XII. Snowfall

Rosabella met with Rowan in his bedroom. He was waiting for her by the window. She locked the door behind her. Their arrangement made meetings like this easy. No one would question why she wanted to be alone in her fiancé's bedroom. It worked for both of them to let people think whatever they wanted about that. She had more than one matter to discuss with him that needed to be kept quiet. "You wanted to speak with me, Lady Rosa?" Rowan said. "Yes, there are some things I must discuss with you." Rosabella stood beside him at the window. She exhibited an elegant confidence before him, speaking in a calm voice. "About my father, I haven't changed my mind. I want him dead." The prince put his finger to her lips. "Shh...Lady, you're speaking of assassinating your own father..." "The world would be better off without him, and you know it." She brushed aside his hand. "That's besides the point." "I'm not interested in taking the moral high ground. If someone doesn't stop him, he will continue to torment and take innocent lives. What's the point in allowing him to live?" Rosabella maintained a calm exterior. "If he were less important, he would be hanged for his crimes." Rowan could not argue with her words. "That's not the only issue here...if you're caught..." "I won't be caught." Rosabella stared directly into his eyes. "How do I do it? Show me how to have the resolve I need to see this through." "That is not a path you should..." Rowan tried to dissuade her. She stood firm. "I've made up my mind." Rowan looked at her with pity. When he first met the girl, a few years ago, she was timid and shy for the most part. Even then he sensed a strong will within her. He reflected back on how he tried to control his brother for his own good, and how wide of a divide that created between them. Rosabella was an adult, and fully capable of making her own decisions. It wasn't for him to stop her. The burden of one's own conscience can be bore by none other than the owner. He resigned to her will, and determined there was only one way in which he could make the situation somewhat better. "Very well. I will show you, but you must be completely committed. You can't go in half-heartedly when aiming to kill." "I will do whatever I must," she said. Rowan took a deep breath. "Resolve alone won't be enough either. You will need skill and perfect timing to get away with it and not suffer any consequences. I won't teach you to do anything reckless and as much as I hate to admit it, your father is necessary at present for winning the war. If you want to kill him, do it after the war has ended." "But..." "If you wish for me to help you, you must agree to that term. I told you. Timing is important." The two who shared a pretend relationship discussed vile things neither hoped anyone would hear them say. The conversation left Rowan nauseated. Afterwards, Rosabella went to the door and unlocked it. She was so focused on her goal at hand she nearly forgot the other thing she wanted to talk to the prince about. She remembered as she was about to walk out the door. Rosabella turned back around and shut the door. "Oh, Prince, I think I'm..." Rosabella touched her stomach. "I think I'm pregnant." "Really?" Rowan's mood changed. He walked over to Rosabella and felt her stomach. She was too early to be showing yet. He smiled. "Have you told Wren yet?" "I thought I should tell you first, because of our arrangement..." "Thank you for letting me know, but you should really tell Wren." Rowan said. "Should we announce your pregnancy later?" "Mm..I want to wait a little longer. Wait till I'm starting to show." Rosabella felt over her stomach again. She thought about the little one she would be bringing into the world. The idea that her monstrous father would be in her child's life only heightened her rage. Her father always controlled everyone. He made monsters out of her stepmother and her brother; and her mother, who he could not corrupt, he ensured her demise. She noticed even her nephews cowered in their grandfather's presence. 'No more monsters. Mara, I will play the witch and kill the devil.' Rowan put his hands on her shoulders. "Lady, while this is wonderful news, I must warn you. This child is all the more reason you must be careful." "I won't die." She said. "As you mustn't out there on the battlefield. Wren will be deeply saddened if there ever comes a day someone must return you to us." Rowan gave a half smile. "Go on, now. Don't keep my brother waiting." She bid him goodbye and went to Wren's room. Wren was at his desk writing, as she expected he would be. Rosabella let herself in the room. She hugged Wren from behind. She said, "Wren, there you are. What are you doing?" Wren looked back at her and caressed her face. "Making a gift for you. It's been a while since I wrote a poem for you. Would you like to hear it?" "Yes, but first...there's something I want to tell you." She grinned. "What is it?" Wren asked. Rosabella whispered into his ear. "You're going to be a father." "You're pregnant?! Really?" Wren was overcome with excitement. He got up and embraced her. "That's wonderful! How are you feeling?" "I'm fine. I haven't been pregnant for very long yet!" She laughed. "But still, we must keep you in good health, for both your sakes." Wren pressed his forehead against hers as he held her close. "Whatever you need, whatever you want--I'll find a way to get it for you." "You're so sweet. Thank you. Right now, I'd like to hear that poem of yours." Rosabella kissed him. "As you wish." Wren took the paper from his desk with one hand and held her hand with his other one. He led her over to the bed, where they got comfortable. Wren propped himself up against several pillows and Rosabella lay back against Wren's chest. He put one arm around her waist. "Perhaps I should start writing fairy tales too, for when the baby's born." "Seems your fatherly instincts set in fast." She joked. "Ah, it's more that I'm always worried about everyone being taken care of." Wren said. "It's not a bad thing, but don't worry too much. You'll have a head of grays before you're thirty." Rosabella tilted her head back and looked at him. She played with his hair. Wren saw a flash of something in his mind. He saw himself holding hands with a little boy dressed in red. The boy looked like a mix of his and Rosabella's features, taking somewhat more after him than Rosabella. The boy mouthed his name to Wren. Then, the image faded. He saw two children with him this time, dressed in identical clothing, one in red and one in blue. Each child held one of his hands, their faces nearly as identical as their clothes. These two looked somewhat more like Rosabella. Each gave him a name, then laughed as if they were tricking him. He blinked and it was gone. "It's a boy." "What? Why's that?" Rosabella asked. "I...don't know. That came to me. A boy, and then next is...twins." Wren said. He couldn't tell by appearance if the twins were male or female, and one of them gave him an ambiguous name while the other gave a masculine name. He pondered if one might be male and the other female, but the images were now too faded for him to examine more thoroughly. He didn't know why, but he couldn't shake the feeling they were each giving him the opposite sibling's name. Rosabella gasped at that. "Twins?! Goodness...I hope not. I don't know if I can handle that." "The pregnancy?" Wren asked. "No, the part afterwards where they're running about wreaking havoc." She didn't want to worry him, but the thought of carrying twins also worried her. Any pregnancy carried a risk of death. Twins only increased that risk. "Haha...Well, there's more than one of us. We'll manage. I'm sure my brother will help some too, and you know Rin spoils children." Wren reassured her. The thought of her carrying twins in the future also worried him, but he was happy at the idea of them having more children. Two healthy babies at once both surviving past infancy would be a blessing. "That's worrying in its own way. They'll be begging him for treats constantly once they know how weak willed he is." Rosabella shook her head. She could already picture Robin with children around him, grabbing at his cloak, demanding cakes and displays of magic. She was certain if the man ever had children or raised anyone else's, any such children would be completely spoiled. Wren read Rosabella the poem. When he finished, they cuddled close on the bed, facing each other. All the excitement had gotten Wren very worked up. He pulled her closer and kissed down her neck. He slid his hand up her body, then cupped her breast. With his other hand, he felt down her back until he reached what he wanted to grab. Wren sucked on her neck. She moaned softly. "Wren...I'm already pregnant. We don't need to keep trying." "I know that." Wren pulled her dress up to her waist. "Now I can finally do whatever I want without worrying about the best way to ensure you get pregnant." He freed himself from his pants and rubbed against her. "Wren..." Rosabella ran her hands down Wren's chest, then down below his waist. She took hold of him and pressed him against herself. She smirked. "Take me." Wren did as she asked. Outside the castle, the king was spotted. Rowan was informed by guards of his father's return. Though he did not want to see him, he went to meet Argus. It was expected of him. He greeted his father. "Father, you've returned. How did things go with Sir Faolán?" His father dismounted his horse. He stormed past Rowan in a hurry. "The entire family tree should be burned down." "Not well then. Did you decide on any potential women?" Rowan asked. "No." His father said. He kept on walking fast. Rowan snickered under his breath. Faolán was helping them after all. Rowan followed behind his father to discuss the situation further. "I see. He is not an easy man to deal with, from what I gather." "He's a barbaric, arrogant beast who needs to learn his place." Argus headed towards the dining hall, the king's favorite location in the castle. "It'd be easier if I slipped some poison in his drink." "We still need him in battle." Rowan said. "Why did you, Wren, and Eider have to turn out to be such worthless children? If you were more like me, I wouldn't need to deal with all of this nonsense." Argus said as he sat down. He started barking orders at servants to bring him food immediately. Rowan stood at the edge of the dining hall. He watched his father yell at servants and devour expensive food. He didn't want to be there anymore, so he left. No one noticed. His father's words affected him more than he wanted to admit. He sought out the only person who could comfort him. Rowan ended up at the church. Robin was helping David clean the building. David was dusting the floors, and Robin was clearing out the cobwebs that had accumulated in the corners. David noticed Rowan first. "Oh, hello, Prince. It's good to see you. Thank you for letting me borrow your knight." "He hasn't given you any trouble, has he?" Rowan asked. "Well, not any more than usual." David laughed. "Rowan," Robin said, as he put his broom down. "What are you doing here? Isn't your father supposed to be back sometime today?" "Unfortunately, he's already home." Rowan sighed. Robin joined his lover near the entrance. He brushed back the front of Rowan's hair. "That is most unfortunate. Would you like me to help you forget about him?" "Keep such suggestions outside of the church, at least. Goodness." David continued cleaning. He rolled his eyes. "Really, you have no shame." "Heh. Does it matter? You believe in an omniscient god. What I'm doing will be known no matter where I do it. Wouldn't trying to hide sinful behavior be worse than being open about it? Then, I'd be both being sinful and lying about my sin." "There you go again, causing trouble. That's enough of that." David shook his head. "I'm only playing around. Would you like me to fix lunch?" Robin asked David. David nodded. "That would be nice." "I'll be back soon." Robin gave Rowan a kiss on the cheek and went into the next room over. After Robin went to cook, David took a seat. He waved Rowan over to join him. David asked, "How have you been, Prince?" Rowan sat down beside him. He sighed. "I've been...well, it's nice to not have to see blood most of the day. So for that, I am grateful." "How soon will we be leaving?" "I haven't decided on an exact date yet. I still have supplies I need to get." Rowan rubbed his eyes. His stomach turned at the thought of going back into battle, but he kept that hidden well. He changed the subject. "How have you been?" David put his hands together. "The church is crowded every Sunday, but I've heard far more horrid confessions as of late than before. My mind is both glad they are coming clean about their actions, and heartbroken that those actions occurred in the first place." "What sort of horrid things have you heard?" Rowan asked. "I cannot tell. You know that." David looked down at his feet. "Actually, well, perhaps I could break that a little..." Rowan turned to face him. "Father, am I hearing you correctly?" "It's only this once." David said in a quiet voice. "You're friend came to me yesterday. I was quite shocked." "My friend?" Rowan raised an eyebrow. "Sir Luke of Cailean." Rowan's eyes widened. "Luke came here? Of his own accord? To confess?!" David lowered his voice. "I won't...tell you what he told me. I am keeping that part secret, but I think you should talk to him. He is struggling." "I see. I'll speak with him in private when I have a chance." Rowan's chest tightened and he felt a knot in his stomach. David's head hung low. "There is much darkness in his past." "I am aware," Rowan said. He chose not to tell David anything he knew, as he did not know the full extent to which Luke had confessed. His last slip hurt Luke more than he expected. He wasn't going to allow that to happen again. "How much does his brother know?" David asked. Rowan carried on in his vagueness. "Bits and pieces. He won't admit it, but I think he's afraid to let Robin in close specifically." "Why do you think that is?" "They're brothers." Rowan said. "I understand it. I've been guilty of that myself. It's a shame, really. If those two had actually been in each other's company as children, I think Luke would be fairing better than he is now. His early life was spent without love and protection." "Poor thing." David shook his head and sighed. He turned to face Rowan. "I hope you..." Robin walked back in carrying a large tray with bowls and cups on it. "It's ready. You came at just the right time. Everything was nearly done." He handed a bowl and cup to Rowan and David, then sat down beside Rowan to eat his own lunch. Rowan looked inside the bowl. Rice and beans. He mixed the contents and took a bite, grumbling underneath his breath, "No meat." "My apologies, your highness. You know I do not eat meat, so I do not keep any here." David laughed at the complaint. "Right." Rowan opened the bag he was carrying with him and took out a piece of cloth. He unwrapped it, the inside containing some dried meat. Rowan shredded the pieces down and mixed the meat in with his food. "There." Robin paid no attention to that. He was too busy eating. David watched Robin. "You're quite hungry today." "I get hungry easily." Robin held the bowl close to his mouth and shoveled the food in. "Perhaps you should start eating meat." Rowan suggested, knowing his words would be ignored. "I don't want to." Robin took a big swig of water. Rowan sighed and shook his head. "And then you eat beans all day." "What's wrong with beans?" Robin asked. Rowan stared at him, grimaced, then looked the other way. "Nothing." David noticed the unspoken annoyance coming from Rowan, but chose to ignore it. He turned his attention to Robin. Something caught his eyes. He almost laughed. "Good knight, I see you are starting to grey. You really are nearly thirty, aren't you?" Robin's face went bright red. He raised his arm and the bare, scarred flesh of his hand. "It's this damn human body. Flannán's completely grey and when I saw Faolán years ago, he was greying too. Why must I inherit that legacy from them?" "At least you're not going bald. That would be quite tragic." Rowan teased him. "But you know, you never visit your human relatives. I wonder if Faolán's lost all his hair." "That's not going to happen to me." Robin was horrified at the thought. To get a bit of revenge, he brushed back the front of Rowan's hair and said, "You have more greys than I do anyway." David chimed in. "You are greying quite rapidly, Prince. I'd say a quarter of your hair is silver, and you're two years younger." Rowan's teasing backfired on him. He put his bowl down in his lap and glared at David. "And all of yours is snow white and thinning." "That it is. But I much older than you." David said. He was old enough to no longer care about such things. Watching the prince and his knight get worked up over something so trivial amused him. "I don't understand it. Father's mostly grey now, and Mother's gone completely grey, but neither of them looked like this at my age. It's not fair." Rowan glanced up at the strands of gray mixed in with jet black that hung slightly above his eyes. "It doesn't look bad on you." Robin said with a grin. "But we'll have to change your name. You can't be the Bloody Raven anymore. A magpie, perhaps?" "That's not funny." Rowan sighed deeply. By his thirtieth birthday, he suspected, there likely wouldn't be any black at all. Robin returned to eating, quickly forgetting the topic. When he was finished, he took spoonfuls from Rowan's bowl and dumped it into his own. He picked out the bits of meat and put them back in Rowan's bowl. Rowan glared at him. He shook his head at his lover's behavior, and emptied half of his bowl into Robin's. Robin picked out the rest of the meat and continued eating while Rowan watched him. David watched them both with amusement. He thought back to before the war, when the two before him weren't quite adults yet. Their concerns then were being caught holding hands or kissing, or being lectured for missing church. He was always angry with Robin back then, and disappointed in Rowan, for their behavior. Now that he was older, regret weighed heavily on those memories. When the war started, both of the children he used to know became men stained in red. The ways in which their personalities twisted from their innocent selves both pained and disturbed him. He wished he had spoken more gently with them back then. Any moment of kindness, he thought, might have helped balance what was to come. But he knew this would change nothing. The shy and awkward prince from before traded those traits for distance and sternness, uncomfortably adorning the scarlet colors his mother chose for him with pitch black as an omen of the death to come; and his overzealous, loyal knight's ways became amplified and in turn, he became the greatest bringer of death in hopes of pleasing his broken-hearted lover, lining his sky blue with white so that the red may show more clearly when he cut another man down. Now, more than ever, he wished to speak with them over spiritual matters. Every morning, he feared for their lives as he knew the king cared for neither of them and assassins sought to take the prince's life. Without even going out to the battlefield, any parting he had with them may be the last one and that fact was constantly at the forefront of his mind. He hoped he could save their souls, but he feared he was running out of time. David couldn't keep his fears inside any longer. "I wish you would convert. You're a good man. I know you are. The thought of not being able to save you..." "I'll be fine." Robin said. "Don't worry over us. Neither of us plan on dying any time soon." Rowan said to reassure him. "Few plan on their death, but let us hope that day is far in the future for both of you." David decided to drop the subject. He expected it wouldn't go anywhere. He remembered something else he'd been meaning to bring up with them. Since they were both present, he decided it was a good time. David got up to get it. He brought back with him a rainbow colored shell with a seal carved into it. David held it in his open palm to show them. "Since you're both here, there's something I want to show you. I received something from Lady Anamaria. Her and her new husband, Lord Llyr, have returned from the trade negotiations they were arranging. Seems it went well." Robin picked up the shell and looked it over. David saw a great sadness in his eyes. "She should really be reporting that to Argus, not you." Rowan said. "You know she always hated your father for keeping Ronan away from her so much." David said. He thought back on his old friend. It'd been six, nearly seven years since Ronan died, but it still seemed wrong in David's mind to think of him as gone. "I know it drove him mad as well, to not be able to be there with his family for more than the span of a breeze before the king required him again." Robin ran his fingers over the seal. He remembered Ronan showing him how to carve the design when he was a child, and the face of Ronan's wife when he presented her husband's body to her. Since that day, he had only met with Anamaria again a handful of times over the years, though they exchanged letters a few times a year. "I haven't been to see Lady Ana in so long. I hope she's doing well." David said, "You know...I'm grateful to Ronan. If it weren't for him, I'd likely hate you." "I'd probably feel the same way myself. He was always determined to keep peace between people." Robin handed him back the shell. "I wish he were here to see how you've grown." David said. "Both of you." "I was an adult when he..." Robin couldn't finish his sentence. He rephrased his words. "I was an adult then." "That may be, but you were certainly less mature then. He could see what you'd become. All you needed was some guidance." David said. "I think he'd still find me quite misbehaved." Robin said. "Probably, but that is your nature. You are less wild than before." David laughed. He then looked back at Rowan. "Prince, you've changed much in that time too. I think Ronan would be happy to see who you've become as well. You'd become quite cold around then. Your heart is returning to you." "That was how I survived back then." Rowan's shoulders tensed as he spoke. "I don't think I can ever go back to who I was before the war. Even if the war ended tomorrow, I'd never adgain know the freedom I had as a child." "That may be, but you do seem like you're regaining part of what you lost." David said. "Perhaps so." Rowan said in a quiet voice. Bells rang loudly. Rowan stood up. "Oh, is it that late already? Damn. I need to get going. I have so much paperwork to do." Robin stood as well. "Oh, about supplies. Let me do that for you. Why don't you go on and relax for a while?" "I can't have you do everything for me." Rowan said. "I do serve you." Robin reminded him. "That's nonsense." "My love, let me lift your burden a little. I'm sure there's better ways you can make use of your time." Robin gave him a knowing look. Rowan reluctantly agreed. "Very well. Sign my name wherever you need to." Robin hugged him. "I'll come to you when I'm done." Robin snuck a kiss on Rowan's cheek before leaving. When he was gone, Rowan sighed and sat back down. He sunk down, his shoulders hanging heavy. "I burden him far too much." "I don't think he sees it that way." David put his hand on Rowan's shoulder. "You should do as he says and relax. You don't often get that time these days. Enjoy it." "I suppose I should go check on Luke. I know you can't tell me what he talked about with you, but how did he seem?" Rowan asked. "He seemed quite sad." "I see. Thank you. I know Robin wanted me to relax, but I have many responsibilities to attend to." Rowan stood back up. "Helping another can turn into a good experience for both." David said. He prayed his words might give the prince a little hope. Rowan walked toward the door. "I'll be taking my leave now, Father. Have a nice day." "You too, Prince. Take care." Rowan nodded at him and left. Alone, David prayed in silence. Elsewhere in the castle, Wren parted ways with Rosabella. Rosabella and the queen had plans for later in the day. Wren was on his way to the dining hall to get something to eat when he crossed paths with his half-brother, Allon. Wren greeted him. "Hello, Allon. How are you?" "Oh, I'm doing well. You seem to be in a good mood." Allon was startled by Wren speaking to him. He was still not used to his new status or speaking with nobility. He bowed to Wren out of habit. "I am." Wren grinned. He noticed something else alongside Allon's shyness. Wren asked, "Is something wrong, Allon?" Allon's cheeks had a hint of red in them. "Oh, uh, nothing. I was thinking about...my old home, but...it's nothing, really." "Did you want to visit? You're free to go. No one will stop you." Wren said. "It's not that...Well, I don't know if I can go there. It's too...I'm not the same person anymore." "What does that mean?" Wren asked. "I'm wealthy now. If I went back, everyone would hate me more." Allon said. Wren found Allon's concerns strange, but he resigned that he likely would not understand, as he had always been wealthy himself. He asked, "Why is it you long for home? What are you missing?" Allon's face grew redder. "You...you'll laugh at me." "Why would I laugh?" "It's nothing, really." Wren sighed. "Oh, good grief. Spit it out." Allon looked away. "There's a girl there..." "So, that's it." Wren took amusement in Allon's embarrassment, as they were nearly the same age and Allon's reactions seemed childish. He then laughed at himself, for he had also been quite like that not very long ago. He wondered if Rowan had shared that same trait with the two of them. From what he'd heard, this seemed to run in the family, but skipped over their father. "Why don't you go and ask for her hand?" "It is because I am wealthy that I cannot." Allon said. "What? That doesn't make any sense. Plenty of women would love to marry a wealthy man. If you are refused, I doubt it will be because of your wealth." Wren narrowed his eyes. "No, it is not that. She is..." Allon lowered his voice. "She works in a brothel." "Oh, I see. Well, I can't see the public taking it well, but...Rin will likely give you his blessing. The rest don't matter." Wren said. "I don't want to take advantage of him. And what if...what if she doesn't want me either? I don't want her to marry me only because I have money, but...I don't want her to be trapped in that life either. I know she isn't being treated kindly there." Allon words circled around themselves in a confusing mess. "All the more reason Rin will definitely approve of this." "Would he really?" Allon asked. "You really don't know anything about him, do you?" Wren shook his head. "Regardless of what rumors you've heard of him, Rin has always been one to defend those whom the world has cast aside. Let's go tell him together." "Together? You needn't go with me. I'm sure you have important business to attend to and..." "We're brothers. We should spend more time together to get to know each other." Wren added, "Besides, I was going that way anyway. There's some herbs in that region that are useful for easing pregnancy complications and I'd like to collect some as soon as possible for Rosa." "Is she pregnant?" Wren nodded. "Don't tell anyone yet. We're keeping it a secret for now." "That must be complicated for you. The one you love most will be marrying someone else." Allon said. He quickly regretted his words, but could not think of a way to fix what he said. Wren looked ahead, down the hall. "I've accepted it. That's how it has to be for everything to work for everyone. It doesn't matter if my children call me their father, so long as I can stay near them and my love." Allon bowed to Wren again. "I really shouldn't be asking this...it's not right. I should leave things as they are." Wren looked over at him. Outside of servants, few bowed to him. He wasn't seen as being important like his father or Rowan, and many did not properly respect his brother either. Seeing his half-brother bow to him was strange. "You love her, don't you?" "I do, but..." Wren asked, "Does she love you?" "...I don't know. I thought...she might, but I...I'm sure she doesn't even think about me." Allon looked way. "You won't know that until you see her again. Let's go to her." Wren tried to encourage him. From his interactions with Allon, he took the man as being a very kind, but passive person. He wasn't strong and distant like Rowan nor wild like Robin and Luke, and that made him easier to speak with. He suspected he had more in common with Allon than most around him, but Allon's submissive behavior kept his real self still very hidden from Wren's understanding. He wanted to get to know him more. "We'll inform Rin first, and then head out. Come on." "But...alright..." Allon resigned to Wren and followed him. It took them a while to find Robin. He was busy with paperwork. Wren knocked on the door to get Robin's attention. Allon hid behind Wren. Wren asked, "Are we disturbing you?" "Ah, not really. If you wanted to talk, we can, but I can't go anywhere right now. I need to get this done for your brother." Robin sifted through a stack of papers and signed off on one of them. "Oh, well, we were interested in talking about something with you." Wren got behind Allon and nudged him forward. "Rin, Allon would like to ask something of you." "I really shouldn't..." Allon attempted to back up, but Wren kept pushing him forward. Wren said, "Go on. Do it." "Alright..." Allon stopped. He approached Robin, shoulders shaking. He said, "I...I would like to ask your permission to get married." Robin gave him a quick glance, then returned to his paperwork. "Oh, you want to marry someone? Who is it?" "There's a girl in my village that I have been fond of for...many years. We used to be close before...well, some things happened with her father and we couldn't really see each other anymore." Allon explained the situation vaguely. He fidgeted with his fingers as he spoke. Robin did not look up from the papers before him. "What are you waiting for? Go on and find her. I'm not going to stand in your way." "There is a problem...she is..." Allon faced the ground. "Because of something her father did, she now works in a brothel and I, well...it would be most inappropriate for someone in my position to marry a woman working in a place like that." Robin stopped working. He looked up at Allon and raised an eyebrow. "Why?" "Because...uh...do you really not care at all?" Allon asked. "No. Why should I? You love her, she is unmarried. Go and ask her." Robin shook his head at the man and returned to his work. "But she's a prostitute. Even if you're alright with it, what about Sir Faolán? I don't want to incur his wrath." Allon said. "Oh, he'd care even less, because he doesn't care about anything at all." Robin worked some calculations on a scratch piece of parchment. "Really?" Allon's eyes widened. "Actually, he might be entertained by it. He seems to enjoy pissing off nobility more than Luke and myself combined." Robin thought about Faolán's recent dealings with Argus, wondering what that man got out of any of that. He chose not to think too long on it. Something else came to him. He looked back up at Allon and Wren, and asked, "When were you planning on leaving?" "We're going to leave as soon as possible," Wren said. "Oh, you're going too? For support?" Robin asked. "There's something I want to get for Rosa in that area." Wren said. "I see. Actually, if you're both going, could I request you hold off for a few more days?" Robin turned slightly in his chair to face them better. "Is there a reason why?" Wren asked. "We're leaving soon too. Once I get everything in order, it won't be long after that. If you could, could you stay a little longer? I'm not sure when we'll be back, and Rowan..." Robin held off on saying more in front of Allon. Wren understood exactly what Robin wanted to say. "I understand. Knowing that, I don't really want to leave yet either. Allon, would you be alright with that if we waited until after they leave?" Allon nodded. "Yes, that's fine. I've been waiting this long as it is. A few more days won't change anything." Wren turned to Robin and asked, "Where is my brother right now?" "I'm not sure. He was with Father David when we parted ways, but I'm sure he's left there. I'd see if Luke knows, or your father." Robin shrugged. Wren approached Robin. He leaned over slightly to get more on eye level with Robin. He asked, "How are you fairing? It's getting very cold. Should you really be leaving to fight right now?" "We're planning on ending this war by spring. That means we'll need to fight through the winter again." Robin looked up at Wren and noticed his attire. He was wearing Rowan's clothes. Except for a slight difference in his eyes and having lighter skin, Wren looked almost exactly like Rowan did when he was in his late teens. Their voices were quite different, but in appearance, the similarities were so close that for a moment, Robin thought he was dreaming. Down to the way Wren was carrying himself, everything reminded him of Rowan. 'When did that happen?' "Will you really be alright doing that?" Wren asked. "I've done it before. It's riskier, but we'll manage." Robin turned to Allon, then back to Wren. "We'll likely be back sometime again before spring anyway. Your father never lets us have enough to stay away too long, and he requires Rowan to return to personally speak with him about getting anything. He's half the reason this war is taking so long. He didn't pull this when Ronan was in charge of this." "Why is he doing that?" Wren asked. "Ronan was a knight, so he would never have power over a king. Your brother is next in line to the throne, the rightful next king, and the idea of the public seeing him as competent terrifies your father. He's doing this solely to undermine Rowan, so that Rowan can never appear too powerful, consequences be damned." Robin said, his anger apparent in his words. Robin's words shocked Allon. "That's insane. Is the king really that insecure?" "You have no idea." Robin put his head in his palm. "I can't sit around and wait for him to approve everything. I'm going to go ahead and get done what needs to get done, regardless of what he wants. I'm tired of playing his idiotic games." "What if he doesn't approve for you to have as much as what you're getting?" Allon asked. "I'm going to speak to him personally this time. Rowan usually does that part alone, and the king always plays him. He won't get anywhere with me. I'll ensure it's taken care of, no matter what he wants. I've already taken his usual demands into account. I have access to everything I need to get things done. Rowan's approval to take out money is all I need to get past any guards or anyone else in my way. They won't question me. I could rob your father and he'd be none the wiser. He is both insecure and an idiot." Robin rolled his eyes. "Uh...should you really be calling the king an idiot in front of Prince Wren?" Allon's eyes widened. "It's fine. I know my father is an idiot." Wren brushed it off. "And he knows I won't deny it." Robin said. Allon noticed the way the royal family interacted with Robin was more like dealing with an in-law than a knight. In all but on paper, Robin played the role of Rowan's spouse in the family dynamic. Allon bowed to Robin. "I'm sorry we interrupted you. Thank you for allowing me this." "Don't think anything of it. You should use the time before you leave to prepare yourself for your proposal." Robin smiled at him. "R-right..." Allon's stomach turned at the thought. He was a little grateful they wouldn't be leaving immediately. Wren and Allon left Robin shortly after to allow him to continue working. Wren took Allon down to the dining hall, as he originally planned. They shared a meal together and talked about their childhoods. The longer they spoke, the more Allon spoke casually with Wren. Wren poured himself a drink. "Do you want any?" "Uh, what is that?" Allon asked. "It's a drink imported from the south." Wren said. "It's pretty strong, but the flavor is really sweet." "Hmm, alright." Allon offered him his cup. Wren poured him a drink. Allon took a sip. "It is very sweet...Do you drink a lot?" "No, but I do like having drinks like this once in a while." Wren drank from his cup. "So, tell me...have you been with any other women before?" Allon's face flushed. "Ah, no. Mother and I were very isolated, so few girls talked to me. I, uh, suppose you are quite experienced if Lady Rosabella is expecting..." "I've only been with her." Wren took another sip. "Are you worried about your lack of experience?" "Actually, yes...given her line of work, I'm sure she's quite good at it and I'm...I doubt I could impress her in any way." Wren whispered. "You know, I have a book I could lend you." "A book?" Allon asked. "It tells you about different sorts of things you can do with a woman, different positions and such. There's pictures with explanations. Rin gave it to me." Wren leaned forward and lowered his voice more. "Let's go by my room after this and I'll show you." Allon nodded. "Did it help you?" "It gave me a lot of ideas to try out. You'll still need to, uh, practice to get better at it, but I wouldn't worry too much over being inexperienced. I'm sure, if she loves you, she'll be happy with you regardless." Wren said. Allon looked into his cup at his reflection. He saw how nervous he was. "I hope you're right." While the two brothers conversed over drinks, Robin finished up with everything he needed to get arranged. He went to see the king to inform him of what he'd done. He approached the king, who had just finished up dealing with a situation involving some nearby nobles. Robin waited for everyone else to leave before speaking with Argus. Argus was not pleased to see him. He attempted to walk passed Robin. "What are you doing here?" Robin stood in his way and shut the door behind them. "I have business to discuss with you. I'm letting you know what we will be purchasing. Here's a list for your records." Argus snatched the paper out of Robin's hand and looked it over. "Excuse me? We haven't discussed this." "I am aware. It is already done. We are working against winter. There is no time for lengthy debates." Robin stood firm before the king. "You already used my money without discussing it with me?!" Argus seethed with rage. "Prince Rowan ordered me to get everything done as quickly as possible, and make sure everything we could possibly need would be accounted for." Robin remained calm. "I did not authorize this, and I will not pay for something I have not discussed!" Argus threw the paper at Robin's face. Robin let it hit him. He stayed calm and smiled at the king. He handed the king another piece of paper. "Then you can demand it from Faolán. This is how much I've spent. He'll cover what you think you're owed, if it bothers you so. I'll send him word, if you want it." Argus froze. His last encounter with Faolán was fresh in his mind. He pushed Robin aside and opened the door. "Damn fairy. Be on your way." "So I take you have no further objections?" Robin asked. The king grit his teeth. "No, I have none. Be gone from my sight." "Yes, your highness." Robin bowed and left. He laughed under his breath once he was in the hallway. It wouldn't be long before they would leave once more. Robin's amusement quickly left him. If they finished the war by spring, his time within the castle was drawing to a close. He always hated being apart of human society, and watching how the world around him tormented his lover. Yet, to leave this place, he would have to leave behind Wren and Luke. In his desire to be free, he didn't think much on that. With that time drawing ever nearer, that realization rushed over him like the frigid wind outside the castle walls. Rowan would be giving up more than he was. His heart stung thinking about it, but he reminded himself that it was Rowan who made the decision. If Rowan was willing to make such a great sacrifice for him, then he would not allow himself to falter so close to the end. "Spring...we'll end it before spring." Robin said to himself and continued on down the cold hall. Far from the castle, King Collin locked himself away from the public in a tower. He was joined only by his brother, Hollis. Collin looked out at his people from his window, then turned away from them. Collin sat down in a chair in the corner of the room and put his head in his hands. Hollis stood beside his brother. "We're losing more men every battle. Ruaidhrí hasn't made good on the arrangement he made with Father either. The Bloody Raven and the Hellhound are still alive. The wind grows colder and morale is low. This isn't working. We should call Mark and our men back to regroup and rest over the winter." "I mostly agree with you, but...I'm not sure how much of the winter that damn bird will allow us. They've attacked us in winter before." Collin sighed. His weariness filled the room. "We were just as prepared to attack them." Hollis reminded him. "I hate to say it, but it may be best to leave things to the Red King for a while, simply so we can sort out a plan to get this damn war over with." Collin didn't want to say anything publicly, but bringing in more soldiers was difficult. This year marked the tenth year of the war, and they were losing. "It has to end before the end of next year at the latest. We can't go on like this." There was a heavy silence between them before Hollis spoke. "If I have to, I'll fight." Collin looked up at his brother. He shot him down immediately. "Don't be ridiculous. You have no fighting experience. You'll die your first battle." "You, Father, and Lewis spent all that time demanding I fight, and when I offer to, you refuse me? What sort of nonsense is that?" Hollis shot his brother a glare, then realized something. He turned away from his brother. "Look, I know I can't actually fight, but could my body not at least be a shield for another to continue on?" Collin's body went cold at those words. He could all too vividly imagine his brother being struck down and cut open. Collin refused him again. "No, I wasn't thinking clearly back then. You need to stay home." Hollis sat in the chair beside Collin's. He faced the ground. "You're saying I'd be too much of a burden to be of any use." "You do plenty that's useful, but your skills are best utilized here, with a quill in your hand." Collin reached over to grab his brother's hand. "Father spent far too much time relying on brute force. If we fail and lose, you will become our most important asset." "I still think you're treating me like a child." Hollis pulled his hand away. "That's only in your mind." Collin said. He looked back over at the window and took a deep breath. "Write a letter to Mark instructing him to return for now, and one for the Red King as well about our plans." Hollis shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "As you wish." He rose up and went over to sit at Collin's desk. Hollis immediately started writing. Collin watched his younger brother write. Hearing his brother say he wanted to fight horrified him. Fighting went against everything Hollis lectured him about. For Hollis to make such an offer, Collin realized, he must see their situation as dire. Thinking back, he regretted ever suggesting such a thing to his brother. To allow him to fight would be meaningless. It would bring his brother honor in the family, and bring him home in pieces. He didn't want to go through with another funeral so soon, and certainly not for a younger sibling. He thought too of Roibín. Collin's four children were all still young, but they would at least have some memory of him if he met his end in battle. If Hollis died, his infant son would remember nothing of his father. Collin was not quite old yet, being in his early thirties, but Hollis was only in his early twenties. Much like many of the inexperienced men he recruited to fight, his brother was much too young to be leaving the world of the living. "When you're done, you should spend some time with your son," Collin said. Hollis was so focused on what he was doing, he didn't catch what his brother said to him at first. When he realized what was said, he stopped for a moment. "Hmm? Oh, yes. I was planning on it. Finch is with him right now." "Is he guarded?" Collin asked. "I have four guards around Roibín at all times. They're ones I trust. He should be safe." Hollis dipped his quill in a bottle of ink. "That's good to hear." Collin kept his attention split between his brother and the door. He hadn't brought any guards for them. It was foolish, but as a warrior, he was too prideful to appoint one to himself. 'I should have one on Hollis, at least.' Roibín was safe from harm in his mother's room. Aderyn fixed up her face and hair while Finch played with the baby. She wasn't pleased to have a manservant hanging around in her room for so long. Finch was there on orders from Hollis. As much as she complained, Hollis wouldn't listen to her. Her own servants went off to get something to eat. The guards stood in front of the door, leaving Aderyn alone with Finch and the child. Roibín stood up and hobbled over to Finch. He fell once before making it over. Finch congratulated the baby when he reached him. "You've done it again. You're walking so well." The baby giggled at him and hobbled over to one of his toys. He stuck it in his mouth immediately. Finch hurried over and took the toy out of his mouth. "Ah, no, you can't eat that. Are you hungry?" The baby nodded his head, tipping forward a little as he did, and said, "Ah-huh." "Can you say my name? Say Finch." Finch told the child. "Fin-nuh." Roibín said. He reached up at Finch. "Still can't say the last part yet. Well, you'll get it." Finch held his hand out. The baby grabbed onto him. Aderyn rolled her eyes. "He doesn't need to know your name. Stop teaching him useless things. Why are you here? Shouldn't be be with Hollis?" "Prince Hollis wants me here right now." Finch smiled at the baby. "Up! Wan up!" Roibín lifted his arms up at Finch. Finch leaned down for Roibín to wrap his arms around Finch's neck. Finch picked up the child with his arm. "Wan Papa." "He'll see you later. He's busy with your uncle Collin." Finch said. The baby pouted. "Wan Papa!" "I know. You'll have to be patient. Do you want to play a game with me?" Finch asked to distract the child. "Take the child to him if he wants to go. I'd like some privacy." Aderyn said to Finch from across the room. She brushed through her hair and gazed in the mirror. "He's in a meeting right now." "Ada, pay!" Roibín reached out with one arm at Aderyn. "Ada? He doesn't call you mother?" Finch asked. "It's because he hears everyone calling me by my name. That's all." Aderyn glared at Finch. "What are you insinuating?" "I haven't insinuated anything." Finch said. Aderyn put the brush down. "I don't understand why Hollis has a servant like you. You're lame, half-blind, and you're missing an arm. He should have fired you years ago." Finch spoke confidently. "My abilities have not been seriously impacted by any of that." "Then that says much about how little ability you had before, and why you are not needed." Aderyn stood up. She walked over to Finch and crossed her arms. "That is not something for you to decide. I belong to Prince Hollis, not his future wife." Finch stood his ground. "He can find far better help than some crippled, insubordinate fool. I'll have you removed in time." Aderyn smirked. "Roi, let's play that game from earlier. Put your hands on your ears until I nod at you, alright? Hands up." Finch said to the baby. Roibín did as he was told. Finch looked Aderyn straight in the eye. His kindness disappeared. His words dripped with anger. "You didn't mind my blindness when you made me fuck you." "Excuse me?! How dare you speak to me like that!" Aderyn's face went bright red. "I remember how you treated the prince when you two were together. You know he's only marrying you because of the baby." Finch glared at her, then grinned. "You ordered me to sleep with you around the same time you broke it off with him. Could you really prove that I am not the father?" Aderyn's eyes widened. She scoffed at his words and looked away from him. "No one would believe you." "If I convinced the prince, what would happen then?" Finch's grin faded. He gave her a cold stare. "You barely hold him. If you don't care about him, then leave me be and do what you want. I'll make sure the child is cared for properly. Don't do anything to get in Prince Hollis's way, and cast aside any plans you had for using this child as a puppet. You are here because I want the child." "And what do you want the child for?" Aderyn asked. Finch looked down at the child. The baby was still obediently covering his ears and waiting for Finch's signal. His bright eyes reminded Finch so much of how Hollis looked when he spoke about writing. Finch hated Aderyn, but he was glad that the child he was holding was born, regardless of how the child came to be. Finch looked back up at Aderyn. "To create a happy family, one without the wickedness I have known. You can play mother for the crowd. You are not fit to care for him beyond that." Finch's bold behavior shocked Aderyn. She asked, "Who are you really?" "I am a servant, nothing more," Finch said. "Nothing more?" Aderyn narrowed her eyes. "You're rather protective for paid help. You are unwise to dedicate yourself so. If you were to lose your life, he would quickly replace you, again and again." "I cannot be replaced so easily." Finch nodded at the baby. Roibín uncovered his ears. The boy's face contorted from happy to grumpy. Finch understood right away. "He's hungry. Feed him." Aderyn cringed. She walked away from Finch. "I'm not doing that. That's what the wet nurse is for." Finch called out to her. "I stand by my assessment." Aderyn turned around. "Do you really think that child is yours? Is that what this is about?" "What do you think?" Finch asked. "The father is irrelevant. You two aren't my only options. I want the marriage." She sat back down in front of her mirror and put on some jewelry. "You can have it, if you stay out of my way." Finch said. Roibín tugged at his shirt collar. Finch asked Aderyn, "Where is your wet nurse right now?" "She went to get something to eat, I think." "Then, I'll be going. He's hungry and needs to eat too." Finch walked over to the door. Aderyn stood up and snapped at him. "You can't just take my child from me without asking!" Finch shot her a glare. "Then, feed him." Aderyn sat back down. "Be on your way." Finch left the room. The guards Hollis sent to keep watch over the baby followed him. Alone in her room now, Aderyn thought more about Finch's actions and words. The truth came to her. She shook her head, thinking of her fiancé. 'If that is the case, I cannot cross that fool then. But that will not last. I can wait him out. Hollis is too fickle to care for anything for long.' Finch found the wet nurse Aderyn brought with her in the dining hall. Finch sat down across from her with Roibín. He spoke to her. "You're his nurse, right? The princess can't be bothered to feed him." Roibín recognized her right away and reached for her. "Wan mik!" "She never can be. She didn't bother feeding him the first day he was born." The nurse took the baby from Finch. She pulled down part of her dress to expose her left breast. The baby latched on to drink. "He has a healthy appetite. Haven't seen him sick once." "Let's hope he stays healthy." Finch said. "You're Hollis's personal servant, aren't you?" Aderyn's nurse, Lena, continued eating her soup. Her own child played with a rattle beside her. "Yes, I am." Finch said. Lena pointed to where Finch's lost arm used to be. "He must have known you a long time, or you did something impressive to get those injuries and still be employed." "It's both. We've known each other since we were children, and well, most of what you see on me is from shielding the prince during an attack." Finch felt over what remained of his lost arm. "Ah, so, he owes you his life. An incident like that says a lot about the trust one can place in another. You lost an arm, but he now knows without a doubt you would die for him if necessary. That's a rare asset to have, especially these days." Lena took the rattle from her baby, who was trying to stuff it in his mouth. "You were with him that night when the assassin was here too." "I am also his companion. He's been teaching me about the literary arts and other finer things, so that I may discuss them with him." Finch explained. "Huh. That must be something. Learn anything interesting?" She pulled down the other side of her dress and sat her baby in her lap. The baby drank from her breast. Finch shook his head. "Not really. If anything, all I've learned is the average nobleman isn't that much brighter than a poor brothel girl, in spite of all their scholarly opportunities." "Hah. I thought about as much. They have money, and that's really all it is." Lena laughed. She noticed Roibín had stopped drinking. She fixed her dress on that side. "Must be full. He's falling asleep." "Let me see him." Finch went around to the other side of the table. Lena handed the baby over. Finch whispered to the baby as he fell asleep in his arms. "Rest easy, little one. Why don't I take you to your father? He should be done with his meeting by now." "Where are you taking him exactly?" Lena asked "To his father's room. You know where it is, right?" "Yes." "When you're done eating, please come by. I'd like you to not be far from the baby, and I don't care what the princess orders you to do. My orders trump hers here." Finch stood up from the table. Finch's behavior surprised and amused Lena. She smirked at him. "Do you usually give orders around here?" "Prince Hollis has given me many privileges." Finch said. "Oh, I see. Well, I'll be by there later. You don't mind if I bring him along, right?" "Of course not. I'll see you later on then. Enjoy your meal." Finch carried the baby out away to Hollis's room. When he reached the top of Hollis's tower, he called out to Hollis, as he couldn't open the door. One of the guards ordered to protect the baby offered to knock or open the door for him, but he turned the offer down. He wanted to do things on his own. "Prince Hollis, it's me. May I come in?" Collin, rather than Hollis, opened the door for him. Collin greeted him. "Hello, Finch." "King Collin, Prince Hollis, hello. Have you finished with your meeting?" Finch came inside the room. He bowed to the guards who stayed outside the room before Collin closed the door. Hollis turned around in his chair. "Yes, we have. Oh, you brought the baby with you." Finch lay the baby on Hollis's bed. He unfastened his cloak and used it as a blanket for the child. "He's asleep for now." Hollis watched Finch interacting with the child. He couldn't help himself. A warmth burned inside him. That warmth fueled his anxiety and fear, sending him into agony. Collin noticed Hollis's shifting mood. Hollis's changing demeanor caused the same reaction within him that Hollis was experiencing. He was happy to see his brother maturing, and terrified what that may cause his brother to do if they continued to lose. Hollis got up from his desk. He went over and sat down on the bed beside his child. He brushed back the front of the baby's brown hair. He had known the child for so little of a time, and yet, he already knew he would die for the child if necessary. He couldn't explain to himself any logical reason why, but that didn't matter to him. "The war will be over soon. I won't let it go on long enough for you to remember this." Collin moved closer to see the child. He said to his brother, "He looks so much like you." The baby yawned and opened his eyes. He looked up at his father and smiled. Hollis didn't realize it, but he smiled back. Collin and Finch both noticed. Hollis wondered aloud. "Do you think he knows who I am?" "Yes, I think so." Finch said. "He asked for you earlier." "He did?" Hollis's smile grew wider. Roibín looked over at Finch and reached up at him. "Fin-nuh!" Finch extended his hand out to the baby. The baby grabbed on to him with both hands and giggled. "Where's Aderyn?" Collin asked. "She's in her room, whining about things." Finch said, without a trace of concern. Collin was taken aback by this. "That's really no way to speak about the princess." Finch looked him in the eye. "I know." Collin didn't say anything in response. He thought to himself, 'He's bold about his dislike of her. I wonder if it's jealousy or something else.' Hollis watched the baby yawn and go back to sleep. Roibín's little hands slipped away from Finch's. Hollis laughed. "Oh, he's out again." Collin leaned down and rubbed the baby's head gently. "He's a quiet little thing, but he seems healthy. I'm sure he'll grow up to be a fine man." "I don't know if I'll make a decent father. I hardly do anything as an uncle." Hollis's shoulders sunk. "You are the youngest of my siblings, and for a long time, the only one with no children. It's really no surprise. Perhaps this child will change you in ways you can't foresee." Collin said with a smile. "How are your children fairing? I know they haven't moved in here yet. Have you heard anything from your wife?" Hollis asked. "They're not exactly happy about leaving. My children are all very young. They don't care that I'm king. They're upset that they're leaving the place they've known as home. But...with the way things are going, I can't possibly send them this way until after the war is done." Collin said. Collin hadn't see his wife in person since he left for Lewis's funeral. He wondered if he would ever see her again. "Is Henrietta still giving you trouble about taking the throne?" Hollis asked. Collin sighed heavily. "Of course. She wants her son as king. To allow such a young child to rule in peace would be risky, even with a decent advisor. To do so in the middle of a war, we simply cannot allow it. I've already told everyone else, if I should die, Mark is next, not my sons. They're too young. If it comes to that, Mark will likely say the same and..." Hollis cut him off. "Let us hope it does not come to that. I have no intentions of becoming king, and I don't want to attend either of your funerals so soon after Lewis's." "You didn't attend Lewis's to begin with, nor Father's. I'm not going to lecture you for it, but why did you not go?" Collin asked. He had wanted to know for a while, but as they were before, there wasn't a chance to get an honest answer out of his brother. "Father, I was angry with. So many are dead because of his greed and desires. As for Lewis, well, I have another reason, but I do not wish to discuss it." Hollis shifted uncomfortably on the bed. "Did he...?" Collin started to say something, but he couldn't manage it. He swallowed the rest of his words, disgusted with his thoughts. "Ah, nevermind. I won't ask." "It wasn't me, but someone close to me." Hollis's shoulders tensed as he spoke. "I don't want a family full of secrets and pain. So, I think not of him at all, nor Mother." "You know about her ways too?" Collin's stomach turned. Hollis looked up at his brother with an expression Collin had never seen his brother make before. The look he gave him was a mix of betrayal, disgust, and fear. "Why did you never tell me?" Collin averted his eyes. "How could I possibly say that?" "You acted like everything was normal." Hollis said, a hint of anger in his words. "If I did not, I don't think I could face anyone. There are secrets within our family that I...quietly blind myself to as best I can." Saying those words pained Collin deeply. Shame washed over him. In whispered words, he said, "I am sorry." Hollis went quiet for a moment, then he responded to his brother. He could not face him either. "No, I...understand it. I don't think I could say anything to either of them, for I would be too ashamed to face them myself." "I am so sorry." Collin apologized again. He assumed Hollis was telling the truth about not being targeted by Lewis or their mother, and then wondered who it was close to Hollis that had been. Hollis used to spend a lot of time partying and sleeping around, but for all his socializing, he didn't really keep anyone near himself for long. Hollis always seemed to isolate himself away in his tower after he got whatever high he wanted in the moment. The only person he had ever kept near him for long was Finch. Collin felt a shiver down his spine at the thought, and was sickened that it was likely true. He looked over at Finch, but could not say anything to him, out of guilt and shame for keeping quiet about what he knew. Finch noticed how Collin was looking at him. He addressed the king with a calmness the two brothers could not. "You don't need to feel guilt over it. You could not stop either of them, and you know that." "I am sorry." Collin apologized to him. "Think not on it. I don't. My nights are quite wonderful now." Finch looked directly at Hollis and smirked. Hollis met eyes with him, then turned away. His face went a deep red. Collin laughed at his brother's reaction. "Is that so? Then I take it my brother is treating you very well." "Far more than I ever dreamed of." Finch put his hand on Hollis's, as if to show off in front of Collin. Hollis's face went a deeper shade of red, but he did not pull his hand away. "That's enough about that." Finch turned back to Collin. "See? I'm quite happy. You have no reason to think about that any longer. I don't want your pity. I've moved on from that." "Well, then I won't say anything more about that." Collin said. He wanted to apologize to Finch once more, but he kept that inside. Finch clearly didn't want it, and it was not his place to tell Finch how he should feel on something like that. "It's getting colder. Don't you think you should get another blanket for your bed?" "It's actually quite warm in here at night." Finch said. "Finch..." Hollis covered his face. "What?" Finch tilted his head. "Uh, nevermind." Hollis sighed. Collin chuckled. "I suppose I'll leave you be for now. Please, finish up with what we talked about as soon as you can." "I'll have everything done before the hour's over." Hollis said. "Thank you." Collin saw his way out. Once Collin closed the door, Finch leaned over and kissed Hollis on the cheek. "Has he been keeping you busy?" "It's the least I can do. I'm not really of any use to anyone." Hollis lay down on the bed. He got under Finch's cloak with the baby. "Do you think he's warm enough?" Finch brought over Hollis's cloak and put it on top of Hollis and the baby. The baby turned over and moved toward Hollis in his sleep. Finch took a peek at what Hollis was working on. He looked over at his lover, who had quietly fallen asleep. Finch watched them for a while, then went to the window. Thick clouds completely covered the horizon. A bitter wind hit his face. He drew away from the window. As he did, a snowflake landed on the windowsill. "Already?" Finch reached out of the window and caught another in his hand. It stung his skin, then melted away. "They intend to fight in this again?" Finch closed the shutters to keep the room from getting colder. He lay on the other side of the baby and watched the prince. He said to his sleeping lover, "Don't you dare think I'll let you fight. I won't let you die." Outside, the castle walls were quietly covered in white. The sharp wind had reached Argus's castle, but the snow was aways off from them. At last, Rowan had found where Luke was after searching all over the castle, as no one knew where he went. He found the man shooting alone on the archery range. Without announcing himself, he took a seat on a bench and watched his friend shoot. He noted Luke's shoulders were tense and his aim poor. His arms moved not with grace but frustration. Each time Luke drew his bow, his movements suggested he was simply wanting to get the shot over with. Some of his shots completely missed the target. After emptying his quiver, Luke sighed and went to collect his arrows. Halfway to the target, he rubbed his right shoulder. He pulled out his arrows, then searched for the ones that missed. One, he gave up on completely. He turned back to shoot again. It was then that he noticed Rowan. He walked over to where Rowan was sitting. "How long were you there?" "Not long." Rowan said. "I wanted to see you shoot without you trying to perform for me." "I am sorry. There was nothing worth watching there." Luke said. He breathed heavily, his breath appearing before him. "I'm covered in sweat and my face is freezing cold. Winter came fast." "That it did. Why don't you take a break? I think you've worn yourself out. Your form is really off right now." Rowan patted the spot beside him on the bench. Luke unstrung the bow and put it down. He sat with Rowan. Rowan took Luke's quiver and examined each of his arrows for damage. He said, "I heard from David you came to see him. Are you alright?" "He told you? Then, you already know what I've done." Luke said. "He didn't tell me that, only that you confessed to him. What happened?" Rowan asked. Luke paused for a moment. He lowered his head. "I have failed you." "That is for me to decide." "Last night, I got drunk." Rowan expected that was likely what Luke would tell him. He kept his voice calm and asked him, "What happened? You were managing to not drink before." "I don't know. My mind was somewhere strange, and I kept thinking of...bad times. I didn't know what to do to make it stop. So, I drank. It didn't make the pain go away, and this morning, I wanted to die." Luke put his hands on his face. Rowan did not judge him. He said, "But you went to see David instead." "I'm not a religious person. Not at all. But I...didn't know where else to turn. I wanted to hear someone say I was forgiven, because I knew you wouldn't say it." Luke confessed his fear. "Luke, I am not angry with you, nor disappointed. I don't expect you to be perfect. My only concern is that you felt so badly you wanted to die. Has that pain subsided any since then?" Rowan put his hand on Luke's shoulder. He wanted to hug Luke, but he suspected Luke would likely push him away if he tried. "Yes, but now I am empty." Luke leaned against him. He buried his face in Rowan's cloak. "That's what I thought I wanted last night, but I hate this even more. I want to die." "Shh." Rowan took Luke's actions to mean it might be alright to hug him. He pulled Luke into a hug. Luke hugged him back. Rowan could feel the desperation in him. "Please, don't do anything to hurt yourself." "I'm sorry. I don't know why I did that. I don't know..." Luke's voice grew soft. Rowan kissed his forehead. "It's what you've done for years. It's only natural you would reach for something that you've used for so long to cope." "I am sorry. You must hate me." Luke apologized again. Rowan held him close. "Luke, I do not hate you." "I know you do," Luke said. "Luke, I am not lying to you." Rowan said. "I know you are ashamed of yourself for your lapse in control, but I am proud of you for managing as long as you did. You can't expect perfection. You may have failed, but we can start again. I believe in you." "I don't see why. I'm only going to disappoint you again." "You have not disappointed me. You made a mistake. That is all. It doesn't matter how many mistakes you make along the way, so long as you are persistently trying in spite of that." Rowan tried to encourage him. "So if I give up now, you will hate me." His words did not get through to Luke. Rowan was a little frustrated with Luke, but he didn't let it show. "You are my friend. I love you. Before every other thought your mind is giving you about me, please remember that most of all." Luke said what he feared most. "You're going to throw me away when you get tired of me." "I swore my eternal loyalty to you. Even if I die, I will not abandon you." Rowan reiterated his promise to Luke, one he had restated to Luke at least a hundred times already. "I find that rather hard to believe." Luke said. "I know, but it is the truth." Rowan pulled his cloak over Luke more. He looked up. "It's going to snow soon. Should we go in?" "I want to stay out here a while longer." Luke stayed close. "Do you like snowy weather?" Rowan asked. "Mm...it's not the snow, but the winter." Luke sat up. He looked up at the sky. "This will sound strange, but after what happened with James, you know, I would sit out behind the old tower a lot. I remember, sometime in December, I was sitting out there. It was freezing cold outside, and it was snowing really heavily. Martin warned me earlier in the day to stay inside, and that's precisely why I didn't. I wanted to be alone that day, because I felt so lonely and empty after just coming home from a long quest. I watched the snow fall, and I'd never seen this before, but that day--there was thunder and lightning. It was the strangest thing. While I was watching the storm, it felt like someone else was too--like I wasn't alone and there was someone, somewhere, watching with the same awe that I was and it didn't feel so cold outside anymore. I know I was actually alone the whole time, and it was only my mind tricking me, but on days like this...sometimes, I hope it might feel like that again." "That sounds amazing. I've never seen a storm like that. Weren't you afraid to be out?" Rowan asked. "You know I've never exactly been concerned with endangering myself, but even if I had more sense, I still think I would have stayed out that day. It was beautiful." Luke reached his hand upward at the sky to catch the first snowflake that fell. Rowan and Luke watched the snow together out on the range. They were alone outside, as far as Rowan could see. Everyone else had taken shelter inside from the cold. The harsh wind ate at his skin, but he was not bothered by it. They would be treading through worse conditions when they left to fight again. He needed to get used to this again, Rowan told himself, and he had no intentions of leaving Luke alone out in the storm. Back inside, Robin was growing worried. He asked around the castle for where the prince went. He heard that Rowan last mentioned he was heading out to the archery range to look for Luke, and he hadn't returned. Robin assumed if Rowan hadn't returned, he either was with Luke or still looking for Luke. From what he learned asking around, no one had seen Luke within the castle for hours, so he assumed Luke was outside as well. Robin didn't mind giving them time alone, as he no longer worried about Rowan's faithfulness and he trusted Luke at this point, but he worried about them coming back through the snow. Robin went out to find them. On his way out of the castle, he sensed a powerful presence. Robin kept his guard up, but the person who had came was beyond his abilities. She easily slipped past him. The woman in the dark cloak with wings like stars tapped his shoulder from behind. She said, "Hello, little bird." Startled, Robin jumped and quickly turned around. He instinctively put his hand on the hilt of his sword. "My queen...why are you here?" "That foolish human king called me here for another advising. Greedy man. The predictions I gave him have not yet come to pass and he asks for more." The fairy woman raised her nose in the air. Sensing the fairy queen's anger, Robin saw it necessary to remind her of their last encounter. "You have not forgotten the bargain we made last time we met, have you?" Though the woman's face was largely covered in shadow, the cruel grin she wore was plain for Robin to see. She laughed. "Oh, but that was for my last visit. What do you have to give me now?" Robin did not flinch before her. Calmly, he pulled a dagger from his side and pricked his finger. The blood ran down his rough skin. "How much?" She laughed louder. "It doesn't have to be blood, son of Liliana. You have other ways to give me your life energy." "What is it you desire, my queen?" Robin asked. The woman's grin grew. She leaned in close to him and ran her hand down his chest. "Oh, I'm sure your body has plenty to offer me." "You cannot have me in that way." Robin recoiled in disgust. "Why would you want me that way? You helped care for me when I was a baby..." "What does that matter? You are not my child and you are not a child now." She reached for Robin's face, but he moved away from her. "I will give you something in exchange for your protection, but not that." A disgusting feeling washed over his body that he couldn't shake off. He was often at odds with the immortal woman his mother knew as a lover, but he saw her as being akin to family in spite of that. He could not deny her hand in raising him in his younger years nor the magic she and his mother both taught him. The proof of her importance in his life surged through him in every spell he cast and every remedy he made. His place in the realm of humans was uncertain, but in that moment, he could not deny what he was as her thoughts were foreign to his very core. In confusion and disgust, he repeated his denial to her. "There is nothing you can offer me to make me do that." "You can be easily controlled the same as any other human. I know how desire rules you." The woman in the dark cloak cast aside her feminine form and took one that only angered Robin. With Rowan's face, she wore a mask of distorted glee and spoke in a tone his lover never would. "I know I can seduce you." "You cannot seduce me. I'm not interested in women, and certainly not one who had a hand in raising me." Robin balked at her suggestion, but never let his gaze leave her. To look away would open himself up to more trickery. "I know what rises in you when you see this form." She undressed in front of him. Robin stared only at her face. Coldly, he replied. "Nothing rises in me when I look at you." "I see. Perhaps I need to take a much more tempting form for you." Rowan's form was cast away for another man's appearance. Stronger in appearance than the man in the tower currently was, the older twin of Prince James stood before Robin in image alone. The fairy woman could not mimic the personality of that man either. She touched herself before him to tempt and taunt the knight. "You couldn't resist him in that future you were supposed to have. You find him more attractive than that prince, don't you? It's the prince's eyes that bind you, not his beauty. This man bewitched you with his form." Robin refused her yet again. "I am not interested in you not matter who you pretend to be." "I could give you anything." "I only want you to protect my lover's family and my brother. Will you accept my offer?" Robin held the dagger to cut his hand further. She sighed and returned to her female form. The woman created a chalice between her hands. "Pour it in here, my dear." Robin pricked his finger again and dripped the blood into the chalice. "More." She demanded. Robin cut across his palm and let the blood fall in. "Very good. That'll do." She poured the contents of the chalice into a smaller vial, which she capped and placed between her breasts. She caught Robin's hand and licked the blood from his finger. "It's a shame you didn't take my offer. I could have moved the seas and skies to get you anything you wanted." Robin quickly pulled his hand away. "I can manage on my own." The woman in the dark cloak continued onward to see the king, and Robin off to find his lover, more worried than ever. The fairy woman met with King Argus in private. This time, the king had no patience nor restraint over his anger. He began their meeting with demands. "You...I need you to tell me how to get rid of that wolf and his damned pack of children." "I have already given you a prediction before, and the time for that prediction has not yet passed." She said. "I don't care. I want it faster. Is there any way I can change it, witch?" Argus yelled. "I can show you other paths you can take, but I must warn you...there are some events that are set in stone. You can do nothing to change those, nor can I." The woman warned him. "Show me what you can see, woman." Argus unveiled three beautiful woman from behind a curtain. The young women were bound at their hands and feet. He grabbed each by the arm and tossed them before his guest. "This should be more than enough for payment." "Three will do, but a gift should not be handled so carelessly." She cupped the face of the third girl, who's face was cut from hitting hard against the floor. Argus ignored her words, blinded by anger and arrogance. "You test my patience. I am king of these lands. I am giving them to you out of kindness. I don't truly owe you anything. Be grateful I bother to pay you." "I will show you what I see. The quickest path to rid these lands of wolves..." The woman in the dark cloak threw her golden dust into the air. A scene of shadowy figures played out before them in the dust. Flames consumed a crown. A creature loomed behind the flames, clasping a bow in its hand, but its form was not clear. "If you play with fire, the crown prince's bow will return to you broken within a month after the red king's blood stains the snow. You will find no body, only scorched earth and a beast." "What does...what are you saying? That we will lose the war?" Argus's eyes widened. "If the bow meets the scorched earth, the younger son will end it all." She moved the dust to show the silhouette of a man picking up the crown and placing it on his head. "Wren? I can't believe it." Upon hearing that, the king sat down. The images changed to show him an egret pierced through with an arrow. The woman in the dark cloak continued. "This victory will cost a life close to you. The ghosts of two, acting through another, will slay the bird of poison." "Egret...so, someone from his past is finally going to do him in. I was growing tired of him anyway. He's getting too old to be valuable." Argus felt no remorse at that revelation, nor that of Rowan's possible death. "Who is the one who will kill my older son? Is it Mark?" "I see a cave filled with gold and an arrow waking a sleeping beast." She showed him the cave. Within it, the creature's form was now obvious--a dragon. "His own mistake? Or an assassination?" Argus scratched his grin, trying to piece together everything. "And will all this end the war sooner?" "No, that time is set in stone. The war will end within a month of the Red King falling. You asked me how to rid you of the wolves sooner, not of the war." "My son dying at the end of the war, this will be the quickest way to rid me of both wolves currently in my home? Then, he can die. Wren will provide me with an heir soon enough, and he will be easy to control. There's no lost for me." Argus was content to hear such news. He didn't care which son ruled. He had many to choose from if his legitimate ones were useless. Wren as his heir would serve him well, he thought. Without Rowan or Robin's influence, he could manipulate Wren any way he wished. With Rowan gone, neither Robin nor Luke would have any reason to stay within his walls either. That left one more wolf to deal with. "What about the Black Wolf? How do I get rid of the father?" "He will die by his own hands within a few years. You cannot change when he dies. A greater spirit controls him." The woman grinned widely as she spoke those words. "Damn." Argus grumbled. He had hoped there was something he could do about that man. He was the most dangerous one in the family. However, hearing that the man would at least be dead within a few years did alleviate his worries some. He rubbed his chin. "Out of curiosity, how will the Black Wolf off himself?" The gold dust shifted to show a wolf burning alive in a great fire. The fairy woman spoke with glee. "Flames, I see flames across his body from a fire started long ago." "So his past will come back to take him. One last question. How can I ensure that the event you mentioned will transpire?" Argus asked. The dust swirled around to show a dog transforming into a wolf. It howled underneath a full moon. The woman in the dark cloak said, "The wolf you despise most will give you the opportunity when his collar breaks under the moonlight. You must act then." "And what of me? If I do this, will this alter my lifespan?" He asked. The dust turned to ash. The fairy woman smiled at him and said, "You will live a very long life. That is all I can tell you for now. There is nothing more to see at this point in time." "When could I ask for your assistance again?" Argus asked. "You must wait at least a month. Nothing could have changed greatly before then." The woman loomed over the three girls. She cast silver dust on them and herself, then vanished. "Damn, gone already." Argus said. He thought over what the woman told him. He wondered what Robin was going to do that would give him the opportunity to get rid of him. Hearing that excited him. He hoped in some way it would lead to him being allowed to put a noose around the man's neck. Outside the castle, Robin had made it to the archery range. The snow was getting thicker. He found Luke and Rowan on a bench, watching the snow. He ran over to them. "How long are you two going to stay out here? The storm's going to get worse." Robin stood in front of them. "Not much longer. Luke wanted to watch the snow fall." Rowan said. "I can appreciate that, but it's getting colder. At this point, it would be best to watch from inside." Robin said. "It'll be too thick to walk through in about an hour." "Is it really going to be that quick?" Luke asked. "Yes, I can feel it. It's going to be bad." Robin looked up at the sky. "It's going to get a lot colder in an hour too. It won't be safe to go out again until tomorrow afternoon." "How do you know that?" Luke asked. "I can read the storms." He muttered something under his breath that he didn't intend for either of them to hear. "And I know she will ensure that." Luke stood up. "Should we inform that person over there about the weather? If it's going to be that bad, it won't be safe for anyone to be out here." "Who are you talking about?" Rowan asked. "Who is that? Is he a guest?" Luke pointed to someone coming from the woods. "Who?" Rowan looked over to where Luke was pointing. From the trees, a young looking man stepped forward. His clothes were made of the thinnest silk Rowan had ever seen, so thin and light he could mostly see right through it. The pure white robe the man wore hid nothing on him at all. Around his head, he wore a golden diadem with a moonstone in the center. His eyes were grey and his hair, white. He wore golden, laced up sandals that stopped just below his knees. His ankles and wrists were covered in gold and glittering jewels. Heavy chains hung from his neck with a rainbow of colors dangling at the ends. His long white hair draped over his shoulders, a few small braids tucked behind his right ear. Around his waist was a golden sash, only slightly less transparent than everything else on him. He walked with an unnatural grace. Robin recognized him immediately. He called out to him. "Elios!" The strange man looked over at him. He walked over to where they were. Robin hugged him when he got close. "Elios, I haven't seen you in so long!" Elios hugged him back and greeted him with a smile. "Little bird, is that you? I heard from Morgan you lived here. Look at you, in mortal clothes." "Disgusting, isn't it?" Robin laughed. Rowan stared at the stranger. He was freezing in the heavy clothes he wore. He wondered how the man before them could wear such thin clothing in this weather and not have died. He asked, "Who is this man?" Robin smiled widely. "This is Elios. He's an old friend. I've known him since I was a baby." "What sort of creature are you then? You can't be human." Luke said. He studied the man intently, looking for any clues to give away what the man was. He went to reach for the man's sash. Elios responded to Luke's question without hesitation. "Oh, I'm a unicorn." Luke pulled his hand away immediately. He gasped. "A unicorn?! You're joking." "No, I'm not. Why would I be?" Elios asked. "Why do you look like this?" Rowan asked. "This is an illusion. I often take this form when traveling through human lands. If I do not, so many of you wish to saw off my horn and slit my throat to drink my blood." Elios slipped his finger across his neck to demonstrate. He looked around cautiously. "There's few around here. I suppose I could show you..." When he was certain no one else was nearby, Elios shifted his form. Before them, a white stallion with a golden horn atop his head stood where a man once was. The unicorn's mane was pure white and his hooves matched his horn. Elios retained his grey eyes in this form. As he had grown to be quite cautious of humans, he changed his appearance back to that of a man shortly after showing them his real form. Luke stared at him in shock. "You're...you're really a unicorn?!" Rowan felt a shiver down his spine. He never thought he would ever see such a magnificent creature. He heard stories from Robin of them existing, but he found it hard to believe as he'd never encountered one before. He couldn't manage a single word. "And I nearly touched you. Did I almost kill you?!" Luke kept his hands close to his body. "Why would touching me kill me? Is your skin coated in poison?" Elios moved closer to him. "I can heal you from that, if that is the case." "No, but I...am not a very pure individual." Luke admitted. "I can see that. Your soul is covered in shackles." Elios touched Luke on the shoulder and gave him a pitying look. He then turned his attention to Robin. "Your soul is a little tarnished too. You've been here too long, my friend. Come back to the forest and wash away that nonsense you've learned here." "So, you can see it." Robin said. "Yes, and it pains me to see you this way." Elios said. "When you're ready to leave this prison, call for me. I'll lead you home." "Uh, Elios, was it? What did you mean by shackles?" Luke asked. "You have much pain in you, some of it from others, some self-inflicted. You can unlock them and free yourself, but it won't be easy." Elios said to him. Luke's eyes widened at what he thought Elios was suggesting to him. "Wait...if I were to do that, would my soul not be tainted anymore?" "You would be pure again, as pure as you were when you were born." Elios's grey eyes focused only on Luke. His gaze was colder than the frigid air around them. "I see what you're trying to ask me. I'm not speaking of human standards of purity. To be impure means to be tainted by the world and hide away your real self. When you can see yourself clearly and act only as your heart dictates, your soul is in its purest state." "That sounds...so much more beautiful than what the church taught me." Luke hoped for an answer like that. Hearing that made Luke feel like there might be some chance he could change himself, and to hear it from a unicorn gave the words additional power another being could not offer. He followed up with the next obvious question. "So, are all those stories about unicorns and virgins bullshit then?" "Humans misunderstood. Unicorns were not specifically granting wishes and favors to virgins. It's more that the younger one is, the less likely their soul has been corrupted by the world around them. No one in the other realm cares about silly concepts humans invent." Elios laughed at the thought. "I am not a virgin myself. Why would I grant favors only to virgins?" "You are not a virgin?" Luke asked. Both Luke and Rowan were shocked, but Rowan still couldn't manage to say anything. "No. I am nearly thirty. I reached adulthood many years ago." Elios laughed again. "I do not have any children yet. Unicorns look for partners who are generally at least five hundred years old before choosing to have children. One without much worldly experience is not worthy of raising a child." This raised more questions. Luke asked, "Then who have you been sleeping with? Or do you have a way to stop pregnancies from occurring?" "Oh, no. Nothing like that. We are naturally quite drawn to humans. No one really knows why. The people I have slept with have all been human, and we cannot have children with humans." Elios said. "You do that in...this form, right?" Luke pointed to Elios's body. He shuddered at the thought of the other possibility. "Haha, yes. That would be very strange if I did not. I can change my form however I wish. I am most comfortable with this appearance when I pretend to be human, but I can change anything about myself." Elios changed his hair color from white to black, then back to white. "See? It's very easy. I can turn into a lion if I wish. We are like this out of necessity. Long ago, our relationship with humans became strange and many of your kind started hunting us. We are cautious creatures because of it, both drawn in and weary of what may happen to us when we reveal our true selves." "That seems strange. You are not the same as us. Why are you drawn to seek a romantic endeavor with us?" Luke asked. Elios put his hand over his heart. "I cannot explain it, but did you not feel something yourself when I told you what I was and you saw my real self? Something deep and strange and powerful? When I look upon humans, my body is buzzing with excitement. Our connection is ancient, much like with your kind and the wolf." Luke was completely in awe of being before a unicorn. He thought of how his mother often wished she could see and touch something so powerful and pure. It was one of her longest wishes, one she had abandoned as possible in her youth. Luke thought, if he could see and touch one, perhaps, one day his mother could too. She was in the other realm now. He hoped her wish would be fulfilled, even if she would never tell him about it. Robin now spoke to Elios. "What brings you here, Elios?" "I'm searching for someone in the area. I heard someone calling for me." Elios said. "A human is calling for a unicorn, one with a pure heart. I want to find whoever is calling me." "Is it someone in our kingdom?" Robin asked. "No, it's farther than that. A lesser kingdom to the west. I can't pinpoint more precisely than that from this distance." Elios looked in the direction he had been traveling in. "What will you do when you get there?" Luke asked him. "I am compelled to see them. It is part of my nature. Hopefully, it will not get me killed. That desire is why there are so few of us. We'd be best to stay away from your kind entirely." Elios said. Robin said to his old friend, "I wish you luck, Elios. I am glad to see you again, if only briefly." "As am I. You should return to Liliana and ask her to grant you immortality." Elios reached out and lightly grabbed some of Robin's hair. He moved the strands with his fingers to see how many strands of grey were in his hand. "I hate to see you wither away so quickly, my friend, and in such an unnatural state as this. Is it really worth it to be here?" Robin glanced over at Rowan, then said to Elios. "I too have a desire I am compelled to act upon that may get me killed one day." Elios looked directly at Rowan and smiled at him. He turned to his friend, retaining that warm smile. "I see. Take care, little bird." "Goodbye, Elios." Robin said and waved to him as he left. He watched him disappear into the forest. When he was gone, Robin remembered why he came out there. "We should go inside now. I'm sorry. I should have already sent you two in ahead of me while I spoke with him." "It's not like that much time passed." Luke said. He picked up his bow. "I suppose it is getting really cold now." "Rowan, are you alright? You haven't been saying anything." Robin asked the prince. "Ah...well, I couldn't really...I...I don't know why." Rowan fumbled his words. "Some humans do have that sort of reaction when they see a unicorn, I've heard." He put his arm around his lover and led him forward. "Come, let's go inside." Luke looked back to check that Elios was definitely gone. He said in a low voice. "I wasn't going to say anything while he was here, because he's a unicorn, but those clothes...you could see everything!" "I'm surprised no humans thought that alone was odd." Rowan said. "From what he's told me through messengers, people think he's from some far off kingdom where that manner of dress is normal, so they don't bother putting their own views on him. They think, 'oh, that's how they dress somewhere' because he has no shame about it. It's the same as when children run off without their clothes. No one thinks anything of it." Robin explained. "Huh. I suppose I understand. I think my mind went in that same direction when I met your mother." Rowan said. He thought of seeing Liliana for the first time. She hid nothing of herself from him, and he was the only one embarrassed by it. "So, those in the other realm really don't care about that at all?" "Dress is often more to hide ourselves from humans or to impress others. My mother covered me a bit because perverts kept eyeing me on the human side of the realm. If we were at home, I often wore nothing in our cave, but my aunt made me wear clothes around her. She always adhered to more human standards of appearance than most I knew." Robin said. "You were dressed when you came to our house though." Luke recalled Robin came to them in clothes fit for a young noble when he asked their mother how to find their father. He was jealous at the time of Robin's clothes. "That was so I would be presentable in a human environment. My mother presumed Faolán wouldn't give me proper clothes on short notice, and I was in a hurry." Robin said. "Well, you're right. He didn't bother having me clothes made until I couldn't wear the ones I showed up in anymore. Mother was working on making me some pants to start wearing, but she didn't finish them before I left. I was stuck in that damn coat for far too long. He'd make me wash it myself even though he had servants for that. I know I'm his bastard son, but he could've at least treated me better than his servants. Ugh, what am I saying? I really shouldn't have expected that." Luke sighed. "I don't see why you're complaining. I hate pants." Robin said. "You'd be content running around in the nude." Luke countered. "Of course. It's so much more comfortable when it's warm to wear nothing at all." Robin agreed with Luke's assessment of him. "I'd rather not see your dick on a regular basis." "Then don't stare at my dick." "I, for one, am glad we're in a society that covers this much. I really don't want to see my father naked." Rowan interrupted them. "Actually, I really don't want to see a number of people naked on a regular basis." "I agree." Luke said. Robin shook his head. "Humans are concerned with the strangest things." "I can agree with you about that. I don't see how you two can stand Father David." Luke changed the subject. "He knows your secret, and lectures you about it. I wanted to punch him when I went to confession when he lectured me." "He's...good at heart, but very misguided." Robin was confused about the confession part, but he chose not ask about that. He assumed it related to something Rowan and Luke had been talking about before he arrived. Robin attempted to somewhat come to David's defense, as he was a friend, though he did also disagree with him for some of the same reasons Luke did. "I've been working for years to get him to see that, and I think I've made some progress. You should have tried talking to him a decade ago." "I can imagine." Luke spoke angrily. "You know, he had the audacity to tell me that I covet the bodies of men because of Lewis. Lewis didn't have shit to do with that. I was thinking about kissing boys by the time I was six. I got a rock thrown at my head for giving a boy a rose when I was a child. I should have never told him anything about my past." Hearing that saddened Robin greatly. "I'm sorry. I'm sure in his mind, he thought he was helping you. He tells me all the time I should get married to a noblewoman." "Yes, he told me that too. Me, married to a woman? Hell will freeze over before that happens." The complaints Luke had been holding in earlier all came tumbling out of him at once. When he remembered one slight, another came to his mind right after. He continued. "Oh, and he told me this...I should forgive my father for raping my mother multiple times. It was in God's 'mysterious' plan, and I'll see the reasoning in it one day. Fuck that. I'm not forgiving him for anything. Not him, not Lewis, not James--fuck them all." Robin wanted to ask Luke what happened with James, but he remembered how things went when he brought up Lewis. He didn't want that to happen again, so he said nothing. Luke picked up on this. Robin's attempt at politeness only angered him. "Oh, for fuck's sake, just ask already. I know what you're thinking." "It's none of my business, if you don't want to tell me." Robin couldn't hide how sad he was at knowing there was something else dark and painful Luke was carrying with him, and that he didn't know the extent of it. His mind ran wild with ideas of what it could be, and with every thought, he grew sadder that it might be true. "It's not as if I know all the details about Lewis either." "Don't give me those sad eyes." Luke sighed heavily. He walked slightly faster to stay ahead of Robin and Rowan. "Look, I'm not asking for your pity and sorrow. I can manage fine on my own. Lewis, he pretended to be my friend when I was thirteen so he could get me in bed. When I really understood what he was doing, I tried to get away, but he held me down. After that, I left my father's house and came to serve Philip. For some stupid reason, I thought my life would be better, just like I thought my life would be better when I moved in with my father. Sometime after I left Father's house years ago, I had a thing for James. I confessed to him, and he made my life hell after that. That was one of the dumbest things I've ever done. One night, he paid off a barkeep to put some poison in my drink. Once I was good and out of it, he had some of the knights take me back and they all took turns. That's the gists of it. Don't offer me any hugs nor tears. I don't want them. I hate him, and that's enough for me." Robin stood in place, unable to speak. Luke looked back at him. "Why aren't you saying anything?" "I...think he's in shock..." Rowan said. "I didn't even tell you all the details." Luke turned around and kept walking. "For such a monstrous soldier, your stomach is so weak." A wave of guilt hit Robin. He felt it for originally shunning his brother for being human, for not taking him from Faolán's home before the incidents with Lewis and James, and for being so useless as a brother to him all this time. Robin couldn't help blaming himself for everything, as he thought about Luke as a scared child, alone with no one to protect him. Tears fell from his face. "I am sorry. Forgive me, but I cannot contain myself." Luke looked back again. A hint of pink rose in his cheeks as he saw Robin crying for him. He couldn't look at his brother like that. He averted his eyes. "You don't...Don't cry...You're embarrassing me. Good grief..." "Forgive him. His heart is easily moved." Rowan apologized on Robin's behalf. "I'm so sorry...I should have..." Robin muttered, but he couldn't finish what he was saying. Luke sighed and hugged his brother. Robin stopped crying for a moment, confused by Luke's actions. "I thought you didn't want me to hug you." "I don't want your comfort, but I don't mind comforting you." Luke hugged him tightly. "I don't understand." Robin said. Luke gave him a piercing stare. "I'm not weak." Robin understood what Luke wanted to convey to him. It was a human ideal, one men typically adhered to. He didn't care for it himself, but he respected that Luke did. Robin wiped away his tears. "I won't shame you then. You are much stronger than me. But...if you wanted me to kill him, I'd do it." "You can't kill James. But thank you for the offer." Luke hid that he was a little happy to hear his older brother offer to protect him like that, even if the suggestion was very violent. He continued walking forward. "It's just my bad luck that nothing ever works out. Whether by someone else's hand or my own, everything is always the wrong step forward. I'm the worst when it comes to letting people in. When I was a child, and I'd see boys I liked, I always had it in my head that for some reason, this boy would be different than all the other boys who spit in my face and threw punches at me. Lewis, I didn't have feelings for him in that way, but I thought...I thought he was my friend. I convinced myself against all evidence that James might love me back. I've gone chasing after a man who's already met his soul mate. I should have never returned to these lands and stayed with him." "Stayed with who? What are you talking about?" Robin asked. He turned to Rowan to see if he knew, but Rowan only shook his head. "There was a man I met once, years ago, who asked me to stay with him. At that point, I was so terrified of being thrown away and tortured again, I ran from him. I've always regretted it. It's more proof I'm doomed to unhappiness." Luke said. They had reached the inside of the castle at this point. Servants were out and about around the halls. As almost no one was outside, the halls were more crowded than usual. The amount of people made Luke uneasy. "Uh, could we save this story for later? I'd rather not talk about this here." "Let's go to the library. It's usually empty there." Rowan suggested. "We can watch the snow from there as well. The view from there is quite beautiful." Luke nodded. The three of them went to the library. As Rowan anticipated, there was no one else there. Rowan picked up their previous conversation. "You were telling us about this man you met, the one you ran away from. Do you want to continue the story or would you rather sit and watch the snow quietly?" Luke sat by the window. "I can tell you. It's not...it's not as if anything horrid happened to me. He was a good man, but...I don't know why talking about this is harder than talking about anyone else." "You don't have to tell us if you don't want to, Luke." Rowan said. "I know that. I know you won't pester me about it if I don't. You're not like Martin." Luke bit his lip. His cheeks flushed a deep red. "Actually, I...I've wanted someone to hear this. Keeping it inside makes it seem like a beautiful mirage, but I want...I want it to be real in my heart. I want someone to know it was real other than me." Robin and Rowan sat on each side of him to listen. Robin asked, "It sounds like this person was very important to you. Why didn't you go back to him?" "There's no way to find him. I met him in a far off land when I was lost, and he himself never stays anywhere for long. He told me it was his destiny to wander. We met by chance. There's no way life would be so kind as to grant me that chance twice." Luke rested his head against his hand. "What were you doing so far away to begin with?" Rowan asked. "You know I haven't fought in anywhere near as many battles as you. Philip's put in the least amount of work into this war, and I have done less than most knights that serve him. He talks nicely of me in front of crowds, but he hates me. He'd always send me off on lengthy quests to far off places. I'm certain he was hoping I'd either desert him or die." Luke said. "How horrid." Robin was appalled. "That's how it's always been. One time, he sent me down to the holy lands and I...got lost along the way. Very lost." Luke looked over at a tapestry hanging on the wall. The design had several different kinds of animals on it. He focused on the lions near the bottom. "Have you ever seen a lion in person? Artistic depictions really don't capture them well." "I've never seen one personally." Rowan said. "I haven't either." Robin said. "Well, I saw them up close. They're teeth are...they're like monsters. They killed my horse and nearly got me." Luke pulled out his dagger. "Imagine a tiny version of this in a giant cat's mouth. Imagine that ripping open a horse. I'd rather be left with wolves than one of those creatures." "How did you survive?" Rowan asked. "I was rescued by a handsome man dressed in red." Luke said. "He had a wild dog with him, and his hound distracted the beasts while he led me away to somewhere safe. We couldn't communicate at first, but he was a very kind man. He fed me and watched over me. In time, we taught each other bits of our languages. I forgot about the quest for a while and wandered with him and his dog. Eventually, we...got very close." "You've spent so much time telling us you don't do romance, and you've been keeping this a secret from us." Rowan teased him a little. "I...well, he was different than most. We spent many warm nights together. I taught him a lot about that sort of thing. It was really the only thing I had to give him other than my language." Luke put the dagger away. He felt over his left hand with his right hand. "He asked me to stay with him. I don't know exactly when this was, but I know I was gone for about a year. When I left, it'd been about three months since...what happened with James. I wanted to believe in him, but...I was too afraid to stay. I was afraid if I allowed myself to be vulnerable again, he'd turn out to be a monster in disguise like James and Lewis. So, I ran away. I left to come back home. The moment he was out of my sight, I regretted what I'd done. There I was, walking back home...to James and to my king, who both hated me and tormented me, to come home as a failure in a quest I could never possibly complete." "You could have gone back and searched for him, or wandered yourself." Robin said. "I know, but a familiar evil was still easier to accept than an angel that might one day be a demon. When I left him, he saw right through me. He told me, 'I know what lies in your heart, my friend. I am not the one for you, not as you are. I hope that you can find that one in time, when your heart has healed.' The night after I left his company, I wanted to kill myself. I couldn't. When I drew my dagger to my neck, I realized I didn't care enough to bother and I went home." Luke lowered his head and smiled, to mock himself for his foolishness. Robin's heart ached at those words. "Luke..." Rowan felt Luke's pain as deeply as Robin did, but he said nothing. He listened attentively to Luke's words. "When I came home, the king greeted me and told me it was alright I failed, but I knew he was really disappointed I came back at all. I spent the next three months in the shadow of that tower again, wishing I had never said that goodbye." Luke laced his fingers together. "He gave me something, when we parted ways, so that I could keep him with me always." "What did he give you?" Rowan asked. Luke showed them the scar on his left hand. "His blood. We both cut our palms and held them together to mix our blood." Luke removed the glove on his left hand and turned his palm upward. A long, perfectly straight scar etched down his skin. "It's funny...every man I've cared for has left a scar on my body. Lanre left one here, James left one right down my chest, and Lewis left one here near the back of my neck from when he was choking me. Where will you leave a scar?" Rowan gave him a strange Luke. "What makes you think I will?" "You definitely must." Luke laughed, pushing away his pain. "I wouldn't object to mixing our blood, but if you want to mix some other fluids, be my guest..." Rowan shook his head. "That's enough." "I want to hold you. Telling that story was very draining." Luke leaned in closer to Rowan. Robin narrowed his eyes at Luke. Rowan lightly pushed him back. "Luke, I know exactly what you're doing." "I know." Luke put his hand on Rowan's. "Could we hold hands at least?" "You're bold to pull that in front of me," Robin said. He was glaring at Luke and smiling at the same time. "Oh, don't give me that. You're no wolf. You're a harmless puppy." Luke decided to try to get further under his brother's skin. "Perhaps you like this too? I've met men who wanted me to fuck them in front of their wives. I don't understand it, but it is something that's been requested of me by more than one man." "I can assure you I am not interested in such things." Robin winced at the idea. "If you say so, but he's holding my hand." Luke put his hand around Rowan's and lifted their hands in the air for Robin to see. Rowan was laughing under his breath. "Don't test me, Luke." Robin pulled their hands apart. "You should really consider moving on from him. You'd be better off with someone you can actually sleep with." "I might get lucky one day." Luke said cheerfully. "That's not happening." Robin and Rowan spoke in perfect unison. Luke sighed and shrugged. "You're both cruel to me." "Look, the snow. It's really coming down now." Rowan pointed at the snow falling out the window. The three of them watched the snow for a while, chatting about much lighter topics. Later in the day, Luke convinced Allon, Wren, and Rosabella to play cards with the three of them. Allon, Wren, and Rowan all lost quickly. Rosabella, Robin, and Luke were much better players than them, as they were quite good at concealing their reactions when playing. Rosabella was the victor two out of three of the games they played, with Luke winning the last game. Luke didn't realize it, but with his deck of cards, he had managed to fill that cold, dusty room with warmth. Far from the warmth within the castle, to the north, the Red King watched the sun set. His loyal knight stood guard beside him, ever diligently watching for an enemy he knew he could not see. The Red King stepped away from the window, letting the dying light decorate his back. He faced not the knight but the floor as he walked over to his bed. Ruaidhrí sat on the edge, his mind filled with thoughts he refused to release. "The last light of the sun is fading." "I'll end it." Llywelyn joined him on the bed. He held him from behind. "I won't let Death have you." "There's nothing you can do." Ruaidhrí glanced back at him briefly. "Thank you for serving me this long. The next battle, the time between then and now is all I have left. If there is anything you wanted to say to me, you should say it now." "I won't, because I won't let it happen." Llywelyn said. "You've always been a stubborn man." Ruaidhrí grabbed Llywelyn's braid as it fell over his shoulder and wrapped it around his hand. He yanked on it slightly. Llywelyn didn't acknowledge what Ruaidhrí was doing. "Are you cold?" "I am always cold." The king said. Llywelyn took off his own cloak and put it on Ruaidhrí's shoulder over the one Ruaidhrí was already wearing. Ruaidhrí laughed at the both of them. "You really are quite foolish." Llywelyn got up from the bed and closed the window. He looked back at his king, dressed in black with Llywelyn's thick, white cloak on his shoulders. The ends of the blood red hair upon his king's head rested on his white cloak. Llywelyn could see there what he feared most. His heart pounded in his ears and his hands shook knowing what awaited him in the dead of winter. "I know." Two days from then, Rowan gave the order for his soldiers to leave off to fight again. He woke earlier in the morning. The snow had cleared up enough for them to get through it, but the wind was as harsh as ever. Wren, Allon, Ran, and Rosabella saw them off. They all said their goodbyes and wished them luck. Wren hugged his brother tightly. "Must you go already?" "Yes, unfortunately. I want to make as much progress as I can. I won't let this war continue on into spring." Rowan didn't want to let go of him. "Please, be safe on your travels as well. I heard from Robin you're going quite far." "I will. I wish you luck, Brother. Please, come home soon, safe and well." Wren did something he hadn't done since he was a child. He kissed his brother on the cheek. The gesture surprised Rowan. He smiled at Wren. "Same to you." "Rin, keep him safe." Wren said to Robin as he hugged him next. "I will." Robin hugged him back. Wren went to hug Luke, but Luke turned down the offer. Wren, Allon, Rosabella, and Ran waved to them as they left. Shortly after, Wren said his goodbyes to his mother and Rosabella as he left with Allon on their own trip. The journey out was hard on Rowan's men. They were hit by a small snowstorm, and then lost some supplies to thieves. Keeping warm was a constant issue. They stayed for a while in one of the towns within Argus's kingdom, taking shelter in the houses of the townspeople and within the local church. There wasn't enough room for everyone. Some had to sleep in barns and buildings for storage. Anywhere was better than outside. Many men were already disgruntled at being out in the weather at all. Rowan attempted to quell some of the dissent building within his men by offering them each twice as much money if they survived. This was good enough for many, but a few deserted him. They pressed on and picked up a few mercenaries along the way. Robin had kept money aside for this very reason, and he was glad he confronted Argus rather than let Rowan go over the budget with him. Argus wouldn't have normally given them this much, and Robin intended to make use out of every bit of it. This routine of finding a village or town to stay in, appeasing the soldiers, and paying for a few more continued on until they reached their destination--the land just beyond Ruaidhrí's castle walls. They arrived there late at night. Martin and his men were already there. They helped Rowan's men set up camp with them. Rowan planned with Martin, while most of the men drank, ate, and slept. Another camp, consisting largely of Mark's men, created a barrier between them and the castle walls. He received word from Hollis to turn back and let Ruaidhrí fight alone, but he could not in good conscience leave the Red King to fight alone at a time like this. He wrote back to his brother that he would stay for now. Ruaidhrí's army was small, from having lost so many. Within his walls, he had no one left to recruit. All the males left were either boys too young to fight or men far too old. He stayed outside the castle with his remaining soldiers, huddled together amongst Mark's army. He and Mark discussed plans as well, while the soldiers talked amongst themselves in fear at hearing the Bloody Raven had arrived. Llywelyn gave a speech to encourage their men, but his words sparked nothing. The will to fight was waning. Llywelyn prayed to every deity he could name, but no one answered him. When it was very late, he went to see his king. Ruaidhrí was sitting in his tent before a table full of food. It was more food than the king could possibly eat at once. Ruaidhrí ate his food slowly, as if he was trying to not forget what he was tasting. Llywelyn stood behind him. He spoke softly. "Everything's ready." "Thank you, Llywelyn. You may eat with me if you wish." Ruaidhrí waved his hand over all the food before him. Llywelyn sat down beside him. "This is a feast. Are you really going to eat so much before the battle tomorrow?" Ruaidhrí finished the bowl of stew he was eating. He filled his bowl up with warm rice and meat. "This is my last chance to." The food prepared before him was enticing, but Llywelyn's appetite left him. "Are you sure it's tomorrow?" "I can feel it. This is my last night, and this is my last meal." Ruaidhrí ate his food in small bites. He wore a blank expression. "Enjoy it with me. I'd like company tonight." "As you wish." Llywelyn grabbed a bowl and filled it with stew. He didn't think he could stomach anything else, and he knew Ruaidhrí wanted him to eat with him. This was the best he could do to fulfill that wish. Llywelyn noticed that all the food on the table was warm. "It's awfully cold tonight. Should I get you more blankets?" "After we eat." Ruaidhrí said. "I'll make sure you're warm tonight." Llywelyn put the bowl back down. "Is there anything else you want?" "That should be enough." Ruaidhrí put his food down as well. He grabbed Llywelyn's hand underneath the table. His fingers tightened around Llywelyn's hand while his gaze stayed forward. "Keep me warm until sunrise." "Yes, my king." In the morning, Llywelyn woke at sunrise. He looked around for Ruaidhrí, but he wasn't in the tent. Llywelyn dressed himself and went to look for him. He found his king not far from the tent, leaning against a tree. His gaze was on the bright light rising on the horizon. Llywelyn joined him by the tree. They watched the sunrise together in silence. "Llywelyn," Ruaidhrí moved away from the tree. "Thank you for your services. Tonight, you will be free." Llywelyn couldn't find the words to say to him. He watched him return to the tent to put on his armor. He muttered under his breath. "I don't want freedom." He looked out at the battlefield. In equal shares, his courage and his fear rose exponentially. He gave an oath to the wind to carry for him. "I won't let anyone else have you, not even Death." Llywelyn donned his armor. Outside the tent, it began snowing again. He heard Martin cursing at the sky nearby. He followed behind Ruaidhrí out of the tent. Ruaidhrí looked out across the field at the opposing army and the falling snow. Llywelyn stood close by him. Ruaidhrí gave him an order. "Take the Hellhound. The Bloody Raven is mine to fight." "Are you sure? Let me take your place." Llywelyn offered. It was all he could think to do. "No, this is the day and that is the way it will be. If you interfere in that, fate will hand me to him one way or another. Do as I order." Ruaidhrí said. "I am ready to face my fate." Llywelyn balled his fist. "Yes, your majesty." The fighting started not long after that. Llywelyn and Ruaidhrí quickly found themselves without their horses, and the snow made it hard to move on the ground. Llywelyn did his best to stay close to Ruaidhrí, but somehow they kept getting separated. He fought his way toward his king, swinging his sword without mercy. After the seventh separation, fear overtook him. He found his king facing off against Prince Rowan, and the man standing in between him reaching them was Sir Robin. "Let me through, please!" Llywelyn begged him. Robin swung his sword down at him. Llywelyn blocked him. "Please, I need to reach my king!" Robin pushed him back. He swung down on Llywelyn again. Llywelyn struggled to counter him. Robin's movements were fast and relentless. The man before him greatly outclassed him in both raw strength and skill. Llywelyn told himself he did not need to defeat the Hellhound. He only needed to get away from him so that he may reach his king. He couldn't defeat Robin, but he was confident he was roughly as strong as Rowan. If he were fighting beside his king, perhaps he could kill the Bloody Raven before his king lost his life. He had to. Rowan was as ruthless with Ruaidhrí as Robin was with Llywelyn. He knocked off Ruaidhri's helmet, then cut across his face. While Ruaidhrí reacted to the slash to the face, Rowan stabbed his left leg. He pulled out his sword and kicked Ruaidhrí to the ground. Ruaidhrí's sword fell a foot away from him. Rowan stood over him and pressed the tip of his sword into Ruaidhrí's neck. "Surrender. This is my final warning." "You know I can't." Ruaidhrí unsheathed his dagger and threw it at Rowan. Rowan dodged it. This gave Ruaidhrí enough time to pick his sword up and get to his feet. The cold air made his injuries excruciating. As he swung at Rowan, something horrifying hit him. His breastplate shifted as he moved. He typically had Llywelyn make sure it was properly tightened. He thought back on the morning. For some reason, he forgot to ask and Llywelyn likewise forgot about it. His heartbeat rang in his ears. As he moved, he felt it loosening more. He pushed forward. 'Not yet. I'll last as long as I can. He's wearing more leather than me. I have to do as much as I can.' Ruaidhrí aimed for any exposed area on Rowan he could, getting in a jab to Rowan's arm. His mind examined everything on Rowan. He noted Rowan left his upper arms and shoulders largely exposed. Ruaidhrí couldn't fathom why beyond presuming the man did it as either a display of arrogance or to strike fear into men by being confident enough to go into battle with such large, exposed areas. On his arms, Rowan wore bracers to protect the lower half only, and he didn't understand why a prince was wearing predominantly leather armor in the first place. Ruaidhrí couldn't know Rowan's reasons related to the bow he wore on his back. He didn't care what Rowan's reasons were. Those exposed areas would be his primary targets. Ruaidhrí stabbed into Rowan's left arm. Rowan kicked him off. Ruaidhrí caught himself from falling, but his sword slipped from his again. He cursed himself. Rowan wasted no time in attacking again. Ruaidhrí didn't expect what happened next. He was so busy looking for his enemy's weak points, he didn't think about how Rowan was likely searching for the same information on him. Rowan pushed his sword in where the breastplate had loosened up on Ruaidhrí's left side. He used his sword to unfastened it the rest of the way. Ruaidhrí's armor fell off of him to the ground. For a moment, he couldn't move. Having such an absurd thing happen to him, he couldn't believe it. 'Is this your work, Death? Are you laughing at me?' Ruaidhrí sent his thoughts out to the unseen spectre. Rowan didn't wait for Ruaidhrí to react. He slashed at the mail on his chest. Ruaidhrí nearly fell again, but he caught himself. He picked up someone else's discarded sword and swung at Rowan. Llywelyn saw glimpses of his king and Rowan's battle while he fought off Robin. He hadn't gotten any closer to reaching Ruaidhrí. He pleaded with Robin again. "Please, please let me go to him!" "Are you mad?" Robin knocked him down. "Let me go! I need to be with him." Llywelyn got back up. He tried running toward Ruaidhrí, but Robin got between them again. "I can't." Robin jabbed at an exposed part of his thigh. "Today, you die." Rowan and Ruaidhrí exchanged blows, neither managing to get a good hit on the other. Ruaidhrí's heart pounded. His stomach turned. A horrible, sinking sensation clutched him from within. Before the snow betrayed him and he tripped on a sword hidden underneath the white powder, he already knew it was time. As he fell, his mail slipped upward and Rowan's sword cut across the exposed area. Ruaidhrí could do nothing to protect himself. It was done, but as he went down, he took one last swing at the prince and cut his left arm open down to the bone. Their splattered blood mixed in the white around them. Ruaidhrí covered his stomach with his arms, terrified his organs would fall out. It was a pointless effort. He was going to bleed out if Rowan didn't finish him off. He looked up at the man who would end his life and saw him readying his sword to come down on his neck. Llywelyn saw his king fall and what Rowan was preparing to do. Out of desperation, he threw his sword to distract Robin and got in close to him. He grabbed Robin's hair that he carelessly didn't hide under a helmet and pulled as hard as he could. "You coward!" Robin yelled at him as he tried to push him off. Llywelyn tried to knee him in the groin, but he couldn't get the angle right. Robin attempted to cut him as he did. Llywelyn gave up on that and kicked Robin hard in the knee, then ran as fast as he could when Robin dropped to the ground. Robin yelled profanities at him as he got back up to chase after him. Llywelyn pushed every other soldier before him out of the way and threw himself over his king to shield him from Rowan's descending blade. "Please, don't! Let me take him." Rowan stopped mid-swing. He warned Llywelyn. "I'll end you both if you don't move." "Llywelyn, run away..." Ruaidhrí spoke to Llywelyn with the little strength that remained in him. "I'm dying..." "Listen to your king. You might live through this battle. Surrender and I'll spare you." Rowan said. "He's going to die anyway. You've done enough. Please, let me take him!" Llywelyn begged him once more. Without thinking about it, he cast an illusion on Rowan and changed his appearance to that of Robin's. Rowan wasn't one to fall for the same trick twice, but he could not bring himself to cut the man down. His spirit betrayed what he knew he should do. "Run." Llywelyn turned Ruaidhrí over and carried his dying king off the battlefield. He did not tell anyone where he was going, nor did anyone ever see him again. "Rowan, what are you doing?!" Robin called out to him as he watched Rowan let Llywelyn leave with Ruaidhrí. The sight of Ruaidhrí's body sent whispers throughout both sides. Llywelyn left a trail of blood behind in his escape. Mark accepted what was inevitable. He shouted out to his men. "Kill the Bloody Raven! Kill him! Do not let the Red King's death strike fear in you!" Several men charged at Rowan all at once. Rowan was stronger than each man individual, but he was weakened now. He couldn't use his left arm at all, and the cold air on his exposed injury and the amount of blood he was losing made standing a struggle. Robin ran over to him and fought off as many of them, but he couldn't get all of them. Rowan fought on in spite of his injuries, but he worried he might pass out. Luke came to his aid. He fought back many of the men alongside his brother, standing in front of Rowan. Martin and Sparrow joined them shortly after that. Luke gave a look to Robin. Robin nodded and kept fighting. Luke went to Rowan and helped him off the battlefield to be treated. Rowan's vision blurred as he walked. Luke kept him steady. He lied about their progress to keep him calm. "We're almost there. Come on. Just a little more." Rowan slipped in and out of consciousness. He stumbled as he walked and weighed heavily on Luke. Luke noticed. He tightened his grip on Rowan. "I've got you. Stay with me." 'He's losing so much blood. I don't have time to bandage it up. I have to hurry.' Luke hurried his pace, but Rowan slowed him back down. He couldn't carry Rowan, not with them both in armor. The walk back behind the battle wasn't long, but each step seemed to take an eternity. Leading Rowan back like this, Luke recalled the last time he had done such a thing for Rowan. Back then, they barely knew each other. Rowan, to him, was nothing more than some distant, handsome prince he wanted to bed. Even then, looking back, he was already head over heels. He couldn't admit that then. Luke made it to where the surgeon was. "I need you immediately. The prince is injured and bleeding badly." The barber-surgeon pointed to a free cot nearby, then went back to work with his needle on a heavily bandaged man. "Have him rest there. Put pressure on the wound while I finish stitching up this poor man up. If you're going to stay in here a while, remove what you've got on your arms and wash off." "Rest here." Luke helped Rowan onto the bed. He took off all the armor Rowan wore above his waist, his gloves, and his shirt. "How are you feeling?" Rowan stared around the room. Everything spun. He put his right hand over the injury. "Dizzy." "You'll be getting some help soon enough. I'll stay here with you for a while." Luke got up and washed up to his elbows. The surgeon washed his hands after Luke and went over to where the prince lay. "Let me see him." "How does it look?" Luke asked. The surgeon raised Rowan's injured arm. Rowan groaned and grit his teeth. He gripped the side of the cot with his right hand as the surgeon probed inside the wound. "It's deep. Very deep. Might have to amputate it." "The hell you will!" Rowan yelled. "Prince, please calm down. If it's necessary..." Luke started to say. "You are not cutting off my arm!" Rowan lifted the arm slightly. He forced back his want to scream. "It's not broken. I can move it." "Let me get a better look." The surgeon poked around more at the wound. Rowan bit down on his lip. He forced himself to react as little as possible. The surgeon rested Rowan's arm back down. "He cut ya to the bone, but isn't broken. I'll stitch you up. If it gets infected, I may still have to cut it off." "Then you better do a damn good job cleaning it so that doesn't happen!" Rowan shouted. Father David heard his voice. He came over to him from attending to one of the injured men. He said, "Prince, please don't be rude to the man. He's trying to protect you. Better to lose a limb than to die." Luke took hold of Rowan's arm and kept him still. "Keep a steady hand." "I know what I'm doing." The surgeon cleaned the wound. Rowan winced. When it was thoroughly cleaned, the surgeon got his needle ready. "This is gonna hurt like hell. Do you want me to give you something first?" "No. Get on with it." Rowan looked away from him. "Suit yourself." The surgeon did not wait for Rowan to change his mind. He had plenty of other men to get to after him. He went to work. "Jesus Christ!" Rowan shouted. "Told you it'd hurt." The surgeon went in again. Rowan turned his head again. He pressed his face against Luke's leg. He unconsciously tried to move his arm. Luke prevented him from moving. "Shh...it'll be over soon." "Shit." Rowan closed his eyes. The surgeon finished up. He went to work on bandaging the prince. "Let me tend to him from here." David sat down on the cot. "Priest, I don't need your help." The surgeon said. "There are many injured. This part is simple." David said. "Fine. We're short on medics anyway. I keep tellin' ya we need more." The surgeon grumbled. Rowan muttered under his breath, "I'm firing you when we get back, you ass." "Now, now, don't act out of anger." David put some herbs over the wound, then placed on the bandages over them. "This should help, both with healing and soothing the pain. I'll prepare a drink for you to help with pain as well." "Huh?" Rowan's thoughts were fuzzy. He struggled to concentrate. "Oh, thank you." "I didn't know you knew about things like that." Luke watched David. David smiled at him. "Your brother taught me a few things." "Father, taking lessons from a fairy heathen? Isn't that a bit sinful?" Luke said in jest. "Knowledge should not be turned away simply because it comes from someone of another faith, nor charity. A fairy may have discovered its uses, but God made the plant. There is nothing on this earth that heals that is evil." David said. "You're an interesting one." Luke removed the rest of Rowan's armor to make him more comfortable. David helped him. Luke cleaned off Rowan's face. "There. Rest for now. Do you need anything else?" "Mm...I'll manage with David here." Rowan said. His eyes were heavy. Luke kissed his forehead. "Then I'll be going. I'm more needed elsewhere." "Take care, my friend." Rowan said. "The same to you." Luke put back on his bracers and gloves. He returned to the battlefield. David prepared a drink for Rowan. "He's changed quite a lot. You're really something. I wonder what would happen if you were left alone with Sir Faolán for a few months." "I don't think I can tame that beast." Rowan tried to sit up on his own. He fell back. "Let me help you." David sat down on the cot. He raised Rowan up and put the cup to his mouth. "Slowly." Rowan drank it. The taste disgusted him. He wanted to vomit. "That's definitely one of Robin's concoctions. I hate this one." "But you know it works." David put the cup aside. He lowered Rowan back down. Rowan stared at the top of the tent. "That doesn't make me hate it less." David lowered his voice. "The younger brother, he is in love with you too, isn't he?" "Unfortunately for him, yes. I've tried to show him love through our friendship, but that has only made him want me more." Rowan whispered. "I was starting to wonder if you were being unfaithful." "I would never." Rowan rubbed his eyes with his right hand. "I do love him dearly, but not like that. I don't want to break his heart, but that...is inevitable. He cannot have me." "I'm afraid, Prince, your kindness may break him more than if you tossed him aside cruelly, but it may be better for him in the long run to know such kindness is genuine and real. He has lived a hard life." "Yes...he has..." "I think it would be best if..." David looked down. Rowan was asleep. He watched his breathing. He found nothing unusual about it. "Rest easy, Prince. I'll be here with you until he returns." David asked someone to bring him a change of clothes for Rowan. In the mean time, he finished what Luke started and undressed the prince completely. He washed the rest of his body clean with a wet wash cloth. Rowan had few injuries aside from the deep one on his arm, but he was soaked in the blood of others. David had him moved over to a clean cot. When the boy returned with a change of clothes, he dressed Rowan and he cleaned the dirtied cot with the boy. As was his duty, he spent his time with those who called for him. He returned to Rowan's side in the time between. Hours went on, and so did the battle. The fighting didn't stop until the last light of the sun faded. Both sides stopped to rest. Luke looked out at the other side. His sword and armor were heavy on him. He thanked the sun for setting. He had no energy left to fight with. "They're not retreating. Looks like another day of fighting for us." "They're getting desperate. With the Red King gone, they'll want to end this quickly. If they don't win this battle, they'll either be surrendering soon or the next battle will be far more fierce than this one." Martin said. Robin walked up to them. "They're not going to surrender yet. We may win this battle, but it won't be enough to end the war." "Where did you run off to?" Luke asked. "I had to piss. I've been fighting all day. When I'm on the battlefield, I'm always targeted. I can't get away so easily like you two, and they were relentless this time around." Robin said. "You held it in that long?" Luke asked. "Not successfully." Robin sighed. He looked down at himself. "I need to bathe." "I'll join you. Have you seen the prince yet?" Luke asked. "Not yet. I'm filthy. I don't want to risk his health." Robin twisted his braid. Blood dripped from his hair. Luke turned to Martin. "I'll talk with you more later." Martin nodded. "Go on. I'm going to get something to eat myself. I don't think any of us have eaten since this morning. You should eat before turning in." "I will." Luke said. Robin and Luke grabbed some clothes to change into. Luke followed Robin down to the river. Robin stripped naked. "Are you insane? It's snowing out and you're going to bathe here?" Luke shuddered at the thought. Robin got in the water. He took his soiled clothes in with him to wash them. "I don't plan on staying in here long. I'd rather bathe like this than drag water back to the tent. I'm too tired for that." Luke sighed and took his clothes off. "I don't know why I'm doing this." The snow stung on his bare feet, and the water was no kinder to him. "I'm going to freeze to death." "It's not that cold." Robin washed off his body. "It's snowing right now." Luke untied Robin's braid. "You're a redhead after every battle." Robin submerged himself underwater. He rose back up and wrung out his hair. "Rowan hates it." "It's not a good look on you." Luke washed his own hair. He laughed a little. "Did you really piss yourself?" "I don't really care about that in a life or death situation." Robin's cheeks burned. He turned around. "Hold on. Pull your hair back." Luke did as Robin asked. "You've got a deep cut right here. Let me treat that later." Robin washed the cut on Luke's shoulder clean. His stomach growled. "You need to eat. I'll have someone else take care of that." Luke said. "I'll take care of it when we go to see Rowan. I..." Luke's stomach growled now. Robin and Luke exchanged looks. Luke laughed awkwardly. "Hehe...I, uh...actually, I skipped breakfast this morning." "So, you've eaten nothing at all? And you were getting on to me." Robin shook his head. "Isn't there any way you can make this water warmer? I know you can do some kind of fire magic." Luke said. "I can, but...to keep this amount of water heated with magic...I'm not sure I would have the ability to do that for long most days, much less right now." "Could you try anyway?" Luke asked. "I...suppose I could..." Robin closed his eyes and concentrated. The water around them warmed a little for a few minutes, then it went cold again. "I'm sorry...that's about all I can do for now. Wait...maybe you can do it." "Me? I don't know anything about magic...I doubt I have any talent for it at all." "You might. I was told some of my abilities were natural, there from birth from Faolán's side. It's likely you also have that potential." Robin said. "Then why haven't I noticed anything like that before?" Luke asked. "Have you had any alcohol in the last three days? Please, be honest." "No, I haven't." "Then let's try it. Alcohol blocks the flow of magic. It distorts the body internally. Do you remember what I told Rowan to do?" "Uh...not really. That was a while ago..." Luke only remembered the flaming arrows Rowan shot. "Could we make this quick? I'm losing feeling in my toes." "You must clear your mind and focus." Robin said. "Well, I've already failed then." "Luke..." "Alright, I'll try." "Emotions are an easy way to tap into it, but it must be a very strong emotion. Think of a happy memory." Robin instructed him. "That's easier said than done." Luke said. "You must have at least a few. If you can't think of anything really intense that you remember, try thinking of something that would deeply move you. Anything, even if it's impossible. Then concentrate on your hands. Magic flows from the hands. Think of warming the water with fire." Robin took hold of Luke's wrists and held them evenly apart above the water. "How will this make magic happen? If it's this simple, shouldn't anyone be able to do it?" Luke asked. Robin explained the reasoning. "Few have the ability to do so in the human world without additional gifts bestowed upon them by one who is a master. If you don't have the ability, I cannot teach you to hone what you do not possess in the first place. Now, concentrate." Luke closed his eyes. His mind contained a thousand unfocused thoughts. He did his best to clear his mind by focusing at first on how cold the water was. When that was all he could think about, then, he conjured up something intense. None of his happier memories would be enough. Everything somewhat happy from his past, even his recent past, carried some negative emotions alongside it, dragging it down. Since he could not find a memory, he created a fantasy instead. He imagined Rowan being his lover instead of his brother's. He replaced Robin with himself in the bed those two shared. Luke pictured the full moon shining on them in the night. He pictured Rowan on top of him, and so deep into his fantasy he went, he could feel Rowan's touch on his skin. The river water warmed around him as he explored his mind. Though he was picturing himself having sex with Rowan, his reasons for wanting that were not born from lust. He wanted someone to hold him and love him, and he wanted someone he could trust enough to allow himself complete vulnerability in that person's presence without fear. Out of all his sexual encounters, only one man ever brought him close to feeling like he could truly expose every part of himself and he ran away from that man out of fear he would be wrong. Rowan in his fantasy was safe and would not hurt or abandon him. His desires would not be solely for personal satisfaction, but also to please Luke as well. Intimacy with deep trust was what he desired most. But Rowan belonged to someone else, and he could never have him. His mind brought him to something that would satisfy him more. Rowan's bedroom changed to the inside of a little cottage by the sea, and the man he shared the bed with was not the prince. He pictured the man Rowan showed him in his dreams, the one who looked and sounded like James. Luke imagined that man reaching down and caressing Luke's face. He could hear his voice clearly, and though it sounded like James's voice, he knew it was not James and it didn't fill him with anger or disgust. Through three whispered words, his body surged with something. When Luke felt it, he thought again about the water. So overcome with emotional intensity, Luke accidentally overdid it. He set fire to the snow on the banks of the river and flames floated on the water itself. Above them, thunder echoed and lightning lit up the sky. Luke opened his eyes when he heard the thunder. He saw all the fire around them. His eyes widened. "Is this...me?" Robin's mouth hung open. "You...you've made it thunder during a snowstorm...I can't believe it...how...what on earth did you think of?" Luke's face went a deep shade of red. "I...I'm not telling you that!" "This is amazing...You have far more potential than I do. Was that really lightning? I've never seen lightning during a snowstorm...I never thought to even want it...how beautiful..." The magic Luke produced was so beautiful to Robin he was filled with pride that it was his own brother that created such a scene. "Should we be worried about all the fire?" Luke asked as a small flame floated close to him. "Oh, don't worry over that. I can put it out. I may be too weak to do any fire magic, but manipulating water is second nature to me." Robin splashed a little water at Luke. "Well, you've certainly made the water warmer." "This is...this can't really be me. You're doing this." Luke said, in denial. "No, I can't possibly. This is your power." "Me?" "You are beyond me. You'll need to train under a true master to control all of that properly." Robin said. He started thinking of who he could recommend Luke to train under. "Uh...I don't know if that's necessary..." "You have to tell me. What thought created such power?" Robin asked him again. "Something impossible." Luke glanced at his own illuminated reflection on the water's surface as the flames floated on passed him. The clouds hid away the moon. He reminded himself he would be sleeping alone tonight, and if he wasn't, he might as well be anyway. "A dream, nothing more." "Then it must have been a very beautiful dream." Robin said. "Come. We should get out soon. You're heating the water a little too much." Luke nodded. The flames were too much for him. Robin manipulated the river water to put out the flames on land. Those on the water were put out in the process of him moving the water in the first place. They both got out of the water and changed into clean clothes. Robin grabbed his washed clothes to hang dry in his tent. Luke looked back at the river before they left. The experience left him dazed and sad. He wanted to share in his brother's excitement at what he'd done, and he truly did not comprehend what he had accomplish in that moment. Right then, his body was overcome with a longing like he had never known before. The cold air through his wet hair did not bother him, nor the snow falling on his face. He stared out at that river in agony. 'You're not real, are you? You can't be.' Luke's eyes dulled. 'I hate you. I hate me.' Luke turned his back to the river and followed Robin back into camp. They were informed that Rowan had been moved to his personal tent. They went there. David had been with him the entire time. With Robin there, David turned over Rowan's care to him and went to get some sleep. Rowan was asleep when they went inside. Robin attended to Luke's shoulder injury, then went to cooking something for the three of them to eat. Rowan woke after about twenty minutes. "Mmm...Robin?" Robin sat down beside him. He brushed back Rowan's hair and kissed him. "How are you feeling, my love?" "Awful. How are you?" Rowan smiled. "I've had better days." Robin brought over some dried meat. He broke the meat into smaller pieces. "Here. When did you last eat?" "A couple hours ago. I am a little hungry." Rowan said. "Let me help you." Luke sat Rowan up. Rowan leaned against him to stay up. He ate the meat. Robin handed some of the meat to Luke, who quickly ate it. Robin started a fire and set up a small cauldron they brought. He opened back part of the entrance of the tent. "I'm fixing some stew." "That sounds nice. I'm afraid I have to stay in bed tomorrow." Rowan said. "I'll take care of everything out there. You rest." Robin caressed his cheek. "I'm sorry I can't help you more." Rowan glanced back at Luke. "How are you, Luke?" "I'm managing. Has the pain subsided any?" Luke asked. "Somewhat." Robin removed the bandages to clean the wound. He wrapped fresh ones on afterwards. "It looks alright. The surgeon stitched you up nicely. I'll check on it again before I turn in." "That bastard threatened to cut my arm off. If he did, I'd beat him with it." Rowan said. Robin laughed. "That would be quite something to see. You should use that fire to keep your spirit strong." "How was it out there for you two?" Rowan asked. Robin opened his mouth to say something. Luke spoke before he could. "He pissed himself." Robin glared at him. "Shut up." Rowan laughed. "What?" Robin quickly changed the subject. "Anyway, it's going to be another day of fighting. They're not pulling back." "How are our men?" Rowan asked. He decided to let that other information go. "Exhausted. Everyone's exhausted and cold." Robin stirred the cauldron hanging in the center of the tent. "We need to push them back and take Ruaidhrí's castle. We can rest there for a while, then plan what to do next. I want to end this war before spring begins, but the weather may work against us." Rowan pointed to a cup of water on a small chest. Luke handed him the cup. He drank from it. "My love, can't you manipulate the weather for us?" "I can, but I will not. Making it rain or snow for a few hours is one thing, but I will not cause drastic changes to what the season has planned for us. I am not someone so powerful as to be allowed to do that without repercussions." Robin said. "Damn. Well, it was worth asking." Rowan handed the cup back to Luke. Luke took a drink as well. "Is that stew ready yet? I don't know how much longer I can stay awake." "Should be soon." Robin said. When it was done, Robin put out the fire and they ate together. Robin traded places with Luke and helped Rowan eat. After Luke finished eating, he fell asleep beside Rowan. "He's out cold." Rowan said. "Damn it. I'll get him a cot set up." Robin finished up his food. "Couldn't you carry him back to his tent instead?" "It's fine." Robin said. He left to get another cot. Rowan lay on the cot, laughing. "You want him here, don't you? Why hide it?" Robin set up another cot beside the two they pushed together. As it was very cold, Robin pushed the third cot up against one of the others so they could stay warmer from each other's body heat. He moved Luke over to the cot he brought in. Luke did not stir in his sleep. Robin got on the cot at the other end of the three. He cuddled close to Rowan. "It's so cold tonight. I'm worried." Rowan pleaded with his lover once more. "Robin, I know you won't shift the winter to suit our needs, but...tonight, couldn't you raise the temperature a little bit? Just this once. I think everyone out here would be very grateful." Robin knew he shouldn't, but he couldn't say no. "Alright, but only this once." As mercy to both sides, Robin warmed the night air slightly by changing the conditions to be better suited to rain, then holding off any rain from falling. This was the only type of magic he could do to manipulate the warmth of anything for a long period of time. Unlike warming the water earlier, this was something that interested him. He slept easier that night. The next morning, Robin awoke first. He polished everyone's armor, then made breakfast. Luke woke second. He looked around in confusion at being in bed but in someone else's tent. Rowan slept beside him. On the other side of Rowan, Robin washed Rowan's arm. Luke rubbed his eyes. "Do you ever sleep?" "Only as long as I need to. I made some food. Get as much as you want." Robin prepared some fresh bandages. Luke got up. He filled a bowl with rice and lentils, then sat back on the cot. He watched Robin put new bandages on Rowan's wound. "How's it look?" "No signs of infection." Robin finished up. "That's good for the surgeon. If he did have to lose the arm, I think Rowan might kill the poor man." "It would be unfortunate, but if it saved his life..." Robin shook his head. "You're missing the issue. If he only has one arm, he can't shoot." "This is about archery?!" Luke blurted out. Rowan woke up disoriented. "Huh? Who's yelling?" "My apologizes. I didn't mean to say that so loudly." Luke said. "Are you hungry?" Robin asked. Rowan nodded. Robin prepared him breakfast. Rowan had more energy after resting. He was able to sit up and eat on his own. Robin and Luke readied themselves for the next fight. Before heading out, Robin kissed Rowan. "I'll see you again soon. Rest up." "Come back to me soon." Rowan kissed him again. Today, the opposing armies did not come with the same fierce spirit as the day before. Over the night, roughly half of the the few who remained of Ruaidhrí's men deserted when Llywelyn never returned. Mark's men were weary of fighting another day in the snow. By noon, Mark gave the order to retreat and Ruaidhrí's castle was left abandoned by the soldiers. The victory energized their own side, but raiding the Red King's castle excited them more. Rowan was quickly informed of the victory. Though he was still weak from blood loss, he needed to lead their men in and project power beyond what he had. He had Robin help him mount his horse. The journey was short. Ruaidhrí's castle was in sight on the horizon when they initially made camp. The goal of taking it was always in his soldier's view. It didn't take long for them to arrive at the fallen king's castle walls. "This is it. The Red King's castle. We may meet with resistance once we're in. Be prepared." Rowan raised his voice and called out to the soldiers. "From what I've heard, most of his soldiers were already out fighting us. It should mostly be those who usually don't fight. Servants, women, children, the elderly...I doubt we'll find more than guards in our way." Luke said. "I know, but it's always wise to be prepared." Rowan said. "Ruaidhrí was unmarried and childless, yes?" Robin asked. "Yes. He became king young, and hadn't married yet. He had no siblings either, nor much of any family. He was one of the last on a dying tree." Rowan said. He gave the order to go in. A few guards stood in their way initially. They were cut down. The other guards surrendered. Once inside the walls, the various people inside hid where they could. The castle walls were full of people, many appearing to be peasants. He presumed they were from nearby villages and towns, hoping to stay safe within the protection of the walls. Without their king to shield them, they were now all easily gathered up for the soldiers in one convenient place. Rowan made sure to use this to his advantage. He could speak to everyone at once. "Listen to me. Your king is dead. This land now belongs to King Argus. I will show mercy to those who obey me. Any who stand in my way will meet with my blade. Stand down and you will be treated well." "What about us? What do we get?" Sir Sparrow asked the prince. "Take anything valuable you want from the castle, but do not lay a hand on the people. If anyone gives you trouble, bring them to me and I will personally deal with them." Rowan ordered. "Is that wise?" Luke asked. "I need them distracted from the people. Seeking treasures will keep them occupied from snatching up a pretty girl. I don't usually have such a prize to dangle in front of them. I intend to use it." Rowan said. "Father won't be pleased, but I don't care." Rowan waved Robin over to come help him dismount. Robin got down from his horse and went over to him. Before he could assist Rowan, a boy, not quite a teenager yet, ran up to Rowan. He wielded a sword far too heavy for his scrawny, shaking arms. 'Of course.' Rowan worried something like this would happen. "Boy, what do you want?" "I challenge you. My brother and father are gone because of you, mongrel heathen!" The boy raised the sword up as much as he could, but it barely got off the ground. Some of the soldiers snickered behind Rowan's back. He ignored them. "Stand down before I cut you down, child. I am giving you this warning only because you are young. Swallow your pride and be quiet." "I'll kill you!" The boy's eyes welled with tears. "Do not force me to make an example out of you." "It's better to die with honor than to live as a coward!" The boy tried to swing the sword. He managed to drag it along the ground. Rowan had Robin help him dismount. He approached the boy with his hand on his sword. "You truly wish to challenge me to the death? Very well." Robin didn't like where this was going. He didn't want to watch. "I would tell you you're in luck today, as I only have use of one of my arms at the moment, but that really won't help you in the slightest. This is your last chance to walk away." Rowan drew his sword. The boy's entire body shook with fear. "I won't run." "Then you will die." Rowan raised his blade. An old woman ran over and got in front of the boy. "Please, don't listen to him! My grandson is filled with grief! He does not know what he is doing!" "Granny, go away! I don't need you." The boy pushed the old woman back. "He's made his challenge, old woman. Now, he must face the consequences." Rowan motioned for her to move aside. The woman shed tears, but respected those words. Rowan stepped closer to the boy. "Are you ready?" The boy nodded. His knees shook so violently the boy could barely stand. Rowan lunged at him. He immediately knocked the sword out of the boy's hand. The boy fell backward onto the ground. He took a small dagger out to defend himself with. Rowan knocked that away nearly as fast as the boy drew it. A woman in the crowd held back the old woman, who tried once again to get between them. "Please, don't! He's the only family I have left!" The boy was too scared to stand back up. He shielded his face with his arms and closed his eyes. Rowan loomed over him. He raised his blade and swung down. His blade met with that of another. Robin intercepted him. "That is enough, your majesty." "You dare interrupt me. Under what pretense?" Rowan made a show of pretending to be angry. Internally, he was relieved. "He is unsuited for battle, but he is healthy. Gold and jewelry are of no value to me. I'd like to take him as a servant." Robin made his argument before the crowd. "If I give him to you, the others will be asking for the same." Rowan said. Robin raised his voice so that more could hear him. "Any gold that should have rightfully been my share will go to whoever else wants it, in exchange for this favor." "Does that seem fair to everyone else?" Rowan asked his army. There were no complaints. "Very well. You can have the boy in exchange for forfeiting your right to take any material goods home." Rowan sheathed his sword. The little boy scooted away from Robin on the ground. "I..I will not...serve you." "Little boy, do you know who I am?" Robin asked as he sheathed his sword. The boy shook his head. "I am the Hellhound, son of the Black Wolf, and you will do as I say or I'll send you to work for my father." Robin spoke loudly. The boy recognized those names. His face went pale, and he spoke no more in protest. Robin grabbed him by the wrist and handed him over to one of their soldiers. "Take him captive." No others bothered with fighting back. The people were too weak and afraid. They willingly surrendered. Those who surrendered were held captive in a section of the castle, to be divided up between Philip and Argus. Luke approached Robin after the incident with the boy. "You took a person captive. I can't believe you would do that." "Rowan doesn't need a child's blood on his hands." Robin said. "So, that's what you were doing." "It's not as if I treat people poorly. He'll be living a decent life in my employment, likely better than what awaited him here. We've taken this place. They're our people now. Many of them will work for us as servants anyway." Robin said. "And I knew Rowan couldn't kill him. If he refused to, he'd be seen as weak. If he managed to at all, he'd break himself." "I can't believe you threatened to have him sent to Father. He looked more horrified of that than the prince's blade." Luke was surprised too to hear Robin refer to their father as his father. He typically only called him by his name. Hearing Robin call anyone "father" was strange. Luke didn't linger long on that thought. He looked out at the people cowering together. "You're likely right about him getting a better life. Look at this place. I know the Red King's family was dying out, but this place itself looks plagued by death. The men have been lost to the war, but there aren't many young women either. It's mostly the elderly and sickly children. What happened to this place?" "Some sort of illness swept through here, perhaps?" Robin stared out past the walls. "The land beneath their feet is dying too. You can't see it, because winter is upon us, but I sense very little will be returning to life when spring comes. The soil is barren, and there is little wildlife here." "A curse perhaps?" "I sense something magical about this place, but that magic is neither evil nor good. This was a payment." "What for? Why would someone sacrifice their home's livelihood as a payment?" Luke asked. "Desperation, I take it. For what, I don't know. We shouldn't rest here long. This place unnerves me." Robin turned away from it. "If you are worried, then I am terrified." Luke said. "Wait...I sense..." Robin closed his eyes. He focused on the odd energy flowing underneath the ground. When he realized what it was, he yelled. "Prince Rowan! This land is cursed! Do not allow our men to drink any of the water here." "Cursed?" Rowan asked. He was standing several feet away from Robin, next to Martin. Robin ran over to him. "I am not sure I can purify it. If I cannot, I will need to create water for our men." "Do it now then, if you can. If we cannot use water here, we need to remedy that immediately." "Yes, your majesty." Robin closed his eyes again. He sensed out where all the nearby water sources were. Every spring, every river, and every well in the general area was contaminated. He attempted to purify the water, but the magic used on it was far beyond his skill to undo. Since he could not purify it, he evaporated it and refilled the emptied areas with melted snow and water he created himself. He shouldn't be doing such a thing, but he rationalized that his actions were minor enough to go unnoticed by those in the other realm. If he could have filled up the areas entirely on his own, he would have, but that was too much for him to accomplish then. He had little energy at the moment from having fought earlier in the day for hours and he hadn't eaten again since dawn. Creating water was harder than melting the snow. When all the areas had been refilled, he waited to see if the waters would become contaminated again. Nothing occurred. He was not surprised. Whoever change the land did not use dark magic. Robin suspected he might be able to undo some of the other issues with the land. Whoever had done this was no amateur, but seemed to not be vengeful either. If the king had paid a sorcerer, most of the issues with the land could be undone. He wondered if whoever caused this wanted to do this in the first place. He found it all very confusing. It didn't match with the in the moment, rage-fueled curses he had seen those in the other realm cast on humans nor did it appear to be the work of a hired sorcerer. Whatever happened here, he likely would never know. He didn't want to stay long to investigate it either. Robin announced to the people. "It is done. I may be able to restore the land from its barren state as well, but I am too drained to do it today." The captive people whispered amongst themselves about what Robin said. "I see. You'll do that tomorrow, then. This land is ours now. I want it in the best condition possible." Rowan said. "Yes, your majesty." Robin bowed to him for the crowd. He went inside the castle. Martin commented. "The Hellhound's magic pays off once again. He really is one of our most valuable assets." "Yes, he really is." Rowan said. "Excuse me. I'm going to explore the castle. Keep an eye on things out here for me." Martin nodded. Rowan caught up with Robin. The inside of the castle was as dreary as the outside. There was little color in the decorations on the wall, which themselves were few and far between. To Rowan's fortune, the treasury was full to the brim, and fine weaponry littered the castle. The treasures the castle held did not match with the upkeep of the castle itself. Either the Red King had been a miser, only interested in sitting on his hoard of gold; or he cared for nothing at all, and only pulled from the treasury when something absolutely needed replacing or to be purchased. Given the state of the furniture, he wagered it was the latter. The Red King's home was not that of a young, thriving king. It was that of an old man waiting for death's embrace, carefully maintaining as little as possible as to not burden anyone with his possessions after he passed. What remained were useful items--dishes, blankets, and other ordinary things. It was as if Ruaidhrí had no presence of himself in the castle at all. It was merely being maintained for someone else to take and decorate. "It is a strange thing, to be taking another man's home from him." Rowan said. He held a wooden cup in his hand. The cup was cracking open. Robin said, "We have no choice. That is the nature of war. He's gone, and thus we're expected to take it. Barbaric." "I wonder about that death. We don't have a body to prove it." Rowan placed the cup back where he'd found it. He walked down the hall with Robin. "Then he has abandoned it, and it matters not." Robin noticed the strange emptiness of the castle too. He said nothing of his thoughts. The mood between Rowan and him made it clear enough that Rowan was thinking the same thoughts as him. There was no point in saying it, nor questioning why it was. They would never know. Rowan opened up a door at the end of the hall. He looked around. The bed was large and though underwhelming in decoration for its size, could only be the king's. The frame of the bed was made from finer wood than elsewhere in the castle, as was the rest of the furniture in the room. Weapons were the room's theme, with exquisitely made pieces hanging from every wall and stashed in all four corners. Discarded around the room were black garments, some carelessly left on the floor. "This is the king's bedroom, isn't it? It's so..." Robin started to say. "I know." Rowan noticed an oddity among the room's decor. A white fur cloak rested on the bed. Rowan picked it up. The scent on the cloak invoked a summer memory, of sunshine on skin and the thick perfume of flowers that should have long withered. He wasn't certain if what he smelled was real or something otherworldly. "He may have been unmarried, but he was not alone. This couldn't have been his." "A lover?" Robin suggested. "Seems likely." Rowan let the cloak slip from his hands back on the bed. He lay down beside it, his body aching more than he allowed himself to admit. Staring at the ceiling, he tried to picture what the Red King's mornings must have been like. He took the man's life, and yet he knew so little about him, as it was with so many others who left the world by his blade. To raise his sword every battle, he forbid himself from memorizing faces, but Ruaidhrí was clear as rain in his mind. More than his, the Red King's loyal knight pleading for his master's dignity haunted him. If the war never began, he wondered, would they have been friends? Could he have helped alleviate whatever burden the Red King was carrying on his shoulders? He cursed himself for allowing his mind to wander down paths that only led to deeper agony, yet could not stop himself. "What did you think about when you left this place? I wish I could ask you." Robin sat on the bed beside him on the other side of the white cloak. He asked, "Are you tired?" "A little. I need to lay for a moment." Rowan looked the room over again. "Not really the scholarly type, was he? There are no books in the room, but he has weapons to spare in every corner." "Looks to me like someone afraid of dying." Robin said. Rowan stretched his arms out and felt over the pillows on the bed. His left hand caught hold of a long strand of blond hair. He let gravity return it to its place on the pillow beside him and turned to get a better look at that side of the bed. A few strands of blond lie on the pillow case, and on the table beside the bed, a brush sat covered in a mix of red and blond hair. He turned away from the sight. "Robin, I want it to rain." "If I make it rain right now, it will turn to ice. It's too cold today." "Can't you warm the weather?" Rowan asked. He curled inward on the bed. Robin's shoulders sunk. "That is not something I wish to do. I can, if you really desire it, but...I am not comfortable manipulating the weather to that degree without asking permission of the Lady of Winter. You already had me do so recently without permission. Making it rain or snow a little more here and there is fine, but causing snow in summer and rain when it is too cold in winter...is different." "I see." Rowan reached out and tugged at Robin's sleeve. "Make love to me." Robin blinked and looked down at him. "Right now?" "Please." When their eyes met, a sharp pain struck him. He caressed his lover's cheek. "Is that wise with your injury?" "It's fine." Robin leaned down and kissed him. He moved farther down to pleasure the prince. Rowan glanced down at him as he ran his fingers through his hair. The brilliant gold in his grasp brought a yearning for summer so deep he forced himself to look away. Outside the window, snow fell unaccompanied by the bitter wind of winter. He wanted to reach out and touch it, to let the soft, chilling ice burn his palms as it melted away. He was certain it would be as soft as the cloak lying beside him, and pain him just the same. Not long after Robin fulfilled his request, Rowan drifted off into sleep. His body's weakened state crept up on him without him noticing the full extend of it. Robin kissed him and left him to regain his strength. He took the white cloak and covered Rowan in it to keep him warm in his absence. Seeing the prince covered in such a light color, he found it unsuited to the prince, but he preferred it over the black Rowan lined the vibrant red of his clothes with. He missed the days when there was no white or black upon them, only blue and red. Robin left the room to find Martin. Along the way, he ran into Luke. "Where is the prince?" Luke asked. "He's resting right now. I'll wake him in an hour." Robin said. "Martin says there isn't much here, in regards to supplies and food. Not for all of us to stay long anyway. This place really is dead." Luke rubbed his hands against his opposing arms to warm himself. His shoulders shook. "How bad is it?" Robin asked. "Staff here is minimal as well. The Red King kept very little beside him, whether it be people or food." Luke sniffled. The cold weather did not treat him kindly. "I'll inform Rowan when he wakes. We were going to move on soon, but I was hoping we could get more out of this place." Robin shrugged. Luke scratched his chin. "Hmm...We could see what the peasants have." Robin balked at the idea. "In winter? I can't allow such cruelty. Our men are likely already terrorizing them. We don't need to make it worse." "I thought the prince said the king's possessions would distract them enough." "You of all people should know that won't be enough to keep them from harassing the public, and they're not going to obey our commands in regards to that without making an example of them. We cannot afford to do that with any men either. All the more reason we need to get this war over with." Robin groaned at the thought of what was likely already going on outside of his sight. He could not understand how humans could be so cruel to one another. Luke lowered his voice. "Should we really move forward in this weather?" "I don't want to. But Rowan may insist on it. If it gets too bad, I'll stop him." Robin put his hand on Luke's shoulder. "Are you alright? You look tired." "Didn't sleep well." Luke glanced down. He was embarrassed by the bags under his eyes. "Go rest with Rowan. I have some things I need to discuss with Martin. He's in the room to the right, four doors down." Robin said. "Alright." Luke passed by his brother, then stopped. He cleared his throat. "Um...I..." Robin looked back at him. "What is it?" Luke struggled to get the words out. He took a deep breath. "I failed again." Robin studied Luke carefully to not do anything that might upset him. He showed no anger nor judgement in his gaze, and asked a simple question. "Did you drink?" "After the battle. I had a few drinks. Eider kept telling me to. It'd be fine, he said. I didn't get drunk, but I...Do you think he's going to be mad at me?" Luke bowed his head in shame. Robin turned himself around completely to face Luke properly. Fearing a gentle smile or a pitying look would both upset his brother, Robin gave neither and kept his voice calm. "No. He'll understand. Perhaps you should limit your time around Eider?" "I think I'll have to limit my time around a lot of people." Luke sighed. "It's for the best." "You think I'm stupid, don't you?" Luke searched for intention and guidance in Robin's eyes. "No, I don't." Robin walked back to him and put both his hands on Luke's shoulders this time. "Go rest." "I will." Luke would not say it, but his spirit calmed in his older brother's presence. He wished to thank him for it, but that was not something he could manage yet. Luke found the former king's room and went inside. Rowan was in a deep sleep, as Luke's entrance did not stir him. Luke lay on the bed beside him. He took shelter under the thick, fur cloak with his friend. "Tired?" Luke asked, knowing no one would answer. He closed his eyes and let himself drift into a quiet dream. Martin and Robin discussed plans while the two friends slept peacefully. Martin received word from Silvanus that he was sending men and supplies their way. They agreed upon how many men they would leave to keep hold of the castle and how many would continue on with them to the next battle. When Rowan woke, he gave the order that they would leave again before the week was done. Robin watched the weather, and worried as the snow piled up. Far from the former Red King's home, Prince Wren and his half-brother, Allon, reached their destination. Snow covered the village of Aindíles. Wren had the carriage they traveled in stop. He opened the door and stepped out. Allon got out right after. "This is the place?" Wren asked. "Yes." Allon's heart raced. He hadn't been back in a while, and the clothes he wore made him more uncomfortable. Wren dressed him up in emerald colors with blue accents. The cape he wore had a sapphire on the clasp. His shirt had Robin's symbol embroidered in royal blue on the front. It was all too much for him. "Thank you for allowing me to collect the herbs along the way before we stopped here." Wren said. "It's for Lady Rosabella and the child's health. That is of a much greater importance than my proposal. Are you sure you've collected enough?" Allon asked. "It should be plenty. I'll dry what I've collected and store it away until we need it." Wren nudged Allon. "Now, for your part. Are you ready?" "I...I'm nervous. I've never been inside a place like this and...I haven't spoken to her in a few years." Allon turned red. "What if she doesn't remember me at all?" "Go on." Wren pushed him forward. "Look, I'll come in with you." They went up to the brothel. The building was bigger than most in the village. Wren was surprised the establishment was so big. He remembered reading that the village itself had little to offer in terms of goods, but was a frequent place to stay on long travels through this area. The next place to stay was a long ways off from here. He noted the inn was also unusually large given the size of the village itself. On the brothel, he saw that many men had carved or painted notes about their time there. Peasants typically could not read, so Wren assumed it was all done by noblemen passing through. Most were very distasteful. Some men boasted of their supposed skill or their size, others recommended a particular girl, one person wrote "fuck" ten times, and some anonymous person declared that he shit behind the building twice. Above the door, deeply carved into the wood, he recognized a name attached to one of the declarations. It read: "Faolán of Cailean was here '24. Fucked 17 last night for my 17th birthday. Lynn sucks dick better than anyone." Wren cringed reading that. More confusing than that was the name he saw to the left of the door. The message read: "I fuck better than all these bitches. If you need a good fuck, find me. Luke of Cailean '49. PS. I fucked ten men against these walls." Underneath that, unsigned, was a message that simply said "I am disappointed". Wren looked back at Luke's message. '49? Wait, that was two years ago.' He shook his head and went inside. The front part of the building was nicer in appearance than the outside. This was Wren's first time in a place like this. He thought he would be more embarrassed than he was, but he was not ashamed to be there. He wasn't doing business here. He was here to aid his brother in arranging a marriage. It was no different than him meeting someone to discuss land disputes. A pretty woman in her thirties greeted Wren. "Well, well, if it isn't the crown prince. Here to see Madam Lynn?" "Yes. I would like to speak with her about one of her ladies." Wren spoke with confidence. "I'll get her right away." The woman bowed to him and went into another room. "You didn't correct her." Allon said. "If they want to think I'm the crown prince, let them." Wren shrugged. An older woman with hair that had half gone white came out to greet them. She wore nicer clothes than the other woman, though she was not quite as well dressed as a noblewoman. She wore a ruby necklace around her neck and dressed in dark red. The older woman said, "Hello, Prince Wren." "You are mistaken. Wren is my younger brother." Wren lied. Lynn waved her hand at him dismissively. "You have not mastered your brother's mannerisms, and your brother isn't nearly so young looking. What does the younger brother want with me?" Wren wondered why this old woman of all people could so easily tell them apart. He couldn't think of a reason why his brother would frequent a place like this. "I came to ask about a girl in your employment. This is Allon, my half-brother. He was born here in Aindíles." "I know who he is. You're Eve's son. You want to see Dove, right?" Lynn said to Allon. "Yes, ma'am." Allon said. "I suppose if you've brought a prince here I have no choice but to entertain you." Lynn said. "Bring Dove here. She has a special visitor." The other woman left to get her. "Thank you." Allon bowed to her. Wren corrected him. "Don't bow. You're a nobleman now. She bows to you." "A nobleman, huh? You convinced the king to claim you?" Lynn asked. "He has not, but another has." Allon said. The thirty-something woman returned with a younger woman. She wore a silky purple dress that covered little of her breasts. Her long, wavy brown hair was tied up in a high ponytail. Heavy make-up covered her face, hiding some of her beauty. Wren found her quite attractive. She had a similar frame to Rosabella, with somewhat larger than average breasts and wide hips with a thin waist. Her face was very round and her eyes were a rich, deep brown. Those eyes of hers, Wren thought, were quite stunning, but their beauty was hampered by her empty gaze. Her make-up could only disguise so much of the bags under her eyes and a scar that stretched down her face underneath her right eye. He noticed faint bruises on the exposed parts of her shoulders. Her eyes widened when she saw Allon. "Allon?" "Dove, I'm...I've come to see you." Allon struggled to speak he was so nervous. Dove looked at him with a sad expression. "Are you...paying for my services?" "No, I'm not here for that." Allon turned to Madam Lynn. "Um, may I speak with her alone?" "You have ten minutes. After that, you need to pay me." She said. "Thank you." "Good luck." Wren said. Dove led him into a private room. She closed the door. "It's been a long time since we've spoken." "Three years." Allon sat down on the bed in the room. There wasn't much of anything else inside the space. "Is that how long? I don't keep track of time anymore." Dove leaned against the door. "Why are you here?" "I..." Allon's nerves got the better of him. He couldn't say what he really wanted to. "I wanted to free you." "Free me? What for?" "Because I...we were friends. Now that I have money, I wanted to help you." "Oh, well...I'd rather you didn't." "What? Why?" Allon asked, shocked. "There's nothing for me outside here either. My father will rack up more debt again, and I'll be back here again. If not, I'll have no place to stay and I'll end up here. It is all the same. You don't need to waste your wealth on me." She crossed her arms. "But I...I could give you a place to stay." "I don't want to be indebted to you." Allon stood up from the bed. He blurted out what he wanted to say, then felt like an idiot immediately afterwards. "I love you." "Love me? What on earth are you going on about? You haven't spoken to me in three years." Dove snapped at him. "I couldn't. They wouldn't let me through the door without money, and all my money went to Mother." Allon snapped back. "Shouldn't you be caring for her then?" Dove looked away from him. "She's...she's passed away." Allon faced the floor. He walked towards the door. "I'm sorry I've bothered you. I'll be on my way." "What did you really come here for? You could have sent me money and set up everything. What is this about?" Dove wouldn't let him pass. "Forgive me. I came to ask to marry you, but I've realized how selfish that is as soon as I walked through the door. What I really desire is to free you from suffering, in whatever way I can. If there's anyone you fancy, perhaps...I could arrange for you to marry them instead." Allon took hold of her hands and held them in his. "You've always been such a foolish man." Dove hoped her make-up would disguise the redness in her face. "Would you really marry me?" Allon nodded. "I've already asked permission, but if you do not love me, then...I can arrange for you to marry someone you would be happier with." Dove wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately. "You foolish, foolish man. I wanted you the moment I saw you standing there inside our walls. How can you not see that?" Allon reciprocated the kiss and held her tightly. "Then you accept?" Dove nuzzled her face against his neck. "When I came here, I'd watch you from my window. I know you would stand outside at night and look in too. But I am so filthy now. You deserve a better wife." "You're not dirty. That was work. When a butcher cuts his meat, he washes away the blood at the end of the day. Your work is no different. Nothing stays on the skin, nor in the soul. I know...many outside will not see it that way, but I don't mind any of that. All I ask is from this day forward, I am the one you spend your nights with if your desire demands it." Allon hugged her tighter. "You don't need to work anymore. You can rest at ease, in our bed, and eat when you are hungry. None will trap you within any walls anymore." Dove let go the tears she'd been holding in those three long years. "Thank you for coming back for me." She ran her hands down Allon's chest and pulled up the front of his shirt. She started to pull his pants down. "Not here." Allon stopped her. "I want to do that with you on our bed, in our home." "Waiting till after the wedding?" "I never said that. That doesn't mean anything to me. I simply want to be home." Allon kissed her again. "I can't wait till you see it. My new home is so beautiful." "Really?" Allon nodded. He held her hand. "Let's leave. Are you ready?" "I've been ready to leave since the moment I came here." Dove smile. "Take me home." Allon and Dove left the room, holding tight to each other's hand. Lynn sighed. "I see things went well for you." Allon said to her, "She accepted my proposal. Whatever arrangements need to be made for..." "You may leave. I have the second-in-line in front of me. What can I do if you take her?" Lynn shrugged. She grabbed Wren's shoulder. "You should leave as soon as possible." "Why's that?" Wren asked. "You didn't hear this from me, but someone intends to assassinate your older brother once he returns home. Expect him to take the role of a servant." Lynn's voice was colder than the winter wind. "Thank you for the information. How can I repay you?" Wren asked. 'So that's why you've been here before. I didn't know you used resources like this. I'll have to remember this.' Lynn extended her hand out. "Your brother usually pays in gold." Wren reached in his bag and presented her with some gold. "Will this be enough?" "Double that." Lynn answered. Wren tripled the amount to show his gratitude for the information. "Here. We'll be on our way now." They got into the carriage. Dove had nothing to pack. Wren worried over what Lynn told him. He presumed it was his father's doing again. If he sent a messenger to Rowan, that may make the situation worse. He would have to find a way to discretely tell him the information when Rowan returned. There was no time to waste. He needed to get home immediately. "Allon, I'd like to go straight back to the castle. If you'd like to have the wedding there, I'll have everything arranged for you." Wren said. "That would be fine with me." "Actually, I was going to ask you to stay a while. When everyone goes out to fight, it's so lonely back home. I don't want to interrupt you and your lady spending time together, but if you wouldn't mind staying the rest of the winter, I would greatly appreciate it." Wren offered. With the war going on, he didn't know when he'd get to see his brother again. "What do you think? Would you like to stay until spring?" Allon asked Dove. "I have no objections to staying in a castle during the coldest of months." Dove laughed at the idea that she needed to be asked if she wanted such a luxury. "We could introduce you to Lady Rosabella and Queen Ran. I'm sure you'll get along well with them." Wren said. "A peasant whore like me getting to spend the winter with the queen and the future queen? I don't see what such fine women would like about me." Dove said. "Oh, I think they'd like quite a lot." Wren said. He thought about warning Dove that his mother would likely try to teach her to shoot a bow and hunt, but he decided to save that "surprise" for later. They chatted for a long while into the night, and again throughout the next day. Wren and Dove got along well. Allon was surprised. Since she would be gaining more status by marrying Allon, Wren offered to choose a tutor for her to learn what the average noblewoman knew. The travel back was long, and the weather grew colder. They made stops where they could to find a warm place to sleep. Wren worried about those fighting out in this weather. He hoped his brother would change his mind and return home early. That left him with another worry. If Rowan returned home before him, he wouldn't have a chance to warn him about the assassin. Wren slept little on the journey back. When they arrived at the castle, Rowan hadn't returned yet. Wren informed the king he would be overseeing the wedding between Allon and Dove. Argus outright disapproved of the idea. He argued the wedding should be held elsewhere, as he wanted nothing to do with his bastard son's happiness. Argus did not get his way. Wren stood his ground against his father, dressed in his brother's clothes. "No, we're holding the wedding here." "Excuse me? I told you no. I am the king, and I am your father. What I say goes." Argus argued back at him. "I've already informed the peasants in the nearby areas they're welcome to come to the wedding and will be well fed if they come." Wren said with confidence. "It's winter, and morale is low. We're still sending men out to fight. The least we can do is invite their families to come eat with us and have a nice evening inside the castle. The weather out there is brutal right now. Let them warm by our fires and eat some meat." "We are royalty. They serve us, no matter what. We don't have to give them anything more than the land we allow them to stay on. If they didn't save up enough food for the winter, then they're free to die and someone else can use their land." Argus turned his back to his son. "You'll find yourself with an empty kingdom if you rule like that. People need something to look forward to. This war has been going on since I was seven. Some children have never known anything else. Gifts of kindness here and there keep people's spirits alive. We're holding the wedding here, and anyone who wishes to stay the night is welcome. We have plenty of room." Wren stood tall before the king and kept an empty expression. "Stay the night? Food is more than they deserve. You'll empty our pantry and leave us to starve to feed some damn peasants?" Argus balked at the suggestion. "We have more food than our family, our guests, and all those in our employment could possibly eat over the winter. We can manage just fine. From what I checked in our records, the last five winters, we've had to throw out food because we had so much excess. You didn't even offer the food to anyone. You let it go bad simply because you couldn't eat it all yourself in time. We could have fed our people with that." Wren had prepared in advance that he would meet with resistance from his father. Hearing what his brother and Robin had to go through to get anything made that quite clear to him, but he was somewhat shocked by how his father was acting. He made sure he had everything he could to destroy his father's coming points. "Furthermore, while I was looking into our records, I came across something peculiar. During the last war, my grandfather appears to have consistently given you quadruple what you usually give my brother for supplies and soldiers. Could you explain to me why you are giving my brother so little when we started the war having far more money than your father had at the time you were fighting for him?" Argus walked past him and slammed open the door. "Have your damn wedding or whatever the hell it is you want to do. I will not speak with you again tonight." "Goodnight, Father." Wren left. His father's anger frightened him, but he was grinning nonetheless at his victory. The wedding was held the following day, with a brief ceremony in front of the church, and the rest of the day being spent feasting inside the castle. Argus did not attend the feast. He sulked in his room, angry at loosing even a small portion of his hoards of wealth. Wren took his father's usual seat, and was warmly received by the guests. Rosabella and Ran sat beside him, and Allon and Dove close by. To mock his father further, he made a point to introduce Allon as his half-brother by a peasant woman. The castle was full of guests. Some wanted to eat, some wanted to get drunk, and some were cold. Everyone was welcomed in. While the guests partied into the night, Wren withdrew from the fun around ten to do some more investigating. He looked through paperwork they had on staff hired over the last year. While Rowan was away, he wanted to make sure he got to know the faces of every one of the new hires. There was, of course, the chance that his father might use someone who had been under their employment for a long time, but he already knew most of those people. He wagered, however, that his father would hire someone for the occasion. Outside of nobility, his father wasn't one to keep anyone else around for long. He likely hired an assassin recently, Wren assumed, and if Madam Lynn knew about it, either the man himself was likely from there or passed through there recently. That gave him something else to look for when going through records. He came across a few men and one woman who would have passed through that area within the last three months. Wren put all of them at the top of his list to investigate further. He doubted his father would hire a woman, as the king thought so little of women, but Wren left her on the list as a precaution. Around one in the morning, Rosabella begged him to come to bed. He went with her to her room, but he knew he would not sleep well. Allon enjoyed himself at the feast. He didn't know any of the guests, but everyone was happy and having fun. He didn't care who they were. He was glad they were there. He wasn't one to drink much, but he decided to indulge himself a little on this night. He didn't drink enough to get drunk, but he was bolder than usual. From the excitement of the celebration and loosening up after a couple of drinks, Allon had fun playing games with other guests and chatting about whatever came to mind. He rambled on about Robin being very nice to him for an absurd amount of time, and how Rowan was nothing like what people told him he was like. No one was really listening, as most of the people he was telling this to were very drunk or half asleep from overeating. Dove pulled him away from the party at one in the morning. She was tired and wanted to sleep. Allon took her back to the room he was staying in. "It's so dark already. I'll light some candles." Allon lit several candles around the room. "It's a beautiful room. You should lay on the bed. Nobles are so spoiled. Feel this fabric." Dove got on the bed. She felt over the soft quilt and thick, fluffy pillows. She buried her face in one of the pillows. "It's so soft...It's like I'm on a cloud..." Allon laughed. He joined her on the bed. "Look at us. We're in here, in this fancy room, while all those people who looked down on us are out there. It's a little ironic, isn't it?" "This is quite a guest room. How is our home? Is it like this?" Dove rolled over to face her husband. "It's not quite as luxurious, but it's far better than anything we slept on as children." Allon felt over her shoulder, taking in the texture of the silk dress she wore. He wanted to take it off. "I'm sorry you had to borrow one of Lady Rosabella's old dresses. I'll have some made for you soon." "I don't mind. This dress is very beautiful, and we're not that different. The chest is a little loose for me, but the rest fits well. She's quite busty." Dove put her hands in front of her chest to suggest the size difference between her and Rosabella. "She is. I heard she got that from her mother's side. They say Lady Eleonora was the most beautiful woman in the lands, like a goddess. But I don't really care. You're my goddess." Allon played with her hair. Dove laughed. She pushed his hand away. "Are you drunk?" "I had a little more than usual, but I'm not drunk." Allon put his arm around her waist. "You were drinking too. I saw you. Are you drunk?" "I know when to stop." Dove giggled. "Your cheeks are so red right now. Are you sure about that?" Allon rolled her over and got on top of her. "Or is there another reason?" "You're definitely drunk." Dove laughed more. "I am not. I barely drank." Allon caressed her breasts over her dress. "If I were really far gone, I wouldn't be able to get it up. Can't I just be horny?" Dove's cheeks were burning hot. Unconsciously, she spread her legs out some. "You're a far more reserved man than this. I may have not been able to see you for a while, but I know that." "I'm a little less reserved tonight. That's all. It's our wedding night. Forget about reservations. Let's have fun." Allon pulled up the bottom half of her dress above her waist. He got in between her legs and pleasured her with his mouth. She moaned softly. "Where did you learn to do that? I was sure you'd have been a virgin all this time." "Learn what? I simply wanted to do this." Allon stuck his tongue inside her. He wanted to know her taste. Wren warned him the taste might be "intense", as he put it, when he first tried it, but he found he liked the way she tasted a lot more than he expected. He had been fantasizing about doing this to her since reading about it in the book Wren lent him. He was more surprised by how wet she was. He assumed with his lack of experience, she wouldn't be so excited about him. He tried mimicking other things he read in the book. He licked her higher up at the spot he remembered in the picture and slipped two fingers inside her. Her warmth inside made his body ache. His mind filled with all sorts of wants. When he looked up at Dove's face, and knowing he was causing her to make such a face, his confidence grew. He wasn't ashamed to admit his lack of experience to her now. "I can assure you, I haven't slept with anyone. No one would want to sleep with me unless I paid them anyway." "That's not true. I'm sure plenty of women would be happy with you." Dove said. She bit her lip. "You don't have to do this for me." "But I like it." He rose up and slipped her dress the rest of the way off. He fondled her exposed breasts. "Do you not want me to anymore? Or do you want me in you that badly?" Dove wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. "If you're really not drunk, then our nights are going to be more exciting than I thought." Allon pulled back and stripped off his clothes. He slipped his legs underneath hers and kissed down her neck. "What were you expecting?" The next morning, Allon woke before his wife. He didn't bother dressing himself after their passionate night. Allon looked over at his wife, who also hadn't bothered to dress herself, and went red. She had tossed the quilt aside in her sleep and slept completely exposed. Seeing her like that excited him all over again, and embarrassed him. He thought back on the previous night. 'Did we really do that?' Allon's face went redder. 'I can't believe I said all those things. She probably thought I sounded like an idiot.' Dove stirred from her sleep. She rubbed her eyes and sat up, not covering herself. She leaned over and clung to Allon's arm, grinning. "Good morning, my dear husband. Did you sleep well?" Allon couldn't face her. "Good morning. I did. Thank you. Did you?" She pouted. "Reserved once more. Where did all your passion from last night go?" Allon covered his face. "It left with my courage." "That was quite a night. I didn't expect that out of you." She teased him. "Nor did I." "Should we see if we can replicate it?" Dove slid her hand in between his legs. Allon kissed her as she touched him. Then, he gently pushed her down onto the bed. As they kissed, he slipped his fingers inside her. Dove kissed him deeper. "Perhaps it wasn't the drink. You lost your inhibitions quickly." Allon's face was red, but his body led his actions. He spread her legs further apart and got inside her. "Seems that way. You know, I liked doing this here, but I somewhat regret not doing this with you before the wedding. We had plenty of privacy at those inns." "Mmm...but this was nice...this room is wonderful. It's like I'm a princess." "You aren't a peasant anymore, so that's not too far off." Allon sucked on her neck. He whispered in her ear. "I love you." "I love you too." Dove held on tightly to him. Afterwards, they lay in bed for a while. Allon wasn't completely over his embarrassment. Seeing Dove this way, so exposed and open with him, he would have to get used to, but he liked it. He held hands with her as they lay on the bed together. Allon decided to test his courage. He had many things he wanted to talk with her about. They were married now, and would be spending the rest of their lives together. He told himself he didn't want to be distant with her anymore. He wanted to be able to talk with her about anything. Allon opened up about what was on his mind since last night. "You don't have to answer me about this if you don't want to, but...well, doing that feels really good." Dove looked at him strangely. "Haha, did you get lost in your thoughts?" "Ah, no, what I mean is, uh, well, I assumed your job was really...uncomfortable, but...was I wrong in my assumption?" Allon asked. "Um, well, most of the men I was with weren't really concerned with pleasing me. It was all about them. There were a few men who it was good with, but those kind of clients were rare, at least for me. Haha, if it had been a bunch of handsome men who were passionate like you were last night, I don't think I'd want to quit that work." Dove laughed. "Oh, I see. I suppose that makes sense it would be mostly people like that. They are paying for it, after all. That sort of says something in and of itself." "Some of the men who it was good with, they were quite handsome, but they didn't think well of themselves or they were really lonely. One man, his wife had died during childbirth and he lost her and the baby. He was really sad. I think he just wanted someone to hold him for a while and make him forget his sadness." Dove's voice grew softer. Allon imagined the lonely man looking for comfort. The thought hurt him. He presumed some might see it as cold for someone to do so, and he didn't think he would take that path himself, but he understood the intensity of loneliness and isolation. "I never thought about people like that paying for it. That's quite sad. I wonder what happened to him." "I heard he remarried a year later." Dove said. She tightened her grip on his hand. "I don't like thinking on this, but he told me that night he thought about killing himself. He came to me instead. That was one of the nights I didn't mind my job so much." "I'm sorry. Should I have not brought this up?" Allon asked. "No, it's fine. Actually, all this time, I've been worrying that once your desire for me faded, you would be disgusted with me for the things I've done. Hearing you ask questions like this eases my fears." "I told you, it doesn't bother me. I was only worried that I wouldn't be able to satisfy you. You're so much more experienced than me. I had it in my head I was going to disappoint you so badly by doing something embarrassing." "You haven't disappointed me. You never have." Dove curled up against him. "You don't know how much I wanted to cry when I saw you standing there in that place, knowing that you'd come back just for me. I was so afraid. I was afraid if I went with you, you'd throw me away when you could see me for myself, and not the me from three years ago." "What do you mean? You're the same as you've always been." Allon held her close. Dove held back the tears. "You would say that. You'd probably tell me if we were peasants, you wouldn't care if I did work like that to help make ends meet." "I wouldn't mind, if that's what you wanted to do. All that bothers me are those bruises on your shoulders. Who gave them to you?" Allon asked. "A client. Some are like that. Those are the worst." Dove felt over one of the bruises. She couldn't remember the face of the man who did it. She made herself forget. Allon touched the bruise too. "We'll get you something to put on those to help them heal. I've been learning about things like that. I could probably do it myself, actually, but if you'd prefer we have a professional..." "No, I want you to do it." Dove smiled as she rested against her husband's chest. "That would make me happy." He kissed her forehead. "Then, I will." While Allon spent the morning happily with his wife, Wren tended to his lover. He woke early to have a special broth prepared for her using the herbs he collected. He sat beside her on the bed and handed a warm bowl to her. "Here. This should help some." "Thank you. The baby's already making me so sick. I hope it's not a bad sign." Rosabella took the bowl from him. She had grown very weak in the last two weeks. "My mother became very ill with me, but I came out healthy and she recovered quickly. Let's hope for the best." Wren fluffed up her pillows while she sat up to eat. "Rest today. I'll get you anything you need." "I'm not even that far along, and I'm already needing so much help..." She lowered her head. "Shh. Rest. Relax. It's good for both of you." He kissed her on the forehead, then put his hand on Rosabella's stomach. "Little one, if you can hear me, please don't cause your mother too much trouble." She drank the warm broth. The flavor was savory and it was easy on her stomach. "This is nice. I thought it would be bitter." "I had a little bit of spices added to it to make the flavor better." Wren said. "Thank you. I think you're right. I'll take a nap after I finish this." She drank more of the broth. Wren sat with her while she ate. He touched her stomach again. "Are you excited?" "Yes, but I am...also scared. What if this ends my life?" Rosabella's hands shook a little. "It won't. I'll keep you strong." Wren brushed back her hair. "We'll hold our child and watch that little one grow up, together." "I hope so. I worry about the child too. I am so weak right now. What if my weakness makes me lose him?" "You're not weak. Don't think of yourself as such." Wren cupped her face. "Please, drink the broth and rest. Later, we'll go on a walk together around the castle. I've asked for the cook to make something with meat tonight, to help you stay strong." "Thank you." Rosabella finished the broth. She put the bowl on the table beside her bed. "I think I'll take a nap now." Wren kissed her again. "Sleep well, my love. If you need me, I will not be far." He watched over her until she fell asleep, then he left to investigate the servants on his list. He ordered Rosabella's favorite servants to stay with her as she slept and call him if she needed anything. He ordered that no one else was to enter her room until he returned. From the servants, he quickly eliminated the woman as a potential suspect. She had run from a crumbling home and lived as a beggar before managing to get a job inside the castle. He was able to verify this information with several people in the town outside the castle. One of the men had come seeking a higher paying job, and had previously worked for one of their knights. The knight vouched for him, and gave Wren proof that most of the man's money was being sent back to the servant's wife, who was waiting to move her and their children in with her husband once he had a stable, decent paying job. The other two he found little information on, and the men themselves were weary of being questioned about their pasts. Wren ordered them to be followed in secret, but that didn't last long. The next day, one of the servants went missing and the other was found hanging from a tree. Deep in the forest, Rowan and Martin's armies rested. Collin's castle was a good ways off, but they were not far behind Mark's fleeing army. Rowan's injury was healing well enough, but he could not use his left arm for much. The snow piled up more every hour. Food was low, and warmth hard to to find. Robin approached Rowan. "We have to return home again." Robin said. "The men are freezing and we're nearly out of supplies. You're still recovering. We should go home to rest and get more supplies." Rowan raised his arm. It hurt to move it. "I'm not that bad off, and we're not out of supplies yet. We could..." "Rowan, I forbid it. We're going home." Robin said bluntly. "No title again." Eider commented. He was hanging around, drinking near them since Luke was refusing to drink with him anymore and few else wanted to be around him. Robin snapped at him. He was in no mood to play pretend. "Eider, shut the hell up! I don't have time to listen to your nonsense." "I'm fine, really. You don't need to worry so much. But I suppose we do need to return. It's about time...that I send Luke home as well." Rowan sighed. He stood up from the log he was sitting on and dusted the snow off himself. "What?" Robin looked at him in confusion. Rowan's eyes told him everything he needed to know. Robin nodded. Eider didn't understand it at all, and kept drinking. "I'll go speak with Martin, then Luke." Rowan said. He gave Eider a warning before he left. "Sir Eider, don't do anything stupid. Sir Robin is not likely to behave in my absence." "He never behaves. What else is new?" Eider downed the rest of the bottle. Rowan went to find Martin. He had already prepared himself for the two conversations he was about to have, but he knew it wouldn't make it any less painful. Robin waited for him to return, begrudgingly sitting near Eider. "Why aren't you with Luke?" Robin asked. "He doesn't drink anymore, so there's nothing to do together." Eider opened up another bottle. "What, are you drinking for the both of you? You don't usually drink this much so early in the day." Robin said. "And you don't usually talk this much to me. What's with that? What happened to the silent treatment?" Eider drank from the bottle. "If that's what you prefer." Robin shrugged his shoulders and took out a book to read. Eider glared at him, then took another swig. "The hell is wrong with you?" "What do you mean?" Robin asked him. "You know, I've never liked you. I don't care if you're blood, you ain't right in the head." Eider drank more. Robin sensed something was bothering Eider, but he wasn't going to ask him. He was too angry at Eider for not wanting to at least say goodbye to Luke. Robin stayed silent. "Nothing to say again? I thought so. I don't know what spell you put on the prince, but no one wants you here. We're all sinners here, and you're the worst of the lot. I know I can't change. Father's shown me that. But you, you're a damn demon. You can't act your best for a crowd. I know what those monsters that raised you do. How many girls have you devoured? Boys?" Eider threw the bottle on the ground. "Your whole branch of the tree is nothing but monsters. Your father's a demon whore, your brother's a demon whore, and your mother must be too. She's a whore, at the very least. Your fairy mother definitely was. And what does that make you? The only one of you that seemed decent was your sister, and I bet your father's fucking her." Robin pulled Eider up by the collar of his shirt and punched him in the face. "There are a number of things I could say to you, about you and your family, but I like Lady Rosabella too much to say them." Robin spat at him and walked away. As he left Eider alone, something occurred to him. 'Sister? I have a sister?' His time in the human world was drawing to a close. He lamented he would not get to know this sister of his. That was the way it had to be, he told himself. Something was certainly wrong with Eider. He regretted not controlling his temper better. He and Eider were never friends. If he had tried, he likely wouldn't have gotten much out of the man anyway. That wasn't something he could help with. Robin shook his head and went back to his tent. Rowan found Martin in his tent, mulling over a stack of papers. Martin greeted him. "Hello, Prince. How is your arm?" "It's healing well." Rowan moved it to show him. He cleared his throat. "There's something I need to discuss with you." "What is it, Prince?" "Sir Martin, you can return home. We won't be needing your help any further. As soon as we replenish our supplies, I plan on making the next battle the last one. You and your men have done more than enough. Rest and leave the final battle to us." Rowan said. "What of Silvanus?" Martin asked. "I'll send word for him to guard what he captured in our last battle. Collin won't be sending anyone this way for a while. His forces are dwindling." Rowan took a seat near Martin. "I will inform my king of your wishes." Martin put the papers aside. "About Sir Luke, are you keeping him? If you wish for him to stay with you permanently, I can tell the king." "No, he's going home with you. Don't tell him yet. I need to speak with him in private." Rowan's heart ached at hearing himself say those words. "Are you sure? He'd be happier with you." "I know that, but it would be in his own best interest if he spent some time away from me for a while. And to be honest, I know he is very competent, but I do not want him fighting this next battle. I want him resting safely." Rowan said. Rowan was prepared to do whatever it took to end the war before spring. It terrified him. In his heart, he was already willing to become whatever monster was necessary to achieve that feat. He didn't want Luke to see that. "What are you planning on doing?" Martin asked. "Whatever it takes. Take care of him for me while I'm busy." Rowan gave him a half-hearted smile. "I'll do my best, but he really is better off with you." Rowan stood back up. "There is someone far more suited to him than myself. I want him to see that. Please, keep on eye on him for me." Martin turned to him in confusion. "I will, but Prince, whom ever do you mean?" Rowan grinned. "That is a well guarded secret." Martin stared at Rowan, second-guessing his every thought. 'Surely, he doesn't mean...but he couldn't know about that...' Rowan left without another word, and went to find one he did not wish to leave behind. Word spread quickly around camp that they would be retreating soon. Luke was harder to find than he expected. Rowan finally found him at the edge of camp, sitting on a cliff and watching the snow fall on the sea. He swung his legs over the side of the cliff, leaning forward. "There you are." Rowan stood behind him. "I heard we're pulling back." Luke got up and turned to face Rowan. "Yes." Luke and Rowan exchanged glanced before Luke spoke. "Am I...going home with you?" "Luke, I thank you greatly for all you've done for me." "You're sending me away, aren't you?" Luke shifted his gaze to the side. "For now. I can't keep you forever. The war's almost over. You should go home and rest." Rowan walked over into Luke's view. "I don't want to go home." "I'm sure there's much you can help with your king and..." Rowan started to say. "I don't care about him." Luke cut him off. He begged Rowan. "Please, let me stay." "You serve another king." "I want to serve you." Luke grabbed Rowan's hands. "Luke, I can't simply take you from him at a time like this..." Luke fell to his knees and begged again. "Let me stay with you. I want to finish it with you. Let me be by your side, just a little longer." "Luke, you know I will never return your feelings." Rowan's heart broke at watching his friend kneel before him in such agony. "I know that." Luke faced the ground as he held Rowan's hands. "But I love you the same. I know nothing will come of this, but I want to be with you a little longer." "I'll make you a deal. Please, stand. Do not kneel to me." Rowan said to him. Luke stood up. Rowan looked him in the eyes. "When two springs pass, if you still desire to be near me, I will accept any oath you wish to make to me." "Why that long?" Luke asked. "To give you time to properly think it over." Rowan said. "I don't need to think anything over. This is what I want." "You have a habit of getting carried away with yourself. If you really desire this, you will still desire it then. If not, it matters not." Rowan stood a little closer to him. "I didn't say we couldn't still see each other. When the war is over, there will be plenty of time for visiting, and we can exchange letters." "I don't want to be away from you." Luke's words were filled with desperation. "I know. That's exactly why you must be. Your mind is in a better place now, but you have to get used to being able to manage without me around you constantly. Think of it as a test of all the hard work we've done." Rowan put his hand on Luke's shoulder. "You'll be fine." "Something's not right." Luke's heart sunk at realizing his worst fear. "You're going to run away, aren't you?" Rowan couldn't completely hide his reaction. He gaze shifted back and forth between Luke and the snow. "Why would you think that?" "You're promising me things that won't be." Luke stepped back. "Tell me the truth." "Whatever happens, know that we will meet again." Rowan took hold of his wrists and pulled him closer to himself, as Rowan worried at how close Luke was to the edge of the cliff. "Please, if not for me, for yourself...stay strong, as you are now. And know this...I will always protect you." "You can't." "Yes, I can, and I will, no matter how stubborn you become or how you shut me out." Rowan put his hand over Luke's heart. "If you want to see me, you will. I will always be here for you. Here, alone. If we are separated by thousands of miles and the deepest of seas or the veil of death, I will still be with you here, for eternity." Rowan's words did not lessen Luke's pain. They only worried him more. "Promise me we will meet again in person. If you must run away, I can't blame you for it, but...please, don't do anything that will risk your life." "We will me again. I swear it. No matter what happens between then and now, I swear to you, two springs from now, you and I will speak in person again. That meeting is set in stone. I promise you." Rowan didn't know how he came to that date. Somehow, it seemed right to him. Once he said it, he promised to himself he would ensure that would happen. Luke sighed heavily. "Alright, but you better not break your promise." "I'll make an oath to you." Rowan pulled a dagger from his side. He removed one of his gloves and cut down the palm of his hand. Rowan pulled the necklace with the lyre flower that he made Luke out from under Luke's shirt through his collar and held the flower in his bleeding hand. He let his blood drench the petals. "I swear, by my blood, that I will uphold that promise to you. And I will accept, on that day two springs from now, whatever oath you give to me." "I want to believe you." Luke felt himself falling to pieces. "Must we part?" "Yes. I am sorry." Rowan leaned forward, hugged him, and kissed him on the cheek. "Goodbye, Luke. We will meet again. Do no forget that, and do not forget that I love you, my dear friend. Please take care of yourself." "I can't promise that." Luke hugged him back. "Please." Rowan begged him. "I'll...try. Please don't make me say it." "I won't. I'll be seeing you again before you know it." Rowan smiled at him. He saw in Luke's eyes what awaited him, and though it pained him now, he was happy knowing what future inevitably awaited Luke. "After the door is open, I will see you." "I'm afraid..." "Shh...Don't be. The storm may get worse before it clears, but you will see the stars soon." Rowan started to pull away. Luke hugged him tighter. "I'm sorry. Once more." Rowan allowed it. "Alright." Luke pressed his forehead against Rowan's. He stared longingly into Rowan's eyes. "Thank you, for everything. May I kiss you?" "Yes." Luke kissed him on the cheek and pulled away. "I'll try not to disappoint you." "Perhaps next time we meet, you won't be coming to me alone." Rowan hinted at what awaited Luke. Luke wanted so badly to believe in what Rowan was promising him. It sounded too wonderful to ever happen to him. He forced himself to smile. "If so, then I know what I will pledge to you." "Oh? What is that?" "It's a secret." Luke said. "May I...ask for a parting gift?" "What is it?" Luke took Rowan's dagger from him and ungloved one hand. He cut his hand open across the scar he already had on his palm. "I know you swore on the charm you gave me, but I want it deeper than that." Rowan couldn't help but grin. "Oh, I am honored." They pressed their hands together, their warm blood mixing in their wounds and down their cold skin. "I swear I will uphold my pledge to you." Rowan said, pressing his hand firmly against Luke's. "And I swear the same." Luke let his hand slip away from Rowan's. "Take care of yourself." Rowan put his glove back on. Rowan smiled at him once more. "Do not forget. I love you, my friend." "I know." Luke walked with Rowan back to camp. He wished that Rowan could be in all of his dreams. Within the hour, the two armies parted ways. Luke watched Rowan leave first. He muttered words only the wind could hear. "Please, please, don't die. You'll break me if you die. I can barely stand." Rowan sensed Luke was watching from afar. His heart was filled with sadness and worry. Rowan rode far ahead of the other soldiers, with Robin riding close beside him. Eider stayed at the back. He and Robin hadn't spoken since the incident earlier in the day. Robin knew what was on Rowan's mind. "Did he take it well?" "Well enough. Better than I thought he'd take it." "What'd you give him as a parting gift?" Robin asked. Rowan looked down at his hand. "An oath in blood." "Dramatic. I'm sure he liked that." Robin grinned. "I was worried you were going to sleep with him." "Really now? I don't believe you." Rowan rolled his eyes. "You do harbor romance in your heart, I can tell. How unfaithful." Robin laughed loudly at this. He half wondered if Rowan was lying to him, but he didn't really care either way. He was too busy trying to hide his own sadness. "Quit with your nonsense. I do not. Seems hardly a laughing matter. If you really believed that, shouldn't you be worried?" "What for? You're mine. I keep what I steal." Robin grinned. "Fairy nonsense again." "You want to know something really funny?" Robin asked. "What?" "If I had allowed things to flow as they were supposed to, I was supposed to fall in love with his true love before meeting you." Robin had never told Rowan anything about the alternate path he saw that day when he chose to leave the other realm and find Rowan. "I was supposed to be his lover from when I was twenty-three to twenty-nine." "How? Right now, he's locked away in a tower." "Huh. That wasn't supposed to happen. He should have been living on the border of the other realm. His father is a dragon who turned himself human. How did he end up in a tower?" Robin tried to remember what else he saw that day. That information didn't make sense. "Looks like you changed quite a few fates that day." Rowan said. "It's not my fault. Blame the woman who showed me that. She knew what she was doing." Robin said. "Once someone sees their other half, all other desires pale in comparison and they cannot escape their desire to be near them. I wonder, what was she aiming to do by showing me that? It's beyond my understanding, certainly." "So then...Philip's sons are not his sons?" "Oh, is James the twin? He looks very different from how he appeared in that vision...and a lot more rude. Or maybe I'm forgetting...I forgot most of it once I saw you." Robin recalled something about the dragon man taking the fiancée of a king, but the details of it were vague in his mind. "I remember my exact thought that moment. How can anyone be that gorgeous?" "You and Luke are absolutely related." Rowan shook his head. "In that vision, what was I like? How were we to meet?" "Oh, you were a much crueler person, and more flashy. You were a lot like how Luke was when we first met up with him again. And I was mastering all forms of magic. I'd gotten...sidetracked from that quest when I met that blacksmith, but we eventually parted ways. I knew it was time to move on. He was mortal, after all, and I had gained immortality." The Rowan he saw in that vision was a frightening person. He was cold to Wren, and fought mercilessly for fun. Rosabella was terrified of him, as were most. Luke adored him for his beauty and his recklessness. Their romance was passionate, and their presence on the battlefield horrifying. Robin himself had been even less human-like. He was like Elios, wandering around to whoever called out in need of something, and there he found the blacksmith and his twin brother. Though his love for Alan too was passionate, their days were quiet. They spent much of their time by the sea in a little cottage, but he left in time. He couldn't bare to watch his lover age as he remained unchanged and unable to grow old with him. Alan did not wish for immortality, and so they parted. "Immortal and a master sorcerer? You gave that up to chase me?" Rowan had a different vision of what he thought Robin must have been like. He pictured someone very flashy. "Yes." Robin continued. "As for the rest that I can remember...When I parted ways to continue my journey, I came across you and frequently watched you in battle. You fought so beautifully, I couldn't keep my eyes off of you. I wanted you more than anything. Then, Ruaidhrí defeated you. Luke carried you off the battlefield as you were dying and crossed paths with me. He could see I was not an ordinary human and asked for my help. I demanded to keep you in exchange for restoring your life." Rowan wasn't sure how to react to that information. "How very...fairy-like." "I wouldn't have called myself human in that life. Luke was desperate to keep you alive and offered himself up instead as a servant. I refused, and he agreed to my terms. When I revived you, you knew who I was and I knew who you were once our eyes met. Luke understood it too. To compensate for what I had done, I predicted his future and told him where to find his true love. It just happened to turn out that the man I had left behind was the one he would be seeking." Rowan laughed under his breath. "No matter what, you're a thief." "Yes, seems that is my nature. To keep you with me, I granted you immortality as well." Robin caught a glimpse of some of his grey hairs hanging down in front of his face. "I know that I have done wrong by changing that course, but I don't regret it. If things stayed as they were, I would have never gotten to know Luke or Wren, and I wouldn't have had the joy of experiencing my younger days with you. For every moment I have spent with you, it was worth casting aside immortality and power. Any suffering I've experienced, it matters not. Underneath all of that pain I have endured, I am glad I could spend my time with you, serving you." "You have never served me. You stay by my side." Rowan said. "Those are one in the same." Robin said. Then, something dawned on. "You said he was in a tower? How long has he been there?" "He has always been there." "That...doesn't make sense. I didn't see that vision until I was ten. I couldn't have caused..." Robin's eyes widened. "What's wrong?" Rowan asked. "So, she had a plan that day after all." "What are you talking about?" Rowan tilted his head. "Don't worry over it. It's fairy nonsense, I assure you." Robin waved his hand. He didn't want to discuss this with Rowan. There was too much to explain. All this time, Robin was carrying the burden of having changed everyone's fates that day by leaving Liliana's side to find Rowan. If Alan was in the tower from the start, and Alan was only five years younger than him, Robin's actions that day could not have placed him there as he wouldn't see the vision for another five years after that. His queen must have had a plan indeed when she showed him that alternate future. What her plan was, he could not see. That was beyond him. It disturbed him to think about. 'Why would she want me to leave Mother's side at that point in time? What did she want me to do?' Robin shook off those thoughts. He didn't want to know. The journey home was easier than leaving. The weather let up some. When they reached the castle, a heavy sadness hit Rowan. "We're home," Robin said. Rowan's eyes dulled. "It's quiet." Robin too felt the same sadness. "Yes." "I wonder if Wren is home yet." Rowan dismounted from his horse. Robin and Rowan went to look for Wren or Argus, but found Queen Ran instead. For once, Rowan noted, her cheeks were rosy and her eyes bright. She had reddened her lips and was wearing a set of matching amethyst earrings and a necklace. "You're both home. What happened to your arm?" His mother asked when she saw how Rowan held it. "The price of taking King Ruaidhrí's life." Rowan said. "Is it broken?" She touched his arm. "No, but the cut is very deep." Robin said. "I'm keeping an eye on it." "Come, come inside. It's too cold for you to be out with injuries." She hurried them inside the castle. "Yes, Mother." Rowan said. "Where is your friend, Sir Luke?" She asked. Rowan didn't want to answer her. "I sent him home for now. Is Wren home?" "Yes. He's busy at the moment ordering things for the castle." Ran looked over her son. "You look so tired. You should rest." "How is Lady Rosa doing?" Rowan asked. "She's a bit...irritable right now, but she is fine." Ran said. "Where is Father? I need to speak with him." Rowan wanted to get that over with. He was sure his father would have something to say to further ruin his mood. "He is in the dining hall," she said. "I need to talk with him about everything that's transpired. Please, excuse me. I'll see you again later." Rowan said. "Don't overwork yourself, my son." "Yes, Mother." He gave a slight bow to her and left. Once he was out of sight, Ran said, "That injury worries me." "It worries me as well. I won't let him fight until it's properly healed, no matter what the king demands. I'll keep him safe." Robin reassured her. "You always put me at ease, good knight." "How have you been?" Robin asked. "I've been keeping an eye on Rosa, and my distance from my husband. He does not desire to see me unless he wants something." She said. Robin walked with her down the hall. "Nevermind him. He thinks of no one but himself." The gardener came in from a nearby entrance. He approached the queen warmly, then kept more distance between them when he saw Robin standing next to her. "Excuse me, your majesty. I didn't know you had company. I've bought the seeds you requested for the garden. When the time comes, I'll plant them." "Thank you, Garth. Keep those safe until then." Ran's cheeks burned. "Yes, your majesty. Whatever you wish for, I will bring to life." He bowed to her. "I'll be on my way." Ran went a deeper shade of red after the gardener left. Robin grinned. "My dear queen, do you fancy our gardener?" "Don't be silly. I am an old woman. Such fires no longer burn in me, and I am married regardless." Ran shook her head, but her face revealed the truth. "Married to an unfaithful, unloving husband who can't bother to keep you company." Robin encouraged her affair. "Forget him. He won't notice." "I cannot be unfaithful," she said. "It isn't like you to lie to me. Skirt the truth, conveniently leave out details, or word things in a deceptive way, that is your style. But to outright lie? It's all over your face." Robin laughed. He showed his approval. "He's not bad looking, for his age. Everyone needs company." "You mustn't tell my sons." She put her hands to her face. "They won't think any differently of you for it. They know how their father is." Robin said. He brought up something the queen rarely spoke of. "You know Rowan knew about how you chased after Ronan. He wasn't bothered by that. This won't bother him either." "For all my chasing, that only granted me a few years. He was all too faithful to his own wife, even though she was sleeping with that selkie when he was away. It took nearly two decades of her faithlessness to give him to me." She said. "And I still shouldn't have done that. He was deeply bound in his chivalrous vows. She and I both broke his heart." "No, this world broke him. He forgave her for her infidelity because he was rarely home. He knew how lonely she was. I didn't understand it when I was younger, but I think I do now. Humans break if they are left alone too long. If you were not there, he would've broke sooner and I doubt it would be to a brothel he'd run. To the seaside cliffs is where he'd return." Robin whispered the last part to her. "That is all the more reason you shouldn't be ashamed. Your husband gives you no love. Forget him and take what you want." "You would tell me something like that, you naughty thing." She playfully pushed him. "If Argus finds out, he will surely beat me to death. Ronan was another matter. His innocence and dutifulness spared him my husband's paranoia over power." "I won't let him do such a thing, and neither would your sons." Robin said. Not far from them, they heard a man scream out in agony, then several women screaming shortly after. The queen moved closer to Robin. "What's going on?" "I don't know. Let me escort you to somewhere safe." Robin put his arm around her. He intended to lead her to where the king would be, but that would require him going in that direction. Then he realized something. Rowan also went in that direction. Ran realized it before he did, and urged him to go that way. Robin didn't want to risk the queen's life, but he knew he would be unsuccessful preventing a mother from checking on her son. He led her there to ensure her safety. A servant ran over to Robin as they walked toward the dining hall. "Knight, please help!" "What's happened?" Robin asked. "Someone tried to take the prince's life again. He's been injured." The maidservant said. "Take me to him." Robin said. The maidservant led them down a dimly lit hallway. Rowan sat on the ground, holding his left arm. His blood drenched his sleeve and part of his pants. The floor was a mix of his blood and that of the assassin who Rowan had slain. The hired assassin lay on the ground face down, one of his arms severed from his body. From what Robin could see, Rowan had cut more than the man's arm. Sprawled out under him, the man's intestines were visible in the giant pool of blood on the ground. Ran became sick at the sight. "Let me see." Robin ran over to Rowan and knelt beside him. He gently held Rowan's arm. "Can you move it?" Rowan shook his head. "Shit." Robin looked closer. He saw that part of the bone was out of place, protruding through Rowan's skin. "It's broken. Where's the physician? Get him now." The maidservant ran off to find him. Ran swallowed what she nearly threw up. "I'll tell his father and brother. I can trust you will keep him safe until someone else arrives." "Are you sure you want to go alone?" Robin asked. "I'll be alright. No one cares about my life, so they won't take it." She said. "Please, keep him alive." "I will." Ran left to find the king. Robin used his cloak to stop some of the bleeding. "Hold on. The physician will be here soon." Rowan couldn't say anything. Robin hugged him, being careful to not move him enough to make his pain worse. "It's going to be alright." "Wipe my face." He managed. Robin looked at Rowan. He was crying from the pain. Robin wiped his tears away to protect his lover's pride for when the others arrived. Ran returned with Argus and Wren before the physician. He arrived within a few minutes after that with the maidservant. "I'm here. Everyone, move out of the way. I need to see him." The physician, carrying a heavy bag, said. Robin showed him the injury. "Prince, I'm going to attempt to put the bone back in place. Would you like me to..." "Get on with it!" Rowan yelled, anxious at having an audience for this. "Very well." The physician warned him. He went to work immediately. Rowan held in a scream and hid his face in Robin's chest to hide the tears he couldn't keep inside. He bit his lip so hard it bled. Robin discretely wiped his face for him. When the physician was done setting the bone and bandaging him up, he put Rowan's arm in a sling. He said to Robin, "Let's move him to his room. He needs to rest for now. Fairy knight, I could use your knowledge of herbs and remedies. Come with me." "Will he be alright?" Ran asked. "He should survive, my queen. If the injury gets bad, he'll need to have it amputated. We won't let any infection spread throughout the rest of his body." The physician said. He wiped his hands off on a wash cloth. Robin helped Rowan to his feet. Rowan shouted at the man. "I'll kill you if you take my arm!" "Please, calm down." The physician said. "Son, please don't threaten him. You're in his care." Ran said to him. "What good is care if he sends a surgeon in to chop me into pieces?!" Rowan yelled at her. She was shocked. Rowan never spoke to her like that. She took it as a sign of how much pain he was in. "Please, forgive his behavior." "It's alright. I'm used to it. I know he is only covering for his fear." The physician picked up his bag of tools. Rowan was taken to his bedroom to rest. Wren examined the body of the assassin. He was the man that went missing the day the other servant was found dead. Wren cursed at his father under his breath, and then at himself. Robin and the physician carried for Rowan around the clock. Robin was never impressed with human medicinal care. He sent a robin to his mother asking for herbs from the other side the first chance he got. She sent the bird back with the herbs he requested. Robin prepared them into a drink. If prepared correctly, the mixture would make Rowan's body heal faster than ordinarily possible. He had something else to give him as well, something his mother sent as a gift along with the herbs--a vial of unicorn milk. Robin had Rowan drink every bit of the concoction, and rubbed the milk on Rowan's wound. The milk would make where it touched stronger. To make it even, he rubbed the same amount on his other arm. He didn't tell Rowan what it was for. Rowan's arm was recovering quickly. Robin kept him mostly in bed to ensure nothing interfered with his recovery. Rowan was growing antsy at being kept inside. He spent his time writing letters to Luke. One morning, when Rowan's arm had mostly healed, Wren visited him while Robin and the physician were both out. He came dressed in red and black from head to toe. Wren sat on the bed. "How are you feeling, Brother?" "My arm's almost as good as new." Rowan showed Wren that he no longer needed to wear a sling or bandages. His arm was weak, but the bone healed. "That's good. I was really worried you might lose it." Wren said. "Haha, trust me. I was far more worried than you. How would I shoot with one arm?" Rowan laughed. "That's what you were worried about?" Wren narrowed his eyes at his brother. He shook his head. "That's worrying in and of itself...Do you need anything? Are you hungry?" "I can get up if I need anything. It's only my arm. Really, I don't need to be resting in bed all day." Rowan said. "Rin said the remedy he gave you takes a lot out of you. You don't have to hide you're tired from me. I'm not a little kid. I can help." "I suppose something to eat would be nice right about now. But I'll come with you. I'm tired of staring at these walls. A walk won't kill me." Rowan got out of bed. He was glad to be leaving the room. "Alright." Wren opened the door for him. "I've got it." "Thank you." Rowan noticed something. "Wait, are you wearing my clothes?" "Ah...I, uh...well...some of my clothes aren't fitting as well as they used to. I thought it'd be alright if I borrowed some of yours. I'm sorry. I should have asked." Wren had been sneaking into his brother's wardrobe so often at this point he forgot he was wearing Rowan's clothes. "No, it's fine. You look good in that. Fits you perfectly. You can borrow whatever you want, but you know, you could just have some new clothes made." Rowan said. He looked at how the clothes fit on his brother. He filled the clothes out, and the colors looked better on Wren than they did on him. The change from blue and white to red and black made Wren appear more confident and it went better with his features. "Ah...I am, but they're not ready yet and..." Wren fidgeted with his hands. "And?" "It's the same reason I've always kept my hair the same as yours." Wren walked slightly ahead of him. Rowan went quiet for a moment. His heart warmed. "You know, I was thinking, I might grow my hair out." "Really?" Wren touched his own hair. "Do you think long hair would look good on me?" "I don't see why not." Rowan said. "Heh, probably better on you than me. I bet it'll make my grays stand out more." "People will think you've grown wiser." Wren said. "I wish that's how it worked. Time has clearly done nothing for Father's intellect. Seems like some of his knowledge was replaced with paranoia and deeper delusions." Rowan commented. "So it seems." Wren glanced out the window in the hall. It had warmed enough for most of the snow to melt away, but the wind was still sharp and cold. Over the land, mist hid away what the snow once did. "After we eat, if you're not too tired, could you play a game with me?" "A game?" Rowan asked. "Outside, in the mists. Like when we were children." Wren pointed out the window. Rowan looked out. "Alright." The two brothers ate a meal together, then wandered out into the mist. They took turns hiding. Wren searched for the red of his brother's cloak. When he saw it, he ran over to him and grabbed him. "Got you." "Damn. You're a lot better at this than back then." Rowan said. "Heh. My turn. Close your eyes and come find me." Wren ran off and hid behind a tree. Rowan counted to twenty and searched for him. He caught Wren with ease. "My turn again." Before Wren could close his eyes, the mist turned to a fog so thick Wren couldn't see anything in front of him. He looked around and felt for Rowan. His hands met with nothing. "Brother?" The fog disoriented him. He couldn't tell where he was going. He called out again. "Brother? Where are you?!" A red silhouette passed before him, then disappeared. Wren chased after it, but couldn't find the source. He called out a third time. "Brother, please!" Rowan grabbed him from behind. "Gotcha." "It wasn't my turn to hide!" Wren shouted. "Hehe. I know. I thought I'd surprise you." Rowan grinned at him. "...Is Rin out today?" Wren asked. "No, why?" "This...looks like magic." Rowan's grin widened. "It might be." Wren's mouth hung open. "You? But how?" "I am his." Rowan's voice, Wren swore, was doubled, sounding like his brother and someone else at once. Before him, for a moment, he thought he saw Robin standing where Rowan was, but he blinked and the vision was gone. The fog turned to mist and rain fell down hard upon them. Rowan smiled. Wren looked up at the sky. "When did you learn to do that?" "Recently. Impressed?" "Absolutely!" Wren shivered. "And...very cold. Could you stop it?" "Ah, good idea. Didn't think that part through...It's too cold for rain, isn't it?" Rowan laughed while his body shivered in the cold. He stopped the rain. "We better go back in and change." "Are you going?" "Hmm?" "Are you going to leave?" Wren stood in place. Rowan understood well what his brother was asking. He started to walk away. "When I've healed up. I need to finish the war." "Brother." Wren grabbed his brother's cloak. "Tell me." "I will never leave you for long. That's how it's always been. The mist comes and goes, but you always know where to find it, don't you?" Rowan said. Wren let go of his cloak and walked alongside him. He wished his brother would make it rain again. "When are you leaving?" "I don't know yet." Wren got ahead of him to stand in his way. Wren hugged his brother. "You should go back and rest. This weather can't be good for you." "I will. What are you planning on doing today?" Rowan hugged him back. "That's a long list. Father's been shifting many responsibilities onto me lately." "Well, take them. Better you are handling things than him. That puts my mind at ease, actually." "I was annoyed by it, but when you put it that way..." Wren pulled away. They started wallking again back to the castle. "It's a good thing, isn't it? The more I've learned about what needs to be done around the castle, the more I don't understand how we've managed this long. Father's decisions are completely irrational." "He's even worse when it comes to battle strategies. Sometimes, I wondered if he was setting me up to fail. Everything about how he's made me handle things since Ronan died just seems like one big attempt at publicly humiliating me. I don't understand it." Rowan said. "He's not a sane man, from my observations." Wren stopped himself. "Is it wrong of me to say that about my own father?" "The truth is the truth." Rowan said. Wren led Rowan back to his room. He offered to help Rowan change clothes if he was too tired to, but Rowan refused him. Wren went on his way to work on the long list of tasks their father had left him that morning. Robin returned to the room shortly after this. Seeing Rowan in wet clothes, he panicked. "Where were you? You're soaking wet! You need to change immediately." "I was about to ask you to help me with that." He actually did need help, but Rowan was too embarrassed to ask his younger brother to help him change. Robin helped him out of the wet clothes and into some fresh ones. He checked over the injury. Rowan's arm was mostly healed, but the cold weather made his arm hurt and his already weakened body weaker. Robin helped him to bed. "There. You can't be staying in drenched clothes out in the freezing cold with that injury. Do you need more blankets? Are you warm enough?" "I could use your warmth." Rowan tugged at Robin's shirt. Robin removed his shoes and got in bed with him. "Something wrong?" "Wren knows we're leaving." "You told him?" "He sorted it out on his own." Rowan leaned against Robin. "I see." Robin held him and kissed him. "When are we leaving?" "I want to end the war by our next battle, or the one after that. No more than that. I won't let it go on till spring, no matter what stands in my way. Then, we'll run." Rowan ran his fingers through Robin's hair. "If that is what you wish." Robin kissed his forehead, then kissed him on the lips. He slid up part of Rowan's shirt and felt up his chest. He kissed Rowan deeper, then kissed down his neck. "Careful. I'm weak right now. Don't be too rough." Rowan said. "I know." He rubbed over the front of Rowan's pants while they kissed in bed. Rowan wrapped his right arm around Robin's neck. Robin pulled Rowan's shirt up higher and played with his nipples. He slipped his tongue into Rowan's mouth and his hand into Rowan's pants. The door opened wide. Eider walked in. "I have a message from the king. You..." Robin looked at him, then kissed Rowan again. Rowan saw and stopped Robin from doing it another time. Eider stood in shock, then yelled. "What...what the fuck are you doing?!" Robin pulled down Rowan's shirt and sat up. "What? You've been joking about us sleeping together for at least a decade. Why are you shocked?" "But...that was...you're really...Prince...I thought...but my sister. You're always all over her. How...how can you betray her in such a way?!" Eider's words came out in a jumbled mess. "You care about that? Didn't you once say if you couldn't get any, you'd consider taking your sister yourself?" Robin raised an eyebrow. "That was a joke! I would never!" Eider yelled. Rowan sighed and got off the bed. "I am not betraying your sister. I've never once slept with her." "What?" "I've never done more than kiss her hand." Rowan fixed his hair. "Don't fuck with me. I've heard the rumors, and I see the servants you have around her. She's pregnant." Eider got up in his face. "Yes, she is. And that child will very likely look like me, but it won't me mine. How could that be?" Rowan looked up at him and smirked, mocking him for not seeing the obvious. "What...what sort of sorcery is this? What are you talking about it'll look like yours and not be yours? Have you had that demon put a spell on her?" Eider still did not grasp it. "There is no magic at work here. This is entirely human in nature." Rowan said. "I don't know what you're playing at. Did you choose my sister as your fiancée to torment me? Destroy her honor for your own whims? What are you scheming against us?" Eider grabbed at Rowan's shirt. Robin immediately pushed him off. "Don't touch him." "Rosabella is her own person, and she is quite capable of making her own decisions. I've plotted nothing against you, but she has been my co-conspirator this entire time. We created this plan together." Rowan admitted. "What plan?" "Is it not obvious to you?" Rowan was dumbfounded. "No, it is not." Rowan put his palm to his face. "I shouldn't have to spell this out for you. I'm not interested in your sister, or any woman. I need an heir. My mother is foreign. The only man who's children could pass for my own would have to share my blood on my mother's side. Have you not noticed that Wren spends most of his time with your sister?" "That bastard is sleeping with my sister?!" Eider's anger grew. "He's been bringing her flowers and reciting her poetry since they first met. How are you this oblivious?!" Rowan stared at him in disbelief. "You're all...you're all in on this...All to cover up you being a damn sodomite." Eider, likewise, could not believe what he was hearing. "Why are you so worked up about this? You've done far worse than I have. Your sister is going to be the next queen because of our plan. You'll have more recognition and honor brought to your family, more than you will ever gain on your own." Rowan countered. "I'll tell everyone about this." Eider threatened him. "What for?" Rowan asked. "And why? It's so obvious. Who cares?" Robin stared at him. "If your plan goes awry, where does that leave my family?" Eider asked. "Nothing's going to go awry if you don't go off running your mouth. Your friends with Luke, for god's sake. Why the hell are you so upset?" Rowan asked. "Luke's not my friend. I thought...I thought you were actually a good man." Eider shook his head and backed away from Rowan. "I thought my sister was in good hands, but you're turning her into something wicked." "I've done no such thing." Rowan said. "Stay with your filthy demon. I won't let you corrupt my sister." Eider stormed out of the room. Robin and Rowan stood in silence for a moment, then looked at each other in confusion. "What the hell was that about?!" Rowan asked. "I don't know. I'm as confused as you are." Robin shrugged his shoulders. Eider went straight to find his father. Egret was busy going through Mara's old things, looking for items to sell off. Eider entered the room angrily, then went quiet when he saw what his father was doing. His father had tossed the items he didn't want on the floor, and the ones to keep were put inside a chest. "What do you want, boy?" Egret asked. Eider regained his focus. "Father, I must speak to you about something immediately." "What do you want?" "I discovered something horrid." Eider spoke with rage-filled words. "The prince and that bastard knight are secretly lovers." "No shit." Egret polished a chalice, then placed it in the chest. "Wait...you knew that?" Eider's shoudlers dropped. "That's obvious." "How is it obvious?" "How is it not? Besides, I've caught them before and so has Argus. What of it?" Egret found a book of pressed flowers. Inside, it had a message addressed to Mara from Eleonora. He tossed it on the ground. "Well, there's more. Bella's pregnant, and Prince Wren is the father. They've been setting all of this up from the start." Eider revealed the rest of what he learned. "Interesting." That part, he suspected. Hearing confirmation of that intrigued him. "They've convinced Bella to be in on their little charade. It's disgusting." Eider said. "It's quite clever. I didn't know she had initiative like that. She really is the better of my children." Egret stroked his chin. "What a clever little girl." "What? But...she's not like that! She's no whore. They've clearly bewitched her in some way. We need to tell someone and have her cleansed." Eider argued. "That doesn't seem likely to me. She's a woman, same as any other. She wants power and protection. There's nothing supernatural about anything you've said. She bedded the younger brother to serve the older one, and will be queen for it." Egret tossed another book on the floor. "Why are you so concerned about your sister all of a sudden? Are you growing soft? How pathetic." "I am not weak. That demon has done something to her. I know it." "What do you care so much about this? Even if he has bewitched her, she'll come out better for it. Leave it be." Egret looked over a gold and emerald necklace. He put that one in the chest. "Aren't you friends with the Incubus of Cailean? The Devil's Rook is a far more sinful man than the two you're dealing with. Given you keep his company, I should ask if you're hiding anything." "Don't disgust me. I would never bed a man, not even a whore like him." Eider cast Luke aside again. "And Luke isn't doing anything to my sister, nor is he my friend. We drank together sometimes, that's all." Egret found his son's behavior very strange, even for as odd as he already was. He also found it entertaining, and he was curious what sort of chaos this revelation might cause. He wore a devilish grin. "You know what? Go on and tell everyone. Tell them everything." "I will." "Go on, now." Egret watched his son leave. He tossed a beaded necklace on the floor. "I'm getting bored of Argus. This should be entertaining. Perhaps I can snatch his land right out from under him." While Eider went to create chaos within his own people, another turmoil was about to transpire on the other side. Collin watched over his people from his room. His thoughts were always over death now--how many died yesterday, how many would die today, and how many tomorrow. There were so few young men left. With the news of the Red King falling, his hopes of winning the war dwindled. Winter was not kind to his lands. The weather never let up around the castle. Collin sat in front of the window and contemplated what he should do next. It might be best to surrender and negotiate. If he was lucky, he could keep his people alive, even if they were then subjugated by Argus. If Argus refused to negotiate, he may be sending them to death anyway. Collin's thoughts circled around him. A servant knocked at the door and came in the room. "Is there something you need?" Collin asked. "Yes, there is." The servant, as he came into full view, revealed the sword he carried at his side and drew it. "What are you...? Traitor..." Collin rose up and drew his own sword. "I am no traitor. I, Elon, serve my king, Argus the Great, ever dutifully." The man lunged at Collin. "Bastard!" The assassin and Collin exchanged blows. Elon managed to knock Collin's sword from him. He stabbed his sword straight through Collin's stomach. As he pulled the sword out, the door opened again. Hollis walked into the room. "What are you...?" When Hollis realized what was happening, he shut the door to prevent the man from escaping. "Collin?!" Collin fell to the ground. Hollis grabbed a walking stick that was in the corner of the room to use as a weapon. Elon came at him. He broke the stick in half with his sword and cut deep into Hollis's left arm, breaking it. Hollis dropped to the ground. He held his arm in agony and looked up at the sword about to come down on him. Collin, clutching his stomach, looked over at his younger brother. All this time his brother had refused to fight and told them how pointless the war was. Here he was, about to watch Hollis, who never once set foot on the battlefield, be cut down before him in his own home. The sword came down. Hollis grabbed a vase to block it with. It shattered to pieces, the remnants of the vase cutting across the parts of his skin that were exposed--his face and hands. Elon raised his blade again. Hollis stumbled to his feet and snatched the dagger on Elon's belt from him, only to fall back down when Elon kneed him in the gut. With the little strength he had left, Collin picked up his sword and stood up. He ran at Elon and stabbed him in the back. Elon knocked him away, the sword still in him. Hollis slashed open his face. Elon grabbed Hollis's neck and squeezed hard. Hollis refused to let go of the dagger and stabbed him several times in the arm. Collin pulled his sword out and, by the strength of his will alone, cut Elon's head clear off. They all fell to the ground. Collin could not rise back up again. "Hollis, can you move? Call for a servant. You need a physician." "You need one more than me." Hollis crawled over to his brother and tried to hold him with one arm. His arm bled profusely. "Hollis, go on. Get help. You stand a chance of living. I'm...I'm done." Collin coughed up blood. "No, you can't die too! Please, please...you mustn't..." Tears fell from Hollis's face. "I told you...I told you this would happen...That's why...I didn't want anymore fighting..." "I know, but the world doesn't work like that..." Collin gave his last order as king. "Call Mark back. It's time we try it your way, before it takes you both." "He's already so far from here...will a messenger reach him in time?" "You have to try. Send for one quickly. Go on, call a servant and..." Collin coughed again. Blood dripped from his mouth. "I'm not leaving you here..." "At least...I could be home..." Collin's face was washed with Hollis's tears. The warmth was strangely comforting to him. He couldn't explain why. "You know, I never...I've never read any of your poems...do you think you could recite one to me? That might be...nice..." "You fool...I don't have anything worthy of this moment..." "Anything's fine..." "Alright." Hollis recited the first poem he could think of. It was one he had written for Finch after a night they spent watching the full moon together. Collin smiled the entire time, until he stopped breathing halfway through the last stanza. Hollis couldn't continue. He cried without any care for how he looked. His brother's body grew cold in his arms. Someone opened the door. It was Finch. He looked around the room at all the blood. Finch ran to Hollis's side. He ripped part of his cape to wrap up Hollis's arm. "What happened? Is he...? Your arm! You need to be treated immediately!" "Collin's gone. Someone...an enemy was hiding amongst our servants. Over there..." Hollis nodded his head in the direction of Elon's corpse. Finch called for help. Hollis was taken to the physician, where the doctor deemed the injury was not treatable. The physician traded places with the surgeon, who prepared him for an amputation. Finch stayed by his side throughout the process. News of the king's assassination traveled fast around the kingdom, and the news grew worse by the end of the night when it was discovered the queen had poisoned herself in her grief and fear. With no one capable to lead around the castle, Finch took charge and wrote a letter to Mark with Hollis's signature. Aderyn and Finch stayed close to Hollis while he slept and the snow piled higher. Just as word of Collin's demise spread fast, so did Eider's words back at Argus's castle. Everyone was talking about Robin and Rowan, and the plan involving Wren and Rosabella. Members of the court demanded that Argus publically address the rumors. Argus called Egret and Eider into a private meeting. "You! You caused all this chaos. What the hell is wrong with you?!" Argus yelled at Eider. "That demon needs to go. He's bewitched my sister!" Eider yelled back at him. Argus backhanded him across the face. "Shut the hell up. Your sister's a whore. You're going to go out there and tell everyone you made up all of this for attention." "I will not lie." Eider stood his ground. Argus said to Egret. "Tell your boy to do it, or I'll have him burned for treason. You may be my friend, but I cannot allow your son's idiotic actions to go unchecked. I give you this opportunity to deal with him before I do as a favor to you." "I am sorry for my son's behavior. I don't know what he's thinking. Perhaps, he is the one who is bewitched." Egret suggested. "Father, what are you saying?" Eider turned to his father, betrayed. "Don't disobey me, my son. Let's go." Egret led Eider out of the room. He shut the door behind him. "Continue as you were." "But he plans on killing me." Eider said. "I'll smooth things over with the king in time. Go on." Egret said. Eider nodded and left to continue telling his story. "This is most entertaining. I can get rid of the idiot son by burning, let the chaos continue, then work on getting rid of the royal family. I'll leave Bella and her baby as my path to control." Egret rubbed his hands together with glee. "The war is almost over. Such a shame. I should start another one after I get rid of Argus." From atop the castle walls, Rowan handed a letter over to a messenger to give to Luke. When the man left, Rowan, who had been avoiding the public for a while, asked Robin, "How's it been?" "People are still talking about it. Your father's been busy convincing everyone that Eider's gone off the deep end." Robin said. "That's not exactly wrong. I think he's snapped." Rowan couldn't think of any explanation for Eider's strange behavior. "What do you think people seem to think is true?" "Honestly, it looks like the court is split. The general public believes Eider, mostly because they enjoy the idea of it. It's more entertaining to them than their usual gossip." Robin said. "That's about what I expected." Rowan sighed. A servant approached them. "The king wishes to see you, your majesty." "Of course he does. I'll be on my way." Rowan said. Rowan and Robin went to speak with the king alone. He spoke with them in the same dark room that he spoke with Egret and Eider in. Argus was not pleased that Rowan brought Robin with him. He ignored Robin for the time being. "Son, we need to speak. I need you to get back into a battle immediately." "Right now? But, we're hardly prepared for one, and the weather..." Rowan said. "I don't care. I need you out of sight so I can work on fixing what all of you have caused. I've already had a speech written for the court, and I'll be giving it soon. Get ready to leave. I won't be putting up with any more bullshit today." Argus slammed his fist on a table. "We cannot leave yet. He hasn't fully recovered." Robin said. "I don't care. Get going. I need to speak with the court now." Argus walked passed him. "I won't let you..." Robin followed him. Argus slammed the door in his face. Robin swung the door wide open and continued to follow behind him. Rowan was right behind Robin. He grabbed Robin's arm. "Robin, don't. Leave him be. We'll manage." "No." Robin said. "I've had enough." "Robin, don't!" Rowan shook his head. "It'll be fine." "No, this is too much. I won't have it." Robin opened the doors of the great hall. He shouted down it at the king. "We're not leaving until I say we can." Argus, about to take a seat on his throne, turned back and yelled, "You! I told you to get ready." "No. Absolutely not. We're not leaving until the prince recovers." Robin shouted louder. "How dare you argue with me in front of everyone!" Argus pointed his finger at Robin. "Fuck off. We're not going." Robin gave Argus the middle finger. The crowd in the hall was a mix of shocked, disgusted, and amused. Rowan, rushing to catch up with Robin, was mortified. Wren was terrified. David prayed. Argus stepped down from his throne. "You bastard. You will not defy me again, or I'll..." "I'll cut you down before you can do anything. Who in your kingdom can contain me? And if you did manage slay me, my father will rip out your throat." Robin put his hand on the hilt of his sword. "A king holds no power over a beast." "You will go, because that is what your master will order you to do, you demon hound." Argus said. "I will not obey. The prince is in no condition to travel yet. I won't allow him to leave until his arm is fully healed and the storm has cleared." Robin would not budge. "He's healed enough. The war is nearly won. We must act now." Argus argued back at him. "If we act now, he could lose his arm or even his life because of your actions!" "If it wins us the war, I am willing to risk my son's life. All old men must come to terms with that." Argus countered him. "A convenient excuse. You old men get to decide when we go to war, then cry about the suffering and loss you caused? It is not normal to fight in winter. There is no reason to rush forward right now." Robin pulled his sword an inch out of its sheath. "We need to strike now. They're almost done with. We'll finish this with this last battle." Argus waved at his guards to block the doors. "You're rushing us out because you want to deal with some damn rumors. I won't risk his life over what people are saying behind our backs. Let them talk. They've always talked. I don't care!" Robin yelled so loudly his voice echoed across the room. Rowan didn't know what to do. He stood behind Robin, afraid of what could happen. "You wouldn't care, bastard son of the Black Wolf, heathen prince of the forest. Your blood invites it, as your blood tempts you into disobedience. If you do not wish to go, stay behind. You are no longer needed at this point in the war. Go back home to your fairy mother and feast on lost children at the river's edge. You've long overstayed your welcome." Argus waved his hand at Robin to tell him to go. Rowan finally spoke. He urged not at Robin to stop, but his father. "Father, please. I need him. We can't..." "We do not need him. This demon has bewitched you into thinking he deserves a place at our table. He doesn't have the right to the scraps left for the dogs outside our walls." Argus drew his sword and held it up in the air. "Burn the demon!" Someone in the crowd yelled. Others joined in. "Burn the demon! Burn the demon! Burn the demon!" "Come over here and say that to my face, so I can cut you down properly, you cowardly pigs!" Robin unsheathed his sword. "Robin, calm down!" Rowan snatched his sword from him. "No, I'm done. I'm tired of playing pretend." Robin grabbed Rowan and kissed him for the crowd. Robin stared out at all the gasping and gossiping nobles. "That's what you wanted to see, isn't it?" "The demon needs to be punished!" Someone shouted. "He should hang!" Another person yelled. Rowan's heart raced hearing all the death threats being thrown at Robin. He didn't know what to do, but he needed to do something quickly or Robin would die. "Don't you dare lay a hand on my son again, you demon. I'll have him cleansed of whatever spell you put on him." Argus pointed his sword at David. David shook his head. "David, we'll be needing your services shortly. Prepare some holy water. Guard, inform the executioner to prepare a pyre." Rowan was desperate. He did the only thing he could think to do, as foolish as it was. He held Robin's hand and shouted louder than anyone else. "Then you will need two. I am as guilty as he is." "Don't try to cover for him. You are not well. You have not been well. We will restore your mind soon. This is why I wanted you baptized and properly converted. Your soul is unguarded from the devil." Argus said to sway the crowd. "I am not possessed. I love him. I won't pretend anymore to save face for you." Rowan held tight to his lover's hand. Humiliated, Argus put his sword away. "If that is how you want it, then we'll discuss your punishment in private. I won't give your beast another moment to spout his wickedness before a crowd. Come with me, willingly, or I'll have him tied to four ships and set him out to sea in every direction." "I accept. Robin, come with me." Rowan took Robin's sword and put it back in its sheath. Argus gave an order to Egret, loud enough so that everyone could hear him. "Egret. Keep a hold on the crowd while I deal with this disaster. If we're lucky, I'll finally be rid of that wolf's hellspawn soon. Guards, lock up the Hellhound until we're done." "What? Wait." Rowan stood in the way of the guards. "Go ahead and try. I'll kill you all, even if Rowan orders me not to. Then, I'll curse you myself, you worthless king!" Robin was prepared to fight. He was too enraged to think clearly. "You dare threaten to curse me in front of my court?" Argus let Robin talk more. He realized something. 'This is it. He'll hang himself with his words.' "What will you do about it? Pay my aunt for a remedy like you pay her for predictions?" Robin shouted back at him. "Your..." Argus narrowed his eyes. 'What does he mean? Aunt?' "Don't entertain for a moment you ever held any power over me, mortal king." Robin flooded the hall, rising the water to three feet high. Argus had no choice but to negotiate with him to a degree. He reminded himself that this display would only push the public to his side. It was Rowan who interfered. "Leave him unchained, for now. If you leave him be, he will harm no one. If there must be a punishment, I will ensure he takes it." "Fine. Let's go." Argus agreed. Robin made the water vanish. Rowan and Robin followed Argus out of the great hall. Wren followed behind them. When they reached the room they had discussed matters in earlier, Argus stopped Robin from coming inside. "No, not this time. You will not interfere any longer. This is between me and my son." "I don't take orders from you." Robin got in his face. "Robin, please calm down. I'll discuss things with Father. Stay here. You're too worked up right now to do any good." Rowan pushed him back. "If you lay a hand on him, I will present the Devil with your head." Robin threatened him. "Calm your beast, boy, before I have you cut his tongue out." Argus said. He looked over at Wren. "Wren, what are you doing here?" "This matter concerns me as well. If you punish him, his duties may fall to me. I have a right to be here." Wren said. He wanted to be present to support his brother. Now that he was there, he had no idea what he was going to do. "Fine." Argus allowed Rowan and Wren inside the room. Before he closed the door, he said to Robin, "You stay here, beast." "Wren, you shouldn't have come along." Rowan whispered to Wren. "I stand by you, and I am complicit in this too." Wren whispered back. Argus put his hand on his face and shook his head. "Well, it's a fine mess you four have created. Tell me the truth, Wren. Is the child yours?" "Without a doubt. The baby is mine." Wren denied nothing. "And you've done this to cover for your brother?" Argus asked. "Yes, I have." Argus questioned Rowan next. "You and Egret's whore daughter, you two concocted this plot together, didn't you?" "Rosa and I agreed upon everything the day I asked to take her hand." Rowan said. "I know you've lusted for that beast a long time. How many years have you been hiding this secret relationship?" Argus asked. "Twelve years." When Rowan said those words, the weight of them was heavy on him. He hadn't thought long on how many years it had been. He met Robin when he was eight, became Robin's lover when he was fifteen, and here he was now, twenty-seven. He had known Robin nearly twenty years now, twenty years of forcing Robin to fit inside a role that would always agonize him and twelve years of agony deeply shared between them. The numbers stung at his mind. His father comprehended nothing of it. Argus continued. He switched from questioning to making demands. "And for three you have conspired against me with that whore. Name me who aided you, so I may remove them from my service. I want anyone who aided you to be set ablaze as punishment." "You would be murdering many a maidservant, one of your own bastard sons, and the very priest you wanted to have cleanse me." Rowan said. "David knows all of this too? That foolish secret keeper." Argus's anger grew at that last revelation. "I'll ensure he's absolutely punished." "Father, will you kill me too? I am the one who..." Wren interjected himself back into the conversation. "Shut up, Wren. You have nothing of value to say. You'll be quiet and do what I ask of you. I don't understand why you didn't slit his throat like I told you to." Argus raised his hand at his younger son. "My brother is the only king I wish to serve." Wren braced himself to be hit. "And I will not take orders from you after you insulted my lover." "You have a backbone now? What, because you're hiding behind your brother and his demon? When they're gone, we'll see how you fall." Argus lowered his hand and laughed in Wren's face. "So, you intend to have me executed too. I accept." Rowan held his head high. "Don't be so stupid. Executing you right now would be disastrous for the war." Argus said. "Everything you've done has been disastrous for the war. Why draw the line here?" Rowan argued back at him. His patient was wearing thin too. Argus looked him square in the eyes. "Do you have a death wish, boy?" "I am no boy. You've been reminding me of that constantly. Remember, I need to wed. I need an heir. I need to fight. If you expect me to take the responsibilities of a man, then you damn better speak to me as a man." Rowan snapped at his father. "You're no man. You're a little bitch." Argus mocked his son. To get under his skin, he sought to terrorize him more. "I'm having him executed tonight. Then, you can do me a favor and win this war. After that, feel free to slit your own throat and join him in hell. I need a legitimate heir. If only Wren will give me one, I have no use for you when the war is done." "You will not execute him. I need him to win the war." Rowan said. "The war is nearly won as is. What do we need him for?" Argus asked. "He will ensure it. With the next battle, I can win. I know it." Rowan said. "You will win it, with or without him. Losing isn't an option." Argus jabbed at Rowan's chest with his finger. "I am not handing him over to you. I won't let you take any more from me. He's mine. I'll kill you myself if you dare to set any flame near him." Rowan unsheathed his dagger and held the blade against his chest. Rowan's dagger hit the ground with a clank. Argus slapped Rowan so hard his fingernails left cuts on Rowan's face. Some of the blood splattered on Wren's shirt and face. The drops of blood stained the fabric and slid down his pale skin. As Wren looked at his father, his pupils enlarged. "You will not speak to your father, nor a king in such a way. For your words, you should be executed. Because you are my son, I will not give you that public humiliation, as it will only humiliate me as well. When the war is done, quietly kill yourself. Send word to your beast to prepare himself for death." Argus's voice was deep and cold. Rowan did not react to what his father did. He spoke in a colder tone. "I refuse. I will not go into battle without him." "You still dare defy me?" Argus grabbed Rowan's shirt by the collar. "Then he may live until the next battle is done, and only on the condition that the battle is victorious. Should you fail, I will have Wren, Rosabella, and your bastard demon lover executed on the grounds of adultery and sodomy." Argus expected Rowan would back down and turn over Robin if he threatened Wren and Rosabella's lives. He was wrong. "I accept your terms." Rowan said. "Brother?" Wren looked at his brother in confusion. "I'm not finished. Should you return without the Hellhound in tow, whether alive or dead, I will execute Wren and Rosabella for adultery just the same. I won't let you allow him to escape." Argus added on to his conditions. "I accept just the same." "Fine. Have it your way. You're leaving in the morning with whatever soldiesr and supplies I decide to give you." Argus left the room, slamming the door on his way out. Wren sunk to the ground. "Why did you agree to that?" "Everything will be alright. Please, trust me. I won't let anything happen to you." Rowan went over to Wren and sat down on the floor with him. He pressed his forehead against Wren's and wiped his blood off of Wren's face. He touched the stains on Wren's shirt. "I've spent so much time trying to prevent you from being stained in blood, and yet it is my own blood upon your clothes. Forgive me." A frightening thought came to Wren. "Are you...are you planning on dying with him?" "Do not believe in your heart anything you hear or see without undeniable proof, and act as you see fit." Rowan's words were cryptic, and did nothing to console Wren's fears. "What do you mean? What are you planning on doing?" "You will make a great king, I know it." He looked into Wren's eyes and smiled. Rowan hugged his brother. "I love you." Wren hugged him back, hands shaking. "I love you too." Argus, his energy heightened from what he perceived as a victory, paid no mind to his surroundings. He forgot Robin was waiting for him somewhere outside. He couldn't react when he was snatched from behind and pushed into an open window. His body hung from the window by the strong hands of a beast. For a moment, he thought he saw Faolán looming over him. "There are no shackles left to bind me if that is his blood on your hand." Robin loosened his grip on the king. "I will be rid of you soon enough." Argus said. "You do this, and they'll kill him." "I won't allow that." Robin was about to drop him. Rowan, coming out of the room with Wren, noticed them. He hesitated at first, but his conscience got the better of him and he stopped Robin. "Robin, don't do that. Come with me." Robin dangled the king out the window a little longer before pulling him back inside. "Tonight, I grant you mercy for him." Robin left with Rowan and Wren. "Monster." Argus heard his heart pounding in his ears. He collapsed against a wall. "The wolf in the woods has discarded his disguise. It is he who devours you, my son, not I." When they reached Robin and Rowan's bedroom, Rowan made a request to his brother. "Wren, please, stay with Lady Rosa tonight and as often as you can. I do not trust Father." "What are you planning on doing?" Wren asked. "I cannot say. Please, trust me." Rowan said. Wren had many things he wanted to say, but nothing came. He bid his brother goodnight and went to Rosabella's room. Rowan locked the bedroom door behind him. He asked Robin, "What did you hear from outside?" "Enough to make me want to rip him limb from limb." Robin clenched his fists. "Even before threatening Lady Rosabella and Wren's lives, he thinks I will obey after he tells you to kill yourself. He deserves all of my fury, and then some." "Neither you nor I can be the one to dethrone him. What would come out of that would be something far more chaotic than now. We were going to leave at the end of the final battle to begin with. He's forced us to move early. That's all this is." Rowan sat down on the bed. His shoulders and head hung low. "How will you ensure this will be the last one?" Robin sat down beside him. Rowan looked down at his palms. Blood stained his fingers from when he wiped Wren's face. He traced the scar across his palm with his bloodied finger. "To ensure my brother rules in peace, I must commit a great evil in exchange." "What are you planning?" Robin asked. "I cannot say within the castle walls. You must trust me, absolutely, and do everything I ask of you." Rowan looked out the window at the full moon. The bright light illuminated the snowy landscape beyond their walls. He thought of how quickly the beautiful white before him was stained with blood and hid away the bodies of the weak in their last battle. "I will make sure our enemy loses all of their fighting spirit." "I've committed a thousand atrocities for you. One more won't stain my soul any deeper." Robin took his lover's hand and kissed it. "We should rest. The journey will be long and there will be no warmth outside these walls." Rowan took hold of Robin's hand and held it against his face. "It's cold now. Keep me warm." "As you wish, my love." Late in the night, Robin slept beside him. Rowan sat up and watched the moon, his spirit tormented with his own plans and the blood he would soon spill. That night, he did not sleep at all. In the morning, Wren, Rosabella, Allon, Ran, and David saw them off to battle. Argus had told David to go with them, but Rowan ordered him to stay behind. There were many words and embraced exchanged before they left. Last was Wren. Wren hugged both of them. He said to Rowan, "Brother, I don't want you to go." "It won't be forever. I told you. You know where to find me." Rowan whispered a secret to his brother. "There, the red in the mists of grey, that is where I'll be. Come find me." "I will." Wren hugged him tightly. He didn't want to let go. "I love you." "I love you, my king." Rowan let him go and left to fight his last battle.
XIII. On a Misty Morning