VII. The Red King
"Message for you, your highness, from King Brion." A young messenger bowed as he approached his king. The king kept his back to the messenger, staring out the window at the sky. He was a young king, a few years into his twenties. He dressed in black and his hair was an unnatural shade of red, as deep and dark as blood. The king leaned against the frame of the window. "Llywelyn, read that for me." "Yes, your majesty." Llywelyn, one of the king's knights, took the letter from the messenger. He had long blond hair and clothes that stood in a stark contrast to his king, as he dressed in pure white. He waved the messenger away as he opened up the letter. "Looks like he's asking for our help again." "Let me guess. He still wants us to take on Argus." The king leaned against the window. "Of course. Or rather, more specifically, his son and that loyal knight of his." Llywelyn folded up the letter and went to stand beside his king. He couldn't keep his eyes off the king's shoulders. His king was always easy to read, and the tension building in him was obvious. He spoke to him in a more commanding tone. "We can't ignore this forever. If Brion falls, we'll be next. We're his only remaining ally. Unless you wanted to switch sides?" "Siding with Argus will change nothing. He won't be satisfied until he's swallowed up the world." The king denied it, but Llywelyn could tell he was giving it more thought than he wanted to admit. The king kept his gaze to the landscape below to prevent Llywelyn from reading everything. "But I'd rather not have to face the Bloody Raven and the Hellhound myself. It looks like we won't be able to avoid it." "What should I say in response?" Llywelyn asked. The king opened the window. He immediately wrapped his arms around himself. "Isn't it spring yet? Why the hell is it still so fucking cold?" "It's not quite yet, but today isn't really that cold. Actually, it feels really good outside." When he spoke, a mixed look of fear and shame flashed in the king's eyes. Llywelyn changed his tone to a softer one. "Should I bring you your cloak?" "That won't be necessary. He's still fighting with Silvanus, right?" Llywelyn brought out a light coat for the king anyway and placed it on the king's shoulders. "Yes." "We'll go after Philip once spring arrives. I've heard the Devil's Rook is playing family with his older brother the Hellhound at Argus's castle. Once we deal with the weakest link, we can speak again on where to go from there. I'm not going anywhere near Argus with that demonic pair there and the younger brother in tow. We'll weaken Philip first, then plan what to do next from there." The king put the coat on properly. Llywelyn closed the window for him. "Brion's not going to like your answer." "Then that old man can get off his fat ass and join us on the battlefield. See how he likes that." The king snapped back. "I'll be sure to add that in near the end. Old man needs to get off his fat ass..." Llywelyn got out some paper and pretended to write something down. He gave the king a smirk. "What? You will not." The king rolled his eyes at him. He straightened the coat. "You should prepare yourself for what's coming. Inevitably, the Hellhound will be bearing his fangs at you." "So, that's decided then? You would take the easier one." Llywelyn sighed. "It hardly matters with those two." The king walked over to the fire in the room. He knelt down to warm his hands. "I only hope we don't have to fight them in winter. I can already see that demon bird spilling my blood against the snow." "It won't come to that. If we plan carefully, we can take them by fall." Llywelyn disguised his worry behind a strong voice. "Both sides are weary and morale is low. This war can't go on much longer." "No, I am quite certain we will meet them in the snow." "Ruaidhrí, we still have two full seasons. We'll end this before the first snow falls." Llywelyn knelt down beside his king and felt the king's forehead. His skin was cold to touch. "Addressing me so informally again. You mind yourself for everyone but me." He pushed Llywelyn's hand away. "My apologies. You always bring out the worst in me." "I should have your head for that." "If it pleases you, my king." Llywelyn said sarcastically. "Off with you. And write that letter properly." Ruaidhrí rolled his eyes. "I'll try." Llywelyn stood up and went to the door. He paused at the entraceway and looked back at his king. "Ruaidhrí, you know I won't let us lose, right?" "Llywelyn, be on your way." Ruaidhrí stayed close to the fire. Llywelyn watched him for a while before leaving. He didn't concern himself with what words needed to be sent to King Brion or preparing for the battles to come. Only one person dominated his thoughts. His king had given his orders. The Hellhound would be his opponent. He had witnessed that monster fight before. The blood that spilled from that one sword chilled him. As he was now, he didn't stand a chance of beating such a powerful opponent. He stopped midway down the hall and opened a window. The warm air of an early spring greeted him. Llywelyn looked out across the land on the verge of blossoming. "I'll bring you his head." Far from the lands, the one so feared by many was also watching the weather from a window. Robin had woken up early, as he usually did, and went to take a morning walk. The morning air was much warmer than the previous day. He stopped to enjoy it. Rowan wouldn't be awake for a while. While he loved Rowan dearly, he enjoyed spending time alone to be with his thoughts. He presumed it was a result of his mother's upbringing, as she was a solitary person herself. In the early part of the morning, the castle was already full of noise, but it was mainly servants doing their work. Their voices blended in with the call of the birds beyond their walls. Robin hummed to himself in rhythmn to a melody only he could hear. His solitude was interrupted by an unwanted presence. He knew well who stood behind him before the man spoke. "You're alone," said Argus. Without Rowan around, Robin didn't bother keeping up any pretenses that he cared about social order. He shot the king a glare. "What do you want?" "Lady Mara and Lady Fleur will be here shortly. Make yourself useful and see that they are taken care of when they arrive." Argus ordered. He kept a good distance between them. "That's not really a job suited to someone in my position." "You would do it if my son asked you." Robin turned around and leaned against the wall. He smirked at the king. "What does that have to do with you?" "You used to behave better than this." Argus narrowed his eyes. "My apologies. I have no patience for people who stand in the way of Rowan's happiness." Robin gave him a half bow. He sighed. "I'll do your meaningless task for you, only because I know you'll bother him if I don't. Make no mistake. I won't hold my tongue when no one else is around to hear." "If you really wanted to protect him, you'd keep your words to yourself at all times." The king warned him. Robin closed the distance between them. "Don't threaten me. There is a point to which even he cannot order me. If you cross that point, I will kill you." "Oh, I doubt that. Or are you less devoted than I thought?" Argus stood his ground. Robin drew his sword and held it up to the king's neck. He pressed the blade against the skin, but did not cut. Argus laughed at him. "You're a dog on a chain. You bite the wrong person and your master will choke you for it. I have another reason for sending you out there." "What is it?" Robin sheathed his sword. "I have another guest who will arrive soon. I want you to greet her as well. You may know her. She is not from the realm of man." Argus watched for Robin's reaction. "What is this guest's name?" Robin turned away to hide his face. "I don't know her name. She merely calls herself a soothsayer. Philip's kingdom was saved by her. Though your father warned me about speaking to her. Quite ironic, your father has always despised those who walk along the border of this realm." Robin flinched. His voice carried agitation in it. "I know nothing of that man's thoughts, but you would do best to listen to him. If you are not careful, she will have you put a noose around your own neck." "I won't be so easily fooled. Now, go and bring her to me." Robin said nothing in response to the king. From the time he spent with his mother, he knew what would transpire next. If the guest was who he thought, the king had doomed himself. Robin was certain of that more than anything. While he was amused at Argus potentially destroying himself, he worried what else the king's foolishness could cause. The woman he dreaded seeing had a habit of cursing generations if someone simply offended her. He hurried to meet the guest. At the castle gates, a woman in a dark cloak with dark hair waited for him. The unmistakable gleam of her wings flashed at him as the wind blew over the land. She smiled at him. "Well, well, little bird, we meet again so soon. It seems like I saw you only yesterday." "It has not been long, my queen." Robin bowed deeply. "You are Liliana's child. You may simply call me 'aunt'." Her smile carried a blatant fakeness. Robin had words he wanted to say to her, but he knew better than to let his true feelings out to such a dangerous person when he could avoid confrontation. "You have business with the king, yes?" "That is correct." She grabbed onto his braid and felt over the strands. Robin stayed still. "Your hair is so beautiful. Such a beautiful, golden color." "What did he summon you for?" Robin asked. "That's private. Though if you wish to give me something in exchange, I could tell you." She wrapped the braid around her hand. "What do you want?" "How about that handsome man you brought last time?" The woman in the dark cloak let go of his hair. "I'll return his body to you when I'm done with him." "I told you before. I will not part from him." Her interest in Rowan terrified him. Robin needed to act quickly to ensure she wouldn't use her meeting with Argus to get to Rowan. "Then you will have to wonder." As she walked past him, Robin took hold of her wrist. She stopped, an eerie, pleased look on her face. "What is it, dear?" "I wish to make a deal with you. I don't care what happens to the king, but I can't allow anything to happen to him." Robin held up his braid. "I'll give you this in exchange for the protection of the king's family." The woman felt over his hair again. "That is a fair bargain." Robin pulled out a knife from the side of his pants and cut midway through the braid. The tightly woven strands unraveled into a wavy mess around his face and shoulders. He handed the cut portion to the woman. Her face brightened as she took it. In her palms, the strands broken apart one by one into a fine, golden powder. She opened up a pouch and poured it inside. "Thank you, dear. I had forgotten to fill my bag when I left." She laughed as she put it away. Robin cursed at himself for not realizing her real motive earlier. 'It's fine. So long as Rowan is safe, it doesn't matter.' Robin escorted her to the king. She said nothing during the walk. Many of the servants stared at her, trying to get a better look at what was hidden under her cloak. She gave peeks to the women. When Robin found the king, he bowed before him and presented her. "Your guest has arrived, your majesty." He led the woman forward. "Thank you for bringing her here. Return back and wait for Lady Mara as I instructed you earlier." Argus waved him away. Robin bowed again and left. He had taken measures to protect Rowan, but that woman being in his home left him uneasy. The woman in the dark cloak stood before the king. She did not bow to him. "Hello, King Argus. You have requested my assistance." "Yes, Soothsayer. I have heard much praise for you from Philip, how you spared his kingdom from a cursed fate." Argus sat down in a chair before her. "I only gave him instructions to follow. Philip must uphold those rules or his fate will be the same." The woman said. "If he ever lets his first born son out of that tower, his kingdom will fall, and should a bleeding heart creep into that tower, it is assured that man will escape. Philip avoids his fate for now, but humans often falter when they become relaxed." "I assure you I would never be careless with such valuable information." Argus lounged back in his seat. "That brings me to why I requested your presence. I want to know what must be done to win this war and keep my kingdom strong." "Have you brought the payment we agreed upon?" The woman asked. "Yes. Girl, come here." Argus snapped his fingers. A young servant woman stepped forward from behind a curtain. She had a beautiful face and long blonde hair. Her body quivered before the woman in the dark cloak. She circled the servant woman. "She is quite beautiful. I accept your offer. She will make a lovely servant for me, perhaps even an apprentice if she has any talent in her for magic. Perhaps something more than that too..." She caressed the servant woman's face. "Very well. I will show you what I see. Pretty girl, wait for me over there." The servant woman stood at the door. The woman who called herself a soothsayer opened up the pouch at her side and threw golden dust into the air. She held her hands up in the air, her fingers glowing. The dust formed into an image, a battlefield covered in snow. Silhouettes of soldiers fought against one another. A shadowy figure with red hair approached one surrounded by ravens. The man surrounded by ravens cut across the red haired man's stomach. His blood splashed against the snow as he fell. "The end of the war begins when the red king falls. After he is gone from the battlefield, the war will end within in a month. The next heir will be born within less than a year from then--a male child born from the beautiful rose." She waved her hands to change the scenery. The battlefield faded away and changed to a garden. The shadowy figure of a woman surrounded by roses held a something small in her arms. "This is excellent news. Then, by this time next year, we'll be celebrating our victory. I do have one question...about the child, who is the father?" Argus questioned. Rosabella being the mother was expected. She moved her hands again. The woman surrounded by roses held hands with a man wearing a red cloak. The two figures both wore crowns of white flowers and stood underneath a tree with white flowers and red berries. Their forms were surrounded by flowers from all sides. "I see a man in red and black in matching dress with the mother, holding hands beneath a rowan tree in a great garden." She continued. "Red and black? Well, I'll be damned. What of the knight who escorted you in? What fate do you see for him?" The dust changed to show a man in blue walking through a dark forest with a lantern. His path was obscured by the light. With that image, the dust fell to the ground like rain and disappeared. The woman lowered her hands. "He will not be serving this kingdom once the war ends, nor will he adhere to any mortal ways. He will be free from those chains that bind him here." "So, my son will have his heir and the Hellhound will be gone. I couldn't ask for greater news." Argus was elated. She spoke softly the final part of her prediction. "There is one more thing I see in store for you. A warning. Should the blood of your first born ever be spilled upon your second born, that crown will be removed from your head by force." "Are you saying if my younger son attempts to assassinate my older son..." "No. Nothing will change if the younger one chooses to take the older one's life, nor in the reverse of that. This warning is only if that blood is spilled by someone else's hands." The woman walked over to the servant and pulled her close to her. Argus breathed a sigh of relief. He had already given Wren the dagger and put that idea in his head. "That is a curious prediction. I wonder then...which son will rule in the end?" "Your first born will decide. I can tell you no more than that." The woman took a handful of dust from her pouch and spread it in a circle on the floor. "I can give you another girl if you'd like." Argus stood up, seeing that she was preparing to leave. "I can see nothing further. Your gift would be in vain. I'll be leaving with the girl." "Just a moment. I have heard praise of your services, but what guarantee do I have that your words today will come to pass?" Argus walked over to her to catch her. "I am never wrong. Whether you will be satisfied with the knowledge I have given you is another matter. Few men are content with the truth." She brought the woman into the circle with her. "Rest assured, you will live a long life." "What about your warning?" He didn't understand how that could be guaranteed if the warned event transpired. "What will happen then?" "I am never wrong. Good day, mortal king." The dust surrounding her glowed. In a flash of light, the woman in the dark cloak vanished along with the servant woman. Argus watched the dust settle and fade to gray. Robin waited outside for Mara and Fleur's arrival. Eider and Luke joined him not long after. They talked amongst themselves. From what he overheard, Eider convinced Luke to come with him. He caught something about Fleur, but Robin wasn't interested enough to listen to the details. He wondered why the king sent him out here in the first place if Eider was already aware of them coming. After an hour of waiting, a carriage pulled up. Robin stood back while Eider went to greet them. Mara, Eider's stepmother, was the first to exit the carriage. She had a nasty look on her face, though Robin couldn't remember ever seeing her make any other expression. Eider's five sons followed after her, scurrying out quickly. Fleur was next. She appeared to be worn out from the long trip. Their servants followed behind her. "Hello, Mara. How was the trip here?" Eider had the same look on his face he often gave his father, one of submission and fear. "Eider, I see you're as filthy as always. Where's your sister?" Mara hit his arm with her fan. Luke raised an eyebrow at Mara's behavior. Robin was used to how she was and unsurprised by her rudeness. Eider said nothing of it. "Bella's off with the queen. They should be back soon." "No doubt she's tramping about wearing some whorish outfit again. That mongrel prince is shameless." "She's got the attention of the man next in line to be king. She couldn't do better for herself." Eider defended his sister. It was odd for him to do so, but he did secretly envy her position. She didn't need to go into battle like he did. Her job was win over the prince and produce an heir. As far as he could tell, Rowan seemed a decent man. Rowan more readily defended his sister than he did himself, and he found that admirable, though he would never tell the prince so. If the prince wanted to dress his sister in ways others didn't approve of, he didn't really care nor did he think his sister did. "An unfit king. She'd do better to seduce Prince James if she wanted to make her family look good." Mara ranted on. Luke eyerolled at that statement. He wasn't interested in being involved with Eider's family issues, but Eider had promised to buy him a drink later if he came with him. "You know Father and King Argus are good friends. It serves us better to be connected to him." Eider reminded her. James was originally the man their father wanted her to marry, but only because Rowan had rejected many others before her. Him asking for her hand in marriage was a welcomed surprise to both families. The boys escaped from their mother and swarmed Robin. He could tell they had a lot of energy needing to be released from the long ride. The youngest boy, Loup, tugged at his wrist. "Uncle Robbie, show us some magic!" "Make a rainstorm!" Adrien, who was a year older than Loup, said. "Do you have any treats for us?!" Aimé, the middle child, asked, pulling at his other wrist. "Don't you boys want to see your old man? He's not even really your uncle." Eider complained. It was like this every time. His children never wanted to spend any time with him. Robin was technically related to him through both of their fathers sides, but it was too distant for the boys or Eider to view him as really being family. Calling him 'uncle' came about more from the children wishing they were more closely related. "Papa, you're boring. Tell us a story, Uncle Robbie, about an adventure!" William, the second oldest son, said. "Tell us one from when you lived with fairies!" Jean, the oldest at ten, begged. "They really like him. I guess there's no competing with magic." Luke put his hand on Eider's shoulder. Eider sighed and shrugged. "Now, now. No treats today." Robin sat down on the ground. "Though I do have a story for you...about slaying a great beast, a watery monster with a mouth that could swallow ships." The boys all stared at him with eager anticipation. "He exaggerates his stories, you know." Eider said, hoping to get some attention away from Robin. "I never lie, unless Prince Rowan tells me to." He proclaimed. Robin whispered his words after that. "And he would certainly want me to lie about parts of this story, especially the part where the beast drags him under the water and tries to drown him." "The man almost never speaks to me, but he'll tell my children tales that could fill a library." Eider shook his head. "I can't believe the prince still keeps that wild heathen around." Mara scoffed at Robin's very presence. She noticed Luke standing beside Eider. "And who are you? You look very much like that fairy demon." "I'm Sir Luke, his younger brother." Luke bowed. "What, is that mongrel Prince starting a collection? I daresay, if I find the Black Wolf here next time, I shan't visit again." Mara said with a snort. Luke was done with being polite. He sneered. "Oh, I'm sure my father wouldn't pursue you. He prefers beautiful women." "How dare you! I remember you now, the sodomite of Cailean, the other bastard child of that wretched Black Wolf and that peasant whore. Aren't you supposed to be serving King Philip? Or did he finally have enough sense to toss you aside?" She pointed her finger at him as her face filled with disgust. "I'm here as a personal favor to the crown prince." Luke replied to her. "What sort of favor does he need someone like you for? Is Bella not enough to satisfy him?" "What the prince asks of me is not information someone like you is entitled to." Eider backed away from the two of them. He wasn't about to get caught up in their fight. "I'm sure King Argus won't mind telling me. Now, bastard farmboy, why don't you do something more worthy of what you really are, and carry my bags for me?" She pointed to the back of the carriage. "I'm not carrying a damn thing for you, you cantankerous, whiny bitch." Luke said without a single care. The boys all went dead silent, two of them covering their mouths. Eider and Fleur tried hard not to laugh. Robin didn't care and laughed loudly to make sure she heard him. Mara's face turned bright red. "You...! You're no better than an animal. When my husband hears about how you've insulted me..." "I'm not afraid of your husband, so spare me." Luke retorted. Mara raised her hand to slap him. He caught her wrist halfway and held it tightly. "Filthy beast." She huffed and pulled her hand free. Still enraged, she took her anger out on one of the nearby servants with a hefty slap to a manservant's face. "Carry my bags to my room. I will not tolerate slowness." She stormed forward with the manservant following close behind her. Eider followed not far behind his stepmother. Robin walked with the children. Luke noticed Fleur lagging behind. He approached her. "Milady...ah, Fleur, was it?" She looked up at him and blushed. She averted her eyes. "Y-yes..." "Let me carry your bags for you. I'm sure you must be tired." "Thank you, uh...Sir Luke. It's those three right there." She showed him her bags. He got them down and carried them in one hand. He offered his other arm to her. She put her arm in his and walked with him. Luke noticed bags under her eyes. Mara looked back at Luke. "You better watch him, Eider. He'll be in your wife's bed before you know it." "Ha! Luke wouldn't be caught dead between a woman's legs." Eider laughed. "A shame. You're very handsome." Fleur smiled at him, her face still red. "Thank you, but you've done decently already. You're husband's not too bad looking himself." He said. Eider turned around. "Luke, did you just call me handsome?" "Don't let it go to your head. You still smell like a pig drowned in a keg." Luke quickly lessened his compliment. "You don't smell much better most of the time." Eider shot back. "I bathe once every week or so. When was the last time you bathed? A year ago?" "I bathe about every...three or four months. Don't matter. Your water horse brother over there would bathe daily if the prince let him and he still stinks of sweat half the time." Eider motioned in Robin's general direction. "There's a vast difference between smelling of sweat after doing work and reeking most of the time for no reason at all." Luke said. Everyone except Mara had a good laugh. Inside the castle, Wren was standing before his brother's bedroom door. He knocked lightly on the door, nervous that anyone would answer him. He knocked again slightly louder. When no one responded, he peeked inside. Robin was already gone. Rowan was still asleep in bed. Wren walked lightly over to the bed. Rowan lay unguarded before him. His expression was a peaceful one. With Robin gone, Rowan had sprawled out across the center of the bed, resting his head in between two pillows. Wren sat down on the edge of the bed. "You're asleep this late? Do you always sleep in? Must be nice." Wren said as he watched his brother sleep. "Get back in if you want." Rowan rolled over. He was clearly still asleep. Wren was amused at his brother confusing him for Robin. He continued to talk to him. "Why would I do that? Get up. I wanted to talk to you." "If you want me up, you know what to do." Rowan rolled back into the center of the bed and spread out more, knocking the blankets down further. Wren flicked him on the forehead. "Wake up before you embarrass yourself further." "What?" Rowan sleepily rubbed his eyes. He looked up at Wren. "Wren?! What are you doing here?" "I came to see you. Though I think I saw far more than I wanted." Wren was quickly pushing that image out of his mind. Rowan had no memory of what he said in his sleep. "Where's Robin?" "Oh, he went to go meet with our guests." Wren said as he got up from the bed. "So, what did you want to see me about?" Rowan got up as well. He washed his face off. "I haven't had a chance to ask you what you wanted for your birthday." Wren got straight to the point. "Don't worry about that." Rowan dried off his face. He saw that Robin had laid some clothes out for him to wear at the foot of the bed. Normally, Robin helped him dress as well, but Rowan never really cared about such formality and saw no reason to call for a servant to dress him instead. He started to change into the clothes Robin had picked for him. "Did you need something else?" Wren stood awkwardly. He fidgeted with his hands. "Does that mean you don't intend to get me one either?" "So, is that your real question? What did you want?" Rowan sat down on the bed to put his shoes on. "I don't...really know. Are you actually going to still be home then?" "I should think so. Your birthday's ten days after mine. I doubt I'll be leaving so soon." "You said that last year and you left on the night of the sixteenth." Wren spoke timidly. There was a moment of silence between them. Rowan cleared his throat. "That was...unforeseeable and unfortunate timing. I didn't intend to leave the night before your birthday. Do you want me to give you a gift earlier?" "I wanted you to stay." His voice grew softer. "I can't promise that. If I'm needed, I have to leave. It's not like I want to go." Rowan saw Wren's face fill with disappointment. He rephrased his response. "Wren, I'll try to make sure I can stay for your birthday, but if there's something you wanted from me...you should tell me now." Wren didn't want anything other than what he already asked for. He thought up something trivial. "I could use a haircut." "You can have a servant do that. Isn't there anything else?" "I'm sorry." "I'll get my scissors." He put his hand on Wren's shoulder. Rowan pulled a chair from the corner of the room and put in the center. "I must warn you. I'm not an expert at this. The only time I cut hair is when Robin asks me to trim his, and I honestly don't think I do a very good job at it." Wren wondered why Robin wouldn't have a barber-surgeon do it instead. To ask a prince to cut his hair seemed extremely arrogant. Though he too was asking something out of line. Wren sat down in the chair. "I'm sure it'll be fine. I only need a trim myself. It's starting to get in my eyes in the front." Rowan started in the back, evening out the stray parts of hair that grew out longer than the rest. "How have things been going with Father?" "I don't know. I don't really like training." Wren unconsciously held onto the arms of the chair. "Could we talk about something else?" "What do you want to talk about?" Rowan asked. "Don't be mad at me for this. Why do you..." Wren stopped himself before he said something to upset Rowan. He thought over his words carefully. "What is it about Rin that interests you?" "Hmm...that's a hard question to answer. There's the obvious. I've never met a man more handsome." Rowan responded in a silly tone. "I'm being serious." Wren groaned. Rowan laughed. "I know. Let's see...he's very loyal, brave, strong..." "Anyone would say that. I mean, what is it that's different from what I see?" Wren didn't say it, but he was happy to hear his brother sounding so playful. It reminded him of when he was young and they used to play together. "You mustn't laugh at me." Rowan's tone changed. His voice had an otherwordly quality to it. "When we met, the first time I looked into his eyes, I saw the world burning and the two of us covered in blood. In that moment, I wanted him." "What?! That sounds horrifying." Wren had never heard either of them mention something like that before. "In retrospect, I should have been disturbed, but I wasn't. What I felt in that moment was a strange intensity that I can't really describe. I had to have him. I didn't understand what I wanted him near me for, but the idea of never seeing him again terrified me more than anything I've ever experienced since then." Rowan recalled that moment in his mind. That moment was engraved into him. Standing in Silvanus's castle with so many unfamiliar adults around him talking about things he didn't understand, he wanted to go home and see his mother who was due to have a baby at any time. When he was about to go ask his father if he could go home, a boy just a little older than him greeted him. When their eyes met, he saw it then, the fire. 'Let me stay by your side for eternity.' Even now, that event didn't seem real to him. It felt more like a dream than a memory. Wren understood less than he did before. "But you had just met." "I told you. It's ridiculous." Rowan had a distant look on him and a calm smile. "What about Rin? Did he see that hellish vision too?" "No, he saw something even stranger." Rowan's voice became more playful again. "He saw us getting married in front of a waterfall in the deepest woods. Married, can you believe that? Who would marry us?" "If you could, would you?" He asked. "It sounds nice, but that's not possible." Rowan trimmed the front. "Sometimes, I wish we never met." "Why?" "He would be better off not tied up in my mess. If he had stayed with his mother, I bet he'd have immortality right now, mastering all forms of magic and doing whatever else he wanted." Rowan imagined Robin would be able to control the very seasons by this point if he had been left alone to his own devices. "And what would you be doing?" "Something stupid, I assume." Rowan finished up with the front. "Maybe I'd be like Luke, or more like Father." Wren stared directly at his brother. "Then I'm grateful, more than before, that he is here." Rowan's eyes widened before broke the stare. He put the scissors down and held up a mirror to Wren's face. "Don't be grateful yet. Is this good enough?" Wren looked at himself in the mirror. He smiled. "Yes, thank you." "I'll try to be here on the seventeenth." Rowan dusted off Wren's shoulders. "I'm sorry. I didn't come here to bother you. I'm sure you had things to do." "It's fine. Is there anything else you wanted to talk to me about?" There was a heavy weight on Rowan's mind. He hoped Wren's actions were genuine, and that he could let go of it. "That's all." Wren got up from the chair and dusted himself off a little down the front of his shirt. "Are you sure? Father's not bothering you about anything, is he?" Rowan persisted. Wren paused before answering him. He wanted to tell his brother about what their father was making him do, but he was too ashamed to say it. "No." "Oh." Rowan looked away. He put the scissors and mirror up. "Well, I need to get ready for later. We can talk again after that, if you want." "Alright." After Wren had left the room, Rowan picked the scissors up again. He stared at his reflection in the blades for a long while. Later in the day, Argus had planned to speak to the public about their current progress in the war. Rowan was expected to attend and sit near his father during the event, with Rosabella at his side for appearance reasons. His mother and Lady Mara would also be attending, along with Eider and Fleur. Argus had long barred Robin from attending public events, as he tended to unnerve the crowd and Wren was free to choose if he attended or not. Properly, he was supposed to sit with his brother, but Rowan had argued with their father when Wren was little that the eldest was enough for the public. He hated public events and was glad to be free from going. During times like this, he usually stood watch from a balcony with Robin. He went on his way to meet Robin where they usually stood. He saw a blond man standing ahead near the corner of the hall and ran up to him, assuming it was Robin. He stopped quickly when he realized he was mistaken. "Hello, Prince Wren. How are you?" Luke bowed to him. "I'm well." He tried to walk around Luke. Luke drew close to him. "I've been wondering. How old are you exactly? Twenty-four? Twenty-three?" "I'll be nineteen in a few days." Wren said. "What?!" Luke stepped back a few feet. "Didn't you know? My brother and I are eight years apart." Wren didn't see what was so important about his age. "Eight?! I assumed you couldn't be more than three years apart at most." Luke grimaced. "How old are you?" Wren asked back. "I was born the same year as your brother. I'll turn twenty-seven this year." Luke bowed deeper than before. "My apologies. If I had known you were nearly a decade younger than me..." It dawned on Wren what he meant. He was not going to let Luke get away with treating him like a child. "I'm old enough for what you were asking of me." "I prefer men closer to my age." Luke had no further interest in Wren. He started to walk away. "Why don't you run along? I need to find your brother." "My brother is busy right now with Father. Father's going to speak to the public about the war." Wren stopped him, though he wasn't sure why he bothered. "Then what are you doing here?" Luke really wanted to say, 'You don't do much of anything, do you?'. He kept that thought to himself. "I don't really...do public events. Do you mind if I ask you something? You've fought alongside my brother many times. What's he like when he's fighting?" Talking about Rowan perked Luke's interest. He stroked his chin as pictured Rowan in his mind. "Hmm, he is a balance of grace and desperation. You can see he puts all of his will into every movement." "Graceful desperation...what does that look like?" His brother was too powerful to be described by the word desperation and graceful sounded equally ridiculous. He couldn't begin to picture it in his mind. "It is quite beautiful to observe. The lengths he has gone to perfect his technique shines most when he is backed into a corner." Luke's face lit up as he spoke. "Do you think someone like me would ever be of any use to him out there?" Wren asked what had been weighing on his mind. He didn't want to fight, and he didn't think he was anywhere near ready to do so. But Rowan looked so tired since he came home. "You? Perhaps, more than anyone. If he had you to worry about, I'm sure he would fight even harder." "So, I would only slow him down by my weakness." Wren sighed. "It's more his weakness than yours. If you had my brother's skill, the result would be the same." Luke elaborated. "I don't understand." "Your brother makes great weapons out of the shackles bound to him. I've never met anyone like him before. My brother is not so different. He's freer to move as there's less chains holding him down, but between the two, I think your brother might actually be the stronger one." "I still don't really understand what you mean." Wren scratched the back of his head. "To be honest, I don't completely understand it myself." Luke looked out from a nearby window at the crowd down below. "Shall I join you then, for this event?" "If you would like. Ah, could I ask a favor of you? Could you not mention...that time we met to anyone else? I haven't told Rosa about that yet and I don't want her hearing it secondhand..." Wren had been meaning to tell her, but hadn't found the right moment to do so. He wasn't sure if she would be mad at him or not, and he was dreading it. "So, you are involved with his fiancée?" Luke recalled that bit of information from when they first met. "Rosa is my lover." Wren said bluntly. Aside from Rowan, Robin, and his mother, he had never let anyone else know that before. Something told him Luke could keep secrets well. "I see. Your brother has everything set up quite nicely." "Set up on his own. He won't be getting what he wants from me until he asks properly." Wren added. Luke presumed as much from what Wren had yelled to Rowan that night. "Oh, is that so? Older brothers can be quite selfish, can't they? If you want her badly though, you should at least try meeting him halfway and go talk to him about it." "I know. I've been meaning to, but it's...an awkward subject to bring up." Wren looked out at the crowd. He was still too frightened to stand before so many people and speak. "I want to be of some use to him. Perhaps I should train harder..." Luke noticed how nervous Wren sounded. "I think he'd be happier with you alleviating his other burden." "If you wish to accompany me, let's go. It's this way." Wren changed the subject. He didn't know what to say in response. There was a part of him deep down that wanted to alleviate both of his brother's burdens. More than that, as he trained with his father, he wanted to see first hand what his brother was enduring when he left home. Just beyond Silvanus's lands, his men had finished a battle against Brion's forces. Egret, though he served Argus, typically worked with Silvanus due to his lands being slightly beyond the border of Silvanus's. He always acted for Argus, no matter what men accompanied him into battle. As per the plan, he leaked information to the other side to weaken Silvanus's army. There was always the risk of losing, but he could escape if need be and let Silvanus fall. Today, the battle had gone in their favor, though Silvanus lost many. Egret chuckled to himself at the massacre before him. Nearby, Faolán was tending to his youngest child, who was still a squire. "Let me see." He examined a cut along the arm. "It's not deep. Wash it off thoroughly and it'll be fine. Go on. I'll join you a little later." "Yes, Father." The young squire gave a slight bow before leaving. "He's a bit on the thin side, don't you think?" Egret remarked. Faolán looked over his own cuts on his arms. He quickly covered up his bare skin. "He's still green. He'll shape up more in time." "I'm surprised you hid this one for so long. Your other two are so well known." Egret sat down beside him at an uncomfortably close distance. He caught a glimpse of what Faolán was hiding and wanted to get a closer look. He had forgotten to put his gloves back on. Egret could only see marks along the edge of his sleeves, but he saw what looked like deep burn wounds. The injuries couldn't have been from the battle. He kept note of that, wondering what the Black Wolf was hiding and how he could use that against him. "If he wants a reputation, he'll have to build that on his own merit. I won't have him riding off someone else's glory." Faolán opened up a jug of water. "Who's the mother?" The more he knew about him, the more he could manipulate him. "The same woman as the other two." "Again? You've been a widower for years now. Just marry the poor woman and let her have some dignity. Your children will be legitimate then too." Egret doubted such a repeated scenario could be purely out of finding the woman attractive. He knew the woman was a peasant--everyone knew. Unless he was secretly sending her money to care for herself, she had to have long lost her youthful beauty. He laughed under his breath. 'Don't tell me the Black Wolf has been in love this whole time. How pathetic.' "Flannán's married to someone else." He drank from the jug. "That's easy to take care of." Egret was ready to make his first move. He spoke louder than before. "You sure your boy's just green? He looks more than thin to me. A little slender and little curvy, if you will." "Are you insinuating I would bring a woman onto the battlefield?" Faolán glared at him. In that intense look, Egret caught a hint of fear. He pushed him further. "You seem to dote on him a lot more than the other two. You really are getting soft. I wonder what would happen if I told my men there was a pretty lady in camp." "I will burn all of you alive." The fear and anger were perfectly matched in his eyes. "Ha! You sound just like your first born. When my older cousin Ceara would come over crying about how her boy had turned into a monster, I was impressed with the feats I heard you pull off. To see you become so weak as to give into the demands of a girl is pathetic." Egret smirked. 'This will be easier than I thought.' Faolán stood up. "Before you go insulting me and my children, you better save some of that for your own. At least my children are willing to fight. Avis is a squire and has already slain more men than your son ever has." "Eider, that weakling. The only good thing that ever came from my union with Eleonora was Bella. At least she can bed above her class." Eider was an embarrassment to him, more than both his wives. As his only son, he expected great things out of him. No matter what Egret did to try and stir some courage and strength into him, Eider remained as weak and cowardly as ever. Rosabella was the only one of use to him. As she was now, she was set to become the next queen. "Stay out of my business, Egret. And if you or anyone else lays a hand on my daughter, there will be no god or devil that can hold me back." With that, he left to go join his daughter. Egret opened up a jug of his own, filled with ale instead of water. "The Black Wolf, how weak you are. I'll slay you soon enough." At Argus's castle, the event had already begun. Argus spoke about their efforts in the war, praising their soldiers and pretending to mourn for the lives lost. He gave a hopeful speech about ending the war by the end of the year and asked for prayers for the soldiers from the people. Rowan played his role well, sitting beside his father and holding hands with Rosabella. To his annoyance, Argus announced the two of them would be wed once the war ended. It was likely that would be the case, but he hated being reminded of that fact. When his father made the announcement, he stood up with Rosabella and kissed her hand. Wren, Luke, and Robin watched the display from a balcony high above. Wren gripped the side of the balcony. He turned to Robin. "Doesn't it anger you to see him like that?" "He's merely acting." Robin brushed it off. "Still...Surely, it irks you too." "I'm not bothered by what he's doing, but why he has to do it." In truth, Robin was furious too. His anger was directed at the people before him, noblemen and peasants alike who's rules forced them into this situation. If he lived in the other realm, Rowan would be kissing his hand instead and no one would think anything of it. Luke was paying attention to something else. "I'm surprised there aren't rumors about him spread all over. He's not even remotely subtle." "What do you mean?" Wren asked. "He's been staring at that guard's ass for most of the speech." He pointed to the guard to Rowan's right. "What?" Wren leaned over the balcony. His brother's gaze was exactly where Luke said it'd be. "Sounds like him." Robin said. "What?! You don't care?" Wren was shocked. Robin stared at him in confusion. "No. What's the issue? I do it all the time too." "But...I thought you...How can you...?" Wren was so shocked he couldn't finish his words. "I'm not going to pursue anyone else. I'm not going to pretend there aren't other attractive men in the world either." Robin casually said. "I can't believe I heard you say that." Wren stared at him, completely taken aback. Luke shook his head at Wren. "This is exactly why I don't mess around with people in your age range. Far too immature." Wren was too distracted by what Robin had told him to pay attention to the rest of the speech. Other people, he understood. Robin was supposed to be special, different. He was supposed to be completely loyal and devoted. Robin's omission didn't match with the ideal in his mind. 'Perhaps...I put too high standards on him...' Wren thought. He put those words together with all the other ways in which Robin wasn't quite as noble and chivalrous as Wren imagined him, alongside Robin's occasional pervertedness and general inappropriate behavior. As he thought more on the matter, overall, Robin was far more worldly than chivalrous. 'That doesn't matter. He's noble in the ways it really matters.' Wren told himself. He recalled the many indecent books Robin had given him. 'He's still a pervert though.' After the speech and a feast, the castle quieted down. Eider was waiting for the silence. He had cut his fun with Luke early. He went to Fleur's room. At home, they had always slept in separate rooms. As Argus's guests, it was no different. He knocked on her door. "It's me." Eider said as he opened the door. Fleur was in her nightgown, brushing her hair in front of a mirror. She glanced back at him and continued brushing. "How are you feeling?" Eider came up from behind her and tried to rub her shoulders. Fleur flinched at the contact. She said nothing. "Say, Fleur, you remember when we were young and messing around in secret? You were a lot feistier back then. You're so quiet now." His movements were too clumsy to achieve anything relaxing. "You wanted me quiet." Fleur's voice was at a whisper. "I suppose I did." He gave up on the massage and rested his hands on her shoulders. A long sliver of white skin just below her neck shined against the soft peach illuminated in the dark and the shadows cast by the dim candlelight. "I've been thinking, I'm getting a little old for messing around. Once the war's over and I'm home more, I don't think I'd want the boys to catch me with some servant." Fleur continued to brush her hair, sitting silently. "What I mean to say is...I...do you think, we could try...to be like how we were before? When we were young?" Fleur put the brush down. She wet a rag to wash her face with. "I don't know. I don't think so." "Right...I suppose things could never be like that again." He kissed the back of her head. "I'm sorry. I know I've hurt you." "I deserved it." Fleur kept her eyes on the pool of water before her. "Isn't that what you said? Because I gave you..." "I'm not mad at you about that. I was when I was young. That's why I ended it to begin with. But then you found out you were pregnant and, well, you know what happened after that." He petted her hair. He had forgotten the softness of it. "I was angry at a lot of people then. I used that as an excuse to take it out on you." "Where is all this coming from suddenly?" Fleur faced him. "I've been thinking about us a lot since...I'm not trying to upset you. It's not your fault that happened. Besides, you've already given me five healthy boys." "You think I'm incapable of doing it again, don't you? If you want another boy, I..." Fleur slammed the rag down on the table. "No, that's not what I'm getting at. I don't care if we have more boys or not. You've given me plenty. Though I wouldn't mind, if we had another, if it were a girl. A little lady around might be nice...But you don't need to..." Eider took a step back from her to give her space. Fleur stared at her husband, bewildered. "You're...I didn't think you cared about any of our children beyond them serving their purpose." "I think I wanted to believe that myself." The words he was about to say he would not admit to anyone else. It had taken him a long time to admit it to himself. "Father's never cared for me, and he didn't care about throwing me out into battle. The man terrifies me, and that's why I wanted to be like him. I thought he'd praise me, or at least, he wouldn't think of getting rid of me like he did my mother. I'm sorry. You, the boys...I haven't been good to any of you." Tears welled in Fleur's eyes. "I never thought I'd hear you say that." "I'm sorry it took me so long. Is it alright for me to ask for forgiveness?" "Of course you can." Fleur stood before her husband. She didn't see any signs of deception in him. For a moment, she considered holding his hand. "That doesn't mean I've completely forgiven you, but...if you want to prove to me you will change your ways...I might." "Here." Eider pulled a piece of cloth from a bag. He unrolled it to reveal a bouquet of snowdrop flowers. "I don't know if you remember..." "I do. I didn't finish my drink before I went off with you that night. And I lost the flowers. I was never a very good girl." She picked up one of the flowers. The white petals with the small imprints of green in the center carried a warm nostalgia to her as she thought back on a snowy night. The sweet scent filled her. "You're more than good enough for me." Eider took one of the flowers and placed it in her hair, as he had done that night. "Do you forgive me...for not telling you?" A tear slid down her face. "I've got no room to be mad at you for it, given the things I've done." He wiped away the tear. "I can't promise you I'll be a different person tomorrow, or the day after that. My father still terrifies me...but I want to try. I want to have a family that's different from the one I knew." Fleur placed the flowers in the bowl of water on her table. "Would you like to stay with me tonight?" "If you would allow me." "You should come home with us. It's been so long since you've returned." Fleur sat down on the bed. The contrast of the pure white petals against Fleur's dirty blonde hair only served to brighten the appearance of her hair and skin. The inner green center matched well with her green eyes. Dark bags and wrinkles lined her eyes. Before him, he saw something more fragile than the snowdrop he had placed in her hair. Dark memories of his younger days burst forward to the forefront of his mind, and his behavior over the years haunted him. At times like this, he would normally steep himself into as much alcohol as he could get. His thoughts were too clear to delude himself. He joined her on the bed. "That might be nice." As he held his wife's hand, his mind was caught between fear and hope. Undoing the image he had created for himself to please his father would be difficult, especially once his father returned home. A spark, like a beam of sunlight, had filled her eyes when she saw those flowers, but that light was dull and soft. If he did not change, she would be no different than a flower pressed in a book, withered and forgotten while he threw his real self away in hopes of pleasing a man who cared for no one. In the morning, he packed his bags and went home with his family. He had said his goodbyes to Luke before leaving and wished him luck with Rowan. It was a temporary quietness. Argus would call him back eventually to fight again, but he planned on enjoying the short time he had. It would be easier to take the mask off in his own home. The castle had quieted significantly after the previous day's event. Rowan was happy for it, as it was his birthday and he didn't want to be bothered by anyone. For once, he woke up at dawn. He went out to the archery range to get in more practice before the contest. Robin joined him soon after. Luke watched the two of them. He tried to observe the differences between them, but he was too uninformed about archery to know what he was looking at. The only difference he could spot between them was that Robin shot quicker than Rowan by a very small margin. Around noon, Queen Ran, Rosabella, and Wren walked up to the range. Queen Ran looked Luke over. "Well, it looks like we have another competitor this year." "Ah, no, I am merely a spectator." Luke held his hands up in the air and shook his head. "He's my guest." Rowan stood beside him. "Oh? Well, then you can join me. I will also be spectating this year." Ran sat down. "What? Why's that, Mother?" Rowan asked. She pulled up her sleeve to reveal a thick bandage. "Unfortunately, I injured my arm while Rosa and I were hunting earlier this morning. I will sit out this contest." "Can I sit out too?" Wren whined. "Wren!" Ran yelled. "I'm not going to win." Wren said with no shame. "What sort of attitude is that to have? You've given up before you've made a single shot." She scolded him. Wren groaned. "We all know who's going to win." "He does have a point." Robin had a big grin on his face. "Like hell he does! I'm beating you this time." Rowan readied himself. He had no intentions of letting Robin beat him again. "That's what I want to hear." Ran cheered. She turned to Rosabella. "And you, Rosa?" "I'm going to beat Wren." She beamed. Ran burst out laughing. "Good girl." "Rosa!" Wren was not amused. "You're closer to my skill level." She said. Rosabella stood to Rowan's left. "Are you ready, Wren? I'm serious about defeating you." "Rosa, that's not very ladylike." Wren joined her, standing a little further down from her. "If you beat me, I'll give you a prize later." She winked at him. "And if you win?" He asked. "You give me one on your knees." She grinned as she said that, knowing how embarrassed Wren would be. "If you will do the same." His cheeks burned. "Is that too much? You don't have to do that if it embarrasses you..." "Wren, shush." Rosabella prepared herself mentally as she took in a deep breath. "And don't lose on purpose." "I would never." Wren couldn't concentrate at all. Robin stood to Rowan's right. He had a similar look on his face as Rosabella. "My apologies, Rowan. I know you so desperately want to win." "I will. I can't lose in front of a guest." Rowan gave him a fierce look. Rowan had more than one reason for bringing Luke to the contest. In part, he wanted to annoy him a little. More than that, he wanted something to focus on to push him towards winning. He hadn't tried that before. Today's contest was an experiment for him to see how that affected his performance. The contest went similarly to how it went in previous years. Wren was in last place, as he never bothered taking the contest seriously. Rosabella was ahead of Wren in her score. If Ran had competed, she would likely have held the place after that. Rowan and Robin were tied in score for most rounds. Luke watched them carefully. He was beginning to understand how it worked. He used Wren as a reference to compare Rowan and Robin to in identifying what areas to focus on. As Wren was not giving it his best effort, Luke presumed his form was sloppy. From there, it was becoming clearer how matched Robin and Rowan were. The only difference he could notice remained the same--Rowan took longer to shoot. "Alright, this is the last round." Ran announced. "Can I sit out? Rosa's already beat me." Wren walked away from the others. "Wren, finish it. Show some pride in yourself." Ran shooed him back to stand with the others. "We're tied." Rowan said. Robin smirked. "This is always where you make your mistake. Your final shot will be your worst." Robin typically reminded him of this at the last round. In the past, his shots would be good until the last one. Rowan knew it was purely in his mind why he was doing that. Robin knew too, which is why he had reminded him of it, to increase his own odds of winning. Having Luke there gave him an idea. Two could play at that. As they were about to get ready to release, Rowan said, "I let Luke have his way with me yesterday." Robin flinched inward and knocked his arrow to the ground. Rowan released and got out his next arrow. "Very funny. It doesn't matter. You'll do the same thing at the end." Robin got out his next arrow. "You shouldn't be so easily distracted by such an obvious lie." Rowan shot again. Robin didn't make any mistakes after his initial one. At the final arrow, Rowan's bow hand started to shake. 'No, not again. I've already won. I can't make a mistake now.' He reminded himself he brought a guest to watch. It would be far more embarrassing if he lost now than normally. Robin finished his last shot as Rowan lowered his bow. Rowan took a deep breath and let it it out. He tried again, raising the bow. He pulled back and repeated to himself, 'I'm going to win. I have a guest. I have to win.' He watched the arrow fly from him and hit the center. For the first time in the last eight years, he scored higher Robin, and that was one of only four times he ever accomplished that. Robin kicked the ground at his defeat. "Oh, you finally won again. Good job, son. You all did well, of course. Except you, Wren. Put more effort into it next time." Ran gave Rowan a hug. Wren mumbled something. Rosabella nudged him and mouthed to him "don't forget my prize". Wren's face turned bright red. Rowan was so elated at winning, he grabbed hold of Robin and kissed him. "I told you I'd win." Robin's anger at losing dissipated. "Happy birthday and congratulations on winning, my love." "I promise next time I won't try to distract you...if you'll stop doing it too." "I'm merely helping you with your concentration. Let me prepare you something special for dinner." Robin caressed Rowan's face. "We'll help you with that." Ran took hold of Wren and Rosabella's wrists. Luke kept quiet, not wanting to be dragged into it. His efforts were not missed by Ran. She called out to him. "And you, aren't you coming with us too?" "Well, I..." Luke tried to think up an excuse. Rowan intervened. "Luke is my guest. He'll be staying with me. I'm a little hot from shooting. Robin, is it alright if I take Luke with me to bathe?" Robin glared at his brother. "If he keeps his hands to himself." "Luke will behave himself. Won't you?" Rowan smiled at him. Luke wasn't sure what the prince's intentions were, but he wasn't about to miss an opportunity to be alone with him. He reassured Robin. "I won't do anything inappropriate." "I'll see you at dinner then." Robin kissed Rowan on the cheek. Robin led Ran, Rosabella, and Wren back to the castle. Rowan walked out into the forest. Luke followed behind him, confused. "Where are we going, Prince? I thought you wanted to take a bath." "I do." Rowan stopped before a calm river with a small waterfall . "Here. The water's nice and cold. I used to sneak out here with Robin a lot when I was younger. No one aside from Wren would ever bother us here." 'He took me to a private place? What does this mean?' Luke seriously began to wonder if the prince was intending to be unfaithful. He watched Rowan undress. Rowan walked under the waterfall. Rowan looked at Luke as he washed off his hair. "Are you not getting in?" "Oh, yes." Luke disrobed quickly. He joined Rowan underneath the waterfall. "Please forgive me for saying something so indecent, Prince, but I can't help myself. You are far more beautiful without your garments on." "I'll let that comment slide." Rowan turned away from Luke. "And thank you." "I don't know if I can keep my promise to you. Seeing you like this is...so tempting. I want to hold you." All of Luke's body burned. Rowan was there before him, completely exposed and so close. He could reach out and touch that bare skin with ease. "I told you before. You'll have to hold that fire inside you. I cannot satisfy it." Rowan faced him again. He caught Luke's eyes wandering. "He'd forgive you if you strayed." "I know." Rowan continued to wash. "Stubborn little tease." "I'm no tease. You're interpreting what you want out of my actions." Rowan left the waterfall and got out of the river. "Did I upset you? I'm sorry." Luke followed him. "No, I was finished washing off. The others are likely not done with dinner. Why don't we talk for a while?" Rowan rung out his hair. He reached down for his clothes to dress himself. "I would enjoy that." Luke put his clothes back on. The two of them sat on the bank of the river. Rowan remembered the last time he came down to the river, Robin had made it rain for him and calmed him with a song. He couldn't remember the words or the exact rhythm. The songs Robin sang and hummed always slipped away from him after he heard them. A piece of that song remained in his mind. He could recall only a few notes. Without giving it any thought, he hummed what he could remember. Luke listened to him. He didn't recognize the melody. In the center of his chest, he felt a deep warmth filling him. It was a completely unfamiliar sensation, more intense than the way he felt simply being around Rowan. Around them, the trees and grass appeared a little brighter and greener. Luke noticed flowers that he knew shoudln't have bloomed yet. The river looked clearer. For a moment, Luke thought he recognized the scent of rain in the air. Rowan noticed too and stopped humming, afraid of what he might be doing. Luke watched the grass and water change back. The feeling he was experiencing subsided too. "Did you...just do magic?" "I'm not sure..." Rowan's eyes were wide open. He swallowed hard. "If I did, I don't think I did it right. I was merely copying something I remember Robin singing once." "Try it again. I was sure it was about to rain." Luke begged him. "No, I don't think that's a good idea. Robin always warned me about unskilled people trying to perform magic unsupervised. Something bad might happen. I don't want to put you in danger." "Are you not interested in magic? I would think he'd be able to teach you some." "Robin's offered before, but it's not something I'm that curious about. I'd rather perfect my skills with my bow." Rowan laid out in the grass. He brought Luke out there for a reason. He asked, "Luke, why did you really come here? Please, be honest with me. I want to know the truth." "The truth? I don't think I know myself..." Luke held his hands in the water, letting the cool water flow through his fingers. "Do you really only want me for a night?" Rowan watched him. "I don't know the answer to that either." "Truly?" "Well, I might be lying...a little..." "What does that mean?" Rowan sat up. "It's not supposed to be like this. I always take measures to avoid getting close to people." Luke's isssue came forward again. This time, Rowan wanted to get to the bottom of it. That was the only way he would be able to decipher how to deal with Luke. "Why?" "It's easier that way. You do it too. I've seen how you interact with others. Other than my brother, you keep everyone at a distance." Luke's gaze met with his. "You're very observant." Luke's words struck a nerve. He shifted the subject back to Luke. "So, I was right before. You are in pain." "And you are?" Luke did the same. Rowan went quiet for a moment. The pain building inside him, he wanted to acknowledge it to someone. Luke, he could tell, would keep his secret. He gave a vague response. "It's more than...I've wanted to admit was there." "Why don't you tell him about it? He's so absurdly loyal, he would gladly carry any burden with you." "I can't. I don't want him to break." Rowan dug his fingers into the earth. "What secret are you keeping, Prince? I'd never tell anyone." Luke put his hand on Rowan's. There was much he wanted to say. He wanted to admit how worn down he was from going off and fighting with so little resources. He wanted to rant about how he despised the idea of having to marry someone he didn't love and have a child from such a union. He wanted to say how he hated that he would have to arrange someone for Robin to wed. He kept those thoughts hidden. The heaviest weight in his mind broke through to his words instead. "I think one of the traitors might be my father. More than that, I think Wren...might also be involved." "Your little brother? He seems too weak to..." Luke couldn't see the timid younger prince willingly being involved in something like that. Then he realized there was another option. "So, you think your father is coercing him into it?" "I don't know if that's the case, exactly. Wren has another incentive. The reason you're here is because you wanted to repay me for not stopping that arrow." Rowan kept his head down as he spoke. "My brother has been carrying with him a dagger with Brion's crest on it. He's been seeing me more when I'm alone." "If you know, why don't you say something to him?" "I can't reveal it. If he means to kill me, I won't stop him." He felt empty uttering those words. "Why? You could easily overpower him." Luke moved his hand from Rowan's hand to his shoulder. "I am ashamed." Rowan put his face into his hand. "For him to consider that, I must deserve it. I'm sure it's my fault. I've never been good to him as an older brother. I wanted to fix things with him, but perhaps it's already too late. Getting me out of the way might be easier." "If he does that, it's a death sentence. My brother will kill him." "That's only if he realizes it. Wren is the last person he would ever suspect. If anything, Robin will slay anyone Wren points his finger at. My father will destroy his allies from within and his enemies until only he remains. My death will be a perfect distraction." A plan like that suited his father well. Rowan felt completely helpless to stop it. "Just run away. Let them fight without you. You know, if you wanted to fake your death, I could help you. I know some people who are good at tricking people in that way." Luke's answer surprised him. It sounded like something Robin would suggest. "I'm sorry. I'm too foolish for that. I can't move. It's my duty to protect my brother, no matter what. If what he wants is my life, I must give it." The frustration in Rowan's voice was obvious. "Where did I go wrong? I know we always fought, but it wasn't because I hated him. He'd get on my nerves and I'd tease him when he did stupid things. That's normal. How did it become like this?" "Prince..." "You know, we actually haven't argued in a while now. He's been kinder to me than ever. When he speaks to me, I want to do nothing more than make him happy and protect him. And there he is, carrying that. I know it, but no anger comes. I am only weakened further." Rowan shook as he admitted to his deepest secret. "Sometimes when I wake in the morning, I consider getting it over with for him, but I can't. I can't let Robin wake up to seeing that. But if I were gone like that, my father couldn't use him as a weapon anymore. He'd be free." Luke hugged him. Rowan froze in response. Luke wouldn't let go. "You mustn't think thoughts like that. Please, Prince, let it go. No one will think less of you for leaving this behind. You don't need to be so noble. Few men would truly care to defend their kin, especially not when they're out to destroy them." "I am afraid..." Rowan held him back, seeking any comfort to calm himself down. "It's foolish of me, but I don't want him to become a monster like my father. I want to protect him from that, even though I can't. I can't shield him from anything, but I can't move from this place out of fear there is still something I can do and if I don't..." "Shh...it's not your fault who he becomes. It is he alone who decides his fate." "I don't want...I don't want him to ever be stained in blood as I have..." Rowan whispered, his voice breaking. "The chains on you are heavy, my dear prince. I see why you couldn't tell this to my brother. His heart would break if he heard you talk of throwing your life away. You mean more than anything to him. That is why you can't die. I don't want you to die either. Please, let me help you." Luke pulled back to see Rowan's face. "This is enough. I feel a little better saying that aloud." Rowan was on the verge of tears, but he kept them back out of pride. "I don't need you carrying my burden too. Besides, isn't that what you've been wanting to avoid?" "I've been thinking...I wouldn't mind if it was you who placed chains on me." Luke gave a half-hearted smile. "I'll probably regret it, but my mind is only filled with you. I've tried to bury it. Nothing stops it." "I'm sorry, Luke. I can't give you what you want from me. If I had never met Robin, then perhaps I could...As we are now, that is all I can give." "I knew you'd say that. I'm sure I've been annoying to deal with." Luke sighed, still smiling. "No, not really. Well, sometimes you may have annoyed me a little..." Rowan face flushed. "I have to confess...I've enjoyed you flattering me. It is so rare for me to hear anyone besides Robin compliment me. Forgive me." "Then I will have to compliment you more. You deserve to hear the truth." Luke held his hand again. "If you change your mind, about wanting help I mean, let me know." "What about you?" Rowan allowed his touch. His emotions were still heightened from everything he had confessed. He was calming down more from the contact. "Don't think I've forgotten how this conversation started. What secret are you keeping?" "It's not...you wouldn't want to hear about it." Luke looked away. "You listened to what I had to say. I owe you the same." "It's, well, I would need to explain a lot of things and..." "Take as long as you need." Rowan said. He moved over slightly closer to Luke. "If you insist. I don't think it will interest you, and it's really nothing to be concerned over." Luke took a deep breath. He kept his eyes on the river. "I've never really been loved by anyone. My mother tried her best, I could see it in her. But she couldn't see me beyond that man that forced himself on her. I didn't fully comprehend her suffering then. I was too young to grasp the details, but I understood she had been hurt and was still suffering. In time, I learned to avert my eyes from her, so she would be spared seeing his face. Things were...alright whenever we were alone and I kept my head down. I wanted to help her have a better life. When my brother showed up when I was eight demanding my mother tell him where to find our father, it dawned on me I could do the same. I hated him, but if I became a knight, I would have more status and wealth. Then I could take proper care of her." "And you had the nerve to tell me to forget my brother? Sounds like you're quite attached to your mother." Rowan teased him. Luke shrugged. He continued his story. "I pity her. She would have been a good mother had he not disturbed her so. Her husband didn't help either. They both treated her like an object. I know she didn't love me, but she tried to be a mother to me as best she could. I thought if I could make her life a little easier, she might begin to recover her mind. So, I went to him. I stayed with him for five years--five years of absolute hell. He put me through ridiculous 'training' exercises designed to break me, he never spoke to me outside of training, and he never once showed any concern for me in the least. I didn't expect he would, but I was young and naive. A part of me hoped in spite of my hatred for him, he might change and be kind to me. Then someone would hold me." "What happened when you were thirteen? When you left? Isn't that when you became Martin's squire?" Rowan vaguely remembered that. There had been a lot of talk amongst members of the court about Faolán's children running off to serve kings other than Silvanus. "Yes, it is. There were things leading up to that. As you know, the war hadn't begun yet. Brion was visiting Silvanus, and my father brought me there for something. I can't really remember what it was about. I ended up spending a lot of time with Brion's oldest son. He was twenty-two or twenty-three, I think. He was very kind to me. I wanted to please him. I was very desperate for affection then. Anyone would do." Rowan watched Luke carefully as he spoke. A looming disgust crept into him as he anticipated Luke's words. "He asked me to come to his room one night, and told me not to tell anyone about it. I had a vague idea of what he wanted to do, but I was still only thirteen. I did everything he told me to. He promised me he'd be gentle, but he didn't care when I told him to stop." Rowan shifted uncomfortably. His stomach started to turn. Luke never let his gaze leave the water. "The next day, he didn't bother talking to me anymore. He got what he wanted and left with his father. I felt ashamed of myself for falling for it. That was the only time my father actually asked me if I was alright. I can still remember the intense look in his eyes and how hot his hands felt when he held my hands. I don't know how he knew, but he asked me, 'Did that man hurt you?'. I couldn't admit it. So, I lied. I knew he didn't believe me. He gave me this pitying look. Him, pity me over that? After how he treated my mother...I didn't want to look at him. I ran off and got lost in the castle. That's when I ran into Martin. I wanted to be anywhere but there. So I asked him if he'd let me train under him instead. My father agreed to the arrangement and I left the day after that." Rowan interrupted him. "I'm sorry. If you want to stop..." "Do you want me to stop?" Luke sensed his discomfort. "No, but I don't want you to force yourself." "I'm fine. That happened a long time ago, and that's really not...the part that is difficult for me to tell." Luke resumed his story. "I was still ashamed about that incident, but after that, I started sleeping around with any man who would have me. I'd do whatever men wanted of me. I hated it, but I did enjoy being held. I had a reputation by fifteen. I wasn't really how I am now though. I was much more like your little brother in personality. I kept up my duties and served Philip and Martin well. During that time, James tried to befriend me. He was different then too. He was a very kind boy and very sweet. I kept him at a distance. I didn't think it was an act, but I was weary of getting close to people by that point." "It's hard for me to imagine James that way. He is very...cold and rude." Rowan recalled the last time he spoke to James. The encounter left a very sour impression on him. "Back then, he used to give me gifts. Flowers and berries, childish things. He followed me everywhere. I was always terrified I would taint that innocence of his somehow. When he was sixteen, Philip sent him away to live in a monastery for a couple of years. He told me it was to make him more fit to rule, but I don't know what that was about. Two years later, James returned. He'd grown a bit in that time, and he had become very handsome. He also spoke to servants harshly and criticized me about my nightly activities." Luke's voice changed. It was softer. Rowan could hear the vulnerability in it. "I didn't mind when other people said it, but when he mocked me for it, it pierced me. So, I stopped doing that for a while. I tried to please him, but he was never satisfied with anything I did. In time, I came to realize why my thoughts were only filled with him." "But he was cold to you." "My heart has always led me into foolishness. I lost my sense of reason and offered him a rose as a token of my affection. He mocked me for it, as I expected. I thought that would be the end of that, but my thoughts were still of him. After that point, I avoided him whenever I could and went back to sleeping around. I started to become a bit more flashy whenever I was out drinking, but I never let Martin or anyone at the castle see that side of me then. I considered wandering off to a different kingdom, but I was twenty-one then. I was old enough to be knighted. The entire point of me serving Philip was to get to that point. That was when James started seeking me out. He would find me just to mock me, along with some of the squires." Rowan knew where this story was headed, though he desperately wanted to be wrong. "I'm sorry, this story is very long. Are you sure you want me to finish it?" Luke stopped. Luke's shoulders had started to shake. Rowan now held his hand. "Yes, if you want to." Luke bit his lip. He shifted his glance to the wild roses growing far too early by the waterfall. "One night, when I was out drinking, he followed me down to a tavern. I was caught off guard by that. I didn't want him to see how I acted there, but I didn't want the people there seeing my more formal side either. I tried to balance the two. I told James to go home several times, but he ignored me. There were some men staring at us. I was worried they might be assassins out to take his life. I got up to confront them and fell straight down. I couldn't move. James greeted all of them and they carried me back to the castle after he paid the barkeep a large sum of money. Then he took me to my room and tied me down." "Why did they tie you up? Weren't you already unable to move?" Rowan asked. "It wasn't to prevent me from escaping then. It was so I'd have to ask for help to get free the next morning. They each had a turn, and they all laughed and mocked me. James was last. He told the others to leave. He said to me, 'Isn't this what you want, you stupid whore? Don't you ever think of me again or I'll do worse to you next time.' I couldn't say anything back. I couldn't speak at all. The next morning, Martin found me. He wanted me to talk to him about what happened. I didn't want to talk about it, or anything. I wanted to be alone. He smothered me for weeks trying to get me to say something. Whenever I could, I would go out to the tower at the back of the castle. No one is allowed entrance into it without the king's permission, so no one ever goes there. In its shadow, I found solitude. I could let my thoughts go when I was there. I stopped bothering with the noble act altogether and well, you know how I am. Two years later, I was finally knighted. I went home to tell my mother and bring her money. I only disturbed her. As I grew into a man, I came to look almost exactly like my father. There I was before her, standing in armor looking like the knight who hurt her. I ended up yelling at her when she started to lash out at me. We parted on bad terms, but we managed to arrange that I would give her money and communicate to her in letters, so I could spare her from seeing me. With the war going on and me here, it's been a few months since I've gotten a reply from her." Luke lowered his head. "I wonder if I would have be better off staying on the farm and wearing a mask." Rowan held him. Luke was surprised by the sudden contact. His heart pounded in his ears. "Prince..." "It's my turn to do this for you." Rowan said. "I am fine...I don't need to be comforted. I can handle it. It's not..." Luke denied his pain still. "I'm sorry. I cannot be a lover to you, but I can hold you like this." "I don't need to be held. I'm not a child anymore." He pushed Rowan away. "Everyone needs to be held. It is part of our nature." Rowan got up and picked a rose from the nearby bush. He got down on one knee and offered it to Luke. "Here." "What is this?" Luke, perplexed, took the flower. "It's a token of my affection for you." Rowan had a kind smile on his face. "Yellow...friendship." Luke laughed at himself as he held it to his face. "Well, I suppose it's better than you giving me a black one." "I am a very loyal person. That loyalty extends beyond my behavior in romance. Should you ever need help, in any way, I will come to you." Rowan swore, bowing before him. "It's a start at least." Luke twirled the rose in his hand. "You're still going to court me?" "I haven't given up yet. Does that upset you?" "No. But I don't want you to get your hopes up." Luke put the flower in the sash around his waist. "I think I can handle a little heartbreak, Prince." "There's someone out there for you, I know it. When you meet that person, don't be afraid to hold them." Rowan hoped to lift his spirit some. "What if I'm destined to be alone forever?" Luke returned his words with cynicism. Rowan wasn't going to let him win. "Then, as your friend, I promise you my eternal loyalty in alleviating that pain of yours in place of someone meant for you." "You can't promise such at thing." "I will always be here for you." Rowan bowed before Luke. He took hold of Luke's hand and kissed it. Luke's heart skipped a beat. He didn't let his feelings show on his face. "I don't deserve your words. I've done nothing to earn them." "I'm the only one who can judge that." Rowan rose up from the ground. "We should do something to get our minds off of all of this. Dinner's probably still not done yet. Why don't we pick up where we left off in the last lesson I gave you?" "Do you mean with a bow or a sword?" "It doesn't matter to me. Though I would enjoy showing you more with the bow." He started to walk back. "If you wish." Luke walked back with him towards the archery range. "My brother is very lucky to be with you. Don't go dying on me. I want you to swear to it." "I promise...I will not take my own life." Rowan hesitated in making that promise. He wasn't sure if he could keep it. He asked for one in return. "Now, you must promise me that you won't keep yourself locked up in that tower of yours forever. One day, the stars will shine down on you. Don't cast aside that light when it comes." "If it comes...Then I swear to it. Though I don't know how I'm supposed to get over you. That man would have to be my soulmate, and I doubt such a thing exists." Luke joked. "You don't believe in soulmates?" Rowan found it amusing given the things he had seen. He doubted Luke knew much about what lay outside the world of men. "That's old, pagan nonsense." Luke found such notions childish and far too romantic. "Do you believe in that?" Rowan looked Luke straight in the eyes and laughed. "I wear no heavier chain than that."