IX. Moonlight

Lewis met with his mother and youngest brother in private. He didn't tell them the reason for meeting. They were the only members of his immediate family at the castle. His other brothers were fighting with Silvanus and his sisters lived elsewhere. His mother, Francesca, took a seat by a fireplace, completely at ease. Hollis sat opposite his mother, just as carefree. Behind Lewis, the servant he brought with him shut the door. With a deep breath, Lewis said the words he never wanted to utter. "Father is dead." His mother jumped up out of her chair. Her skin went ghost white. For a moment, she only gazed at him with empty eyes before the tears flowed from them. "What?! No, no he can't be...How?" "Looked like poison." Lewis did not want to recall how he saw his father last. In some ways, he was glad it was him and only a handful of servants. At the very least, his father could be spared from everyone seeing him in such a humiliating state. "Servant, bring me the pouch." "Yes, your highness." The servant handed him the bag. Lewis took it and held it up to his mother and brother. "This was found in the room. This is Philip's crest. The servant who served us this morning is missing." Hollis, who had not reacted at all to the news, calmly said, "Such a simple trick...Philip is a cowardly man, or very desperate." "My dear...you can't be gone..." Francesca sunk down on the floor with her head in her hands. "Mother..." Lewis walked over to her and put his hand on her shoulder. "Shh, I will keep us safe now." Francesca grabbed on to his shoulders. Her face was bright red and her eyes puffy. When she spoke, her voice moved between a whisper and a scream. "Where is he now? I must see him!" "Mother, seeing him as he is...may be more than you can handle...perhaps you should wait until the funeral..." Lewis tried to stop her. "No! I need to see him! I cannot believe he is gone until I see it with my own eyes! He can't be!" Francesca had always been loyal and faithful to her husband. She didn't know him well before their wedding, but she found him charming and handsome when they first met and he treated her kindly over the years. She did everything to be the best wife she could be to him. It was far too soon for him to leave her behind. Lewis sighed. There was no persuading her. "Servant, take my mother to where they are preparing Father." "Yes, your highness. My dear queen, please follow me. I will show him to you." The servant bowed to her. Francesca wiped her face off and followed the servant out of the room. The tears would not stop no matter how hard she tried to hold them back. After she left, Lewis continued. "My coronation will be held at the soonest possible date. There's no time for me to mourn now. I can mourn him later. Protecting the kingdom is my absolute priority. Hollis, I'm not going to go easy on you like Father did. I need every man to help." "I don't care what you want. I'm not fighting for you. This isn't my battle." Hollis got up from his chair and faced the fireplace. "This is everyone's battle." Lewis walked over to stand beside him. "No, it's Father's and he paid the price for starting it." Hollis's eyes never left the flames. "How dare you! Can you not put aside your pettiness for a moment out of respect for the dead?" Lewis grabbed Hollis. He forced Hollis to face him. Hollis glared at his brother. "I didn't respect him when he was alive. Him being dead changes nothing. I'm not fighting." Lewis slapped his brother hard across the face. "Hollis, for once in your life, can you do anything of value?" Hollis didn't flinch. His glare at his brother only deepened. "And if we all die? What then? Use some sense. I'm the least fit to fight and someone needs to stay and watch the castle. If the lot of you end up dead and those three armies are at our gate, I'm negotiating our surrender so that the rest of the people here don't get slaughtered." Lewis knew better, his brother having always been an embarrassment to the family, but he tried hard to convince himself Hollis was merely acting out due to stress and sadness. He let the issue go for the moment. "Fine. Worthless little shit. Do something productive in the meantime and find yourself a wife at least." "I'm not marrying." Hollis snapped. "I don't have time to argue with you. Unless I come back and you're in a priest's robe, you will be marrying whatever woman I chose for you." He was fed up with being around his brother. Lewis walked over to the door. "Ruaidhrí better be ready. And you, since you're not doing anything, you can write my orders to our brothers. Writing is about the only thing you can do, isn't it?" "I'll write whatever you want. Now, leave me be." "Gladly." Lewis slammed the door behind him. A wicked part of him considered pouring the rest of his father's drink into his bratty brother's. There was no time to dwell on petty thoughts. He had far too many things to do and too little time to do them in. Lewis paused by a window in the hall and looked out at the people down below. Every one of them was now his responsibility. He wasn't going to allow the kingdom to look weak even for a moment. Revenge on Philip would be swift and merciless. Over the course of two weeks, a funeral was held for Brion and Lewis was officially crowned king. His brothers, Collin and Mark, were not in attendance for either event. They stayed away to keep fighting. Two of his sisters were also not in attendance for the funeral, as there was not enough time for them to arrive before then. Black clothing was sent to the brothers who were away, and the rest of the family donned the same color. Lewis didn't stay long after his coronation. He gathered up the men near his castle and called back some of those fighting Silvanus to join him in destroying Philip. It was risky to do so. It would have been wiser to crush Silvanus first and join Ruaidhrí afterwards, but Lewis's mind was only filled with anger and rage. He led his men onward while Hollis watched him depart from his tower. "To choose death, that is the weakness of man. No other creature on this earth flocks so willingly to the cold, emptiness of a sepulchre. Goodbye, Brother. In this life, we will never speak again and I will stay dressed in darkness." Hollis turned away from the sight. He didn't care for his brother nor his father, but their deaths terrified him. He knew defeat was inevitable. The aftermath of that he feared more than anything. If he was lucky, he could save himself. In that moment, Hollis could only envision himself being led up a scaffold or run through by men in brilliant armor. To ease his mind, he buried himself in writing and sought to forget the world outside his tower. Elsewhere, in Argus's castle, a messenger came to deliver a pair of letters to Luke. He didn't expect to receive two letters. Luke presumed two of his mother's letters were simply reaching him late. After dismissing the messenger, Luke went to his room to read them in private. The first letter was from Eider. 'To my good old buddy, How go things? Make any progress with the prince? Things have been good between Fleur and me. I've been spending more time with the boys, but they still only want to talk about your water horse of a brother. I don't have any good stories to tell, they say. I've got plenty of stories. They just ain't old enough to hear 'em! Got a bit of bad news. Seems my father wants me to fight with him now. Don't know why now of all times. He never wanted to be around me before. I won't be home for a while. Our next night out will have to wait a while. You better keep yourself alive to be there! -Eider' "Worried?" Luke joked. "I won't die so easily." Luke put the letter aside. He would write his reply after he finished the next letter. The next one was not from his mother either. He recognized the handwriting immediately though he had not seen it in many years. Unconsciously, he gripped the edges of the parchment as a burning sensation rose inside him. Before he read a single word, he considered throwing it away. Reluctantly, he read the letter anyway. There was no salutation at the beginning. 'I don't know if your mother has written to you about this, but I wanted to ensure you are aware of the current situation. Your mother's husband died recently. As you already know, your mother has few relatives and she is not on good terms with them. After her husband's death, they refused to take her in. She did not want to bother you, so she asked for me to help her guarantee her home would not be taken from her. I've seen to the matter through another for obvious reasons. I had offered her a more dignified living space, but she declined. She preferred I aid her with money instead as she doesn't want to live away from that place by the river. I know that you also send her money. If you would like, I can send her double what she asked for so that you don't have to anymore, or you can continue on as things were if you'd prefer that instead. You've always been more like your mother. Respond whenever you have time. I'll likely still be out here fighting, so send the messenger that way.' His father did not sign the letter nor leave any typical remarks one would expect. Luke ripped the letter in half and tossed it on the floor. He couldn't believe his mother would ask that man for help before him. 'Do you hate me that much, Mother?' Luke slouched in his chair. He remember something. The letter he sent her, she likely had read it by now. 'Is it because of that?' He pictured his mother in that old, small house writing a letter to his father for help. He couldn't imagine the amount of shame and humiliation that would have consumed her to have to beg a man who repeatedly violated her. Luke's last letter to her contained all of his feelings, and an option. If she chose so, they could end their letter exchanging. He thought she would at least give him a final response, but Luke took the recent events to mean she didn't plan on it. He wanted to write something to her, and more than that he wanted to see her. Without her word in response, he would not. Luke wrote a short reply to his father and had a messenger deliver more money to his mother. He forced a cheery tone in his response to Eider. When he left the room, he wandered out to the archery range in hopes of finding Rowan. No one was there. Luke tried shooting by himself. As he drew the bow back, he wondered why he was bothering. He let the arrow fly and watched it land in the center of one of the targets. "Good shot." Rowan tapped him on the shoulder from behind. Luke, caught off guard, turned around and jumped back. He hadn't heard anyone approaching from behind him. "When did you get here?" "Just now." Rowan said. "I saw you were getting ready to shoot, so I tried to be very quiet." "Oh, well, it didn't help any." Luke sighed. "What do you mean?" "I was aiming for the target to the left of that one." Luke handed Rowan the bow. "I don't think I'll ever be good at this." "You will in time. I've made worse shots, trust me." Rowan put the bow away. He positioned himself and raised his own bow. "Is something bothering you? Your mind seems distracted." Luke hesitated in responding. He didn't want to look weak or admit he cared about anything. Rowan knew his secrets though. If he kept his words free of emotional response, he might be able to let a little of it out. The previous time they spoke about personal matters, Rowan tried to comfort him. Rowan's pity was the last thing he wanted right then. To protect himself from that, he moved away from Rowan and sat down before responding. "I received a letter from my father. My mother's husband died recently." "I'm sorry. Do you need to return home?" Rowan asked. "No, my father has already dealt with everything." Luke watched Rowan's form. He looked for any changes as a warning to guard himself further. He almost laughed at himself for the wall he was placing between them. On any other day, he would be the one trying to close the distance between them. Rowan lowered the bow and turned back to him. "Have you heard nothing from her?" "Nothing yet." Luke waited for Rowan's next move. Rowan gave him a sad look. He did not move closer as Luke expected. Rowan stared down at his bow and motioned for Luke to come to him. He put his bow down and picked up the one Luke had been using. "Let me give you another lesson. It'll keep your mind focused on something else for a while." "If you want..." Luke cautiously approached Rowan. His mind was more overwhelmed than he expected. Luke followed Rowan's commands closely to minimize their interactions. He wanted to flirt with Rowan to make things seem normal, but he didn't have it in him. His words only came out awkwardly, and that awkwardness in turn made him more overwhelmed. When Rowan would touch him occasionally to help with his form, Luke unconsciously flinched. His body stayed in a confused state of desire and terror. When Rowan noticed how Luke was reacting, he kept his touch lighter and less frequent. To keep his composure, he didn't focus on the target before him. He only saw that beautiful, lonely tower. He imagined locking himself away inside where no one could reach him and staying hidden away at the top. Luke had never been inside that tower, but the interior of it was easy for him to imagine. In his mind, the top room would be cold and dark, but he knew he would feel warm there. That, he was certain of. There was something warm hidden away there even if he didn't know what it was. He hated working for Philip, he hated living at that castle, and he hated visiting the land he inherited from his father. He didn't want to be reminded of anything related to any of that anymore. Rowan likely would never return his affection in the way he wanted, but there was a warmth radiating from Rowan that made him feel almost able to put aside his mask and show his real self he buried long ago. He hated to admit it, but his brother had a similar warmth. The kindness from them stirred an uncomfortable envy in him. The tower was more suited to him than the bright lights of the sun and moon. For all the blood and dirt Argus forced those two to paint upon themselves, underneath they remained pure and uncorrupted by the world around them. Nothing was permanent though. In time, Rowan and Robin would both break under that weight as he already had. Imagining it infuriated him. Without realizing it, Luke's thoughts had long strayed from his anger at his father and the pain his mother caused him. There were too many things spinning inside him. He wanted to shut everything out and reach that warmth at the top of the tower. They spent an hour together practicing, but Luke's shots were inconsistent no matter what Rowan tried. "That's enough for now. You're getting worn out." Rowan pulled out the arrows for Luke on his last round of shots. "Robin should have lunch ready by now." Exhausted, Luke nodded. As Rowan passed him, Luke noticed something off about him as well. "So Prince, what is it that's on your mind?" Rowan stopped immediately. "Oh, you noticed? Things aren't going well with Wren right now. We haven't really talked to each other since his birthday, but I'm sure we'll come to some sort of arrangement soon." "I see." Luke laughed under his breath. 'You're on guard today too, huh?' "It's nothing to worry about. It's the same issue as before." Rowan shrugged. "I can smack some sense into him, if you'd like." Luke joked. He wasn't sure how to handle the situation. Rowan laughed at the thought. "That won't be necessary. After lunch, do you think you could teach me something?" Luke's earlier scattered thoughts all fell away. His full attention was on Rowan. "What sort of thing?" "I heard from Wren and Lady Rosa you taught them how to play some card games. I'm a little jealous. I've never played with cards before. Do you think you could show me how to play?" Rowan was telling the truth. He was jealous, but more that Wren knew how to do something he didn't than him spending time with Luke. He knew how Luke would interpret his words, however, and he wanted Luke to get precisely that out of it. If he couldn't cheer him up with his bow, something more in line with Luke's own interests might work. "Really? Jealous? Then how can I not oblige your request?" Luke was starting to feel relaxed again. He leaned in closer than Rowan typically allowed him. "Perhaps I can show you some games I didn't show them...with more adult rules..." Rowan didn't move away from him. He looked Luke straight in the eyes and grinned. "That sounds like fun. I'll make sure to invite Robin to play along with us." "You're too cruel, Prince." Luke wanted to be mad at Rowan for his constant teasing, but he was too lost in his desire to please him to care. The two of them headed back to the castle. While they were returning, Eider was preparing to depart from his home. His father had sent a letter requesting Eider aid him and Silvanus's men. Knowing he could not refuse his father's wishes, he prepared himself. Eider had never fought a battle alongside his father before. He always had the luxury of following behind Prince Rowan, who let him do as he pleased. His father, he was certain, would be expecting Eider to do his share of fighting. As he stood outside his home, he wondered if this would be the last time he saw it. Eider didn't inform his sons he was leaving, afraid he might let his worry show in front of them. He didn't need them thinking any less of him than they already did. Fleur walked with him for a while outside. When their home was barely in view, Eider kissed her. "I'll return soon." "Please be careful." Fleur hugged him, resting her head against him. "Will you be alright being around him?" "I don't have a choice. I'll have to manage, somehow." Eider could see down the back of his wife's dress. The scar on her back pained him. That mark had been there since the first year of their marriage. He could still see the mirror he pushed her into breaking around her and the fresh, deep red blooming across the light blue dress she wore that night. Her voice became as soft as a dove's after that night. He kissed her forehead. "If you hear word of me doing something evil, please forgive me. I don't think I can stand up to him yet." "I know." She whispered to him. "I am sorry. Take care of the boys while I'm gone." Eider pulled away and mounted his horse. Fleur waved goodbye. Eider took one last look at her before heading on. Two weeks after then, Argus received a message from Philip requesting immediate aid. Luke also received a letter to return. Argus briefed Rowan on the situation and sent his men out the following day. Wren didn't see them off this time. He had been avoiding Rowan since his birthday. Luke was not looking forward to going back to Philip's. A foolish thought entered his head. He considered asking Rowan to let him serve him. Pursuing Rowan further would likely only end in defeat, but he didn't want to leave his side yet. Luke glanced over at Rowan riding beside him. At Rowan's other side was his brother, as always. Robin had the same dazed look he usually did when riding. Luke ignored him. He took out something he was carrying underneath his armor, the rose Rowan gave him before. Not a single petal had faded or fallen from it. The golden color was as vibrant as ever. There was no explanation for it other than magic. "What are you looking at?" Rowan asked. "The rose you gave me hasn't wilted." Luke showed him the flower. The word "rose" caught Robin's attention. He shot a suspicious glare at Luke. "What? A rose?" "It was a token of friendship." Rowan quickly said to calm Robin down. "What do you mean it hasn't? I gave that to you on my birthday. That can't be..." "It is." Luke handed it over to Rowan. Rowan stared down at it. He couldn't tell one rose from another. Rowan handed it over to Robin for him to inspect. Robin felt the energy of the flower. A magical energy encased it and he knew the spell to accomplish it. This type of magic mixed water and earth. He could produce the same results, but he preferred magic that focused on water more than growing plants. His mother was fond of this trick as a gift to calm lost children or impress pretty women. The magic itself had a roughness about it, very unlike the magic his mother performed. 'Did Rowan really do this?' Robin handed the rose back to Rowan. "This flower does have a spell on it. How did you do this? I've never taught you any magic." Rowan passed the flower back to Luke. "I'm not sure...Something strange did happen that day, but I didn't think it affected anything..." "What happened?" Robin asked. "I hummed part of a song I've heard you sing before and everything just suddenly felt more...alive? It felt like it might rain too, but it didn't. I stopped when I noticed things where strange." Rowan had almost forgotten about the event. What happened between him and Luke afterwards stood out far more in his mind. "That...shouldn't have..." The songs Robin's mother taught him were for calming or inducing sleep. What Rowan described made no sense to him. 'Unless...he calmed himself to such a state he could perform magic with little thought...but he would have to be naturally gifted for that. Surely I would have noticed by now...' "Oh, even you are perplexed? Prince, what secrets are you hiding?" Luke hid the flower back underneath his armor. "Rowan, I want to try some things later..." Robin's face was filled with excitement. "That look is worrying...I don't know what I did, but I'm really not interested in learning magic. Unless you can make me shoot a bow better, I don't really have a need for that." Rowan joked. An idea flashed in Robin's mind. "Actually, that may be possible." "What?" Rowan raised an eyebrow at him. "I have an idea...how about this battle, you start off with using your bow? Luke, I'll need your help for this too." He could already picture everything in his head. Robin was so excited he almost forgot why they were traveling. "Now you're roping me into this? I didn't do any magic." Luke was taken aback at that. He almost considered writing his mother another letter despite her not replying to him, as he knew she would want to hear about any magical doings. He crushed that thought quickly. "I don't need you too. I need you as a shield." Robin said. "What?!" Luke only stared at his brother. 'What the hell is he planning?' "I assure you what you will witness will be well worth the risk." Robin said with a big grin. "For some reason, I doubt that." Luke had no idea what was coming next, but he was already regretting mentioning the rose. Rowan was a little curious, if only because Robin promised him it would involve his bow. Robin didn't elaborate any further on his plans for the rest of the trip, but remained absurdly happy the rest of the way. At their destination, not far from King Philip's castle, Philip and Ruaidhrí's armies were in the midst of battle. Ruaidhrí managed to push Philip's army closer to the castle. Unlike Brion's other allies, Ruaidhrí didn't involved himself in many battles since becaming king. He was preoccupied the last few years dealing with other conflicts at the furthest edge of his lands. Out of all Brion's original allies, he was the youngest, still in his early twenties. Due to his lack of experience and issues at his borders, no one considered him a major threat. With Brion's other allies gone, Philip presumed Ruaidhrí likely wouldn't interfere at this point. This presumption proved to be wrong. Ruaidhrí never thought well of Brion, but he understood why he needed to fight Philip. Philip was an ally of Argus, for now. If Argus wasn't stopped, he knew his kingdom would be targeted soon enough, even if he kept himself out of the final part of the war. Argus was always wanting more. Ruaidhrí stood back on a hill and looked down across the battlefield. The land was drenched in blood and littered with ripped flesh and broken armor. He thought he sensed Death himself walking amongst the dismembered corpses come to haul away what was left of life. He wondered how long it would be before it was his turn. After all, it was still foolish to fight. No one had ever stopped Argus from taking anything. "King Ruaidhrí, I've come." A man rode up beside him. It was Lewis. Ruaidhrí hadn't received any word about his coming. It made no sense for him to be there. "What the hell are you doing here? I don't need your help. If you're going to split off from your brothers, then go deal with Argus. That's not what your father and I..." "My father is dead." Lewis cut him off. "What?" "He's been assassinated." Lewis dismounted his horse. "I don't care what plans you had with him. We're taking out Philip immediately. I'm not letting this war go on for another year." "You should've stayed home. Your kingdom looks weak right now. Argus is surely..." Lewis interrupted him again. "He wasn't the one who sent the assassin. Philip did. I want my revenge." "Revenge for what? You attacking them first and him getting you back for it?" Ruaidhrí gave him no pity. "Don't come up in here all high and mighty when your father started this war. I'm only here because your father and my father were allies, and I know Argus will come after me next. Cross me and that won't last for long. Don't forget. You have no other allies left." "How dare you!" Lewis yelled. Before Ruaidhrí could respond, he was interrupted again. One of his knights, Llywelyn, rushed up the hill. "Your majesty, I need to tell you something." "Llywelyn, it can wait." Ruaidhrí waved for him to leave. "No, it can't. This is urgent." Llywelyn wouldn't budge. "What is it?" Ruaidhrí asked with a groan. Llywelyn took a deep breath. "Philip's called for help. The Bloody Raven is here." "Shit." Ruaidhrí turned back to Lewis and gave him a fake smile with a glare. "Well then, you must stay now." "I'll kill him too." Lewis drew his sword. He didn't care who came. There weren't enough men on the battlefield to satisfy his bloodlust and need for revenge. "Is that so?" Ruaidhrí saw Lewis's irrationality as a convenient shield for the time being. With a smug look, he said, "Llywelyn, we'll leave the demonic pair to King Lewis here. I want you to stay near me." "Yes, my king." Llywelyn bowed slightly. Ruaidhrí moved down the hill to return to fighting. "Don't go dying on me so easily, King Lewis." "Same to you, you vile little serpent." Lewis muttered under his breath. 'When I'm done with them, I'll rid myself of you as well.' One of Lewis's men approached him from behind. "My king, everyone is in position. Should we begin with firing the canons?" "Yes. I want to see them all destroyed." Lewis grinned, imagining his enemies falling one by one. Hidden behind trees, Rowan, Luke, and Robin watched the battle from atop a cliff. "Now, why are we up here? We should be looking for Martin." Rowan watched the men below fighting. "I wanted to see if I can teach you a little fire magic." Robin said. "You can do magic with fire?" Luke asked. "Well, only a bit. I didn't really practice it much when I was little. I liked making rainstorms more." His understanding of fire magic was very weak, but he could still create small flames if he wanted to. "What is with your obsession with rain? I thought that fairy who raised you was a river spirit, not some storm creature." Luke said. "It's because it's always raining in my mind." Robin didn't bother explaining. It wasn't something someone raised by humans would comprehend. Luke narrowed his eyes. "What on earth does that mean?" "It means he's talking nonsense. Robin, are you going to show me this magic thing or not? This is a battle." Rowan was growing impatient. "I know that. Let's start." Robin took a moment to clear his mind. He concentrated on feeling the energy of fire. He opened his palm and held it up. A small flame floated above it. "This is the best I can do, myself. This is why I tend to say I only do water magic, because it is the only magic I have mostly mastered. Something this basic is not hard. If you can make plants grow--a form of combined earth, light, and water magic--then you can do this. First, draw your bow. Empty your mind and focus on your form as you normally would when shooting." Rowan did as Robin said. "What now? Should I nock my arrow yet?" "Yes." Robin tried to calm himself. He was getting too excited to keep his own thoughts focused. "I don't see how this is going to work. What am I setting on fire? My arrow? If I'm going to do that, I should alter it first and about the distance, I..." Rowan waited before getting an arrow from his quiver. "You're not focusing. Nock your arrow." Robin repeated his instruction. Luke almost laughed at Rowan. Seeing this side of them both amused him. "Fine." Rowan nocked his arrow. "Now what?" "Before you raise your bow and draw, I want you to focus your thoughts on fire and your arrow. Try to make your mind how it was when you did magic last time." "But I'm not sure what I did. I wasn't really thinking about anything but that song and happy things." Rowan knew he wasn't concentrating on anything then. He was more absent-minded than anything else. "Then think of...." Robin had another idea. "Think of times you were happy. Mix that with your thoughts about fire and the arrow." Rowan started with that song and a memory he had of Robin singing. He thought of times when they would sneak off down to the river and kiss, coming back home soaking wet from a storm Robin started, the stupid, anxious excitement he felt the entirety of Robin's nineteenth birthday. He wanted to feel that way again, that freedom he had then. Nothing was complicated the way it was now. He wanted to give that feeling back to Robin too. Instinctively, he raised his bow and drew back. The tip of his arrow engulfed itself in a ball of fire. Luke couldn't keep his eyes off it. Robin was too excited to breathe. The flame didn't travel down the shaft. It stayed in place, not changing in the slightest. Rowan aimed down and shot. Without a word, Rowan nocked a second arrow and created another fire, and again after that arrow was shot. Robin kept quiet to not disturb Rowan's concentration. The first arrow hit one of the men near Lewis. Lewis stared up, looking for the origin. He thought one of the the enemy archers had misfired. He expected flame would be aimed elsewhere to be most effective, not wasted on men fighting openly. Further away, the second arrow hit far closer to its target, setting Ruaidhrí's cape ablaze. "What the fuck?!" Ruaidhrí removed his cape. "What was that?" Llywelyn asked just as a third arrow passed right by his face. He jumped back as it passed. "Arrows?" "From up there. We've got a strange archer on our hands." Ruaidhrí picked up the arrow that hit his cape. It carried nothing on it that would suggest it was for such a purpose and had no signs of burning on it whatsoever. "Magic? Lewis! Send some of your men up to that cliff. We have a sorcerer to get rid of." From the top of the cliff, Rowan kept shooting until he was out of arrows. He brought more with him than he typically would into battle. His bow's draw weight was starting to get to him, and his energy felt far more drained from him than seemed right. In battle, he was always a swordsman, first and foremost, and an archer second. Though he dressed more as an archer, as he couldn't shoot well in heavy armor, the compromise between the two left him not at his absolute best for either. With light armor, he was more vulnerable in close combat and his typical placement on the field left him few opportunities to use his bow. Rowan, as crown prince, couldn't go into battle solely as an archer. He felt bitterness at that. He wanted to keep shooting. Despite his exhaustion, he looked back at Robin and asked, "Did you bring any extra arrows? I think I can shoot a few more." "No, I didn't, but you should stop. You've shot plenty already, and you were using magic the entire time. Aren't you exhausted?" Robin went over to him and lowered Rowan's bow. "I'm fine." Rowan lied. 'So, it is from the magic...I need to get stronger.' "That's enough magic for now." Robin took the bow from Rowan's hand. He could see it in Rowan's eyes that if he didn't, Rowan would find a way to get more arrows and push himself too far with this new skill. He unstrung the bow. "We should find Martin now." "He's right. You can't use all your strength up. You still have to use your sword too." Luke put his hand on Rowan's shoulder. "Though it was a very impressive display. I'd like to see it again some day." "Then maybe I can finally get you to pay attention when I give you lessons." Rowan laughed as he caught his breath. Robin stared down at the bow in his hand. He could sense the magic that coursed through it when Rowan held it. The sensation was unique, as any magic cast was to its caster. He could feel a little of Rowan's energy mixed in with the lingering remnants of the fire's energy. When he held that bow and let that energy flow across his hands, it stirred something inside himself--a feeling he hadn't experienced in a long time. It wasn't quite like the sensation he felt the first time he saw Rowan. That had been more of a strong current he couldn't escape from. This felt more like a summer memory from when he was fifteen and meeting with Rowan's eyes made him lose his words without reason. He glanced up at Rowan, wondering what it was that was unlocking this magic inside him. In the last nineteen years, not once had he sensed any magical leanings about Rowan and Rowan rejected his offerings to teaching him before. Something must have changed. Robin looked over at his brother and remembered the rose. 'Is it because of you?' Robin kept his thoughts to himself. "They've brought more canons than last time." Luke said. "Yes, it appears so. I wish I had that kind of money to spend." Rowan noticed something at the edge of the forest to the lower west of them. Several holy men gathered around, guarded by soldiers. In the center of them, Prince James stood. Rowan blinked and looked again, not believing what he saw was real. "What's going on over there? Isn't that Prince James?" Luke immediately looked over. He recognized James right away. "Why would King Philip allow him to be this close to a battle?" Down below, the holy men chanted around James. The oldest one gave James a wooden cup to drink from. The taste was awful, a horrid flavor of metallic earth and blood. It was so cold it nearly burned him. He struggled to not throw it back up. When the substance settled in his body, a warmness surged through his veins. He touched a guard's sword. It morphed and melted upon his thought's command. James took no enjoyment out of the act. "Father sends me off to be sinful for the kingdom. How ironic." "Prince, do not worry. We will cleanse you and lock away that curse of yours again once this is over. Please endure this wickedness for a little while. Your kingdom needs you." "This amulet will expand your power. You won't need to touch with this, only think." One of the men placed a leather necklace with a cross shaped hematite stone hanging from it. The stone glowed when it came in contact with James's body. "Can't you get rid of this? I'm no different than that bastard demon the heathen prince keeps. No, I'm worse." James felt sick looking at the cross at his chest. "It is not your fault, Prince. Blame that wicked beast that cursed your mother. Be grateful that we can contain it and that your father had that scaled monster slain. For now, dear prince, endure it. God will forgive you for your sins." The oldest man said. James only looked at the burning light hanging around his neck. "Let's get this over with." James closed his eyes and held his hands up. On the enemy's side, all cannon fire and arrows stopped. Men dropped their weapons and fell to the ground, writhing in agony as their armor burned them. The cannons were completely destroyed, now pools of boiling liquid. "What the hell is happening?" Luke stared in shock. "This magic...I have heard of few who posses it." Robin's blood went cold at the display. Rowan watched in horror, unable to speak. A few moments later, James collapsed to the ground. He blacked out shortly after. The holy men removed the cross from his neck and chanted again to close away what they had unleashed. They carried James away in secret. On the other side of the battlefield, men rose up again. Some of the men's swords were damaged beyond repair, but some were still usable. Ruaidhrí commanded those with useless weapons to retreat back. "What the hell just happened here?" Lewis stood up from the ground. "It's as I said earlier. They clearly have brought a sorcerer with them, the bastards." Ruaidhrí's own sword was useless. He tossed it on the ground. "I have to leave for now. I'll return when I get a new blade. Don't die in the meantime." "As if I would." Lewis snatched a sword from one of his men. Back at the cliff, the men Lewis sent up there reached where Rowan was. Robin and Luke drew their swords and cut through. Rowan followed behind them, reserving his strength. He hated having Robin fight for him and feeling weak, but he would have to manage for now. The men were easy to take out. They soon joined everyone else in fighting. Rowan drew his sword. He didn't have to fight for long. Ruaidhrí's men pulled out first, then Lewis's as nightfall approached. Rowan called back his men and met with Martin to discuss their next course of action. Lewis was none too pleased at the course of events that transpired. He expected a swift victory. Instead, Philip only made a fool of him. His desire for revenge only heightened. Frustrated, he sought something to ease his mind. He went out and spoke to the first soldier he came across. "Bring someone to entertain me." Lewis ordered. "My king, there are no women or girls anywhere near here." The soldier bowed to him. Lewis grabbed the man and pushed him forward. "Then bring me someone's page. That'll do." "Yes, my king." The soldier quickly left and brought back a young boy. He offered him to Lewis. "Will this one do, my king?" Lewis looked the boy over. The child trembled before the king. Lewis smiled. "Yes." He escorted the boy back to his quarters, with no one saying a word of objection. The boy did not quell his frustration for long. When he tossed the boy aside, he paced around, unable to rest. He had to get some bit of revenge. Any head would do. He wanted someone easy to take that would still send a shock through his enemy. One name came to him. When Rowan and Martin finished discussing their plans for tomorrow, Rowan decided to turn in for the night. He was starting to regain his strength back from earlier. A night's rest and he would be back to his usual strength. Martin had no explanation to offer about James or about the strange magic that occurred earlier. He told Rowan to think of it as a miracle. That answer didn't satisfy him. When he was alone with Robin, he asked for his opinion. "Martin couldn't tell me what happened, but I think he was lying. What do you think? You said that sort of magic was unusual." "Metal is very difficult to manipulate. Typically, only a very experienced sorcerer or those of a particular dragon lineage are able to do it." Robin said. "I don't think James is either of those." Rowan lay back on their cot. "I don't either. He's definitely human, and I've never sensed anything magical about him. He is off though." Robin lay down beside him. "He seems wrong in the head." "That's very rude." "Something about being around him bothers me. I don't know why." Robin couldn't place what it was beyond it being a strange feeling. He didn't want to be alone with the man. "Who knows what it is. Clearly, they intend to keep it a secret from us. I don't think Luke knows. His reaction seemed genuine. We should be careful when dealing with Philip in the future. It'd be best to not make him our enemy." Rowan yawned. He stretched his arms. "We can discuss this more tomorrow. I don't think I can stay up much longer." "Alright." Robin got up and blew out the lantern hanging above them. He lay back down. "Rowan, tomorrow, could we..." "Hmm? What is it?" Rowan was already drifting off to sleep. Robin wanted to ask him about Luke, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. If what he suspected was true, bringing it up now would only distract Rowan's mind. With a battle to fight, he wasn't going to risk weakening Rowan over that. "Ah, nevermind. We can talk about it another time." "Oh, if you want. Goodnight." "Goodnight." Robin stared up at the top of the tent. Sleeping didn't come easy for him. Rowan was thinking of Luke too, but not in the way Robin was. He wanted to help him. Watching Luke follow him around did boost his ego, but he wanted Luke to be happy. Luke needed to get over him. 'If only I could find your other half...then you wouldn't want me anymore.' Rowan wished that in his heart. He thought of his happiest memories with Robin as he closed his eyes, wishing he could show Luke that feeling. In his dream, Rowan found himself before a tower. It wasn't one of his family's, though the surrounding area looked familiar. A key weighed heavily in his hand. He approached the tower door and opened the large, rusted lock on it. The climb to the top was long. A cold wind chilled him as he took each step towards the top. At last, he reached the final step. He was met with another locked door. Rowan used the key again and opened the door. On the other side, he saw a small room. The conditions of it weren't quite fit for a prisoner, a nobleman, or a servant. It was a strange mix of comfort and cruelty. The room was illuminated by candles despite it being daylight outside. A single, small window gave him the only reminder of that truth. Beside the tiny window, a man stood. The man appeared to be younger than himself but older than Wren. The aura around the man projected the sort of weak and weary spirit not unlike his own. Physically, the man looked very similar to Prince James. His hair was the same shade of sandy brown and the eyes matched perfectly. There were differences between them. The man had messier, somewhat shorter hair of a similar length to Rowan's own hair. The man was on the thin side, as if he hadn't ate well in a long time. His skin was pale from poor health and lack of sunlight. His clothes were torn and faded, and his bare feet were dirty from the filthy stone floor. From that distance, he gave off both an innocent mind and worn down soul. The man turned to face him. His voice was deeper than Rowan's, but the man spoke so softly he could barely hear him. "Who are you? Why are you here?" "I don't know. This place, I've seen the outside before. A friend of mine used to come here often. Well, down there." Rowan pointed downward. "How strange. What for?" The man looked out the tiny window again. He placed his hand on the windowsill. "He said he felt safe in this tower's shadow. But I don't know why I am here. Who are you?" Rowan felt safe himself from being around that man. He walked over to the other side of the window. The man watched Rowan as he approached. "A prisoner, I think. My name is Alan. I've been here all my life." "How cruel. Why would someone do such a thing to a child?" "I don't know." Alan had no reaction to Rowan's words. He was accepting of his fate. "You came here for something. What brings you here? Is this about your friend?" Rowan thought about his issue with Luke. Something about Alan gave him the impression he wouldn't judge him for what he wanted to say. "I don't know. I have been thinking of him often. I want to be kind to him, but he is in love with me and I love another. I cannot return his affections. I know there must be someone better suited for him. I wish I could lead him to that person, so that he may be truly happy." "I wonder then why you've come to me. As I said, I am a prisoner. I cannot leave this tower, ever. I can't help you search." "This is a dream, isn't it? Can you not leave even in your sleep?" Rowan asked. "I don't know. I'm sorry. I can't help you." Alan sat down in a chair near the window. He hung his head low. "This is where I am to stay." Rowan wondered too why he was dreaming of this man when the answer dawned on him. There was a reason why Luke felt safe at that tower. Luke was simply unaware of it. Rowan knelt down before Alan so that he could look up at him. Alan's eyes were dull and heavy bags hung under them, but they were not eyes of one who had completely lost hope yet. Alan was taken aback at Rowan's staring, but he said nothing. Rowan put his hand on Alan's. "I understand it. You are the one I'm searching for. I'll find a way to send him to you, but I need him for a little while longer. I'm fighting a war, you see. When I'm done, I'll send him to you." "What for?" Alan asked. "So you may both gain freedom." Since he was dreaming, he decided to do a little bit of magic he couldn't do when he was waking. He held out his hand and created a small, pink and white heart-shaped flower. He placed the flower in Alan's hand. "I swear this to you, on this lyre flower. But please be patient with him. He wears quite the mask." Alan held the flower up and looked at its bright colors. Nothing in the room was anywhere near as beautiful as that flower. He pressed it against his heart. "I don't understand, but I see no reason not to wait. I can't leave here anyway. It might be nice to have someone love me, or at least pretend to, if only for a moment." "He will love you for far longer than that. I swear, I will set the events into motion to bring him to you. Please don't forget this." Rowan bowed to him before getting back up. "Thank you, stranger, if you are being truthful." Alan said. Rowan headed towards the door. Before he could leave, Alan stopped him. "Wait! You never told me your name." "My name..." Rowan decided to do a little magic again. He created a small branch full of blooming white flowers. The branch, he gave to Alan as a second gift. Alan accepted the white flowers. He put them on the windowsill. Alan asked, "Are you a fairy prince?" "No, I am only human, but I am quite in love with someone like that. We shall meet again. I can feel it." Rowan lingered by the door. "Perhaps so, if your heart leads you here." Alan sat back down by the window. A small breeze came through. "You who claim you are not a fairy prince, can you tell me something before you go?" "Yes, what is it?" "What does the world look like beyond these walls? I can't see anything. Is it as beautiful as these flowers?" Alan's eyes held a small, flickering light. "Yes, more than you can imagine. He'll show you that sight one day, I know it." Rowan smiled at him before descending back down that lonely tower. In the morning, he woke early. Faint red peeked over the horizon and lit their tent with a soft glow. Robin was already awake beside him. He was reading a courtly romance story. Robin noticed Rowan was awake. "You look happy about something." "I had a good dream for once." Rowan was overcome with happiness. It was only a dream, but somehow, he knew that connection he made was real. "Oh, really? What about?" Robin returned to reading. "A prisoner in a tower. I promised I'd help him one day." Rowan kept the details of the dream intentionally vague. He wanted to keep it a secret, his own surprise for the future. "Now you have wandering eyes for men you haven't even met? Have I started to bore you that much?" Robin turned the page of his book. He hadn't wanted to come off irritated, but he heard it in his own voice as soon as he spoke. "It wasn't that kind of dream." Rowan laughed. He put his hand on top of Robin's book and lowered it. "It's still early. I can make your dreams come true, if you'd like." "I didn't tell you what I dreamt of." Robin marked his place in the book and set it aside. "I have an idea." Rowan rested against Robin's chest. "Actually, could we stay like this for a while? I'm a little tired and I want to save my strength." Robin didn't want to admit it, but he didn't sleep more than an hour or so that night. He couldn't get himself to fall back asleep. "You're tired? That's rare. Are you sick?" Rowan felt Robin's forehead and cheeks. "I don't know. Perhaps." "Hmm...you don't have a fever, but you feel cold to touch." Rowan moved up slightly and pressed his forehead against Robin's. "I'll fix you something later to help get your strength back." "I'm sure it'll pass in a few days." He hadn't been able to sleep at night, but now that dawn had come, his body was ready for sleep. He was a little dizzy and keeping his eyes open was difficult. "Did you sleep well last night?" Rowan asked. "I'm fine." Rowan kissed him. "Why don't you rest a little longer? I'll wake you in a while." Robin reached up and touched Rowan's face. He could barely keep his eyes open. "I did dream about you. We went down to the river. Do you remember when we used to sneak off there?" "Yes. We weren't very behaved then." Rowan ran his fingers through Robin's hair as he rested back down against Robin's chest. "Rowan, do you still..." "Hmm?" Robin stopped himself again. "Nothing...you're cold too." "Then we'll have to stay close." Rowan pulled the blanket higher and watched Robin sleep. Far from the battlefield, back at the castle, Ran and Rosabella had been awake for an hour already and were deep into the woods. Ran watched Rosabella from her horse. Rosabella searched the ground and pulled out an arrow. "Rosa, dear, did you get it?" Ran asked. "Yes." Rosabella held up a hare. "He's a big one." "Good, good. He'll make for a fine stew." Ran had already caught a hare earlier, one slightly smaller. Rosabella put the hare inside a bag. "Are you not going to hunt anymore, my queen? The sun's growing ever brighter." "I think I'll watch you for a while, dear. I want to see how you've improved." "I'll get you another then." Rosabella raised her bow. Hers wasn't anywhere near as powerful as Rowan's. She didn't have the strength to draw a bow with such a heavy draw weight. This one suited her purposes well enough. She hid herself down and watched the woods for signs of movement. Rosabella managed to kill two more hares before the queen asked her to take a break. She packed them up in the bag with the other two. She didn't care much for meat before she started shooting, but pride in being able to catch her own food had made her acquire a fondness for it. She sat down on a fallen log beside the queen. "The weather today is very lovely." "Yes, the air is cool today, not too hot or cold. It's nice." Ran took Rosabella's hand and wiped it off. "You got a bit of blood on you. There. All clean." "Thank you." Rosabella looked at the flecks of blue exposed through the trees above them. "My queen, do you ever miss it? Your old home?" "Yes, from time to time. I miss the sound of the sea and the smell of the air, my family, the birds that used to sing to me in the morning...I will always miss them, but that's life. I have happiness here too." Ran missed her family most of all. Her parents, her sisters, she wished she could see them once more. Her parents had likely passed on by now. "Do you ever regret leaving? I don't mean to speak out of turn, but you do not seem happy when you are with the king." Rosabella said in quiet voice. "Few find true love, or even romance that can last more than a decade, yet our marriages are till death. Don't expect that you will find perfection. Find a man who will treat you kindly. That is the best a woman can hope for." Ran dodged answering. She shifted the subject to what she knew Rosabella really wanted to talk about. "How is my older son treating you?" "He is good to me. He always brings me gifts when he returns." Rosabella fidgeted with her hands. "I'm sure he will be a good husband to me." Rosabella wanted to marry Wren, but Wren always being near was good enough for her. If her father had gone through with arranging her to marry Prince James, she would be spending the rest of her life with that disagreeable man. Rowan initially terrified her, but she had come to think of him as a friend. If she did not love Wren, she wouldn't mind fulfilling her duties in producing an heir with Rowan either. Having a child was an unavoidable expectation for her. If she could have any say in the matter, she wanted the father of her children to at least be someone who treated her well. She wondered if her love for Wren would last. If not, she could see him as a friend as well. He would also have been a good husband for her. Her deal with Rowan was made in haste, but she didn't regret it. She was happier now than she had been in years. Rosabella recalled that day. Her father brought her with him for a few weeks while he was discussing plans with Argus. He was going to visit King Philip afterwards and discuss arranging a marriage between her and James. Wren sparked her interest immediately, as she did for him. He started courting her a few days after they met, in a shy, awkward way. By the end of the week, he was writing her poems. Their behavior didn't escape Rowan's watch. Three weeks into her stay, he confronted her father just before dinner. "Lord Egret, may I spend some time alone with your daughter? I'd like to get to know her." Her potential betrothal to James was all but forgetten the moment Rowan expressed interest. Her father practically threw her at him. "Bella? You're interested in her? Of course, Prince. You can spend the night with her if you wish." Argus was just as pleased. "Egret, don't get too ahead of yourself. He just met the girl. But I am shocked. You've never shown interest in any girl before." "Bella is quite the beauty, isn't she? Bella, come here. The prince wants to spend time with you." Rosabella did as her father said. He pushed her close to him and whispered to her. "You better please him well." "Yes, Father." She said. "I would like to enjoy her company right now, actually. May I leave with your daughter for a while? I won't go far. Only my room." Rowan kept his eyes on her. His stare unnerved her. Rosabella wanted to run away. Back then, Rowan terrified her. Her father pushed her again. "Of course. Do as you please. I won't disturb you." "Thank you. I will treat her well." He touched her cheek. "Lady Rosabella, will you please come with me?" She nodded. There was no point to refusing. It was never an option in the first place. Rowan led her to his bedroom and locked the door. Her body trembled in fear of what he might do to her. Once they were alone, he moved away from her. He opened the window. "Don't worry. I'm not going to hurt you." He told her. "Come here. I want to show you something." Rosabella did as he said. She looked out the window. Below them, Wren was reading in an archway. "You want him, don't you?" Rowan leaned in close to her. "I can give him to you." "Whoever do you mean, Prince?" Rosabella looked away from Wren. "My brother. I see the way you look at him. He can be yours." "My father wants me to marry a crown prince. I don't think..." "I know that. That doesn't mean you can't be with him, does it?" Rowan sat in the window and faced her. "Lady Rosabella, you and I may be able to help each other. You see, I have a bit of a problem. I need an heir and I can't have one." "Is there...something wrong with you?" Rosabella asked, afraid of how Rowan might react. "Some would say so." He was calmer than she expected. "It's not a physical issue, or well, in a way, it is. You heard what my father said. I've never shown any interest in women before. That's because I have none." "Oh...then you are..." There was no polite way to say it. She stopped herself to avoid insulting him. "More than that, I am already seeing someone, and though it is my duty to the kingdom, I'd rather avoid being unfaithful." Rowan got up from the window and cleared his throat. "As you are aware, I can't simply let you have any man's child. My features would make it obvious if that child is related to me. It has to be my brother. That's the only way this act can be convincing." "Do I truly have a choice? You could always threaten me." Rosabella decided to push him a little. The person she thought Rowan was didn't match with what she was seeing now. She wanted to know what was behind the mask. "That's not my way. I'm sure I can find another girl to interest my brother if I must. It's your choice." He turned away from her. "I barely know him. Wouldn't this be a foolish wager on my part?" She argued back. "You don't have to love him. I only want an heir. Get that from him and you're free to do whatever you want after that. I'll give you anything you ask for. And if you marry me, you'll become the next queen. You'll have more status, more freedom. Endure him for a little while and then forget him." Rowan said. She didn't like the prospect of seducing Wren for material things, but sleeping with him had already crossed her mind more than once since her arrival anyway. She pushed him a little more. "Could you not do the same?" "If I can avoid it, I will." "This is all very sudden..." Rosabella watched Wren down below. She wanted things from him she hadn't desired before. It could be a fleeting wish. She was only sixteen. "All I need from you is a child, his child. Seduce him and give me a boy. That's all I'm asking." Rowan walked back over and shut the window. "Your father is going to marry you off eventually, and you're not going to have any say in it. I'm giving you power to do as you please, for a price. I can choose another, but you won't get a second chance at having what you want. We can both find happiness in this wretched formality. Think it over." She stared at the closed window, wanting to look out it again. Her wants were beginning to undermine her sense of reason. "Prince...is that really all I have to do?" "Yes. It shouldn't be hard. He already fancies you. I assure you my brother is a gentlemen, though he is exceptionally naive. He will treat you kindly. If he comes to truly love you, you will be all he sees." "And if his feelings fade?" Rosabella asked. "Act quickly. You are free to take another lover after you've given me my heir. I will protect you from any gossip and I will give you any luxuries you want. So what do you say, Lady? Do you accept my offer?" Rowan offered her his hand. "One boy...I can give you that." Rosabella accepted. She shook his hand. In that moment, she was still scared of him, but her desire for Wren was stronger. When their hands parted, she opened the window back up. "I want him." After only three weeks, she decided her future. Thinking back, it was a rash, hasty decision, and she was merely lucky that Wren was the sort of person he was. Her feelings hadn't faded since then. She was less desperate for his touch now that it was easier to get from him, but she hadn't completed her end of the bargain yet. That still weighed over her head. Wren's reasons for avoiding it she found to be childish. If Wren wasn't going to fix anything with Rowan in the near future, she saw no reason to continue waiting. She planned on trying to convince him again. Rowan was her future husband. It was only right that she followed through on their arrangement as he had on his end. "Queen Ran, may I go back to the castle soon?" Rosabella asked. "I wanted to talk with Wren about something." The look on Ran's face made Rosabella feel as if she knew everything that was going through her mind. Ran nodded. "Very well." "Thank you." Rosabella planned out her next move. Rosabella would not get the chance she hoped for. Inside the castle, Argus had his own plans for Wren. He pulled Wren from his bed. "Wren, get your things ready. We're going to see your brother." Argus said. Wren sleepily searched his wardrobe. He was angry at his father for not bringing servants to dress him. "What? But he's away fighting right now." "Exactly. It's about time you see what a battle looks like." Wren was wide awake after that. He stared at his father in disbelief. "I'm not ready to fight!" "You won't be. We'll be observing only." Argus went to the door. "Isn't that still dangerous?" Wren froze. "Quit being a coward and get ready, boy." Argus opened the door. "Yes, Father." Wren sunk down to the ground after his father left. He wanted to hide behind Robin or Rowan, but there was no one to shield him now. He changed clothes and nervously packed. Rosabella came to visit him not long after he started packing. "Are you going somewhere?" She asked. "Father says I must observe a battle, so that I may prepare for entering one." Wren did his best to hide his fear. "I see. Please, come back home soon." Rosabella held him from behind and kissed his back. Around one, Wren left with his father. During the long ride, Wren was in no mood to listen to his father's boastings about past triumphs and accomplishments. He tuned out his father quickly. He watched the scenery pass and thought of Rosabella. He wanted to touch her once more before leaving, but he couldn't get himself to ask. Wren tried to keep his mind off of what was coming. The dagger he kept in his bag served as a reminder that he couldn't escape from his father's whims. With each day that he endured with his father, the more angry he became. It was almost enough to eclipse his building fear. That anger was tossed aside upon their arrival. Before they saw a single soldier, the sound of battle had Wren's heart racing. Argus had them dismount and take cover in the woods. At the edge of a cliff, Wren saw a sight more terrifying than he could have imagined. His experiences with death were few and far between, distant and formalized in somber funerals. Bodies were scattered in pieces. Their open wounds and dismembered parts showcased the fragility of the human body in all its messiness. He wanted to burn his eyes to erase the sight. His father pointed down below. "Look there. That man you think is gentle, that 'friend' of yours, is nothing more than a beast. He is called the Hellhound for good reason." Wren saw Robin down below. He recognized him by his armor and hair. Wren vaguely remembered his brother complaining that Robin never wore his helmet. The horror of that struck him as he watched Robin fight. Robin dodged a blow to the head and cut off his attacker's arm. Robin kicked the man down and stabbed straight through his throat. Blood showered his already half painted body. As soon as he pulled his sword out, he was already swinging it at another. "And there's your brother, just as notorious. The Bloody Raven. He was even more ruthless when he was young. Oh, if you had seen that, you wouldn't be so soft around him." Argus showed him where Rowan was fighting. He was covered in just as much blood. "I remember hearing from our own men when they returned that sometimes he'd drink the blood of the dead and bathe in it like a savage demon." "That can't be..." Wren couldn't look away. "What do you see with your eyes? What does it make you think?" Argus said. He watched a man knock off his brother's helmet and aim at Rowan's neck. Rowan cut down the man quickly. Not far from him, a soldier snuck up behind Robin. Rowan moved quickly to him. The soldier attempted to take off Robin's arm. Before he got the chance, Rowan's sword went straight through his neck. Robin didn't notice the man at all. He gleefully killed any man that stood before him. A little further over, Wren recognized Luke's armor. He remember them playing cards together and Luke joking around with him and Rosabella. Luke pierced through an opening in the side of a soldier's armor. He spun around quickly to kill the man behind him. Wren couldn't take it anymore. He ran deeper into the woods and collapsed at his feet. He threw up shortly after. "You shame me. I will not allow you to look away." Argus found him. He grabbed Wren by the arm and dragged him back to watch. "Let me go!" Wren fought back. He didn't want to see anymore. It was too much. "This is how things are. They wear gentle masks before you. You too must learn to do the same or you will be eaten alive." Argus threw Wren down at the edge of the cliff. "Are you content with being your brother's shadow when he thinks of you not at all? Do you really trust him?" Wren wanted to yell that he was content with that. The words wouldn't come. He watched the rest of the battle in tears while his father mocked him for being a weak child. Sunset came to cover the disgusting, gory field. When the two sides had gone back to rest for the night, Argus led Wren down into camp. Argus sought out his older son. He wanted him to know Wren watched. He found Rowan, who was still covered in blood and dirt. He greeted him. "Hello, my son." Rowan jumped back. "Father, what are you doing here?" "I've merely come to show your brother what a proper battle is like." Argus grinned. "You brought him here? That's dangerous! He isn't ready to be..." Rowan was interrupted. "I'm fine." Wren said calmly. He stared at his brother's filthy appearance. Rowan was almost unrecognizable to him. Rowan went silent. Wren seeing him like this was something he always feared. He wanted to hide in shame. He couldn't tell if his brother's expression was one of disgust or indifference. "He merely observed. He won't be in the field just yet." Argus said. His grin widened at Rowan's reaction. Robin saw them. He had yet to wash either. His hair and face were completely stained in red-brown, but he gave his appearance no thought. He ignored the king and spoke to Wren. "Prince Wren, what are you doing here?" "Father brought him to observe the battle." Rowan snapped out of his dazed state and explained. He needed to get away. "Is there anything else you need, Father? I need to wash myself." "You go ahead then. I'll see myself around." Argus led Wren away from them. Rowan hurried to his tent. Robin followed behind him. He understood exactly what Rowan wanted and prepared water for them to bathe in. "Don't bother heating it. It's fine cold." Rowan threw his clothes to the ground. Robin undressed and wet a wash cloth. Rowan sat down on a stool and let Robin clean him. He wet a cloth and did the same for Robin. "Why the hell is he bringing Wren here?" Rowan washed Robin's face first. The blood was more caked on than usual. "I don't know." Robin wrung out the cloth onto the ground and wet it again. "He may be fighting with us soon." "What should we do?" Rowan's anger at his father turned to fear. "I don't know..." Robin tried to reassure him. "No matter what happens, we'll keep him safe." "He shouldn't be here." Rowan dropped the wash cloth and buried his head against Robin's neck. "I know. Don't worry. We won't let anything happen to him." To comfort him, Robin held him. His worrying wouldn't stop. His mind was already painting a picture for him of what Wren would look like covered completely in red. Argus had another individual in mind that he wanted Wren to see. He found Father David busy giving gravely ill men their last rites. "Father David, how are you?" Argus stood uncomfortably close to David, who was sitting beside a dying man. "Your majesty, I did not expect to see you here. I am...well, a time like this is busy for me..." David was not in the mood for dealing with Argus anymore than Rowan was. His job involved careful management of time, and he couldn't afford to waste a single second. "Actually, I would like for my son to observe you. I want him to know what being out in the field is like, you see? And this is of course one of the many important aspects of it." Argus was far too cheery for his surroundings. David kept his thoughts on the king's inappropriateness to himself. Saying anything about it would only waste more of his time. "Very well, my king. Please, I need silence for my work. Dear child, we were speaking of your sins and your chance for forgiveness." Wren got a good look at the soldier laying in bed. His left leg and right arm had been amputated and his left arm and face were both heavily bandaged. The man's voice sounded like a groan. "I don't want to go..." "Shh...Don't be afraid. You're merely going home. The pain won't reach you there." He said. David held the man's hand. "Please, I'm not ready...can't you make him stop it? I promise I'll be a good man!" From underneath the bandages, Wren could tell the man was crying. "I cannot control the will of God. If it is your time, you must go. But do not be afraid. If you ask for forgiveness for your sins, he will be there to welcome you with open arms. I am here. I will listen to whatever it is you need to say before then." David kept on holding the man's hand. "I am afraid..." The man struggled to speak. Wren couldn't take anymore. He ran out of the tent. He wanted to throw up again. Argus followed after him. "Are you afraid?" Argus asked, annoyed at his son's actions. "If you stay afraid, you will die out here. But I'm not going to let you hide inside the castle forever. You can be a coward and die, or you can be a man and fight." "I don't...how can I possibly do such things...how can they..." Wren leaned against another tent to balance himself. The world around him was unstable. "They don't care. You saw your brother and his pet dog. They're beasts prowling for fresh meat. Don't entertain the idea that they feel any guilt about what they do." He stood in front of Wren. "If it pains you so, you can ask for forgiveness from Father David afterwards. You cannot be weak and afraid." "I...would like to be alone for a while to think..." Wren could feel he was breathing too fast. 'Calm down. I need to stay calm.' "Very well. Remember, my son, I expect great things from both my children. Your brother may be able to slaughter anything in his path, but he has not impressed me. His way of handling things is messy and expensive. I will allow you to let him finish it, but the next war I want to see you taking action." Argus said as he put a hand on Wren's shoulder. Wren looked up at him with eyes full of fear. "How do you know there will be a next war?" "How indeed..." Argus smirked at him. He patted him on the shoulder and walked away. "We will leave when you're ready." Wren wandered through camp aimlessly until he came across the river they were using as a water source. He sat down before it and stared up at the sky. Above, a full moon lit up the land. He couldn't focus on any one thought. They all drifted away too fast for him. Wren lay back on the banks of the river and watched the sky. Later in the night, Rowan also went to visit Father David. David had gone back to his tent. When Rowan entered his tent, David was in the middle of a prayer. Rowan kept quiet until he finished. When David was done, he opened his eyes and noticed Rowan. "Prince, what brings you here at this hour?" David asked. "Father David, may I speak with you? I am not sure who else to ask about this." Rowan stayed near the entrance of the tent out of politeness. "Yes, of course, Prince. What's troubling you?" "There is something that has been weighing on my mind a lot recently. As you know, my father brought my brother here tonight." David came over to him. "You are worried about him fighting with you." "I don't want him out here. He's not strong enough yet, and he lacks the courage needed even more. I know he is afraid. This is my responsibility. He should stay home." Rowan was able to me more forward with his thoughts to David. With Robin, he filtered his thoughts about Wren to not worry him as much. "Come, sit down." David led Rowan over to the table he had been prayer at. "He is afraid, but it may be his wish to join you. He may see that as lightening your burden. Brion's sons have always worked together. Your loyal knight and his misguided brother too have joined forces in battle." "That's not something he needs to do." Rowan took a seat while David sat across from him on a cot. "I don't want him to lighten my burden. It's supposed to be the other way around. That's not...the only issue. I don't know if my mother told you this or not, but Father wants me to convert and be baptized before the wedding." "You do not wish to go through with it?" David asked. "I don't mean any offense, but I am unsure of what I really believe. I would feel dishonest, but I know it is for the best if I do so." "Perhaps in time the truth will come to you. That is a ways off from now and there's plenty of time to think. Here." David picked up the bible at the edge of the table and handed it to Rowan. He wrote down a list on a piece of parchment. "There's some passages I'd like for you to read over. It may help ease your mind. These troubles will pass." Rowan looked down at the book in his hands. He thought of David as a friend, and that pained him. "You think I'm doing the right thing by doing what my father wants, don't you?" "I disagree with his ideas about war, but other than that, what he asks of you is no different than what I would ask of you." David confirmed what he did not want to hear. "Why do I feel empty when I tell myself it's right?" "You are uncertain. That too will pass." David's kind voice did not soothe him. "Go on. Take this with you and read it thoroughly. Pray for guidance and listen closely. Inevitably, the clouds will clear away." "Thank you." Rowan got up from the chair and left the tent. He returned to his own. Robin was laying down. He appeared to be sleeping. Rowan walked quietly over and sat down on the cot. He adjusted on the cot to get more comfortable, but no position felt right. He searched for the first passage on David's list and started reading. Rowan skipped church frequently once Robin started living with him, and he neglected to study the scriptures on his own. Reading the text was difficult for him. The words were clear enough, but the messages didn't make sense. He reread many of the passages several times in hopes of catching some bit of information he was lacking that would made him understand. Robin rolled over and took the book from him. "You're reading that?" 'Were you awake the whole time?' Rowan explained himself. "It was Father David's suggestion. He told me some passages to read for guidance, but I don't think I understand most of this." "What's bothering you?" Robin flipped through the book before closing it. He handed it back to Rowan. "I can't stay calm while Wren is here. I can't think straight at all." Rowan said. He placed the book down on the floor and lay down. "My mother used to tell me when I was upset about something to think of my mind like a river. My feelings are the fish swimming down it. Eventually, they leave the river for the sea. Every emotion is only tied to a single moment. It'll pass, but you have to let it flow through you." "The waiting is driving me mad." Rowan took a deep breath. He had put off the issue long enough. "Wren being here isn't the only issue. I've been meaning to tell you some things." Robin's heart sped up a little. "What is it?" "My father wants us all to convert before my wedding. That includes you." Rowan felt sick saying those words to Robin. "It should ease things over with the public more if I make a display of intended assimilation." "I see." Rowan turned to face Robin. "Are you angry with me?" "No." Robin rested against Rowan. "I'll do it. I won't believe in any of it, but I'll put on a show if you want me to." "I'm sorry. There is one other issue..." Rowan prepared himself. "I haven't spoke with Father about this since Wren never gave me his reply, but I offered to have my engagement with Lady Rosa ended so he could marry her instead." "What about the plan?" Robin sat up. He looked down at Rowan in shock and confusion. "I've been thinking, I've been disrespectful and cruel the way I've gone about this. I owe it to him at least to give him a way out if he doesn't want to be in this situation. It's selfish of me to demand he be stuck in a hidden relationship just so I can have what I want." In saying that to Robin, he knew he was still being selfish. He was choosing Wren's happiness over Robin's, and he knew it was precisely because Robin would forgive him for doing so. He hated himself for it. "Does that mean you intend to do things properly?" Robin asked the obvious. "If he asks me to make that arrangement, I don't really have a choice. I only need one boy. I'll inform whoever I marry of the situation." Rowan looked away from him in shame. "Will you forgive me for being unfaithful?" "If it's to fulfill your duties, then I can't fault you for it." Robin lay back down beside Rowan. He held his hand. "There's still a chance Wren will choose to help you." "Wren's wanted nothing more than to marry her since the moment they met. If he can have that, do you really think he's going to choose otherwise?" Rowan held Robin's hand tightly. "Wren might surprise you." Robin was more hopeful than Rowan. Wren didn't seem that against the idea from how he saw things. "I don't know. I don't want you to get your hopes up. I'm sorry. I don't want any of this." Rowan looked at their hands. If his father had his way, he wondered if he would be able to hold Robin's hand at all after they were each married off. "Rowan, you know we don't have to do this. I would take you anywhere. We can leave everything behind." Robin drew closer to him. "I can't leave this mess to Wren." Rowan answered quickly. "We can wait until after the war." He kissed Rowan on the cheek. "Rowan, this time, please seriously consider my offer. Let me free you." Rowan looked him in the eyes and said, "And if I refuse? Will you hate me?" "Never." Robin caressed Rowan's face and forced a smile. "I will stay with you no matter what I must endure." "Thank you." Rowan kissed him. "I'm sorry. I don't feel myself lately." "It's alright." Robin resisted the temptation to ask any further questions. Calming Rowan's mind became his focus. "Why don't you try sitting and meditating? That's what your mother would tell you. Perhaps that will help you more than reading the scriptures." "Well, it's worth a try." Rowan got off the cot and sat down on the ground. He offered Robin his hand. "Will you sit with me?" "If you'd like." Robin took hold of it and sat beside him. Rowan focused his mind on the question weighing him down. 'What am I supposed to do?' Three solutions presented themselves to him. For the first, the most obvious choice, he saw the war and watched himself slit his wrists. If he were gone, Robin would be sad but free, and Wren could do as he pleased. A familiar voice whispered to him in his mind. 'You promised me you wouldn't. Where is your eternal loyalty, Prince?' There was also the matter of that stranger he met. He hadn't set that course into motion yet as he swore he would. That option was discarded for the time being. That left only two. The next answer came before him. Robin held tightly to his hand and ran with him through the woods in the dead of night. 'You will leave me with all of this?!' Wren's unmistakable voice yelled at him. 'I could wait until after the war ends.' He told himself. 'And shame me, of course.' Wren snapped back at him. The final option came forward. He saw himself sitting with a strange woman as his queen. Beside her, an infant. Rosabella and Wren were dressed in ornate clothing for their wedding. Behind Rowan, Robin sat watching him while another unfamiliar woman leaned against him. Robin looked at him with empty eyes. In that emptiness, he saw the scene shift to his bedroom. From above, he looked down at himself. Robin did not share his bed. There was a stranger there, that same woman who sat next to him at the wedding. She lay motionless underneath him, staring up at the ceiling. Rowan felt his stomach turn at the display. Father David spoke to him. 'You must do what is right, what is your duty. Think of what is best for everyone. You will be rewarded when it's all over.' Rowan saw Father David baptizing him. In himself, he saw uncertainty and fear while the priest merely gave him the same kind smile he always did. Robin was after him. The look of sadness and helplessness on him was foreign. Robin sought comfort from him that Rowan could not give. An escape, a bit of hope, anything to ease the pain--Rowan offered him nothing. As that same pain welled inside Rowan, he saw a vision of Wren and Rosabella, happy in their wedding clothes. 'With all paths, I must commit evil.' Rowan let that thought linger and sink deep into his mind. 'I've been evil plenty in my life. For who will I do evil? Where does the darkest part of me wish to go? What is my most selfish desire?' Rowan asked himself. He saw himself and Robin standing before a waterfall. In Robin's hair, he wore a crown of feathers and water lilies. On himself, white flowers and red berries along a circular branch rested on his head. Long capes in matching length, in red and blue, adorned them. Upon his own, embroidered birds and across from him on Robin, the same white flowers of Rowan's crown lined the cape. Not a trace of black was on Rowan, and there was no white on Robin aside from the flowers. They held hands before the waterfall, deep in a forest far away from human lands. Rowan posed his next question. 'What will hurt the least people?' His father's crown fit uncomfortably on him. The public greeted him warmly. In his hands, he held onto a rusty cage with a small, feathered corpse. 'If I take that path...I will hurt you more.' Outside of his thoughts, he let himself be aware of his body's place and closeness to Robin's. He could feel Robin's body heat to his left. 'I will stay with you no matter what I must endure.' As he heard Robin's voice in his mind, he instinctively reached out for Robin's hand. He lost his concentration entirely. For a moment, he was in a daze. His hand was holding tightly to Robin's while his heart pounding in his ears. He looked over at Robin, who had fallen asleep while attempting to meditate. "Robin, wake up." He lightly hit Robin's arm. "Huh?" Robin fell slightly forward, then caught himself. "What happened?" "You fell asleep." "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm a little tired tonight. I must have overdone it earlier." Robin's eyes were heavy. His body ached, but he didn't know why. He didn't think he fought anymore than usual. "Go on and go to bed. I'll join you soon." Rowan nodded his head towards the cot. Before getting up, he kissed Rowan goodnight. "Don't stay up too late." "I won't." Rowan watched Robin get into bed. Robin was asleep not long after he lay down. Rowan tried to meditate again, but he couldn't concentrate. He resigned to putting off his choice another day. Tomorrow would be another long day. He needed to rest, and he was tired, but not sleepy. Rowan lay down beside Robin and watched his breathing. Robin's words earlier bothered him. Even when they were children, Robin was always full of more energy than him. He fell asleep after him and woke before him. That was their pattern. This wasn't like him. Rowan saw that third choice in his mind. A feathered corpse in a cage. He touched Robin's face with the back of his hand and pulled the blanket higher over him. He kissed his forehead and got up. His time was running out. By next year, everything would be set. Going out late alone at night could be dangerous, but it was the only option left he hadn't tried to clear his mind. He took his bow and quiver as a precaution. Rowan opened the front of the tent and looked up at the illuminated sky. A bright perfect circle greeted him. Underneath that light and the warm night air, he sought out a place of reflection. While Rowan disappeared out underneath the night sky, Robin found the light of the sun in his sleep. The familiar scent of summer surrounded him and the sound of the river beside him was a calm, steady melody. He knew this place well. When he was younger, he spent so many days here with Rowan, avoiding responsibility and playing around. Robin looked down at his reflection in the water. He was young again. Judging by his hairstyle and appearance, he presumed he was about seventeen. Robin reached into the river to let its cold touch give him a momentary break from the sun's burning heat. At that point, he was used to wearing clothes regularly, but he still hated it and summer was the worst. That was why he loved being by the river. He could say he wanted to cool off and get away with stripping himself of those heavy, uncomfortable things on him. He was still wearing his clothes, but as was common for him even in the present, he had tossed his shoes aside the moment he got the opportunity to. His body felt lighter, in part from not having as much muscle mass as he did now and from his shorter hair. His hair was by no means a commoner's style--it was long in comparison and slightly longer than Rowan's, who stubbornly kept his hair trimmed shorter than Argus approved of to keep it from interfering with his shots. It hung just above his shoulders. That summer, Rowan asked him to start growing his hair out longer because he found Robin to be more handsome that way. Robin indulged him, though he never liked the weight or upkeep required for his hair length in the present. Robin felt a tap at his shoulder. "Daydreaming? Or are you entranced by your own reflection?" Rowan said. Rowan looked to be around fifteen. His hair was pitch black, not a single gray amongst the strands, and his skin radiant and almost entirely free of scars. There was a brightness there in Rowan's eyes he hadn't seen in years. Rowan's voice and height were the same as in the present, his voice having changed two years before then and him having stopped growing not long after his fifteenth birthday. He was thinner though, looking more like Wren. "I think I'm still daydreaming." Robin replied. "What are you on about? You've been out in the sun too long." Rowan gave him a strange look. "Maybe I have." Robin laughed, but he didn't know why. Inside, something burned. In the center of his chest, a sharp, stinging pain pierced him. He tried hard to ignore it. "You're stupid." Rowan rolled his eyes. He wrapped his arm around Robin's and leaned against his side. Robin noticed how red Rowan's face was after they touched. He laughed under his breath. If he was seventeen again, this was the summer they started seeing each other. The contact wouldn't have stirred anything in Rowan now. They moved on to something far more comfortable and stable. Robin missed that fleeting intensity a little. Rowan's feelings, no matter how he pretended he was too strong to be affected by them, were more blatant then and the slightest touch flustered him. Out of nostalgia, he teased Rowan. "I think one of us really is entranced. You're face is red." Rowan's face turned a deeper shade. "Narcissist. I'm hot, that's all." The way Rowan looked up at him after he spoke said otherwise. His younger self wouldn't have been able to read what Rowan was projecting, but he could see it with ease. Rowan wanted more contact but was intentionally denying it between them out of nervousness. "You're a terrible liar." Robin looked out at the steady river. He longed for those peaceful days when they would stay out there underneath the hot sun. The war wouldn't begin for another two years, and Argus wasn't pestering either of them about marriage. They trained, ran off, and entertained Wren from time to time. Most days, Robin had Rowan all to himself. For a while, he didn't mind their situation. If he could be with Rowan, it was enough. Robin watched the sunrays dance on the water's surface. The light reminded him of another memory, one that wouldn't occur until Rowan's nervousness subsided more, and the way Rowan's eyes used to light up when their gazes met. In place of the pain he felt before, Robin was overcome with a warmth he had forgotten. It burned too, there in his chest. He wanted to capture it, but it slipped away and the other feeling returned. "Am I?" Rowan's tone changed. Robin glanced over at him. The person sitting beside him was the present Rowan. Robin noticed when he looked over that his long hair got in the way of his vision. Rowan pulled him down into the grass. "Are you mad at me? For lying about how I feel?" Robin tried to read Rowan's face, but like when he was seventeen, he couldn't parse what Rowan was signaling to him. Rowan had surpassed him in that way again. "Why won't you tell me what you feel? Do you not want to?" Rowan stared up at him, but Robin could tell his mind was somewhere else. "Would you hate me for that?" Around them, the sun was setting. The bright flame on the horizon cast shadows and deep reds across them both. "No...but I...I wish..." Robin watched the sky move in the reflection of Rowan's eyes. In spite of the beauty there, Rowan remained blank. "I would take you anywhere you want. I will take away whatever burdens you." The light of the sun faded away. In its place, the moon illuminated the darkness around them. Rowan's skin was pale and rough. The ground beneath them dissipated into a mirror image of the sky. "I am where I want to be. Why are you not accepting that? Is that not for your own happiness that you ask?" Where grass was once, Robin's hands met with water. Everything beneath them shifted into something unstable and deep. The slightest movement sent ripples out across the reflected stars. Within that illusory nightscape, he saw himself as a wolf cornering a wounded raven. "I..." Robin leaned down and kissed Rowan on the forehead. "Forgive me. I won't ask again." "You still want to, don't you?" Rowan put his arms around Robin's neck. "Don't call me a liar and then lie to me." "I'll bury it, for you. I'll bury it deep." Brighter than the sun, the moon glowed on the water. Rowan pulled him closer. "There's something you're afraid to ask. Do you want to know the answer?" "I will love you the same." Robin woke from his dream, the emotions of the dream still controlling his thoughts. Rowan wasn't in the tent. He lay on the cot, debating with himself if he should seek Rowan out or leave him be. Repeating his last words from his dream inside his mind, he chose to wait for Rowan's return, even if he needed to wait until sunrise. While he told himself that, his insecurities rose inside him. He wanted Rowan and Luke to befriend each other, but they were spending more time together than he expected. Apart of him was ashamed for doubting Rowan and the other side of him was feeling guilty for putting his own wants above Rowan's. Regardless, he knew he should wait. Out under the stars and moonlight, Rowan found the place he was seeking. When he reached it, he realized he wasn't alone in seeking that solitude. Wren sat at the edge of a stream, illuminated by the light above and completely unguarded. His attempts to keep his mind at peace broke away. The light shone down on his own fears and amplified them. To avoid another argument, he knew he should leave or gently suggest Wren go on back to camp. Lost in his fears, he cast aside his reason. He approached him quietly to make it clear to Wren how unprepared he was to be in such a place. Rowan stopped a foot behind Wren. "You and Father should go home soon. It's not safe here." To his surprise, Wren didn't seem caught off guard at all. He spoke with calm words. "Then shouldn't you go home too?" "I have things under control. This is my burden to carry. You don't need to worry about it." Rowan said, not moving any closer. He didn't intend to argue with Wren, but he knew it was coming. He knew he would start it and he didn't care. If it got Wren to go home, he could deal with the consequences later. "Why does it have to be yours alone? I could fight too. You're the one who decided for me that I shouldn't." Wren stood up and turned around. He raised his voice. "When are you going to let me do anything for myself?" "Wren, are you stupid?!" Rowan raised his even higher. In a moment of weakness, he let his real thoughts come forward. "I don't want you here because it terrifies me!" "Why? Because you've forced me to be weak?" Wren snapped back. "No, I know you're not!" Rowan couldn't compose himself. His emotions spilled out before his thoughts could filter them. "I am terrified of seeing you do the things I do. I am disgusted with myself. I am disgusted with everything around me. If Robin wasn't so willful, I'd have him back home planting flowers." Wren took a step closer to him and stared him in the eye. "I don't want to be here either, but you don't get to make that choice for me. I'm not a child. Everything isn't about how you want things done. Do you have it in you to not be selfish for a single moment?!" "...I'm sorry..." Rowan froze. He stared down at his feet, then glanced around at their surroundings. He looked back at Wren, who was still glaring at him. His thoughts were encased in a deep fog. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet. "You know, we're alone." "What? Don't change the subject." Rowan stared back down at his feet. He asked, "You want to fight?" "I haven't decided." Wren's voice was calmer than before, but there was still a bit of agitation in his tone. "If you decide you do, do you want me to help you or do you want to do things on your own?" Rowan couldn't see anything clearly. He knew it was in his mind, but the stars themselves seemed to go out above him. "I don't want your help." Wren said. Rowan went quiet for a moment before responding. He felt too ashamed to look up at his brother. "Do you want to do it now? I won't resist." Wren's eyes flashed with fear. He shifted his gaze away. "Do what? What are you talking about?" Rowan grabbed hold of the bag at Wren's side. The object he wanted was easy enough to find. He pulled it out and presented it to Wren, keeping the blade turned upon himself. "If you want to do it a different time, that's fine. But this is a really good time, given where we are." Wren snatched the dagger from Rowan's hand. He yelled at Rowan again. "Why do you presume I'm carrying that for you? Why are you acting so suicidal? Are you trying to get back at me that way?" "No, I'm not." "I'm not going to use this on you. I'm only carrying it because Father demanded I do so. He's an idiot as much as you are. I'm not going to kill you." Wren put the dagger away. His expression changed from anger to exasperation. "You're my brother, stupid." "I'm sorry..." Rowan said, not quite ready to believe his brother's words. "Quit with that." Wren sighed. He put his hand on Rowan's shoulder. "I don't hate you and I certainly don't want to usurp you for the throne. I'm here because Father dragged me here. I do want to help you, but you have to let me do it on my own and treat me like an adult. If you want me to do something for you, ask me properly." "Wren..." Rowan finally looked up at his brother. The confidence in Wren's words wasn't something he had witnessed before. "I understand if you don't want me here because you're worried about me, but don't tell me it's about some moral issue. That doesn't matter to me. Tell me the truth." "I am...worried about that too. I didn't want to say it. I thought you would be offended and think I see you as less capable than me." Rowan glanced to the side. He didn't deny the moral issue. Wren could be fine with taking life in a fight, but Rowan would never forgive his father for making Wren do so. "Brother, I already know I am less capable." Wren almost laughed. He couldn't have imagined his brother would ever say something like that to him. He smiled at him. "What is it you want me to help you with?" "About Lady Rosa...could you..." Rowan didn't know why he was fumbling to say it. "Could I what?" Wren cocked his head and smirked. "Could you have a child with her in place of me?" Saying those words to Wren was more awkward than he thought it would be. He was grateful the night was partly disguising his face. "Yes. Thank you for finally asking me." Wren walked past him. "You should have told me what you wanted from the beginning instead of trying to have her seduce me. I would have agreed, if not for you, for Rin's sake." "I'm sorry." Rowan apologized again. "That's enough of that. Stop apologizing. It's not right to hear you talk like that." Wren said. "I'm..." Rowan started to apologize again unintentionally. "What did I just say? You're acting like a trembling servant, not a warrior prince. Where's your pride?" He laughed at him. Wren was amused he had the power to get his brother to behave in such a manner. "My pride and arrogance is what got us into this situation in the first place." Rowan said. Wren shook his head. "It's my fault too. I should have confronted you sooner. We're both stupid." "We are brothers, so that seems right." Rowan laughed at himself. One of the heavy weights that pulled on his mind was gone. He felt a little lighter from its absence and his mind clearer. "I know you told me not to say it, but I am sorry. I've been acting stupid for far longer than is excusable. If I start acting like that again, please just smack some sense into me." "If you want, but don't get mad if I have to." Wren took out the dagger his father gave him. "You know...I'm not afraid anymore. You're the king I want to serve." Wren took it and got ready to throw it into the river. Rowan pushed his arm back down. "Wait. Keep it on you." "Why?" Wren asked. Rowan had a devilish grin on his face. "Why don't we get a little revenge? Let him go on thinking things are as they were. If he gets too carried away with what he wants you to do, just tell me and I'll protect you." "You've picked up some bad habits from Rin." He shrugged. "Speaking of which, he'll be quite happy with this news." "I'll go home tomorrow." Wren looked closely at his brother. The moonlight revealed a few strands of silver. He plucked a strand and held it up high. Rowan flinched. "What was that for?" The strand was long, the full length of Rowan's hair. It had to have been growing there for a long while. Wren showed it off to Rowan to mock him. "What a shiny color..." "That's not funny." Rowan snatched the hair from Wren's hand and tossed it to the ground. "Oh, look. Some of the hairs on your face are gray too." Wren got up close to his face and pretended to be surprised. "What?" Rowan stared down at his reflection in the river. He hadn't a chance to shave since they left. There were far more grays on his face than on top of his head. 'When the hell did that happen?!' "There's a lot. I guess I never noticed before since you shave regularly at home." A thought hit Wren. If Rowan had grays, then Robin might too. He hoped so, simply so he would have something to tease Robin about. "Does Rin have grays too?" "He has a few too, but he's blond so it's not as easy to see. They're so obvious on me." Rowan looked up at his own bangs and noticed a few strands of silver. He cringed. Wren laughed at him. "Laugh now. This will be you in a few years." He warned him. "I wonder if you'll go bald too." Wren teased. Rowan smacked him on the arm. "Shut up." "How many more years do you think Father's got? Do you think I could put off marrying? I don't want to marry anyone other than Rosa. You'd let me stay unwed, right?" Wren asked. Since his father started training him, his every action was based around what his father would want and expect, how to avoid his scorn. He didn't think about that being a temporary situation. Faolán was right to remind him of what he overlooked. In the end, he should be thinking of his actions in light of how his brother would react to them. "If you'd like. Father's adamant about Robin getting married soon." Rowan worried how Robin would react to that. He seemed fine with the arrangement between him and Rosabella, but he wondered if that was more because Rowan himself was alright with it and he accepted that to make Rowan happy. His reaction could end up being the same. Rowan didn't want to test the limits of what Robin could endure. "You know, I think there's someone who might be able to help us with that." Wren looked up at the moon. "Father may be king, but isn't it not right that Rin's father be the one to give approval?" "Robin won't have anything to do with his father, and besides, Robin can pick a wife for himself. How would Sir Faolán help us?" "When I met him, he seemed a hard person to read and was a little frightening, but he did try to push me to stand up for what I wanted. I think if we explained the situation to him, he might help us. I don't think he hates Rin. It feels like there's something else disturbing him." Wren wasn't entirely sure he would help, but he had the feeling he would at least have some advice to give. "Hmm...we could try that. I haven't spoken to him in person since I was a teenager. Would you be alright with writing to him?" Rowan added on to that. "Be careful of what you say. Father may have someone read your letter." "I'll set a trap for Father. He trusts that I always tell the truth, since he sees me as very submissive. I'll tell him I'm sending him a letter asking about Princess Flora. Her engagement was never called off when the war started even though she's promised to one of Brion's allies who's kingdom has fallen. I could tell him I'm asking about what she's like because I'm considering persuading Silvanus to let me have her hand." Wren was proud of himself for coming up with an idea so quickly. "That's brilliant. When did you learn about all of that? I thought you could barely remember the names of the people in our court." Rowan was surprised. "I've been studying while you're away. Father already suspects Rosa's having an affair with me. He used her as a reason I should get rid of you. But I'm sure he wouldn't think anything of me inquiring about Princess Flora. I can just say I'm exploring all my options. He'd probably like that, come to think of it." Wren shook his head at his father. "Probably." Rowan couldn't help but laugh. "Brother, about earlier, are you alright?" Wren asked. "You know I want you to come home, right? You don't really want to die, do you?" "I'm sorry. My mind has been strange lately. There are dark thoughts that creep up on me and won't leave. But I think it'll be easier for me to fight them off now." Rowan wanted to say more. He wasn't ready to tell Wren yet what thoughts ran through his mind. "Don't tell Robin I said any of that. I don't want to upset him." "I think he already knows, more than anyone." "I know." Rowan paused for a moment. He hated saying it. He knew it was the truth. "Still, I don't want him to have to hear it." "I won't say anything." Wren hugged his brother. Rowan hugged him back. He couldn't help but smile. "Thank you. You should go back to camp. It really isn't safe out here. I can walk you back, if you want." "I'll be fine on my own." Wren said as he pulled away. "Please, let me take you. I'm not saying you're weak but...I am your older brother. I'll worry if I don't go with you." "Alright, but only because you're being honest with me." Wren walked alongside him back to camp. "Brother, could I borrow your cloak again for a while? Not right now, but at home." "If you want. What for?" Rowan asked. "Rosa likes it. She says I look good in red." Wren didn't elaborate what else he had planned. "Remind me before you leave." Rowan stopped before the tent Wren was using. "Goodnight." "Night." Wren waved and went inside. Rowan went on his way back to his tent to tell Robin the good news. On his way there, something caught his eye. He saw it only from the corner of his eye, but he was sure he saw movement in the woods. It could be someone on his side or an animal. Rowan wasn't going to take any chances. He went to investigate. Quietly, he followed the movements. The moon gave him glimpses of what was head of him. A human in a black, leather cloak. From what he could see of their form, the person appeared to be a man but his face was obscured by his hood. He heard noise further ahead of the cloaked figure. Rowan recognized who the person was following. It was Luke. Not far where Rowan stood, there was a ledge. He decided to scale it to get an advantage over the stranger. He glanced back occasionally to see where Luke and the stranger both were. He lost sight of the stranger quickly. Rowan hurried in climbing to the top. Luke heard something behind him. He thought an animal was nearby earlier, hence why he walked as far out as he did in the first place, to avoid running into whatever might be roaming behind him. When he turned around, the woods were quiet. He walked back towards the camp without thinking much about the noise. He assumed whatever had been around moved on. When he passed an old oak, he heard another noise. Before he could react to it, someone grabbed him from behind and held a dagger to his throat. Luke tried to get a look at his attacker, but couldn't quite see his face. "You bastard...too afraid to face me like a man?" "Man? I'm the only man here, you little bitch." Luke knew that voice. He hadn't heard it in a long time, but he knew it well. The voice belonged to Lewis. "I bet you'd drop to your knees if I offered to spare you." "Piss off. I'd sooner die." Luke struggled to get free. The blade's sharp edge cut slightly into his throat as he moved. "Funny, you were singing a different tune the last time we were alone together." Lewis pressed the dagger harder against Luke's neck. "I suppose I owe you an apology. One time, and I turned you into such a whore. Did you like it that much?" "Are you really gloating about seducing a thirteen year old?" Luke tried to reach for dagger on his belt. The way Lewis held him made it difficult to do without Lewis noticed. "I liked you better then. You were obedient." Lewis spoke in an excited voice uncomfortably close to Luke's ear. "Your skin was so soft and delicate. Did I bruise you badly? It's a shame you had to change. Boys don't stay soft like girls do when they grow." Lewis's words made Luke's skin crawl. "You fucking pervert." "Pervert? And what are you? I still enjoy the company of women and girls. You only chase men, and boys are barely different from girls. That makes you more of a pervert than me." Lewis licked the side of Luke's neck. "You know, for old times sake, I think I might take you before I kill you. Will you cry this time too?" Luke mocked him. "What? Am I so attractive you can't resist me?" "You filthy whore. No one looks at your face. I'm tired of listening to you. You better pray fast." Angered, Lewis pressed the blade harder against Luke's skin. "Fuck you." Luke heard his heart pounding in his ears. Before Lewis could slit his throat, an arrow pierced his left upper arm, causing him to let go of Luke by its force. Lewis lowered his dagger and looked around. Seconds after, another arrow hit him, landing in his right arm. "Luke, move!" A voice shouted from somewhere Luke couldn't pinpoint. Luke quickly moved aside. As soon as he was out of the way, an arrow passed him and pierced deep into Lewis's chest. Lewis fell over, landing face down in the grass. Luke's eyes followed the angle of the arrows. Atop a ledge, beneath the full moon, Rowan stood with bow in hand. The wind caught Rowan's cloak in a violent dance. Red and black fabric glowed under the moonlight like freshly spilled blood on wings. If Luke didn't know better, he would have thought a being from the other realm, a raven spirit, had come to take his soul straight to Hell. The beautiful display before him left him breathless. Rowan lowered his bow and descended down the ledge. He ran over to Luke. Catching his breath, he asked, "Are you hurt?" "No...I'm alright..." Luke felt his neck. The cut wasn't deep. "This is Lewis...Well, that's not what I expected." Rowan examined the body. "So...I've killed the new king already. Huh." Luke stared at Lewis's dead body and Rowan hovering over him. He was completely entranced by Rowan's presence. Rowan noticed Luke looked like he was still in a daze. He asked, "Are you sure you're alright?" Luke didn't know why he did it. He ran to Rowan and held him close. He didn't want to let go. Rowan was shocked for a moment. He hugged him back. "I feel like you're probably taking advantage of the situation, but I'll excuse it." "I love you." Luke pushed Rowan away. "I...that's not...what I...Excuse me. I don't know what I'm saying." "Yes, I know..." Rowan said nothing about Luke's strange behavior. Luke was clearly not in his right state of mind. "We should go back and inform someone of what's happened here." "Oh....right. I'm sorry, I...don't know what's going on in my head right now." Luke held his head. "Don't worry about it." Rowan ripped a piece of his sleeve off and held it to Luke's neck. "It's still bleeding." "Thank you. I've got it." Luke held the cloth in place. Rowan went back to Lewis. He unsheathed Lewis's sword and examined the blade. "It's dull. He hasn't been taking care of it. This is going to take a while." Rowan raised the blade and cut down across the fallen king's neck. It took him seven swings before he severed the head completely. Rowan picked up the head by his hair. He looked over at Luke. "Will you come with me? I'm going to present his head to the other side. I'll need someone to guard me." "Yes..." Luke was still in a daze. "Do you not want my brother to do it?" "He's plenty exhausted right now. Besides, given that he just tried to kill you, I thought you'd want to." Rowan tossed Lewis's sword aside. "What were you doing out here this late anyway?" "I went to take a piss. I didn't think anyone would try to slit my throat. Though it wouldn't be the first time a man's jumped me like that..." Luke checked his wound. The bleeding had stopped. "And here I thought Wren was the one I'd need to protect tonight." Rowan said. The two of them headed back into camp and mounted their horses. Rowan had Luke wave a banner of his family's crest behind him. When they were close to the enemy camp, Rowan signaled for Luke to stay back. He went closer alone. "King Ruaidhrí," Rowan yelled. "I've brought you a gift!" Rowan threw the head over the barrier the enemy men had constructed. "I don't take well to unwanted guests and cowards!" Rowan waved for Luke to turn back. They rode back to camp. An excited crowd was already waiting for them. Inside the enemy camp, one of Lewis's knights examined the head. "It is...the king is dead!" "You fucking idiot." Ruaidhrí looked at the head with disdain and fear. He spoke to the knight. "You, go back to your kingdom and tell them what has happened here. Your men are under my command until you can crown your next king. We'll keep fighting until we can come up with a new plan of action." Llywelyn stood by his king. "Are you sure we shouldn't retreat?" "Not yet. We have more men coming soon. We just need to hold on until then." Ruaidhrí hoped reinforcements would arrive soon. He wagered they wouldn't last more than another few days without help. Back at camp, soldiers were gathered around cheering. Some were still in bed and most were barely awake. Rowan rode past his father and gave him a smug look. Argus said nothing. Wren congratulated him. Luke was called over by Martin for an explanation of what happened. Rowan let him tell everything while he went back to his tent in hopes of finally getting some sleep. Robin waited for him outside the tent. "Rowan...what's happened? Why were you with...Nevermind. Lewis is dead?" Robin followed him inside the tent. "I slew him myself." Rowan gloated. He didn't like killing, but he couldn't help being overcome by all the excitement and praise being thrown at him. "I happened upon him trying to murder your brother. He was so distracted by Luke he didn't notice me." "I see." Robin said. He didn't share the enthusiasm of everyone else. "You want to know why I didn't bring you out with me." Rowan spoke in a matter-of-fact tone. "It doesn't matter. It's fine." Robin turned away. "Robin, you can't seriously think there's something going on between Luke and me." Rowan decided to break his promise to Luke a little. "Those two have a personal history together. I wanted Luke to be there because of that." "Personal history?" Robin asked. "Well...I'm not really supposed to tell you about this...I promised Luke I wouldn't..." Rowan pressed his hand against his lips, debating with himself over how much to say. "I'm not sure if I can tell you. If I do, you'll probably act different around him and he'll notice." "I swear I won't. Why would I?" "Because I know how easy it is for you to sympathize with someone." Rowan gave him a serious look. "Swear to me you won't." "I swear." Held his hand over his heart. "Those two met before the war, when Luke was a child. Lewis befriended him to gain his trust and get him alone and, well..." Rowan said as little as possible for Luke's sake. "He..." Robin saw red. "I'll kill him!" "I already did that." As Rowan expected, Robin reacted furiously. He tried to calm him. "I'll kill him again!" "Calm yourself. Don't let Luke know that you know. He'll be mad at me for it. I thought if I brought him out there alone it might give him some closure." Rowan took hold of Robin's shoulders. "I can't imagine how you'd react if I told you what happened with James." "What happened with James?!" Robin asked in an angry voice. "I promised Luke I wouldn't tell." Rowan definitely couldn't tell him about that. There would be no stopping Robin from killing the man. Robin started to calm back down. "Forgive me, Rowan. I had cruel thoughts about your intentions, but your actions were noble and pure." Rowan played with Robin's hair. "You really did think I'd been sleeping with him, didn't you?" "I've been wondering for a while...I'm sorry." He admitted. He was ashamed at himself. "I'll admit, I do care for Luke. Love wouldn't be a wrong word to express that, but it's not a romantic love." "That doesn't mean there cannot be passion." "Your brother is quite attractive. He is your brother, after all. But he pales in comparison to someone else I know." Rowan caressed Robin's cheek. "Someone I know who must have plenty of pent up frustration from the long journey here." "I'm sorry. I'm still tired." "You don't have to do anything." Rowan played with the top of Robin's pants with one hand. With his other, he pulled Robin closer for a kiss. Robin didn't resist him. He placed his hands on Rowan's waist. "If I were a more suspicious person, I could interpret your actions as an attempt to distract me from my concerns." "You know very well what I want. Now, lie down." Rowan lightly pushed Robin back. Robin spread himself out on the cot. His face was half covered with his messy hair. Rowan got on top of him. His hand wandered over the front of Robin's pants while he made several soft bites down Robin's neck. "You know..." Robin said in a breathy voice. "I don't think I'm tired anymore." Rowan said nothing in response. He was too busy stripping Robin's clothes off. The next day, Rowan said goodbye to his brother. He, Robin, and Luke did not fight in the battle that day, all three of them catching up on much needed rest and leaving Martin in charge. Another day of fighting was about to begin elsewhere near Silvanus's lands. Eider managed to keep himself alive. He disobeyed his father many times, staying in the back as he was used to and hiding. Before the battle began, Egret caught his son and demanded his presence beside him this time. "No more hiding in the back this time, son. The prince may let you get away with it, but I will not." He said. "Yes, Father." Eider swallowed hard. He prayed for a miracle. When the fighting started, his father lost track of him quickly. He tried to sneak away to the back. Eider couldn't do that without some fighting along the way, but it was better than staying up front. His horse got him a good ways back until it was injured. On foot, Eider could barely hold his own against far less trained soldiers. It was as everyone said in whispers. He only had his title because of who his father was. An enemy knight on horseback aimed a lance at him. He froze and awaited his end. That knight was felled before reaching him. Eider saw the symbol of a wolf surrounded by flames on the breastplate of another mounted knight. Luke and Robin's father, the one they called the Black Wolf, cut down men without hesitation. Unlike Luke who fought with deliberate motions or Robin who wielded his sword with little thought, Faolán moved in a way suggested a heartless, calculated plan--fast and devoid of mercy. His speed and strength hadn't dulled with age. Being in that man's presence terrified him more than his father. He was grateful for the man's intervention, but he quickly moved away from him. By contrast, he noticed his father moved slower than he remembered. His swing didn't cary the same force anymore. Argus chose not to fight anymore for good reason. His father was the same age as Argus. Continuing to fight in battles at his age and in his health was risky. His father always boasted about his strength and cunning. Perhaps, he thought, his father preferred dying fighting. From simple bad luck, he found himself face to face with Mark, one of Brion's sons. Eider blocked Mark's attack with his sword. It took all of his strength to hold him back. Mark pushed forward. Eider's feet slid back in the dirt. Mark's sword slid down the blade of Eider and hit the dirt. Instinctively, Eider knew he needed to swing. His hands shook. He raised his sword too slow. By the time he had it halfway in the air, Mark's sword was already coming back down on his. In seconds, Eider's sword was planted three feet away in the dirt. Eider searched for his dagger but his hand's slipped. Mark swung again. Before the sword could make contact, he was knocked to the ground. A man in armor with a blue cape stood in his place. "Get your sword!" The man shouted. Eider grabbed hold of it. The two of them attacked Mark together. Mark slipped away from them amongst the men. Eider didn't recognize the armor nor the man's voice, but he fought alongside him until sunset. When night came, the man said nothing to Eider afterwards. Eider followed him, wanting to know more about who his savior was. The man removed his helmet to reveal long, golden hair. With the blue cape, Eider almost mistook him for a young Robin. He heard from his father that Sir Faolán had a third son, much younger than Robin and Luke. Eider walked beside the squire. The young man's eyes were a perfect match in color and shape to Robin's. "About earlier, I owe you one. You're Faolán's boy, right? Why don't I treat you to a drink?" "My father doesn't want me drinking when I'm away from home. He says it will make me weak, and I must never be weak on the battlefield." The man said. He cleared his throat. "But thank you for offering." "What's your name? How old are you? You look pretty young." "My name is Avis. I am eighteen. I'll be turning nineteen soon." Avis avoided eye contact. "How come I never heard about you before?" Eider asked. "Father didn't want me to be in the public eye when I was younger because of my brothers. He thought it would put too many expectations on me." Avis put a slight distance between them. Eider ignored it and put his arm around Avis. "You know, I know both your brothers. Luke and I go out drinking together a lot." "Oh, I see. I've never met either of my brothers. They both left home before I was born." Avis glanced to the side. "You seem more polite than either of your brothers." Eider patted Avis on the back. "Hard to believe you're related to any of your family. You seem like a good kid. Too bad you have to be out here doing this kind of work." Free from Eider, Avis walked faster to get ahead of him. "I will do what I must to protect Princess Flora." "Princess Flora? Oh, is she the object of your courtly affection? Or perhaps something a little more?" Eider said suggestively. "My love is innocent." Avis's tone shifted to an annoyed one. "Heh, you remind me of Prince Wren. He's like that with my sister. I hate to admit it, but it's adorable to see them together. My sister's fiancé likes her more for other reasons, but he's good to her at least." Eider said, hoping it might lead to further conversation. Avis wasn't interested. "I see. Well, I need to be going. I have something to discuss with my father." "Ah, right. See ya tomorrow then." Eider waved goodbye. Avis seemed a capable man as far as Eider could tell. He intended to stay near him when the fighting picked back up tomorrow. Before going home, Argus met with Philip. Though they were already close by, the trip took a week from Argus needing to stop and gloat in every town along the way. The news of Lewis's recent death was celebrated. Argus gave no praise to Rowan himself, but he made no hesitation in accepting all the cheers and congratulatory remarks when he informed Philip and his court of his son's actions. Luke having guarded Rowan in the aftermath served both kings well as a symbol of their allegiance. Away from the celebrations, Wren got to work on the plan. He wrote a lengthy letter to Faolán explaining the situation and sent a messenger to deliver it. To his luck, his father never saw him with the letter. Argus was too busy trying to outdrink Philip to notice anything going on around him. His father wasted more time partying for another week before they set out for home. Three weeks after Wren sent his letter, it arrived. The messenger waited until dark to hand the letter off to Faolán, who was sitting by a fire, watching the flames with a strange fixation. "A letter for you, Sir Faolán, from Prince Wren." He handed the letter to him and bowed. "You are dismissed." Faolán opened the letter. "That boy? Why would he be writing to me?" He read over the letter and laughed hysterically. Faolán got up to retire to his tent and write a reply. Up ahead of him, Eider was pestering Avis. Avis dodged most of his attempts at conversation. He followed Avis back to the tent Avis was sharing with Faolán. Eider's attention was drawn to something. Both of them had shed their armor and changed clothes. At the upper back part of Avis's pants, Eider noticed a blood stain. "Aye, Avis, you got blood on your pants right there." He pointed to the place at the back. "What the hell is that from?" Avis's face went pale. "Uh...I don't know...I'll go change..." "Wait..." Eider grabbed Avis's wrist. Avis was young, but even for a teenager, had a very thin frame and small waist. He thought nothing of it before since Avis was so tall. "What are you...? Let me go!" Avis yelled. He was certain of his suspicious after getting a closer look. "You're a..." "Don't you dare think of telling anyone, boy." Faolán grabbed hold of Eider's shoulder and dug his fingers into it. Eider let go. "Ah, Sir Faolán, I was only leading her...er, him back to his tent to change." "I will take Avis there myself. Be on your way." Faolán shoved Eider to the ground. He looked at Avis and pointed to the tent. She went inside without a word. He put his hand on the hilt of his sword and glared at Eider before going inside the tent. Eider sat on the ground for a while. "What the hell is that about?" Faolán terrified him, but Eider was too curious to ignore what he saw. More than that, he wanted Avis's aid in battle. Woman or not, she fought better than him. His father would mock him if he knew Eider was willingly seeking the protection of a teenage girl, but he didn't care. She was still the daughter of the Black Wolf and sister of the Hellhound. She couldn't possibly be ordinary. The next day, Eider waited until after sunset to speak to Avis again. Faolán hovered over her that morning and Avis kept her distance while they fought. Eider found Avis, and she too was aware of his presence. She walked fast to avoid him. He did the same. "Wait! Avis, I just want to talk to you!" Eider called out to her. "Can't we be friends?" Avis stopped. She waited for him to catch up to her. "Do you mean that? I must warn you. If you try anything, I'll have to kill you." "I ain't gonna do nothing like that to someone who's saved my ass before." Eider said. "Let's speak somewhere private." Avis led him away from camp to a patch of woods. "Here is fine. What did you want to speak with me about?" "You're a woman. What the hell are you doing out here?" Eider asked. "It's none of your business." Avis spoke in a higher pitch than before. Eider assumed this was her natural tone of voice. "Ah, come on. I have to know. Why the hell would anyone willingly want to be here? Most of these men are only here to feed their families or out of some other obligation." He knew better than anyone there. If his father didn't force him to, he wouldn't set foot anywhere near a battlefield. "I want to become a knight so that I may protect those who cannot protect themselves." Avis said. Her eyes lit up as she spoke. "Sounds like something out of a fairytale." He considered adding that it sounded like something her eldest brother would say, but he wanted to save that for another conversation. "No offense, but I find it hard to believe you were raised by the Black Wolf." "I've always been like this, even before I lived with him." "You're a strange girl." He gave her a warning. "You should be more careful. You wield a blade better than me, but there's a lot of lonely men in camp. If you're caught..." "I won't be so easily taken. Whatever I must do to protect Princess Flora, I will. If I have to kill those on my own side, then so be it." She kept her back to him. "You're really close with Princess Flora, huh? I met her a couple of times. She's around your age, right? My sister's about your age too. You know, I think she'd like you. She likes those noble types." Eider came up behind her and patted her on the back. "Well, don't sweat it. I'm not gonna tell your secret or anything like that. Besides, your father would rip me to pieces if I did." Avis flinched. "I'm sorry. I've tried to stop him from acting like that." "You're a good girl. A shame you have to dirty your hands with blood." Talking with Avis was more difficult than he expected. "I'd offer you a drink, but that'd be a bad idea. I'm not real good on befriending women. Guess I could tell you stories about your brothers." She perked up at the mention of her brothers. "I would love to hear any stories you have to tell. I know so little about them." "I'll try to keep it to the clean ones. Luke's a right mess." He said with a laugh. "So I've heard." Her laughter trailed off awkwardly. "This may sound strange, but I think talking to you is makin' me miss my sister. Never been that great of a big brother. I wonder if she thinks of me at all." Eider tried harder when he was younger, when his mother was alive. When she was gone, all his thoughts were of becoming whatever his father wanted. "I'm sure she does." Avis said. Her words and expression were sincere, but Eider found it difficult to believe. Their conversation did not go on long after that, but Avis started to drop her guard more around Eider and the two were back to fighting side by side. Faolán's eyes never left Eider for a moment. Eider made a point of being near Avis, but not too close. A full month after parting with his brother, Wren finally saw home. He wore his brother's red and black cloak the entire journey back. His brother's and Robin's scents surrounded him. He wanted to wear the cloak to be more alluring to Rosabella, but it acted as a shield for him against his father's meddling and manipulations. No matter what his father said, he didn't care. Rowan, Robin, and his own happiness were more important than anything his father wanted from him. Upon returning, Wren ignored his father's wishes of following him around. Argus paid little attention to Wren after that, too caught up in bragging to everyone in the general vicinity about what Rowan did. The way his father spoke of what happened made it sound like his father had a direct hand in it. It sickened Wren. Wren went his own way, finding solitude in Rowan's room. He lay on his brother's bed and stared up at the ceiling. Taking a few slow breaths, he let his annoyance at his father drift from his mind. There was no point in getting riled up any further about it. He had something more important he needed to focus on. When his anger subsided, he got up and opened his brother's wardrobe. He knew it was silly, but he wanted to complete the picture. He exchanged his clothes for his brother's, donning red and black from head to toe. The clothes were still a little loose on him in places, but they fit better than the last time he tried them on. He pulled the hood up and went to the west tower. Wren knocked on Rosabella's door. "Rosa, it's me. I'm back." From the other side of the door, he heard fast moving footsteps. The door swung open. "Wren! You're home!" Rosabella tackled him, nearly knocking him to the ground. She openly kissed him in the doorway without looking if servants were nearby. "Did anything happen? Are you alright?" Wren shared her lack of concern. He pulled her close and let his hands slide down her back and below the sash around her waist. "I'm fine. I only watched. I did get to speak with my brother." Rosabella led him into her bedroom and shut the door. She noticed Wren's change of clothing. "Really? Are you on good terms again?" "Yes." Wren gave her a quick kiss on the lips, then a deeper one. "Rosa...tonight, would you meet me in the garden?" "Tonight? Why tonight?" Rosabella asked in between kisses. Wren held her close and whispered in her ear. "Tonight, let me fulfill your every want."
X. Little Bird