X. Little Bird

When the sun set and the full moon was high, Wren knocked at Rosabella's door. He was dressed in his finest clothes and wore his brother's cloak upon his shoulders. In his hands, he held a bouquet of red roses tied together by a blue sash. Rosabella opened the door and greeted him wearing the last dress Rowan gave to her and her own cloak. Her cheeks and lips matched well with her clothes and the flowers. She spoke in an unusual shy tone. "Hello, Wren." "Hello, Rosa. I've brought you a gift." Wren knelt down on one knee and presented the flowers to her. "It would give me great pleasure if you would accept them." Rosabella took the roses and held them close to her face. "They are very beautiful. Thank you." "May I?" Wren held her hand. "You know you may." Rosabella felt her cheeks burning hot. Wren kissed the back of her hand. His gaze was wanton and lingered shamelessly on her hips and just below the low neckline of her dress before making eye contact. "Rosa, will you come with me? It's a beautiful night. I'd like to watch the stars and moon from the garden." "That would be lovely." Rosabella placed the flowers on a table beside the door. Wren rose to his feet and offered her his arm. "Please then, let me escort you there." Rosabella put her arm in his and leaned against him as they walked. It was late. There was no one around to see them. The night air was humid and warm. Her heart raced, burning inside of her as she wondered what Wren was feeling. The confident man before her was unfamiliar, and she was quite happy for him to stay. Beside her, Wren's heart too was beating so fast he could hear it ringing in his ears. He was blushing deeply as his nervousness twisted in his stomach. He counted his breaths to ease his mind and kept his stance tall. Wren reminded himself, 'There's no reason to be nervous. I've touched her countless times before. I know what I'm doing.' When they reached the garden, he led her down to the old rowan tree. Everything in the garden seemed to be in bloom, and the moon's light illuminated each petal. Underneath those old branches, Wren pulled Rosabella in close for a kiss. Rosabella pulled away slightly. She shifted her gaze to the side, then back to Wren. "Wren, tonight, I...you said you would fulfill my every desire. Do you truly mean that?" "Your every wish, I will grant." Wren took her hand and kissed it again. "You know what I want." She unhooked the front of her cloak and let it fall to her feet. "As you wish." He wrapped his arms around her waist and leaned in. He kissed down her neck. In a breathy voice, he whispered, "I'll be gentle." "You always are." Rosabella rubbed over the front of Wren's pants. "But this time, I would appreciate it. When I get used to it, you can let go more." Wren sucked her neck as he pulled the bottom of her dress up. When he got it above her waist, she helped him get it off the rest of the way. The dress was tossed to the ground with her cloak. She stepped out of her shoes and pulled Wren down into the grass. Rosabella winced. "Something wrong?" Wren asked. "The grass is a bit wet." "Hmm...let's use this." Wren took her cloak and spread it out. "Lay on this. We can have it washed later." "Your turn. Take it all off. Except this. Keep it on." She tugged at the cloak on Wren. "I will, but not yet." Wren took off the cloak so he could remove his shirt. He put the cloak back on afterwards. "The grass is a little uncomfortable on my skin. I'll take my pants off when I don't need them anymore." "Then what are you...?" Before she could finish her question, Wren was on top of her. With one hand, he caressed one of her breasts and with the other, he rubbed between her legs. He alternated between sucking and licking her other breast. She went silent from his touch--slow, deep breaths being all that left her. After a little while, he stopped and spread her legs apart. He kissed down the center of her body, stopping again when he reached what he wanted. The light of the full moon showed him exactly how excited Rosabella was. He grinned. He hadn't gotten a reaction out of her like that since the first time he went down on her. He showed Rosabella how well she had trained his tongue in the time they spent together, changing in response to her body's reactions. Slowly, he slipped two fingers inside of her. They went in more easily than he remembered. To tease her, he joked, "Rosa, have you been playing with that thing while I was away?" Rosabella's already flushed face went a deeper shade. "You can tell? I'm sorry...I may have gotten lonely..." He didn't expect her to give him that answer. He was embarrassed at the time, but he was now very grateful for the gift Robin gave them to play with if only to hear her say that. Wren wanted to be deeper inside her as he imagined her pleasuring herself. He kissed the inner part of her thigh. "You wanted me that much?" "More than you know..." "I've been missing you too. This time apart was agony." He lowered his head and pulled out his fingers before licking up and down. Wren slipped his tongue inside while he rubbed her with his middle finger. He could feel her body tightening. Rosabella put her hand on his head. "Wait! Any more and I'll...I want to feel that when you're..." Wren wiped his face off. His pants and shoes were quickly discarded as he was mostly on the cloak now himself. He got between her legs again and leaned over her. She stroked him as soon as he was close enough for her to reach, more out of wanting to touch him than to assist him. Wren let her do as she pleased for a while. When he was getting too excited, he gently pushed her hand away. "Are you ready?" Rosabella looked over Wren's body. The moonlight accentuated through light and shadow all the hard work Wren put into his body since he started training. She ran her hand down his chest to feel his toned muscles. His body set her own aflame, but it was his eyes that captured her completely. In that moment, she thought she could see something beyond the two of them, something somewhere as distant and eternal as the stars. In a soft voice, she said, "Yes." "I'll move slowly." Wren's confidence wavered. He did his best to not let it show, but his movements were sloppier than he expected. He shifted his gaze between Rosabella's face and straight down, watching her while he started to push in. His thoughts were so focused on her that he was thinking little of his own enjoyment. "Does it hurt?" She winced then bit her lip. "I'm fine. How does it feel?" "It's hard for me to hold back." His words were meant to hide his anxiousness, but he was starting to feel that way. His focus split the deeper he reached. She had taken him in further with her mouth before, but he was already feeling overwhelmed by this much. If he moved as fast as he wanted, he wagered he wouldn't last anywhere near as long as usual. Rosabella winced again. She took to rubbing herself in hopes of alleviating some of the tension she was feeling. Wren was a bit bigger than that gift she played with. "You can move a little more. I think I can handle it." Wren started very slow. He wanted to move much faster and reach far deeper, but he was afraid of hurting her. Letting Rosabella set the pace was the best way for him to minimize his fears. He watched her face as she went completely silent again. From her expression, she looked like she was enjoying herself. 'Perhaps a little more would be alright...' Wren moved a little faster and went in a little deeper. Rosabella's expression changed while her body tensed in discomfort. Wren froze when he noticed. Panic rose in him. "Was that too much? I'm sorry..." She went completely still. "A little slower please." "Like this?" He slowed himself back to his original pace. "Yes...that feels good...I'm sorry...I think I overestimated what I can handle..." She spoke with a hint of disappointment in her voice. Wren's fears increased, but he was losing control of something else just as much. Despite how little time had passed, he could feel he wouldn't last too much longer. 'Why? I usually last longer than this.' His mind got a spike of terror from something else. His feet were still touching the wet grass. He slipped forward, but caught himself from moving too far. Afraid he might hurt Rosabella, he went still. "Sorry. That was an accident." He pulled back slightly, the way he was balancing himself now putting him at a somewhat different angle than before. Once he started to move again, Rosabella's eyes opened wide. She grabbed onto his wrist and rubbed herself harder with her other hand. "More...there...please..." Her words were almost lost in her breathy tone. "God. Don't stop." He did as she asked. Her body's reactions to his movements were pushing him over the edge. He was so accustomed to her body he knew it wouldn't be long for her either. 'Shit...Not yet...' Wren dug his hands into the cloak. 'If I stop now, perhaps I can prolong it more...but if I stop, what if I upset her?' He had no time to debate with himself. She gave him his answer. Feeling her spasm around him, he couldn't contain himself anymore and let go. The duration of the whole affair was far too short, but he couldn't find himself caring too deeply about that. His efforts towards getting her worked up in advance and his diligence in adhering to her wishes paid off; and he enjoyed the new experience even if his own performance was not the least bit impressive compared to other intimate moments between them. Afterwards, the two of them caught their breaths. Wren stared down at her. He caressed her face and smiled. She returned his gesture. He took her hand and kissed it. When he let go of her hand, he leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. He then lay down beside her. Rosabella cuddled in close to him, resting her head on his shoulder. He looked over at her. "Did I hurt you?" "No, not really, but I feel sore down there." She touched between her legs, feeling the mess. She wanted to clean up, but she didn't want to lose the moment. "I think I'll still need a few days before I'll want to try it again. But I do want to do it again. Around the middle, it started feeling really good, and near the end...Next time...could we try a different position?" "If you'd like." Wren kissed her again. Rosabella touched herself a little longer. She looked at her hands, but didn't see something she expected. "Huh..." "Something wrong?" Wren asked. Rosabella sat up and examined the dirtied part of the cloak. It was night, but the full moon made everything clear to see. Even on a red cloak, she should still see a dark stain, but she couldn't find anything like that. "Did I bleed? I don't see any blood." "Hmm...I don't think I noticed any blood, now that you mention it." Wren thought back. He hadn't been thinking about it, as his mind was too focused on what he was doing at the time. "Did I do something wrong?" "I don't think so? Some of my servants said they bled and some said they didn't. Perhaps it's because of what we've done before?" Her heart started beating fast. "I don't know anything about that sort of thing..." Wren shrugged. "Are you not upset? Most men would think..." She turned her face away from him. "I don't see why you'd lie to me, but I wouldn't care if you'd been with other men. Right now, I am the only one holding you." Wren sat up and held her from behind. He whispered into her ear. "And I know this won't be the last time you're in my arms." "You've been more...alluring than usual tonight. Have you been learning from a certain someone?" She teased him. "Having to watch Rin fall over himself to get my brother's attention all these years had some use after all." He slid his hands around her waist. Wren didn't want the conversation to stay on Robin. He shifted her attention back to himself. "Rosa, could I sleep in your room tonight?" "If you'd like...but what if we get caught?" "Suppose I'll have to confess my sins and ask for forgiveness." He grinned. "But what of me? I'm a worthless bride now. I've betrayed my dearest fiancé and let someone else have what's his." "No one will think that. They all believe he's already taken advantage of his rights as it were." "So ridiculous." She laughed under her breath. "Can you imagine it? You and my brother?" Wren joined her in the laughter. "I have. Poor man wouldn't get anything out of it." Rosabella wiped herself off. She gathered up her dress and shoes. "Let's head back. I'm sleepy." Wren cleaned himself up while she dressed. He folded up her cloak. "We could always sleep here. It's warm out tonight." "He's definitely wearing off on you." She shook her head. "Heh. Maybe a little." When they had both finished dressing, Wren walked her back to the castle. Wren set her cloak aside beside a pitcher of water to remind himself to ensure only specific servants handled it. Rosabella changed into her nightgown and Wren discarded his shirt and Rowan's cloak before getting in bed. They stayed close underneath the sheets, hands intertwined. "Rosa, I know we can't marry, but you'll always be the owner of my heart." He pressed his forehead against hers. She smiled. "And you, mine." Far from their peaceful bliss, Prince Collin was pacing in his room. He needed to be sleeping. At sunrise, he needed to be ready. Nothing he did could calm his mind. Tomorrow, he would become a king. As the second born male, he knew that was always a possibility but he never expected it to really happen and so soon after Lewis. Tomorrow came in spite of his tiredness and fears. His subjects cheered, but he felt no happiness in succeeding the throne. Standing there before everyone, the only thought in his mind was, 'What the hell am I going to do?' Three people were absent on that day. His mother refused to leave her room since news of Lewis's passing. He could barely convince her to let the servants in. Mark was still fighting with Silvanus's men. He regretted leaving his brother's side to return home, afraid of losing another family member, but he had no choice. It was his duty as next in line, and his father would have wanted him to do things properly. He felt no ill will towards Mark or his mother. His brother was fulfilling his duties as well, and no one could blame anyone for being too grief-stricken to attend. However, for the third person, he was less kind. His youngest brother Hollis was absent too. Collin would deal with him later. He needed to concentrate on what to do about the war. For now, he had King Ruaidhrí to aid him, but Ruaidhrí was an unreliable ally. He needed someone more dependable, and a way to gain their assistance quickly. With fear of King Argus spreading, some kings and princes of smaller, more distant kingdoms were beginning to consider their options. He still needed something to offer. Collin stared at the family crest upon his clothes. 'Family...yes, that's it. I'll make them family.' He had just the person in mind to help him with that. His sister, Justine, recently lost her husband to the war. A few years ago, King Brandr, the king of a small kingdom to the north, lost his wife after the birth of their last child and hadn't remarried. Brandr was among those who wanted to get rid of Argus. 'Yes, I'll use him...' He wrote out two letters, one for Brandr and one for Justine. The letters were given to messengers shortly after. With that out of the way, he turned his attention to the third missing person. As usual, Hollis was holed up in his tower and the door was locked. Collin banged on the door. "Hollis, open this door!" "Go away." "Why didn't you come to my coronation?" Collin asked. "I don't care about such things." "You embarrass me! Why are you always like this?" Collin banged harder on the door. "I'll have someone break down the door if you don't open it." The door swung open. Hollis stood in the doorway, glaring at his brother. "I've opened it. Get on with whatever you wanted to yell at me about." "I know you wouldn't help Father or Lewis. Given what's happened, surely you understand you can't go on being a spoiled brat like you have been. Everyone needs to..." Before Collin could finish, Hollis started to shut the door. Collin pushed on the door from the other side. "What is your problem? Are you that much of a coward?" "Yes, I am. Now, leave me be." Hollis pushed just as hard. 'I can't go about it this way. This never worked for Father.' He put aside his anger and spoke with a calmer tone. "I know we've never gotten along, but can't we put our differences aside for once?" Hollis didn't let up. The door was nearly closed. "We can, when you end the war. I won't have anything to do with this. Continuing this war is foolish." "I'd rather die in battle than be a coward and surrender." "Oh, a glorious death, huh? And if you come back like Lewis did or they string your body up in a mangled display, what then? It's not going to end with a quick jab through the heart." Hollis yelled. Collin flinched for a moment. His mind recalled in too great detail the state the parts of his brother were in when he came home. In that moment, he couldn't believe he was looking at anyone he knew despite how many corpses he'd seen in his life. That the mess before him that day belonged to his brother didn't seem real. He pushed the image away and cleared his throat. "We're not going to lose. I'm arranging to have Justine married to someone who can help us. With a new ally, that means more men to fight on our side." "All it means is more innocent people are going to die." Hollis snapped back. "Some sacrifices must be made for the good of everyone." "I'm sure the other side tells their men the same thing." "Fine. Stay here in your little sanctuary. You'd just upset Mother anyway." Collin let go of the door. He couldn't stand any more of it. As soon as his hands left the wood, the door closed shut. He heard his brother lock the door from the other side. Out of cruelty, he wanted to say, 'I wish you had died instead of Lewis'. He kept that thought to himself. Hollis's words affected him more than he wanted to admit. He paused before the door. 'Perhaps I should bring Mark home soon...' Collin walked away, not with anger nor confidence. A heavy sense of dread and fear hung over him. On the other side of the door, Hollis was preparing a letter for his other brother, Mark. Hollis never got along with any of his family all that well, but he was on decent enough terms with Mark. He had no way of getting Collin to back down. Mark was his last hope. He poured out all of his fears into those few pages. Before signing off his name at the end, he wrote, 'If it comes down to only you and I, please, I beg you, surrender.' Hollis heard footsteps outside the door. He hid away the letter. 'What does he want now?' "Excuse me, Prince Hollis. I've brought you something to eat." Hollis got up and opened the door. A servant around Hollis's age greeted him. The man stood out amongst the other servants. He was blind in one eye and missing an arm. He walked with a slight limp. The man struggled with the tray he carried. Hollis stood beside him and tried to take it from him. "I've got it." The man said. "Are you sure? Let me help you." Hollis held on to the other end of the tray. "I'm your servant. This is my job. Please let me do it." The servant managed to put the tray down on Hollis's desk. He glanced back at the prince, sensing what Hollis was not wanting to say aloud. "If you're afraid, you could always take a trip far away and not come back." "No, that's not enough." Hollis turned toward his bedroom window. "If I don't do something, everything here will be destroyed." "You don't have to save everyone." "This war is pointless. If I can stop it, I will." The servant picked up a piece of parchment off of the prince's desk. "Here. Why don't you work on that poem you started yesterday? The beginning sounded very nice." "You say that about everything I write." Hollis rolled his eyes. "That's what I really think. I don't understand most of it, but it sounds very nice." The servant sat down on Hollis's bed. "If you don't want to write, could you read me that story you wrote again? The one about the little bird?" "And you always ask that." "It's my favorite, and I can understand almost all of the words." The servant smiled at him. "Very well, Finch." Hollis sifted through a stack of papers before sitting down beside the servant. He looked back over his shoulders once more at the window. Far from the safety of castles, Ruaidhrí and Rowan were facing off against each other at the center of a battle. Both sides refused to back down. Rowan knew most everyone was at their limits. Supplies were low, and injuries high. Martin could get more help for now, but Rowan would need to report back to his father. He had a few choice words in mind for his father about those idiotic rules his father set on him. For now, he needed to push Ruaidhrí back and get him to retreat. Rowan traded blows with Ruaidhrí. "Feeling a bit tired, Ruaidhrí? Why don't you call it a day?" "Shut up, you demon, before I send you and your hellbitch back to that lake of fire you crawled out of!" Ruaidhrí stood his ground. An idea came to Rowan. He wasn't sure if he could do it. It worked with an arrow. He wagered he could get the same effect with a sword. He concentrated on the blade. From the tip down, a bright flame wrapped around the blade. With a grin, he slashed at Ruaidhrí. Ruaidhrí blocked him with his own sword. The flames heated his armor while Rowan pushed him back slightly. Rowan mocked him. "Tough words for someone who's outmatched. Why don't we spare everyone's time, and you go ahead and get on with retreating? There's no reason to let so much blood spill." "You know I can't do that. I won't let you have what's mine." Ruaidhrí held his place with all the strength he had left. It wasn't enough. Rowan knocked Ruaidhrí's sword out of his hand. He swung again, this time his blade burning through Ruaidhrí's cape. From behind Ruaidhrí, Llywelyn ripped the cape off of Ruaidhrí and got in front of him. He swung at Rowan while Ruaidhrí went to get his sword. Within seconds, Rowan was being attacked by both of them. He kept his concentration up. The fire kept either of them from getting too close, but Ruaidhrí and Llywelyn were both strong opponents. With their combined strength, he knew he was outmatched. Desperate, he used his last resort. He snapped his fingers and muttered under his breath, "Come to me." As always, without fail, Robin came to his side. He knocked both Ruaidhrí and Llywelyn to the ground. Ruaidhrí lost his helmet in the process. Llywelyn got to his feet first, but Robin knocked him back down again. Ruaidhrí picked up his sword and set his sights back on Rowan. They fought while their knights were locked in combat. Without Llywelyn to support him and his helmet for protection, the flames of Rowan's sword posed a much greater threat to Ruaidhrí. He tried to keep a greater distance between them. In his mind, he cursed at Llywelyn. 'You idiot. If you didn't let your horse get injured, you could have stayed up there with your lance.' Llywelyn was not fairing much better. He might be able to hold his own against Rowan, he wagered, but Robin was too strong for him. The sheer brute force and savagery in the knight's movements made his very body shake before the man could land a single blow on him. Robin knocked him down again. This time, he lost his helmet as well. Before he could grab it, Robin's sword was coming down on him. Llywelyn rolled over to dodge it, and looked up to see that blade coming down on him again. He blocked Robin's sword. Robin swung down again, the force of his swing knocking Llywelyn's sword out of his hand. He came down again, shifting his blade to cut in. He pierced through Llywelyn's armor and into his right upper arm. Another strike came down. Strands of blond were scattered on the ground, quickly stained in red as blood pooled from Llywelyn's right shoulder. Robin aimed now for Llywelyn's right leg. Ruaidhrí was in worse shape. Rowan hovered over him with his blade aimed at Ruaidhrí's heart. Rowan pressed down, but did not use his full strength. "Surrender." "I cannot." Ruaidhrí held the edge of the blade, knowing he could not stop it. "Then you leave me no choice." "Stop!" Llywelyn called out to Rowan. Both Robin and Rowan were distracted by Llywleyn's sudden outburst. Llywelyn used those brief seconds to get out from under Robin and hurried over to Ruaidhrí side. Llywelyn's body protested his every movement, the pain like nothing he had felt before. He endured it, his mind focused on a singular goal--protect his king. Llywelyn knocked Rowan's sword off of Ruaidhrí and shielded his king with his own body. He pleaded with Rowan. "Please, have mercy. If you spare him, we will retreat." "What? We can't." Ruaidhrí tried to push Llywelyn away, but he had no strength left. "Please, I beg you." Llywelyn held tighter to his king's body. For a moment, Rowan saw someone else when he looked down at the enemy knight. The golden hair remained, but the man's eyes turned an unnatural blue. His clothes shifted to a long robe lined with fur and a cloak made of water and ice. Two sets of iridescent, dragonfly-like wings branched off his back. Upon his head was a crown of branches, antlers, and feathers. From underneath the blond strands, he caught a glimpse of ears that pointed back. As quickly as that image came, it faded into another. He saw Robin starting at him, weak and injured. The illusion pierced straight to his heart and in momentary foolishness, he stopped his spell and nearly let go of his own blade. He refocused his mind to dispel the illusion. Rowan looked over the enemy knight. 'What sort of man are you?' He turned away from them. "Go, quickly. If you betray me, I will kill you both." "Thank you." Llywelyn said as he carried his king on his back. Llywelyn led the retreat, and Collin's men followed behind them. Exhausted, Rowan wanted to collapse on the field right then and there. He spoke with Martin briefly after the battle, suggesting they talk more thoroughly about their plans later on. Rowan was tired, filthy, and hungry. He was more concerned with attending to his own needs than doing any further planning yet, and he suspected most everyone else was as well. After a bath and dinner, he lay down on his cot while Robin cleaned their weapons. "Martin can handle the rest for now. I received word earlier that Silvanus will be sending some of his men this way. Things are going well with pushing Mark back. And things would be going so much better for us if Father wasn't such a miserly imbecile. We're practically out of everything again." Rowan sighed. "What's more infuriating is he expects you to return home every time and beg for more instead of accepting your requests via letter. All he's doing is wasting everyone's time and energy." Robin said. "I think he wants this to go on as long as possible, and more than that...I think he enjoys watching me beg for his help. I have to do what he wants, and he knows I have no choice. He's getting some kind of sick pleasure out of seeing me be submissive to him as an adult. I hate it." "You sure you don't want me to just kill him? Or anyone else? We didn't have to let Ruaidhrí go. We could have gotten rid of him right then." "He's not our main enemy. Right now, that's Brion's son. If we get rid of that family or get them to surrender, Ruaidhrí will follow right behind." Ruaidhrí was not his true enemy, though he wondered if his father would have a sudden reason once Brion's family was taken care of to need to take down Ruaidhrí as well. "Is that really all there is to it?" Robin asked. "I wanted him to retreat from the beginning, but there was something else..." Rowan thought back to the illusion he saw earlier. "That knight who tried to protect him, when our eyes met and he pleaded with me, I could see you." "What do you mean?" "I don't know myself. When I looked at him, I could see you. I knew when he spoke to me I couldn't kill him." He considered mentioning the other part of the illusion, but chose to not. He wasn't sure if any of what he saw was really a trick of magic or an illusion existing purely in his own mind. He was certainly exhausted enough for the latter to be plausible. "It's not as if I think less of the men I've had to kill, but if I'm going to kill, I get it done as quickly as possible. For my sanity, I let my ears go deaf to the cries of others. In that moment, I could not silence his voice. Perhaps I'm losing my mind..." "You had a moment of weakness, nothing more. It matters not. You got the result you wanted." Robin put Rowan's sword down and joined him on the cot. He caressed Rowan's face. "You're frustrated. Perhaps I can help you relieve some of that frustration?" Rowan unconsciously grinned at the contact. "Let me speak with Martin first. Then we can have some fun later." Robin felt over the front of Rowan's pants and whispered into his ear. "I'll be waiting." "I won't take long." A little more energized, Rowan headed straight for Martin's tent. Martin was eating and looking over a set of maps. "Am I interrupting?" Rowan asked. "Oh, Prince, no. Come in. Are you ready to discuss our next course of action?" Martin put his food down and rose to greet Rowan. "Yes. I will need to return home soon to get more supplies and men. Do you think you can hold things down while I'm gone? Silvanus's men will be here soon." "I should be able to manage in the mean time. I'll keep you updated by letter every week or so." "Thank you. I greatly appreciate it. I'm sorry I have to leave like this. My father is very...particular about how I must go about things." Rowan crossed his arms and sighed. "We'll hold strong in your absence." "I am most grateful for your support. Good luck." Rowan put his hand on Martin's shoulder. "One more matter of concern. Sir Martin, I know I'm being very greedy, but may I borrow Sir Luke for a little while longer?" "You still want to keep him? I'm surprised. That seems unlike him to stay by anyone's side for more than the duration of a fleeting breeze." Rowan turned away from Martin to hide the grin creeping up on him. "Seems he is ill from me. I wish to help him overcome that sickness of his by denial." "Sickness?" "Lovesickness, to be precise. He's in love with me. Of course, I'm not going to reciprocate, but I want to ensure his madness dies in my presence before I return him. His thoughts are too filled with me." He nearly laughed saying it. Martin paused before responding. "I see. How do you plan on going about this?" "His passion will undoubtedly fade, and when it does, he will be heartbroken. I want to ensure I am there for both stages, so that I may keep watch of his health. When his heart inevitably breaks, I will stay with him as a friend and remind him there is another type of love that I am willing to give him." "Do you really think all of that is necessary?" Martin asked, unconvinced. Rowan turned around to face Martin. He forced a serious face. "Absolutely. We once had a lady in our court poison herself when her loyal knight refused to yield to her most private desires once he returned home to his wife. Love is a dangerous thing." "Very well. I will inform my king. It's a shame you're not a noblewoman. Then Luke might actually settle down. Wouldn't that be the sight..." "Yes, that would be something to see. I think it will happen though. No, I feel it will. Perhaps sooner than you think." Rowan wanted to laugh again, but he kept it inside. "No disrespect to you, Prince, but I find that very hard to believe. I would be happy for him, but it doesn't seem likely." "He may surprise you one day." Rowan moved back towards the entrance of the tent. He pulled it back to leave, but glanced back at Martin once more. "I don't think he'll stay locked up in that tower forever." Martin's eyes widened. "Pardon me?" "Nothing. I'm rambling. Don't mind me." He couldn't hold it back any longer. He laughed under his breath as he lingered in the entrance. "Oh, but could we keep my reasoning between us?" "Oh, yes, if you'd like." "I'm surprised, Sir Martin. Keeping things from your king?" "King Philip is my king, and I follow his orders dutifully. Luke is...I raised that boy since he came to our kingdom when he was thirteen. It's my duty before any others to protect him." "I'm sure he appreciates it, even if he doesn't say it. He's quite stubborn with putting that mask down. I'll return him to you soon enough." Rowan departed from the tent. On his way back, a messenger stopped him with a letter from Rosabella. He read it as he walked back to his tent. 'To my dearest fiancé, I have missed you in your absence. Prince Wren's been keeping me company, helping me in the garden. We've been watching the moon together lately. The sky's very beautiful at night, isn't it? Wren's tells me he's heard distant howls in the dark, but it is only the moon that captivates my interest. I hope you and your dear knight return soon. I wish to speak with you again in person very soon. I have wonderful news. The quilt I've been stitching together for you is closer to completion. Wishing you well, Rosa' Rowan entered the tent, feeling more rejuvenated than before. Robin looked up at him from the book he was reading. "Something happen?" "Lady Rosa says she's been gardening with Wren and keeping track of the moon. She wants to speak with me in person about something." He tossed the letter aside and got on the cot with Robin. "What does that..." Robin grinned when he realized what the letter meant. "Finally! Wren actually did it." "I didn't really have any doubts after we last spoke, but..." Rowan cuddled up beside Robin. "Oh, Wren's spoken with your father too. She didn't elaborate on that. I suppose we'll know more about that when we return." "Everything's falling into place now. Only took Wren a few years...You two are definitely brothers." "That's enough of that." Rowan got on top of Robin and grabbed his wrists. He pinned him down and smirked at him. "Oh, Luke's coming back with us." Robin's excitement immediately turned to disappointment. "Couldn't you have waited to tell me that until afterwards?" Rowan slid one of his legs between Robin's. "It's punishment for your earlier comment. You should watch your words more." "You know I've never been good at that." "I know. Such a shame." Rowan didn't tease Robin any further. His mind was preoccupied with something that required the remainder of his energy. Sleep came to Rowan easily, slipping into dreams as soon as his head hit the pillow. In the morning, Rowan informed Luke of them leaving. It took him a while to find Luke, as Luke drank heavily the previous night and had visited more than a couple of tents. He eventually found him down by the river near camp, half dressed and passed out in the dirt. He clearly hadn't bathed the previous night. Rowan splashed a bit of water from the river on his face. Luke sat up and clutched his head. "What the fuck?" "Morning. I take it you didn't sleep well." Rowan sat down beside him. "Come to say goodbye?" Luke faced the ground. "Not yet. I haven't relieved you of your duties. We're leaving in an hour. Get ready." Rowan patted him on the head. "And take a bath. You're filthy." "You want me to come with you? But why? I would have thought you'd be sick of me by now." Luke crawled over to the river and washed his face off. "Why would you think that?" Rowan held Luke's hair back while Luke washed. "I'm sure you'd like to rest for a while. When we get back to the castle, will you play cards with me again?" "If you want." Within the hour, they departed. Luke's mood didn't improve. Rowan tried to discourage him from drinking heavily, but Luke was determined to drink far more than usual. No matter how he asked, Luke wouldn't reveal what was bothering him to Rowan. Eventually, Rowan chose to let it go and merely watch over Luke from a distance. Back at the castle, Wren watched storm clouds rolling in over the horizon from his bedroom window. Distant thunder echoed across the land. He pulled the hood up on his brother's cloak. Mist rose around the castle. Wren whispered, "Come home soon." The door opened. Wren looked over. Argus entered the room and locked the door. "Hello, Father," Wren said. Argus did not return the greeting. He got straight to the point. "Have you made your decision? About your brother?" Wren turned away from him. "I'm not going to do anything to him while the war is going on. That's for him to finish." "He plans on wedding Lady Rosabella soon. What will you do?" Argus asked. "Does it matter? She'll be mine eventually regardless." Argus stood directly behind Wren. "You really don't care if he has his way with her?" Wren wanted to gag that he was discussing such things with his father. He kept his voice calm and unconcerned. "He's always been free to do that. He is her fiancé." "Do you think he has?" "I've never asked her. I don't really care." Wren shrugged. "You don't know at all?" Argus grabbed Wren's shoulder and forced him to turn around. Argus spoke coldly. "You're lying." Wren nearly lost his balance from the force of Argus's pulling. He stumbled slightly from the window. Wren pushed his father's hand off. "Why do you say that? What would be the point of such a lie?" "You've been keeping that dagger on you, haven't you?" He asked. "Yes." "Show me." Wren took the dagger out from a bag at his side. He presented the enemy's blade to his father. "Good." Argus said. He took note of what Wren was wearing. "You seemed rather close the last time I saw you two interact. You're not planning on betraying me with him, are you?" "Why would I do that?" "Red doesn't suit you in the slightest. What are you doing wearing this?" Argus pointed to the cloak. "He let me borrow it. If he wants to think we're getting closer, let him. Shouldn't that work to my advantage?" Wren forced himself to wear an expression very unlike himself. He smirked and said while playing with the dagger, "When the war is done, I'll wear his cloak as I carry his lifeless corpse in tears and take his widow. The public will love it." "You've gotten more devious. Good. Perhaps you're not as weak as your brother after all." Wren grew more agitated the longer his father spoke. He turned away again. "Did you need to discuss anything else with me, Father?" "There is no training today. Instead, I want you studying the topics we discussed yesterday." "Yes, Father." Wren said, sitting down in the window. Argus left without another word. Wren laughed to himself. "I am getting more devious, aren't I? I'll ensure that crown passes to him, you fool." The rain came down in sheets. Wren leaned slightly out the window to feel it. The cold water refreshed him. It was too soon, but Wren watched the mists for any hints of red. Argus was unconvinced by Wren's acting. He hid away in his own room, pacing in paranoia at the thoughts that raced in his mind. 'Is he deceiving me? I'm not letting anyone have my throne until I'm on my deathbed. What could those two be plotting?' When Rowan returned, he would try getting him to talk next. Argus thought to himself, 'He'll be easier, if I can get the demon away from him. He has plenty of weaknesses.' A few weeks passed on the journey home. Upon return, Rowan was greeted by Wren at the front gates. Rowan couldn't help but smile a little when he saw Wren was wearing his cloak. Rowan dismounted his horse and ran over to hug his brother. "We're home." Wren reciprocated the gesture. "I'm glad. You are all well, yes?" Luke got off his horse. He nearly fell in the process. "I could use a drink. A few drinks. Ugh, my head is killing me." "Perhaps you shouldn't have drank so much last night..." Rowan gave him a worrying look. "That's exactly why I need another." Luke clutched his head. Wren walked over to Robin's horse. "What about you, Rin? How are you?" "I think I should be asking you. I heard some interesting news from your brother before we left about you and Lady Rosabella." Robin teased. Wren's face turned bright red. "Ah, we don't need to talk about that..." "Did it go badly?" Robin asked. "No! I just don't want to talk about it..." Robin got down. "It's alright if it did. The first time Rowan and I..." "He doesn't need to hear about that!" Rowan cleared his throat. "Speaking of which, should I be expecting someone in nine months or not yet?" Wren shook his head. "Not yet. Rosa's been having her servants help her determine when the best days might be to try again." "This is too much domestic talk for me. I'm going to find something to drink. And then sleep." Luke let out a groan as he walked away. "Don't drink too much, alright?" Rowan said. Luke waved at him, not intending to follow that advice in the least. Rowan sighed. He was out of ideas on what to do about Luke. Jokingly, he said, "Do you think I could get him to quit drinking if I offered to kiss him as a reward?" "No, he'd still fail even if he tried." Robin had an equally exasperated expression. "Not much faith in him?" Rowan said. Robin shrugged. Sensing the mood around them had shifted to a negative one, Rowan changed the subject. He turned to Wren. "You really do look good in that. You can keep it if you want." Wren glanced at the cloak. "Thank you. What about you?" "I can have another made for me." Wren looked at Robin. "Rin, what do you think?" "I think you look very handsome in red." There was a faint red in Wren's cheeks. "Thank you." "Robin, would it be alright if I spent some time alone with Wren?" Rowan asked. "Of course. I'll go stop that idiot from drinking himself into a stupor again after I take care of them." Robin walked off with their horses. Rowan asked Wren, "Would you like to go on a walk with me?" "I'd love to." Wren walked alongside his brother. Wren followed Rowan out near the woods just outside the castle. "I'm glad you're home, but are you sure you want to go on a walk? Don't you need to rest?" "Not yet. I'll be fine." Rowan smirked and elbowed Wren. "So...how did it go?" Wren's face lit up. "You too?!" "I'm only teasing you." "It went fine, I'll have you know!" "That's good." Wren decided to get a little bit of revenge. "What about you? Rin keeps telling me things didn't go so well the first time the two of you did something, but I've never actually heard him finish that sentence." "That's not what we're talking about." Rowan raised his voice for a moment. He cleared his throat again. "Besides, you're no novice at this, from what Lady Rosa's told me. Shooting with a new bow isn't the same thing as shooting for the first time." "Fair enough." Wren persisted. "It went really bad, didn't it?" "It wasn't the worst sex we've had, but it certainly ranks very high." "Then what happened on the worst time?" "That never happened and we're not talking about it, because it didn't happen! And besides, that was an accident!" To Wren's surprise, Rowan's face had gone a deep red. Rowan looked away. "Let's talk about something else." 'What on earth could embarrass you that badly?' Wren laughed. "Alright. I won't ask. Brother, I really am glad you're home. I hope the war doesn't last much longer, so you can stay home for good." "I'd like that. Sometimes, I wish things could stay as they were before the war started." "So do I. For a while now, I've been having nightmares that you won't come back home." Wren stopped behind Rowan. "Please, promise me you'll always come back home alive." "I can't promise that, but even if I die, I swear I'll return to check on you from time to time." Rowan stared out at the horizon. "I'll watch you from the mists in the morning. That's where you'll find me." "Can't you use some sort of protection charm when you fight?" Wren asked. "Even magic has its boundaries. There are always ways to get around that. Don't worry. I don't think I'll be dying anytime soon, but...I simply can't promise that. My life is always in danger. I am the crown prince of a king at war who's made many enemies." Rowan hugged his brother. "But I thank you for your concern. Please, don't waste your dreams on me. When you go to sleep, think of happier times. Besides, I'm pretty strong, you know. I think I'll manage." "I know you're strong. You're stronger than anyone I've ever met. Please stay strong." Wren looked at his brother's face, memorizing the scars and wrinkles, the grays amongst the black, and the light in his brother's eyes. A sinking feeling turned in his gut and he couldn't shake the feeling that the number of times he would get to see his brother's face were limited. He had so many more things he wanted to tell his brother. Wren cursed himself for letting so many moments slip through his fingers out of selfishness and fear. Rowan's eyes lit up a little more at Wren's words. "Thank you. It means a lot to me to hear you say that." A heavy guilt weighed on Wren's conscience. If time was limited, the window for him to admit his selfishness was closing. He took a deep breath and walked a little ahead of his brother. "I have something to confess. Some of the bitterness I held towards you before was for...very childish reasons." "Hmm? What do you mean?" Rowan caught up to him. Wren averted his eyes. "Do you remember when I was little and I'd come to your room at night because I had a bad dream?" "Yes, you did that all the time, well past the age I should have allowed it." Rowan laughed thinking back on it. Wren stood still. "I never really had bad dreams." "What do you mean?" Rowan tilted his head. "I wanted to sleep next to Rin." Wren could feel his face getting hot from embarrassment. He forced the words out. "I'd get so jealous when he'd spend time with you. I wanted all of his attention." Rowan couldn't speak a single word. "You weren't the only one captivated by him. I don't feel that way anymore. Before I fell in love with Rosa, I already knew it was impossible. He loved you then the same he does now, and he and I are separated by a decade of time. I could never steal him from you." Wren still refused to face him. "It's stupid, but I used to blame all of that on you, and I never really let go of that resentment when my feelings about him changed. I couldn't see you as good enough for him, and I wanted to see flaws in everything you did." Rowan couldn't process everything his brother was saying. It was too surreal. "Wren, I had no idea..." "I'm sorry." "I don't know what to say..." Rowan sensed how badly Wren felt. He stepped in front of him and smiled. "Well, do you think I'm good enough now?" "More than enough." Wren's face was red and his eyes wet, which in turn only deepened his embarrassment. "I've never thought much on it before, especially after Rosa and I started seeing each other. If I fell in love with another man again, what sort of life would I have to lead to hide it? If everyone knew about Rosa and me, it wouldn't be the same. Rosa would face consequences, but it would be different for me." "Father may still be able to cover it up for you regardless." "You know the public would react far more harshly if I was with a man. You more than anyone know it. That's why we've had to arrange all of this." Wren's voice softened. "Do you ever worry Father may use that to get rid of you?" "I don't. It would humiliate him too much even if he got to punish me. He'd only want to punish Robin if that happened." "Are you not afraid of that?" Wren asked. "I wouldn't let him." Rowan's eyes had a fierce intensity to them as he spoke. Wren was uncertain if that look was one of confidence or desperation. "How would you stop him?" "I'd find a way, somehow. I won't let anything happen to him." Rowan reassured him. "I'm sorry. I've been acting so childish all this time." Wren faced the ground. Rowan patted him on the head. "Forget it. It doesn't matter now." Wren looked back at Rowan. He gave a half-hearted smile. "You know, I'm surprised at how long you allowed me to stay. I was almost nine the last time. What made you finally tell me to go back to my room? I thought since it was Rin's birthday, I'd be able to convince him at least, but you refused to let me see him." Rowan thought over what to say. "I had a special celebration planned that night." "All night? I could have come back." He reiterated his last words. "All night." "Oh...well, then that explains some things..." Wren laughed and scratched the back of his head. "What things?" Rowan asked. "Rin was acting strange the next day. He told me I was a brave boy for staying in my room all night and since I'm so brave...I should never come to your room at night ever again. I thought he was praising me. He wasn't thinking about me at all!" Wren let out a big laugh. Rowan laughed with him. "I'm sorry. But it's for the best anyway. You were far too old for that." "That was your fault. You always treated me like a baby." "I can't help it. You always acted like a baby." Rowan flicked him on the forehead. Wren backed away and glared at him. "What?!" Rowan laughed again. "You'd want me to carry you when you were too old for it too, but that didn't last that long. Thank god. You're heavy. And you always cried. Then Robin would give me that look and I'd have to do whatever you wanted." "And now you're blaming him!" Wren remembered something. "That reminds me of something. I have one other thing I need to confess. Do you remember that time I got drunk at Philip's?" "Unfortunately." "Sorry...my memory of that night is...hazy at best. That night, well, I thought this might have been a dream, but I thought...quite a few things that happened that night were dreams...so I'm not sure if this happened or not..." Wren fidgeted with his hands. Rowan rolled his eyes. "Get on with it." 'This is so humiliating...' Wren took another deep breath. "I think I asked Rin to sleep with me..." "You what?!" Rowan stared at Wren in disbelief. "I tried to get him in bed with me too...but he refused me. I don't know why I did that. I don't have any romantic feelings for him, and I'd be betraying both you and Rosa if I did that. I don't understand why I'd do something like that." "You were drunk. You also nearly ended up in bed with Luke and you told me to go fuck myself when I saved you from that embarrassment." Rowan said. "I...forgot I said that..." "Forget it. That's in the past. It's not like anything happened. Don't worry about it." Rowan laughed it off. "It's a nice day out. Why don't we go and get our bows? It's been a while since I've gone hunting." "You sure you're not tired from the trip?" "I'm fine. Let's make a contest out of it. If you win, I'll show you a secret." "A secret?" Wren tilted his head. Rowan whispered, "How to beat Robin in a sword fight. But you mustn't tell anyone the secret, alright?" Wren nodded. He didn't believe it could be so simple, but he wanted to humor Rowan. "I swear." They hurried back to the castle to get their bows. While they went out hunting, Robin tried unsuccessfully to get Luke to stop drinking. Luke sat slouched over with a mug in hand. Robin sat across from him at a table. "This really isn't going to help matters." Robin said. He was fed up with Luke's behavior. "Shut up and leave me be. Haven't you got better things to do than hound me? Shouldn't you be off polishing the prince's sword or something?" Luke could barely lift his head. "Why do you want to be in such a pathetic state? Are you not embarrassed?" Robin looked at Luke in disgust. They were raised by different people and he knew there should be some differences, but he still found it hard to believe he and Luke were brothers. Outside of appearance, he saw no similarities between them. "I don't give a shit." "Clearly." Robin snatched the mug from Luke's hand. "Give that back!" Luke reached for the mug. Robin dangled the mug just out of reach. "No. You've had enough. You've had enough this trip back for the rest of the year. No more for today." Luke ignored him. He got up and snatched the mug back from Robin. He took a big swig only to spit it back out. "What the fuck did you do?" "I told you--no more. You can drink water." Robin sat back with a calm demeanor. Luke got up and went to get something else to drink. Everything around him had been turned to water. "You've done the opposite of Jesus. I knew you were a devil." "The only devil in this room is in you. Why are you doing this? You weren't drinking like this before. You're embarrassing Rowan." "Good. Then he can send me away already and be done with it." Luke threw the mug to the ground. "If you want to leave, then tell him so." Robin picked it back up. "I don't want to leave!" Luke yelled. He went dead quiet right afterwards. Robin understood then what was really eating away at Luke. "You misunderstand him. He's not going to throw you away. You needn't worry about that." "What would the prince's pet dog know about being cast out? You've never disappointed him. Would he keep you around if you took that collar off?" Luke glared at him. "I am no pet on a leash." Robin returned the glare. "They call me the Hellhound, but I am not Rowan's poorly restrained dog. That has always been an illusion. I am what people think I really am--a wolf. I have always been and always will be nothing more than that." "You're a violent dog, but a tamed beast nonetheless. A very fearsome attack dog is not a wolf." "And now you misunderstand me." Robin spoke with a cold voice. The tone reminded Luke of how his father used to speak to him. It didn't help matters that Robin and Faolán had identical voices to begin with, and Robin perfectly matched his father's appearance at a younger age except in dress and mannerism. Typically, Robin's manner of speech was very different from their father's and his usual attire was so unlike Faolán that it didn't bother Luke most days. Uneasiness hung over Luke as he listened to Robin speak, not wanting to relive those unpleasant memories. Robin continued. "I will obey Rowan only to an extent. My desires revolve exclusively around him. Every day I wake and see him, every time I look into his eyes, I want him more. It is a madness of the moon, and I am perpetually transformed in the presence of his light." Luke's face was blank. Inside, his mind was lost in a storm. He kept his emotions tightly locked inside. A flash of a memory--standing in a dimly lit hallway with his father--greeted him like an incubus in the darkest hours, draining away at his very being. He could not release himself from the sickening feeling overcoming him. He wanted another drink, now more than before and he wanted Robin to stop talking. "Why do you desire him so? You know you could have almost anyone you wanted." "I do not want anyone but him. Having met him, there is no one else who could ever captivate me in that way now." Robin's eyes burned with an fierce intensity. "You cannot understand how I feel. When I look into his eyes, I see my soul reflected back at me." "This nonsense with both of you. Don't tell me you really believe in such silly things as soulmates?" Luke's agitation with his brother grew. 'Shut up. Just shut up. Stop sounding like him!' Robin stood up from the table. Water fell from the ceiling inside the room. "You doubt me when I can summon rain at will and have seen creatures you will never know?" "I accept that magic is real, but twin flames are something entirely different." Luke resigned to sitting at the table. He rested his head down on the cold wood and ignored the water. He covered his ears to drown out Robin's voice. The water was cool against his body, a complete contrast to the burning sensation he was causing by clawing at the sides of his face. "What the hell is wrong with me? I've never chased anyone this long before..." Robin laughed and sat back down across from him. He stopped the water. His voice was back to his usual tone. "You think you've waited long? I spent two years courting him before he asked me to be his lover, and nearly another two years before I got to what you want. You haven't even waited a year. If your patience is so weak, you should give up now. Not that it matters, as he's already mine." "You waited...nearly four years to sleep with him?!" Luke let go of his head and stared up at Robin in confusion. His anxiousness subsided somewhat, but only by the slightest amount. "But haven't you two shared a bed since you've lived with him?" "We were children for a portion of that, you know. I didn't want to do that with him either for several years. Besides that, Rowan was very overly worried about everything. When he was at the point he did want to sleep with me, he kept delaying out of fear of being caught and what his father might have done to me." Robin thought back on those times. Any contact between them became drenched in agony, and nighttime was the worst of it. When Rowan wasn't yet ready for that, he could bare it well enough. Knowing Rowan wanted to touch him and would not from fear drove him mad. "Suppose that is a reasonable fear. King Argus doesn't seem to like you." Luke rested his head back down on the table. He didn't want to say it, especially since Robin had only drenched the room to boast his strength, but the water was relaxing him. His mind wandered to when he first took a bath with Rowan down by the river and the cool feeling of the water running over his skin. He wanted to see Rowan, but he was too embarrassed with himself to go near him. "He hates me as much as I hate him." Robin got up. He picked up the mug Luke threw and filled it with water. He returned to his seat to drink from it. "You should drink some water too. It's better for your body than that poison you put in it." "I know that. That's exactly why I drink...to poison myself, and...at least I might forget. I don't want to remember anything." Luke regretted saying that immediately after he spoke. He didn't want anyone's pity, and certainly not their comfort. "Why do you want to forget? Looked to me like you were enjoying yourself for a while." "It'll never last. It's always the same. In the end, I'll always be..." The image Luke had of that memory slipped away. He saw himself in the shadow of that tower, alone. "Rowan would never hurt you the way Lewis did." Robin said in Rowan's defense. Luke immediately sat up. "What are you talking about?" "Oh...I'm sorry. I wasn't supposed to know about that. Let me explain..." Robin's eyes widened. He was so focused on protecting Rowan he didn't think his words through. 'What have I done?' "He told you my secret." Luke got up from the table and walked towards the door. Robin followed him. "Only a small bit of it. It was my fault. I was pestering him and..." "Forget it. I don't care if you know. That night was nothing of consequence to me. You said it yourself earlier. First times are usually bad." Luke's voice was filled with anger. "That was the first time you...I am so sorry...I..." Robin wondered what he should do. His earlier annoyance turned to pity and sadness for Luke. He put his hand on Luke's shoulder. "Shut up! You're giving me a headache. I don't care about that. Just go away!" Luke pushed him away. Robin's voice brought back a very clear memory, one of his father asking him a question he wanted to erase from his mind. Luke stumbled down the hallway to find his room. When Luke reached his room, he sat down by the window. The wind chilled his wet clothes. He watched the water drip off his hair. 'I knew you'd betray me.' Robin left Luke to be alone. He was concerned, but knew Luke wouldn't allow his presence any further for the time being. He returned to the room to clean up the mess he made. He was a little embarrassed he made such a mess, and the king wouldn't be happy with what he did to all of the alcohol that was stored in the room. He sighed. "I've made more than one mess today, haven't I? Rowan won't be happy." As he cleaned, the king stormed into the room. "There you are, you damn demon!" "Yes, your highness?" Robin asked. "What the hell is this?" Argus waved a piece of parchment in the air. "It appears to be a letter, my king." Robin said. "I can see that! What is your father on about with this marriage tradition? I thought we were all clear on what the plans were about you getting married." Argus got up in Robin's face. 'So, he is going to help.' Robin quickly made up something. "Oh, that. Faolán can be very...particular about what family traditions he keeps." "I don't have time for this nonsense of giving trials to potential brides, and he certainly isn't getting the final say in the matter. You belong to me, and your bride will serve to benefit me." "You'll have to take that up with him, your majesty. I have no control over him." Robin kept his cool and shrugged. "That damn wolf. We'll see what he says to my face." As quickly as Argus had came, he left in just as much of a hurry. "Another mess to manage. Humans are so needlessly complicated." Robin went back to cleaning. He glanced at his own reflection in the water on the table and laughed at himself. "And what am I?" In Silvanus's lands, there was a shuffling of men going on. Mark was pulling back. A portion of Silvanus's army was headed toward where Martin's army was and the other half was nearly home, having left slightly before everyone else. Egret and Eider too were returning, heading back to Argus's castle. Eider said goodbye to Avis, under the watchful eye of Faolán who never let Eider get closer than three feet's distance. He wanted to head straight home to see Fleur and the boys, but Egret insisted they see Argus first. The ride back was long. Eider had only his father's company on the way back, and his father had much to say. Eider fought more in the time they stood alongside Silvanus's men than at any other point in his life, but that was not enough for his father. He saw everything--every mistake, every weakness, and his father wanted him to hear every last criticism. They were now close to the castle, but Egret still had more to complain about. For every thing he mentioned, there was always something else to go on about once the sun rose again. Egret started off early that morning. "When we were out there, don't think I didn't notice. You shame me, boy. I watched you. Hiding behind someone's squire? That's the only way you'll fight? With a human shield?" "I wasn't using him as a shield. Avis and I are friends. He's a good boy and I've got plenty to share about his older brothers. It's not odd that we fought side by side." Eider said. His words were reasonable, but they were not enough. "Don't dress it up. You're a coward. You befriended that child to use because you're weak. If that brat died in front of you, the only reason you would cry is for fear of your own life." Egret spoke only with cruelty. "That's not true at all." "So, the Black Wolf's youngest is your friend, aye? You were really close, huh?" Egret set a trap for his son. "We did become friends, yes, Father." "Then I take it you know what Avis is hiding, which makes you even weaker." Eider played dumb. If his father knew some other secret, he didn't want to accidentally reveal her. "What are you talking about?" "Avis is a girl. You've been hiding behind a young woman. How pathetic." 'So you knew. How did you find out?' Eider did his best to defend his friend's honor, along with himself. "It don't matter if she's a woman or a man, Avis is a good soldier." "No woman is as good a warrior as a man. If she is stronger than you, then you are no man either. You're nothing but a weak boy. I wish you were never born. If Bella was a boy, she would have done better than you. At least she knows her proper place and fulfills it. What honor have you brought? You're nothing but a weakling." Egret ranted on. Eider went quiet. There was no point in continuing the conversation. "Nothing to say? Of course not. Weak boy, so weak women and children rule over you. Will you send your wife out next time in your armor? She might be better at that than her wifely duties these days. I hear she handed your last child over to Death the moment it came out of her." Egret remarked with a particular sinister grin, as if taking delight in Eider's misfortune. "That is not within her control. That is the decision of God." "Don't give me that bullshit. The baby died because she's just as weak as you." Eider stayed silent for the rest of the day, only half listening to what his father said and wanting something to drink. While Rowan and Robin rested up, Luke had spent all of his time since returning to the castle in his room. Robin hadn't told Rowan about what transpired between him and Luke yet. He wanted to make up with Luke on his own first, but Luke refused to see him at all. Luke allowed Rowan to see him begrudgingly, and kept his distance. Luke wanted to yell at Rowan, but said nothing about what was bothering him. One morning, it was not Rowan who came to his door. A messenger greeted him with a letter from his father. He nearly ripped it to pieces as soon as it was in his hands. Instead, he tossed it onto the bed and watched the sky from the window. He pretended the letter wasn't there, but it ate away at him until he caved and read it. Luke, I'm writing to you again about your mother. She is no longer living in this realm. She's chosen to stay in the other realm with those kind. I doubt she will return to our realm. She's living with the river nymph. You know the one. If you wish to see her again, that's where you must go. I think she will be happier there. -Faolán Luke held the letter in his hand for a while, not sure how to feel. The longer he stared at it, the angrier he got. He ripped the letter to pieces. He composed a reply for his father. 'I hope you set yourself ablaze in the flames of all the hell you've caused.' He left the parchment on the bed. He didn't feel like bothering to find a messenger, and debated with himself about whether he would send it at all, or if he should make some further additions to the letter. Luke returned to the window, his thoughts scattered. His mind drifted to a memory from when he was young and still by his mother's side. He followed her down to the river to wash clothes. She was already making him wear that cloak to hide his face by then. He sat beside her as she washed her own cloak. That day, she took him further than before, as she often would later on. She instructed him to keep his voice down as she pointed to the waterfall. Playing in the water, he saw a nymph with a human boy. The boy skipped around on the rocks beside the falls and hummed a song with the nymph. 'Look at him. He looks even more like that wolf than you do. Your brother could be his twin if he were older.' His mother said. Luke looked more closely at the boy. He trusted his mother was correct about their differences, as he rarely looked at himself. 'He's my brother? Why is he there? Is he my half-brother?' 'No, he's my child. I gave him away to the nymph. Look, I'll show you what she gave me in exchange.' Flannán showed him a white water lily in full bloom from under her clothes. 'It's not faded a bit since the day she gave it to me.' 'Why'd you keep me?' Luke asked her. At the time, he didn't know what he really wanted out of asking her that. Now that he was older, he understood what he was seeking--something she couldn't give him. 'Mahli would have beat me twice as hard if I gave two boys away.' His mother said without a trace of any emotion. 'Why don't you run away?' 'There's no point. No one would want me. I'm not worth anything.' His mother stared at the nymph for a long time. He came to understand her gaze in time, as he had forbidden interests of his own not soon after. The only time he remembered his mother showing concern for him was the time he offered a rose to another boy and was promptly beaten for it before she stepped in and ushered him home, and whenever his father came to visit. She could ignore him for days on end, but when that man came to visit them, she did her best to find him and tell him where to hide. He came to terms with her inabilities, as he understood their root in time. When she wasn't ignoring him or hiding him, she confessed to him her sorrows in rare moments. He was still too young to completely understand her pain yet, but he knew that the events of her past left her very broken and neither of them knew of any medicine to fix her mind with. He accepted her demand to keep his face hidden, and said nothing of her longing gaze towards that nymph at the waterfall. It was like that for years. That's how things were. He convinced himself he was content with that until the day Robin showed up at their home demanding to know where their father lived. His mother threw words of anger and disgust at him upon hearing his demands and his plans to become a knight, but she still gave him the answer he wanted. Robin said nothing to him before leaving. He didn't acknowledge Luke's presence at all. Much like his mother, he carried hatred for Robin's questions as well, but over the course of a few weeks, his anger subsided into something else. His mother would hate him for it, but he saw freedom in both Robin and Faolán. The years to reach that status would be hell, but he could provide things for his mother, perhaps get her to leave that awful place, and he too would gain freedom. An idea born from one he hated to be supported by another he hated, he set out on his own personal path to freedom shortly after his brother. Thinking over the course of his life since then, he held the deepest hatred for himself. "I should have stayed and freed you." He decided to add a few more lines to his letter before sending it off. An important visitor came to the castle that day. King Philip had come to speak with both Argus and Rowan about the war and update them on the issues with information being leaked. There had been three more threats on his son James's life since they last spoke, and his supplies were still being stolen frequently. Argus had nothing to offer about who may be behind it, and mentioned that some of his own supplies had been stolen recently. Philip suggested they hold another meeting soon between themselves and Silvanus in private to come up with a plan of action. Rowan kept quiet. He knew very well where the leak was coming from, but he dare not reveal his father. After the private meeting, Philip spoke with Rowan in private. "Prince, I am surprised at how long you've kept Sir Luke at your side. Are you not satisfied with him repaying his debt to you?" Philip asked. "Actually, I have been quite satisfied for a long time, but I'd like to keep him a little longer with your permission." Rowan said. "You still wish to keep him? Is there a reason?" "I know I am being very selfish in my request, but he has been so useful to me and we've become dear friends. I'm finding it hard to part with him." Rowan's tone was very soft-spoken. He chose to omit Luke's recent behavior. Rowan had a very particular objective in mind for his conversation with Philip. Rowan was not going to allow Luke's behavior to get in the way of that even if Luke would prefer it in his current state. "Don't mistake me. I will return him to you, but if you will allow, I'd like to keep him by my side a little while longer." "Is he really that impressive to you?" Philip asked. "Oh, yes. With the way he interacts with Sir Robin, he has the talent to handle those with magic without needing any of his own. He has quite the silver tongue." Rowan grinned as he put his plan into action. "That is true." "He's very loyal too. There is no doubt in me that he would give his life to defend me. If I didn't already have Sir Robin, I'd be begging for his services permanently. You're lucky to have him on your side." Philip was shocked by Rowan's words. "No one's ever praised Sir Luke to me like that before." His grin widened. "That's Sir Luke's own weakness. He is quite happy to keep others at a distance so that no one can ever get close enough to know him well. He keeps his heart hidden away in a great tower behind a heavy lock. I doubt he could be swayed into letting anyone in or anything out." Rowan could see what Philip was working out in his head. "I see." "You are very lucky to have him, but I wonder if his talents are wasted on the battlefield. Ah, nevermind me. I'm rambling." "No, actually, your assessment of him has given me plenty to think on. If you would like to keep him a little longer, you have my permission." Philip thanked Rowan and went to join Argus for dinner. To further his plan, he moved on to the next phase. He needed to pull Luke out of his current state before he spiraled any further. Rowan went to Luke's room. He knocked on the door. "Luke. I'm here to see you." Luke unlocked the door and let him in. He said nothing and returned to the window. Rowan stood beside him. "Your king wanted me to return you." Luke looked over at him briefly. "Should I start packing?" "No, not yet. I requested to keep you longer." Luke stared at the sky. "Is there a reason you've been keeping me this long?" "I like you being near. I don't want you to leave my company yet." Rowan sat in the window. "That reminds me. You haven't been making any moves on me lately. Have you given up?" "Haven't really been in the mood for that sort of thing lately." "Really? I would have sworn I heard you were going out rather regularly at night." Rowan said. 'I don't want you.' He wanted to say that, but chose not to. "So, you knew. Are you disgusted with me?" "It's none of my business." Rowan leaned over closer to Luke. "Would you accompany me for a while? I'd like to go down by the river and watch the water." "Where's your pet dog? Why don't you have him go?" Luke refused to look at him. "Robin's giving Wren some lessons on swordsmanship right now, and more than that, I want to go with you." "Is that an order?" Luke asked. "I'd prefer you not make me do that. Please, Luke. You've been staying in here all day long for days. The only time you've been out of here is to get drunk and fool around." "I'm fine." Rowan leaned forward more to see Luke's expression. Blank again. He wondered what face Luke was wearing when he went out at night to meet with strangers. He wagered Luke could wear his usual mask there. Rowan sighed. "I order you to accompany me." "You are a very strange person." Rowan tried making small talk with Luke on the walk there. Luke responded in short sentences, mostly staring off at nothing. 'Are you there at all? Why can't you be here when I'm here?' Rowan thought. At the very least, Luke was talking slightly more than he had over the last few days now that they were outside. Down on the river bank, Rowan sat with his shoes off and his feet in the water. Luke sat with his legs crossed beside Rowan. He stared forward with an empty expression. Rowan had another trick left to use. He'd been practicing it with Robin for a while. He was confident now that he could do it properly. Rowan asked, "Luke, what do you dream of?" "Afraid I don't dream much, and the ones I have flee at sunrise." Luke was lying, but he had no intentions of telling Rowan or anyone else about the sorts of nightmares he usually had. "For a long time, my dreams have been nightmares, but the other day, I had a different sort of dream. It was more like a memory. It was nice." Rowan splashed the water playfully. "I wonder if I can give you a nice dream." "What do you mean?" Luke raised an eyebrow. "I've been practicing a lot of magic with Robin. He says I'm a fast learner." Rowan turned to Luke. "Do you want to see?" "If you wish." "I'm not sure if this will work, but...come close to me." Rowan moved over very close to Luke. Luke hesitated. He was still upset with Rowan, but the physical closeness was appealing. He allowed it and moved closer himself. When there was barely any distance between them, he stopped. "Now what?" "Take my hands." Rowan pressed his forehead against Luke's. Luke did as he was told. His eyes met with Rowan's for the first time in days. His anger momentarily subsided. He was lost in that gaze, his face burning hot. If he leaned in a little more, their lips would touch. Foolishly, he tried to do just that to sneak a kiss. Before he could make contact, Rowan started humming a melody. Luke's eye were suddenly heavy and his body light. In seconds, Luke fell back unconscious. Rowan caught him as he fell, and gently lay him down on the ground. "Trying to sneak a kiss after what you've been pulling? Shameful. I forgive you." Rowan kept watch over Luke as he slept. "Forgive me if this doesn't work. It's so hard to reach you." In Luke's dream, he was somewhere he often went in his mind. Luke stood before the tower, a heavy storm raging above him. Lightning snaked across the sky. His brother's blue cloak sat on his shoulders and a rusty key weighed heavy in his hand. He pulled the hood down further to cover himself from the pouring rain. His hands shook before the door. Slowly, he turned the key in the lock and opened the door. The stairs seemed to go on forever, his heart pounding with each step. At the top, another door. Luke used the key again. The room was small and cold, but he didn't find the place threatening. It reminded him of home and his mother, jewels and finery surrounded by worn down pieces only the poorest of peasants would reach for. "Who's there?" Someone said. The voice was familiar, but he couldn't place it. It was as if his mind was determined to block out that piece of information. Luke turned around. He found himself in the middle of an unfamiliar forest. Everywhere around him, everything glowed an impossible green. Wind caught in his cloak and nearly pushed him back while the bright sun blinded him. He stepped back and bumped into something warmer than the sun. Inside, his body burned but he did not know why. He glanced over his shoulder to see someone standing back to back with him. He couldn't see much of the person, as the person's body was hidden underneath an emerald cloak. The person, judging by height and shoulders, appeared to likely be a man, and was shorter than him, around Rowan's height. The man in the emerald cloak started to turn towards him. Before their eyes met, the man looked away. Luke followed suit to see what the man was staring at. White petals danced in the wind, falling down from a great mountain ash to Luke's left. A strong gale whipped through, knocking both of their cloaks off of them. Underneath, Luke was dressed from head to toe in blue and the man in green. The wind had swept the man off his balance and knocked him to the ground. The man got to his knees and picked up one of the white flowers. Luke couldn't move. He wanted to walk in front of the man to see his face, but his heart froze him in place while his body overflowed with a heat he'd never experienced before. He fixated his gaze upon the color of the man's hair and then to the shape of his frame. His eyes wandered over every inch of the man while his body trembled. The man picked up something else from the ground, a long blue ribbon. He let go of the flower and rose to his feet. He began to turn again towards Luke. In those seconds, Luke's heart pounded to the point of terror. Before he could see the man's face, his fear shook him awake. Luke opened his eyes to see Rowan staring down at him. Rowan smiled at him. "That wasn't a very long dream." "Did you...do that?" Luke's heart was still pounding. He wanted nothing more than to escape from what he was feeling. "What was...What sort of dream was that?!" "Was it not a good one?" Rowan asked. "I...don't know..." Luke caught his breath. Rowan frowned. "I'm sorry. I was hoping to give you a pleasant dream." "It's not your fault, Prince. There isn't much goodness you can pull out of my mind." Luke clutched his chest. His heart wouldn't stop racing. Rowan thought over a way to alleviate Luke's pain. He worried that the dream might have the opposite of its intended effect before he performed the spell. He was disappointed to see his fear was for good reason. Luke wasn't ready for that yet. To make amends for his mistake, Rowan performed another spell. He concentrated on the flow of energy in his hand the way Robin taught him and visualized what he wanted to create in his mind. He let that thought flow like a current to the palm of his hand. The warmth of his energy bloomed into a ball of light the longer he concentrated on that thought. The veins in his arm slightly burned as the energy rushed down. It was slightly painful, and the tips of his fingers felt like tiny needles were pricking them. Robin told him when he mastered it more, the pain would subside entirely. For now, he endured the minor pain. When the ball of light in his hand was so hot it nearly burned him, it fizzled away. Inside the orb of light floated a single flower. "I'll fix that." Rowan presented the flower to Luke. "This is for you. Please accept it." Luke looked over the flower. He hadn't seen one like it before. "What is this flower?" Rowan twirled the flower in his hand. "It's a lyre flower. It doesn't normally grow here. My mother loved them when she was young. She drew a picture of them for us once. Robin wanted to make her happy, so he told a bird to ask his mother about them and she had the bird carry back a bag of seeds." "It looks like a heart." Luke said. "Let me show you another bit of magic Robin taught me." Rowan concentrated on the flower. It glowed lightly. A long, thin piece of leather tied around the small stem of the flower and formed a loop. Rowan smiled. "Here. I've made it a protection charm." "I don't need such a thing." Luke said. "Forgive me for saying this, but yes, you do. You're too careless with yourself. You make me worry." Rowan placed the protection charm around Luke's neck. "So, what did you dream?" "I..." Luke thought about the man in emerald again. He could feel his body becoming overwhelmed again. He quickly drowned out the feeling and pushed it down deeper than any other he had ever felt. "Something strange." "Strange?" Rowan asked. "Forget it." Luke took Rowan's hand. "Could we go back to this part and skip all the silly dreaming? I'd like to hold more than your hand." 'Well, at least he's flirting again. That's an improvement from before...somewhat.' Rowan smirked and pulled his hand away. "Are you that afraid of leaving your tower?" Luke grabbed Rowan's hand again and would not let go. "Please, make love to me. Let me go." "I haven't captured you. You can leave on your own." "I'll let you do anything to me." Luke's voice became frantic. "Why do you torture me like this? Why do you hate me so?" 'What is this? Why is he reacting like this?' Rowan reassured him. "I don't hate you. You're my friend. If I weren't with Robin, I would..." "Stop saying that! That won't change anything for me now." Luke grabbed Rowan's other hand and moved closer to him. "All you think about is him, what he wants. I don't want to hear anything about him. I want you. Let me have you just once. Then the two of you can go back to how you were and everything will be fine." "You won't be happy if I do that and you know it." "I don't understand you! You're the only person who's ever said they loved me and you won't fuck me. What the hell are you playing at?" Luke yelled. "Only?" Rowan was overcome with sadness at Luke's unintentional confession. He tried again to calm him. "Luke, I'm sorry. I don't want to hurt you." "Yes, you do. You're playing with me. You're both playing with me. You think it's funny, don't you? That you're both so perfect and I'm..." Luke raised his voice more. "Luke, calm down. You're talking nonsense." Rowan was baffled as to what was happening. 'What's gotten into him?' "You're taunting me now. What the hell was that dream? That person doesn't exist! There isn't anyone for me!" Luke yelled. "So, you did see him." Rowan tried to explain to him what the purpose of the dream was. "Luke, that person is..." "Shut up!" Luke pinned Rowan down against the the ground. "If you love me, sleep with me." Rowan didn't struggle. He wasn't afraid in the least. "I don't love you in that way." "Then send me home." Luke stared down at Rowan beneath him. Briefly, he saw an image of himself doing something awful to Rowan. If Rowan wouldn't agree, he could take what he wanted anyway. The thought left as quickly as it came. Luke was disturbed and disgusted by his own thoughts. 'What the hell? Why would I think that?' His mind was locked in ruminating over that singular, brief thought. He knew he would never seriously consider doing that, for a number of reasons. That he was certain of. The thought's appearance alone, regardless of how empty in meaning or intent, was enough to grow his self-hatred further. 'I am disgusting. I'm no different than Father.' "You've always been free to go home, Luke. I'm sorry. I want to make you happy, but even if I did love you in that way, I don't think sleeping with you would make you happy for long. There's something else you're missing, something you've locked away." Rowan stayed calm. "What? What could I possibly be missing?!" Luke shouted. "It's here." Rowan slipped free one of his hands and touched Luke's chest. "Listen to yourself. You want me to give you what you want and love you, but you keep saying you're going to abandon me as soon as you get what you want. Why is that?" "You won't ever really love me. No one wants me." Luke confessed the one fear that drove all his thoughts and actions. "You say that when I've placed a protective charm around your neck. Are you blind?" Rowan pulled him down into a hug. "I know what monsters roam this world too, but there are more than monsters." "Angels are not fit for my companionship." Unlike the last time Rowan tried to hug him, Luke didn't reject him. More than accepting it, he couldn't get himself to move either way. "My world will always be of demons, because I am a demon myself." "So what am I to you? An angel or a demon?" Rowan asked. "I don't know." "I'm neither of those things. I'm an ordinary, imperfect person--like you." "There's nothing ordinary about you." Luke refused to face Rowan. He was overcome with shame, for his actions and for that thought. He wanted to escape, but there was nowhere to run to. Luke listened to the sound of Rowan's breaths as his body burned from the contact between them. "But you might be a demon." "Is that what you really think?" Rowan kissed him on the cheek. "To my eyes, you're no demon, but someone has come and clipped your wings, and put you in a cage." Luke's thoughts cycled around his actions and that wickedness that slipped into his mind earlier. He wanted Rowan to push him away. "I want to hurt you." "Why?" 'I want to die. Right now, I want to die.' Luke forced himself away in shame--for saying such a thing, and for briefly entertaining that disturbing thought in his mind to begin with earlier. He felt sick wondering if he would really have it in himself to act on that sort of cruelty or not. Deep down, he wouldn't have done anything further to Rowan. Thinking about actually doing what he had in mind earlier made him want to vomit. The chain of events of the last few minutes replayed in his mind, and his disgust for himself grew. "I don't know." Rowan sat up and put his hand on Luke's shoulder. "Luke? Are you alright? You've been acting strangely for a while. Did something happen?" "I want to lie down." "Should I accompany you back to your room?" Rowan asked. "I'll be fine on my own. I...My head is not right." "Go on and lie down then. I'm sorry for bringing you out here. I only wanted to help you feel better. Seems I've done more harm than good." Rowan apologized. He helped Luke up. "I'm going to go on ahead." Luke walked back alone. He didn't look back at Rowan nor did he have a destination in mind. Luke thought over where he wanted to get drunk later in the night. He wanted to sleep with someone. Anyone would do. 'If I'm lucky, someone will put me out of my misery.' Luke found an isolated spot outside within the castle walls, a storage area. He sat down on a crate and put his head in his hands. "What the hell is wrong with me?" The lyre Rowan created dangled in front of Luke. He touched it. The fragile flower in his hands had an aura of warmth around it. "You're Lucifer himself." He stayed in that place for a while, not wanting to return to his room. Rowan might come check on him there. He buried his face in his hands. About an hour after he parted ways with Rowan, Luke heard voices nearby. He hid himself further and stayed quiet. He listened closely to see who it was. "Must you do this?" He recognized Robin's voice. Luke sighed to himself. 'Of course.' "I won't take long. I'll undo it before bed, alright?" Rowan said. "Can't we do this tomorrow morning?" Robin sounded exasperated. "You said that I could do it later this morning. Please let me. You know I can't do it with my own hair." "Alright, alright, but only because you like it so much." Luke noticed a small crack in the wall of the small wooden hut he was taking refuge in. He peeked through to watch them. Robin sat on a bench and Rowan stood behind him with a brush. Rowan braided a few small sections of Robin's hair, adding beads, strips of leather, and feathers to parts. He pulled those braids into a complex arrangement that he eventually incorporated into a single, large braid down the back. "I don't see why you don't grow your hair out. Then you can do all these complicated things to yours instead of mine." Robin commented. Luke hadn't seen this side of Robin before. He looked annoyed at what Rowan was doing. Luke laughed under his breath. "It'll get in my way when I shoot." Rowan said. "Nonsense. That's never been an issue for me. Just tie it back." Rowan finished off the braid and tied it. "I can't do that." "Why not?" Robin asked. Rowan felt over the braids he put in Robin's hair. "I look more foreign when my hair is longer." "Is that why you keep it like that?" Robin leaned back against Rowan and stared up at him. He raised his hand to touch Rowan's face. "You don't have to worry about that. I'm sure you'd be even more beautiful with it long." "You'd tell me I'm beautiful no matter how I looked." "It's because you are beautiful. How many times do I have to say it to you before you finally believe me?" Robin caressed his face. "I don't understand how you can put up with these people when they treat you so poorly. They don't deserve to be in your presence." "And this is when you'll tell me we should just run away." Rowan had an empty look in his eyes. Robin looked away from Rowan. "I wasn't suggesting that. I just don't understand how you deal with this." Rowan had his own thoughts on the matter. "But don't you? They think we're both less than human." "What people say about me doesn't bother me. I'm only here for you." Robin leaned back against Rowan. "I don't understand it, but I will do what I must for you. It's a shame though--that I won't get to see how you look with longer hair. I'm sure you would take my breath away even more than you do now." "Enough with the flattery already. I'll see you tonight. I need to meet with Father again. Don't take your hair down until then, alright?" Rowan leaned down and hugged Robin from behind. "That's easy enough to promise. I don't know how to undo such complexity." Rowan put his hand on Robin's forehead. "Are you feeling well? You look a bit pale." "I'm fine." Robin took Rowan's hand and kissed it. "Do you think things will work with Faolán? How long can we really keep up such a distraction tactic? At some point, your father won't allow it any further." Luke narrowed his eyes. 'What are they talking about? A distraction involving Father? What are they up to?' "We'll think of something else then." "I don't know. I can't see Faolán doing this for too long either. I'm surprised he did it at all. He must dislike your father." Robin held onto Rowan's hand. "He's a very mysterious man. I don't think anyone understands what goes on in his head." "Rowan, what do you think? Do you care if I marry someone?" He looked up at Rowan again. Rowan shrugged. "I don't like it, but it doesn't mean much to me. It's only for the public. I know your feelings for me won't change." Robin's face was filled with disappointment. His shoulders dropped as he stared at the ground. "I suppose it wouldn't be that bad." Luke and Rowan were both shocked by Robin's response. Rowan quickly tried to take Robin's mind off of the matter. "Don't worry about that right now. I'm getting married before you anyway." "I know." Robin clenched his fists. "Must be my upbringing. I'm being childish." "What are you talking about?" Rowan tilted his head and asked. "Rowan, I've been wondering about something..." The clock sounded off before Robin could finish his sentence. "Is it that late already? I'm sorry. You need to go." "I'll see you tonight." Rowan kissed Robin before leaving. After Rowan left, Robin sat quietly on the bench. Luke couldn't take it anymore. He was furious with the both of them again. Acting on an impulsive thought, he revealed he was hiding nearby and confronted Robin. Without a word of explanation for what he was up to, he started ranting, "You really wear that chain of yours well. He's practically choked you. Really, you're alright with going through with some silly marriage to please him that he only wants to please other people? I would think someone like you wouldn't care to be bound by human expectations so easily." "I have to keep up Rowan's image. I shouldn't be putting it off like this. I've been allowing myself too much selfishness." Robin's head hung low. "Why don't you just steal him already?" Luke leaned forward to get closer to Robin's face. "He doesn't want me to." "You two are both idiots. I would never sit around and let someone else rule my life like that. I live how I want to live!" Luke yelled at Robin. Robin countered him. "I can't force him to do something he doesn't want to do. I'd only end up hurting him, and in turn, hurt myself." "You're hurting yourself as is." "I can endure this kind of pain. What does it matter to you? Beyond me being an obstacle in your way?" Robin snapped back. He was getting angry himself. Luke continued to yell at him. "Can you not read him? He feels guilty about what he makes you go through." "I know that!" Robin stood up and shouted back. "Then why are you being so passive?" "If I accept it rather than fight it, he won't need to feel as guilty." "Or he'll think you're giving up because he's put so much on you. What then?" Luke got even closer to him as his tone grew more aggressive. "Do you think I haven't already thought about that? I can't win. This is the path that causes the least problems for him. So it's the path I must take." "You know he hates being here." "Of course I know, but I can't take him from here until he..." Robin stopped himself from finishing that sentence. "I can't. He doesn't want me to." Luke continued his ranting without letting up. "So much for your true love. He clearly cares more about this place than you. You're only a burden to him by being here and refusing to take him. You are his greatest source of pain. You should know that, since you told me yourself he is your pain." Robin didn't respond. "Do you know he sometimes wishes for death? In that way, he can let you go. You can both be free of suffering." Luke felt a slight shift in his mood as he revealed Rowan's secret. Robin was shocked, as Luke expected. "Did he really say that?" "I thought you knew everything he feels." Luke mocked him. "He told me not to tell you that, but he hardly kept his promise of keeping my secrets." Robin did not move nor speak, as if frozen. Luke realized he had done something he shouldn't have, and it was too late to undo it. He watched Robin slowly sit back down on the bench and stare forward with a look of emptiness. Luke didn't know how to fix what he had done. "Brother, I'm sorry, I..." "I shouldn't have come here." Robin spoke softly. "I have done him evil by being here." "That's not what I was trying to..." "I'm sorry to burden you, but could I ask you a favor?" Robin asked without looking at Luke. "What sort of favor?" Luke's heart raced. Robin held the long braid. "Could you undo my hair? I don't know how to take it down." "If you want, but the prince wanted you to..." "It's alright." Robin spoke in an unusually soft tone. "If you don't want to, I'll ask someone else." Luke moved behind Robin. "No, it's fine. It's nothing." He undid the main braid and each of the smaller ones. As he worked through them, he kept watch on Robin. Robin took his dagger from his belt and held it in his hands. He unsheathed the small weapon and stared at his reflection in the blade. Luke's heart pounded. He wanted to ask Robin what he was planning on doing with that, but he was afraid of what his brother might say in response. Luke was sick of himself. The entire last hour and a half made no sense to him, and every action he committed seemed completely out of his control. He hated himself for it. 'You hate me too, don't you? You'll both definitely hate me now.' Luke thought it odd to look down at Robin like that. The shade of gold in his hands was the same as his own hair, but he struggled to make that connection. When he thought of that color, he envisioned his father not himself. He let the strands slip through his fingers, nothing about the sensation feeling real. "There, it's done." "Thank you, Sir Luke." Robin pulled his hair back with one of his hands. He held the dagger up against the strands and cut through just above the shoulders. A mess of blond strands littered the ground and a wavy entanglement of unevenness fell about Robin's face. "Why did you cut it?" Luke asked. "It doesn't matter." "Do you want to get a drink with me? I'll pay." Luke offered the only thing he could think of for comfort. He quickly rephrased his response. "Oh...right, you don't drink. Then maybe..." "A drink is fine." Robin said. "No, I shouldn't have suggested that. You're not like Eider or my usual company." "It's fine. It doesn't matter." Robin stood up. "Let's go." "Shouldn't you see the prince before we...?" "He's going to be busy for a while. It's fine." Robin started to walk away. "Where do you usually go?" "Ah, I'll show you." Luke walked alongside Robin. Rowan would be furious with him for this, he was certain. 'I shouldn't be bringing someone like him there.' Luke watched Robin carefully as they walked. Robin moved in a daze. Luke recognized something in himself while observing his brother. When they reached the town, Luke stopped. 'I can't let him do this.' Luke grabbed Robin's wrist and pulled him back. "On second thought, we should go somewhere else." "Why? We're already here." Robin said. "I forgot to bring my money." Luke lied. "I'll pay." "No! I can't let you do that." Luke started to panic. 'Think of something...How do I stop this?' "But don't you usually let other people pay for you?" Robin asked. Luke was surprised his brother remembered him saying that. "Yes, but that's different. I offered to pay, so I can't let you pay." Robin reached down and took a pouch off of Luke's side. He held it up to Luke's face. "Doesn't look like you forgot it to me." 'Shit.' Luke looked around frantically. He snatched the bag from Robin and dragged him back out of town. "Why don't we go on a walk in the forest instead?" "If you want." Robin allowed Luke to lead him along. Luke was unfamiliar with the area. The most he traveled into the woods was with Rowan on occasion. The further in they went, the more Luke's unease escalated. He hoped Robin knew where they were, and feared Robin was not in the right state of mind to get them back to the castle. "Ah, have you been through here before?" Luke asked. "Hmm, not in a while." Robin stared blankly at Luke. "I'll lead you back. I can't get lost among trees." "Perhaps we should talk about something..." Luke stayed close. The woods were getting too thick for his comfort. Robin looked out at the trees to his left. He thought up a question for Luke. "What was my birth mother like? When I spoke to her recently, it seemed as if something had broken her." "You know the circumstances of our births, do you not?" Luke asked. "I assumed he forced himself on her." "Yes. Many times. Not that her husband was much kinder." "Did she tell you about it?" Robin asked. "Yes, but she didn't need to. I saw it myself." Luke's stomach turned as he recalled a particularly horrid memory. "Once, our father came to torment her again, and Mother told me to hide. I couldn't close the door on the cupboard all the way before he grabbed her from behind. He didn't notice me there. The door was closed enough to hide me, but I saw the full extend of his savageness." "You saw him do that to her?" "I'd seen her husband do the same, but Mother would fight with him or get out of it. With Father, she would curse at him but she never tried to escape. I think she was afraid he would hurt her far more. Once he had her, she went dead silent. Her husband never crossed him." Luke saw it clearly in his mind, incidents with both his father and his mother's husband. No amount of drinking ever managed to stamp out those memories. A little light returned to Robin's eyes, accompanying a deep look of sorrow. "I'm sorry you both had to live through that." "It's not like it's your fault." "So, is that why she gave me away?" Robin asked. "We both look like Father. That's why. She left you with the only person who had ever shown her any genuine kindness in her life. She would tell me, if wasn't for that nymph, she likely would have drowned you or herself after her first pregnancy. Then she would tell me how horrible she was for thinking about killing a child." Luke remembered how afraid he was when she told him that. "I don't think she would've really drowned you. She would have killed herself instead if she had no one to give you to." "She kept you though. Was there a reason?" "Her husband was angry about her losing you. He was infertile and saw us as labor. He wasn't going to let her get rid of another child, especially not a male child." Luke wanted to change the subject, but the words flowed out anyway. "Sometimes, he'd say to her, 'with all the times he comes around, how come you haven't given me more boys'. When I was around seven or eight, he realized she was sneaking money to buy an herbal remedy to end her pregnancies early on. She got pregnant not long after that, but I don't know if the baby survived. Mother's never said much of anything about her life in the letters we used to exchange." "That poor woman. I'm sorry. I had no idea about any of that." Robin was horrified. "How could you have? It's not like I told you before." Luke lowered his voice. "You may not have pitied her if you lived with her though. She was deeply disturbed. I was made to keep my face from her sight, and she never held me or told me she loved me. I don't think she could. You received far more love where you were. She knew that she couldn't give it to you, so she left you to someone who could. She couldn't give me away, and so..." "I'm sure she still loved you, but she couldn't express it. Her life left her incapable of doing so." Robin tried to comfort him. "I often wished I was you. When we'd wash clothes, if she saw the river nymph was out, we'd watch the two of you playing together. I wanted anything to be in your place, or at least have her once look at me the way that woman looked at you." Luke took a deep breath. He needed to fix things. "I wanted anyone to look at me like that. I have been cruel to you today. When we spoke earlier, I wanted to hurt you. I wanted to punish you for having what I can't, and for not taking advantage of it. Seeing you like this when you have the one thing that most will never have right in front of you, it agonizes me in a way you can never know." "It's not as though I want things to be like this, but I can't force anything on Rowan. It might be best if I'm not here." Robin sighed. "You're going to hate me for saying this, but he was originally supposed to be your lover first." Luke's jaw dropped. "What?!" "So I was told by a fairy gifted in predictions. By coming here nearly twenty years before I was supposed to, I altered our paths. You were supposed to serve him and be his lover for...what was it? I think it was seven or eight years? And then I would have had him for the time after that." Luke shoved him. "What?!! You...you selfish bastard! I could have been sleeping with him for eight years?!" Robin took it, already expecting Luke's reaction. "I see you have very noble thoughts about your potential relationship." "Why? Could you not wait?" Luke burned with anger. "She showed him to me. After that, the only thought in my head was that I needed to find him immediately and I would do anything to be beside him for even a moment. I lost all my sense of reason." Robin said. Luke was completely overcome with rage. He forgot what he was originally trying to do. "Well, are you happy with yourself? You've messed everything up for everyone!" "I know. I'm sorry." Robin leaned against a tree. "Perhaps, if I leave, I can fix things." "How's that going to work? Are you going to come back at the time you were supposed to have originally met?" Luke asked. "It's starting to get dark. We should head back." Robin turned away from him. Luke's anger was quickly replaced with fear. "Are you not...coming back?" "You'll have what you want. It's not like you'll be missing anything. We're not really family. I'm not sure if I count as human anymore." "You'll break his heart if you leave." "Fortunately, you'll be there to mend it." "You're not making sense. Your head's in a strange place...So is mine...Let's go back. Once you see the prince again, you won't be thinking idiotic things like this. You'll be too busy being enraptured by him and whatnot to think of abandoning everyone." Luke pulled at Robin's arm. "Yes, I think that's exactly what would happen." Luke had a strange feeling about what Robin said. He didn't say anything more out of worry he would make the situation worse again. Robin led them back to the castle. Back at the castle, Rowan and Argus conversed about matters of war. Battle plans and budgets were discussed in aggravating detail to appease Argus. As the sun was setting, they were joined by a third person. Father David entered the room with a tray of drinks. "Father David, thank you for coming. Now that everyone's here, we can begin the next part of the discussion." Argus pulled up a seat for the priest. David placed the tray on the table and sat between the king and the prince. "Father, what is this about? I thought we were only discussing battle plans?" Rowan asked. "I'd say we're about done with that, wouldn't you? I brought Father David here to talk with you about your behavior and your future." Argus smirked at Rowan. Rowan looked at David in confusion. "What is this about? I already agreed that I would go through with the baptism and Lady Rosa and I will be marrying in the near future." "Your father is concerned about your relationship with your good knight. He is worried it will interfere with your duties as the crown prince." Father David explained. Rowan glared at his father. "I'll give you a grandson. You don't need to worry about that." "It's not enough. You two can't continue to live as you do. It is sinful that you lay with him as one would with a woman. Or is it the other way around?" His father sneered in disgust as he spoke those last words. "You want me to stop sleeping with him because it's sinful. Tell me, Father, are you going to stop betraying my mother with other women?" Rowan snapped back at him. "My sins are different than yours. This sort of scandal will..." Rowan cut him off. "So, that's what you really care about. You don't want me to make you look bad." "Prince, please stay calm. Here, have a drink." David poured him a drink. Rowan took a big gulp of the drink. He slammed the cup down on the table. "Father, I'm not going to let anyone know about that." "I only know about it because I caught you in public!" Argus raised his voice. "We were only kissing. For all you know, that's all that's ever happened between us." "I'm not a fool. No man would ever settle for that for long." Argus scoffed at Rowan's words. Rowan took another swig of his drink. "If that's really true, then what do you expect me to do?" "You will be getting married. You can take that desire and use it to produce heirs." "That won't alleviate anything in me. I don't have desires for women. I wouldn't be in bed with a woman except solely to create children, as you should be doing yourself if you are to be less sinful." Rowan turned the attention back to his father's misdeeds. He grinned and finished off the drink. Argus turned to David. "Father David, please talk some sense into him. This unnatural desire of his needs to be destroyed." "He does have a point though, my king. Your behavior is also..." David meekly replied. He refilled the prince's drink. "We are not discussing me right now. We are talking about my son's problems, which pose an immediate threat to the family's reputation." Rowan downed the whole drink quickly. "You know what else ruins our family's reputation? That I had to come back here to beg you for money for men and supplies when a damn messenger should have sufficed. You want me to be perfect but you treat me like I'm your bastard child!" "You might as well be with the way you look." Argus's words pierced straight through Rowan. He froze, then stared at the floor. His face burned red from embarrassment at hearing his own father say such a thing. Argus didn't let up. "You know damn well how much of a burden you are to me thanks to your mother." "My king, please. This is no way to get through to him." David poured Rowan another drink. "Don't think much of your father's words. He's merely frustrated from all of the pressure put on him from being king. Please, forgive him." "I won't end things with Robin. I promise you I will not let anyone else find out about us." Rowan balled his fists. "When you marry, I want you to have Rosabella sleep in your bed every night." "Yes, Father." Rowan downed most of the drink. He handed the cup over for David to refill. Argus continued. "And I want him to move out of the castle. When the war is done, there will be no reason for him to need to stay here. He has his own land he should be managing." Rowan said nothing. "Agree to it." "If I agree to that, I will rarely be home." Rowan said. He spoke with intensity. "You are testing my patience." "And you mine. I want him here. I accepted to sleeping in separate rooms and giving you grandchildren." Rowan took another gulp of the drink. "Fine. But you will attend church as often as Father David does." "Yes, Father." He finished off that drink. "That's more like it. Father David, give him another drink. That should be enough." Argus grinned. "Enough?" David asked as he poured the drink. Rowan's vision started to blur. His head felt like it was spinning. "I feel sick...what did you give me?" "I...this is merely a fruit drink. I don't understand..." David stopped. Argus got up from the table and walked towards Rowan. "Egret's always been an excellent teacher, and David, you have always been very well organized. So organized, you never bother checking anything in the containers you keep around." David dropped the pitcher on the table and stood back in disbelief at what his king had done. "My king, why would you...?" "I should have known. That's why you wanted me alone...if Robin was here..." Rowan tried to get up from the table. Everything around him was moving. He found himself on the ground in seconds. Rowan clutched his head. His thoughts were too scattered for him to think straight. "Why? What are you...?" "Father David, hold him down." Argus said. David refused. "My king, I will not do anything until you explain to me what's going on." "I am your king. Do as I say." David stood his ground. "I serve the Lord before I serve any king." "Be on your way then." Argus pushed the priest aside. He grabbed ahold of Rowan. Rowan struggled but was too disoriented to get free. Argus pinned Rowan against a chair. He took the cup off the table and pushed it against Rowan's mouth. "You won't be going far. Now, drink again." Rowan tried to struggle again, but his efforts were futile. Argus forced the drink into his mouth. When the cup was empty, Rowan coughed and spit up some of the liquid. David watched on in horror near the door. He prayed for someone to come help, praying desperately for Robin to come to him. While he refused to do the king's bidding, he was still in no position to lay a hand on someone so important. He thought of leaving to find help, but was afraid to leave Rowan alone with Argus. He chose to stay and kept praying. "Why...why are you..." Rowan couldn't complete his sentence. Argus shook him. "Now, tell me, son. Are you plotting against me? Planning to off me?" "What? No...you're the one who's...plotting against everyone..." "You're not plotting anything with Wren?" Argus held Rowan's shoulders and squeezed them tightly. It hurt, but Rowan only laughed in response. "Afraid of us, are you? Is Wren not...living up to your expectations? Wren loves me more." "Go on thinking that. And your demon knight, what are you really going to have him do when the war is over?" "He said he's getting married...said so earlier today..." Rowan struggled to keep himself conscious. "Everything's what you want..." "There must be more. There's no reason that fairy demon would put up with all of this unless he's getting something else out of it. You're planning something. Tell me what it is!" Argus shook Rowan hard. "Planning...what for? You just want me gone...go ahead and do it. I know you have...other sons...they look right...no one will care....if you...if you...no one...will..." Rowan's vision faded in and out of black. David couldn't take it anymore. He didn't care what the consequences were. He got between the king and the prince. "That's enough, my king. He has nothing to tell you. He was being faithful to you all this time. Please, let go of him. I'll take him back to his room." "Go then. I'll need to find a way to deceive the fairy knight. I'm sure I'll get more out of him." Argus stood up and turned away from them both. "Don't worry, Prince. I've got you." David helped Rowan to his feet and led him out of the room. "My head..." Rowan muttered. David closed the door behind them. He walked the prince down the hallway toward Rowan's room. "Shh, everything will be fine, Prince. Don't think over what your father said. Forget his words. He is merely stressed. There are many traitors among us. He is your father. He loves you dearly." David offered words of comfort the best he could. "You're not good...at lying...it's alright...I already knew." Rowan didn't believe any of it. "Where's Robin?" "I don't know. Perhaps he's waiting for you in your room?" When they reached the room, it was empty. "Not here..." Rowan said. "He'll be back soon." David helped him down onto the bed. "Everything will be alright. Have faith." "I want Robin here." Rowan clutched his head again. "I feel ill..." "He'll come to you soon enough. He never parts from you for long. Rest now. You'll be fine in the morning. I'm sure your father hasn't given you anything that will last long." Before David was done speaking, Rowan was already unconscious. David watched over Rowan for a while to check that he was sleeping normally. He returned to his own place of rest to pray for guidance. Though he had long been disappointed and disgusted with many of the king's actions, what he witnessed then disturbed him in a way Argus never had before. He was completely shaken over the event. "Father, please guide me on what I should do. The king's actions have left me speechless yet again. I don't know how I should help the prince. He is not well in the absence of his beloved, but such a romance is inherently sinful. What the king asks of him is the righteous path, and yet, it feels wrong and the king's actions tonight are not one of a good and loving father. What am I missing? Am I being led astray? How do I help the prince and guide him? How do I protect him? Please, give me a sign to show me the way." As David spoke, a knock came at the door. He got up to answer it, presuming whoever was there to be who he needed to see to answer his question. Before him was the very last person he expected to see. "I'm sorry, Father. It's very late, but may I come in?" Robin stood before him. "Of course. You are always welcome here." David led him inside. "Have you seen the prince yet? You should really..." "I have some questions that only you can answer for me." "Why don't you have a seat?" David needed to tell him what happened to Rowan. "I really am surprised to see you. About the prince..." Robin had his own agenda planned for their conversation. "That's what I want to talk about. If I were to ask you what I should do about our relationship, what would you tell me is right?" "That's hardly..." "Answer me." David sighed and answered. "The bible forbids sexual relations of that nature." "Does that mean if I remove desire from my heart, my love would cease to be sinful?" Robin asked. "Yes...there is nothing forbidding you from loving another man. But it is a sin to lay with that man, regardless of whether you do so for lust or out of desire to appease him." "And to be noble and right, I should wed a noblewoman and have children, come to church, and pray. That is the proper way, isn't it?" "For a nobleman, yes. Though if you do not wish to marry and have children, a life in the fold would also be another path." David was confused by Robin's questions. Something was wrong. "Where are you going with this?" "Will you baptize me?" Robin asked. "Right now?!" "Yes." Robin took hold of David's hands. He pleaded with him. "Please, cleanse me of my soul and make me an empty vessel so that I may be whatever Rowan needs me to be." "Cleanse you of your soul? What on earth are you saying? You need your soul more than any other part of you." David's worries rose. 'What is going on?' "I will bury whatever I have to for him. Please, help me." Robin spoke with a bizarre desperation. "I cannot do what you are asking of me. You are demanding I extinguish the light inside of you." "I am a burden to him as I am. Perhaps I will always be a burden even without my soul..." Robin moved away from him. "Tell me, Father, if I cut out that light inside of me and cast aside this body, will I be damned?" "Suicide is a straight path to Lucifer's hands, yes." David followed him. The look in Robin's eyes disturbed him. "Good knight, why would you ever consider such a thing?" "I've been spending all this time thinking about what I am willing to endure to be by his side that I haven't put any thought into what I am making him endure by being with me. If that will save his sanity to remove me from his life, that too I will endure." "Please, this is not the way. Why are you suddenly..." Robin yelled. "What is the way?!" "I...I don't know. Everything I have been taught tells me I should separate you two, but I know you will not save him by leaving. You are the sun that brightens the moon of his soul." David cursed himself for not having the right answers to give. He was confused as to what was even happening. "Please, go see him. Right now, he..." Robin turned away from David and headed toward the door. David asked, "Where are you going?" "Away. I need to be alone to think tonight." Robin opened the door. "Please, good knight, whatever conclusions you come to, swear to me you will not turn your blade upon yourself." David moved between Robin and the door. "I don't know what has set you off like this, but you are acting irrationally. Your emotions have overwhelmed you." "That is why I need to be alone away from everyone. If Rowan asks for me, I am attending to some business." "You should see him before you go. He has been wanting to see you. He needs..." Robin pushed him aside. "If I see him now, I will not be able to calm myself. I need to be away from him to think. If I look into his eyes, only a single thought will exist there." "Please, tell me what has set you off like this." David begged. "I cannot say such a thing." Robin walked away from him. "I may decide tomorrow. If you do not see me again in three days, you may presume me dead. If I return, please prepare to baptize me." Robin put up the hood of his cloak and wandered out into the woods beyond the castle under the light of the moon and stars. He didn't know where he was going, but he trusted he would find where he needed to be and thought of nothing at all. David tried to follow him in the dark, but Robin slipped out of his sight with ease. He couldn't go to Rowan for help. That left him with Wren and Luke. There was no telling where Luke might be. David ran to Wren's room, but he wasn't there. He considered alerting the queen, but worried what she may say to the king. He returned to the church and prayed. In the morning, Rowan woke with a light headache. He looked to his side and saw no one. "Robin?" Rowan noticed that side of the bed appeared undisturbed. "Did he leave already? Why didn't he prepare me any clothes?" Rowan washed his face off and changed clothes. He couldn't remember Robin coming back that night, but he could barely remember the previous night at all. 'Right, Father gave me some kind of poison. I should thank David later. He might have killed me if we were alone and called it an assassination.' He expected some part of himself to be disturbed or disgusted with his father's actions, but he didn't feel anything at all. Rowan checked over his body for any abnormalities. 'A very temporary poison, huh? I should have asked Robin to make me a new charm to detect that sort of thing with.' "Where is he?" Rowan put on his shoes and left the room. Rowan went to Wren's room first, but no one was there. He laughed under his breath. 'Probably with Lady Rosa. I shouldn't bother them.' Rowan checked the kitchen, then the archery range, but nothing. He asked several servants. None had seen him since yesterday. 'Did he go into town for something?' Rowan wondered. He went back to the castle and borrowed a servant's cloak and clothes to disguise himself. He kept the hood down low. He didn't need anyone to know he was going into town unaccompanied. On the way into town, he saw a familiar face stumbling out from behind an inn. Rowan approached him. "Luke, have you seen Robin?" Luke was filthy from head to toe. He pulled up the hood to look underneath it. He quickly looked away. "No, I haven't seen him since last night. I think he mentioned he was going to visit that priest." "Oh, Father David must have needed his help with something again. Maybe he did get up before me and forgot about my clothes." "You didn't see him last night?" Luke asked. His body tensed. "No, not that I can remember, but I don't remember falling asleep either. I think I passed out." "We should go see that priest and see what he says." Luke wanted to smack himself. 'Why did I invite myself?' Rowan and Luke walked together to the church. Luke tried to tell Rowan about the previous night, but he was too ashamed of himself to say what happened. Instead, he spent the walk panicking. When they entered the church, David ran over to them. "Prince!" "Father David, good morning." Rowan was surprised by David's reaction. He didn't think too much of it. "Robin visited you last night, yes? Do you know where he went after that?" "I'm afraid I don't. I've been worried about him. He told me he wanted to be alone to think. He was acting very strange last night. He...Did something happen between you?" David asked. "Not that I can recall...wait. He was acting a bit strange before I went to see my father. He was actually pushing for his own marriage. That was odd." Rowan said. David pondered what may have set Robin off. He needed to know more. "Did he say anything else strange?" "I can't really remember. I wasn't thinking much about it at the time." "We should go and look for him. I think someone has put some strange ideas in his head. You know how he runs away with his feelings." David suggested. Rowan sighed with a smile on his face. "More than anyone I know." "Why don't you two search together and I'll do my own search. We can cover more ground that way. I suspect he's outside the castle walls." David said. "He spent the night outside? What the hell is he thinking?" Rowan looked over at Luke. "Luke, you were with him after me. Did he mention anything odd to you?" 'I need to tell him. Why can't I do it?' Luke gave a vague response. "He did seem not like his usual self." "What could have happened..." Rowan scratched his head. Nothing made sense. 'If he's acting like this, something must have been bothering him for a while, something he couldn't tell me. Did I say something that set him off?' The three of them split off from the church to search the woods. Rowan and Luke went together, and David searched by himself. David hoped he would find Robin first, so that he may attempt to reach him once more. David thought over where Robin might have gone in the woods. Last night, it was already too dark out for him to get anywhere without potentially getting lost. He presumed Robin would pick a location that was already meaningful to him, but not to Rowan. In the wind, David knew he must be mistaken, but he thought he pick up the scent of the ocean. His heart felt heavy. 'I know where you are.' David went down to a place in the woods he hadn't been in several years. Walking on that old path brought back waves of memories, good ones and bad. He hoped he would not soon have another sad one there. He breathed a sigh of relief when he reached the end of the path. Before a stream, Robin sat in lotus position underneath an old mountain ash. His face was partially covered by his blue cloak. To his left, a lantern hung from a branch on the tree. Robin's shoes were discarded down by the water's edge. In his hands, he held an unsheathed dagger. "There you are, good knight." David said standing before him. "The prince is searching for you. Please, come back home." Robin did not speak. "You've let yourself be caught in your own tide again." David sat down beside him. "The ebb and flow of your heart cannot be contained by you. It must rush out as it is. Tell me, what caused this tempest within you to spill out? You seem calmer today than yesterday." "I will not say the words. I cannot say the words." Robin spoke, but kept his eyes closed. "Very well. Did you reach a conclusion on what to do?" David asked. "I want to steal him. That is my honest desire." "Will you steal him then?" "He doesn't want me to." Robin said. "Then what will you do?" David asked. "I've decided to live, at least. I haven't gotten further than that." Robin half opened his eyes, but kept his gaze downward as if avoiding seeing something. "Well, it's a good start. If you are alive, you can think as you need and make your choice in time." David said. "I don't want to be baptized." Robin added. "I assumed as much, though it does disappoint me. But I wouldn't want you to go through with that if you were merely pretending to believe. Are you ready to return?" "Not yet." "Very well. I'll leave you be, but I will be telling the prince where you are." "I understand." Robin closed his eyes again. David got up and went to find Rowan. Elsewhere, Rowan and Luke continued their search not far from there. Luke took a deep breath. He had to tell him. "Prince, I have something I must confess." "What is it?" Rowan asked. "It may be my fault he's run off..." Luke fidgeted with his hands. "I told him what you wanted me to keep a secret." Rowan's eyes opened wide. He stared at Luke in disbelief. "Why would you tell him that?!" "I'm sorry. I regretted it the moment I said it." Luke bowed his head. "But why would you say it to begin with?" "Why would you tell him my secrets?" Luke yelled at him. Rowan's mouth hung open. "Is that what this is about? You're getting back at me? I only told him a part of it because he thought I was being unfaithful. He needed to understand the situation with Lewis. I left out every detail I could get away with. I'm sorry I didn't ask you first, but you could have talked to me about it instead of trying to get revenge." "I know that. I don't know why I...I'm sorry. This isn't what I meant to happen." "Why didn't you tell me this earlier?" Luke looked away from him. Rowan wanted to yell at Luke, but he calmed himself back down. Finding Robin was more important. "We can discuss this later. We need to find Robin." "What if he's left us?" "He won't." "Are you sure?" "I know it." Rowan said, but he wasn't as certain as he acted. David eventually caught up to them. "Prince, there you are." "Did you find him?" Rowan asked. "Yes, he's where Sir Ronan used to train him." David said. "Thank you." Rowan glanced over at Luke. "Luke, you stay here. I need to talk to Robin alone." Luke nodded. Rowan ran off to find Robin. David and Luke waited for their return. The air between them filled with a different sort of tension. David laughed. "Well, I can't say I expected to be waiting here with you this morning." "Me either." Luke crossed his arms and looked away. "If you don't mind, I'd rather not talk much." "I presumed as much." David said. "You know, it's never too late to change your path in life. Anyone's soul can be saved." Luke scoffed at the idea. "I'm not the type to beg and plead, sorry." The familiar, overgrown path stirred a sense of nostalgia and sadness in Rowan as he walked along it. For Robin to be here, he knew Robin must have felt completely lost. Rowan looked up at the sky. "I wish you were here. You always knew what to say." The wind swayed the tree branches in a wave-like rhythm. Its force pushed him forward. Rowan let the gale lead him along. Down by the stream, Rowan found Robin sitting exactly as he was when David met with him. Rowan sat down in front of Robin. He noted the dagger in Robin's hands. "Robin, will you see me?" Rowan asked. "I mustn't look at you. I will lose all of my resolve in finding a solution." Robin kept his eyes closed. "Please look at me." "I musn't." Rowan leaned in close. He slid off Robin's hood and cupped his face, tilting his face slightly upward. "Look into my eyes." He commanded him. Robin opened his eyes and looked into Rowan's. Rowan pressed his forehead against it Robin's. "You are mine for eternity. Are you denying that?" Robin couldn't look away. He saw the same vision he did the first time he looked into Rowan's eyes, of the two of them before a waterfall being wed. His pupils dilated so wide his brown eyes nearly looked black. Rowan's dark eyes came to match the pitch coal color as he kept up their deep gaze. Beyond those eyes and that vision of a waterfall, Robin saw something deeper and more distant--stars reflected on water that met no end. His body trembled from the overwhelming, indescribable energy surging through him. He wondered if Rowan could see it too. He spoke softly to Rowan, carrying a hint of desperation in his words. "I don't know what I am feeling right now." "Luke told you my secret." Rowan looked down at the dagger. "What were you planning on doing out here?" Robin presented the dagger to Rowan. "Please forgive me." "I forgive you." Rowan took it from him and tossed it in the grass. "Will you forgive me?" "Yes." "Are you angry with me? Tell me the truth." Rowan ran his fingers through Robin's hair with both hands. He felt through the back to see how short it was. He said nothing about Robin cutting it. "Yes." "Why are you angry?" Rowan asked. "I want to leave this place with you. Right now. I hate being here." Robin took hold of Rowan's hand and held it to his face. "Forgive me. I've tried so hard to do everything you expect of me, but I can't. I can't live my life like this forever. I can feel my soul suffocating." "I'm sorry...I never wanted to put you through this...I thought since I could endure it that, surely, you..." Rowan stopped himself from finishing that sentence. "I shouldn't have assumed such things." "I can't be like you. I've seen what life we could have. No one would say anything to us in the other realm." Robin caressed Rowan's face. He was so consumed with desire to see Rowan and touch him, his eyes stayed in that near black state. "I want that more than anything." Rowan's gaze was no different in appearance since they locked eyes. His heart was torn between elation and sorrow. He took a deep breath. Through a saddened smile, he said, "When the war is over, we'll leave." "Rowan..." "I need time to arrange some things before then. You mustn't say a word to anyone about this." "Are you sure about this? What about Wren and Luke?" Robin asked. "My life is with you." Rowan said without hesitation. "For now, let's pretend a little longer, alright?" "Alright." Robin whispered. "Rowan, Luke said that...why did you...why did you want to...?" "Forgive me for my weakness. I've moved past that. I allowed everything to affect me and I made something out of nothing. Then, I let it eat away at me. What about you? What were you doing out here with that?" Rowan pointed to where he had thrown the dagger. "I wanted to make amends for weakening you. I thought, perhaps, if I were gone, I could lighten your burden." He said. "You know, I once thought the same thing about myself in regards to you. It seems we are both very foolish." Rowan picked up the dagger and pointed it at himself. "If you were to take your life for me, I would follow you into the river of stars and the flames of Hell." "I am sorry..." "Let's put this behind us. Come. We should go back." Rowan stood up. He picked up the dagger and threw it in the water, then offered his hand to Robin. "Now, what to do about Luke..." "Luke? What does Luke have to do with anything?" Robin asked as he stood up. "He set all of this off by telling you my secret before I prepared you for it. He only did that to get back at me for telling you a bit of his secret." He sighed. "I understand why he's angry, but..." "Don't be too hard on him. He hasn't had many in his life to show him how to maneuver through friendships and such. In a way, he's as stilted as I am but with different things." Robin protected him. "I've come to realize that. All things considered, he may be worse off than you." "I feel sorry for him." Robin said. "I can guess what he doesn't want me to know likely is, but I assume you can't tell me anything?" "I can't, but...what it is...is likely worse than you are thinking." Rowan caught himself. He nearly let more details spill out. "How could...what? What do you mean worse?" Robin's mind went wild with disturbing scenarios. "You'll have to ask him yourself if you want to know, but I don't know if he'll tell you." Rowan took Robin's hand and walked him over to the path. "Enough of that. Let's go back." "Rowan, I'm sorry..." "It's alright. No more of that from now on. Next time, come to me and we'll talk." "And you, swear to me you will do the same." "I swear it." Rowan kissed him before they set out on the path home, guided by the wind. They met up with Father David. He informed them that Luke already left, but he did not know where to. Rowan decided to leave him be for a while. The three of them ate lunch together before parting ways. Little was said between them about the incident. David knew whatever Rowan did to calm Robin down was likely something he wouldn't approve of, so he didn't ask at all. For now, he let it go. He was happy enough to see Robin was well. Rowan chose to keep his father's actions the previous night a secret from Robin. For such actions, he may not be able to keep Robin from slaying the king. Instead, he asked for a new charm and said he gave his old one to Wren for protection. Satisfied with that, Robin didn't implore any further about why he wanted it. Philip left around sunset to speak with Silvanus. Luke did not see him off. Rowan expected Luke would manage at least that. After the visiting king departed, Rowan and Robin went over various documents and checked over the budget Rowan worked out with his father. Around eleven, he got up to get some fresh air while Robin put away the paperwork scattered around. The blanket of stars above him put him at ease. He watched them for a while. The moon shone brightest out of the lights of the night. He favored the glow of the moon over the bright sun as he favored the raven over the songbirds and colorful flocks that usually garnered love. The darkness that encased them both was comforting to him. Though his nickname, The Bloody Raven, was given to him by his enemies, he didn't mind wearing the title. It suited him well and he adorned himself with the bird's image as soon as he heard others were using that name for him. He lingered underneath the night sky for a while longer before turning back. He wished on the moon for a pleasant dream while he wandered the darkness. Once he was back inside the castle walls, his peaceful demeanor was stripped away from him as he passed several drunk knights and noblemen on his way in. His father had thrown a celebration as a gift for Philip as he departed, and those who remained kept on celebrating long after the gift receiver left. Rowan sighed. There was no point in scolding them for their unruly behavior. He did his best to ignore them. There was one face he could not ignore. At the corner of a hallway, he saw Luke on his knees with Elon. He turned away from the sight. 'It's none of my business.' Rowan told himself as he passed them. He winced at Elon's moaning. A loud thud behind him had him turning around immediately. Luke was up against the wall. He crawled over to Elon and pulled at his pants. "Touch me..." Luke pleaded. "Get off me, you little bitch!" Elon kicked Luke hard. Rowan watched Luke's body make contact with the stone wall again. Elon fixed his pants and sneered. "Like hell I'd do that." "Please...only for a moment..." Luke tried again. Elon drew his dagger from his side. Rowan saw enough. He drew his own dagger and stood in front of Luke. "You had best put that back away, Sir Elon." "Your highness, please excuse my behavior. Your guest has been very inappropriate tonight." Elon backed away. Rowan shot Elon a death glare. "From what I saw, you seemed to have enjoyed it until a moment ago. Be on your way. I'll take him from here." "Forgive my behavior, Prince. I'll confess in the morning." Elon left, stumbling down the hallway. "Rather eloquent for someone who can barely walk. Now, Luke..." Rowan turned around and got on his knees to help Luke. Luke's disheveled hair and face were filthy. With the amount of mess on him, Rowan suspected Elon was not the first man Luke saw that night. He cleaned off Luke's face and hair the best he could with a cloth he was carrying on him. "Here. That's better." "You gonna yell at me?" Luke's eyes were empty. "No." Rowan tried to help Luke up. "Are you drunk?" "Who gives a shit? It's not enough. I'm still awake." "If you can't sleep, there are other ways to go about dealing with that." "No, not from you!" Luke pulled away from him. He was too drunk to stand and fell back down. He put his arms in front of himself to keep Rowan at a distance. "I don't want to see that man again!" "Luke, you've had enough. Come on. Let's get you back to your room." Rowan offered him his hand again. "No, leave me alone!" Luke yelled. "I hate seeing him! I don't want to see! I don't want..." "Shh...I'm not going to do that. I'm going to take you back to your room. That's all." Rowan patted Luke on the head. He helped Luke back up. "Please, I don't want him. I want you. Why do you hate me?" Luke struggled to stay standing. "I don't hate you." With tears in his eyes, Luke dropped to his knees and tugged at Rowan's pants. "I'll do whatever you want." "I want you to get some sleep." Rowan pulled Luke's hands away. He tried to get him to stand back up. "Please, stop this. You're embarrassing yourself. Come on. Let's go back to your room." "I'm good at it. I really am. Please..." "Luke, stand up. We're leaving." Luke did his best to stand. He stumbled forward. Rowan caught him and held on to him. "I've got you. Let's go." Luke nodded. Rowan helped him walk down the hall. Luke dragged his feet. Further down the hall, Luke tried to get away from Rowan. "Come on. We have to go further." Rowan kept a good hold on Luke as they walked down the hall. Luke pulled away from him for a second and stumbled over to the wall. He slouched over, looking ill. Rowan leaned in and helped Luke steady himself again. "Do you need to throw up?" Luke nodded and leaned forward more. Rowan pulled Luke's hair back and looked away. The sight was all too familiar to him, but off the battlefield, he couldn't stand it. "Are you finished?" Rowan saw that Luke's face needed to be cleaned off again. He checked Luke for something he could use as the cloth he used before was too filthy to use again. He came up empty handed. Rowan winced as he came up with a quick solution--his own sleeve. Luke was too out of it to appreciate the gesture. Walking further down the hall proved to be difficult. Luke was falling more than before. "Damn it. My room's closer. We'll just go there for now, alright?" "You hate me..." Luke mumbled. "I do not hate you." Rowan rolled his eyes. When Rowan reached his room, Luke was barely conscious. "Here, we're almost to the bed." Luke stopped halfway between the bed and the door. "Wait...I..." "Do you need to throw up again?" Rowan looked around the room quickly. 'I could probably get him to the chamberpot. Please, don't throw up yet.' "I might..." Luke pushed Rowan away. He covered his mouth, then swallowed hard. Luke nearly collapsed onto the bed. "I need to piss." 'Don't you dare piss yourself while you're on my bed!' Rowan was right behind him. "So you don't need to throw up? Or is it both?" "...I think...both..." Luke kept moving across the room. "Where are you going? Luke, over here!" Rowan shouted. Luke fell forward and nearly out of the window. He threw up shortly after he caught himself. "Luke! We're on the second floor. There might be people below you!" Rowan grabbed ahold of him, half to prevent Luke from going anywhere else on his own and half to ensure he didn't fall out the window. 'Thank god it's late out. There's no one over here right now.' Luke stared up at Rowan with a pitiful, helpless expression. Down his chin and in his hair, he was covered in vomit. His eyes were wet. A single tear slid down his cheek. Rowan sighed. He helped Luke back up. "Come. I'll help you clean off." Rowan brought him over to a table with a bowl of water. He got a washcloth and cleaned off Luke's face. He poured Luke some water from a pitcher on the table and handed it to him. "Here, rinse out your mouth. You can spit it out in there. I'll dump out the water later." Rowan wiped off Luke's face again after he spit out the water, then led him over to his chamberpot. "Here. Try not to piss on anything." Luke was too disoriented to stand on his own at all. Rowan had no choice but to continue holding him up. "Where the hell are you aiming? Jesus, here." Rowan helped him in a way he never expected he'd have to. "Don't get any ideas." "About what?" Luke was barely awake. He didn't notice at all where Rowan's hand was. Rowan rolled his eyes. 'Going to have to clean that up later.' "Are you done?" Rowan asked. Luke was asleep. Rowan yelled. "Luke, wake up!" Luke opened his eyes. He was very disoriented. "What?" "Are you done?" "With what?" "Look down." "Oh." Luke attended to himself. Rowan helped him wash his hands off and his own with some of the water that remained in the pitcher. He got Luke over to the bed to lie down. Rowan sat with him, keeping watch over him. He allowed Luke to rest his head in his lap for now. Luke started crying. "Are you crying?" Rowan asked. "Shut up!" "I won't tell anyone. It's alright." Rowan rubbed Luke's back to calm him. Through his tears, Luke begged Rowan. "Sleep with me. Please, touch me..." "I wouldn't sleep with a man who can't stand on his own. Shh...rest." "I'm fine. Please...just a little...touch me...a kiss...One kiss..." "And I'm not kissing a man who just threw up either." Rowan looked down at Luke with pity. "Luke, go to sleep. You'll feel better in the morning." "That's a lie." Luke curled his body up. "You really hate me now, don't you?" "No, but you're quite a handful. That man must have something that I don't." "I don't want..." "Shh...don't be afraid. Trust me." Rowan whispered. Luke forced himself to sit up. "Don't...don't use magic on me..." "I won't. If you dream about him, that's on you." Rowan saw a place he'd missed and cleaned off a part of Luke's hair. "You're a mess, you know." "I hate you. Why do you hate me?" Luke's face was red from crying. "Neither of those things are true. You're not feeling well." Rowan brought him into a hug. "Shh..." "Why am I not good enough for you?" Luke cried into Rowan's shoulder. "You're plenty good enough, but I'm not seeking someone." "I'm sorry..." Luke's words were barely audible. He drifted back into sleep. Rowan lay him down on the bed and got up to clean the window. He kept an eye on Luke while he cleaned, then moved on to the other mess Luke made. Shortly after he started on that, Robin entered the room. He stopped before the door after shutting it. Robin stared at Luke sleeping on his side of the bed, then at Rowan. "What's he doing here?" Rowan said, "He drank too much and I couldn't manage to get him back to his own room. This was closer. He's already asleep." "He's out cold then?" "Looks like it." "I'll carry him to his room." "You sure? He's pretty heavy." "I've got him. You go ahead and go on to bed. I'll join you soon." Robin picked up Luke and carried him over his shoulder. He watched Rowan and tilted his head. He asked, "What are you doing?" "Cleaning up. Honestly, I don't get the appeal of getting drunk..." Rowan sighed. "Did he throw up?" "Out the window." "Then what are you cleaning up..." "Take a wild guess." Rowan grimaced. Robin rolled his eyes. "Well, at least he didn't do that in front of people..." "That already puts him ahead of Eider in terms of decency. I'll have a talk with him tomorrow about his behavior." Rowan finished up cleaning. "Good. He might listen to you. If not, I doubt he'll listen to anyone." "Ugh, I am going to very thoroughly wash my hands." Rowan remembered something. "Oh, uh, I helped him aim so he wouldn't make more of a mess. He didn't try to do anything strange or inappropriate...honestly, I'm not sure how conscious he was at that point...Does that bother you?" "No." Robin couldn't help but laugh. "Would it be cruel of me to mock him over that?" "What do you mean?" "He finally got you to touch him there and the only reason you did was because he was pissing on your things. What an accomplishment." He laughed harder. Rowan joined in the laughter. "Don't tease him too much..." "No promises." Robin said as he left. Before being brought to his room, Luke was deep into a dream. He stood before the tower. A storm raged overhead. He was dressed in a cloak of blue. In his hand, he held a heavy, rusty key. He knew it would open the door, but he refused to use it. "No, I don't want to see him." Luke turned away from the tower. When he turned around, he met with someone else he did not want to see. James stood before him grinning. In one hand, he held a mug of ale and in the other, a dagger. Luke's heartbeat pounded in his head. He stepped back and fell onto a bed. The scenery around him changed from the tower and the storm to the bedroom Philip lent him when he stayed at the castle. His wrists and ankles were tied to the bed. The mug of ale sat on the table beside his bed, now empty. Luke struggled to free himself, but he couldn't move. 'Not again. Please, not again.' James got onto the bed and hovered over him. He pressed the blade down against Luke's chest, piercing through the skin and cutting downward. 'Stop it!' Luke shut his eyes tight. The pressure of the blade faded. The ropes around his wrists felt like hands instead. He could feel his head was no longer resting against the pillow. He was against something warm. Luke opened his eyes. He was inside the room at the top of the tower. The ropes were gone and the man in the emerald cloak was holding his wrists from behind him. Luke rested against him. He couldn't see the man's face clearly. Only the lower part was visible. Luke's own face was mostly cast in shadow. "Who are you and why are you on my bed?" The man in the emerald cloak asked. He let go of Luke's wrists. "Where am I?" Luke asked. "My prison cell." "Where's James?" "Oh, he would never be here." The man said. "Why are you here? Have I interrupted your dream?" Luke recognized why the man's voice was familiar. He asked a question that disturbed him. "Why do you sound like James?" "Isn't that obvious?" The man in the emerald cloak raised his hands to remove his hood. Luke grabbed hold of the hood and pulled it down further. "I don't want to see you!" "That's very rude since you're the one who came here!" The man pushed Luke's hands away. "I did not!" Luke sat up and moved to the other side of the bed. "You're a very strange man. Who are you?" The man moved closer to Luke to peek under Luke's hood. Luke pulled his own hood down. "Please don't look at me." "Why?" All Luke could manage to say in response was, "I can't..." In the morning, Luke woke up with a terrible hangover. The light of the sun hurt his eyes. He lay in bed, feeling empty. Around noon, Rowan came to his room to check on him. Rowan let himself in. He asked, "How are you feeling?" "Like shit." Luke held his head. "Do you need something from me?" "No. I brought you something." Rowan sat on the bed. He handed Luke a cup of a strange smelling liquid. "It's an herbal remedy from the other realm." "Then I take it he prepared it." Luke accepted it. "Yes. He's given me the same thing before. I must warn you. From what I remember, it's very...strong." "I can down pretty much anything." Luke took the whole remedy in one big gulp. He nearly threw up after he swallowed it. The taste was disgusting and it burned the back of his throat. He coughed. "What the fuck is this?!" "I don't know, actually." Rowan said. Luke put the bowl on the table beside his bed. "Still tastes better than some other things I've tried." Rowan asked, "How much did you drink last night?" "Not enough." "For what?" "Nothing." Luke lay back down and pulled the covers up high. "There. I drank it. Did you want anything else from me?" "Are you going to rest today? Should I have food sent to your room?" "I'll be fine soon enough. Not like I haven't fought in worse conditions. I've been through plenty of battles drunk." He grumbled as he turned completely away from the window. "What?! Are you mad?!" Rowan pulled the sheets down. "What does it matter? I'm fine. I can handle myself." Luke covered his head. "You haven't managed to brush your own hair today." Rowan commented. "Does it matter? It's only hair." Rowan sighed. He got up to look for Luke's brush. When he found it, he sat back down on the bed and tugged at Luke's sheets to get him to sit up. Luke reluctantly did as Rowan wanted. He pulled Luke's hair back. "Hold still. Let me do it for you." "What? Why?" "Consider it a personal request." Rowan brushed through the messy locks. "Fine." Luke wasn't interested in arguing. He let Rowan do what he wanted. It didn't matter to him either way. "You really ought to take better care of yourself." "What for?" "Have you washed your face yet?" Rowan asked. "No." Rowan put the brush down and got up again. He filled a bowl with water. He returned to the bed with the bowl and two washcloths, this time sitting facing Luke. "Hold still." "Is this really necessary?" "Yes." Rowan washed Luke's face thoroughly. He dried him off. "There." Rowan put the bowl and the cloths aside. He sat behind Luke again to finish up with Luke's hair. "Again? You already brushed it." Luke groaned. "I'm going to put it up. You know, I don't think I've seen you put your hair back much." Rowan separated Luke's hair into pieces to work them into a French braid. "It's just a pain." "Why don't you cut it then? Worried about looking like a peasant?" Rowan teased him. "No, it's not worth the effort of cutting it. It doesn't bother me as it is." Luke slouched forward. "It's always in your face. Such a shame." Rowan worked quickly with the braid. He was so used to doing it to Robin's hair it was second nature to him. "I can see fine." "Not that. Here, let me show you." Rowan picked up a mirror from the table. He showed Luke his own reflection. "See." Luke glanced back at Rowan for a moment. "What am I looking at?" "Yourself, of course. You look far more handsome with your hair back." Rowan smiled. "Come to tease me this morning?" "Don't take it that way." Rowan fixed a few stray strands in the front. "And I think you'd get more attention looking like this." "Not with the company I keep. They'd prefer how I was before." "Then you keep poor company. You know, I think you'd look better in blue." He put the mirror back. Luke felt over the braid and picked up the mirror to give himself a second look. He wasn't sure he liked it. It reminded him too much of Robin. His image of himself was poor in his mind, so he struggled to not see Robin when he stared at his reflection. "Trying to turn me into a replacement?" "No, don't be silly. Blue is my favorite color." "Then why do you always wear red?" Luke asked. "That was originally my father's idea, but red happens to also be Robin's favorite color." He grinned. Rowan looked around the room. "Did you throw up again last night?" "I threw up?" "Twice when you were with me. Did you drink a lot more than usual?" He asked. "Perhaps...a bit...well, maybe more than a bit..." Luke tossed the mirror on the bed. "I'm sorry. I don't remember anything from last night." "I'm not surprised. And, honestly, that's probably for the best..." Rowan patted Luke on the back. "What else did I do? Did I...do something inappropriate to you?" "You did get on your knees and beg me to sleep with you, but you didn't touch me inappropriately or anything like that." "I...am most sorry..." Luke put his head in his hands. "That was probably the most embarrassing thing you did, and well, you did, uh..." Rowan tried not to laugh. "What did I do?" He snorted. "You can't aim very well when you're drunk." "Did I try to shoot someone?!" Luke panicked at the thought. "No. Not that kind of aiming...Fortunately, we were in my room, so no one saw that." Rowan laughed. It dawned on Luke what Rowan was actually talking about. His face turned red. Rowan laughed harder before he spoke again. "I helped you for most of it, so there wasn't too much to clean up anyway." "What do you mean by help?" Luke's face went a deeper red. "Wait...you..." Rowan couldn't stop laughing. "Fortunate for you, Robin thought it was funny." "If I were visiting a different prince, I'm positive I'd lose my title for last night, or my head." Luke buried his face in his hands again out of shame. 'I can't possibly humiliate myself further. He's the crown prince and I'm his guest, and I did all of that last night...' "Yes, I'm sure some would be so unforgiving, but I know you couldn't help what you were doing in that state." Rowan put his hand on Luke's shoulder. "Still, I'd rather you not get that drunk to begin with. I had to thoroughly wash my hands after cleaning up my room." "I...why didn't you have a servant do that?" "Servants love gossiping. By morning, who knows what sort of thing would be spread around the castle." Rowan said. "You don't need to protect my dignity. I haven't got any to protect." Rowan said with pride, "I'll protect whatever I want. I am the future king." "It's your time to waste." Luke looked back at the mirror on the table. "I can't remember anything from last night. I hate to ask you this, but do you know if I was with anyone and if I was, who?" "Sir Elon. I walked in on the two of you. He seemed drunk himself." Luke hated to ask Rowan for those details. He felt deeper shame as he spoke. "I don't know him very well. Do you know if he...has anything?" "I don't know. I'm sorry." "Do you know if I've gone off with anyone else for the last few days?" Luke asked. Rowan leaned forward to look Luke in the eyes. "You don't know?" Luke turned away from him. Rowan chose not to say anything about it. He merely replied with, "Sorry, I don't know." "Could we continue this later? I want to check something." Luke picked up the mirror. Rowan understood what Luke was wanting to do. "Are you worried you got something recently?" "I'm always worried about that." "I can look for you. I might be able to see places you can't." He offered. "The mirror should be good enough." "I won't tell anyone if you have something." Rowan put his hand on Luke's. "Or are you afraid then I really won't sleep with you? Rest assured, I'll never sleep with you anyway." "How kind." Luke said sarcastically. He looked down at the mirror then over at Rowan. "Would you really look for me?" "I don't mind." "If you're sure..." Luke put the mirror down. He took off his pants. "How should I...?" "Might be easier if you lay down. Is there anywhere that you're particularly worried about?" Rowan asked. Luke lay down and spread out his legs. He showed a specific place to Rowan. "There is this spot over here. I can't see very well what it is." "Hmm..." Rowan took a closer look. "Does it look like a wart?" Rowan shook his head. "No, not really. I think it's an ingrown hair." "Are you sure?" Luke asked again. "Pretty sure." "Have you actually seen what it looks like before?" Rowan handed Luke his pants. "I've seen Eider naked plenty of times, unfortunately." "So, you're really sure it looks like nothing?" Luke was still worried. "Yes, but would you really see anything so soon?" "No, I don't think so, but I can't really...remember most of the men I sleep with. It's fine if I'm not too drunk, and I'm usually not that drunk, but recently, of the times I have gotten drunk...I don't really know what I've done during any of that time." Luke put his pants on. Rowan had many things he wanted to say to Luke, but he kept it to himself. Right now, he needed to keep Luke calm to reach him. "Well, all you can do now is keep checking." "My brother's not going to try to kill me for having you do that, is he?" Luke asked as a joke. "I should think not." Rowan started off by approaching the topic with a gentle suggestion. "I know you...prefer temporary company, but perhaps it might be in your best interest if you limited your selection or avoided drinking while you were searching for someone to spend time with?" "I don't think I'd want it as much if I were sober." Luke hung his head low. "If that's the case, then maybe you don't really want it?" "I know that." Luke stared at the ground. "I want something I can't have." "Are you sure? Perhaps, there is a way to get you what you want." "The truth is...I..." He'd said it before, not meaning to, but now he was ready to confess it outright. Luke kept his head low as he looked over at Rowan. "I hate to admit to such weakness, but I know I'm in love with you." Rowan didn't react. "Yes, I know." "I've never wanted anyone so badly before. That's my luck, isn't it? Sometimes, I wonder what the point of my life is. Nothing ever goes right." Luke laughed at himself. 'I'm pathetic.' "Don't say that. You know, some of that is your own fault too." Rowan said. "How is any of that my fault? I've..." "You've gone into battle drunk. You mix heavy drinking and sex in unsavory places. I've seen you test your luck against Robin. You intentionally put yourself in risky situations. That's not from innocence or by accident. Why are you so careless with your life?" Rowan worried he may have been too forward with his words, but he didn't know another way of saying it. Luke reacted how he expected. "So you'd blame me then if I were killed?" "No, that's not what I mean. You should take more precautions to keep yourself safe. And I don't want you going to fight completely out of it. You know very well how many men never leave the battlefield." "And sex? Are you really concerned or are you merely disgusted with me for sleeping around?" "I don't care about things like that. I'm more concerned with what some people might do to you, especially since you're so open about things. Anyone could lure you in and then hurt you out of some sick form of punishment." Luke got off the bed. He yelled, "I know very well about that! You don't need to lecture me about that!" "I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to...I'm sorry." Rowan quickly apologized. "Luke, I'm not meaning to lecture you. I'm afraid if I don't keep my eye on you, the next time I see you will be at a funeral." "Would you really care?" Luke snapped at him. "Yes, of course I would! Why would you even ask that?" Rowan got up. He stood in front of Luke, but Luke would not face him. "I don't understand why you want to be around me. I've done nothing but inconvenience and bother you." Rowan moved to where Luke was looking. He smiled. "I know there's far more to you than what you project to everyone else. What's underneath the mask is what I'm interested in. That, and your pretty face does make it easy to forgive you." "Teasing me again?" "Don't blame me. Blame your parents for giving you that face." Rowan laughed. "I'm not going to deny you are very attractive, but I don't love you like that and I would never be unfaithful to Robin. He's already beaten you to stealing my heart. You'll have to blame him for that one." "I already do." Luke crossed his arms. "He told me something very interesting recently. The only reason he came to this realm is because some fairy woman showed him a vision of his true love and instead of letting the future he saw take its course, he immediately left to find you." "Yes, I am aware." "And did he tell you I was supposed to be your lover before him?" "What?" "Right now, at this point in time, you are supposed to be mine." Luke's body burned with anger and frustration. "He really said that? Well, that's a detail he has conveniently left out when telling me. Explains why he was so worried about you stealing me..." Rowan laughed again. 'You were raised by fairies alright.' "It's not funny! Where does that leave me?" Luke's frustration grew. "Do forgive him for his behavior. That is certainly something he learned from them." Rowan took Luke's hand and sat back down on the bed. "Luke, I can't give you my heart or my body, but I can give you my mind. Let me help you. Perhaps there is another way I can ease the pain inside of you. I know you want comfort and affection. I don't have to sleep with you to give you those things, and perhaps you could comfort me a little." Luke sat down beside him. "There really is no winning you over, is there?" "Afraid not. You should let those feelings wither so that new ones may bloom." "Who would ever want me?" "Someone will, but it would help if you didn't treat yourself so poorly." "You don't treat yourself well either, from what I've seen." "I can't deny that. Robin is very important to me, but I am still...if I didn't have him..." Rowan admitted a weakness of his own in hopes of getting Luke to open up more. "I've never really had any close friends outside of Robin." "You seem to be on good terms with your brother and your fiancée." "It wasn't always like that. Wren and I had a very strained relationship for a long time, and Lady Rosa...I was very cold and thoughtless to her initially." Rowan kept hold of Luke's hand. "I'd like to be close friends, if you would allow it. If that isn't something you want, then we should part ways. I don't want to hurt you." "I...would be alright with that. I don't want to lose the time I do have with you." Luke took in the warmth of Rowan's hand. His heart stung with the same intensity. "Still, it's going to take me a while to not be bitter about what that fool has done." "Since he's done such a thing, then as his other half, I will have to ensure you are properly compensated." "How will you do that?" "I will find the person for you, your perfect match." "You'll be searching for eternity." "If that is what it takes, but I doubt it will be so long." Rowan saw through to Luke's true fear. "Are you afraid of meeting him?" "Why would I be afraid of that?" "You don't seem to do well with intense emotions. I can assure you, whatever you've felt until now will not compare." Rowan warned him. "I can handle anything. I simply refuse to believe such a person exists. Honestly, that sounds terrible." "Why?" Rowan asked. "Someone to match me...can't be a pleasant person. What sort of relationship would I have with someone like that?" "The personality you push forward and your issues aren't the real you. That's buried underneath. Of course, since he is your match, he may have similar issues." Rowan elaborated. "Together, you may both be more easily swept away into madness that only makes sense to the two of you, but...being around that person may also give you balance in a way that I cannot." "I don't think I understand. Sounds like it's both a blessing and a curse." "Yes. I can't imagine my life without Robin beside me, and at this point, I know if someone were to threaten to separate us forever...there is no force on earth that would stop me from unleashing hell upon anyone in between us. I know I am in more pain with him, but I don't care. Sometimes, it terrifies me to think of what I might do to keep him near me." Luke pulled his hand away. "I have enough weight on my mind as it is that I'd rather forget. I'm not seeking more." "Really? Then what are you doing here chasing me?" Rowan teased him again. "That's not...I'm only..." "Oh, stop that. If I asked you to be my lover right now, you would say yes." "That's arrogant." Luke said. "It's not arrogant to state the obvious." Luke had nothing to say in response to Rowan. "Why are you so hellbent on denying it? I'm not going to treat you like how other people have. You don't have to hide your vulnerable spots from me." "I don't know if I can be sure about that." "If this is about me telling Robin, I already told you why I did. That was a special situation and I only told him the vaguest of information. I don't want to hurt you. I told you before, I want to be good friends." "How do I know that's the truth and you're not secretly like everyone else? How do I know you're not going to betray me?" Luke persisted in shielding himself. "You can't know. You have to believe it. That's what trust is." Rowan wore a gentle smile. "I trust you." "You do? Even after..." "Yes." Rowan slightly bowed forward to Luke. "I'm sorry I hurt you before. It wasn't my intention to do so. Please, will you give me a second chance?" Luke was taken aback at the display. He never thought he'd see a day where a prince would bow to him. "I suppose...that I can forgive you for that mistake. I certainly have plenty of mistakes of my own that I need to apologize for..." "Thank you. I won't let you regret it." Rowan noticed a mug on the table beside the bed. He got up to examine it. "Is this what I think it is?" Luke shifted his gaze. "Yes...I had a drink when I woke up and I poured myself another, but I forgot about it." "I'd like to ask something of you. Please, while you're staying here, don't drink anymore. Do you think you can do that?" Rowan asked. Luke thought it over. He had managed to not drink for lengthier periods of time when around Rowan before than he had in a long time, but he was also drinking more than ever now. His confidence in himself was weak. "...I'm not sure. I don't think I'd be able to completely resist all of the time." "Then could you try most of the time?" He took a deep breath. "I think I can manage that. I hadn't been drinking much for a while before. Prior to...recently." "Would you be willing to let me take this from you?" Rowan held the mug up in front of Luke. Luke took a hard look at the mug. He could smell the drink. He clenched his fists. "I suppose...I don't need any more today." "Thank you." Rowan walked over to the window. He opened it and looked down before pouring it out. "We'll start from now. I'd like to request something else. Could you tell me when you've had a drink? I'm not going to be angry with you if you fail, but I'd like to know how it's going." "I can do that..." Rowan put the mug aside and rejoined Luke on the bed. He hugged him. "Thank you." Luke hugged him back. He took in Rowan's scent and nuzzled against Rowan's neck. Luke decided to test his luck. "I'd prefer a kiss." "That's enough of that." Rowan shut him down immediately. "Friends kiss sometimes, right?" Rowan rolled his eyes. He gave Luke a quick peck on the cheek. "That's not what I meant." Luke grumbled about it. "If you want more than that, you'll have to ask Robin for permission." "For what he's done, he should let me have one night with you." Luke whispered in Rowan's ear. "None of that." Rowan lightly pushed him away. "For your own best interest, you shouldn't. Your feelings won't fade that way." "Are you sure? I might lose interest once I've obtained my goal." "How little do you think of my skills? I'm insulted." Rowan smirked. "Can I lay with you?" "I just told you no." Rowan narrowed his eyes. "No, not like that. I mean, I want to lie here with you." Rowan thought about it. "Not on your bed. I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that." "Can I touch you in any way further right now?" Rowan had offered him affection. He considered ways that might please them both. Rowan offered Luke his hands to hold. Luke took his hands and held them tightly. His hands trembled. "Thank you." 'Is allowing me in that frightening for you?' Rowan wondered. He pitied Luke, and was more determined than before to help him. "If you need to hold my hand again, I give you permission to do so in the future." "I've been dreaming about someone, but I can't see his face. Did you give me another strange dream last night?" Luke asked. "No, I didn't. You asked me not to use magic on you." "You already know who he is, don't you?" "Yes, but I know you're not ready to hear that answer yet." Rowan said. "Luke, if we part ways one day, please promise me something." "What?" "That you will open the door to the tower when the time comes." "You say that like you know you're going to leave already. Are you?" His hands trembled more. "Whatever the future may hold, please don't give up on yourself. You are worth more than you will admit." "I'm not worth anything." Across the room, Rowan noticed something he hadn't paid attention to before. In a small vase, a yellow rose sat on display. He smiled. Rowan got up from the bed and walked over to the flower. He picked it up. With his mind completely focused, he let the magic flow through him. Like the last time he did earth magic, his fingers stung. In a flash of light, the edges of the golden petals were twinged with a deep blue. He walked back over to Luke with the rose in hand. "You know that isn't true. It's another illusion you've lost yourself in. I won't let you stay lost. Whether I'm deep in the earth or thousands of miles from you, I will be here for you. I know I'm not the one who will free you, but I will do everything within my power to ensure that day does come." Rowan held the rose out to Luke. "If I must aid you for eternity, so be it." Luke accepted it, but did not feel deserving of the gift. "Why would you show me such compassion?" "I love you. Love isn't rational." Rowan cupped Luke's face. "My dear friend, I will hold you when you need it, but from here on you must also learn to help yourself for your own sake. Please try." "I suppose I can try, but it's going to be very hard for me to see any worth in myself." "It'll come when your mind is clear." Rowan kissed him on the forehead. "You should rest today. Promise me you will." "I will." "I'll check on you again later." Rowan smiled at him again to reassure him. "Tomorrow, I have some things planned for the two of us that may help you." "Alright." "Please, get some rest." With that, Rowan left. Luke stared at the door, lonely without Rowan's company. He examined the rose. The blue was one he had never seen in nature before. It complimented the golden petals beautifully. From underneath his shirt, he pulled out the protection charm Rowan made him. With each gift in one of his hands, he was swept away in an overwhelming feeling he couldn't name. "You said it would be more intense than anything I've ever known. How can a body contain that?" Luke set the rose aside and hid away the lyre flower. He thought about his dream from last night. The deep emerald he saw too complimented the blue. "If you can love me, then perhaps..." Rowan returned to his room to meet up with Robin. Robin sat on the bed reading a book. He put the book down. "You've been doing magic again. I can sense it surging through you. What sort of spell did you cast?" "A bit of earth magic. I changed the color of a flower." Rowan closed the door. "This wouldn't be another gift for Luke, would it? You haven't made me any gifts." Robin said. "I've been thinking the same thing." Rowan walked over to the window and sat down. "Come here." Robin got up and joined him. "I want to try something." Rowan had a big grin on his face. He took Robin's hands and held them close together with his. Rowan calmed his mind and concentrated. The flow of magic swept through his body and into both their hands. The heat of the energy surging into his palms in turn caused heat to rise in Robin's face. The sensation was completely foreign. A light formed between their hands. The prickling, needle-like pain jabbed at the tips of Rowan's fingers, but the pain was duller than when he performed earth magic earlier. Robin explained to him the reasoning behind the pain before. To create or alter life was a far more difficult task than to move water and flames. The first time he'd done such a feat was by pure accident. He was not at a point then that he could sense magic at all, and thus felt nothing. Now, the pain was impossible for him not to notice, as was the warmth of the energy. Between their hands, the ball of light grew until it burst into tiny sparks that faded in seconds. Where the light once was, a rose rested in Robin's palms in an impossible shade of blue. Robin was astonished at Rowan's progress. He was performing magic beyond what Robin taught him. Rowan took the rose and placed it in Robin's hair. He smiled. "For eternity, my love." No words came to Robin. He was completely mesmerized. Rowan's smile turned to a grin. He had one more trick to show his lover. Outside, the sky poured down. The energy in the air shifted. Robin stared out the window in shock. "You...But I've barely taught you about water magic..." "It was more an accident I stumbled upon while practicing." Rowan said. "Do you like it?" "I can feel your energy in the air. It's like you're all around me at once." Robin had a big smile on his face. Rowan was filled with happiness at seeing Robin so pleased. "Yes, it's a little strange for me. Now that I can sense magic, I've noticed so many things I never knew were there before. I wonder...why do you think this is happening now?" "I'm not entirely sure, but there are some possible reasons. I couldn't sense much potential in you before, but it may have been laying dormant until now. From what I've heard, a sudden shift like this without any outside influences tends to come from a major change in emotional state. That's why I wondered if..." Robin's voice trailed off. "If...?" "I thought you might have feelings for Luke." "Do you really have so little faith in us?" "No, I...I'm sorry..." Robin apologized. "I'm only teasing." Rowan caressed Robin's face. "Speaking of that, Luke told me something very interesting, about you altering both of our paths and Luke was supposed to be my..." "I'm not ashamed of what I've done." He said bluntly. Rowan laughed at his response. "You don't even deny it. You're very selfish." "I couldn't help it. When I saw you, I had to be near you." "I'm not angry about it, but Luke might be." Rowan leaned in closer to Robin's face. "I think I know what the change is." "You do?" "Right now, more than ever before, I want to protect you. And more than ever before, I'm desperate for strength." "You don't need to protect me. I'm strong enough on my own." "I want to make you happy and free you from suffering." Rowan pressed his forehead against Robin's. "You have always been my strength. When I look into your eyes, I know I would set the world ablaze for you. I'd allowed myself to become weakened, and now that I am pulling myself back together, my desires have grown." "Perhaps, that's why..." Robin looked into Rowan's eyes. He felt over the blue rose in his hair. His fears of Rowan being unfaithful seemed absurd. "You've learned so much so fast. You may be better at it than I am. Or at least a more dedicated student. I'm a bit lazy when it comes to magic I'm not interested in...I suppose now you don't have to ask me for rain anymore." "No, more than ever I will. Now that I can sense the differences between magical energies, I will want it more. The air will be filled with you, and only I will be able to enjoy that." Rowan ran his fingers through Robin's hair. "This makes me wonder. Wren may have that sleeping potential too." "Perhaps so." Rowan wondered something else. "What of Luke? You were quite gifted with magic at an early age. Shouldn't Luke also be or was that purely from training?" "Some of it was unnatural. I had a fairy wet nurse for a while, and my mother also gave me unicorn milk. That increased my natural abilities somewhat. The Queen of the Seas and Skies did say I was still naturally talented for a human. She suspected it ran in my blood, likely through Faolán's side. As for Luke, how did the talk go? About his drinking problem?" He mirrored Rowan's touch, playing with his hair. "It went well, I think. He says he's going to try to stop at least." "Then we may know soon enough. It's very difficult to do magic if there's alcohol in your body. It inhibits the flow of magic." "Is that so? Interesting." Rowan lightly tugged at the ends of Robin's hair. It hung a couple inches above his shoulders. "It's short again." "I'm sorry. I knew it would displease you. I cut it to hurt myself." "Does me being displeased with you hurt you that greatly?" Rowan asked. "Yes." He touched it himself. "I feel silly over it now. It hasn't been this short since before the war." "It's only hair. You don't have to keep it long just because I like it." "I know." "It's not like it's a bad look on you. It reminds me of happier times. Back when things were peaceful, and we'd sneak off from training to kiss down by the river." Rowan ran his hand down Robin's chest. "Sir Ronan really was too easy on both of us." "He was too easy on everyone. I might be a bit more civilized if it weren't for the both of you letting me get away with so much." "And lose all your fire? I wouldn't have it." Rowan kissed him. When he pulled away, he looked out the window at the sky. "Robin, when we leave here, where will we go?" "We'll find somewhere. Rowan, are you sure about this?" Robin asked. The rain picked up, pouring down heavily. Flashes of bright bolts danced across the sky and thunder rolled across the land. The light in Rowan's eyes flickered like a flame. "For once, let me play the role of the knight. A forest prince belongs hidden amongst the trees." "I am no prince." Robin replied. Rowan locked eyes with Robin once more as he touched the rose in Robin's hair. Beyond what was before him, his mind was somewhere dark and endless. He smiled. "I see what I see."
XI. Peacock and Wolf