At sunrise, Ran sat before her bedroom window. She began each day like this, though her husband discouraged her from doing so. As she sat, she watched her thoughts. Today, her thoughts were more erratic than usual. This, she noticed long ago, tended to occur in the time frame between her two sons birthdays. A conflict of regret and joy battled within her heart. Nearly thirty years having passed since she met her husband, the memories faded a little more each year. Argus's youthful face was hard to imagine. She could only see him as the man she knew now. The details of the events were still clear to her, despite the images that accompanied them disappearing. Back then, she lived in a large home by the sea and was the daughter of a respected warrior. He taught her how to fight and keep their home safe. Archery was second nature to her, and she was skilled with any weapon he taught her to use. That day, her father was helping her practice fighting when a strange man showed up at their door. She had never seen anyone like that before. Stranger still, the traveler could, though not well, speak her language. Her father was generous and allowed the man to stay with them for a while. That man, Argus, traveled in secret. Argus claimed he was on a quest to see the world and learn all he could of it. Her father was all too kind in teaching their guest about their ways. Ran stayed suspicious of him. She kept a dagger hidden in her clothes at all times. That man was always watching her. She hated it. Something about being around him unnerved her, but she couldn't place why. She was a teenager then, and the feelings of children change easily. When her father decided to show the guest their way of using a bow, Argus brought his own to give them a show in return. Ran fell in love with his performance and she burned with desire to master that unfamiliar bow. When everyone had gone off, she asked him to teach her his way of archery as she offered to teach him in return. He mixed lessons in with sweet words and gifts. Before she knew it, she was completely lost. When she asked her father if she could marry him, a year had passed since Argus's arrival. Her father's generosity did not extend to allowing her to marry a foreign guest. He warned her, "It is only right to be kind to one's guests, but do not mistake that for me thinking highly of him. That man is not here on a pilgrimage to enlighten his mind. He seeks something to take. I have not pushed him out because I cannot decipher what power he still hides. You mustn't be lured in by him. He will only use you." She was, of course, only seventeen and felt betrayed that her father didn't approve of her love. Her father's rejection left her in a difficult situation. She hadn't told him she was also pregnant. Afraid of what her father might think, she told Argus and ran away with him in the middle of the night. They didn't marry until Argus returned to his own homeland, carrying with him many treasures he acquired on his long journey. She carried her weapons with her, wanting to protect her new home as she had done with her old one. He said to her the day of their wedding, as all those people leered at her face and her obvious stomach, "You are my most beautiful treasure of all." A few months after she turned eighteen, her first son was born. She wanted to give him a name common in her own home, but Argus told her he would only be ostracized for it. She agreed to give him a name more suitable for her new home and named him after a plant like her own name. She chose to name him after the rowan tree. When she first saw Argus with that bow, he was standing beside a great rowan tree. That tree became their secret meeting place. The origin of her first son's name too was a secret. To the public, they told people she named him after the beautiful tree in the old garden. Those first few years were the hardest. She struggled to learn a new language and way of writing, change her way of dress, and understand strange mannerisms--all while everyone sneered at her and laughed behind her back. Argus hardly looked at her after those first few years. He was more interested in training Rowan. Many nights she spent alone, longing for home. She wished back then that her son was a little weaker so that he might come to her more, but he was always a strong and brave boy. She was both proud and disappointed. When Rowan was seven, she begged Argus that they try for another child. She hoped for a girl so that he wouldn't take that child away too. He agreed to her wishes. "Yes, another child. I need a spare." Another boy was born. She named him after a pair of wrens that nested in her window. Argus was away and had taken Rowan with him when she gave birth to her second son, and she was grateful for that. She got to hold him for a while before Argus came back to snatch him up. When Argus returned, as she expected, he grabbed the child from her arms and spoke of future battles and training. Then the baby was pushed back into her care as he went off to the feast celebrating Wren's birth. Rowan stayed with her, fascinated by the little baby in her arms. She was so tired she could barely remember anything Rowan said to her. He had brought a boy with him from Philip's lands. For that too, she would be grateful but she did not know it yet. That boy from the beginning stood in between her husband and her son, keeping him safe from that man's corrupt influence. Like her, the people of the court spoke about him in whispers. That boy had walked among the spirits living outside human influence, and it terrified them. To her, that was nothing strange at all. She didn't fear beings like that. They were to be respected and left alone in peace. She thanked them for sending that boy. Though her husband still kept most of her older son's time, that boy was able to steal some of it back for her. In turn, her older son mimicked that boy's ways and kept her younger son distant from her husband as much as he could. Born from a warrior lord, married to a warrior king, with a warrior prince for her first born, she was glad to keep the younger one as a gentle prince instead. She still taught him archery, so that he may defend himself if needed, but she was relieved that he would stay back away from the battlefield in the castle with her. It was almost enough to alleviate the pain she felt in longing for her old home, the shame for betraying her father, and the ache that never left when she thought about how her husband's bed was rarely empty. As she loved her children dearly, she could not leave this place in spite of the pain it caused her to be there. She didn't know the way home anymore either. Today, more than in the past, the anxiousness bloomed rapidly across her mind. Her husband was pushing Wren into fighting. Rosabella now kept her company more than anyone, but she wanted her children near. She saw the tiredness in Rowan's eyes, how deep the fires of hatred were building in Robin, and how fear was eating away at Wren. She saw in Rosabella too the worry beginning to build inside. Ran rose from the ground and opened up a huge wooden chest that rested below the window. Inside, four weapons, still well cared for despite their lack of use, were kept. The bow Argus had given her was the only item inside that was regularly used now, and there was regret in holding that too. Argus stopped going out to shoot with her long ago. The bow her father gave her was beside it. Originally, it belonged to her grandmother and her father passed it on to her after her death. At the top, her dagger sat sheathed. That had been a gift from her mother. At the back, a long pole with a curved blade at the end was the final item, her father's gift to her. She picked up each weapon, one by one, and held them in her hands. She let the feelings that came forth flow through her. All the joy, all the pain, all the regret--it flowed through and slipped between her fingers. She had to remain strong, or the burdens of those she loved most would only deepen. For Rowan most of all, she couldn't let it show. Ran closed the chest and finished getting ready for the day. No servants came to help her. She was a queen, but they never respected her. Not long after she was done getting herself ready, her husband came into the room. "Good, you're awake. I have something for you to do." Argus said. "What is it, my dear?" Ran spoke softly. "When the war is over, I'm having the wedding done as soon as possible. Before that happens, I want him to be baptized. Wren too." "That is his decision. He is a man, not a boy. You know he does not wish to do so unless..." Ran tried to escape what she knew her husband was leading her into. "I know what he wants, and it is a distraction. If that beast knight is still around, I want him to go through with it too. That son of ours won't listen to me or Father David, but he is more behaved with you. I don't care what trickery you have to use to convince him, just do it." Argus loomed over her. Ran was unswayed by his dominating stance. "I will speak with him." "You as well. It's about time you convert." Argus left the room without another word. Ran knelt before the chest. She opened it again and held the dagger in her hand. "I'll do as you wish, but my heart will not change." She whispered to the emptiness. The sky rumbled. A soft drizzle started, obscuring the landscape beyond her window. Today was Robin's birthday. He anticipated the rainstorm floating overhead. He too had woken at sunrise, watching the sky change from reds and oranges to a gentle grey. He left the window open to feel the breeze. The early Spring had warmed the wind. He enjoyed days like this most, when the weather was warmer than it should be and the air was wet. Robin held his hands out to catch the raindrops, knowing they were for him. Every year, no matter where he was, it rained on his birthday. A bit of magic performed by his mother--he could sense her essence in the storm. Rowan started to wake from the sound of the rain. Robin joined him on the bed, hovering over him. "Good morning, Rowan." Rowan smirked at him. "And what are you so excited about?" "Nothing. It's raining." Robin played with Rowan's hair. Rowan knew exactly what Robin wanted. He pretended to be ignorant. "I can see that." "You know, today's my birthday." Robin leaned in closer. "Yes, it is." Rowan glanced out at the rain and then back at Robin. The heat of Robin's body warmed the sheets between them. He wanted to separated that thin distance between them. He waited instead, wanting to entice Robin to do it for him. "Is there something you want to ask me?" "No, not really." Robin moved to the spot beside him and curled up against Rowan. The excitement on his face never left. "But you know...you're always tired by the end of the day. It might be nice if you gave me my present in the morning instead." "You're a mess." Rowan laughed. "I have no objections to that." Robin slid the sheets out of his way. Clothes were tossed aside. As they kissed, the heat between them only grew. Rowan moved his hips, craving something more. Without a word spoken between them, Robin read what Rowan wanting. He kissed down Rowan's body. Robin stopped in between his legs and used his mouth in a different way. He watched Rowan's reactions attentively. Rowan grabbed hold of Robin's hair with one hand and dug his fingers into the sheets with the other. His face had turned a deep red. Robin moved faster. With a dazed look on his face, Rowan ran his fingers through Robin's hair. "I want to touch you." Robin continued a little longer before he sat up. He looked down at Rowan's exposed body. The way Rowan was laying so unguarded and blissful beneath him never stopped making his heart race no matter how many times he saw that display. He would be content if they never touched at all. Being near Rowan was enough to make him happy. That was why this always moved him. To have the luxury of sharing such an intimate experience with the person he loved most was something he would never take for granted. Slowly, he lowered himself down until their faces were nearly touching. He pressed his forehead against Rowan's and spoke in whisper. "You are beautiful." Rowan looked away, a little embarrassed. "You don't need to say things like that when I'm already like this." "I won't ever stop." Robin aligned their bodies and started to move. When the two of them had worn themselves out, they laid together in bed for a while. The sound poured down as steady as before and masked the time of day. The clock in the room let them know it was already noon. Rowan felt a little excited about being in bed so late. He rested in Robin's arms, who was lost in a state of bliss. Rowan cuddled closer against him. "Robin, you will always stay with me, won't you?" He let his hand wander over Robin's chest. "Of course." "If I weren't so weak, I would take you away from this place." Guilt rose in him. He remembered his father's demands to have Robin marry soon after himself. He wanted to leave everything behind and let Robin have anything and everything he wanted. Another want kept him planted in place. "I know why you haven't, and I don't blame you for that. If I must endure this torment for the rest of my life, I accept that fate." Robin's reply was all too familiar. Rowan had heard him say it so many times before. "I am sorry. I hate bringing you out there with me and seeing you stained in blood." For the time being, they could rest. It wouldn't be long before they returned to battle. He both despised and was grateful for that. Even if Wren finally agreed to help him, he would never be content with living a lie. As much as he berated Wren for refusing to act on his desires for Rosabella because of the engagement, and while he knew most marriages held meaning only on paper, he was no different than his brother--hopelessly romantic. "I decided to join you in battle on my own. You needn't feel guilty over that." "Sometimes, I wish you had asked to be my servant instead of a knight." Rowan traced over scars on Robin's chest he acquired from training and battle. His blond hair did little to disguise the streaks of white scattered about. The deepest one was on Robin's left side, at his waist. It served as a permanent reminder of the first time the two of them raised their blades to kill. "I prefer this. Do you know how it would pain me to watch you leave and not know if you would return?" As Rowan had been studying each scar, so too was Robin. A few new ones were on his left arm, a frequent target after it became known Rowan took both bow and sword into the field. He saw each one as a personal failure on his part. "One day, I promise I'll free you." Rowan rested against Robin's chest. He didn't know if he could keep that promise, and he knew he would be forgiven if he could not. That only pained him more. The steady sound of Robin's heartbeat drummed in rhythm with Rowan's breath. He closed his eyes and listened closer. "I love you." With his words as a spell, he listened to Robin's heart speed up in that moment. He smiled, amused that he could still get that reaction out of Robin after all this time. Robin wrapped his arms around him and kissed his forehead. Elsewhere, Argus was still busy. He was meeting with one of his knights in private. This knight was two years younger than Rowan, and quite popular with the court. Of all his knights, he was seen as the most beautiful and noble. He wasn't flashy like Luke and Robin was more handsome than him, but his wildness, no matter how well he attempted to hide it, was off-putting to the public. That was all an illusion. The man standing before the king had done more wicked deeds than any other knight who served him. "Sir Elon, I have a task for you." Argus cleared his throat. "Yes, my king? How may I serve you?" Elon bowed before the king. His long brown hair hung over his shoulders. "I need you to do something...not befitting of a knight. This is a secret task. Absolutely no one else must know of this." Argus kept his voice low. "I understand." Elon was used to Argus's secret requests. In truth, he enjoyed those tasks more than his official duties. Argus checked to make sure the doors were locked before he continued. He turned away from Elon. "I need you to sneak into Brion's kingdom in disguise, and poison him. Wear whatever disguise you must." Elon looked up at him in surprise. "What are you planning, my king?" "That is not something you can know yet." He turned to face Elon. "Your younger brother Crow is old enough to be knighted now, isn't he? Do this task for me, and I will have him knighted on the day of my older son's wedding." "Thank you. That would be a great honor to us. What poison should I use?" "Take this." Argus handed him a vial of clear liquid and a pouch with King Philip's crest on it. "Put it into his drink or food, and leave the pouch nearby." "It will be done." Elon took the poison and the bag. He rose from his bow. "Father, may I ask you something? I know you will likely refuse, but..." "I have given you more status than you should be asking for. Should I find the other two unfit, I will consider it. How is your mother, Belle?" Argus spoke more casually. "She is well. She misses you." "Perhaps I'll pay her a visit some time when the war is over. Now, you must leave immediately. I want this task fulfilled as quickly as possible." Argus gave him empty words. Elon's mother had long lost his interest. Her hair was mostly gray now and she was never good at keeping her affection for him hidden in front of others. When he allowed Elon and Crow to be taken in by two of his knights despite being peasants, she did all but cling to his arm the entire time and not a single eye of the court left him while she was near. He almost pitied her as his interest in her had been entirely about her beauty, not the love she felt for him. "I will not disappoint you." Elon bowed again before the king and took his leave. Outside, he passed Prince Wren, who was on his way to meet and train with Argus. Elon kept his disgust at being related to the younger prince hidden. He didn't understand what his father was thinking by keeping either child of his foreign wife around. His mother, he thought, would make a far better queen and be far more loved by the people. He had no doubts in his mind that he was the best choice to lead as the next king over his inferior, mongrel brothers. 'I'll take what's mine eventually, you thieving, ugly scum.' He thought as his eyes met with Wren's. On the surface, he wore a smile. "Young prince, please excuse me. I'm in a bit of a hurry." "Oh, I see. Something for my father?" Wren was unaware of the hatred inside Elon. "Yes, an important task. Good day, young prince." Elon forced a bow and excused himself. 'Why would he send him over Rin?' Wren wondered, but he let the thought go. He had more important things to worry about. It was time for his daily training with his father. He wished Argus would allow someone else to work with him, but Wren already knew why his father was keeping things the way they were. Wren was terrified of him. Argus training him allowed him to continue his manipulation game and get Wren prepared for his plans at the same time. It was more efficient this way. Argus and Wren trained outside together. Argus had Wren dress in heavier armor than before. It was similar to what Robin wore. Rowan typically went into battle with lighter armor so it wouldn't interfere with his ability to use a bow. The armor weighed more than Wren expected. He struggled to move in it. His father made no adjustments in how fast and strongly he hit Wren. Wren did his best to guard. "Have you decided? Do you want your brother to finish up this mess of a war for you and take what you want afterwards or will you take it now? Or are you content as you are?" With the prediction from the soothsayer, Argus was already content with the future he had seen. That didn't stop him from wanting to push Wren further. If his children hated each other, they would have no choice but to turn to him or be disadvantaged. He was also already preparing the next war in his mind. It was likely Wren would not kill Rowan during this war, but he reasoned he might be able to convince him to do so to start another. There was still much land he wanted to acquire. "Remember boy, I'm not interested in weaklings." "I'm not skilled enough to finish the war, and we both know it." Wren swung at him with all his strength. He nearly fell forward as he did. "Why are you pushing me towards this?" "I told you before. I want the best possible king to replace me when I'm gone. If I don't push you both, how can I set forth in motion the events that will achieve that end for me?" He let his thoughts slip into the conversation. Argus held no shame in what he said. "You can let him win it for you. More battles will inevitably await you. Wars are never done for long. More will come, and an assassination after our victory will make it all too easy to rally up our allies to fight once more and acquire more land." "How do I know you haven't given him a dagger the same as mine?" Wren asked. "Have I? Who knows?" Argus laughed at him. "What will you do?" "And if I don't kill him? Am I that worthless? What if I'd rather follow him into battle?" Today, Wren was feeling less inclined to listen to his father. His heart still pounded in his ears as he spoke, but the drumming had started to lessen. "You think that now. In time, when you see him with your woman while she carries his child and you're wanting glory of your own, you will rid yourself of him. You are my son. I know you want more than this." The image was an absurd one, though not impossible. He wouldn't be happy with that outcome, but he knew Rowan wouldn't either. Wren swung again, his will allowing him more strength than before. "He's your son too." "He's corrupted by that beast. His mind is clouded. When the war ends, will you let him take your woman?" Argus taunted him again. "She's not mine. She's never been." Wren wasn't fazed by his father's words. He threw them back at him. "Rosabella is his, rightfully, as approved by you and Lord Egret. I would be stealing her from him." "If you want to look at it that way. You know he doesn't care for her." Argus backed Wren into a corner. "I know you've been sneaking off with her. How many of her sheets have you sullied?" "I have done no such thing. Rosabella is very faithful, regardless of what my brother thinks of her. She merely allows me to read her poetry and bring her gifts. She allows no more than that." He was impressed with how easy it was to keep a straight face while he lied. "You are a man now. You can't tell me you don't want more." "I will marry eventually. I can wait until then. That is what's proper." Wren kept his face blank. Argus was started to become agitated. He swung hard at Wren and knocked him over. "You will do what I want in time." Wren prepared himself for the bruises his father was going to inflict on him. Still lounging around his room, Luke read through a letter that a messenger had brought for him earlier in the morning. With the war going on, messages for him often took a long time to reach him. The date at the top of the letter was from over a month. His mother's handwriting was neater than many nobles, a strangeness that got her many looks back in his childhood home. Before he went to live with his father, his mother had already taught him to read and write. He wasn't sure how she learned. For as long as he could remember, she knew how. They couldn't afford books, but sometimes books made their way into the village for some reason or another, or they encountered them in neighboring villages. His mother would memorize stories she heard from travelers and write them down at home. He helped her sometimes back then. It was a futile effort. Her husband usually threw away what she wrote into the fire when he found any unhidden pages. Luke wondered if her husband let her keep any of the letters he sent her. He wanted her to leave her husband's side and stay in the home Luke had acquired from his father. He never went back there himself. It was an asset to him, nothing more. For her though, it could be a sanctuary. No matter how many times he offered, she refused to go there. He presumed it was because it originally belonged to his father. While he found it foolish she refused that safety he was willing to provide her, he couldn't fault her for it either. Her husband was hardly a better man though. He could never understand her thoughts. Like all the letters they exchanged, her words were kind and empty. She wrote of what the weather was like and repairs to the home. Her husband was ill, but still able to work. She did not ask of where he was going to be or what it was like fighting. She never asked him anything, nor did he ask her. For mother and son, their letters were entirely too formal. He wanted her to ask him something, even if it was only about the weather where he was. He wanted to ask her so many things too. They all seemed like burdens she didn't need. Formal was the best way to keep their communication. Luke got up from the bed and sat down at the desk in the room. He readied a quill to write his reply. Luke sent her letters more often than she did, to compensate for his constant moving around. Since he was also sending her money, he had no time to wait until he received her next reply. This caused little disjointedness in their responses. As each letter had little personal information in it, it didn't really matter. He dated the top of the parchment and began with his usual salutation. As he tried to think up what trivial topic to write about, his mind wandered. At the edge of the desk, the rose Rowan gave him rested in a glass vase. Days had passed since it was plucked, yet not a single petal showed any signs of wilting. The yellowness was perfectly intact. It's very presence was an anomaly. It was too early for roses to be blooming. Luke took the bloom from its vase and held it to his face. At first sniff, the scent brought back unpleasant memories. When he closed his eyes, he only saw James mocking him. He opened them and stared at the delicate petals. He brushed his fingers against their velvety softness. From the center, though he knew it had to be in his mind, Luke felt a strong, radiating warmth. In that moment, he could pick up on a second scent mixed in with the rose. That too, he knew was not real. "Eternal, huh? You can't keep that promise." He sniffed the rose again. "Your kindness is your cruelty, Prince." With his mind focused on the rose, another thought was pushing forward. It came to him from time to time, and he acted on it occasionally. An informal letter, he wanted to write her and say all of what he kept inside. Luke put the rose back in the vase. "I'll burn it when I'm done." Rowan and Robin parted ways once they left their room. Rowan had some things to take care of before lunch and Father David had asked for Robin's assistance the previous day. Robin refused to go to church normally unless Rowan ordered him. As a favor outside of all the preaching, he was fine with it. Father David often called on Robin to help him tend to the church's herb garden and clean around the building. If the general public knew that, it would cause an uproar, and some of the men of the church questioned David's actions for it. When they were done tending to the garden, the two of them went inside to a small kitchen. David got down several bottles of dried herbs and started to grind them up together. "Thank you for helping me today, good knight. You know, if you converted, you would make a very good monk or a hermit. You already have the stomach of one." Robin was told this often, as he didn't eat meat or the milk of animals. He was not confrontational about David's comment. He simply said, "That is not my way." "Perhaps that may change in time. I understand your reasoning. You honor the woman who raised you so deeply. It is a noble act I respect, though I disagree with some of her ways. Can you hand me that empty container right there?" He pointed to a small bottle at a nearby table. Robin handed it to him. David continued. "I must admit. In spite of your upbringing, you are one of the least sinful men among the court." "That's a rather strange thing to say, given what you know." Robin took a broom down from the wall and swept the floor. "Your relationship with the prince? Yes, your lust is sinful desire, as exists in all men. But you are loyal and faithful, and I know your affection is genuine. That's more than what I can say for most of the men who confess to me. There are no men without sin. Yours are minor in comparison." He watched Robin diligently clean without needing to be told to. He laughed under his breath. "I wonder when you grow old in age and your youthful fire leaves you if you will become even less sinful." Robin finished sweeping. He wet a rag to clean off the counters and table. "I'm sorry. I'm not interested in becoming a monk or a hermit unless Rowan is also there with me." "One cannot know themselves tomorrow today." David filled the small container with the herbs he had crushed. He held it out to Robin. "Ah, good knight, I have a favor to ask of you. Could you give this to the prince? It is a remedy that should help him sleep and soothe his mind. Have him drink it as a tea. I can see in his eyes he is very tired." Robin put it on a bag on his side. "Oh, thank you. I will make sure he takes it." "It's a shame you are not a woman. You would make a fine wife for him." David put the herbs back up. "That may be, but I don't think he would be interested in me then." Robin joked. "Well, I suppose not." David sighed with a smile. He remembered something and went over to the pantry. He got down a jar of preserved berries. He typically discouraged such sweets, but children loved them so he kept them around as treats. "Oh, it is your birthday, isn't it? Here, take this too, as a present. I know how much you love these." "Thank you." Robin accepted the gift. He finished washing up. "Is there anything else you need help with?" "No, that's enough." "I'll be on my way then." Robin put away the rag and headed for the door. "Good knight, just a moment." Father David stopped him. "Is something wrong?" Robin asked. "No, not at all." David put his hand on Robin's shoulder. "I just wanted to thank you for taking such good care of the prince. He takes on so many burdens. I worry about him." "He's very stubborn like that. I'll try to keep him from overdoing it." "Thank you." David smiled at him again. Robin nodded and saw himself out. After he left, David laughed to himself. "Yes, a hermit lifestyle would suit you quite nicely. Will you take him with you, I wonder." When Rowan finished up with the business he had to attend to, he went looking for where Robin or Luke might be to keep him company. From where he was in the castle, Luke would have been closer to reach. He headed towards Luke's room first. On his way there, someone stopped him. "Good morning." Ran greeted him from behind. Rowan was surprised. He didn't hear anyone approaching him from behind. He turned around to greet her. "Good morning, Mother." "May I borrow you for a while? Just for a bit and I'll let you go off and play with him." She put her arm around his and started to walk forward. "He's helping Father David right now." Rowan was swept up in her motions and allowed her to lead him. "Is something wrong?" "Come with me. Let's speak somewhere more private." She spoke in a cheery voice. 'Something's not right.' Rowan grew nervous the longer they walked. She led him to a tower used for storage. Ran sat down in a chair at a table and looked up at him with expectancy. He obediently followed her silent order, sitting beside her at the table. She kept her gaze forward. Her voice was sad and empty. "Your father came to me this morning. Before your wedding, he wants us to convert and be baptized. It will please the public greatly." "I see." Rowan was already expecting that. He didn't care either way for himself. His reasons for not doing so were more to do with his mother's opposition and Robin's. Lying for the public about who he was at this point in his life was already the status quo for him. "Robin's not going to take this well." "That 'us' includes him." She clarified. Rowan sighed. Telling Robin was going to be difficult. "He's really not going to take this well." She placed her hand on his and rubbed it gently to comfort him. "He will forgive you." "I know, but I hate forcing something like that on him." He looked over at her. Her face was impossible for him to read. She always kept her emotions hidden well to minimize the fear and anger of those around her. He wanted to peel back the mask to see how deeply the pain coursed within. More than that, he wanted to protect her. "What about you?" "Your father has been generous in allowing me to refuse for so long. I must support my home." She stayed strong before him. "And I must thank you for allowing me this luxury for this many years." He switched the positions of their hands, now holding hers. "You may tell him that I agree to do it. It will take me some time to convince Robin. Should I inform Wren or are you going to?" "Wren won't make much of a fuss. He believes in most of that nonsense anyway. I'll tell him shortly before then." She moved her hand away from his. From her bag, she presented him with her dagger. "I have a gift for your other half, but you mustn't give it to him." "Your dagger? I don't understand..." Rowan had only seen the dagger a few times. He felt anxious at even touching it. Something about it always seemed too personal and sacred to her for anyone to be within its space. "Keep this on you. When and what you will use it for is for you to decide." She pushed it into his hands, then closed his hands around it. Rowan stared down at the object in his hands. He could still feel the warmth of her hands on it. Confused at her gesture, he gave her a strange look. "That sounds more like this is a gift for me." "No, it is a gift for him that only you can deliver." The way she spoke told him she wouldn't elaborate any further. Rowan gave the blade a good look over again before putting it away. "I still don't understand, but I am sure I will know eventually. Thank you." She rose from the chair. "Go on now. I'm sure he's waiting for you. Tell him I said happy birthday." "I will." He stood beside her and kissed her on the cheek. She stayed behind, watching the rain from the window of the tower. Rowan worried about leaving her alone, but he could sense she wanted it. He went on his way. Luke was not in his room. It was already around the time he typically ate lunch. Rowan headed outside for where he told Robin earlier that he wanted to eat at. Luke would find him if he wanted Rowan's company. The place he went to was outside underneath a covered walkway. That place wasn't far from where he was. The walk was brisk for him. No one was there when he arrived, so he spent his time watching the rain while he waited. A little while later, Robin met up with him. He was carrying a tray full of food and drinks. Robin placed the tray down on one of the many crates nearby. He picked up a cup and gave it to Rowan. "Here, drink this." Robin said. "What is it?" Rowan sniffed it before taking a sip. The drink was more bitter than he expected. "It's a remedy from Father David. He said it should help you sleep and relax you." Robin had fixed himself the same drink. He hadn't said anything to Rowan about it, but he was having sleeping troubles himself. He was hoping to cure himself of that issue before Rowan noticed. The two of them sat together on one of the crates as they drank the tea. Robin was done first and waited for Rowan to drink all of his before they did anything else. When Rowan was done with the drink, he ate his food silently. He didn't have much of an appetite lately. Robin put his plate down. He wiped away water from Rowan's face. "Are you cold?" "I'm fine." Rowan put aside his plate and rested against Robin's side. Robin felt a distinct change in Rowan's mood. He put his arm around Rowan. "Tired?" "Mm...maybe..." "I think you need some time away again. Egret and Silvanus don't need our help right now. Let's go away for a while." He kissed Rowan on the forehead. "Under what pretense?" "I've never properly introduced you to my mother." Robin hadn't been home since the day he left his mother's side. It had been nineteen years since he last saw her. His upbringing didn't allow that time gap to to bother him. While he had grown from a child into a man in that span, it was nothing compared to the number of years she had already seen pass. "The woman who's listed as my mother on paper lives in the same area. We can tell your father I'm going to see her." "I don't know if my father will believe that." "He can hardly say no to that." Robin watched for any changes in Rowan's mood. He still had an odd negative aura about him. "Do you not want to go?" "I do, but...I've never met your mother before. How should I act? Should I say I'm your friend?" Rowan's concern amused him. The idea of his mother objecting to their relationship for Rowan being a man was absurd. "She won't care about things like that. Few in that realm do. My mother's actually had mostly female lovers herself. She's quite partial to brunettes, especially human ones." "Am I interrupting?" Luke cleared his throat. He tilted his head at their appearance. "Why are you two soaking wet?" "We went out in the rain for a little walk." Rowan answered with a white lie. "Will you join us?" "If I'm not in the way..." Luke sat on the other side of Rowan on a neighboring crate. Rowan picked up on the distance Luke put between them. It was a comfortable amount for him. Pleased with Luke's behavior, he offered him more of his time. "Robin and I are planning on visiting his mother. Well, by that I mean, the woman who raised him. We'll be passing through your childhood home. Would you like to accompany us?" "Ah, no thank you, Prince. I appreciate the offer, but I must decline." Luke shook his head. Rowan half expected Luke to refuse, but he still thought to offer anyway. Wanting to change the subject before Robin could ask any questions, Luke pulled out a letter and a bag of gold. "If you are passing through, could you deliver a few things for me, Prince?" "If you would like." Rowan took them. "Here, this is a letter for my mother and this is some money for her. Please, whatever you do, do not hand over the money to her husband. He won't let her see any of it. If you can, give it to her when he's not around. If he knows she has money, he'll force her to give it up." Luke warned. "I won't let him have it. What should we do about Robin?" Rowan caught himself from revealing too much of what he knew in front of Robin. "I know your mother...well..." "There's no point. His voice is the same as my father's. If he so much as says a word, she will know anyway." Luke stared down at the ground. "Don't stay long with her, if you can." "We won't. I hate to leave you alone here. You are my guest." Rowan placed his hand on Luke's. "It's only for a few days, right? I'll be fine. I'm usually alone anyway." Robin discretely glanced over at his brother, seeing his somber expression. He felt pity for Luke. Rowan's attention and kindness had improved Luke's demeanor as a whole, but he sensed a great pain inside him far more vast than anything he and Rowan carried. Robin stood up and collected the plates for a servant to carry back to the kitchen. When he was done, he stopped directly in front of Luke. "I have a favor to ask you, since you're going to be here." Robin said. "You? And what is that?" Luke raised an eyebrow. "I've been struggling to convince Wren to help us. Perhaps someone like you could nudge him towards doing things that may not be socially acceptable." Robin had a small grin on his face. 'I'm sorry, Wren, but he needs good company.' "Hmph. I suppose I could try." Luke could tell exactly what was going on in Robin's head. He wanted to laugh. 'Acting the concerned older brother? And where were you the rest of my life? Will you forget me again when it suits you?' "Thank you. Rowan, we should go ahead and ask your father for permission to leave." Rowan took a deep sigh. The three of them met with Argus in a small study. Wren and Ran were also there, all three sitting down at a table. Wren was studying. His mother appeared to have been helping Wren with something. Rowan felt more at ease with his mother there. He knew she would support him. Since it was for the sake of seeing Robin's mother, Rowan let him speak to Argus rather than asking himself. Robin gave a very small bow to the king. "Your majesty, I would like to request some time to visit family." "Family? Your brother is already here." Argus waved over at Luke. "It's been a very long time since I've seen my mother. Nineteen years, to be exact. I'd like to see her." Robin explained. He didn't clarify which mother he meant, and didn't plan to unless Argus asked. "We so rarely have free time." Rowan said to add weight to Robin's request. The king sighed and waved him away. "I suppose for a little while. Don't stay too long." "There is one more element to this request..." Robin deepened his bow. "What is it?" Argus rested his head against his fist. He wasn't scared of the king in the slightlest. But he also knew if he wasn't careful with how the conversation continued, his request would be rejected. Robin bowed even deeper. "I want to bring Rowan with me." "Address him properly. And for what reason?" 'Why? You already know we're lovers.' He did as he was told. "It is my duty to guard Prince Rowan. I trust no other knight to guard him as well." "How do I know you aren't planning on stealing him?" Argus glared at him. "My love, let them go. He wouldn't disobey our son, and our son wouldn't abandon his duties at a time like this." Ran spoke before Robin could answer. She reached for her husband's left hand. Argus moved his hand away from her. "Alright, but if you are not back within two weeks, I will bring every knight in the kingdom down to Cailean and drag you back." "You don't have to worry so much, Father." Rowan assured him. "How long are you planning on being gone?" Wren looked at Rowan with defeat in his eyes. Rowan smiled at Wren to ease his worry. "I haven't forgotten. I'll be back for your birthday." "I'll bring you lots of presents back." Robin chimed in. "Is Sir Luke going with you?" Ran asked. "No, Queen Ran. I will be staying behind. Let me help keep the castle safe in my brother's absence." Luke bowed before her. "I have no objections." She said. There were several knocks at the door. Argus yelled, "You may enter." A knight named Sparrow came into the room with a young man who was dressed like a peasant. Sparrow was an older knight, a decade older than Robin. He was ruthless and cold. He had a reputation for losing servants when he was angered. Few knew much about him personally, but he followed orders well. Argus respected him for the most part. Sparrow shut the door behind them. He kept a firm grip on the peasant. "My king, this man was caught sneaking into the castle. He claims he wants to see you. I suspect he may be another assassin." "I am not an assassin. I came for help!" The young man struggled to free himself. "Who are you, boy?" Argus demanded. "My name is Allon. My mother told me you could help me." Argus didn't recognize the name. "And why is that?" "Because...you are my father." Allon's words were barely audible. Argus balked at the suggestion. "Nonsense. I have only two children." "My mother would not lie. Her name is Eve. She was born in the village of Aindíles. If you ask anyone in our village, they will tell you how honest and virtuous she is!" Allon raised his voice to a desperate yell. "She can't be very virtuous if she's a whore." Sparrow yanked the man back towards the door. Allon was left shocked and insulted by Sparrow's words. His face brimmed with anger that he dared not express aloud. Rowan noticed something different about Allon's face. His features were very similar to his father's, and his hair and eyes were the same shade as brown, albeit slightly brighter. It was harder for him to tell the texture of his hair, as it was kept short like many peasants, but he noticed a hint at slight waviness. If the man's hair were longer, he could see it would likely look very much like Argus's. A commoner claiming to be his half-sibling was not unusual. His father's adulterous ways were well known. This boy, though, he had little doubt about the parentage of. The young man standing before him looked far more like his father than he did himself. Rowan interjected himself into the conversation. "What proof do you have that your mother's story is true?" Allon yanked himself free from Sparrow's hold. He pulled a necklace out from underneath his shirt and presented it to Rowan. A single ring hung on the end of the chain. "I have this ring." Rowan examined the ring. He placed it on his hand to check the size, as his father's rings fit him well. This one too was a near perfect fit. On the inner part of the ring, his father's name was engraved. "It bears your name, Father." "Then this woman is a very skilled thief, nothing more." Argus brushed off the accusation. "She didn't steal it. You left it behind." Allon retorted. He bit his lip to stop himself from saying anymore. "I have never been to this village of yours." Argus continued to deny the boy. 'He's either telling the truth, or he is very desperate.' Rowan had a hunch he could fill in what was missing from the story, and didn't want to see the boy pushed to revealing what he presumed. "Sir Sparrow, you may leave him with me. I'll interrogate him myself." "Very well, my prince." Sparrow bowed and left the room. When Sparrow was gone, Rowan gave a devious glance to Robin. Robin kept his face blank and prepared himself for the act that was about to commence. Rowan held onto the ring. "Father, you claim you have never known this woman. And you, boy, claim your mother is telling the truth. How about we perform a little test?" "Brother, this is pointless. You can't honestly believe this man. He's just looking for money." Wren interrupted. Allon spoke timidly. "What sort of test?" "One with a bit of magic involved." Rowan's words told Robin everything he needed to know. "Sir Robin, bring me a goblet and fill it with water. I want you to put a spell on it." "What sort of spell, Prince?" Robin played his part. "If what he claims is the truth, nothing will happen. If it is a lie, that water will turn to burning hot iron in his throat and kill him." Rowan looked his father straight in the eyes. "That's fair, don't you agree, Father?" Argus leaned back in his chair and sighed. "Very well." Rowan stood in front of Allon now. "Do you agree to these terms?" "Y-yes." Allon said with a gulp. Robin took a goblet from the table. He changed the wine inside to water. The cup he then handed to Rowan. "Here, my prince. It is ready." "Thank you, Sir Robin." Rowan in turn gave the goblet to Allon. "Now, drink it. All of it." Allon's hands shook as he held the goblet up to his mouth. He drank slowly at first, then downed the entirety of it. When it was long empty, his hands still moved nervously, causing the goblet to nearly fall from his grasp. Several minutes passed and nothing happened. Ran did not face her husband. "He lived." With a heavy sigh, Argus said, "So he did." Wren said nothing at all. He remembered Rowan telling him Robin could not perform any magic like that. 'What are you doing?' "Well then. It seems you were telling the truth. What is it you want to ask of my father?" Rowan took the goblet from Allon's hands. With the goblet gone, Allon's nerves started to calm. "My mother and I are poor. We barely survived through winter. Mother is very ill now, and she has few relatives left. We could...use a little money..." "Is that all you want? You don't want land too?" Rowan snuck in a suggestion he knew would enrage his father. "We have no land to give him." Argus raised his voice as he rose from his chair. "He can have mine. I don't need it." Robin further angered him. "I live here anyway." Allon shook his head. "I can't accept...I only need a little money to pay for medicine..." "He can't have all of the knight's land." Argus said. "A part of it then. I also have no heir. I could use someone whom I could entrust it to if something were to happen to me before I have a son." Robin countered. "Your majesty, you can't object to that. I'm merely protecting my assets." Argus threw his hands in the air. "Do as you wish. Complete this business before you leave." "Yes, your majesty." Robin put his hands on Allon's shoulder and started to lead him out of the room. Rowan followed along beside him. Wren stood up. "Let me know before you leave. I wish to see you off." Rowan nodded. Robin and Rowan took Allon to fill out the necessary documents. Allon was overwhelmed by their presence. His village was on the outskirts of Argus's kingdom, and there was only sea beyond it. Few knights ever came through, or any soldiers. Outside of the occasional merchant, more men were leaving rather than passing through, and news reached them later than anyone else in the kingdom. Even at his distant, small village, he still heard horrifying tales of both of them. To think that the monstrous Bloody Raven was his half-brother seemed too strange to be real. He doubted the tales he heard from sailors, but the test Rowan had him perform made him wonder. It was over and he was still terrified. Perplexing to him was the prince's behavior after that. He fought to give him more than what Allon asked for, as did the notorious Hellhound. He didn't understand it. When they were in private again, he asked, "Why are you doing this for me?" "Isn't it obvious? I wanted to piss off the king." Robin laughed as he drew up the documents. Allon was taken aback at Robin's words, and moreso that he had said that in the crown prince's presence. "You shouldn't say such things aloud! Someone might hear you." "I don't care. I'd tell it to his face. What's he going to do about it?" Robin kept on writing. "The rumors are true. You may look noble in your armor and on your stead, but you are like a wild animal." Allon covered his mouth after he spoke, realizing how much he too was speaking out of class after the words left him. His heart pounded as he feared what Robin might do to him for saying such a thing. "Oh, no he isn't. He's just very common. You'll get used to it." Rowan pulled up a chair for Allon. He motioned for him to sit down. "So, you are my brother. How old are you?" Allon sat down, even more confused than before. "I'll be turning twenty the seventeenth." "The seventeenth? You're joking, right?" Rowan sat down beside him. "No, why would I lie?" Allon titled his head. "That's Wren's birthday. You're exactly one year older than him. Father, what the hell were you thinking..." Rowan shook his head in disgust. "Oh, I'm sorry about scaring you earlier. I did that more to mess with Father than you. I already knew you were telling the truth." Allon gasped. "You did? How did you know?" "Father's never bothered hiding his affairs, and you look more like him than I do. Besides, I can tell that you're an honest person." Rowan handed some fresh parchment over to Robin while he worked. "Oh, I see. So you knew I wasn't in any danger." Allon breathed a sigh of relief. "You wouldn't have been in danger if you were lying. Robin can't do magic like that." Rowan said flippantly. "What?!" Allon's jaw hung open. "Then what was...?" "Don't tell Father I said that. I'd like him to keep believing that." Rowan put a finger to his lips and grinned. He took some money from his bag and gave it to Allon. "You said your mother was ill. When we're done here, take this and buy her whatever she needs." Allon looked down at the gold coins in his hand. The money before him was more than enough to buy his mother medicine for another year if he needed. His eyes watered. "Thank you...you are much kinder than people say." "People say a lot of things." Rowan looked up at the clock. "Robin, are you done yet? I want to leave as soon as possible." "You know, it's my birthday. You could do the paperwork for once." Robin wasn't serious with his complaint. Rowan quickly dodged the work. In truth, he didn't want to do it because his handwriting was poor. "It's your assets we're dealing with here." "You didn't mind handling them earlier." Robin said suggestively. Rowan gave him a light smack on the arm and whispered under his breath. "None of that." Allon stared at them both. From the mood between them and the way they interacted, a subtle truth slipped into Allon's mind. Of all the things today, this he understood least of all. "No...you...you two...you two are lovers!" "Damn it. Robin, you couldn't keep it a secret for a day." "It's my birthday." Robin said in a cheery voice and kept on working on the documents without a care. "Well, that's out then." Rowan sighed. "You're family, so you were bound to find out eventually anyway. Don't say anything about that to my father, or really much of anyone." "I won't. It's none of my business..." Allon shook his hands in the air. He sat dumbfounded at what he had just learned. "I can't believe...the strongest warriors in the land...are...no...No wonder Brion can't defeat us." "You know, you're taking this a lot better than I expected." Rowan was already prepared to bribe the boy with more money to keep quiet. "Oh, well, I'm not very religious. Mother's always worrying about me because of it." Robin looked up at him. "Any reason why you're not?" "Hmm...I don't know. I guess I've never really paid much attention during sermons...I usually fall asleep." Allon had missed attending church the previous Sunday because he overslept instead of sleeping in church. He was too embarrassed to admit to that on top of the rest. "Most of what the men of the church talk about confuses me anyway. It's like everything's bad. I don't really understand it." Robin smiled. "Yes, you're definitely the right person to inherit my land." "Um...what should I call you? Should I be formal with you or...calling you Hellhound seems inappropriate...knight of Cailean...?" Allon mumbled his words. "You can call me anything you want. Wren shortens my name to Rin. We don't need to be formal with each other. After all, I'm going to let you live in my home. You can bring your family to live there too. I never go there so you can stay in whatever rooms you want. Consider it all yours. Those things mean nothing to me." Robin finished up the documents and signed off on it. He passed the papers to Allon to look over. Allon instinctively looked over it, but he couldn't read a work of what it said. "I'm sorry...I...what do I do with this? I can't read." "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm used to dealing with noblemen. Just sign here on this last page." Robin took the last page and pointed to a space near the bottom. "Um...I can't write my name either." Allon's face burned. "That's alright. Just put an X here." Robin handed him a quill. "I'll have someone hired to teach you." The quill felt strange in his hand. He had never needed to use one before. He wrote a sloppy X where Robin instructed him to and handed the quill back. "Is this right?" "Yes, that's fine. Rowan, do you want to sign off on it as a witness?" Robin passed the page and the quill over. Rowan signed it. He faced Allon. "That's settled then. I'll have someone take you back to your mother and help you get everything else arranged from there." "Is he going to acknowledge me as his son?" Allon asked. "Not likely. He hasn't with anyone else. His way is more giving his bastard children more status in roundabout ways. You should expect the same." Rowan said. "I see. That's alright. I don't really want to be a prince or anything. I just wanted to help Mother." He didn't know why, but Allon felt slightly disappointed. "Should I not refer to you as my brother?" "Why not? It's the truth." Rowan looked over at the clock again. He got up from the table. "I'm sorry. I'm sure there's more on your mind, but Robin and I need to leave. We can speak again another time. I'll set up arrangements for you. I wish your mother well." "Thank you." Allon jumped up from his seat to follow Rowan. He was afraid to make too much eye contact, already feeling awkward to be speaking with the crown prince. Still, he could not stop himself from staring. The man before him was his older brother. He wanted to find the marks of similarity between them and memorize his face. The parts that were the same were few. Rowan took more after his mother in appearance. What Allon could find satisfied his need to see a piece of himself in the prince and affirm what he already knew. Rowan's mostly foreign appearance was lost in his mind not long after they started to talk. Those in his village often remarked on how ugly and strange the prince looked. Up close, he didn't seem strange at all. Allon hadn't given much of any thought to it. Rowan spoke their language perfectly, dressed properly, and was well educated in things Allon didn't understand at all. By all measures, Rowan was far more a better representation of their kingdom than himself in spite of his looks. He wanted to know more about his half-brother. Clearly, he thought, everything he was told before was wrong. Allon followed the two men out. A carriage was brought out for him. He sunk down, trying to process everything that had happened to him. He looked back at the castle, his mind full of questions. Rowan and Robin prepared for their trip. When they were ready to leave, Wren, Luke, and Rosabella went out to see them off. Robin checked that their things were well secured before mounting his horse. Rowan got ready to mount his before Wren stopped him. Wren held a piece of clothing, neatly folded, in his arms. "Your cloak. Here." "Thank you. You took good care of it." Rowan unfolded it and put it on. "You will be back by my birthday, right?" Wren had sad, demanding eyes. It reminded Rowan of looking at a puppy. "I'll be here." Rowan promised. Luke touched Rowan's arm. "Don't forget about my mother." "I won't. Will you be fine here without me?" He asked. Luke disguised his want to leave with the prince with his usual fakeness. "I'm sure I can find ways to entertain myself. Perhaps I'll teach your little brother the art of gambling." "Don't bother him too much." Rowan gave Luke a hug goodbye. Luke hesitated in returning the hug. Robin was already glaring at him. He kept his touch light and was very conscious of where he placed his hands on Rowan. Rowan kissed him on the cheek. "Take care of my home for me, alright?" Forgetting sense for a moment, he almost let his hands wander. "Do I get a reward for my services when you return?" "Sure." Rowan pulled away and mounted his horse. "I'll let Robin decide what." Luke sighed and laughed. "Too cruel, Prince." "Be safe, Prince." Rosabella offered him a flower. "And you too, good knight." "We will. We'll return soon." With that, they rode off. Luke, Rosabella, and Wren watched the two of them until they were out of sight. Luke was already bored. He resigned himself to what the next few days would be like and sought a way to amuse himself. He looked over at Rosabella and Wren. "Well, that leaves the three of us. Are you two any good at gambling?" "Gambling is a sin." Wren said in a matter-of-fact way. "Of course it is. Everything fun is a sin." Luke got in between them and put an arm around each of them. "Come on. I have no one to play with. Most of your father's knights have returned to their homes, and not much of anyone else here wants my company for some reason." "I can think of a few reasons." Wren muttered. "Why don't we play a card game? I take it you two don't know any, do you?" "I've seen Eider play with cards before, but I don't really know anything about card games." Rosabella said. "Well, today you're going to learn." He led them both forward. Before either of them could stop it, they were swept up in Luke's whims and found themselves in a dark part of the castle playing a card game by candlelight. The game Luke played with them was intended for four players, so he quickly modified the rules as he often did to suit his needs. He wrote the rules down for them and put the paper in the middle of the table for them to reference. For the prize, each of them put up something they had on them at the time. To his surprise, Rosabella was much better at cards than her older brother. She quickly picked up on the flow of the game and he was starting to worry she might beat him. He struck up a conversation with her to split her attention. "Lady Rosabella, do you mind if I just call you Bella?" "Ah, I would rather you not. That's what my family calls me, but I prefer Rosa." Luke's attempt was a failure. Rosabella was more concentrated on the cards than what he was saying, her voice clearly showing her disinterest in speaking. Her gaze was completely focused on the cards in her hand and on the table. "Rosa it is then. It's hard to believe you're related to Eider. You're so much cleaner and well-mannered." He used his next tactic, complimenting her. "My brother has always...attempted to follow in my father's footsteps, but the shoes are too big for him." Rosabella watched Wren's face now. Luke did as well. Wren wore his thoughts on his face very plainly. "He certainly can't echo his strength in battle." "I've been wondering something. You and Wren met before, right? At Philip's?" Rosa asked. She knew what Luke was trying to do. She decided to do the same to him. "How did you two meet again?" Wren fell for her trap instead. He stuttered his words. "Ah, well...it was...nothing interesting..." "Wren...why are you being so vague?" Unfortunately, Wren's outburst worked against her. She glared at Luke. "Did you seduce him?" "Rosa!" Wren threw his cards on the table, unintentionally revealing his hand. Luke glanced over the cards before answering Rosabella. "No, I did not. I tried, but I failed. You have your fiancé to thank for that. In Wren's defense, he was quite inebriated. I don't think he understood half of what I asked him...from what I can remember...I was also very...intoxicated." "Rosa, please forgive me. I was going to tell you, but there was never a good opportunity to talk about it..." Wren bowed to her from his seat. Luke reassured her while he planned his next move. "Absolutely nothing happened, Rosa. We didn't even kiss." "Wren...I am angry that you kept this from me, but if nothing occurred and you had no intentions of anything occurring, then I forgive you." Having calmed down, she looked at Wren's cards before she informed him of what he did. "Wren, we can see your cards." Wren hurriedly picked them up. He apologized again. "I'm sorry...I really didn't mean to keep it a secret." "Speaking of secrets..." Luke decided he would fulfill his brother's request. "Have you talked to your brother yet? About that issue?" "Not yet..." Wren played his move. "If you don't get this sorted out, they'll be married and he'll have no choice but to fuck her. And it goes without saying, that will be awkward for everyone involved." Luke's vulgar words painted a picture that neither he nor Wren wanted to imagine. "Obviously." Wren removed that image from his mind immediately. "I'll do it when he comes back, at a time I can get him alone." "Finally." Rosabella said in an exasperated tone. "The waiting is agony." "Rosa!" Wren dropped his cards down again. "See, you're driving her mad." Luke took advantage of it. "Do you know what you're going to say to him?" "I'll tell him that...I'm mad that he arranged this without my consent, but if he will ask for my forgiveness and ask me properly, I'll do what needs to be done." Wren picked his cards back up. "Good." Luke chose his next card. The game lasted a little while longer. Luke won, but Rosabella kept him on his toes. He wouldn't mind playing with her again. Afterwards, Rosabella sat looking through the deck. She picked out one of the cards. "These cards are very beautiful, but some of the pictures are...a little frightening. This one in particular is very..." "Which one?" Luke looked at the card. "Oh? The Tower card? You know, I get that one a lot. It's like it's following me." Wren watched the moon from the window. The sun had just set, and the moon was high above. It was half full. The land illuminated by its light down below looked so empty to him. "Why didn't you go with them? Do you not want to see your mother?" "It's a complicated matter." Luke stretched. "Well, it's getting late. I have some things I wanted to do before I turned in for the night. Thanks for playing with me. It's been a while since I've had the opportunity to." Rosabella returned his cards. "Goodnight, Sir Luke. It was fun. Next time, I think I'll beat you." "Oh, is that so? I look forward to it." He waved goodbye to Wren as he left. With Rowan away, the guest room Luke was staying in was suffocating. He had servants change out his sheets to ones without a floral design. Eider wasn't there to go drinking with, and he hated drinking alone. Luke considered going out and bringing someone back to fill his loneliness with. Though Rowan would not return his desires, he felt a strange sense of guilt at the thought of sleeping with another man in a bed Rowan had provided for him. It was a foolish emotion born from another foolishness. He sat down at the desk, debating what to do. The room was far too quiet. It was driving him mad. The yellow rose Rowan gave him sat in the vase, still as fresh and beautiful as when it was picked. His thoughts alternated between anger at Rowan for leaving him there and teasing him with affection and at forgiving his every action and blaming himself for failing to close the distance between them. Frustrated, he allowed in the thoughts he usually needed to drink heavily to drown out. Quill in hand, he wrote out his frustration on parchment, then burned each page to ash with a candle. The small flame flickered delicately before him. He wanted to touch it. Still angry, he wrote out a letter to someone else that frustrated him. She was the reason he was stuck here. He let all of his feelings of pain towards her out on the paper. The longer he wrote, the more his anger subsided and was replaced with guilt and pain. By the end of it, he was too ashamed to sign his name. Luke looked out his window at the half full moon. He held the letter tightly in his hand. "This time...this time, you'll hear me." He left his room to find a servant to call for a messenger and have it delivered. He sent more money, as if to compensate for the weight of what lay inside his letter. His room felt even more empty when he returned. "Mother, please forgive me for my selfishness." Luke put his cloak on and went out to find someone to drink with. The journey to Cailean was uneventful. Robin kept watch of Rowan's mood. It seemed to have improved since they left the castle. He was enjoying the time himself, though Robin could sense he was a little nervous. Spending days and nights out close to trees and animals brought back happy memories from when he was a child. Everything was peaceful. He longed to be able to wander and linger about outside like this with Rowan more. When they were teenagers, he had more time for things like that. In a month or so, his time would be occupied with fighting again and cleaning up Rowan's injuries. They came upon a village. It had been nineteen years, but Robin could still remember the trees and flowers that grew around, and the river was unmistakably the one his mother dwelled in. "This is the place. I remember." He rode slightly ahead of Rowan. "Flannán's home is this way. It's the house closest to where my mother lives." "I know you don't see her as such, but it would be polite to refer to her as 'mother' when speaking to her." Rowan said. "She's not my family." Robin gave it no consideration. "You said the same about Luke. You can't trick me. I know you worry about him." "Nonsense." Robin turned his nose up in the air. "Liar." Rowan wondered how little the woman would have to do to spark Robin's protective side. Robin stopped before a small patch of land. They were not alone. Robin dismounted his horse. "This is the house." A woman with grey hair tended to a dying farm. She looked over at them. Her eyes were empty and her voice cold. "Come to torment me again, little wolf?" "I'm not Faolán, Flannán." Robin responded. She looked away from him and went back to working. "You're the first one then. Come to see her? She's where she always is." "That woman is...?" Rowan dismounted. He stared at the older woman. She seemed so weak and fragile. Heavy bags lined her eyes and her dress was tarnished around the edges. Clashing with her appearance, she wore a red cloak lined with jewels. It looked made of a finer material than Rowan's. The cloak didn't suit the rest of her appearance nor the aura she projected to them. Knowing Robin's conception had been under horrid circumstances, he wondered if the cloak was a cruel gift from Robin's father. "She is the woman who gave birth to me." Robin approached her. He was unnerved by her haggard appearance. The last time he saw her, she looked tired and angry. Now, she looked like she was aimlessly going through motions. He spoke softly to her. "Flannán, where is your husband?" "Out chasing young women around and leaving me with all the work, as always. Though I doubt for much longer, with that strange lump he has now." She continued to work, moving further away from him. "I see. I have some things for you from Luke." He turned back to Rowan, who handed him over what they were to deliver. She stopped working for a moment to see what he had. She quietly took the letter and the money. Robin informed her of the current situation. "He's been staying with us for the time being." "This is for Luke." She handed Robin a letter. Her attention turned to Rowan. Realizing who he was, she went back to work. "You brought a prince here. What on earth for?" "I wanted him to meet her." She snorted. "So, you are as sinful as the rest of us then." "I don't care what people think about it." He questioned her words in his head. His father and brother of course would be labeled sinners. 'What is your sin?' "That must be her doing. You should go on your way now. You'll cause a panic if people see you here." "Here, let me help you." Robin placed his hand on the ground. Water spread across the surface of the dry, barren earth. Flannán watched in amazement. "You know magic..." "You don't look well yourself either." Robin walked over to an empty cauldron sitting near the door of Flannán's house and placed his hand on it. It filled with water. From his bag, he took out the remedy Father David gave him for Rowan and emptied some of it into a bowl sitting near the cauldron. The bowl he presented to Flannán. "This water is pure. Boil those herbs in this and drink it at night. It'll help ease your troubled sleeping." Flannán stared at Robin's face for a moment then averted her eyes. Her shoulders shook slightly while she took the remedy from him. "It's a shame you look like that beast rather than her, though you smell more like she does. Why do my children always look like that wolf...and you all leave me here, alone with the other monster." "If you need to run away, she would gladly take you. She would never leave you." Robin recognized Flannán appeared to be familiar with his mother. He could think of no better shelter than his mother's waterfall. "Take care, Flannán." "Go on to her." She would not look at him again. Rowan and Robin both kept their eyes on her until she was out of sight. From what Luke told him, Rowan thought she would react more than she did. 'Perhaps she's gotten a bit better since then?' A little ways up the nearby river, Robin had them both dismount their horses. He signaled for Rowan to keep quiet. The river led to a waterfall. Just before the falls, a woman with skin the color of the sea, hair the color of the sky, and eyes the color of grass hummed a melody. Parts of her body were covered in translucent plants. He could see through the plants and blushed at her exposed body. Rowan wasn't used to seeing a woman walk around so exposed. His face turned red upon looking at her. Keeping Robin consistently clothed was difficult when he first came to live with Rowan, so it wasn't surprising. Though she was not intending anything indecent, his upbringing was hard to push aside. Robin told Rowan to stay put while he went over to meet with her. "Mother, I'm home." "My little bird...is it really you?" The woman ran over to him. She put her hands to his face and looked over every angle. Tears fell from her face. "You've gotten so big. How old are you now?" "I'm twenty-nine." Robin said. "Is that old in human time or still young?" She asked. "Well..." Robin scratched the back of his head. Rowan accidentally stepped on a twig. The small sound immediately caught the woman's attention. The leaves about her body changed from a clear, translucent color to a solid green. Her fingernails extended into sharp claws and she bore fangs at him. "What man dares enter my domain!" She hissed. "Mother, calm down. He is with me." Robin held onto her shoulders. "Why have you brought a stranger here? How do I know he can be trusted?" She wouldn't stop staring at Rowan. He feared she wanted to rip him to pieces. "He is my lover." He had no reason to fear how his mother would react. The last nineteen years conditioned him to still have at least a hint of worry in the best of situations. Aside from that, he was more embarrassed than he thought he would be showing Rowan off to his mother. He blushed in a way he hadn't since he was a teenager. "Lover?" She retracted her claws and her teeth, and leaves returned to their previous state. "Rowan, come here." Robin waved for Rowan to come to him. "This is my mother. Mother, this is Rowan." "I am honored to meet you." Rowan, wanting to make a good impression on her, bowed down on his knees. 'Father would kill me if he saw me like this.' "Well, he is respectful at least. Have you come to stay, little bird? He may stay too if you wish." She gave Robin a hug. Robin hugged her back. "I'm afraid not this time. I wanted to visit you. It's been a long time since I came back." "I should say. You're all grown up. How much time has passed? Human years are so brief." She walked around Robin, looking him over and taking in how much he grew since she last saw him. He grew into a tall and handsome man. His body also suggested to her he was a very strong man. His appearance filled her with pride. "I'm sorry. It's been nineteen years since I've been home. I've been very busy." "Busy with what? Playing around?" She let go of him to get a better look at Rowan. She was impressed with his physique and scars. A warrior for her son, she liked the thought. He could keep her son safe and push him further. She took note of his left arm. An archer, she assumed. His face went well with the rest of him. If he didn't belong to her son, she might want to take him herself. "He's quite handsome. Tell me, do you truly love my son or do you only see him for his beauty?" "Mother, I'm an adult. I can take care of myself." Robin didn't like where her questions were heading. "Robin, it's fine. She's only concerned about your happiness." Rowan took hold of her hand and kissed it. "You don't need to worry. I am eternally devoted to your son." "You look familiar." She put her face close to his and squinted. She struggled to remember something from nineteen years ago. It was already gone from her mind. "Is he the one she showed you?" "Yes." Robin said. "I see." Liliana smiled. She hugged her son from behind. "If you ever stop liking the life you're living with them, steal him away and I will free you from time itself." She said to him. "I know you would, but I can't. Not unless he wants to leave too. I won't do anything he doesn't wish for." He wanted to accept her offer then. With Wren wanting Rowan's attention so much recently, it was absolutely out of the question. "Thank you for offering." "Think it over, my little bird. You can always fly home to me." She added on to that. "And if you grow tired of him, let me know. He is very handsome. I wouldn't mind taking him." Robin cringed at her words. At times like this, he was reminded he was very much human. "Absolutely not." She laughed. "I'm only teasing you. Please visit me again soon sometime. I've missed you." "I'll try." They stayed the night in the cave behind the waterfall. Seeing it again, laying on the cold stone and looking out at the water, he thought back to when he was young and spent all his days here. Not a care ever entered his mind. Back then, he thought he would never leave this place. At the river, they were close to the border between realms. If he wanted, it would be easy to kidnap Rowan and take him to the other side. He let the idea linger in his mind long enough to feel guilty for it. Rowan slept soundly beside him, closer than usual to keep himself warm. He kissed him on the forehead. On their return home, Rowan rushed them. Rowan's mood worsened the closer they got to home. There was nothing Robin could say to him to fix it. He resigned to it. The trip back was longer than Rowan expected. On the last day of the trip, when they reached the castle, it was long past sunset. Rowan paid no attention to where Robin was. Once inside the castle, Rowan demanded a servant tell him where Wren was. He immediately ran to find him, with Robin lagging behind him trying to keep up with Rowan's pace. Wren was waiting in his bedroom. From what the servant told him, everyone else had celebrated earlier along with celebrating Rosabella's birthday, as it was the same date. Now, everyone had left and went to their rooms to sleep. Rowan ran up to the second floor and down the hallway Wren's room was on. He didn't think to knock. He slammed the door wide open. "I'm sorry! Has midnight passed yet?" Rowan tried to catch his breath. Wren was sitting by the window. The clock in the room chimed eleven times. "It's eleven now." Wren's heart was filled with warmth to see his brother. Rowan walked into the room. "I'm sorry. I didn't think it would take us this long to get back." "You still have an hour." Wren wanted to hug him. It was too embarrassing for him. Secretly, he wished Rowan would hug him instead so he wouldn't have to initiate it. Robin caught up with them and closed the door. "Then we better start celebrating. I brought you some gifts." Robin's gifts ranged from sweets and cake to things he told Wren not to open until he was alone. They talked about how the party earlier went. Wren stumbled through vagueness about what presents he and Rosabella exchanged. Luke bought him an imported drink. "How has Luke been since we were away?" Rowan asked. "Luke? We've been playing cards together, or well, he's been making Rosa and I play cards with him. I'm terrible at it. He's been going out a lot at night too, but I don't know where. He doesn't come back until morning." Wren ate a piece of cake. "Going out, huh?" Rowan worried about that. He also felt a slight twinge of unwarranted jealousy, which he laughed off. "Shameful." Robin only shook his head. They talked long past midnight. Rowan saw how happy Wren was. He wondered what Wren's real feelings were about him. Perhaps it wasn't entirely hatred. Rowan struggled to accept that. A part of him wanted to believe Wren couldn't care about him at all, but what he was seeing before him contradicted that. He might be able to fix things, or do something to make Wren happier. Even if Wren completely hated him, Wren was never a violent person before. To think that his brother would really be plotting his murder with his father was ridiculous. If Wren drew a weapon against him, that wouldn't be his choice. It would be the doing of his father's coercion and Wren's fear. Guilt washed over him for allowing himself to think Wren would be so wicked and vile. Around two in the morning, Robin yawned. "Wren, is it alright if I go on to bed? I know we haven't been home long." "It's fine. Thank you for celebrating with me this late at night." Wren said. Robin kissed Rowan on the cheek before he left the room. They were finally alone. Wren was nervous. The opportunity to fix things was right there before him. 'Why am I nervous? He'll be happy with me in the end. I can do this.' Wren took a deep breath. "Brother, I..." "Wren, I've been thinking...oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt you. You go ahead." Rowan's tone was heavy with anxiousness. "No, it's alright. What were you going to say?" Wren allowed him to go first. 'It's fine. I'll tell him after this.' Rowan glanced out the window at the moon. It was near full now. He hoped its brilliance in the dark would offer him some solace in what he was about to say, but the words pierced him within like thorns. "I've been thinking...I don't know if Egret and Father will approve of this, or the church for that matter, but I'm sure I could probably persuade them...I want to end my engagement with Rosabella and have her wed you instead." Wren's eyes widened and his body went cold. He stared at his brother unable to say anything for a while, shocked. Rowan was offering him the one thing he desired most. That couldn't be right. He pushed Rowan, to see if this offer was real. "Who will you marry?" "I can let Father choose someone for me quickly. It shouldn't be hard to find a woman willing to marry someone with my status." Rowan kept his eyes on Wren while he spoke. He stared at him so long his vision blurred. He hid his emotions completely. "But...you can't produce an heir. I'm the only person who can..." Wren argued. He wasn't sure why he was arguing. "I'm not incapable. I can force myself. Don't worry about that." Wren countered in desperation. "Rin won't want that." "He'll understand." "I don't...I don't mi..." What was bothering him rose to the surface. Wren wanted to be useful to his brother. He couldn't get himself to say it, so he said something cold instead. "You wouldn't do that for me." "I'm sorry. I forced you into the position you're in now, and that was unfair of me. I was using you for my own ends. That makes me no better than Father. Say the word, and I'll have it undone." Rowan left his pride aside. There was no place for it here. As the older one, it was his duty to fix the issue and make sacrifices. That was how he saw it. "This is all very sudden...I don't know what to say..." Wren looked away from Rowan. He couldn't face him. "I'm sorry...I'm pressuring you again, aren't I?" Rowan felt himself drowning. He wanted to maintain his composure. The more he spoke, the more his insecurities and fears tackled him. It wasn't like this before. The way his mind betrayed him frustrated him. 'I'm stronger than this', he told himself. His words didn't match. "If you want to arrange it yourself without me, you can do that instead. It's your decision. Think it over and let me know if you want it done before then." "Before when?" Rowan's voice was soft, barely above a whisper. "It's alright, you know. I won't be mad at you." "For what?" Guilt hit him again. He promised Luke he wouldn't do what he was about to offer Wren. "If it's too much, I can do that part for you too." Wren didn't know what Rowan was talking about. He could hear his heartbeat ringing in his ears. Something wasn't right. "I...what are you talking about...?" "Nothing. I'm sorry. Happy nineteenth birthday." Rowan finally looked away, but his voice stayed soft. Wren froze. He realized what Rowan was talking about. Rowan tried to put his hand on Wren's. The revelation made him so on edge that he instinctively withdrew away from Rowan. Rowan's hand hovered in that spot while Rowan looked up at him. He searched through Wren's expression to read what might be going on in his mind. "I'm sorry...should I not?" Rowan got up and headed for the door. "It's late. We should probably go to bed." "Oh...right." Wren wanted to explain himself. Rowan had the wrong idea about what was going on, he knew it. Nothing more would come out of him. He was too ashamed to say it. "Goodnight, Prince Wren." Rowan bowed to him before leaving. "G-goodnight...brother..." Wren wanted to run after him and stop him from leaving. He only sat there, waiting by the window. When Rowan was gone, an eerie silence filled the room. Wren broke down in tears. "How long have you known?" Wren's body shook. Tears fell from his face while shame consumed him from within. "How can you say those things to me? It's not fair...I was supposed to..." Wren opened the pouch at his side and took out the dagger. He turned to the window. Raising his hand, he cursed his father in his thoughts and prepared to throw it with all his strength. 'I have no need for a spare even more useless than the first born.' No one was there, but Wren could feel the unmistakable aura of his father's presence looming behind. His arm froze midair, quivering, and then it fell straight down to his side. The dagger didn't leave his hand. Wren dropped down to his knees. He cursed himself for allowing his fears to outweigh everything else. "If you know, why won't you help me? We could work together...Why are you so resigned to..." Something flashed in Wren's mind. A vague memory of arguing that was hazy from how much he had to drink that night. He said things he shouldn't have, but he hadn't meant a word of it. He didn't know what he was saying or doing at the time. 'Surely he doesn't believe that I...I practically begged him to be here tonight...' The next day after that drunken night, his brother started keeping distance between them. His words became kinder. The arguments stopped. It was pleasant, Wren had to admit, but something was off about it. His brother hadn't revoked affection entirely. That was clear. He indulged Wren's request for a gift, rushed back to see him on his birthday, and showed concern for his well being many times. But touch was absent. Both bickering and hugs were no longer part of their interactions. By the time he was a teenager, Wren didn't exactly want to be hugged by him, but Rowan would do it sometimes anyway, usually with a condescending remark about him being childish. Rowan used to fix bits of his clothes here and there or brush back parts of his hair when he let it get messy in public. 'That doesn't mean anything. I'm too old for him to be doing that. We're both adults now. This is how we're supposed to act.' Wren tried to give another reason to it. His own words haunted him again. 'I hate you...' Wren couldn't remember how Rowan looked, but he remembered Rowan's response. 'I see.' There was no further fighting from there. Nothing. He simply accepted his words. Wren didn't understand it. When he was young, he told his brother he hated him all the time, far more often than he said anything about love. Rowan used to tell him off for saying things like that and they would go their separate ways for a few hours until one of them begrudgingly came back to the other. Apologies weren't given, but the return made it obvious what the intention was. These days, Rowan was saying sorry far too often. 'Why would you believe some stupid thing I said when I was drunk? What's wrong with you lately?' Rowan took Wren's typical insults more seriously than he used to. "You're stupid...You're so stupid!" His older brother, the person in his memories, wouldn't think anything of that. He would brush it off and mock him, then give him gifts without a reason. That person was never tired nor submissive. Arguments happened all the time, over anything. A flash of silver beside black, he could see it clearly, along with all the scars and the bags under his brother's eyes. His brother was someone who was supposed to always stay strong. A disturbing thought followed. He pictured Rowan sitting down before a mirror as he stood behind him. Wren held the dagger up to his brother's neck without a word, seeing himself reflected in that mirror as the blood started to pool from his brother's neck. Rowan did not fight back. He could see his father congratulating him for it. Rowan's last offer hit him next. Instead of slitting his brother's throat, he handed the dagger to Rowan. He held him from behind and with a grin, said to him, 'Do it for me, won't you, brother?' In the mirror, he saw Rowan look up at him with fear and desperation. He silently cut across his wrists and showed the wound to his brother for approval. The Wren in the reflection felt over the deep gashes with a warped happiness while Rowan's eyes began to close. He then saw himself in that mirror trying on his father's crown, the gold and his palms covered in blood. Such a sight would please his father greatly. Wren was sick to his stomach for imagining such a scenario. He could never be happy doing something like that. 'Is that what you imagine?' If it were to come to that, he couldn't wear such a face. He would be terrified. That scenario, he let it play out in his head. There was no way he could take another life, especially not his brother's. If his father threatened him with his own life, and Rowan were to find out, he could see the events unfold clearly. 'It's alright.' Rowan would take the dagger from him and do the deed himself. Wren saw it perfectly, how he would hold his brother as his life slipped away, sitting in a puddle of red. He wanted to throw up. "Why won't you understand what I really want? Help me." Wren took the dagger with him to bed. He lay there, considering using it on himself. He was too frightened to led the blade touch his skin. The sound muffled by his pillow, he cried himself to sleep. The next morning, in another kingdom, a messenger nervously met with King Brion. The king was an older man, a father of nine and a grandfather of a proud thirty children. His hair had turned completely white and his long beard stretched down below his belt. His wife, though a good eight years younger than him, was passed the age of bearing children and was heavily grayed herself. She sat beside him, holding one of his grandchildren. A pristine, jeweled crown sat on his brow and a rainbow of stones decorated his cape. Around the middle, he had grown very round over the years. Long gone were the days when he gallivanted around atop a horse with shield and sword in hand. That was for his sons to do now. He sat in luxury feasting on breakfast. The king sensed the messenger's nervousness. He calmly cut open a piece of meat. "Get on with it messenger. What is the news from King Ruaidhrí?" "He has refused your request to attack Argus presently. He suggests your majesty continue fighting Silvanus while his men take Philip, then join together to defeat Argus." The messenger summarized the letter. "I expected as much. Write back to him that I accept this plan. He needs to act immediately. That boy is always stalling. Go on your way now and leave to deliver that as soon as you finish writing it." Brion ordered while he ate his breakfast. "Yes, your majesty." The messenger bowed and left the room. "That young king is quite the coward. If you were his age, you would have rushed right into any battle." Across the table, Brion's oldest son, Lewis, dined with his father. "His father was never a great warrior either. He was too passive. I expected more out of the boy, given his violent reputation, but it seems he only goes for opponents he knows are too weak to defend themselves." Brion's loyalty to Ruaidhrí's father, Fionn, was barely stronger than what he held for the young king. It was merely out of necessity. In the last war, Fionn never once fight alongside him. His army was also small, and most of his soldiers unimpressive. The only warrior he recalled impressing him was a man by the name of Olcán. From what he heard, Ruaidhrí strongest warrior was that man's adopted son. When the war was over, he planned on cutting ties with the king. "Philip is the weakest of the lot. He would do better to join us against Silvanus." Lewis argued. "We'll be fine without him. Better to take two down at once." Brion finished his plate. He motioned for a servant to pour him another drink. The servant realized there was nothing left in the container and excused himself to get more drinks. Brion shook his head at the servant, who was new and clumsy. "I can't believe this war isn't over yet. This should have been so simple. Three tiny kingdoms...they should have been easy to take. How is it we have lost all but one of our allies?" "We still have more land than all three of them combined, even with what they've stolen from our fallen comrades." Lewis tried to console his father. "Father, you couldn't have predicted that such great strength existed in our enemy's alliance. They are few in number, but they a handful of warriors that are practically inhuman. Argus and Egret in their youth were a force to reckon with, but Argus's son and that beast of his are something beyond the best any normal man can be. Egret still fights, and Martin and that beast's brother are as strong as our best men. There's the Black Wolf too...I've heard rumors he's already training up another son. Who knows what that one will become." "Egret is growing old. He'll retire from fighting not long from now, if he has any sense. The one we need to worry about the most is..." Brion wasn't worried about that sneaky fox. If the man didn't stop soon, he would die on the battlefield. His son was nothing to worry over either. "The Hellhound. Who knows what sorts of witchcraft he can perform!" Lewis was disgusted at the very thought of some fairy-raised being walking among normal men. "The Bloody Raven and the Black Wolf are about even in strength. They're our next biggest threat." Brion grew impatient waiting for his drink. "The Devil's Rook is with that greedy bastard Argus at the moment. Ruaidhrí attacking Philip now is an opportunity we can't miss. After Martin, his other knights are no stronger than our own. That boy should be able to handle at least that." "But we will have to deal with that one being with Argus." Lewis worried about what that battle would be like. "We will deal with that in time. Let's wait and see how things turn out in the near future. Since you are so concerned with him, it'll be your job to get rid of the rook." Brion said in jest, wanting to stir up his son. Lewis accepted his father's challenge. "I'm not afraid of him. He is easy to deceive. Who will take the wolf?" "That will have to be a combined effort. I'm sending you to fight with your brothers against Silvanus's army. I want you, Mark, and Collin to all fight together against that wolf and kill him." Brion stabbed his fork down on the table. "What about Hollis? Are you not ever going to have him out in the field? He's twenty-three." Lewis reminded him of Brion's lesser known child. "No. That boy can't do anything worthwhile. Thank god he's the youngest." Brion often wished Hollis had been born a girl to spare him from the shame of the boy being so weak. For how people mocked Egret for his weakling son, at the very least Eider rode out alongside the other men. Hollis locked himself away in his tower writing poetry and whining about his royal responsibilities. Brion's wife, Francesca, who was sitting at the edge of the table holding one of her newborn grandchildren, chimed in. "You could at least marry him off, dear. I want more grandchildren. One of his might end up useful." "In time, my love. We have more important issues to worry about right now. Lewis, it's time for you to join your brothers. We have enough men here to guard the castle. There's no immediate threat here for the moment." Brion told his son. "Yes, Father. I will leave right away." Lewis rose from the table and saw himself out. Francesca followed shortly behind him. "I'll be on my way too. This one is missing her mommy." Brion got up from the table and walked over to the window. He started the war, but he was growing weary of it. This was supposed to have been a short war to expand his kingdom. His allies, except Ruaidhrí, were all gone now. His resolve did not waiver. Once he defeated those three tiny kingdoms, he would take all the land for himself. "Argus, you foolish man. You've stolen more than anticipated, but that's good. Once I eliminate you and your allies, I will have everything. Rally up your men all you want. You are nothing more than a little king with a tiny plot of land that time will forget." The servant returned. "Your majesty, I have brought more ale for you." Brion sat back down at the table. "Ah, go on and fill my mug." "Yes, my king." The servant filled the mug and stood close by the king. Brion took a few big swigs of his ale. His throat burned painfully. A tight, agonizing stinging sensation hit his stomach. He toppled over onto the floor, clutching his stomach. He yelled at the servant in a hoarse voice. "What have you..." "A special gift from King Argus, delivered with care." The man bowed as he tossed a bag near the window with Philip's crest on it. "You...you bastard! Guards! I..." The king struggled to get back up. He fell forward again, convulsing. Blood dripped from his nose and mouth. His throat tightened to the point he could not swallow. Within a matter of minutes, he died on the floor. "Goodnight, old fool. You bring me great honor." Elon kicked the king's still body on his way out the door.