I. Homecoming

In a pool of blood, a man stood alone among the pile of broken bodies and tarnished metal. Every part of him was painted in splotches of red. His sword still dripped from his last kill. Down the field, his soldiers finished up with those who still remained from the enemy's army. There was no order or grace to the swing of their swords. The scene below was a perfect display of barbaric, unskilled labor for cheap pay. Their swords held more value than their hands. By tomorrow, every one lost would be replaced with another one. The man drenched in red on the hill top paid them no mind. Coming up on horseback, a man in shining armor with hair like sunlight rode up to the man in red. The man in red sheathed his sword. "The battle is almost over. You won't be needed this time." The man in red smirked as he petted the horse. "Fortunate for them." "Should I prepare a bath for you then? Your younger brother would faint if you returned as you are," said the man in the shining armor. "Yes, though that would be quite entertaining." The two left the field to the lower soldiers. The battle was settled. It was not necessary to watch the rest. At the close of the battle, the opposing side lay as a gory mass. Joining the disfigured pile were a quarter of their own soldiers. Friendship was a foreign concept among the lower soldiers. No grieving was done for the dead. Returning home, the people of the kingdom welcomed them as heroes, oblivious to the true nature of the soldiers who paraded in under flowers and silk banners. The knights, save one, were celebrated the most. The man in the shining armor felt a twisted amusement at the young women fawning over them. If they had been out in one of the nearby villages, he mused, they would been screaming in terror instead of overflowing with affection. The luxury of such obliviousness was granted to those who lived within the castle's walls and the town directly beside it. The one most admired by many of the women, with his handsome appearance and smooth words, had snatched up a girl who had barely begun developing into a woman and dragged her off into the woods earlier that morning. Such endeavors disgusted the man in the shining armor, though he never stopped it. The actions were too prevalent among those types. And he knew if they could not have the girls, they would try him as revenge for getting in the way. He did not have the option of killing them as he pleased, as he often wished he did. His sword was not to be drawn without his prince's permission. If he got in their way, he would have no choice but to submit in the absence of his prince's defense. This limitation of his meant that every action he took must be according to a certain order. Of all the men who served the kingdom, no one was as chained down as he was. He ignored his gloating comrades and turned his attention to his prince. There were no words of praise or affection spun towards his prince. There never were. Praise for the knights, save one, praise for the soldiers, praise for the king. No one dare speak the prince's name. If possible, no one mentioned the Bloody Raven ever. 'Your majesty', 'sir', 'brother', 'son'...the name 'Rowan' spoken in any voice other than his own was strange. His own name was treated the same. The only time he heard his name called was by the prince. He too was spoken of vaguely, or with muttered words. When people spoke of 'Robin', it was for the bird. He was fine with this. Their names were taboos only broken by themselves. In the castle, the men were greeted by the king and queen, the prince's younger brother, and the king's main ally, the ruler of a neighboring land. He wasn't a king, but he was treated as if he were by many of the nearby lands. That ruler's son was among the knights serving for the king, and his daughter was the prince's fiancée. She sat quietly beside the prince's younger brother, unnerved by all the armor and weaponry. "Another victory for King Argus the Great!" Cheers roared through the great hall. Prince Rowan quietly excused himself, taking Robin with him. The war was far from over. There were more battles to plan, and neither were welcome presences at the celebration. In a small room, the two of them discussed their next course of action. "What do you think? This one will be riskier. A dragon is said to live in the mountain." Prince Rowan stood in front of a map of the lands. Robin examined the area. "It'll be the quickest way. We've taken down dragons before." "And with higher casualties. Father's ordered me to keep costs down as much as possible. If we encounter the beast, he's going to give me hell for it." "What we'll lose in money there we'll save overall. If we take the alternative path, the trek across will be three times as long, and we're already on the verge of winter. And if we don't have a run in with it, we'll save even more. It's worth it." "I know that, but he doesn't care. He doesn't think about the long term, only that money is leaving his pockets. He expects me to win a war on a budget for a battle. I don't know what he's thinking. His ideas about money are stuck twenty years in the past." Rowan sat down and put his head in his hand. "I know it's frustrating, but it must be done. If he says anything about it, I'll say it was my idea." Robin put his hand on Rowan's shoulder. "He'll have your head for that, and I won't allow it. It's my burden to bear. You need not worry over it." Rowan put his hand over his knight's for reassurance. "I'll explain it to him in the morning. Perhaps this time I can actually get through to him." The prince's younger brother interrupted their private meeting, barging into the room with an annoyed expression. He glared at Rowan. "You didn't stay long." Robin moved away from Rowan, knowing full well what was coming next. Rowan looked away from his brother. "I'm not the partying type." "Rosa's here tonight. You should at least spend some time with her." Rowan's fiancée, Rosabella, was usually at the castle at this point. She had already moved most her belongings into one of the bedroom's in the west tower. There was nothing special about her being there. And as before, there was nothing unusual about the two of them staying apart. "That's your job. I have more important matters to deal with right now." Rowan sifted through documents on past budgets. His brother balled his fists and turned to Robin. "You, can't you get him to behave in public?!" "He does as he pleases. I have no control over him." Robin shrugged, half smiling. From behind a stack of papers, Rowan smirked. "Isn't it time for you to go to bed, little Wren? It's getting late, you know. You need to get proper sleep." "Don't speak to me like I'm a child." The two brothers had long been on bad terms. From Rowan's end it was in part because he enjoyed teasing his brother more than anything else. Knowing an argument was on the way, Robin took Wren to the door. "I'll speak with him about his behavior later. You have to understand that your brother is currently under a lot of pressure. Don't dwell too much on anything he says right now." Wren was annoyed at being pushed out, but he was more willing to speak with Robin on friendly terms than anyone in his family, especially his brother. Reluctantly, he accepted Robin's plea to stop. "You'd better give him a fierce lecture about his inappropriateness. He has absolutely no manners, none at all." "Yes, I promise you I will. Goodnight, Prince Wren. I will see you in the morning." Robin waved goodbye to Wren and locked the door soon after he left. Rowan snickered. "Hearing you speak so politely is always ridiculous." "You know I have an act to keep up. If I were to ever be out of line, you're father would have me hung. I know he wants to." "I'd slay him myself for such an act." Rowan put aside the papers. "Nothing good will come of a mess like that." Robin sat down beside Rowan. While he appreciated the prince's words, he knew it was best not to let Rowan dwell too long on such thoughts. They had a certain amount of freedom, despite the restriction they needed to operate under, in their current situation. Robin was determined to protect that, no matter what it meant. Rowan sighed. "I know, I know. But I really would, with no regrets." "I don't doubt that, and while I find it noble...we have rules we must abide by to maintain what we have. Please don't do or say anything rash, especially not at a time like this. You never know who may be eavesdropping." Robin brushed back a few stray strands of hair that messily hung in front of the prince's eyes. "I have to worry about everything. What people see, what they may hear even when they shouldn't be listening. Rules and etiquette, such worthless things. Those same people who would cross me for my words are the same ones who do the most vile acts. But it's fine for them, those weren't against the rules. Rosa's stepmother had one of her maidservant's hands cut off because she thought they were too pretty." Rowan stared out toward the window. "The poor girl bled to death because of some old woman's bizarre insecurities." "So, then you have spoken with Rosabella recently?" Robin asked. "She's still writing me letters, always about the bad. Wren's so awkward and innocent I don't think she has the heart to say those things to him." Rowan gave a half-crooked smile. "That's all we talk about in our letters, all the horridness we see." "A bond of dreadfulness by words trapped on paper--you two have the strangest relationship." "Our engagement itself is an act of horridness, so it suits us, don't you think?" Rowan returned his attention to the budget papers. He sighed. "It'd be a little less awful if Wren would do his part. I'm not conceiving a child with her." "Have you considered just having a servant do it?" "She'd accept nothing of the sort. Besides, Father would know for sure that it wasn't my child. It may not be difficult to convince the court that the child simply looks like Rosa's side, but if that child doesn't look at least partly like me...I don't want to think of what he might do." Rowan lowered his tone. "As you know, my features aren't exactly common. If it's not Wren, it won't be convincing." "That's true. Your features are very different from others." "Unfortunately." Robin brushed the side of Rowan's face and smiled. "It's not unfortunate. There is no one in this kingdom more beautiful than you." Rowan gripped the papers tightly. "You're the only one who says that." "It's not my fault if others speak lies." "If you say so..." Rowan turned away. "Regardless, this won't work without Wren. I don't understand why this is even a problem. They're madly in love with each other. Rosa's been trying everything, and the idiot just stands there 'but milady we can't, you're engaged to my brother'. Ugh.." "Then you may have no choice." "It's not happening. I'll declare her barren before I'd even consider it. This should be easy. He courts her for God's sake. Why won't he do it?" "Rowan, you already answered yourself. He's awkward and innocent. He can court her because it's chivalrous and pure so long as he goes no further with it. Now, if he had any sense, he would. Wren is Wren." Robin took a seat beside Rowan. "For now, let's forget about that. We still have the next battle plan to finish. You know your father will be expecting you to have everything figured out by morning." "I'm well aware I'm not allowed to rest." Rowan quickly changed his tone. "I'm sorry. Why don't you go ahead and go to bed?" "It's fine. You'll finish sooner if we work together. Let's start with the budget." Late into the night, the candles were left burning. At the sun's first light, Prince Rowan went to meet with his father. He and Robin had gone over everything that could possibly be cut to keep the costs low, but as they both expected, King Argus was far from pleased. It was too much in his eyes, and he gave them far less than what was needed. "You'll make do with that. You always overestimate what you need, and you always manage to come back victorious with what I've given you. If I let you spend how you wanted to, you'd have nothing to inherit." Argus boasted about his financial skills. "You see, son, it's because I do this that you will be as prosperous as I am. By leaving you with only what you need, you learn to be the best and not waste money on trivial things." Rowan had heard this lecture a thousand times. He silently waited for it to end as he watched his father feast on dishes worth more than some of his soldiers. "You will understand in time. You don't know how lucky you are to be my son. Here, take a seat and have some breakfast. It's the finest I could get, in honor of our latest victory." Argus pushed a plate in Rowan's direction. Rowan stood still and kept his voice monotone. "No, thank you, sir. I'm not hungry. Thank you for your generous advice and finances for the next battle. I will think over what you have said to me for future plans. If that is all, may I be excused? I'm rather busy today." "Nonsense. What could you possibly have to do today? The plan is done. Enjoy this fine meal. You didn't stay for last night's supper either. You missed such amazing dishes." Argus stuffed his face with a rare bird from another region. "Yes, it's a pity, but as you know, I needed to work on our next plan of attack. Which is precisely what I need to continue working on, as there are arrangements that must be made as soon as possible. Regrettably, I do not have time to sit with you this morning." Rowan kept his act up. It was the quickest and easiest way to end it. "Ah, well, hurry along then. It's a shame you're not quite as good at this as I was in my youth. I always had plenty of free time. Perhaps I should give you some lessons on that next time." "Yes, let's save that for next time." Rowan's agitation was beginning to slip through. "May I please be excused, sir?" "Fine, fine. But you really have no idea what you're missing..." "Thank you, sir." Rowan bowed and quickly walked out of the dining hall. On the other side of the door, he was greeted by Robin. "How did it go?" Rowan was already half way towards punching the nearest wall before Robin could finish his sentence. The noise made a loud smack that echoed down the hallway. "That bad?" Robin asked, knowing full well the answer. "He cut it. He cut it in half." Rowan hit the wall again. "Don't hurt yourself. Save that aggression for the enemy." Robin held back Rowan's hands. "We'll find a way, somehow. Let's go and do what needs to be done. We'll have to bargain more to make up the difference." "Deal with more bullshit, you mean." "You can let me fight." Rowan tensed at those words. He opened his mouth to say something, but Robin cut him off. Robin spoke with a stern voice. "You may not have a choice this time." "Very well. I suppose that will make up for some of the cost..." Rowan hated that most of all. He knew it was a sure victory, but it was an order he hated giving more than any. There was no time to dwell on that. There was much that needed to be done that day, and more the next. There was no time for anything. Robin could see the tired way Rowan carried himself. Everything in him wanted to alleviate his prince's burdens, but he was bound by the ways of the court. There was little he could do little beyond what he was given permission to do. A part of him hoped Rowan would reach a breaking point--to give him an order he would never normally give--so he could end this meaningless cycle. After all, his loyalty was exclusively to the prince. He only obeyed others for the prince's benefit. Those social chains wouldn't hold him in the least without that. For all the time he had spent with Prince Rowan, he had noticed a change in him recently. A day like that may not be so far off.
II. At the Edge of Winter