought in battle, offering only support in form of supplies, they could not be wed because of it. Silvanus had not called off the arrangement between the two in hopes of using the girl as a peace offering once he reignited the tensions between the lands. She would make for an easy scapegoat to use to start a war if anything were to happen to her. They needed the general public to believe they only had their best interests in mind. It was easy to fill an army off of the death of an innocent girl. With his wife soon to deliver a child, one the women were most certain was a boy, he was feeling less concerned over what he might have to give up by throwing aside his daughter's life. After all, she was only a girl. A son was a far more valuable asset. He met with Philip in secret to discuss his plans. It needed to be done carefully and well timed. It was still too early to let anything happen to the princess. He needed to build up the public's fear first. The end of the war meant something different for Avis. Faolán spoke with her in private at night, as Avis was already going to wash his wounds for him then. As she prepared the water, he locked the door. "Your eldest brother has been officially pronounced dead." Avis dropped the washcloth in her hand. "What?!" "Along with the crown prince. As you have heard by now, the younger prince has succeeded Argus's throne." Faolán had an amused expression. "Why is it you do not seem sad that your son has died?" She asked. "Avis, surely you know the answer to that. I cannot mourn a death that has not passed." He relaxed on the bed. "There were hundreds of corpses, and not one among them could be identified as either of them. I wonder why that might be..." "You think they ran away together in the confusion?" "I suppose your brother won't be the only one to disappear by fire. I heard the entire field was scorched. And then you...perhaps Luke too, to make a set. The fairy only mentioned fire with you. Your flames must be particularly impressive." Avis ignored his comment. "The water is ready. Undress." He removed his clothes and turned his back to her as he sat down in the tub. She had gotten to washing off his wounds whenever she had time. The skin didn't look at bad as before. There were still bits of heavily damaged skin, but as if by some sort of magic, the mark on his back was beginning to fade. As she washed, she spoke with him about his condition. "Have you done anything wicked today?" "No, I haven't." "It's been a long while since you've said you have. I wonder if that's why the wolf mark isn't as dark as before." She checked over his arms. There were recent cracks along the back. Near the top of his shoulders, there always seemed to be at least a few of these open each time she washed him. She had noticed his legs were rarely damaged. The burning appeared to spread outward and down from the top of his back. "Perhaps so." "Has it been difficult?" Avis poured a bucket of cool water over his back. He went quiet for a moment. "Hmm...I don't know." Avis lay against his back and held him. She could feel the heat through his skin. It was almost unbearable. "Well, I'm glad you haven't regardless." "You shouldn't get so affectionate with me. I am a monster, you know." She couldn't tell if he was joking or being serious. "You wouldn't hurt me." "You don't know that." His shoulders tightened. "You won't." Avis repeated herself. Her father didn't say anything else to her. His skin felt so hot to touch Avis had to move away from him. She poured another bucket of water on his back. While the kings in the area were all busy with their own affairs, Flora's wedding kept getting pushed further back. Avis was glad, though she worried about the looming prospect of another war. Silvanus was ready for another, now more than ever as his wife finally had a male heir, but his plans too had to be put on hold. His remaining ally, King Philip had pushed his luck with King Mark. Mark attacked Philip, completely destroying his entire kingdom. Avis heard from the other soldiers that the castle had been set ablaze by the sky itself with a bolt of lightning to one of the towers during the battle. The fire spread from there, engulfing everything. Her father was called away to examine the dead. Her older brother Luke had served under King Philip. As most of the people in the castle were killed, he was presumed dead. Her father was to see if he could identify him among the bodies. He returned with the same look on his face when he told her about her other brother's supposed death. "Officially missing, presumed dead." He stated. "So, a set of three. I wonder who the other half was. I can't believe your whore of a brother finally became attached to someone. Whoever he is must be one impressive man." "Where do you think he went?" Avis asked. "I don't know. If that woman is right, I suppose wherever that other man wanted to go." Avis had mixed feelings about her brothers. She had heard much of them, but not met either of them. She wanted to talk to them, though what she heard about them also made them intimidating to ask to meet. Now, she likely would never get to see them. As the years went by, she enjoyed her days with Flora in the garden and doing the quests her father sent her off on. "Florence" still accompanied her, and Faolán joined them on occasion to observe her progress. Flora was quite formidable in battle when she used her magic, but she usually only observed. She had sworn to the fairy woman who gave her that gift she would use it for good. Only if the task qualified as for good did she use her magic. Often what qualified something as good to her was protecting Avis. If Avis didn't require it, she didn't offer help. On her twenty-second birthday, after celebrating in the garden with Flora, her father asked her to stay a while longer after she finished washing his back. He sat by the window as he dried himself off. "I met your oldest brother the other day...I still don't know if I was dreaming or awake." "What do you mean?" Avis joined him by the window. "I know it happened, but it doesn't seem real in my mind. He was sitting in a rowan tree, watching me. He never said a single word to me, only smiling. There was something about him that was unworldly. I couldn't utter a word in his presence. The way he looked at me, it was as if he was piercing straight through me. My whole body burned in a way it hadn't since that one night." Faolán recounted the sight. Avis listened attentively. "I couldn't move until it started to rain. I looked up at the sky briefly when the rain started. When I looked back, he was gone. I couldn't shake the feeling that he had come all that way to mock me." "Why would he do that?" Avis asked. "I can't begin to know. He was always a strange one." Faolán remembered something. "Oh, I nearly forgot. I missed most of it. How was your birthday? Did you do anything special with the princess?" Avis scratched the back of her head. "Ah, well...uh..." "Not something you wish to talk with me about?" He said to embarrass her. "Essentially." Avis didn't blush anymore when her father teased her about such things. "Why do you ask about that? Isn't it awkward for you too?" For once, he let his own embarrassment show. "Yes, but...you know how things were for your mother and I. I didn't want you to have bad experiences like that. Even if it's uncomfortable for me to talk about it with you, I wanted to make sure you were happy with that part of your life." "I see...Thank you for caring. Some fathers would not be so kind to a daughter like me." Avis thought of her grandfather. "I'm glad you're happy with her." He patted her on the head. "But you know, I also like to tease you." "I've noticed. It's not funny." She glared at him. "Oh, but it is." Shortly before winter began, the king had sent them on a trip to look into a supposed magical item deep in the mountains. Flora was not allowed to go with them this time. About halfway through the trip, temperatures started to severely drop. Avis didn't complain to her father, but she was freezing cold. The blankets she had brought with her were no longer enough to keep her warm at night either. One night, as she shivered under her blankets, Faolán added one of his to her pile. Avis said nothing of it, wrapping the blankets tightly around herself. In the morning, Faolán found Avis curled up against him, sleeping soundly. He assumed she must have done so in her sleep, instinctively seeking something warm. All of the blankets they had brought with them were around her. He shook her shoulder lightly to wake her. Avis scratched her eyes and yawned. "Good morning, little flame. Did you sleep well?" He grinned. "Huh? What? Why am I over here?" Avis looked back and then hid under the blankets again. "Don't look at me. I didn't bring you over here." He handed her a brush from his bag. "Cold?" She took it, but did not use it. Avis curled deeply into the blankets, shivering. "It's freezing out there. Why is it so cold?" "Winter is about to begin." Faolán sat up. He looked outside the tent. Everything around them was covered in white. "Snow?" "It's snowing?" Without thinking about it, Avis rested against her father as she wrapped the blankets tighter around herself. "Isn't it too early?" "Seems winter has decided to begin early. We'll need to head back before it gets worse. I'll be fine, but this storm looks like it's going to get worse. This is no place for you." "I'm not weak." She protested. "I'm not saying you are. This is no place for any ordinary person. I'll be fine. I can't freeze to death. My body will melt the snow before that could ever happen." He held his hand outside the tent. The falling snow turned to water in his palm. "Oh...I didn't think about that." "Get changed quickly. We're returning home." He closed the tent. He added, "I'm sure you'd rather warm up beside the princess than me." "Must you always say indecent things." Avis sighed. She bound her chest and threw her clothes on over the ones she had slept in. She helped her father pack up everything. She got ready to mount her horse. He stopped her. "Here, ride with me." He said. "Why?" "I'll keep you warm." "I'll look like a child." She was far too old to be riding with him. If anyone saw her riding in with him, they would surely laugh at her, even more so with her disguised as a man. "You are my child. Now, get up here." He patted the spot in front of him. She reluctantly complied. "I'll be alright without this, you know." "Most likely. But there's no sense in you being colder than you have to be. Might as well take advantage of this damn curse." He took off his gloves. "Here, wear my gloves over yours. It'll keep you warmer. I don't really need mine." Avis put her father's gloves over her own. Though they were the same height, her father still had bigger hands than her. The gloves were warm from being on his hands. Faolán held on to the reigns of both their horses and kept his other hand on her stomach. She was grateful for his persistence in spite of her complaints. The extra warmth made the return trip much easier on her. They arrived at night. The castles too were covered in white. Flora had on a thick, fur-lined cloak. She greeted Avis at the door. "My loyal friend, you have returned early." "The weather was not on our side. How have you been, Princess?" Avis bowed. "I have been well, though it's been awfully lonely without you here. The garden is empty this time of year, so I've been stuck inside alone. I'm so glad you've returned." Flora hugged her. "Princess, we shouldn't do this in public..." Avis checked their surroundings. Her father smirked. "Oh, and what do you do in private, my son?" "Only gentlemanly things, of course." Flora rested her head against Avis. "Good. I know my son wouldn't be doing something as reckless as fooling around with a princess already promised to someone else." "Father!" Avis yelled. "I'm only teasing you. I suppose I should leave you to be. I'm sure you have a lot of catching up to do." Flora didn't wait for Faolán to leave before she kissed Avis. Avis's face turned red. She didn't reject Flora's affection, having missed her too much, but she was completely embarrassed to have her father see. When Flora pulled away, Avis looked over at him to see his reaction. He merely smirked at her and waved before he left. "It's so cold now. Won't you keep me company tonight?" Flora ran her fingers down Avis's shirt. Avis whispered. "You know it's risky for me to stay the night." "No one ever checks on me." Avis could never resist Flora. "If that is what you wish, my love." The hallway was empty at this hour. Flora clung to Avis's arm and leaned against her. Avis was nervous about being caught, but she enjoyed being able to be like this with Flora in such a public space. She wished she were free to do so when the halls weren't like this. Before Flora locked the door, Avis was already undressing herself. Flora giggled at her. "What?" "In a hurry, aren't we? Do you want me that badly?" She teased. "Pardon me, my love, but I've been holding this in for too long." Avis had gotten less shy about her desires over time. "Should I make myself proper again?" "No, not at all." Flora took off her dress. Avis picked up Flora. Flora laughed as Avis carried her to the bed. When sunrise came, Avis quickly dressed herself. Flora sleepily watched her. Avis leaned over to kiss her. "I'll see you after breakfast." "I look forward to it." Flora lounged on the bed, the upper half of her body carelessly exposed. Avis let her eyes wander down. She wanted to stay a while longer. Winter came in full force, keeping all three of them primarily inside the castle. Snow decorated the castle more than it had in years. Avis was very sensitive to the cold weather. While on an errand for the king, her father bought a thick, fur-lined cloak for her. It was heavier than Flora's and the fur was a lighter shade. Flora's cloak was a dark brown while Avis's was a soft tan color. Avis had always preferred lighter colors. She primarily dressed in shades of white and light blue, a stark contrast to the colors those she usually stood beside. Her father had always covered himself in reds and blacks, and Flora preferred deep purples. During the darkest part of winter, she spent many of her days with Flora in the library. She cuddled up beside her by the window, both of their cloaks layered on top of them as Flora read from one of her books. Some days, she fell asleep against Flora. In her dreams, it was always Spring in the garden. Every bloom was so bright it almost glowed. She could feel everything, the slightest touch, the smallest texture of a petal or a blade of grass. Flora's scent in the breeze surrounded her. When she was dreaming, the garden was infinite and her worries gone. She could hold Flora and go anywhere she wanted, always safe within an endless sanctuary for them alone. When she woke, the world that awaited her wasn't as bright and beautiful as in her dreams, but it was close enough. Though the walls were closer in and the garden was never so impressive, Flora was still there with her. The limitations imposed on her didn't bother her as much. If it kept her close to Flora, she would endure any pain. When Spring came again, the garden came back to life. Flora kept her outside most of the time, and she grew restless of their walls. Before their next quest, Avis did something new. She trained Flora in the basics of swordsmanship and combat. Avis knew there were rules to how Flora could use her magic. Those rules didn't apply to a sword. This, she thought, would allow Flora to help when she wanted to rather than have to wait for the correct scenario. She was much more gentle with Flora than her father was when Avis was young. She had considered asking her father to help with the training, but decided against that very quickly. Flora caught on faster than she expected. When she was satisfied with Flora's progress, she asked her father if there was anything in the kingdom that needed doing. "They say there is a small demon to the west who's been terrorizing children and women in the villages. Some children have gone missing. You should be able to handle this, but be careful. No one knows what it's true abilities are." Her father said, ending his words with a warning. Avis and Flora wasted no time in leaving. Flora had still not gotten good at looking or sounding convincing in her disguise. Whenever they encountered others, Avis did all of the talking. The demon was easy to find. Following the sound of screaming into the woods, they came across the creature. The demon stood upright, with claws on its hands and feet. Its skin was a reddish-brown and its eyes were pitch black. The creature was hairless with leathery skin. They found it chasing around a young girl, baring huge fangs at her as it shrieked an ungodly noise that drowned out the sound of the girl's screaming. The young girl fell to the ground at the noise, covering her ears. Avis and Flora too did the same. The beast was nearly on top of the girl. Flora used her magic to ensnare the creature's limbs in roots and vines. The young girl looked back. Realizing the creature was trapped, she kept running. The demon's eyes changed from black to red, glowing. It turned its attention to them. The creature burst through the vines and roots, engulfing them in flames, and charged at them. Avis readied her shield to protect herself from the fire and ran forward to attack the monster. She got in a good hit, but her sword could not pierce through the creature's skin. The demon's body was so hard it knocked her sword back. Flora came in from behind her. With quick thinking, she went for a more vulnerable spot--one of the monster's eyes. The demon shrieked again, sending them both down onto their knees. It removed the sword from its eye. Blood gushed out of it. Avis was already on her feet by then, lunging for the demon's other eye. Before she could pierce it, something strange happened. The demon raised its hands. The creature's hands glowed a dark red. Their weapons suddenly dulled and morphed into strange shapes. The creature laughed at them and breathed fire at them. Avis shielded them. Flora put her hands to the ground. "That's enough." Vines from the trees wrapped around the creature's limbs and the grass grew to encase it. The nearby roses stretched out their limbs to restrict it further, their thorns growing to the size of daggers. The demon tried to burn the plants away, but Flora would not give up. She concentrated harder, moving the thickest, oldest trees around them to trap the creature, tightening the circle inward until the demon was crushed. Flora fell to the ground, exhausted. Avis held her. "Well...it would seem that my training was rather unnecessary after all." "No, I think it was quite useful. It's made me rethink how we go about these quests. Though I suppose I'll likely never been as good at fighting as you." Flora caught her breath. "That hardly matters when you can do something like that." Avis pointed to the tomb of trees before them. She picked up their distorted weapons. "What on earth? What has that thing done to them?" "They've been bewitched. I don't think a normal blacksmith will be able to fix this." Flora said. "They may be unusable for good." Avis stared down at her warped blade. It was a plain sword, but it had served her well through many fights. She didn't want to part with it so easily. When they returned home, she asked her father about them. She held the swords out to show him. "Our swords are...bewitched, I think." Avis said. She couldn't really tell anything about magic, but she assumed Flora could. Faolán examined her sword. "Yes, this is the work of magic. If you wish to use this blade again, you will have to find someone who knows how to fix it." "Do you know of anyone like that?" She asked. "I've heard rumors of a pair of blacksmiths who live at the boundary of this realm and the one of magic." Faolán took out a map of the kingdoms. He pointed to a specific route. "Follow this road to the east until you reach a great cliff. At the edge of the cliff, you will find them. You will need to pay them in something other than gold. Of course, you could always get a new sword." Avis looked down at her blade. "I've become very attached to this one." "Well, then, this is the only advice I can give you. I take it by the look in your eye, you have already decided what you want." He handed the swords back to her. "Yes." Avis set off with Flora to find the blacksmiths. This trip was longer than any she had traveled before. Her father had given her additional instructions on how to reach the boundary in vague terms. She would need to cross through something, a stone arch at where the path was at a crossroads. When they reached the crossroads, they did not find the stone arch right away. They rode between the paths into a small wooded area. They rode slowly, as the cliff was nearby and it was difficult to see more than a few feet ahead from how thick the woods were. When they were nearing the edge, and they could see the ocean in the distance beyond it, they came across the stone arch. They did not cross through. The arch stood at the very edge of the cliff. To cross through would mean to fall off. "Have we been misled?" Avis muttered. Flora directed her horse forward. Avis stopped her. "This is the way." Flora said calmly. "What are you doing? You'll fall." "Don't you see? It's a test." Flora kept forward. Avis told her horse to go. "Wait. Let me do it first." "Very well." Avis rode through the arch. Her heart raced as she crossed through, afraid of meeting her end. She closed her eyes for a moment and found the ocean had moved. The cliff was suddenly larger, the woods were gone, and a small cottage with a large garden stood before her. Flora crossed through and rode up beside her. She smiled. "See? There was nothing to worry about. It's merely an illusion." Avis and Flora dismounted and walked over to the cottage. It was an old home with obvious signs of wear. The garden around it rivaled Flora's in its beauty. Avis noticed they were not alone. Two men stood in front of the old cottage. One of them, Avis could tell, was the quiet type. He had sandy brown hair and eyes that matched. He looked completely at place in his muted greens clothes beside the bushes and ivy, blending in so very easily with the garden. The other man was the opposite of him. He wore clothes of bright sky blue lined with a brilliant white. His long, golden hair was kept neatly back in a French braid that he wrapped over the side of his shoulder. His eyes were of a darker brown than the other man's, and like his hair, it was the exact shade of Avis's. He too was very tall. In appearance, he looked not too different from her father when she had first met him, though there was a cynical, tired quality in his eyes that reminded her of her mother. Avis suspected the man was her brother. The other man didn't meet the description her father told her of the prince her oldest brother loved. The man before her had to be Luke, and the other person his true love. Avis was unsure how to approach him. She decided to not mention their familial connection right away. She stepped forward. "Excuse me, good gentlemen. I was told that if I followed this path, I would come across two blacksmiths who were trained in dealing with unusual situations. Are you whom I was told of?" The man with the sandy brown hair glanced over at Luke and then started pruning back flowers in the garden. Luke looked over both of them, his eyes lingering on Avis. His expression was blank. "You would be correct. What brings you here?" "We need our swords need to be fixed. They have been damaged by magic." Avis said. Flora handed Avis the two twisted blades. Avis presented them to Luke. "I was told I should offer you something other than gold, but not what it is you want." "Anything else. Something useful. I have no need for trivial items or expensive drinks. You may cook for me if you wish, or tend to the garden. My house also needs cleaning. Something of that nature will suffice. But for two swords, you will each need to do something for us." Luke took the blades from them. "If that is how it must be done, then so be it. I can cook well enough. I'll prepare dinner." Avis bowed. "And I can tend to your garden." Flora said. She had forgotten to lower her voice. Luke did not react to that. He handed Flora's sword to the man with the sandy brown hair. "Alan, why don't you work on this one and I'll take the other one?" "That's fine with me." Alan took the blade. He held it in the air and looked over it. He walked around to the back of the house. Luke turned back to them. "Alright, you--the gardening tools are over here. Do as you see fit. As you for you, follow me. I'll show you around the kitchen." Flora went to work in the garden as Avis followed Luke inside the house. The interior of the house was simple. Aside from flowers, there were very few bright colors. The furniture appeared to be as old as the house, and objects in general were sparse. Dried herbs and flowers hung in the kitchen area above wooden bowls and plates. There was only a single room in the cottage. The bed was the furthest spot from the door with a single blanket made of fur. A small table, not meant for anyone who had guests, was in the middle of the room. Luke hovered behind her and whispered to her. "Girl, what is the real reason you've come here?" "Girl? Ah, you are mistaken. I am not..." Avis started to say before he cut her off. "Yes, you are. I knew you were both girls the moment I saw you. Your disguise is better than the dainty lady's, but you won't fool me like that. Now, answer my question." He circled around her. "We were told you could repair our weapons. They were damaged by strange magic. You have my sword in your hand as proof. There is nothing more than that." Avis stepped back towards the door. "Who sent you here?" He demanded. "My father." His tone shifted to a more sarcastic one. "So, you stayed with him. I can't understand why." "Do you know my father?" She asked, playing dumb. "You're a strange girl. Surely, you've guessed by now who I am." He crossed his arms. "Are you...one of my brothers?" She kept up the act. "I'm Luke, obviously. And what did mother name you?" "Avis." She said. "How old are you?" He continued with his questioning. "We're eight years apart. I was born the year you left." "I see. I think I recall mother being with child when I left, but that hardly guarantees much. Are there any others? I don't exactly keep in touch." He took a seat at the small table. "No, I was the last born." Avis stayed where she was. "I take it if you're here, Father must have softened up some over the years." He put her sword down beside him and took a wide, relaxed position in the chair. "Tell me, are you the maiden who tames the beast?" "What does that mean?" Avis tilted her head. "I take it you don't play cards then." "No, that's not really my sort of thing." Avis wasn't fond of games in general. She was not competitive nor did she enjoy gambling, and she found such things took away from time she could use to train or be with Flora. "Ah, well, I used to be quite the gambler, especially at Trionfi. I don't do that anymore, but I do still have my deck. I sometimes get it out when we have guests." He got up and took a bag down from a shelf on the wall. The backs of the cards were a shimmering gold with heavy wear around the edges. He sat back down and shuffled the deck. "It's not hard. I could show you how to play, little sister. Come, sit. I won't bite. Well, not a girl anyway." Avis sat down beside him. "May I see them?" "Yes, of course." He handed her the deck. Avis looked through the cards. The artwork was very intricately painted. Her brother had to have paid a hefty price to have them commissioned. She had seen similar cards before when camping before a battle. Some of the men had cards like these, though with slightly different elements and of a much simpler art. Unlike the cards she saw out in the field, the pips had scenic pictures. The trumps were the most elaborate, lined with gold and silver borders compared to the solid gold borders of the suit cards. One card caught her attention. It was of a maiden in white with long blonde hair. She stood beside a lion, holding its mouth open. Something about the card resonated with her. "Fortitude?" "A beautiful card, isn't it? I used to hate it so. Back then, this one was my favorite." He picked out a card with a demon on it. The card was filled with reds and blacks. She disliked it. "Though I prefer this one more now." The next card he pulled out was a softer one. A woman kneeling beside a river poured out water onto the river and the land, a bright star in the distance. Avis read the title. "The Star. It is very beautiful." He took the deck back and shuffled again. "I had this made for me several years ago after seeing someone else's. It's something a little too luxurious for my tastes now, but this deck is filled with many memories--both good and bad. I can't bear to part with it. The edges have already worn down, and some of the cards are a little bent now. I suppose in time they will suit me well enough again. Do you want to play with me?" "Ah, shouldn't I be cooking?" "There's no need to rush. Now, the game's supposed to be played with more people, but I've created modified rules for varying amounts of players over the years. When Alan and I first met, we used to play this all the time, just the two of us." Luke had a softness about him when he spoke of Alan. "Alan, he's very special to you, isn't he?" He put the deck down before them. "You could say he is also good at taming beasts." Luke explained the rules of the game, and they played for a while. Avis lost, as she expected. She didn't enjoy the game, but she was happy to spend that time with her brother. She wondered what her childhood might have been like if Luke had stayed longer. It was a nice fantasy, but she knew he would not be the same person. The man who sat before her now had become who he was precisely because of everything that happened after he left home. She found the deck quite fitting for him, glittering in gold and worn down. For all the humbleness his home exuded, there was still a haughty, flamboyant aspect to him. When they were done playing, he went to the back side of the house and Avis prepared dinner. She continued on in her daydreaming, imagining her disconnected family all together in one place, happy. It was an impossible dream. Her parents could never be happy in each other's presence, and her brothers had gone off for their own reasons. In time, too, she would end up leaving her father behind. She thought back to the image she saw when she first met Flora. A forest burning. She couldn't imagine herself causing such a thing. For Flora, she wondered, if she could. At night, the four of them had dinner together. There was very little room at the table. After dinner, Alan and Luke returned their swords to them. "I've made some alterations to the design of the hilt." Luke handed her the sword. The hilt was golden, with a lion head surrounded by roses on it. A change was made along the blood groove as well. It shined a blue tint. When she stared into it, she could hear the sound of rain. "How did you...?" "Let's just say I know a little magic myself." He pointed to his modifications. "I thought a lion would suit you well, sister. Do you like it?" "It's beautiful. Thank you." She sheathed the blade and bowed to him. He waved his hands in the air. "No need for that. It's late already. Would you like to stay the night?" "Ah, but you only have one bed." "Alan and I can sleep on the floor. God knows I've slept in stranger places." Luke laughed. Alan opened up a trunk he pulled out from under the bed. "I'll get out more blankets." "I couldn't possibly take your bed from you." Avis bowed deeper. "Nonsense. You're both our guests. Besides, night around here is not as safe as other places. Stay until morning. It is for your own good." As he spoke, he locked the door. "Avis, he's right. Where we are, it isn't safe to camp. We should accept their offer." Flora said. "Well, if you think it will not be safe...then, I suppose it would be best to stay." Avis conceded defeat. Before bed, Luke got out the cards again and they played a few rounds together. They spoke of trivial things with each other and laughed at stories Luke had to tell over his various misfortunes after too many drinks. Alan prepared them drinks before bed. They all turned in after that, Alan and Luke sleeping a few feet from the bed on the floor. Flora dozed off with ease. After a few minutes, only Avis was still awake. She lay restless. She didn't want to leave. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she looked over at her brother. He rested peacefully beside Alan. She turned to Flora beside her, her heart fluttered between desires of togetherness and separation. Her earlier daydream of a happy family still tugged at her, but as she watched her brother there in that little cottage, she wanted one of her own to share with Flora. Their castle walls had never quite satisfied her. For all their confining nature, they were too big for her. She wanted a much smaller home, enough for the two of them, surrounded by all the flowers Flora could ever want. A little home would do just fine, she thought. That also seemed like an impossible dream. In the morning, Avis was the last to wake. She still didn't want to leave. Luke and Alan saw them out past the arch. "You should visit again some time." Luke grabbed her in a tight hug. Avis froze up at first, not expecting the sudden contact. She hugged him back. "I'll try." She mounted her horse and rode off, not looking back. Luke dominated her thoughts as they returned to the road. Perhaps she could visit him again. She knew the way. She wanted to see him again. Not far from the crossroads, Avis saw another rider approaching them. "Avis!" It was her father. Avis rode up to him. "Father, what are you doing here?" She asked. "I should have gone with you from the start. I don't trust this place." Faolán looked around at the woods. "You were worried? And you came here...did it not burn you?" Avis looked for blood on him. "I found excuses for my mind. You speak of it in front of her so casually. You told her, didn't you? After I told you not to." He narrowed his eyes at her. "I'm sorry, Father. I disobeyed you." Avis lowered her head. He sighed. "It doesn't matter anymore. I assume you've already met with those blacksmiths if you're going this way. I'm taking you back now. All of this area is dangerous. Anything here could lead you somewhere strange." Faolán rode up front, a few feet ahead of them. While they rode, the sky darkened. The woods beside them gave off a strange feeling. Her father glanced over his shoulder at them for a moment. "Don't get too far behind me." "Yes, sir." Avis turned to Flora. "Do you sense anything, Princess?" Flora's eyes were filled with fear. "I don't want to be here. It's different than when we came. Something is not right." "Father, I think..." Avis looked forward. The road was empty. "Father? Father, where are you?! Princess, did you see..." There was no one beside her. The road was gone. The woods surrounded her. She got down from her horse. "Princess! Father! Where are you?!" Something cracked in the distance. Her horse was spooked by the noise and ran off. Avis tried to catch up to it, but the beast was already gone. She yelled, "Wait! Come back!" Avis could do nothing but walk deeper into the woods. The woods grew darker the further she went in. She couldn't shake the feeling that someone was watching her. "Princess! Where are you?" There was no response. The ground beneath her cracked, completely barren. The trees held no leaves this far in. Everything around her was dead. Cold wind ran through her, freezing her to the bone. She pulled her cloak around herself tighter, but it provided little protection from the wind. She carried on wearily. "Flora..." Ahead, it became too dark to see anything. She turned around but the way back was completely dark too. It was far too soon for it to be night, but the sky above her was littered with stars peeking out from behind black clouds. No moon provided any brighter light source. "Flora!" Avis called out as loud as she could. A faint light far away from her swayed back and forth. The light was getting brighter and closer. She couldn't see the source of it. It could be something that would try to hurt her, or someone who could help. For a moment, her sword glowed a soft blue then stopped. If Luke's magic was reacting to that light, she thought, it may be safe. It could be Luke himself. Avis hoped for the best and ran towards the light. When she was getting very close to it, the light stopped and disappeared. Everything around her went pitch black. She could hear footsteps, but could not tell where they were coming from. She checked every direction, knowing she wouldn't be able to actually see anything coming at her. The footsteps grew louder. Just behind her, the light returned. A man in a blue cloak walked up to her. She couldn't see his face in the darkness, but the design on his cloak was clear. Embroidered white flowers lined the edges against a light blue. The man held a bucket of water in one hand and a lantern in the other. He held the lantern up to his face. He had brown eyes and blond hair, but she could see little else about his features. "Are you lost?" Avis wasn't sure if this man was human. Given where she was, it was likely he wasn't. She spoke to him, approaching him cautiously. "Yes, I am. I've been separated from my princess." "I see. You shouldn't wander into this place alone. It's not safe." The lantern he held continued to brighten. Avis assumed the man was using some sort of magic to make the fire grow. "I'm sorry. I don't know how I got here." Her voice revealed her fear. The darkness around them started to subside. The man gave her a kind smile. "It's alright. This place likes to lure people in. I'll help you find your princess for you. I'm sure she can't be far from here." "Thank you, sir. I'm sorry for imposing on you." Avis bowed to him. "Don't worry about it. I have plenty of time." He blew out the light of his lantern. When the tiny flame vanished, the entire forest area around them lit up and the sky was brightened by the sun again. The man started to walk away. Avis followed slightly behind him. She wanted to keep some distance between them as a precaution, but she knew it was likely a pointless effort. The man before her was far more powerful than her. "Are you alone in this place?" "No, my lover is waiting for me to return home. I merely came out to fetch some water." He held up the bucket of water. "How long have you been living here?" Avis asked. "Not very long. My lover happened to like this place, so we built a home here. Mind you, the rest of this forest doesn't look quite so menacing." The woods seemed to become greener around the man. Avis couldn't tell if he was the cause or if it were merely another trick of the forest. "Avis! Help me!" A voice cried out. It was unmistakably Flora's. "Princess?!" Avis ran towards the voice. "Child, don't be so hasty." The man warned. Avis paid him no mind and kept going. At an old oak, she saw Flora collapsed on the ground, her body twisted up in branches. The limbs of the tree moved, wrapping around her and cutting through her skin. Flora cried out to her. "Avis...please, help me!" Avis drew her sword. The blade glowed a faint blue again. Before she could swing her sword, the stranger was directly behind her. He lowered her blade. "Don't touch her." He threw the water on Flora. She vanished when the water touched her. The tree returned to being a normal tree. "As I thought. An illusion." "How did you know?" Avis sheathed her sword. "I'm used to such things by now." He shrugged. "I'm sorry about your water. That was why you came out here to begin with." "It's alright. We need to find your princess." He carried on unfazed. "Have you known her long?" Avis stuck closer to him. She decided he was likely trustworthy, even if he wasn't human. "It's been a couple of years now since we met, but it feels like forever." "Oh? So, this princess is someone very special to you?" He had a playfulness in his tone. "Ah, well, that is to say...we are close, but she is engaged to someone else." Avis stumbled through her words. She hated saying it. In her heart, she belonged only to Flora and Flora belonged to her. "A courtly arrangement, I presume." "Yes." "I would steal her away, if I were you." The stranger pulled down his hood. His hair hung just above his shoulders. As he was walking slightly in front of Avis, she couldn't get a good look at his face. From behind at least, he appeared to be human. Avis noticed the bucket he was carrying was full again. "I can't do that. I would be acting against the king's wishes." He stopped and stared her directly in the face. His eyes matched perfectly with her own. "Who do you truly serve in your heart, the kingdom or your lady?" "I..." Avis was at a loss for words. His gaze was so intense she could not utter a rebuttal. "I'm sure you'll work things out in time." He smiled at her and kept walking. Avis ran ahead to get in front of him. "You...look familiar. May I ask your name?" "You are mistaken. We haven't met before." He put his hood back on. "Come, I think I see someone up ahead." Avis looked forward. Up ahead, there was the road. Flora stood by both of their horses. She was searching around the area. "Avis! Where are you?!" Avis was about to run, but she remembered what happened the last time. She looked over to the stranger. He walked slowly beside her. "I see you learn quickly. You mustn't give the forest a reason to play with your mind." She walked alongside him until she reached Flora. Flora ran into her arms. "Avis! You're back!" "Princess, I'm so sorry. I don't know what happened." Avis held her back. Flora was on the verge of tears. "How did you find your way back?" "This man helped me." Avis motioned to the man behind her. Flora stared at her blankly. "Man? What man?" Avis turned around. There was no one there. "There was...ah, never mind that. Have you seen my father?" "I'm afraid I haven't. You both just vanished suddenly." Avis got on her horse. "We should keep moving. He can't be far." Flora mounted hers shortly after. "What will we do if we get separated again?" "Move slowly. We shouldn't rush. I think this place feeds off of fear." She kept her horse at a steady walking pace. "Why was I not lost in the forest?" Flora asked. "I don't think this forest is outright malicious so much as a little cruel. Keeping us separated was enough to entertain it." "How did you come to know this?" "Someone gave me a little advice." Avis's fears started to subside now that she knew the forest would be safe depending on her mood. Flora calmed down as well. They traveled for a while before finding him. Up ahead, Faolán was by his horse, bent over in pain. He was clawing at his back. He was facing the forest's edge as if he had wanted to enter it, but couldn't. Avis rode up beside him and got off her horse. She sat down beside him. Avis opened her jug of water to pour on him. Before she could pour her water on him, the sky drenched him instead. A heavy rainstorm came down suddenly. The water was almost freezing. His body emitted steam as the rain hit him. Avis kneeled beside him. "Here, drink some of my water. If there's some inside, it'll hurt less then too, right?" He didn't say anything in response, struggling to hide the pain in his expression. He took the water and drank all of it. Flora offered hers as well. Avis noticed blood on his sleeves. She examined him closer. Cracks had opened up along his wrists. The trail of blood stained the rest of his clothes. Avis carried him back through the rain on her horse. The trip home took only a few hours despite the ride there having taken weeks. Avis couldn't explain it. She took it as another strange bit of magic from the forest. When they arrived, Avis washed his wounds again. She saw the full extent of his new injuries. Burn marks and open wounds were all over him, having spread all the way down to his feet. As he stepped into the bathtub, he left behind bloody footprints on the floor. With careful movements, she washed each wound. The bathwater turned red long before she finished. "I am sorry." Avis poured water onto him. "There is nothing you need to be sorry for." His eyes were empty. "I'm still a coward." "I don't mind it." Avis's clothes were already stained red from washing him. "I'll be brave for you." "How is it you are my daughter? How could you be born from such wickedness and be so pure?" He leaned in against his knees. As he did so, his back bled again. "I told you. I am not pure. I am only human, the same as you." Avis washed away the blood once more and pressed a towel against his back. "That woman, she was wrong about a lot of things, you know. I wonder how much she told you that night was destined and how much was her own addition." "Do you know something I don't?" "She said I would need no guidance. I feel like I've had to rely on you constantly." Avis confessed. "I have offered little in the way of guidance. All I've done is be your shield. Everything else has been by your own resolve." "Then why do I feel so uncertain about everything?" She stared at the open wounds along his skin. Underneath the blood, she could see the fire burning. She poured more water on him. "Of course you are at times, but you come to your own conclusions in the end, and then you follow that. I could tell you what I think is best for you to do, but you wouldn't do it unless your own heart told you so. That is the difference. No one can sway your heart away from what you choose to fight for." He took hold of her hand. "You make me sound braver than I am." Avis could see no way to achieve her dream. She was too weak to take hold of it. "No, I'm not. You're simply too modest to admit your own strength." He took one of the clean towels Avis had set aside for them and dried off. The wolf mark on his back was nearly gone. Avis remained uncertain of how to achieve her deepest wish. She knew what the obvious answer was, but she could not convince herself to do it, nor did she know how. Not long after her twenty-third birthday, Avis was faced with the one thing she had been ignoring. Her father approached her one morning with a somber look on his face. "Have you heard the news yet?" "No, what news?" Avis felt a sense of dread come over her. "Flora's wedding will be held within a few months. The king has also decided you will be knighted soon." Avis stared blankly at her father for a while. "Oh...I see." Faolán put his hand to her face. She could see the pity in his eyes. "You should go to her. I'll make sure the king doesn't send you away for anything until after the wedding is over." "Thank you, Father." Avis walked away from him in a daze. Her feet took her straight to the garden while her mind remained empty. Flora was sitting in the middle of the garden on a bench. Avis quietly sat down beside her. At first, she didn't know what to say. Flora didn't say anything to her. Avis cleared her throat and tried to pretend not to be hurt. "My love, how are you today?" Avis forced a cheerful expression. Flora kept her eyes on the walls of the garden. Her voice was soft. "Stay with me." Avis joined her on the bench. She put her hand on Flora's. "I wish I could keep you away from this. Please, is there any way I can lighten your burden, if only a little?" "Don't let go of me." Flora leaned against her. "If that is what you wish." Avis embraced her and gave her a kiss on the head. Avis held Flora for a very long time. For the remaining days they had left, Avis swore to herself she wouldn't leave Flora's side for anything. Once again, Avis found herself wanting to disobey the king. She had freed her mother and helped her father. There had to be something more she could do for Flora. 'Steal her.' Those words repeated in her mind. She wanted to, almost more than she wanted to make Flora happy. Until Flora said it herself, she could not act on it. If Flora didn't want it, Avis would only be serving herself. Avis didn't speak of the matter. Every day, all she could ask was, "Is there any way I can lighten your burden?"
III. The Trail of Fire