XI. Peacock and Wolf

Somewhere outside the realm of day, two caged princes met in a place none could reach them. Little light entered the small room at the top of the lonely tower. A storm surrounded them, but within the walls of the prison cell, a strange warmth filled every space. The owner of the cell, the younger prince, was entranced by the shift in energy. When this guest dressed in red visited him, he nearly forgot himself. In spite of that, his mind always found a way to remind him through his deepest fear. This must be a trap, a game, an illusion. No one had any reason at all to want anything to do with him. So afraid of betrayal was the younger prince, though he wished to get closer to his visitor, his fears kept him at a distance. His guest had other plans. Rowan sat at a small wooden table and faced the prince who lived in the tower. "Does anyone ever come here to see you?" "I have caretakers, for a while. Usually, I send them away." Alan said. He turned away from the prince and looked out the small window. The storm clouds above grew ever darker. "Why?" Rowan asked. "I don't want anyone else up here. And I don't...I don't want one. I'd rather be alone." Alan pulled a curtain across the window. He sighed and sat down at the table across from Rowan. It was a small table, and the distance between them shrunk considerably. He tried again and again to stay far away from his guest, but somehow, he was always lured over without the prince having to utter a single invitation or command. He didn't understand it. Rowan asked, "What for? You seem lonely." "Mm...it doesn't matter." Alan rested his chin against his palm. He glanced over at Rowan for a moment, then quickly averted his eyes. "Your brother is James, isn't he? Why are you up here when he's not?" Alan paused before answering. He stared at the floor. "I don't know exactly. I've heard whispers...that I'm cursed...I have to be up here or something bad will happen." "Really now?" Rowan found that story suspect. He asked of the first flaw that came to his mind. "If that was the case, couldn't they kill you to end it?" "I don't think so. That might make it worse." Alan shrugged. "That's all I've heard." "Don't you want to escape?" Rowan asked. "What for?" Alan looked at him in confusion. "They're keeping you as a prisoner." Rowan said. Alan thought nothing of this statement. He responded without any hint of emotion. "Yes." "If you leave, you can go anywhere." Rowan leaned forward. "Are you really worried something bad will happen? Is it going to happen to you?" Their eyes met momentarily. Alan turned away again. "No, from what I understood...it was more about my father and his kingdom." "You care for him?" "No. But my brother...I wouldn't want him to be hurt because of me..." The cracks in Alan's mask of emptiness revealed themselves in those words. "Sometimes, when I'm awake, I daydream about him rescuing me, but the only ones who come up here are the people Father sends to give me food and water." Hearing Alan speak such kind words about his ruthless twin pained Rowan to hear. He debated with himself over telling Alan the truth, but chose not to do anything that may cause him more pain. He kept silent on the matter. "Does he know you're here?" "I don't know." Alan's sadness shone through more as he spoke. "Surely, if he did...if you had a brother, wouldn't you rescue him?" "Of course, and I do have one--a younger one. But that is what I would do. I cannot speak for your brother." Rowan chose to lighten his implications, giving James a far more noble excuse than he deserved. "If he is aware of you and your curse, he may still choose to keep you confined to protect others." "I suppose that's true." Alan's voice was barely above a whisper. "Then it's best I stay." The mood in the room shifted. He wasn't sure how he could, or if it was only in his mind, but Rowan thought he felt what Alan was feeling. The intensity of his loneliness and sorrow was so great it paled in comparison to any he had ever known in his life. Worthlessness, self-loathing, self-defeat--all hung over everything in that small space. The misery seeped in at every part of him. He felt sick simply being there. As he let the emotions sink into him, in turn, Rowan's own emotions heightened. Anger boiled out and over into his words. "I find it a bit amusing you're being kept up here to protect his kingdom, when he willingly marched into war alongside my father. The enemy we're fighting attacked my father's lands first, but your father was not targeted until he allied himself with my father. Many have died because of his choices. Does it make a difference if you leave or not? Death will always come, and excuse my rudeness, but I suspect the only death your father is concerned with is his own." "That sounds like an answer a fairy would give." Alan kept his eyes averted. "Are you that convinced I'm magical?" Alan's silly remark amused him. Rowan's anger subsided somewhat. "I'm really quite ordinary." "I may have never left this room, but I can see you are lying. There's nothing ordinary about you." Alan finally looked at him again. He stared into Rowan's eyes for an uncomfortably long amount of time, a faint hint of red in his face. Alan stood up from the table and gave a slight bow to Rowan. "Thank you for visiting me again, Fairy Prince. It's so quiet in here, even when I dream...sometimes I forget I have a voice." "You should never forget such a thing." Rowan's anger towards James and Philip turned only to sadness for Alan. He rose from the table and created something with his hands. He handed Alan a card. "I have another gift for you." Alan took the card and looked it over. The card read "the star", but it was in a language Alan did not know. He found the art to be beautiful and unworthy of himself to hold. "What is this?" Rowan smiled at him. "It's from a game I play often with my dear friend." "Why are you giving this to me?" Alan asked as he examined it closer. "Your gifts all disappear when I wake." Rowan put his hand on Alan's hand that held the card. "No, they stay here, in your mind. Do not forget this image. This is how you will know whom I have sent to you." "What if someone else has this?" Alan asked. "He had it made for himself. The art is unique. Only he has a copy of this. When you find the one with the matching image, you will know he is the one I have sent you. Of course, he may not know it." Rowan removed his hand from Alan's and put both hands on Alan's shoulders. "I'm sorry I'm keeping him from you for so long. He's in quite the messy state right now, and there's still the war. I am...working on things with him, but I'm not sure where his mind will be at when I send him to you." Alan glanced at Rowan, then quickly back to the card. He laughed under his breath. "Can't be any worse than my mind." "That may be. When that time comes, I'll help you with him. So please, remember your dreams." "Is he a human?" Alan asked. "Oh, he is the most human person I've ever met." Rowan moved away from Alan. He bowed deeply before him. "We'll speak again soon, Alan." Alan was taken aback by the display. He turned away out of embarrassment. With quiet words, he asked, "This man...what does he look like?" "He is taller than you and me. Blond with brown eyes. And well, he isn't always the best kept...but that is an effect of his mind." Rowan said. "What ails him?" Rowan thought over a kind way to explain. He said, "There is a deep pain inside him that pulls him down at every thought." "How sad. Are you sure you wish to send him to me? I am not...I don't know how to help him...I don't want to make him suffer any more than he already has." Alan turned his back to Rowan. He slouched his shoulders. "Don't worry over that. He will free you as much as you will free him." Rowan tried to reassure him. He knew what little sense of self-worth Alan still contained was worryingly fragile. Alan's voice dropped to an even softer tone. "I want to believe you, but it's so hard for me to see that I could be of any value to anyone." "That is nonsense." Rowan moved in front of Alan. He looked him straight in the eye and said, "I swear to you, by two springs from now, you will cease to think such things about yourself. Trust me." Alan's eyes widened. "I want to." Before Rowan could say another word to Alan, the world around him faded away. He heard someone's voice calling to him. "Prince, Prince, it's five." Rowan opened his eyes. He looked over. To his left, Luke was standing beside his bed. "Huh?" "Prince, it's five. You asked me to meet you at five." Luke said. Rowan rubbed his eyes and recalled his last conversation with Luke the previous day. "Oh, right. Is it five already?" "Well, it's technically half past five...I woke up a little late myself." Luke said. "Sorry. I'm not really a morning person either." Rowan forced himself up and out of bed. He stumbled over to the basin in front of his mirror to wash his face. "Could you get some clothes out for me?" "As you wish." Luke attended to the matter right away. Rowan washed off and brushed his hair. His sleepwear was discarded to the floor. Luke helped him dress, Rowan allowing him to do so as more of a sign of trust than exerting power over him. Normally, he would dress himself or only allow Robin to do so. He hadn't allowed anyone else to do that for him since he was a child. The gesture was not lost on Luke, but he was not quite sure how to interpret it. A part of him wanted to think it meant more than it did, while the other half of him told himself he was misreading Rowan's friendly intentions. Once dressed, Rowan sat down on the bed. He lightly shook Robin. "Robin." Robin woke, his eyes half open. "Hmm?" "I'm going out to the woods with Luke. I'll be back in a few hours." Rowan said. "Oh. Have fun." Robin yawned, smiled, and went straight to sleep. Luke watched him and laughed. "A little strange to see him sleeping." "If you'd been about thirty minutes later, he'd be awake." Rowan got off the bed. He got his equipment ready. "How are you feeling today?" "Not good...but not as bad as yesterday." Luke walked with Rowan out of the room. "I'm really sorry for the last few weeks...I don't really remember most of it, but I know I was acting like a madman." "It's alright. I didn't expect you abstaining from drinking would be an easy process." Rowan held Luke's hand. "You seem a bit more stable today. You woke up early and everything. How did you sleep?" Luke again was unsure how to interpret Rowan's actions. He was caught between his wants and the truth. Underneath his inner conflict, he knew Rowan was doing this to comfort him. He was the one who asked for any sort of physical affection Rowan was comfortable giving him. This too was meant to be friendly. He struggled to keep his mind on the conversation. "Hmm...I had another nightmare." "Oh, I'm sorry. Do you mind if I ask about what?" Rowan asked. "I don't really want to talk about it right now. I'd rather think about something else for a while." Luke unconsciously tightened his grip on Rowan's hand. "I understand." Rowan noticed Luke's physical appearance. "You're pale. Have you been eating well?" "Haven't been very hungry lately." "You need to eat, Luke. Please don't avoid eating." "I'll try." "Thank you." Rowan led Luke outside. "Are you ready?" "I suppose...how is this going to help me?" Luke sighed. "I'm training your body and mind." Rowan let go of Luke's hand. He checked over everything he'd brought with him again. "Is this your first time hunting?" "I've fished before, and I've killed animals in fights, but I've never hunted. Mahli never bothered teaching me, and neither did my father." Luke shrugged. Rowan grinned. "Well, today, you learn." Luke was less than thrilled, but went along with it. He followed Rowan out into the woods. Before dawn, they talked for a while. Rowan gave Luke advice on what to do and not do. Their conversation drifted off-topic quickly. Rowan managed to get Luke to talk about the nightmare. Though reluctant, Luke revealed the dream was about James tormenting him. Now that he wasn't drinking, he remembered his nightmares more vividly. He wanted it to stop, and considered sneaking drinks behind Rowan's back to sedate his mind. He confessed that as well to the prince. Rowan calmed him as he retold the dream. With words alone, Rowan made him feel safe again, and he did not judge him for his thoughts. Staying beside him, listening to him, Luke was able to put away his thoughts of drinking for now. When he was with Rowan, he wanted to stop. He didn't want to disappoint him. If he could exchange those nightmares for a moment of time with the prince like this, he told himself, he could endure it. For now, at least. While Rowan gently reassured him and kept watch over him in his worst moments, there was still a part of him that refused to believe Rowan wouldn't abandon him in time. Once the prince saw how truly worthless he was inside, Luke thought, he would surely be tossed aside. As those thoughts began to rise up in him again and pull down his happier ones, Rowan turned to him and smiled. "There's enough light now. Let's begin." For several hours, he waited and watched, shot and missed, and was largely frustrated in both his lack of skill and sheer boredom. He presumed he might enjoy himself more if he could hit at least one animal. A near miss only aggravated him further. Rowan faired better, killing several rabbits, but nothing larger than that. Rowan noticed Luke was getting too frustrated to continue. He called it a day and led him back out of the woods. Rowan asked, "Did you enjoy yourself?" "I'm empty handed." Luke grumbled. He didn't expect much, but he still managed to be disappointed. "That's fine. I didn't do so well either." "You at least killed something." "Barely enough for a stew." Rowan looked in his bag at the small rabbits. As they walked, Luke suddenly stumbled forward. His vision blurred for a moment and he was completely disoriented. He stopped and held his head. Rowan held onto him to support him from falling forward. "Luke, are you alright?" Luke regained his balance. "I got dizzy for a moment. I'm fine now." Rowan put his hand to Luke's forehead. "You have a fever." "I do?" "Let me take you to see the physician." He said. "I'd rather not..." Luke pulled away and shook his head. "At least let Robin look at you. Actually, it might be better if he did." Rowan checked Luke's face again. "You're burning up. We need to get you inside regardless." Luke begrudgingly agreed to see Robin. Robin was still in the bedroom, sitting at a desk and working on some official documents. Luke didn't want to see him. He had an irrational fear of letting anyone examine his body. Allowing Rowan to do so once before pushed him close to his limits. Physicians often made people more sick than better, and his skin crawled at the idea of letting someone have so much control over his body. He stood behind Rowan, wanting to escape the situation but not knowing how to get out of it. Rowan approached Robin. "Robin, could you examine Luke? I think he may be ill." "Oh? Of course." Robin put his quill down. He got up and walked over to Luke. Then, he placed his hands on Luke's shoulders. "Stand still and be quiet." Luke looked over at Rowan, not sure what to expect. "Is this...?" "Shh! I said quiet." Robin reiterated. He closed his eyes and concentrated. "Hmm...in your blood...you're lacking something...Yes, I see what the issue is. You're also coming down with a cold." "My blood?" Luke asked. "It's nothing to worry about. We can fix this with food and rest." He let go of Luke and went over to Rowan. He checked inside the bag Rowan carried. After confirming its contents, he took the bag from Rowan. "Good. You have fresh meat. I'll be needing that." Robin moved over to the back of the room where he kept many dried herbs. He immediately went to work grinding some up and mixing them together. Luke looked over at Rowan, then at Robin. "Is that the end of the exam?" "Yes, that's all." Robin said. Luke hesitated in asking his next question, both terrified of what the answer might be and anxious about being asked any questions in return. "That means there's nothing wrong with me anywhere else in my body, right?" "That's correct. You haven't caught anything from sleeping around." Robin said coldly. "How did you know that was what..." Luke started to say. Robin cut him off. "What else would you be concerned with having?" Luke opened his mouth to say something, but was oddly embarrassed from hearing his brother's words. His face flushed. When he noticed he was blushing, his embarrassment deepened. Robin picked up on Luke's quietness and looked back at him. Seeing how embarrassed he was, Robin quickly apologized. "I didn't mean anything by that. If you do catch something like that, I know remedies for most of the common problems. I can fix it." "You know of such things?" "Yes, but it'll take some herbs that aren't from this side. Come to me right away if you have a problem like that. I'm sorry. I really didn't mean to be rude to you." Robin pointed to the bed. "You should lie down for now. I need to prepare something for you and cook it. I'll be preparing your meals until I see you've recovered." Luke didn't expect that. He asked for confirmation he understood what Robin meant. "You're letting me sleep on your bed?" "Yes. Rowan, I want you to watch over him while I'm busy. Keep track of his symptoms for me." Robin put the herbs down for a moment and went to Rowan. He put his hands on Rowan and closed his eyes. "You're coming down with a cold too. Lie down if you need. I'll prepare something to help your coming symptoms be a little easier." "Ah, thank you." Rowan said. "I'll be back soon enough." Robin grabbed the mixture and the bag, then left the room in a hurry. Luke stared at the door. He didn't know what to think. "I've never seen him act like that before." "He'd make a decent healer if he ever bothered studying the magic for it instead of playing in the rain all the time." Rowan laughed. He nudged Luke towards the bed. "Go on and lie down." Luke sat down on the bed. He took his shoes off then lay back on Rowan's side of the bed. He rolled over onto his stomach and took in the scent on the pillow. "Smells like you." Rowan sat on the bed where Robin typically slept. He checked Luke's forehead again. "I'm sorry, Luke. If I'd known you were ill, I wouldn't have taken you out this morning." "I didn't know I was ill. How could you?" Rowan sat back against the bed frame. "Go ahead and take a nap. I know you're tired. I'll wake you when he gets back." "I don't really want to sleep." "You need to, so you can recover sooner." Rowan sat quiet for a moment, then got up. He walked over to the bookshelf. Luke watched him. "What are you doing?" "Oh, I was going to find something to read while you sleep." Rowan read through the titles on the shelves. One of the books caught his attention. He pulled it out and laughed. "I forgot I had this." "What's that?" Luke asked. "It's a book of poetry Robin bought me when we were teenagers. Oh, it still has the note inside. 'I'm terrible at poetry, so I got you this instead'. Heh. He really is bad at it. Nice handwriting though. I wish my writing looked like that." Rowan showed Luke the note inside the front of the book. "Heh. He's certainly honest..." "He was always terrible at giving me gifts back then, from his upbringing I suppose. Once, when we were really young, I was around nine or so then, he kept bringing me roses. I was a little bratty back then, and told him I didn't want roses because I'm not a girl. So the next day, he brought me a six foot snake as a gift. And I said to him while I hid behind a tree, please, next time, give me a rose." Rowan laughed at his younger self. "A six foot snake? Where did he find such a thing?!" Luke laughed with him. "I don't know. And he apologized to the snake for me being frightened of it!" Rowan kept laughing. "I'm surprised you didn't like the flowers. You've given me flowers." Luke said. He never removed the lyre flower protection charm Rowan gave him. He kept it hidden under his shirt. "Oh, that was me being stupid. I loved them, but I was embarrassed about it. That's not manly, you know? I got over that pretty quickly." He snickered as he put the book back on the shelf. "I nearly pissed my pants when he came up to me with that snake. Haha." Luke imagined how the memory Rowan described must have went. He burst into laughter again thinking about it. 'Brother, what on earth?' "Where is that box..." Rowan searched the room. He pulled out a small, wooden box from a shelf. "Here it is. Heh." He sat down on the bed again to show Luke. "What is all this?" Luke asked. "Other gifts he gave me when we were children." Rowan opened the box. Inside was an eclectic mess of haphazardly placed items. "Acorns, pebbles, flowers, feathers, I thought all his gifts were strange, but I loved that he wanted to give me something." Luke reached in and pulled out one of the many pieces of parchment inside. "A love letter? Let's see my brother's attempts at romance." "Oh god, don't read that." Rowan looked through the contents of the box more. Luke paid no mind to Rowan's words and opened up the folded paper anyway. He read the note. 'I don't care what anyone else says. Stop telling me you're not beautiful, especially today of all days. I love you. -Robin 7/3/38' Luke looked over at Rowan. He didn't say anything at first. He moved closer to Rowan and asked, "What is the seventh of March?" Rowan looked up from the box. "Uh, my birthday?" "Oh. I see." He slipped the note into Rowan's hand. "I think you should read this one again." "Hmm?" Rowan read over it. He quickly put it back in the box and looked away from Luke. "Oh...this note...this was from my fourteenth birthday." "Prince, do you really..." Luke started to ask. Rowan interrupted him. He put his hand to Luke's forehead again. "How are you feeling?" "Same as before." Luke said. "You should rest." Rowan put the box away. He sat down on the bed beside Luke in the same place as before. Rowan noticed a book on the table next to Robin's side of the bed. He decided to see what Robin was reading about. He opened up the book. As he expected, another courtly romance story. He looked back at Luke and smiled at him. "You know, you're in really good hands. From personal experience, I can attest to Robin's skills. You'll be well again in no time." "Thank you. That's good to hear." Luke made himself more comfortable on the bed. He wanted to stay awake, but his body disagreed with him. "We'll take care of everything. If you need anything, let me know." "Alright." Luke rested on his stomach. He could barely keep his eyes open. Rowan rested on the bed with the book and read. The room went silent. Luke lay there watching him, not completely conscious due to his fever. Inside, he was burning with happiness and heartache. More than brief, empty passion, this was what he had wanted all along. He couldn't take his eyes off of Rowan. In finding that which he wanted so desperately there in that moment, he accepted this was the limit of what he could have with the prince. His mind recalled what his brother told them about what fate once held in store for them. Luke wagered this was the closest he'd ever get to knowing what that life may have been like. The prince was beautiful before him, beyond his handsome appearance. Luke saw glimpses of Rowan's true self here and there, but right then, he was certain he could see Rowan the same way Robin saw him. Luke thought about that note in the box. He put his hand on Rowan's. "I can see why you love him so. He's exactly what you need." Rowan looked over at him in confusion. "What?" "My brother. I'm happy for you." Luke said. Rowan petted his hair. "Thank you. You should rest now." "Will he want me?" Luke asked in a quiet voice. Rowan looked down at him, silent for a moment. He smiled and pulled up the blankets slightly over Luke. "Yes." "It's enough." Luke said. With those words, he felt his heart break. Underneath that pain was contentment. If nothing else, he had this much, and it was more than he'd ever had before. Staying near the prince, just being near him at all, that was enough. "Thank you." His fever and his body's weakness took their toll on him. Luke slipped into a dream. At first, he was still in the room with Rowan, but Rowan slept beside him. He wanted to touch his face, but instead he pulled his hand away. The room around him shifted to another one he knew. The walls of the tower were all around him and the prince's bed turned to that of a prisoner's. Beside him slept a man in an emerald cloak. He could see half the man's face now. The man curled up closer to Luke in his sleep. His body was warm. Luke watched him sleep. His usual fear turned to curiosity, though he knew very well what he may see underneath the hood. He pulled it back anyway. Familiar features did not fool him from seeing the beauty beyond them. In the man in green, he sensed innocence and sadness. He noticed how thin the man was, as if he never knew a decent meal. Pale skin suggested a long time passed since that man last walked in the sun. The garments under the beautiful cloak were tattered and worn, reminding him of his mother. 'Wouldn't I only be another burden to you?' He tried to believe what Rowan told him. He lay back down and caressed the man's face. "I'm here. Can I stay for a while?" Luke whispered. The man in green smiled in his sleep and took hold of Luke's hand, but did not wake. Luke's heart skipped a beat. A wave of sadness rushed over him. No matter how he tried, he couldn't completely believe Rowan. He gave a half-hearted smile and said, "I'll leave when you want." Once again, he drifted off to sleep. While he slept there in his dream, holding that stranger's hand, the walls of the tower disappeared and were replaced by the wooden ones of a warm cottage by the sea. His dream ended when Rowan woke him. "Luke, it's time to eat." "Huh?" "Did you have a good dream?" He asked. "Ah, for once." Luke said. He couldn't explain it, but more than before, he felt overwhelmed. His emotions were filling him up. He could barely contain them. Robin sat on the bed at Luke's side. He put a tray down on the table. "I've made a stew for you to eat. It's rabbit with a few herbs from the other realm and some from here. It should help restore your strength. And this is a lemon and honey drink for the both of you. I added a few herbs into that as well. Be careful with both. They're hot." Luke took the drink and sipped on it. It tasted much sweeter than he expected, but he found he liked the flavor. "Thank you." "I'll help with the stew." Rowan grabbed the bowl and spoon. He got a spoonful and blew on it to cool it off. He held the spoon up to Luke. "Here." "You don't need to do that." Luke said. "Nonsense. Let us take care of you." Rowan smiled at him. "I don't need..." Before Luke could finish his sentence, the dam inside him broke. Everything overflowed. He sobbed uncontrollably and couldn't say anything about why. He didn't understand himself why he was crying. Robin and Rowan looked at each other. They weren't sure what was happening either. Luke managed a few words. "You two really are perfect." Rowan denied that claim immediately. "Not at all. We're completely ordinary." "That can't be. If that were true, then most of the world would have to be kind." Luke wiped off his face, but he kept on crying. As he cried, he grew more embarrassed with himself. "There are many horrid people in this world, but far more of them are generally decent people. I know it's hard to see it. It's hard for me to see it, but I know it's true." Rowan put the bowl aside. He helped Luke wipe his face off. "Your view has been distorted." "It's certainly...hard to believe such a thing." In his weakness, he admitted the truth. "I love you both." "I love you too." Rowan said without hesitation. "As do I." Robin said shortly after. Luke looked up in surprise. "You?" "You are my little brother, after all." He put his hand on Luke's shoulder. Luke started crying again, even more than before. "Luke? Are you alright? What's wrong?" Rowan asked in a soft voice. "I wish I'd lived with you two as a child. Everything was...I'm sorry...don't look at me..." Luke hid his face. Robin pulled him into a hug. "Shh...The past is gone. You are here now with us. Everything's alright." Luke cried for a while longer, hugging his brother back. This too, he had wanted for a long time. When his tears dried up, he wiped his face off and let Rowan feed him. After he finished up the drink Robin made for him and most of the stew, he went back to sleep. Rowan petted his hair. "How long do you think he'd been holding that in?" "Far too long. Two decades at least." Robin put the dishes aside. "From what little he told me, it didn't sound like he was ever allowed any comfort nor room to be a child." "Poor thing." Rowan lay down beside him. He started to feel the symptoms coming on. "I hope he'll be able to manage on his own for a while when we leave. I've set into motion what I can to get him to his other half sooner, but I worry." Robin checked Rowan's temperature. He kissed him on the forehead. "We'll have to hope for the best, but could we not steal him away as well?" "No. He needs to return to Philip to meet him. There's no getting around it." Rowan said. "I see. That's unfortunate. Then perhaps we can steal them both later." "I wish we could steal Wren too." "You know, you could come visit him." Robin said. "I can't risk being seen." "I'm sure you'll find a way." Robin went to work on mixing more herbs for Luke's next meal. "Something to conceal me..." Rowan closed his eyes for a moment. Outside the castle, thunder echoed across the land. A flash of a memory came to Rowan. He sat up immediately as his tiredness was replaced with newfound energy. "Robin, there's a bit of magic I want you to teach me." While Luke slept, Robin taught Rowan. Elsewhere in the castle, guests arrived. Egret, with Eider and the rest of the family in tow, entered the castle. Egret split off from the rest shortly after they arrived to have a private chat with Argus. The two went to an isolated part of the castle to speak. "It's been a long time." Egret took a seat. "Too long. How was fighting with Silvanus and the Black Wolf?" Argus sat across from him. "Silvanus's men fight harder than Philip's, but the Black Wolf's lost his bite over the years. He doesn't swing as hard, and his heart is weak." Egret said. "Oh, is that so? Did you learn the source of that weakness?" Argus said with a grin. "Seems the Wolf's been keeping a little secret from us. He's dressed up his daughter as a squire, but he couldn't fool me with that disguise." "A daughter? I had no idea he had a third child he bothered claiming." "Same mother as the other two, some peasant woman he keeps returning to mount but won't marry. Must be a prostitute." Egret poured himself and Argus a drink. "The girl was certainly ugly enough to fit the part. No lady should ever have that much muscle, and she's taller than many men I've met. I wouldn't mind having a night with her to put her back in her place. See how long she keeps up that game of pretend once she's been with a real man." Argus took a big swig of the drink. "After we get rid of Silvanus and the Black Wolf, you can do as you please with the girl." Egret watched him in quiet amusement. For all the king's paranoia, he had no doubts Argus would be the easiest man for him to poison in the entire kingdom. "I'm more interested in Princess Flora, but a nice little quest of conquering before the wedding could be fun. If you ever decide on having that fairy demon executed, we could do a double execution for the crossdresser and her demon brother. Be even better if we could get rid of the Devil's Rook too, but I doubt Philip would allow that. Martin always kisses up to the king, and he's been protecting that brat for years." "That would be quite the show, even if we could only get two out of three. I'd settle for even just one." Argus often fantasized about being able to tie up a certain knight and watch him scream in agony as he burned. In his mind, he always pictured it as a day with light rain, so that the water may slow the fire and prolong the man's suffering. For the father of the three, he wanted something else. No torture would do. He wanted to cut off the wolf's head himself and mount it on a spike as warning to all who may challenge him. His hatred for that family was deeper than even Egret knew. "How are things going with the younger one?" Egret asked. "Wren is such a coward, but he is like his mother. He follows orders at least. I'm beginning to grow tired of both sons. Elon might be the better option." Argus finished off his drink and passed his mug over to Egret for him to refill it. Egret poured him another drink. "Oh? He's certainly popular with the public, especially the women. Outside of being your bastard son, I don't see anything the public would slight him for. If anything, getting rid of the mongrels and your heathen wife to remarry to Elon's mother and have him become the new future king would only better the public's image of you. Taking that wilting eastern flower has always been a mistake." "I know. I should have left her on that string of islands long ago." Argus thought about his wife. He never cared for her to begin with, but now that she was on in age, he couldn't stand to look at her. He saw himself as deserving of a younger, more beautiful woman. Elon's mother wouldn't be good enough either, but she was at least a more acceptable option. There would always be other women he could have without the church in his business. Egret gave him a wicked grin. "Want me to arrange a few accidents for them?" "Not yet. The older boy must go first, and how we dispatch him must be in a way the fairy can't turn on us for. We'll hold off on this for now." Argus said. "Whenever you're ready, let me know. You know I'm always here to be whatever weapon your hand needs." Egret's grin widened. "For now, I need you to look after my kingdom. I'll be leaving shortly to discuss an issue with the Black Wolf myself." Argus rose from the table and went towards the door. He stopped. "Oh, but I do have something planned soon. I have another assassination attempt on the older boy scheduled for an upcoming event. He should be able to survive it if he's not completely incompetent. Carry on with our usual plan." "Of course." Egret said. He watched the king leave. When he could no longer hear the king's footsteps in the hall, he said, "Keep me entertained, Argus. I'm growing bored of you." Far from the castle, in another kingdom, the recently crowned King Collin was on his way to meet with his youngest brother, Hollis. Along the way, his deceased brother's widow and their oldest son stopped him in the hallway. He greeted the two of them warmly. "Good morning, Henrietta. And you too, Clove. How are you this morning? I know last we spoke, you were not..." "I don't need the sympathy of a thief." Henrietta turned her nose up at him. "Are you still on about that? You know why we did that." Collin was in no mood to deal with this again. Between her and Hollis, he'd had enough of family conflict. She glared at him. "The crown rightfully belongs to my son. I have six children--three boys. My sons at least are rightfully in line before you." He sighed. This was the tenth time they'd had this same conversation. "Your sons are five, three, and two years old." "Someone could be appointed to oversee things until they are old enough to lead on their own." He crossed his arms. "Henrietta, we are at war. Your oldest boy is five. We don't have time to sit around and debate about who to choose as his advisor, and we don't need to be seen as weak at a time like this." "As if you compare to Lewis or Brion." She sneered. Collin didn't let her words affect him. He held both of his recently deceased family members in high regard, for leadership with his father and prowess in battle with his older brother. He only saw truth in her words, and it did not bother him in the least. He said, "It doesn't matter if I compare. We have to use what we have available. The only wise options at the time were me or Mark, but even Hollis would be a better choice to lead than a child. He's not old enough." "Uncle Collin, why don't you like me?" Clove tugged at Collin's shirt. He pouted. 'You brought him here to guilt me, didn't you? You use him as he is, like a child, yet you expect me to turn the crown over to him? Are you that power hungry?' Collin gently pushed away the young boy's hand. He smiled for him. "I do like you, Nephew, but you're not ready for such a responsibility. You have so much more learning and training to do first." "That's why an advisor..." Henrietta wouldn't let up. "Henrietta, I'm not discussing this with you again. We've already made this decision, and I've taken the throne. There's nothing more to say on the matter. I need to speak with Hollis now. Good day." He said. With that, he went on his way. Henrietta watched the king leave. She wanted to slit his throat. She looked down at her young son. "Filthy thief. Don't worry, my little prince. I'll make sure you're a king one day." "Mama, are we going to see your friend again? I like him. He always brings me presents." Clove asked with excitement. "Yes, in time." She patted him on the head. "Mr. Elon will take good care of us." At the end of the hallway, Collin entered the stairway of the tower his brother stayed in. The long steps took him up to that heavy door his brother kept himself locked up behind. With a deep breath, he knocked. 'I'm going to get through to you.' "Hollis, I need to speak with you." Collin waited for his brother to respond. Typically, Hollis at least yelled at him. Today, he said nothing. Collin sighed. "It's like talking to a wall." Collin heard footsteps from down below. He stared back to see who was coming up. He recognized the servant immediately. It was the servant that had served Hollis since Hollis was a child. When Hollis and the servant were children, Hollis accidentally injured the servant and left him blind in one eye. As it was the prince's fault, their father took pity on him and allowed him to continue working at the castle despite his diminished sight and guaranteed he would be allowed to work there for the rest of his life. Since then, the man received more injuries due to the prince. The previous year, he'd lost one of his arms and permanently damaged one of his legs when he was escorting the prince out of one of their other castles during an attack. Collin made room for the man to pass him to the door. The servant tried to keep plenty of distance between himself and the king out of respect. "Ah, excuse me, your majesty. I need to deliver this to Prince Hollis." "Finch. Good. I'll use you. Get him to open the door." Collin said. "Yes, your highness." Finch balanced the heavy tray in his hand. He raised his voice. "Prince Hollis, I've brought your lunch." Hollis responded this time. "Bring it back in an hour. I'm not letting Collin in with you." Finch turned to the king. "I'm sorry, King. I tried." Collin banged on the door as hard as he could. "Damn it, Hollis. Open the door!" "No." Hollis said back. "I don't have time for this. You need to..." "I'm not fighting. You can dig your grave alone." In desperation, Collin said the only thing he thought would get Hollis's attention. "I'll fire your servant if you don't open this door." The heavy door opened. Hollis stood in the doorway, as if to keep Collin from coming into his personal space. He glared at his older brother. "Really? Must you be so petty? I told you I'm not fighting. What more do you have to discuss with me?" "You know it may come to that." Collin said. "I'll surrender before I fight." "And if your surrender is not accepted?" Hollis started to close the door again. "Then I'd die either way and it makes no difference." Collin wasn't going to allow the situation to go as it always did. Today, he was going to ensure something changed, no matter what he had to do. He tried a different approach. "You could at least participate in helping during our planning sessions. You're no warrior, but you are a brilliant man. You should put that to use for the kingdom." Hollis went silent for a moment before responding. "I'll think about it." "I'll take that for now." Collin returned his attention to the servant. He apologized for his earlier comment. "Sorry, Finch. I didn't really mean what I said earlier. I only wanted him to open the door." "It's your right to do as you wish, my king." The servant bowed ever so slightly, as not to lose his balance. "You keep decent company, at least, Brother, though I can't agree with your thoughts about the war." Collin said to Hollis. "And I cannot with yours." Hollis returned the sentiment as he took the tray from Finch. "Next time, let me meet you halfway. That's a lot of stairs for you." "Prince, I'm fine." Finch said. Collin suddenly realized something. His brother's distant, bratty demeanor completely changed before him. He looked at the servant, with his many injuries, and remembered the cause of them. He then turned his attention back to his younger brother and the way he was looking at Finch. 'So, that's it.' Collin cleared his throat. "I've been pushing you so much to do everything my way. Perhaps there is a way we can compromise. Please consider attending tonight's discussion." Hollis's usual coldness couldn't return to him in that moment. He was too concerned with something else. Without giving it much thought, he said, "I might." "Thank you, Brother. I really don't want us to be at odds with each other." Collin said. Someone shouted from the bottom of the stairs. "King Collin! I must speak with Prince Hollis!" "Oh, what now?!" Collin groaned. He recognized who was rushing up the steps. It was Princess Aderyn, the daughter of the king who lived to the west of his lands. They were too far away for Argus and his allies to target yet, and hadn't contributed anything to the war at all due to having little military power. In Aderyn's hands, she carried something he couldn't quite see. "Princess Aderyn? What are you doing here? It's dangerous to travel unnecessarily at a time like this." "I must see Prince Hollis. He must take responsibility for his actions!" She yelled. "Actions? Has my brother slighted you in some way?" Collin asked. "Shit." Hollis started to back into his room. "You know what you did." She reached the top of the steps. "You can't prove it's mine." Hollis snapped at her. "It's absolutely yours!" She yelled louder than before. "You sleep around more than I used to!" Hollis yelled louder than Aderyn. She stomped her feet and shouted. "How dare you!" Collin sighed when he realized what was going on. He saw the baby's small face in the big blanket it was wrapped up in. Today, he would know no peace. "If you were so innocent, you wouldn't be here bringing that thing along with you!" Hollis was yelling now. "That thing is your son!" As much as he didn't want to interfere, Collin interjected himself into the conversation. "Hollis, is this true?" "No." Hollis turned his head. "Yes, it is! You can't leave me unwed with your child! I demand you marry me!" Aderyn shouted at him. "I'm never marrying, and you can't prove it's mine!" Hollis shouted back. Finch got a better look at the little boy. He stared at him for a while, then said, "It's yours." Hollis dismissed his claim. "Finch, you're half blind. Your thoughts on the matter don't count." "I'm half blind, but I've had to look at you for most of my life. This is your son. Besides, out of your various one night encounters, Princess Aderyn was not among them. You saw her for a good few months on and off." Finch defended himself. "You're misremembering." Hollis brushed it off. "That's right. It was over a year." Aderyn exaggerated the time. "It was three minutes in the hallway." As did Hollis. "I would never!" She scoffed at his words. Finch had his own thoughts on the matter. He got between the two of them. "No, I definitely remember that, Princess. And in the carriage, on five separate occasions. Six times in the bedroom. And two times on the stairwell. Those were not all of the times, either." "How do you remember all of that?" Hollis gave Finch a bewildered look. "I have a good memory." He had a silly grin on his face. Collin rolled his eyes. "Well, now that that's settled...Hollis, it's about time you get married anyway. Take responsibility for what you've done." "Fine. But I'm not sharing a room with her or the baby." Hollis crossed his arms. "You didn't even ask his name or look at him, you bastard!" Aderyn snapped at him again. "You know, I don't have to marry you!" He snapped back at her. Finch looked at the baby again. He spoke calmly to the princess. "May I see him?" She didn't expect his politeness. She handed the infant over to him. "Oh, yes. Careful..." "I've got him. What's his name?" Finch held the baby carefully. It was harder than he expected, with only one arm, but he kept the baby steady. "It's Roibín. I named him after my father." Aderyn said. "Hello, little bird. I'll keep you safe. Do you want to see your father?" He spoke sweetly to the child. The baby resembled Hollis more than the princess. The little boy reached a hand out at Finch's face. He smiled and presented the child to his father. "Here. Look at him. He is as beautiful as you." Hollis looked down at the baby. As much as he wanted to reject the child, he couldn't stop himself from throwing those feelings away. The child looked over at him and reached out for him now. Hollis unconsciously met the little boy halfway. The baby wrapped his small hand around Hollis's finger and giggled. Hollis glanced up at Finch to see what sort of face he was making. To his surprise, Finch was smiling at him. Hollis pulled his hand away from the baby. "Alright. We'll marry. I stand by my terms. You and I will not be sharing a room." "I wouldn't want to anyway." Aderyn took the baby back from Finch. "Princess Aderyn, about your father and your brothers...With the war going on..." Since the princess was there, Collin decided he might as well ask the obvious. She expected his request. "We cannot aid you in that way. Father is old and feeble, and my brothers are sickly. We can barely keep our kingdom from falling apart. We can never join you as an ally on the battlefield. The most we can give is food. You are our shield from those monstrous kings." Collin too expected as much, but he wanted to ask anyway. "I understand. Whatever you can give, we would greatly appreciate it. Finch, please attend to Princess Aderyn for now. I have many things I need to discuss with Hollis." "Yes, your majesty." Finch bowed to the king, then led the princess away. Once the two were gone, there was an awkward silence between the brothers. Collin held back his laughter. Hollis shot him a glare. "Don't say it." "It's your own fault, really." "I know that." Collin decided to tease his brother further. "I'm surprised Finch was so happy about it." "Why would Finch's opinion matter?" Hollis didn't catch his brother's implication at all. "Can't see you as a father. That should be interesting." He snickered. "Oh, as if you raised yours. We pay people for that." "You going to pay Finch for that?" Collin kept it up. "Probably." Hollis shrugged it off. Collin laughed at him in response. Hollis tilted his head. "What are you laughing about?" "You know, a wedding might actually give the people some hope. Should at least give them an excuse to get drunk." "That's the only part they'll care about. No one cares about marriages unless they're getting something out of it." Hollis collapsed back against the door. He was already annoyed at the thought of being forced into such a public event. "Well, on the bright side, there's the wedding night." Collin nudged him. "I am not sleeping with her." "You did before, obviously..." He laughed. "That was a year ago. I can get plenty of sex as is. I don't need a wife for that." Hollis slouched slightly on the door. "I thought you said you stopped sleeping around." Collin laid a trap for his brother. "I did." Hollis said. As soon as he finished speaking, he realized what his brother was implying before his brother laughed at him again. He smacked his arm. "I hate you." Collin moved away and kept laughing. "So, you're seeing..." "Shut up. I'm going back to bed." Hollis went to close the door. "About tonight..." "I'll be there. Are you happy now?" Hollis had the door almost completely shut. "Yes. Thank you, Brother." Collin said. Hollis didn't say anything else. Before he closed the door, Collin swore he caught a glimpse of Hollis smiling. He chuckled to himself as he walked down the stairs. "Well...that was entertaining." Hollis showed up for the meeting, as promised. He participated far more in planning than Collin anticipated. For the first time in a long time, he was proud of his younger brother. Hollis kept his pacifist ideals to himself during the discussions. There was no arguing. Overall, the night was more productive than usual. Afterwards, Collin approached his brother. "Thank you for attending tonight, Hollis." "It wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be." Hollis kept up his typical distant routine, but Collin saw right through him. "Did you want something else?" "No, not really. Where are you going exactly?" For fun, he decided to tease his brother again. "What do you mean? I'm going back to my room." Hollis looked back at him as he started to walk away. "Your room is in the opposite direction. That's the way to the servant quarters." Collin grinned. Hollis's face went red. Flustered, he quickly blurted out. "That's the way to a lot of things!" Both of the brothers turned their attention to down the hall. Someone was walking their way. Soon, the approaching individual was in sight. Hollis's servant, Finch, was dressed in a nice cloak and fine clothes that seemed unsuited to someone in his position. He wore green with red trimming, similar to the clothes Hollis wore himself. Collin gave his brother a look of amusement. Hollis said nothing. Finch approached the two of them. He bowed to the king. "Your majesty, how are you?" "I am well, Finch. What are you doing here?" Collin asked. "Prince Hollis asked for me to meet him after the meeting to help him with some things." Finch said. "I'm sure he did." Collin forced himself not to laugh. Upon closer look, he could see the finer details in the cloak Finch wore. Around the clasp of the cloak, holly leaves and berries were embroidered. There was no mistaking who gave Finch such an expensive gift, nor what the gift giver's intentions were. "What is it you needed help with, little brother?" "We're going on a walk to help me get ideas for a story, then Finch is going to help me get it written." Hollis answered for Finch. "Oh, writing. I see." Collin chuckled. Hollis rolled his eyes at him. Before he parted ways with them, he changed his tone to a more serious one. "Don't wander too far out. It's not safe." Hollis waved for his brother to leave them be. "I know." "Goodnight." Collin said as he went on his way back to his room. Finch leaned in close to Hollis while they walked out of the castle. He said, "He knows, doesn't he?" "Yes." "He took it well." "He's more interested in teasing me than anything." Hollis slipped his hand into Finch's as they neared the gates. Outside, the stars were hidden behind dark clouds. A storm was approaching. Heavy wind howled around them. No stars or moon illuminated their path tonight. Hollis didn't mind the darkness. Terror was creeping up on him, and he fully intended to allow it. Real experiences of fear made writing about them all the more easy. If he was afraid tonight, this would make for the perfect mood to write something frightening when they got back. As it was dark, Hollis paid little attention to who was standing guard at the entrance, though he did note there was one less guard there than usual. Right as they exited the castle, the sole guard said, "Out late again, Prince Hollis?" Hollis didn't recognize the voice. He took this route relatively frequently, and knew both the guards that typically guarded this area. He knew most of the guards rather well in general. He looked back, but couldn't clearly see the man's face. He asked, "Do I know you?" "Ah, I'm new. Only been working here a couple of months." The man said. "Oh. I see. I'll be out for a while." Hollis kept on walking. "Have a pleasant night, your highness." The man bowed. Once they were out of sight from that area, Hollis changed paths. Something was off. He recalled his brother specifically mentioning all recently hired servants and guards were dismissed after his father's assassination. There shouldn't be anyone new. Someone might have been overlooked, but he doubted Collin would be so careless. He was far more intelligent than both their father and Lewis, and even more cautious. Something wasn't right. Finch drew closer to the prince. Under his breath, he said, "I don't know that man." "Me either." Hollis said. "This might be me being paranoid, but I want to go back. I have a strange feeling about being out here right now." "That was already the plan, but we're taking a different route. I don't want to walk past him again." Hollis led Finch along an out of the way path back to another entrance. This was one not likely to be known by even most of those who worked at the castle. With the darkness of the coming storm above them, he hoped it would prove them enough protection in case the man was following them. Despite his choice in routes, he heard noises not far behind them. It could have been his mind playing tricks on him, but he had no intentions of dispelling his fears. When they were close to the next nearest entrance, Hollis recognized someone. He ran over to her. "Aderyn, what are you doing out here?" "Oh, I was going for a walk." She said. "Go back inside." Hollis pointed back toward the entrance. "Excuse me? Why are you barking orders at..." "Shhh. Keep quiet." He placed his hand on her mouth. "He's following us." Finch caught up with Hollis. He pushed them both towards the entrance. "Following?" Aderyn looked over Hollis's shoulder, but it was too dark out for her to see who Finch was referring to. Something dawned on Hollis. "Aderyn, where's the baby?" "He's with his wet nurse and my servants in my room." She said. "We're going back to your room. Keep quiet and stay close." Hollis held on to her as they walked. He motioned for Finch to walk ahead of him. "Who's that man?" Aderyn caught a glimpse of someone moving in the bushes. "I don't know. I don't intend to find out." Hollis urged her on forward. Once they were inside, Hollis informed the guards at the entrance to not allow anyone else to come through that way. The three went straight to the princess's room. Outside, the rain finally started. Hollis took a good look around the room. Aderyn brought two servants with her, a wet nurse, and the nurse's own infant. A maidservant of his own employment waited inside as well. The sound of the rain and thunder made it difficult for him to hear anything going on in the hall. He cursed at the weather. He had a thousand thoughts in his mind, but there was no time for any of them. He needed to make sure no one could get in. "Finch, lock the door and block it. Nurse, the window. I want it completely blocked. Nothing's getting in here tonight." "Shouldn't we alert the king?" Finch asked as he went to push a table in front of the door. "Damn it...I'll go. Finch, do not open this door unless you know it's me." Finch moved the table some and unlocked the door. "Yes, your majesty." Hollis motioned for everyone to move to the other side of the room, except for Finch, who was to stand nearby. He went out into the hall. At first, he saw nothing. It was too dark. He did hear something nearby. Hollis checked both directions. Lightning illuminated the hall through the open windows. In that brief moment, he saw something. Not quite someone, but their presence. A shadow of a man moved across the wall, then disappeared into the darkness. From where it appeared and how it moved, its owner was to his left and coming closer from the stairwell. Hollis stood his ground and waited for lightning to strike again. Only a minute passed before another strike, but it felt like an eternity. He kept watch on the left. There, in that second flash, he saw him. It was the strange guard again. Hollis called out to him. "Do you need something?" The man didn't respond. Hollis heard someone running in the dark. He took that as a sign to retreat back to the room. Hollis dashed back inside and slammed the door shut. He locked it and pushed the table in front of it, then leaned against it. "Collin will have to fend for himself." Hollis reasoned with himself that his brother was stronger than him anyway. That still left his mother, but she was heavily guarded. "Who the hell is that?" Finch leaned up against the table to help keep the door blocked. "Is he not a guard?" Aderyn took her child from the nurse and held him close. The wet nurse likewise took her own infant from the cradle in the room. "That area is usually guarded by two specific guards, ones I've known for years, and that's not either of them." Hollis scanned the room for anything they could use as weapons and to further block the two potential entrances to the room. "Is that odd? Perhaps he's ill?" Aderyn cowered amongst her servants, who also drew closer to each other out of fear. "That's not the issue. That man said to me 'out late again'. He shouldn't know I usually take walks around there. Which means he's been watching me for a while. Furthermore, we recently let go of all our newly hired staff after Father's assassination. Anyone who'd been working here for a year or less was made to leave. We don't have anyone working as a guard I shouldn't recognize." Hollis could barely hear it over the pounding rain, but someone was walking around near the door. "Aderyn, I said I didn't want to share a room with you, but you're going to have to put up with me for tonight. We may be dealing with an assassin." The servant who was employed by Hollis's family stepped forward. "Prince, I don't know if this is useful or not...I've noticed a servant who's been here a while now who keeps changing jobs. I won't see him for a long while at times too." "Why didn't you come forward about this before, Charlotte?" Hollis asked. "Well, I thought perhaps I was being absentminded. The castle is so big, there are plenty of people I end up not seeing for a while...but, I've never seen someone change jobs so many times. They're never related either. Sometimes, he's in the kitchen, sometimes he's a guard, sometimes he's working the stables. He's all over the place." Charlotte said. "What is this servant's name?" Hollis asked. He listened closely for footsteps outside. The hall was now quiet. He was certain the person outside didn't move on further down the hallway. They had to be standing on the other side of the door. Charlotte tried to recall. "I've never actually caught his name, but I know his face. I could point him out if I saw him." "I want you to do that for me tomorrow." Hollis still heard nothing. "Hollis...under the table..." Aderyn pointed to something under the table. Hollis looked under. A folded piece of parchment stuck out from the bottom of the door. He leaned down to get the paper. In the hall, he heard footsteps moving away. The stranger left. Hollis opened the note and read it. 'Are you scared? I see you.' At the bottom of the note was the symbol of a pheasant. Hollis crumpled the note in his hand. "Argus." For the rest of the night, Hollis kept everyone inside the room. Hollis stayed awake the entire night. When morning came and a servant knocked on the door to attend to Princess Aderyn, Hollis went out to find Collin. He explained what happened the previous night and showed his brother the note. Collin wagered it wasn't an assassination attempt. Argus sent the man there to mock them. Collin ordered everyone in the castle to line up while Hollis, Finch, and Charlotte checked each one of them. Hollis and Finch did not find the stranger among them, nor could Charlotte identify the odd servant. Collin dismissed everyone afterwards. He took the absence of the stranger as further proof he was an intruder. He recalled his father's death. With Lewis now gone too, he wondered if Argus intended to pick off him and his brothers one by one until they had no useful relatives to rule. He ran through his relatives' ages in his head. His father's brothers were long dead now, from various reasons. Collin's own two sons were around the same age as Lewis's--far too young to rule, as were Mark's two boys and Hollis's only son was an infant. His sisters' sons were older, but the eldest boy of the lot was fifteen. Most of the children he and his siblings had were girls, and most were older than the boys. Shifting even temporary power to an advisor or one of his sisters' husbands didn't sit well with him either. Right now, he didn't trust anyone who wasn't blood related. The only solution available to him was to simply not die. He had to win to ensure the kingdom wasn't put in another situation of choosing out of order as they'd done with him and Clove. He stared at the note the intruder left behind. "You don't frighten me, you flashy bird. I'll cut your wings off." Hollis returned to his brother's side. "What should we do?" "We'll have to be on guard at all times. Whoever this is likely already knows their way around the castle. I'll post more guards out, and I'll make sure only people we know very well are to be out there. If anyone not on my approved list is there, the guards will be under order to bring them to me immediately for questioning." Collin said. "I'll send word to Anne, Justine, Jane, Patricia, and Elena about what's happening here. I'll give new orders for Mark as well. Damn it. I should be out fighting, but I can't leave the castle at a time like this..." "If the intruder is smart, I doubt they'll try to get in the normal way." Hollis said. "I know. I'll have guards at our less obvious vulnerable spots as well." Collin waved the princess over. "Princess Aderyn, I know you wish to hurry up with the wedding arrangements, but given the circumstances, we will wait. At such a public display, the both of you will be easy targets. We'll postpone the wedding until next Spring for now." "But...the baby..." "You're already promised to be married. That's good enough. I want you to stay here until then as well. I'll send word to your father I'm keeping you here due to safety concerns." Collin reassured her. He doubted the baby would be targeted, but he wasn't going to allow the enemy any opportunities. "Couldn't we go somewhere else?" She asked. "No. We'd be even more vulnerable outside the main castle." Hollis held out his arms to ask her to hold the baby. Aderyn handed the child over to him. He gently rocked the baby. "We're better off staying here." Finch stood nearby. "Don't worry, Princess Aderyn. It's safest here." The baby fell asleep in Hollis's arms. He watched the child. The truth hung heavy over him. This was indeed his son, but taking on the role of being a father was too odd a concept. He wasn't suited to it, he thought. Still, in holding the child, he sensed parts of himself coming forward that he only saw when he worried about Finch. He knew it was only a matter of time before he accepted it without question. In understanding that, his own mortality hung over him as he contemplated what he may need to do to protect the small life in his arms. Hollis said to Aderyn, "I don't want this one outside or ever alone. He is to be with one of us at all times." "Do you really think an assassin would target an infant?" Finch asked. "That's horrid." "That depends on how cruel and wicked his employer is." Hollis turned around. "Come. We should all stay inside as much as possible." King Collin sent word out to his sisters, along with a message to Mark and one for King Ruaidhrí. He had no intentions of letting this war last any longer than it had to. By Spring, he wanted it done, and they'd celebrate their victory with a royal wedding. As he was about to send out his letters, a messenger had one for him from Justine. His widowed sister agreed to his idea about remarrying to the widower King Brandr. He amended his letter to Justine with further instructions, then sent the messenger on his way. The previous night's storm moved east and drenched the lands of another king. In the night, Argus left his kingdom in Rowan and Egret's hands to travel to Cailean. Through the storm's passing, Egret, Rowan, and Robin went over the details of a coming event to inform the public about the current status of the war. Over the next week, little happened. Egret stayed on his best behavior. To Rowan's bad luck, another storm came through the night before the event, and stayed a constant drizzle the next morning. On the day of the event, the three of them met up again to discuss some last minute details. After that, Robin and Rowan parted ways for the time being. Rowan gave Robin a set of tasks to fulfill for him, minor things to arrange and attend to in anticipation of the event. The prince had his own business to attend to, of a more personal nature. Rowan knocked on Luke's bedroom door. "It's me." "The door is unlocked." Luke said. On the other side of the door, Luke lay in bed. His skin was pale and he looked tired. He hadn't bothered changing out of his sleep attire. At the table beside his bed, Rowan noticed an empty bowl and cup. Rowan sat on the bed and asked, "How are you feeling today, Luke?" "Tired, but much better than before." Luke tried to sit up. His motions suggested weakness. "That's good to hear. I'm sure you'll be well soon enough." Rowan helped him sit up against the headboard. He touched Luke's forehead. No fever. "Has Robin checked you today?" "Yes. You know, you could have told me he knew how to do that when I was worried about...catching something that time you checked." Luke said. "I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd want him knowing about that sort of thing." Rowan said. "That is true, but if he knows cures for things like that, I'll endure the embarrassment." "Sorry. I shouldn't have presumed." Rowan opened the large bag he carried with him. He took a thin, black stone out and presented it to Luke. "I've brought you a gift." "What is this?" Luke asked. "It's to shave with." "I've never seen this sort of stone before." Luke took it from Rowan. He looked it over. The black stone shined beautifully. He touched the edge with his finger. It nicked his skin. "Shit, that's sharp." "Careful. It's from the other realm. Robin gave it to me as a gift many years ago." Rowan said. "Giving me your old gifts?" Luke joked, but he liked the idea of having something that belonged to Rowan first. "I can ask him for another one for me. I thought you could use it." "What are you saying about my appearance?" Luke asked with a playful tone. Rowan tugged lightly at the unkempt beard Luke had. "When was the last time you shaved?" Luke touched it. "Hmm...it has been...a while..." "Do you usually see a barber, or do you do it yourself?" He asked. "I do it myself. I don't really like other people touching me with anything so sharp. Don't trust anyone." Luke touched his face more. He hadn't even brushed his hair yet today and it was already noon. "But I...haven't exactly been attending to that lately." "Go on. Give it a go." "What a beautiful color this is...jet black. And so sharp..." Luke turned the stone over and accidentally cut himself again. He held it more delicately. "I appreciate your gift, but I'm a little nervous about using it. I'm afraid I might accidentally slit my throat with how sharp this is." "You only need to be careful. Here, I'll do it for you this time. Let's see how you like it after that." Rowan took it back from him. He had another idea. "Would you let me cut your hair too? Just a trim in the front." "If you want." "I'll be back. I need to get a few things." Rowan left and came back with another bag. He helped Luke out of bed and sat him down in a chair. Rowan was more skilled at the shaving part than the haircut, but he thought he did well enough. When we finished up with that, he dusted Luke off and put Luke's hair back into a tight braid. "How is it?" Luke felt over his face. He examined the stone again. Sharp and daunting as it was, he liked the final result. "Smooth...better than a barber would have done. Suppose I could manage. In any case, I'm certain I could kill someone with this." "You say that, but I've actually done it. Someone tried to assassinate me once while I was shaving in my tent on the way back from a battle one night and...well, let me say that it was a very nasty way to die." Rowan was horrified at the time, but he was somewhat proud of himself for countering so fast. "Oh, I like it even more." Luke laughed. Rowan leaned down. "Use it well. I want you to take better care of your appearance." "Is that really necessary?" Luke looked up at him. "Yes." Rowan pulled another item from his bag. This was a present wrapped in a silk cloth. He gave it to Luke. "Oh, speaking of which...your other gift is ready." Luke unwrapped the bundle. Blue garments were inside. "Those clothes you got my measurements for?" Rowan sat down on Luke's bed. "Yes. Try them on." "Blue and white? That doesn't really suit me." Luke unfolded the shirt. "Enough of that. Put it on." "Very well." Luke stripped. He put on the pants first. "What is this gift for?" "They're your wedding clothes." Rowan beamed. "Oh, are we getting married?" Luke shot him a grin. "Very funny." Rowan rolled his eyes and laughed at the thought. Luke put on the shirt. He felt over the embroidered pattern on the front. A green dragon held a blue rose in its hand. "A dragon and a blue rose? What does that mean?" "It represents your other half." Rowan said. "Is this a hint about a family crest?" Rowan shook his head. "No, I don't think so. I saw it while I was meditating. I think it means something else." Luke put on his boots and gloves, then the last item in the bundle--a long, blue cloak with white, fur trim and lining. The clasps were star shaped. It reminded him of one he wore in a dream before. "You're not selling me off to some fairy creature, are you?" Rowan put his hand behind his head and laughed. "He seemed human enough. Do you want to know his name yet?" "No." Luke ran his hands over the fur on the cloak. He smiled. "I'll ask him myself." "Here. This one's for him, but you mustn't open it until you're ready to give it to him." Rowan handed him another wrapped bundle. "Why's that?" Luke asked. "There's a note inside I don't want you to read right now." Rowan brought a mirror over so Luke could look at himself. "You look very handsome." Luke took the mirror. He almost didn't recognize himself. Rather than seeing a disheveled drunkard or a messy playboy, he saw something else--something that was neither a reflection of his brother nor cast by his father's shadow. He watched his reflection's face turn slightly red with embarrassment. The person in the mirror was far more handsome than he was supposed to be. Rowan wasn't sure how to take Luke's sudden silence. "Something wrong?" "Ah, no...I've just...I've never really looked at myself closely before. Or at least, not clearly." His face went a deeper red. "It's a little strange." "You don't like what you see?" Rowan asked. "That's the strange part...I think I do." Rowan laughed. "Good. You are very handsome. You know that. You boasted about that when we were strangers." "I know, but...sometimes I think I'm not, when I get in strange moods. Don't tell anyone this, but once when I was little and I was in one of those moods where I hated myself...I was sitting by the river, thinking about drowning myself, and I found a shard of glass. I cut up my face, then told my mother I fell in a briar patch." Luke tilted his head up slightly and put his fingers on a small area under his ear. "Still have a small scar from it right here." Sadness filled Rowan. "Do you...hurt yourself often when you're like that?" "Not always. It's only if I get in a really strange mood, and I haven't done that sort of thing in a long time. Typically, I'd go out and drink, sleep with someone, and try to forget about what's on my mind if I'm like that or get completely drunk off my ass and go fight. I did it more as a teenager. I'd sometimes make small cuts on places underneath my clothes to watch myself bleed. I don't think I was thinking too deeply on it. James left a bigger scar on me than any I gave myself. That bastard cut me right here while he had me tied down." Luke pulled up the front of his shirt and showed Rowan a long, deep scar in the center of his chest, the full extent of it partially covered by the protection charm Luke wore under his shirt. "James did that?" Rowan touched the scar. He imagined the wound must have been very painful. Rowan saw it before, but he assumed it was a battle scar. "But you aren't physically injuring yourself anymore, right?" "No. And with me not drinking or sleeping around either, I suppose I'm not doing much of anything I used to do to alleviate it." "What are you doing instead now?" Rowan fixed Luke's shirt back. "I've been too ill lately to do anything right now. But I...I try to think about you." Luke sat back down in the chair, his body tired again. "What do you mean?" Rowan asked. Luke's face went red again. "Well, I remember times you said you loved me or when you've let me hold hands with you. I try telling myself you're not lying to me, and I don't...feel as worthless anymore if I can get myself to believe it. Sometimes, I've sought you out and asked you to play cards with me. I didn't want to burden you with what was on my mind, but I thought that would be alright. It helps, but it doesn't alleviate it. It's more like it lessens it. I still feel like shit for bothering you...for being too needy, especially when I can barely convince myself you care at all." Rowan knelt down before Luke. He took his hand. "It's alright for you to burden me. I'm your friend. If it's too much, I'll tell you so. Don't assume my limits for me." "Can you say you love me again?" Luke asked. "I love you." Rowan kissed his hand. "I'm not deserving of it. When I think back on how we met, I don't understand why you're helping me at all." Luke lowered his head. "I should be apologizing to you for my inappropriate behavior." "Forget about that." Rowan stood up. "I wanted to ask you a favor, but please decline if you don't think you're physically up to it." "What is it?" Luke asked. "I want you to stand beside me when I speak to the public today. I'll have Robin with me as well, and Wren. Would you mind?" Rowan asked. Luke stood up. He stretched. "All I have to do is stand there, right? I can do it. Should I change?" "Yes. These are for Al...only the person you are intended to be with on that day. Keep them hidden and clean until then." Rowan caught himself from accidentally saying Alan's name. "If you say so." Luke didn't notice. Two hours later, Rowan went out to speak to the public. As a special favor for Wren, Luke carried Rowan's quiver and bow. Wren claimed he had a strange nightmare the previous night and wanted Rowan to have access to them if need be. Rowan didn't believe anything would happen, but he saw no reason to not do as Wren asked. Typically, Rowan kept Robin out of the public eye, much as he preferred Robin not fight. The public was unnerved by his presence, but today that worked in his favor. He wanted them to see him as powerful, and if that meant allowing the public to see Robin as a demon so that they believed they could win, then he didn't care. Luke, he intended to use as a sign of the strength between their kingdom and their allies. Egret stood behind him, a reminder to the public he was Argus's son in spite of his looks, and that carried all the same influence. Wren stood between Egret and Rosabella, marking himself as intending to play a greater role in the kingdom and support his brother. Ran too stood near, though further back than the others. Egret kept an eye out for the "surprise" guest Argus told him about. Given their location, he expected an archer from above. He had some concerns about Argus's plan going through. The rain was reduced to a drizzle, but the wind occasionally blew through heavily. For his own sake, he needed to sort out where the archer would shoot from, in case the arrow missed. Before he could sort out where, Robin was pushing Rowan out of the way and raising his arm up to block for the prince. An arrow pierced deep into his arm. Seeing that, Luke moved to string Rowan's bow and hand it off to him. Rowan snatched an arrow from the quiver. He searched for where the archer must be. The would-be assassin gave himself away by running. Robin kept his injured arm raised and hummed a soft melody. The drizzle turned quickly into a heavy storm. Out of anger, he caged the man in a stream of lightning bolts. Rowan raised his bow and aimed. Robin glanced over at Rowan to ask if he wanted the weather conditions altered any for his shot. Rowan grinned and subtly shook his head. The arrow flew through the sky and straight through the lightning trap. When the man fell to the ground, Robin calmed the storm and stopped the lightning. Rowan handed his bow off to Luke and checked Robin's arm. "Lord Egret, go see who that fool is. If he's alive, question him. If not, search him for clues to who his employer is." "It would be my pleasure, your majesty." Egret bowed and left the balcony. Wren ran over to Robin. "Rin, your arm..." "I'll be fine." Robin winced and held his injured arm. "Wren, take him to the physician." Rowan said. Wren nodded. He led Robin away. Luke stood close by the prince. "Seems your brother was right to suggest you take your bow with you. Is he gifted with foresight?" "Perhaps so. My mother is like that sometimes too. Speaking of which..." Rowan turned around. "Mother, Lady Rosa, please go inside for now. We don't know if this man was acting alone or with others. Stay near the guards." "Come, Rosa. Let's go." Ran escorted Rosabella away. "Bold move. Trying to kill you in front of a crowd of subjects. Someone really wanted to send a message." Luke looked down at the people below. The crowd whispered amongst themselves. Egret made his way over to the man guards were now hovering over. One of the guards informed him the man was dead and another handed him a sachet with Collin's family crest on it. He held the sachet up in the air and stood near the side of the wall that overlooked the crowd. He yelled out to Rowan. "He's dead! An assassin sent by King Collin!" "Search him again, then dispose of the body!" Rowan yelled back. "Then send word to my father about this fool's pathetic attack!" The crowd cheered. With the crowd excited from the bit of news and the display, Rowan used the opportunity to instill more passion into the people to rally up for their coming battles as winter approached. He needed to keep the public pleased with him enough to not care he planned on fighting all through winter again. Rowan went straight to Robin after the speech. Robin rested in their room. "How's your arm doing?" Rowan looked over the bandages on him. "I'll be fine. Could use a hand adding some herbs to it. Your physician wouldn't listen to a single one of my instructions. He did a terrible job at removing the arrow too. A barber-surgeon would have done it cleaner, and faster." Robin lifted his arm slightly. "Sorry about that. What do you want me to bring you?" Rowan washed his hands, then went over to where Robin kept all his herbs. Robin explained to him what he wanted and what to do with everything. When it was done, Rowan redressed the bandages with the herbs added and the physician's herbs were discarded. "How's that? Is it too tight?" Robin moved his arm around. "No, it's good." "You put on quite the display for the public." Rowan got up to wash his hands again. He went back to the bed. He leaned forward, sitting in between Robin's legs. Robin grinned at him. With his good arm, he pulled Rowan closer and kissed him. "As did you." Rowan kissed down Robin's neck. He whispered in his ear. "It wouldn't matter what I did if you weren't there to protect me. I'd say you're deserving of a reward for your efforts." "You needn't reward me. It is my duty to protect you." As Robin said this, he pulled up his shirt. "I insist." Rowan freed Robin from his pants. He wasted no time in rewarding Robin. With that single-minded purpose, he focused on nothing else. He forgot to lock the door and both were too caught up in the moment to notice someone was walking down the hall. The door opened, and the person who stood in the doorway stared in shock. Rowan didn't hear the door, but he sensed someone was watching him. He sat up to see who was there. It was the last person he'd want to see him doing something like that. Wren slammed the door. "Lock the fucking door!" "Learn to knock!" Rowan shouted. Another person was headed to Rowan's room. Luke overheard Rowan and Wren yelling at each other. He stopped in front of the door and asked Wren, "What's with you?" "Please, gouge out my eyes!" Wren covered his eyes. "Ugh, why?!" "Should I ask...?" Luke presumed Wren did something stupid. He turned the handle of the door. "I wouldn't do that." Wren grabbed his wrist to stop him. Luke read in between the lines. He raised his voice and said to Rowan and Robin, "Make yourselves decent. I'm coming in." "Give me a minute..." Rowan said back. Luke sighed and waited. He thought to himself, 'You better be getting dressed and not continuing.' Wren leaned against the wall. He calmed himself down somewhat, doing his best to push what he saw to the farthest corners of his mind. He was having little success. "What did you need to tell him anyway?" "News from your father." Luke said. Rowan opened the door and stumbled out into the hallway. He closed the door behind himself. His hair was a mess and his clothes were not much better off. He ignored Wren and faced only Luke. "What is it, Luke?" "Your father sent you a letter. Here." Luke gave him Argus's letter. He noticed something. Luke held Rowan's face and took a rag out from his pocket. He cleaned off part of Rowan's cheek. "You missed a spot." Wren's eyes widened. He looked over at his brother. Disgust washed over him. He wanted to gag. Rowan laughed out of embarrassment. "Thank you. My apologies about my appearance. You caught me at a bad time." "You've seen me at worse." Luke shrugged it off. Wren, however, had enough of the whole situation. "I'll speak with you later." "Alright. Um...I am sorry about you seeing...I forgot to lock the door..." Rowan apologized to Wren as well. "I should have knocked." Wren turned away. "I'll take my leave. Would it be alright if we played cards later?" Luke asked. Rowan searched Luke's face for his intentions. He smiled at him. "That would be fine with me. Let's try for after dinner." "Thank you for indulging me. I'll see you at dinner." Luke bowed. Rowan waved and went back into the room. Wren followed Luke down the hall, not sure where he wanted to go. Luke put away the rag. "That was...something." "I can't believe you cleaned off his face." Wren grimaced. "Why?" "Because was that your brother's..." "Don't remind me." Luke winced. "How much did you see?" "Enough to make me sick to my stomach." Wren put his face in his palms. "He had nearly all of it in his mouth. Ugh. Smite my mind!" Luke perked up at that, and pictured the scenario in his head, except with Robin replaced with himself. "All of it? I'm...going to keep that information for later." "Lock the door...They don't care. The last time I walked in on them, they were outside!" Wren rambled on. "Doing what?" The memory replayed in Wren's mind. "Nothing yet. They were about to do something and I immediately left before I could find out what exactly. I saw enough to know I needed to leave." "What did you see then?" Luke asked. "I know that Rin's about the same size as me." That part he could remember very vividly. "Sounds like you kept part of that information for later too." Luke teased him. "Ah...we're not going to...talk about that..." He used that information for exactly what Luke was implying he did. Wren quickly changed the subject. "You two are going to play that game again, tonight? Is that a private thing?" "Doesn't have to be. Did you want to play too? You can invite Lady Rosa too if you want. I'll modify the rules however many show up." Luke said. "You sure you'd want us there? Wouldn't you rather invite Eider?" Wren asked. "Eider? Hell no. He's a damn cheat at any game he plays. Besides, he hasn't visited me once since he's gotten back. It's pissing me off." Luke was quick to become angry. "Mm...he must be busy with something. Perhaps Lord Egret has him doing some work for him? Why don't you visit him?" Wren suggested. Luke dismissed the idea immediately. He said in exasperation, "Don't wanna." "Luke, you make no sense." Wren didn't understand it in the least. Luke and Wren went their separate ways shortly after that. Back in the room, Robin read over the letter from Argus while Rowan washed his face off. Robin tossed the note aside on the bed. "It's an update on his current location. He should be in Cailean by now." "Wonder how that's going. Your father and mine in the same room together--that can't possibly go well." Rowan had personally met Faolán only a handful of times, the last time when he was a teenager and his father wasn't around for that meeting. The last time he saw his father and Robin's father in the same room together was when Robin started serving him nineteen years ago. His memory of that was slightly hazy, both from time and from his focus then being far more on Robin than anything else. He vaguely recalled his father and Faolán having to be separated by Silvanus and Egret at some point before they left, with Faolán threatening to kill Argus. His father nearly stopped Robin from returning with them and he would have if Rowan didn't cry so much about it at the time. Argus cared less about making Rowan happy and more about shutting him up. When he asked his father about Faolán shortly before the last time he saw the man, his father described him as a beast born from the flames of Hell that none can slay. He told him it was likely Silvanus wanted to get rid of the man as well, but was too terrified to attack him. He cautioned Rowan about interacting with him, but Faolán personally did nothing aggressive or threatening to Rowan. His words were cold and empty, but carried no disrespect. From what Wren told him and that Faolán was going along with their plan, his idea of what the man was really like was more confused than ever. Rowan speculated his father had reasons beyond the Black Wolf's reputation for hating him, and he presumed it was more that the man was an obstacle in his quest for power. The man was clearly still a wicked person, regardless of how much he was helping them, as he knew both Luke and Robin were born from a brutal union. He didn't know what to think of him. Robin rested on the bed. "I almost feel sorry for Argus. It's impossible for him to not run his mouth, and Faolán is unpredictable and quick to attack. A terrible combination, and we know Faolán is stronger. You better hope he doesn't return him as a corpse." "I don't think he'll go that far. He won't do anything that will harm Silvanus, at least not unless he was heavily provoked." Rowan hoped that was true. "Then you must worry for your father." Robin said in jest. "You have a point. Let's hope he doesn't do anything stupid. I'd rather not abruptly be crowned king because my father got himself killed by an ally in the middle of a war." Rowan stared out the window. The storm cleared out and the sun shone down too brightly for his liking. Argus arrived in Cailean shortly before Rowan received the letter, but they relocated to Silvanus's castle shortly after. Faolán did not put on any pretenses about moving location. He told Argus he was only in his home to check on some things and he had no intentions of discussing anything with Argus or anyone else in his home. They quickly left to Silvanus's, with Faolán refusing to discuss anything at all with Argus until they arrived. By late evening, they arrived and ate. Their discussion was put off again when Faolán claimed he was too tired from the constant travel to discuss anything and immediately went to sleep. The following morning, he pushed off their private discussion again for breakfast, then again to train with Avis, and once more for lunch. Argus caught on quickly he was being dragged around, but couldn't decipher what Faolán's motives might be. He finally cornered him in after lunch. Faolán took him to an unused room on the second floor. He stood by the window and watched the clouds. "Let's make this quick. I've got things to do." "Is that how you usually address guests, Black Wolf?" Argus snapped at him. He was not going to allow a man from another kingdom who was nowhere near his status speak to him like that. "What are those?" Faolán sat in a chair near the window. "Anyway, get on with it. My patience is running out." "I've barely been in your company since I've arrived." Argus said. "I know. I was sick of you before you arrived. Looking at you is making me want to rip something into pieces." Faolán gave him a deranged look to frighten him. That look sent shivers down Argus's spine, but he did not allow his fear to show on his face. "You're as mad as ever." "Mad?" He yawned and stretched, then picked up a piece of parchment off an old table nearby. He shred strips of of it off in tiny bits. "What do you want?" "I told you in my letters. We need to choose a woman for your son to marry." "Right. We already discussed that. I'm picking the woman. What did you want to talk to me about that for?" He said. He kept messing with the parchment, creating a mess on the floor. "We did not discuss that. You decided that on your own." Argus raised his voice, but didn't move any closer. "Of course I did. He's my son." Faolán looked for something else to distract himself with. He turned his attention to an old cup on the table and idly dragged it across the table to the point of causing an annoying screeching noise. Argus winced at the noise. "Your son serves me." "What does that matter?" Faolán asked as he attempted to make the same annoying noise again. "You didn't raise him either." Argus said. "Neither did you. The nymph of the Cailean River reared him. You and I have no claim in that." He succeeded in replicating the noise. He watched Argus from the corner of his eye as he caused the screeching noise again. "He was under my care since he was ten." "Sir Ronan raised him then, and he has no claim to this discussion. He's dead." Faolán rolled the mug off the table on purpose. It shattered on impact with the floor. "There is another matter we need to address here." Argus took a deep breath. He shifted the conversation to something he thought the two of them could come to an agreement on. "Surely you've heard the rumors about our sons..." "What, that they're fucking? That's obvious." Unfortunately for Argus, Faolán couldn't care less about such matters. "Don't you care? What about your public image?" Argus asked. "What public image? I'm the Black Wolf of Cailean. What is there to protect? If anything, he's merely keeping up my image. The only reason you're here is that you don't like what this is doing to yours." He laughed at the king. "There is a vast difference between a man who conquers many women and a man who has the sick pleasure of doing that with another man." "And what reason is that? The only one I've been told is that it's a sin, but so are my crimes. And I'm not a religious man in the first place. I don't really give a damn either way. If he wants to fuck a man, that's his business." Faolán shrugged. Argus narrowed his eyes. "I'm starting to wonder if you too are of such a persuasion." "Sorry to disappoint whatever curiosity you may be hiding, but I am only interested in women and I don't care who my children want to sleep with." He rested his chin in his palm. "One of your sons is a known sodomite, the other is starting to be suspected by the public. I hear you have a third child, a girl you've disguised up as a man. And when she takes interest in men as all women do, you'll be at three." Argus tried once more to persuade him into sharing his concern. "I can assure you that's not an issue. My daughter's interests are exclusively sapphic in nature, so she will pass quite well as a sinless man." He grinned. Argus stood there dumbfounded. He couldn't believe the man was amused at such information. "Do...do you not care about anything?!" "I stopped caring about things long ago. Enough of this. I came here to discuss my son's future. I don't care what he does with your son, but none of my children currently have any children. Avis cannot give me one, for reasons you are already aware of. Luke is impossible to negotiate with. And more importantly, neither of them are my eldest. It should be my eldest, at least, that gives me a grandson. I want him to marry and give me one. That will aid us both, won't it?" Faolán's patience was wearing thin. "Yes, it will help with dealing with those rumors." "You mean covering up the obvious?" Faolán said. "You are testing my patience, Black Wolf." As an act of intimidation, he stood up from the chair and put his hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword. "What are you going to do about it? I could cut you in half before you've drawn your sword. If you want to leave here, it is you who should behave." "Excuse you?! I am King Argus the Great, conquerer of lands and my prowess in battle is known far and wide. You keep speaking to me like that, and I'll have my army at Sil--" Faolán had no intentions of letting Argus ramble on. "And have less allies? You'd have to wait until after the war was done. If you are serious about that threat, then I'll go ahead and get rid of you now." "That's enough. Why must all you beasts from that worthless little spot of land be fiery demons? Such filth is not something I would ever allow my lands to be known for." "Something in the water, I suppose." He said. "If you're done peacocking about, I'd like to get back on topic." "About the woman, I have several ladies in mind that would be suitable for..." Faolán cut him off again. "Irrelevant." "Excuse me?" "I told you in my letters. I'm picking the woman." "You may choose the woman, but your son serves me. It would be in everyone's best interest to pick someone that would aid in strengthening my kingdom. I don't care how many times I have to go through this with you, we must..." He interrupted again. "I do not serve you. That means nothing to me. I have my own assets to protect. The woman is mine to choose, and it's a family tradition that I pick a very particular type of woman. I am not going against that tradition to further the wealth and wellbeing of a king I do not serve." "And what type of woman will this be?" Argus asked. Faolán pulled a scroll out that he was carrying in his belt. He unraveled the long scroll. Its length caused it to hit the ground and roll out for another three feet. "I have some tests I must conduct on each candidate, for various virtues and abilities. I also already have some women in mind. I will get to your choices only if I decide none of my own are worthy." Argus stared at the ridiculously long scroll. "You-you're joking. I don't have time for this nonsense." "And I have little time as well. I'm not getting any younger, and my son is close to thirty." Faolán slowly rolled the scroll back up, taking as long as possible with putting it away simply to annoy Argus. "You're far younger than me. Your first child was born long before you were of age to be knighted." Argus said. "That is true. Hell, both my sons were born before I left my teenage years." He laughed about it out of self-hatred Argus would never catch. He turned the focus of his words back to the king before him. "You are getting on in age, aren't you, Great King? Barely a strand of brown left on your head, and so many wrinkles. Why, I bet your younger son could best you at this point." Argus took great offense to that suggestion, but it was less about him thinking of Wren as weak and more that Faolán had the audacity to remind him he was no longer young and strong anymore. Underneath his anger was a fear he deeply masked. "How dare you! I am not so old and feeble!" "Can't accept your mortality? How quaint. You'll always have your memories, as I'm sure the public is already forgetting whatever asinine 'accomplishments' you had in your youth. What were they again?" Faolán continued to mock him. "I expanded the kingdom and won a war!" "Oh, right. That war. The one your father and brothers had mostly won before you had them all assassinated? Yes, good job stealing that victory." Faolán laughed and clapped for him. "Those are bold accusations." "No, it is merely stating the obvious." He said. "And at that, it was my second uncle, Egret, who did most of that work, now, wasn't it?" "Enough of your babbling! I should pick the woman. Your family tradition is obviously worthless. Your wife lasted a single night. What? Was she not a virgin so you ripped her apart?" Most forgot by now, but Argus still recalled that Faolán's bride died a violent death and many claimed the Black Wolf did it himself. "I'm pretty sure she was a virgin, but I did kill her." He said with a calm demeanor. "You admit to it!" "My parents didn't really speak to me after that." He looked out the window again. "I've spoken more with my children's mother since that day than my parents. Mother couldn't look at me after that." "Oh, your whore in town. Why don't you marry the poor woman already? Can't be seen with a whore, but you claim her children?" "Flannán's not in this realm anymore. She went to the other realm recently, but I would never marry her. She absolutely hates me." Faolán looked down below to see if anyone was in the area. "Then...why...how beautiful is this woman?" Argus asked in confusion. "Very beautiful, but that's got nothing to do with anything." He said. "Strange beast. Are you human or a changeling playing pretend?" Argus stared at him. "I don't belong to those in that realm. I'm something far worse than that." Faolán sighed. "That's it. I've had enough for today. Leave me be. I may speak with you tomorrow, but probably not. You should go home. I'll inform you of who I choose whenever I feel like it." "I will not move from this spot. You cannot dismiss me, you arrogant, barbaric knight." Argus stood his ground. Faolán pointed to the door. "You're dismissed, Pheasant. Fly home." "I will not move from this spot." Argus stayed in place. "Suit yourself. I'm going to get something to eat. If you want to waste your time alone in here, that's your business." He started to walk away. Argus's insecurities and arrogance got the better of him. He grabbed hold of Faolán's wrist. "Who do you think you are?" Faolán pulled himself free, then grabbed Argus by the shirt. He pushed the king back hard. "Who do you think you are? Touch me again and I'll cut your hand off." "You wouldn't dare do that to a king." "What does you being a king matter? I don't serve you." Faolán unsheathed a few inches of his sword. "You're in my domain now. The master here keeps me on a very loose leash." "I won't back down to you. We'll see what Silvanus has to say about your behavior." Argus tried to step around him. "He can say whatever he wants. He won't throw me away for your sake." He said. Argus couldn't stand being seen as powerless. He decided to throw a few threats at the Black Wolf to intimidate him. "You keep howling, Wolf, and we'll see how powerless you are when I take away your king. Wouldn't it be quite a show, to take your daughter and offer her up to whoever wants her before I burn her at the stake for her sins? We could make a family event out of it, get the other brother out of the way too if your foolish younger boy decides to cast aside Philip's protection for my son like his demon brother. And of course, that monster too would need to go. It would be quite the spectacle. And I'd save you for last, so you'd get to enjoy it the longest." Faolán walked away from Argus back to the window. He smiled and waved at Argus to come close. He said, "Come here." "What?" Argus didn't know what to think of this display, but his gut was telling him not to get any closer. "Come here. I want to show you something." "What are you up to, Black Wolf?" Argus asked. Faolán was still smiling. He waved Argus over again. "Come here. Are you afraid to come near me? After all that boasting? Come over." With his hand on his sword, he slowly walked over to where Faolán stood. "What is this about? I don't have time for your games." Faolán, still smiling, laughed as he grabbed Argus and pushed him half out the window. He held him down, keeping him both from falling and escaping. "Oh, look at this. Wouldn't it be such a tragedy if Argus the Great met his end by accidentally falling out this very window? How sad it would be. Then again, it would make for a nice rally for the public if we said it was an assassin that did you in. You like that sort of thing, don't you? I heard you even hire assassins to target your own son." Argus's heart raced. This wasn't how he imagined things would happen. His whole body shook. "How did you...?" "I hear a lot of things. Most don't care what they say when I'm around because I don't spend my hours kissing other nobles' asses. But I know you well. You're a wicked little coward. Saturn, will you devour your sons?" Faolán pushed him out further, but kept a firm grip on him. "If you do this..." "What will you do? You'll be dead. Silly bird, still with your feathers puffed up. Let me give you a bit of advice. A wolf can rip a bird apart with ease." He leaned down and whispered into Argus's ear. "You ever lay a hand on my daughter, and there will be no one who will know what you were when I'm done with you. The same goes for my sons. If you set flame to a single lock of hair on any of their heads, I will burn your kingdom to the ground and make sure you are the last to be engulfed, you wretched pheasant." Even in light of his current situation, he couldn't stop his arrogance. He had used it for so long as a means of self-defense, it was the only route he knew to take. "Your words are emptier than mine. You have no power over a king." "Titles don't matter to beasts. You've gotten used to my son's power at a restrained level. He's a bit tamed, but I'm nothing like him. You wanna offer up my daughter, huh?" He slid his leg between Argus's suggestively. "Perhaps I should show you that same fear." "You filth. I knew you were..." Argus started to say. "Not in the least. I'd rather drop you and watch your skull burst open. But I can force myself if I have to on anyone, and then I can kill you. Let you know absolute fear from every moment until the end. Or maybe I should cut you up, bit by bit, roast you up, and feed you to the fish in my pond." Faolán leaned him outside a little more. He couldn't compose himself any longer. After a glance downward at the ground below, his body refused to heed his commands to stay calm. His shoulders shook and his words lost all of their bite, falling to a sad whimper. "You wouldn't...you monster..." "That's right. I'm a monster. Don't forget it, you pathetic little king." Faolán loosened his grip on Argus. He smiled at him widely, showing off teeth like a wild animal. "In all these lands, in both our realms, there is no greater monster than me." Argus couldn't muster a single word to beg for his life. It was impossible for him for more than one reason. Without his pride, he was nothing and he could not put down that mask of power. Underneath that, he was too terrified to speak. No one challenged the Black Wolf, not even him. When he was in his prime and the wolf was a teenager terrifying anyone who had the misfortune of being in his general vicinity, he once thought to challenge him in a match for "fun" and "accidentally" kill him as a favor to then prince Silvanus who asked him that in a private letter. His father warned him not to, as did Sir Ronan, who was their kingdom's strongest warrior at the time. Realizing he may well lose in front of an audience, he sent Sir Ronan in his place, who returned in bandages with a broken arm. He recalled his words that day. Sir Ronan said to him, "The only reason I am alive is because it was merely a match to entertain. If it were a serious fight, I'd be returning to you in parts. Never make him your enemy." Argus followed that advice until the day the wolf brought the hound with him. They fought with words that day, Egret and Silvanus keeping the two of them apart before their argument could erupt into a physical one. He nearly got a blow in on Faolán that day, and Argus left with cuts from Faolán digging his fingernails into Argus's arm. He should have ignored his son's demands that day and left the younger beast with his father. Since then, he avoided challenging that man. So natural for him was it to use his boasts as shields he did it without thinking, and he let Egret's assessment of the man as having grown soft and old cloud his judgment. He wanted to best him, but he too was old and far older at that. He did not want to accept that fact. In his mind, he was always young and powerful and perfect. The devil deciding his fate couldn't be controlled the way he used others. In the Black Wolf's eyes, he saw something more disturbing than the metaphorical claws upon him. If he survived this incident, this very same beast would still be waiting for him at home. If he lived through this, he swore to himself, he would ensure as soon as the war ended to rid himself of that cursed demon that stalked his lands. For now, he was at the mercy of the wolf. Absolutely humiliated, the only way he could comfort himself was that no one was around them to see him in such a state. Faolán finally pulled him back inside the room. He grabbed him tightly by the arm and forced him to the door, still smiling. "Now that we've cleared up your little power misunderstanding, it's agreed then. I will pick the woman. When I've found a suitable lady, I will let you know. It's time for you to leave." Away from the window, Argus started to fight back. He tried to free himself, but Faolán was far stronger than him. "Let go of me!" Faolán stopped before the door. He turned to Argus and got up close in his face. With a grin, he said, "You say another word to me and I'm positive I will do something very vile to you." Argus went quiet. Faolán led him out into the hallway. Silvanus was also in the hall, walking with his daughter, Flora, and Avis, who was guarding Flora. Silvanus called out to Faolán. "Sir Faolán, what are you doing?" "I'm escorting King Argus out. I'll be leading him to the border." Faolán looked over at his daughter and the princess. When he looked at them, he felt a warmth inside him that turned into a burning agony. He repeated a few choice words to himself in his mind to deal with it. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Little flame, watch over the princess and the king well while I'm gone." "Yes, Father." Avis said. "Take care, Sir Faolán." Flora clung to Avis's arm. She leaned against her bodyguard in a way that suggested more than friendliness. "We'll be clearing out the garden." "Good. You two have fun with that. I'll be leaving now." Faolán bowed before dragging Argus down the rest of the hallway and outside. "Uh...should you allow him to do that?" Flora asked her father. Silvanus laughed nervously. "Sir Faolán can do as he pleases." "But...Argus is a king and an ally." Avis said. "Young man, even I am afraid of your father. I would never challenge him unless I had an army standing between the two of us." Silvanus said. Avis understood Silvanus's concern, but the way he worded it bothered her for reasons she couldn't place. "He doesn't frighten me." "Haha, oh Avis." Silvanus excused himself from the girls. "You take care of my daughter, now. I have business to attend to. I'm sure I'll be getting a letter from Argus soon enough about your father's behavior. I should get to work on the apology." "I am sorry for my father's behavior, my king." Avis bowed to him. Outside, Faolán dragged Argus over to get their horses. Calmer than earlier, Argus noticed a few odd things about the man. His hand was burning hot, to the point it was physically painful for Argus. Faolán was wearing thick gloves. He shouldn't be able to feel his body temperature so well through those gloves, nor should anyone's body be that hot naturally. It felt like Argus was up against an open flame. Faolán's attire of red and black largely disguised this, but he saw red drip from Faolán's sleeves onto the grass. Some of the blood slid down onto his own sleeve. Argus's fears subsided. "So, that's it. Who cursed you?" "Oh, a fairy woman I met in my garden. She was a beautiful woman, and quite talented in magic and fortune telling. Don't tell a soul or I'll kill you." Faolán yanked him forward so hard that Argus fell to his knees. He quickly stood back up. "What did you do? Try to have your way with her too?" "Oh, definitely not at ten years old. Though I suppose children can do a lot of horrid things." "What are you?" Argus asked. "A wolf. Isn't that obvious?" Faolán finally let go of Argus. "Get on your horse. You try anything stupid and I'll rip you apart." Argus looked at the trail of red behind him. He grinned and said nothing as the Black Wolf escorted him out of the kingdom. Back at his own castle, nothing suspicious happened since the assassination attempt. Rowan was largely busy tending to Robin. He left Egret in charge of dealing with various menial tasks around the castle, but Egret had little interest in such things. He was bored and he needed to take out his frustration somewhere. He cornered a servant girl for quick amusement. This distracted him momentarily, and his frustration quickly returned when one of his own servants informed him of Egret's wife having injured another servant. Egret stormed to his wife's room. If he couldn't get out his frustration through pleasure, violence was another route. Mara sat in front of a mirror brushing her hair. She saw Egret coming into the room in the reflection. Her shoulders tensed. Egret marched up behind her and grabbed her wrist so tightly she dropped the brush. "Woman, you haven't cost me any good servants again, have you?" "And what if I have? You've outright killed many of our servants for completely petty reasons. What's the difference?" She fought him with her words as her body went limp. He forced her to stand up and slapped her in the face. "What's the difference? That's my property, you stupid bitch! Have you or not?" Her face bled from how deeply his fingers went across her cheek. She winced from the pain and lied. "No...I haven't." Egret let go of her hand only to grab her hair instead. He pulled her forward. "Look at you. Your hair's completely grey. It's disgusting. You're embarrassing for me to stand next to." "You're grey too." Tears slipped from her as she moved close to him to lessen the pain of his pulling. "That doesn't matter. Just look at you. Old and ugly. You're nothing but wrinkles now." "You're nothing special either." Mara stared at the ground. "Don't compare yourself to me, you old hag. You've always been embarrassing to stand next to. Someone like me should be surrounded by beautiful women. You should worship the ground I walk on for allowing you the luxury of being my wife." He let her go. She stumbled forward. He laughed at her as she fell. "You and I both know the only reason I married you was to ensure I didn't end up raising some other man's child. I knew no one would willingly want to touch you. But I'm growing bored of putting up with your ugly face and your bullshit. I bet I could get a replacement for you in no time." "Replacement?" She looked up at him not with horror, but rage. "A young beauty who will appreciate my generosity. Of course, she'll need to be pure and innocent so she won't run off with anyone." He said. Mara stood up and glared at him. She sneered. "Eleonora never cheated on you." "The hell she didn't. I'm no fool. Everyman around wanted her." Egret said. "That doesn't have anything to do with her fidelity." Egret charged at her and slammed her down on the ground. She struggled underneath him to get away. He managed to get her pinned down on her stomach. "Don't argue with me about that bitch." "Stop it. Please." Mara's previous anger faded back into fear. "You know why I don't touch you? Because I hate you that much. Looking at you disgusts me. I can't get it up for someone so hideous." He slid his hand underneath her and grabbed her between her legs. "You know, I slept with three different women today. None of them complained about anything. Didn't say a word. Didn't fuck up my shit. I know you're lying to me. You let four of my horses go too, stupid bitch." Mara couldn't control herself. She sobbed into the sheets. "Don't cry. You're not sorry for what you did." He twisted her arm behind her back. "You better hope I'm in a good mood later. Sit here and think about what you've done. You piss me off again tonight, and you won't be waking up until next week." Then, he left without another word. For a while, Mara lay on the bed. She made no noise. She did not cry. All she did was stare blankly at the sheets. Slowly, she rose from the bed and returned to her chair. She picked the brush up and continued brushing. She tried putting up her hair and wearing a little make-up, but all she saw was an ugly, old woman with cuts on her face staring back at her in the mirror. She let the brush slip from her hand back onto the floor and buried her head in her hands as she cried. In a tone she never allowed anyone to hear her speak in, just above a whisper, she cried out, "Ellie, help me." An hour later, she regained her composure. She washed off her face and let her hair back down. A knock came at her door. Egret would never knock, so she knew it wasn't her husband. The door opened. Rosabella let herself into the room carrying a tray with a drink. "Bella, what do you want?" Mara wiped her face off with a towel. She pulled some of her hair into her face discretely to hide what her husband did earlier. "You didn't come to the dining hall for supper. Father said you were feeling ill, so he sent me to bring you something to drink." Rosabella put the tray in front of Mara. The marks on her face did not go unnoticed. "I'm not ill, girl. Is this meant to be an apology for his rudeness? Couldn't deliver it himself?" Mara downed the wine quickly, hoping it would at least take the edge off her nerves. "That does seem off for him." Rosabella found her father's request odd when he made it, and more that he didn't send a servant. Her father didn't care about anyone. A memory flashed before her eyes. She tried to take the glass out of Mara's hand. "Wait!" Mara swatted her hand away. "What?" "Spit it out!" Rosabella yelled with tears in her eyes. "What are you...?" "Cough it up! Please, make yourself throw up!" Rosabella persisted and snatched the glass away. She threw it across the room. "What has gotten into you..." Mara suddenly felt an intense pain in her stomach. She stumbled out of the chair onto the floor. "That bastard...I should have known..." Rosabella followed her to the floor. "Please, try to gag yourself. There may still be time!" "Don't be foolish, girl. He'd never allow room for that." Mara coughed up blood onto the floor. She clutched her stomach. "You intend me to die in agony, don't you? Is this what you did to my little sister? Girl...will you listen to me? I have no right to ask, but I need you...I need you to..." "What do you need? I'll do it." Rosa held her hair back as Mara coughed up more blood. "He intends to kill me slowly. I should...have enough time to tell it. The most important thing is...you must kill him...He'll do this again...again and again until he dies...Don't let him live to kill his next wife." She propped herself up against the bed. "He doesn't care about people. We're all objects to him. He enjoys throwing us away and watching us suffer. We're his toys." She turned over and threw up blood. Mara struggled to keep herself up. "I've got you. Perhaps, the physician..." Rosabella helped her sit back up. She started to get up to go to the door. "Don't leave me here alone! Please, listen! You must listen...It's my last wish." Mara grabbed Rosabella's hand. Rosabella sat back down. "I'll listen." Mara coughed up blood again. Rosabella cleaned off her face. Mara looked over at the mirror. "Once upon a time, I met a girl who belonged in a fairytale. The first time...I met your mother was at the wedding of her father and my mother. My father died only a few months prior, and I was so angry at my mother for remarrying so soon. She told me she needed to protect me, and suddenly my whole world turned upside down..." "Mara..." Rosabella listened attentively to the old woman's words. "I had to move to a new kingdom, live in a place I barely understood the language of, with all these strangers. The ugly, foreign girl, that's what I was. Not the daughter by blood. I knew I wasn't pretty, I always knew, but in that faraway place, standing next to my younger, ungodly beautiful stepsister, what I lacked shone brightly like blotches of paint splattered across a mural. I hated Eleonora so much. I wanted to rip off that pretty mask of hers and show the world she was ugly underneath, like all those beautiful, ugly people who laughed at me when I walked by." Mara's hand slipped in her own blood. Rosabella caught her from falling over. "I've got you." "I was a fool. The more I fought to see the wickedness, the more I saw the truth. Underneath that mask, she was even more beautiful. It broke me, when I saw how ugly I'd let myself become inside. She was the younger one, but she was far more mature than I ever was. She dried off my tears and helped me learn to speak well. I wouldn't ever be the beautiful maiden in a fairytale. She told me, 'There's another place for you. Become the witch in the woods who gives the maiden magic, who tricks the wicked and rewards the clever. Maidens and princes, knights and princesses, they get marriages and money, but their story ends there. I'd rather be the witch, appearing again and again for each new adventurer. Don't hide your face. What you hold inside is your truth, my clever sister. Show me your cleverness.' No one ever called me that before. I thought I was stupid, because of course I must be. All the good things go to those who are pretty. She showed me how clever I was. Over the years, I learned ten languages and read more books than I can count to become the sorceress she told me I could be. I still envied her beauty..." Mara's voice trailed off as her consciousness faded in and out. "Mara? Mara?!" Rosabella yelled in a panic. "I'm still...I'm still here...Rosabella. One day, I told her again I wished I were as beautiful as her. She said to me, 'Oh sister, I would never wish such a thing upon you. I am a jewel waiting to be encased in silver, to be bought and worn by the highest bidder.' Her words came true. My stepfather let that man in and treated him like a king. I had come to respect my stepfather, but on that day...he betrayed me. He gave away my dear sister to a monster. I didn't know then, how cruel he was, but I saw hints in the way he spoke and how he treated her. I told her to run away, but she refused. It was her duty to fulfill her father's wishes. She went away from me, and I was alone again in that place that was not my home. At first, I was grateful that my stepfather wasn't pursuing someone for me to wed, but as the years went by, it was obvious that simply no one wanted me. I threw away her words and grew to hate her again, for leaving me behind. Then, I hated myself, for hating her. Then, there was the funeral. That's when I saw that man again. He asked my father for my hand the same day your mother was put in the ground. I wanted to run away, but then I had a thought. I'd play the role of the witch and punish the wicked. For taking her from me, I'd torment him. I was ready, I thought, to show my sister my power. I didn't know I'd married the devil." Mara burst into tears. Rosabella held her close and rocked her back and forth gently. "Shh..." "Any cleverness I had, he knew how to outwit. He saw through everything. I had no way to fight such a monster. I realized I couldn't play the role of the witch. If I was to survive him and spite him, I could play only one role--the wicked mother. I took upon myself all of him, all his evil and inflicted it back out into the world to trip him at every turn. I stood in your way and Eider's, to stand in his way. I hurt our servants to inconvenience him so that he would get angry at me. I wanted everyone in the world to look at me standing next to him and say I was the most fit woman to be his wife, so that they could see the devil standing beside me and know him for what he is. In all that I have done, precious rose, you've stayed as good and beautiful as you always were...the same as your mother...But I must ask of you to stain your leaves with red as deep as the petals of your heart. Use your thorns. Kill him. For a moment, play the witch with me and kill him. As my final act of sorcery and cleverness, I'll stay here and linger on in my hatred until the day his life ends. On that day, I'll drag him down to the deepest flames of hell myself and never let him go. Swear to me...please..." Mara looked at Rosabella with a look of desperation. Through tears, Rosabella gave her answer. "I swear." "Thank you...I know I've done you evil, but you must do this...not for your mother, nor for me...but for the next one..." Mara's body slumped over against Rosabella's. Rosabella couldn't completely see Mara's face because of her hair, but she saw the blood pooling out from Mara's mouth onto her dress. She understood what the silence meant. She placed the body on the bed and covered Mara with a sheet. She knelt before the bed and said a quiet prayer to any who would listen. In her mind, she saw her mother's warm face. That happiness was replaced with sorrow. She remembered just as clearly the face her mother made as she was dying in their garden. Rosabella remembered how much blood covered the grass and the broken glass beside her mother. Through the silence in the room, she swore she heard in a whisper a familiar voice call out to her. Shortly after she finished praying, her father came into the room. Initially, he acted shocked. "What's happened here?" "You've killed her, that's what." Rosabella refused to look at him. "And you'll keep your mouth shut about it. Keep the tears going. The crowd will be moved by the sorrow of a beautiful maiden." Her father said one of his usual cruel remarks. To him, she only had use as a beautiful object. "Why did you kill her?" Rosabella asked. "She was a burden. You could tell the public what I've done, and you'd find few who would fault me for ridding the world of that bitter, old witch." He smirked before leaving the room. "I'm off to tell the public about what King Collin has done to my dear wife." Rosabella waited to leave until after she could no longer hear her father's footsteps. "The next one...But Mara...what can I do?" Rosabella ran to the only person she could confess her intended actions to, the one person she knew would not judge her for what she wanted. She ran to her fiancé. Rosabella found him alone in his room. "Prince, I need to speak with you." She said. Rowan rushed over to her. "Lady Rosa...what on earth happened to you?! You're covered in blood! Are you alright?!" "It is not mine...Mara...my stepmother is dead. Father's informing everyone right now that it was King Collin's doing, but I know he poisoned her." The blood didn't bother her. She'd been through this before. "I see. So, it is the same as your mother." Rowan handed her a towel. "Go on and clean yourself up. I can't stand to see so much blood in my own home. Wash it away." "I have something I want to ask you. I want him dead. Can't you have him punished for something?" Rosabella got straight to the point. Rowan thought about it. "Father would protect him. I'd have to catch him in something even my father couldn't cover up." Rosabella looked at her hands. She said, "Then instead, could you teach me how to kill?" "Excuse me?" "I want to kill him." Rosabella stood before him with unwavering resolve. Rowan was not comfortable with the idea. "I...I know you must be overwhelmed right now, but..." "I am not overwhelmed. I know what I want. Mara did a lot of horrid things, but that doesn't give him the right to take her life because it suits his whims. He threw her away for the same reason he threw away my mother's life. I won't let him do it again. What woman will he torment next?!" Rosabella yelled. "Actually, I've heard from Father he seems to fancy Silvanus's daughter, Princess Flora. Though she is already engaged. He'd have to convince Silvanus to end the engagement or kill her fiancé." Rowan said. He was thinking more aloud than intending to give that information to Rosabella. What Rosabella told him disturbed him and gave him a good idea of what Egret may try to do next. "Princess Flora?! She's eighteen! She's a year younger than I am!" Rosabella was completely disgusted. Her father often talked of wanting a younger wife than Mara, but she didn't expect one that young. "Hmm...yes, you're right. She is a little younger than you and Wren." "That's absolutely disgusting!" Rosabella's stomach turned at the idea of her father marrying a woman young enough to be her little sister. "Father is in his fifties!" "He may want more children." Rowan tried to come up with a reason for Egret's actions to calm Rosabella. He didn't believe his own words. "Eider's given him plenty of grandsons, and I'll be having children too. What does an old man need with more children when his are already grown?" It didn't work. His words only made her angrier. "He'll kill her when he's done with her. He doesn't care about children." "Lady Rosa, please calm down." Rowan went to put his hands on her shoulders, but stopped himself. He didn't want to touch the blood. Out on the battlefield, he could spend hours covered in the blood of strangers, but whenever he was home, he didn't want to be anywhere near it. He looked away from her. "No, that bastard isn't getting another woman and I won't let him have a girl younger than me!" She shouted. Robin came into the room. Rosabella went quiet. "Am I interrupting you? I'll leave if you need...Lady, are you injured?!" Robin noticed all the blood on Rosabella. "No, I am fine. This isn't my blood. Please, excuse me. I need to be alone." Rosabella walked around Robin. "You don't need to leave on account of me." Robin said. "I wish to wash off." Rosabella looked back at Rowan. "I'll discuss this with you another time." "Yes. Please, give this decision more thought before you do anything. What you wish to do will carry very heavy consequences. We can discuss what to do after you've slept on it." Rowan said. "Here, let me escort you back." Robin offered. Rowan got between them. "Robin, let her go. She'll be fine." Rosabella ran back toward her room. "She's covered in blood. What happened?" Robin asked. "Egret's killed his second wife." Rowan said. "And here I was coming to tell you Egret said his wife was murdered by an assassin sent by King Collin. Should've known better." "Father and Egret are up to their usual tricks." Rowan led Robin over to the bed to sit. He undid Robin's bandages to wash him and redress him. "Keep an eye on Rosa. She begged me to show her how to kill her own father." "Can't say I blame her." Robin said. He watched Rowan wash him. His injury was healing well. "And now he's using his wife's death for his own purposes. What filth." "As much as it disgusts me to say this, it also works to our advantage. For now, let him go and tell them whatever he wants. We can't bring Mara back from the dead. At the very least, perhaps her death may end this war sooner." Rowan hated himself for saying that. He dried off Robin's arm and got the mix of herbs ready. "Not words I expected from you." Robin said. "If we're lucky, he'll get himself killed on the battlefield." Rowan finished up with putting on new bandages. Afterwards, Rowan sat at the edge of the bed slouched over with his face in his palms. He breathed a heavy sigh of frustration. Robin moved over close to him. He leaned against him. "Do you want anything?" "Make me sleep. Make me dream about anything but here." The prince whispered to his lover. "As you wish." He kissed him on the head. Robin fulfilled his wishes with a bit of magic and watched over him as he slept. "When these bonds are gone, please, let me fulfill all of your real wishes. If you wanted eternity or the heavens, I would give them to you. You only need ask." In his dreams, Rowan saw a waterfall he was certain he recognized but couldn't name. He held Robin's hand and smiled, but he did not know why. When he woke in the morning, he was in a better mood. He redressed Robin's bandages again, and checked on Luke before heading out to fulfill a task he needed to complete. Wren was dressed in light armor and practicing with a sword. "Good morning, Wren. How are you today?" Rowan asked. "Fine. What are you doing out here?" Wren sheathed his sword. "I've come to train you." Rowan unsheathed his. "What? I thought Father said Egret would be training me while he's away." Wren said. "What do you need an old man for to train you how to fight when you have a far younger warrior at your disposal?" Rowan smirked. Wren decided to tease him a little. "I mean, you're not that young anymore." "I'm not even thirty yet!" Rowan was slightly offended by Wren's comment. "Your grays say you might as well be." He teased him a little more. "Those are from stress, nothing more. Come. Spar with me. Show me what you've learned from Father and Egret." Rowan rose his sword at his brother. "That sounds like something I should avoid. I've seen you fight." Wren said with a laugh. "You've seen me fight to kill. This is a sparring match. I'll go easy on you. Let's see what you can do. Prepare yourself." Rowan got ready to fight. Wren accepted there was no getting out of it. He was nervous at fighting in front of his brother. Rowan was much stronger than him. They both knew that, but he still didn't want to look too weak in front of him. He gave it his best. Rowan countered his every move. He could feel in how lightly and infrequently his brother struck at him that he was greatly holding back. "Not bad, considering how little training you've had." Rowan said. "Are you mocking me?" Wren swung at him. "It was a compliment." Rowan countered with his sword, then kicked Wren. "But you leave yourself too open." Wren fell to the ground and dropped his sword. "That hurt, you know!" "It's supposed to. In a real fight, you'd be dead by now. Let that pain serve as a reminder of what could be." Rowan kicked Wren's sword back to him. "Does that mean you've changed your mind about me fighting with you?" Wren picked up his sword and stood up. "Not at all. I want you home writing poetry. But if you want to get better at this, you need to think of it as if you might see battle one day. My skill drastically increased after I first saw battle. That wasn't from any skills I learned out there, but from fear of losing. Read me, counter me. Don't let me touch you." Rowan lunged at him with more intensity than before. Though Wren knew Rowan was holding back and not intending to kill him, seeing his brother come at him like that sent shivers through him. He countered without thinking in reaction and swung at him more aggressively. "That's much better. Strike to kill." Rowan used a little more strength. "I can't do that. What if I mess up and hurt you?" Wren's sword shook in his hands. Rowan shoved Wren to the ground. "I can handle myself." He offered Wren his hand to help him up. Wren knocked Rowan's sword out of his hand and lunged at him with his blade. Rowan danced around him and tripped him to the ground. He quickly picked up his sword. He grinned. "Hmph." Wren got back up and attacked once more. Their blades clashed several times. Rowan had an idea. He said, "If you can knock my sword out of my hand again, I'll tell you the most embarrassing thing I've ever done." "Well, now I have to do it." Wren said with a smirk. "As if you could." Rowan goaded him. While the two brothers fought, elsewhere in the castle, Robin was meeting with a guest. The young man who claimed to be Argus's bastard son that came seeking help for his ailing mother had returned to speak to Robin personally. Robin greeted him at the front of the castle and led him inside. "Allon, it's been a while. How is your mother?" He asked. "Ah, that's actually why I'm here. She passed away recently." Allon said in a quiet voice. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you were able to get her medicine. Did it not help?" "It helped for a while, but her condition suddenly got worse. The physician couldn't sort out why." Allon bowed. "I'm sorry. I spent a lot of money for different treatments, but none were effective." "You don't need to apologize for that. I am sorry about your mother." Robin gave him a hug. "Thank you. She told me to tell you thank you for everything. Even though she was in pain, she said being in that place made her happy and made her death easier to accept. She said she felt like she was in a fairytale." Allon hugged him back. "I'll leave as soon as possible." "What? You don't need to leave." Robin said. "But I only came here to get help for my mother. Now that she is gone, I have no right to..." "Nonsense. I left you in charge of my property. I don't want you to leave. Have you been studying as I requested?" Robin pulled away. "Yes, sir. I can write letters decently and read simple documents now." Allon pulled out some papers he had on him. "Here. I practiced some on the way." Robin looked over the papers. He handed them back. "That's good. I'll lend you some books to read." "Yes, sir. I'll study anything you want me to." Allon bowed again. "No, these aren't those kind of books. This is for fun." "Shouldn't I be focusing more on learning how to..." "Have fun. That's one of my requirements for you. You don't need to be so serious and formal around me. I hate that." He put his hand on Allon's shoulder. "Don't forget, I wasn't born into this world either. And no more of this 'sir' nonsense. You can do that in front of a crowd, but don't talk like that to me in private." "How should I address you?" Allon asked. "I told you last time you can speak to me as informally as you wish. Wren always calls me 'Rin'. You can call me that." Robin said. "I don't know...is it really alright for me to call someone above me by a friendly nickname? Shouldn't I at least be using your real name?" Allon fidgeted with his hands. "No. Rin is fine." Robin changed the subject. "Do you want to see your brothers?" Allon shook his head. "Ah...I doubt they want to see me." "Nonsense. You're a nice man. I'm sure Rowan likes you more than some of his other half-siblings. Let's go see them." Robin led Allon to where Rowan and Wren were training. The two of them were still sparring. "There they are." "Are they practicing together?" Allon asked. "Looks more like they're playing around than training." "I can't tell. I've never had any siblings...well, living with me, anyway." Allon corrected himself. "Your mother didn't have any other children?" Robin asked. "No, she isolated herself from others after...my father crossed paths with her. She lived with my grandparents until they died and after that, my great-uncle was in charge of the land." Allon gave him a deep bow. "I'm sorry. I didn't tell you this back when we first met, but my great-uncle recently died and we were about to be thrown out by another relative. When you took us in, I genuinely thought it was a miracle." "Well, you don't need to worry about all of that now. Perhaps, you can come to have a family again. Wren's about your age. I think you'd get along well. You should get to know him." "Do you really think so?" Allon asked. He liked the idea, but doubted he'd be so easily accepted into a new family. "I'm sure of it. Let's interrupt them." Robin got Rowan's attention and brought Allon over. "Look who's come to visit us." Rowan looked at him. It took him a moment to remember who the man was. "You. Allon, right?" "Yes." Allon bowed to him. "How have you been?" Rowan asked. "Ah...well...My mother recently passed." He said. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. My condolences." Rowan said. "Thank you. Ah...how are you?" Allon tried to continue the conversation. His voice was filled with nervousness. Rowan spoke with him casually. "Tired, as usual." Wren moved closer. He looked over Allon. "Up close, you really do look like Father. I didn't want to believe it before, but I can see it." "He does, doesn't he? Even more than most of our half-siblings." Rowan said. "How many do we have?" Wren asked. Rowan recounted each of his half-siblings in his head. "There's no way to get an exact number. I know of at least sixteen." "Sixteen?!" Wren and Allon both said in unison. "We actually have mostly sisters, believe it or not. Father doesn't usually bother giving them any special treatment though, like he does with Elon and his younger brother." Rowan said. "Wait...Sir Elon is my brother?!" Wren couldn't believe it. "Is that really true?" Allon was also surprised to hear that. "It's definitely true. Ah, maybe I should give you both a list of relatives. I wouldn't want you to end up in a situation like what happened to Elon and Blossom." Rowan laughed under his breath. "What happened with Lady Blossom?" Wren asked. "Well, she's our sister. And her and Elon were lovers for a while. Another one of our sisters, Lady Leana, had to inform them of the uh...unintentional sins they were committing." Rowan did his best not to laugh again. "That--that might be good information to know then!" Wren said. "So, I suppose that means there's at least eighteen of us in total, but I presume there might be more. I had no idea about you, of course." Rowan said. Wren had a panicked look on his face. "You know for a fact Rosa isn't, right?!" "Haha, no, she's definitely Egret's. But there's no telling how many siblings her and Eider have either." Rowan got some amusement out of Wren's fears. Something dawned on Allon. His eyes widened. "Wait...Rosa...is that Lady Rosabella? I thought she was your fiancée...oh...oh my god! You...everything makes perfect sense!" "Well, that secret's out too then." Robin shrugged. "The lives of nobles are very complicated." Allon said. "You have no idea. You should see the family tree. Once Lady Rosa's part of the family, we'll be related to Robin through marriage." Rowan pointed to Robin. "Oh, that's right. Rin's grandmother through Sir Faolán is Lord Egret's cousin. That is right, isn't it?" Wren asked. "Something like that." Robin said. "Which means Eider and Luke...almost committed incest as well." Rowan laughed aloud that time. "Does that amount of distance count at that point?" Robin looked over at Rowan. He wasn't sure where nobles drew the line with that, but he didn't deeply care about the matter to begin with. "What are you talking about? When did that happen?" Wren asked. "Ask Luke how he met Eider." Rowan said. "I doubt there's any nobleman not connected in some way at this point. I know I'm related to Sir Llywelyn through marriage. His father's brother is married to one of Faolán's sisters." Robin commented. "Isn't he adopted though?" Wren asked. "I think so, but I don't see why that matters." Robin said. Wren tuned out of the conversation. He looked at Robin and remembered something Rowan told him earlier. He laughed under his breath. "Why are you laughing?" Robin raised an eyebrow. He wasn't talking about anything amusing. "Oh, uh, not related to what we're talking about." Wren laughed again. "Don't mind him." Rowan started laughing too. "What's so funny?" Robin was not amused. "Nothing." Wren burst into laughter. "It's a secret." As did Rowan. Robin shook his head. "Are you two done?" "Sorry." Rowan said. Wren kept laughing. "I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry." Rowan calmed himself back down. He turned to Allon. "Allon, what do you say? Will you spar with me?" "Ah, me?! Um, no. That wouldn't be a very good idea. I've never..." Allon shook his hand and backed away. "Wren got his lesson. It's your turn now." Rowan waved him back over. Allon looked to Robin for help. Robin smiled. "Go on." Wren passed his training sword off to Allon. "Best of luck. I'm finally free." "It wasn't that bad." Rowan said. "You're a better swordsman than Father and Egret, that's for sure." Wren said as he leaned against a wall. "Were you being rough on Wren?" Robin asked. "Only a little. It was for his own good." Rowan positioned himself in front of Allon. "Don't worry, Allon. I'll start slow. Wren's been training for a while." "But I...I'm no warrior." Allon wasn't sure how to hold the sword properly. "You don't need to be. That's my job. But it might be useful for you to know some basic defense." Rowan said. "I suppose that's true." "Don't be nervous. I won't let you get hurt." Rowan reassured him. He went much easier on Allon than he did with Wren. As they moved, Rowan instructed him on what to do and occasionally stopped to give Allon demonstrations. Robin stood by Wren to watch them. Now that they were alone, Wren laughed again. He leaned over and whispered something to Robin. Robin's face went bright red. He laughed off what Wren said. "Haha...that did indeed...happen. Why did he tell you about that?" "He told me if I could disarm him a second time, he'd tell me about the most embarrassing thing he'd ever done. I don't think he expected me to actually be able to do it." Wren laughed. "Laugh all you want. To be honest, it was worse for him than me. You should have seen his face. He cried." Robin laughed along with him. "No." "Yes. He cried for at least half an hour." "Not you, but him. He cried." Wren was shocked. "What would you do if you accidentally did that to Lady Rosabella?" Robin asked with a laugh. Wren's face went an even deeper shade of red than Robin's. "I would never!" After Allon's training session was over, Rowan praised him. "You did well today." "I'm sorry. I am exhausted already." He bowed. "That's alright. Will you join us for dinner later, or do you need to go?" Rowan asked. "If-if I'm not imposing..." Allon bowed deeper. Wren put his hand on Allon. "You don't need to gravel to your own brother. We're flesh and blood. Tell him to piss off if you want." "Wren, don't teach him bad manners." Rowan said. "We're about the same age, right? Come eat with me in the garden. Leave the old people to be with themselves." Wren offered him his hand. "Old?!" Rowan yelled. "Excuse me?!" Robin didn't appreciate the comment either. "I'll introduce you to Rosa. But you're sitting on the other side of me." Wren smiled at him. "Ah...what should I do?" Allon looked over at Robin for advice. "Whatever you want." Robin said. Allon nodded and went off with Wren. Rowan watched them. Seeing them get along filled him with happiness, almost enough to push aside the other thoughts in his mind. "You're doing well, all things considered." Robin said. The warmth faded. He sighed. "I'm trying not to think about it." "It's alright. Our time here is running out. You should do whatever it is you want." Robin cupped Rowan's face. Rowan looked into Robin's eyes. The longer he stared, the more he could smell smoke around them and hear screams. He raised his hand to touch Robin's face. On his hand, he saw blood that wasn't there and he stained Robin's skin with that vibrant red. "I know." They ate lunch together and took a long walk in the woods. Robin suggested Rowan shoot for a while, but he wasn't in the mood and Robin was in no condition to. As they went inside, Robin reminded Rowan of something else he could enjoy that day and a promise he needed to fulfill soon. They kissed and parted ways. Late in the evening, Rowan paid a visit to a close friend. He knocked on Luke's door. Luke was shuffling his cards when Rowan came inside. He took a seat across from Luke. "Thank you for playing with me again tonight. I've been asking you to do this a lot lately." Luke said. "Don't worry about that. I enjoy it. I was worried about you when you said you didn't want to come out today. Are you still feeling ill?" Rowan asked. "No, physically, I'm fine. My mind is...in a very strange place right now." Luke dealt the cards. "Strange? In what way?" He asked. "I've been wearing masks for so long, I don't know who I am when I don't have one to wear. I've never really...seen myself clearly. It's vague. I struggle to see myself as anything more than reflection of other people--my mother, my father, my brother, you. I don't know what makes up me at all, and I don't understand the thoughts in my mind right now. What if that's not real either? What if I'm only saying these things to please you?" It was getting easier for them to talk like this. Rowan said, "I don't think you are. From my observations of you, I think you were being honest. It'll take some time, but your confusion and fear will subside. Don't think too deeply on it. Remember the exercise we did this morning? Observe your thoughts, but don't be consumed by them." "That's easier said than done." "I'm not always good at it either, but you should keep trying. Before bed, let's try that breathing exercise again. Once you've mastered that, observing your thoughts will become a little easier to handle. At least, that's how it worked for me. If that doesn't work, we'll try something else." "I still don't understand what you're getting out of this. Seems like a lot of effort to go through." Luke said. "I already answered that before." Rowan placed his cards face down on the table. He took the hand Luke wasn't holding his cards with and kissed it. His actions cheered up Luke a little. "You're such a tease." Rowan only laughed. Luke put his cards down too. He looked at the ground. "Prince, I'm sorry...could you hold me?" "Yes." Rowan got up and walked over to Luke. He hugged him. "Are you alright?" Luke hugged him back. "Tonight...could you let me dream about him?" "Yes." "My nightmares have been very...intense lately. Before you came to my room this morning, I was so sick and terrified from my dream I threw up twice." Luke nuzzled his face into Rowan's shirt. "Do you want to tell me about your dream?" Rowan asked. "I'm afraid to. I don't want to relive that." "Let's play the game. We can talk about your dream another time, if you want. When you're ready to sleep, I'll do the spell so you can see him. Fair warning. I can't guarantee that won't turn into a nightmare too." Rowan said. He could only control some of the elements of the dream. The rest would be up to Luke's own mind. "It won't. I can't say I completely believe you about soulmates, but right now, that doesn't frighten me as much as other things lurking in my mind." Luke unconsciously felt over the place on his shirt that hid the deep scar on his chest. "We should talk about something else while we play." Rowan kissed him on the head before pulling away. He sat back down. Before he picked up his cards, he looked at the symbol on Luke's shirt. "The rook--is that an animal you associated with yourself or was that cast upon you?" "It wasn't me, but I do like the birds. They're clever things. I watched the ones that live near the tower a lot when I'd sit out there." Luke said. The old tower typically had many rooks roaming about it. "You know, I'm rather fond of birds myself. My mother's always had her dogs, but I used to have a pair of pet crows when I was a child. They both lived pretty long, about nine years, before they died within a few weeks of each other. I don't really have time to keep a pet anymore, but I do love their company." Rowan said. "It is far too easy for me to imagine you walking around with a pair of crows following behind." Luke smiled while he imagined it. "They did, everywhere. I miss them sometimes even now. They both died when I was seventeen, a little after the war started. Mother took care of them while I was away, but she told me they seemed sad when I was gone. I wasn't home for either of their deaths. Mother kept some of their feathers for me before she buried them." Rowan thought back on his long gone friends. He found them in a fallen nest beside two dead adult crows the same year Robin came to live with him. He never knew what happened to the parents. Robin helped him take care of them, as he knew far more about birds than anyone in the kingdom and could speak to them. He loved them. When he got word of their deaths, he cursed himself for taking them in rather than letting nature take its course. Looking back, he understood his cold reaction then was merely him hiding his pain. "That's unfortunate timing. When the war's over, would you want another bird?" Luke asked. "I'd want a magpie, I think. They're very beautiful. But a rook might be nice. They are also very beautiful." Rowan teased him. "For someone who loudly proclaims about true love endlessly, you are quite a flirt." Luke said. "My apologies. You bring out the worst in me." Rowan said. The two of them were so involved in their conversation, they forgot about the game. "What would your dear knight think if he heard you say such things?" Luke teased him back. "You know I'm not being serious." "I know." Luke ran his fingers over the design on the back of his cards. "I heard word from Eider earlier that the red king is planning to fight again soon." "Yes, so it seems." Rowan paused. "Oh, so Eider finally visited you." "I gave him an earful for avoiding me." Luke tapped his fingers on the cards. "Did he offer you a drink?" Rowan asked. "Actually, no. He was half drunk though. Kept babbling on about his wife. I couldn't understand half of what he said." Luke became more serious. "About Ruaidhrí, how easily do you think we can take him down?" Rowan's tone shifted to match Luke's. "He's weaker than me, and his guard dog is about my strength. I would say we should be able to defeat him in time, but something's off about him." Luke looked up at Rowan. "You think so too?" "Not only that, but I've heard rumors about Ruaidhrí, that his father made a deal with Death himself to keep him." Rowan leaned forward. "Oh? I haven't heard that one." Luke leaned in too. "They say that King Fionn was desperate to have a son after his wife had several miscarriages. When one came out a still born and Death arrived to take the child's soul, he made a bargain." Rowan lowered his voice. "He asked Death to take his wife instead and give the remainder of her life to the baby. Death agreed. The mother died as the baby came to life, and with his first breath, the infant's hair turned blood red as a sign of his father's sin." "That's disturbing, but how would anyone know this happened? Was a servant in the room?" Luke was quick to throw some skepticism in such an extravagant claim. Rowan continued. "Supposedly, he tried to offer a servant's life as well, but Death would only exchange one soul for another. They say that's why King Ruaidhrí is so cold a person, from the cold hands of Death." "Quite the tale, but I seriously doubt any of it's true. He does have quite...unusual hair, but there's probably also a natural explanation. Superstitious silliness." Luke straightened up in his seat. "I have one for you that has more plausibility to it, about Ruaidhrí's loyal knight Sir Llywelyn. I heard this one from a man whose wife worked for Llywelyn's father, Sir Olcán, for several years." "What did he say about him?" Rowan asked. Luke recounted his tale. "Seems he's likely a changeling. The man's wife helped care for Llywelyn when he was a child. He was found wandering around in the woods alone, and he bares a mark on his back of rowan flowers. They suspected the mark acted as a seal to hide his true form. The man's wife thought the boy forgot what he was, but all of those who encountered him as a child were instantly charmed by him." "I suspect that story is very much true. Don't tell Robin this. He'll want to meet with the man. But the last time we fought, I think I saw it--his real form. It was brief, but I definitely saw something that was not human." Rowan whispered his words. "Really? What did he really look like?" Luke found himself whispering to match Rowan. Rowan got lost in his thoughts while recalling that event. "Even more handsome than usual, especially his hair. Such a beautiful, golden shade." Luke raised an eyebrow. "Do you...have a preference for blonds?" "You have no idea. But Llywelyn's a little thin for my tastes." "Thin? He's a little more slender built than me, but he isn't exactly lacking in muscle either." Luke said. "Eh, I like more muscle than that. Robin's perfect. Especially from behind. I could..." Rowan's mind wandered somewhere very unrelated. Luke cleared his throat. "Can we get back on topic?" "Right. Well, he mostly looked human-like, but he had strange ears and eyes, and he had wings. The wings reminded me of a dragonfly." Rowan said. "Huh. So that was true after all." "Seems that way." Rowan looked down at the table. "Ah...speaking of being off topic, we haven't even started playing yet..." The game went by quickly, but they both enjoyed themselves. Luke's mood improved as they played. When it was over, Rowan congratulated Luke. "You've won again, Luke." "I've been playing this a lot longer than you." Luke collected up his cards and shuffled them once more before putting them aside. Rowan looked at the big clock in the room. He got up. "It's getting late. I suppose it's about time." "For what?" Luke asked. "Just a moment. I'll be back." Rowan left. He returned with something large wrapped up in a cloth. He placed what he brought on the table. Luke looked it over. "What's this?" "A present." Rowan said. "Another one? Why are you showering me with gifts lately?" Luke was slightly embarrassed. "Today's the eleventh of November, isn't it?" Rowan asked. "Yes." "Happy twenty-seventh birthday." Rowan hugged him from behind. Luke's eyes watered. He blinked several times to disguise his reaction while his palms sweated. "You remembered? I'm sorry...I forgot when your birthday is again...I'm terrible with dates...I know you told me again recently...March...?" "It's March seventh, seven days before Robin's." "Oh, I thought Wren was the other one born in March." Luke discretely wiped the edges of his eyes as he pretended to move hair out of his face. "His is the seventeenth." "You're...all born in March?!" Luke blurted out. Rowan shrugged. "Lady Rosa and Wren have the same birthday even." "That's...ridiculous." Rowan moved around to the other side of the table and pushed the cloth toward Luke. "Enough about that. Don't you want to see what your gift is?" Luke looked down at the cloth. He was hesitant to open it. He didn't know what to expect. When he realized what was inside, his eyes widened. "A bow..." Luke held up the bow. He looked down at the other related contents of the cloth. The arm guard caught his attention next. "This arm guard...it looks like yours." "Yes, but yours is a rook instead of a raven." Rowan said. "There's a rook carved on the bow too...and there's one on the quiver. It's beautiful...How much did this cost you? Whoever made this, spent a lot of time on it..." Luke examined every piece, from the glove down to every single arrow. Rowan had a big grin on his face before he revealed his source. "It didn't cost me anything but time." Luke immediately looked over at Rowan in shock. "You?!" "I really love archery. It's only natural I'd want to make my own equipment." He beamed with pride. "Robin's is my work too." Luke noticed something on the bow. "What's this stone?" "That's from Robin. It's a protection stone. If you are touching water and holding that bow, no one can harm you." Rowan explained. "Oddly specific. Wouldn't it be better if none could harm me regardless?" Luke examined it more closely. "Robin's magic isn't that powerful. You'd have to ask a great sorcerer for that. It's either the stone or a flower, but the lyre flower I gave you will only protect you once." "Thank you for this." Luke put the bow back down on the table. He wanted to hug Rowan again, but he was too embarrassed to. "I've never received a birthday present before." "Do you like your gifts?" Rowan asked. "Yes." Luke was overwhelmed with happiness. Not once had anyone ever celebrated his birthday with him. "Where is my brother?" "Cooking. He should be along shortly with your cake." Luke's eyes were full of light. He smiled at Rowan and spoke with a soft voice. "Thank you, for everything." Shortly after that, Robin came to the room with several others in tow to celebrate. Rowan was not the only one to bring him a gift that night. When it was late and everyone was going off to their own rooms, Rowan stayed behind. As promised, he performed the sleeping spell on Luke to give him the dream he wanted. Before falling asleep, Luke thanked him once more. The night that brought so much happiness for one carried only dread for another. The red king put on his thick gloves. He sat down by the fireplace. Above him, the symbol of a crimson serpent coiled around itself on a banner of black. The room was warmer than the hottest summer day. Ruaidhrí moved closer to the fire, freezing cold. His loyal knight, Llywelyn, knelt down behind him to place the king's heavy cloak on his shoulders. "Are you cold?" He asked. "Llywelyn, I am always cold." He fastened the cloak onto the king properly. The king's blood red hair fell just above his shoulders, the mark of his father's crime. Llywelyn placed his hand on the king's shoulder. "We'll win." Ruaidhrí didn't respond to him. He watched the fire. "My time is running out." "I won't let anything happen to you." Llywelyn tried to get the king to look at him, but he kept his gaze upon the flames. Llywelyn spoke with more conviction. "I won't let Death have you." "There's nothing you can do." Ruaidhrí pulled the cloak around himself tighter. In the fire, he saw the flames paint his nightmares in flickering sparks. A trick of his mind, but that did nothing to quell his terror. "I know it. Upon the snow, the raven will spill my blood." "No," Llywelyn said. He embraced his king from behind and whispered, "I am your protector from Death." The knight's unnaturally golden hair fell over the king's shoulder's in a long braid. Through the thick cloak and heavy clothes he wore, the king noticed only one warmth. Llywelyn's body heat radiated through everything, hotter than the fire before him. Ruaidhrí took hold of Llywelyn's braid and wrapped it around like a noose. He laughed. "You're a fool."
XII. Snowfall