IV. THE THIRD KNIGHT OF CAILEAN
The castle walls closed in around him. Wren tried to speak, but nothing came out. He watched his brother standing before him, completely oblivious to the danger around them. From behind Wren, an arrow flew past him.
Once more, he tried to say his brother's name. Silence gripped him still. He ran towards Rowan, but his feet betrayed him and kept him in place. He couldn't decrease the distance between them at all.
The arrow pierced through his brother's back. Blood splashed against his own body. The red stained through his clothes and spread across him as the world around him faded to black.
Wren woke covered in sweat. His heart pounded in his ears. He knew it was a dream, but his emotions were still heightened from it. Without a second thought, he rushed to find his brother.
It was already very late into the night. No one else in the castle was still awake. Quietly, Wren went into his brother's room. He put the candle he had brought with him on the table beside the bed. Rowan was peacefully sleeping. To be sure it was not an illusion, Wren sat on the bed and put his hand to Rowan's chest. The slow up and down movement of his chest and the soft beat of his heart were far more real than the images from Wren's dream. Despite that, he couldn't shake the feeling of unease.
"Wren, what are you doing?" Robin whispered.
"Nothing. I had a strange dream. I wanted to make sure it wasn't real." Wren got up from the bed. "Sorry to wake you. I'll be going back to my room now."
Robin sensed that something was off. "Let me walk you back."
"You needn't do that."
"I'm awake now. Some fresh air might help me get back to sleep." Robin got out of bed.
"If you wish." Wren sighed. He didn't want Robin to walk him back, nor talk about the dream, which he knew Robin would want. But, he was afraid of being alone.
The two of them walked out into the hall. When they were some distance from the room, Robin asked. "What were you dreaming?"
"I had a dream about my brother." Wren's voice was shaking.
"I take it not a good dream."
"He was dying in front of me, and I couldn't do anything." The sense of realness of the dream was starting to fade, but Wren's emotions were still unusually heightened.
It had been a long time since Wren had come to their room over a bad dream. Dealing with that was easier then. All he had to do to make Wren feel safe was let him sleep between them. That method wouldn't work with an adult. Robin would have to address the underlying issue. "Is that what you're afraid of?"
Wren hesitated before answering. "I don't...think of things like that. There isn't a need to. Not with you there. It was just a strange dream, nothing more."
Robin didn't press the issue any further. There was no point in doing so. When Wren decided he was going to hide something, there was no way to pry it out of him. It was one of the more difficult traits of his that he shared with Rowan. "I see. Well, maybe something else is on your mind. We can discuss this more in the morning. I hope you have more peaceful dreams this time."
Wren stood in front of his own bedroom door, reluctant to go back in. He wanted to stay with Robin longer, but he didn't want to keep him up all night. Bottling up his fears, he started to close the door. "Thank you. Goodnight, Rin."
"Goodnight." Robin intentionally walked back to his room slowly in case Wren called out to him again.
The rest of the night was a sleepless experience for Wren. When morning came, he wanted to go straight to Rosabella and relax in the garden. Rowan was already at her room when he arrived. Assuming Rowan was there for some sort of official business, he let them be and went to find Robin instead.
That morning, Rowan was not there to fulfill any sort of courtly duty. Every so often, he met with Rosabella to discuss their plan. The nature of their discussions were too risky to reveal in letters, and as Rowan was usually busy, these meetings between them were very infrequent. Meeting in Rosabella's bedroom also helped Rowan keep his cover. It was far better for him that servants spread rumors about him being in her room than spending too much time with Robin.
"How has your progress been?" Rowan got straight to the point.
"He hesitates at the last moment. At this point, I don't really understand what his issue is anymore. I thought he was worried about getting caught, but if we had been caught then, it would have made little difference." Rosabella blushed as she thought about her last intimate encounter with Wren.
"So, exactly what have you gotten him to do?" Rowan asked.
"Practically anything except what would result in a child. He's not even shy anymore about our clothes being off." While she enjoyed doing all of those things with Wren, her arrangement with Rowan required her to produce him an heir. Those actions didn't fulfill the bargain. "You know, don't you? Why is he resisting me?"
Rowan put his face in his palm. "I'm afraid it's my fault. He knows I want him to, so even though that's exactly what he wants, he won't. It's out of spite."
"That's all this is about?"
"I'm afraid his need to spite me is greater than anything else in his mind." Wren had always been petty like that with him. Rowan was confident, however, that there was a time limit to how long Wren could hold back.
"What on earth did you do to him to make him want to spite you so?"
"I honestly haven't a clue. He's been like this for years. But, he does
want you. He is already quite willing to risk getting caught, despite what he claims, to touch you. You just need to tempt him further." Rowan handed Rosabella several dresses, matching in color with his own attire of black and red. "I have some new dresses for you. These are more revealing than the ones you're wearing now."
"More? Goodness. Will I still be decent?" Her current dress already got her indecent looks from men and whispers from women.
"It's not that low. Just a little lower, to tease him. If it makes you uncomfortable to wear around other men, wear your cloak over it until you can get him alone."
"Well, I suppose I don't mind Wren seeing me like that. He's already seen me undressed anyway." She held one of the dresses against her body. "What else should I do?"
"Just keep up the rest of what you've already been doing. The last time we spoke like this, he hadn't touched you below the waist. I'd say whatever you've been doing lately is working quite well."
"I suppose that's true. But I don't know if new clothes is really enough."
"Don't worry. Robin's with him right now, putting some suggestions in his mind." Rowan smirked.
Elsewhere, Robin was busy attempting to get through to the only obstacle in their way. "How are things going with the lady, Prince Wren?"
"I'm having difficulty resisting her." Wren blushed and fidgeted with his hands.
Robin took a deep breath. Conversations with Wren on this subject were always tiring. "Why are you resisting? Don't you want to make her happy?"
"And don't you want to embrace her?"
"I don't see the problem." Robin shrugged.
Wren shook his head. "We mustn't. If I am to be chivalrous and pure, I should contain my desires and serve her in innocent ways. That would be what is right. She's engaged to my brother. I shouldn't risk her honor."
"So then, you have not embraced her in anyway?" Robin grinned.
"Well, I..." He turned away.
Wren was far too easy to read. Robin sat down beside him on the bed. "Oh? I thought you were concerned with her honor. What have you been doing?"
"I told you. It is very difficult to resist her. When she's near me, my mind is filled with indecent things."
"There's nothing wrong with that. If she wants it, then act upon it."
"I have tried to...satisfy her...but she wants something I must resist giving." Wren bit his lip. He hadn't wanted to admit to doing such things to Robin. Though he knew Robin would not think of him any differently for it, he was ashamed at himself for having to say it. With every touch, he could feel himself getting closer to losing control.
'Tried? So, he's been doing more with her than he's been letting on.'
Robin titled his head. "What must you resist?"
Wren continued. "With her unmarried, I can't do anything that might result in a child. And even if she was married, I shouldn't be the father to a child who's mother is married to someone else. What sort of life would that be giving that child if anyone found out?"
"That position has served me just fine." Robin glared at him, dropping his friendly tone.
"I...didn't mean to speak ill of you. I only meant that..."
Robin composed himself. There was no room for being upset with Wren's careless words. He focused on the goal. "It's not as if anyone would know that. Or does it bother you that your child would be calling someone else Father?"
"I want her to be mine, properly. Why can't he marry someone else?"
Robin flinched at the idea. He took another deep breath. "You know he wouldn't be able to produce an heir."
Wren raised his voice. "Why not? I know you love him, but surely you wouldn't hold it against him if he had a child with someone."
Robin turned away from Wren and grit his teeth. "Rowan doesn't like women in that way."
"Can't he just force himself to do it?" Wren said without a second thought.
"That's a horrible thing to suggest, and you know it." Robin snapped. "Besides, if he hadn't asked for Lady Rosabella's hand, she would be married to someone else's first born at this point. As power hungry as her father is, he would have never accepted you
as a potential marriage partner for her. This is the only arrangement where you could ever be with her at all. Do not forget that."
Wren went quiet for a moment, caught off guard by Robin's words. He lowered his head. "I'm sorry. I didn't meant to speak so carelessly."
"I forgive you. But you should know that I am not going to be nice about such suggestions. It doesn't matter to me if he could or could not force himself to do it. I don't want him to
. The idea of anyone else touching him makes me want to slit your father's throat." He wasn't supposed to show Wren this side of himself, but he was too annoyed to care.
"You wouldn't really do something like that, would you?" Wren asked, a heavy weight sinking in his chest.
"Nevermind that." Robin came to his senses and adjusted his tone. He handed Wren a book. "Here, I've brought you something."
"What is this?" Wren flipped through the pages. He quickly closed it when he realized what it was. "This is...! Why do you keep giving me all these indecent books?"
"The church looks down upon such things, and your education does not cover this material either. You need to learn it from somewhere. Don't you want to make Lady Rosabella happy?" Robin opened the book up again and held it in front of Wren's face.
"But this seems so...how does one even put themselves in this position?" Wren squinted at the drawing of a man and a woman in an odd angle performing oral sex on one another.
"Oh, it's not that difficult. It's more obvious when you try it yourself, and you don't have to do it exactly like that. One of you could be on top of the other. It's easier that way, to me." Robin turned to the next page. "See, like this."
"You've done this?" Wren had discussed sexual things in very vague ways with Robin before. He tried to avoid specifics, as he didn't want to get any mental images in his head of his brother. Robin had done the same, he assumed out of courtesy. Strangely, because of this, Wren couldn't imagine them as doing anything at all. Robin's omission made him slightly curious and very uncomfortable.
"Yes, though it's not a favorite of mine. I much prefer this..." Robin flipped through the book. He stopped and showed Wren another page. This one was of two people rubbing their lower bodies together. "Have you tried that yet?"
"Well, yes..." He had done that once with Rosabella, and only once. The temptations to do something else while like that was far too great compared to the other things they had done. He glanced over at the next few pages, which were of various penetrative sex positions. He hadn't considered half of the images as possibilities before. "There's so many positions just for this...how do I know which one she'll like?"
"There's not a limit to what you can try. Just try them all. For something like this, this one's Rowan's favorite." Robin pointed to a specific position and smirked, wanting to get a little revenge for Wren's earlier annoyances.
"I didn't want to know that." Wren cringed. His mind lingered on the idea longer than he wanted it to, still curious. "Um...who's in what position? I don't really know how that works for two men..."
"Doesn't matter. I don't have a preference for that, and nor does he. Though neither of us particularly have a preference towards this to begin with."
"Oh? Oh, right. You said you liked this most, right?" Wren realized he had walked himself into a trap. "Don't tell me what he likes.
Robin flipped a few pages back and pointed to a picture of a woman on her knees giving oral. "This."
Wren closed the book shut and shuttered. "I said don't! I don't want to think about that!"
"He doesn't have a preference toward position there either." Robin gave him a devilish smile.
"That's enough!" Wren covered his ears.
"I'm sorry. It's just too fun to embarrass you." Robin laughed. Rowan wouldn't want him revealing those things, but Rowan didn't have to know he told Wren that either. "I know what will make you forget about that. Why don't you go see your lady? I'm sure you have plenty of things in mind to do with her."
"For someone who gives off such a pure air about them, you are very indecent." Wren shot Robin a glare, then shook his head.
"I'm sorry. It must have been my upbringing." He joked.
After saying goodbye to Robin, Wren hid the book on himself as he left. He passed Rowan in the hall. His usual annoyance with his brother was replaced by embarrassment, as he could only think of the things Robin had told him. He turned away and hurried down the hall to avoid conversation. Rowan looked back at him, confused, but not thinking deeply on it. Wren's actions usually confused him.
As Rowan entered the room, he locked the door behind him. He stood by the window and watched the soldiers gathered down below. "How did it go?"
"I think it went well. He seems more open to the idea than before. It'll only be a matter of time now." Robin joined him.
"From what Lady Rosa says, I think you're right. It won't be long."
Robin held Rowan from behind. He ran his fingers through the prince's hair. "Your hair, I've always loved the color of it. It's such a beautiful shade. It matches the deepest earth and the night sky. Your eyes are nearly the same shade too, such a deep color."
"I'd rather my hair and eyes were like yours." When Rowan looked at the people around him, most of them had lighter hair and eyes. His skin tone didn't quite match with theirs either. It wasn't so much that it was dark, but a different shade altogether. The contrast was obvious when he saw his skin against Robin's. His eyes too were shaped slightly different than Robin's. It wasn't a huge difference, with him inheriting some of the same types of features from his father, but it was enough that everyone noticed.
"But why? I love you as you are." He kissed Rowan on the cheek.
"Don't you think I look a little strange?"
As with Wren, this was a conversation Robin had grown tired of having. This one bothered him far more. "No, not at all. You're perfect as you are. I wouldn't want to change anything about you."
"You know, you don't need to flatter me at every turn. You've been showering me with compliments since I was eight. When are you going to stop?" Rowan smiled. He was looking away to hide his face, but Robin could see a hint of red in Rowan's reflection in the window.
"Why should I stop?" Robin held him tighter. "You will always be the most beautiful person in the world to me."
"There you go again. Isn't it enough?" His voice revealed his embarrassment.
"I can't help myself. When I see you, the truth simply flows through me." Satisfied with the prince's reaction, Robin turned his attention to what lay outside their window. "Are you ready to leave yet? We should join the others soon."
"I know...I just wanted to spend a little more time alone with you before we left. You know, when we were younger, I never gave any thought to how much time I had with you. Time keeps slipping away from me..."
"Don't think of it like that. Our lives are filled with obligations to others, but I only uphold those obligations to keep myself near you. Should you ever wish it, I would steal you away to wherever you wanted to go." He whispered the last few words.
"If only it were that simple."
"Why can't it be?"
"You know why." The reason was left unspoken. As time went on, Robin was having a harder time holding back what he really thought about the matter. For now, he decided to remain quiet. Rowan could already sense Robin's agitation and anxiousness. He took hold of Robin's hand and kissed it to apologize for his selfishness. "Let's go."
When they had departed the castle, the mood between them improved. Robin was still somewhat agitated. For once, he had bothered to wear his helmet. Rowan was grateful for that, even if Robin's reasoning was to hide himself. The reason for Robin's annoyance amused him. It was rare there was an opportunity for him to tease Robin, so he took advantage of the situation.
"It's been a while since we worked with King Philip's men. I've heard your younger brother still serves him. He might be there when we go to meet with Sir Martin." Rowan struggled to keep himself from grinning.
"Well, that would be unfortunate." Robin scowled.
Rowan teased. "And you always get on to me about being a proper brother to Wren. You don't even want to be in the same room as yours."
"He's not my family. We simply happen to be born to the same two humans. My family is the woman who raised me, you, and Wren. I acknowledge no one else."
As far as Rowan knew, Robin's younger brother Luke had never done anything in particular to garner such resentment from Robin. He had only met Luke twice himself. From what Robin had told him about his past, Robin had met him a total of three times. Rowan gave up on understanding it. "You can say that, but does he feel the same?"
"I don't care how he feels." Robin's words remained cold.
"Hmm, I wonder what he looks like now. I haven't seen him since we were still children." Rowan tried to remember what Luke looked like, but they were so young then it would hardly matter now.
"Hopefully, nothing like me."
"You're cruel, Robin. You don't see me complaining that Wren and I look alike."
"Well, that's different. I like Wren, and that's convenient for us."
Rowan couldn't contain it anymore. He looked Robin dead in the eye and gave him a huge grin. "I bet he's handsome."
"You're only saying that to rile me up." Robin rolled his eyes.
"Afraid I'll be stolen from you?"
"I'd never let anyone have you, especially not him."
Someone rode up behind them. Robin's annoyance grew as soon as he heard the all too familiar voice interrupt their private conversation. "Well, here you two are, as usual. Planning a secret rendezvous?"
"You seem to be in a good mood, Sir Eider." Rowan said. Eider was usually cheerful, but today he seemed particularly excited about something. This was strange, as Eider was usually only this excited once a battle was already over.
"Of course. I can't wait to see my favorite drinking buddy. I'm sure he's got plenty of stories to tell." Eider patted the bag of money at his side. "And I've brought plenty to entertain him with."
"And who might this person be?" Rowan asked, more to continue the conversation than out of curiousness.
"You two should know him, especially you over there, Bitch." Eider turned his head toward Robin. Robin responded by turning away from him.
"Sir Eider, you know what I've said to you about speaking that way to Sir Robin." Rowan reprimanded him.
"Yeah, and I know you don't always seem to remember his title, so what should I make of that?"
'I suppose that's only a matter of time too.'
Rowan didn't have a response for that. At this point, he was only grateful Eider was making suggestions. If he were more clever, Rowan would likely be paying him off right now to keep him quiet. "Do not make inappropriate suggestions. Now, who is it you speak of?"
"Why, the younger bitch of course."
Rowan let Eider's inappropriateness slide. "You know Sir Robin's brother?"
Eider gave a big laugh. "Oh, yes. I'll never forget the first time we met. We were both completely drunk off our asses. He was dressed up like a woman. Lost some kind of bet. Thought he was a pretty woman, a bit too flat, but a piece of ass is a piece of ass. But he noticed something I was carrying and wouldn't touch me any further. When I tried to forced him down, he showed me what was under the dress. And then we laughed and he told me to go buy him another drink. We've been taking turns buying each other drinks and telling each other our dumbest misadventures for years."
Robin cringed at every detail of that story. Rowan didn't know what to make of it.
Eider lowered his voice. "Hate to admit to kissing a man, but he's damn good at it. If I were really desperate, I'd probably still force him down."
Robin rode ahead of them, not saying a word to Rowan.
"What's wrong with him?"
"I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to hear about you considering forcing yourself on his younger brother." Rowan wondered what sort of person Luke was that he would keep company with someone who would say such a thing.
"Eh, what's that matter? If I didn't have access to anything else, I wouldn't care if I used Bella for that." He laughed again.
"My god, your own sister? That's beyond disgusting." Rowan wasn't shocked by Eider's words, though he wondered if Rosabella's hatred of her brother had a more personal reasoning to it.
"You say that, but you ain't got a sister to know."
"I see why she moved into my home so quickly." Rowan quickly moved the conversation back to the original topic. "About Sir Luke, what does he look like now? I haven't seen him since I was a child."
"Ah, Luke? A lot like the bitch, though he never keeps his hair all nice and tidy like that. He's more flashy. You'll know him when you see him."
"I see." Rowan couldn't imagine what that would look like. In his mind, Robin was already on the flashy side himself, especially in battle.
"I wouldn't go drinking with him, if I were you." Eider added.
"Well, that's really not a problem since I don't go drinking to begin with."
"I'm just sayin'. He's slept with about as many men as I have women. He takes it as a special kind of challenge when it's someone with higher status than him."
'So, it is a game to him?'
Rowan wasn't impressed. Someone like that sounded hard to deal with. "I'm sure I won't be so easily seduced."
The conversation trailed off as they approached the shore. Rowan was dreading this part of the trip. Memories of the last time he was there flooded his mind. He stuck close to Robin during the ride across the water. Robin immediately noticed Rowan's anxiousness, and handed him his charm discretely. There was nothing to worry about this time, so the charm was merely to calm his nerves.
The neighboring kingdom was still a ways to go after that. Martin, a knight who served their ally, King Philip, had agreed to meet them halfway with his king's men. Four days after crossing the water, the flags of their ally could be seen in the distance. Rowan approached them cautiously, having learned not to trust much of anyone.
He rode in front of the other army with Robin close behind him, searching for Sir Martin. Many of the soldiers were whispering as they passed.
"So, it's true? King Argus really did bed some whore from the far east. Look at him."
"Hideous. I feel sorry for the woman who has to marry him."
"Is that one beside him the beast they speak of? The son of the Black Wolf who drenches the land in blood wherever he goes? He doesn't look like a demon to me."
"I don't trust either of them. Especially not some man raised by fairies."
Robin smiled at that last comment. Rowan paid no attention to any of it. He got those comments everywhere he went.
Finally, he found Martin. He was an older man, somewhat younger than his own father. His hair had already completely grayed from spending so much time on the front lines. Despite his age, he still held his own compared to the younger knights and was more respected than the king he served.
Rowan stopped in front of him. "Sir Martin, good to see you."
"Hello, Prince. I take it you made it here with no troubles?" Martin bowed.
"I'm surprised to see you here this time of year. I didn't take you for the type to hit your enemies when their backs are turned." Martin said.
"I want to end this war as soon as possible. I won't waste any more time with this." Rowan dismounted from his horse. "I take it you have no objections to my plan?"
"None at all. This isn't my preferred method, but I am an impatient man myself." Martin looked over to someone behind Rowan. "I see you have brought that one with you."
"Excuse me, sir?" Rowan looked back to see who he might be speaking of.
"You." Martin pointed at Eider. "I warned you last time you came into our lands. Stay away from our women."
Eider sat comfortably on his horse. "You'll have to provide me with someone else's if you expect me to keep that kind of promise."
"Sir Eider, behave yourself." Rowan ordered.
"I don't ever see you tell the bitch to behave." Eider planned on using the prince's unintentional familiarness for all he could.
"How many times do I have to reprimand you before you listen?!" Rowan yelled. 'Why do you need to do this in front of an audience?'
There was snickering and whispering coming from both armies.
"I see why Sir Luke is friends with someone like you." Martin crossed his arms.
"Do I hear my old drinking buddy, Eider?" Someone spoke from the crowd of men.
A haughty man with long, golden hair stepped forward from behind Sir Martin. There was a heavy smell of alcohol on him despite his impeccable appearance. Rowan was taken aback at how attractive he was, and how similar the man was in appearance to Robin. The attraction was swiftly tarnished by the personality the man was putting forward. In all but appearance, he could tell this man was far more similar to Eider than Robin.
The man's face lit up when he saw the prince. He bowed on one knee and took the Rowan's hand. "I didn't expect the prince to have become so beautiful. I am Sir Luke of Cailean. Allow me to serve you in any way you need, your majesty."
There was something suggestive in the way Luke spoke. Some of the other soldiers with Sir Martin snickered at the display. Luke kissed Rowan's hand and smirked. "In any
way. I truly mean that."
Martin pulled Luke back. "That's enough out of you. Forgive me, but Sir Luke has no manners, and is my most inappropriate soldier."
Rowan didn't acknowledge Luke's suggestions. "It's fine. He's not bothering me."
Eider laughed. "You say that now, but don't you go drinking with him. You'll be regretting it in the morning."
"I would do nothing regrettable, I assure you. In fact, I think you will be quite pleased if you were to spend the night with me." Luke got very close to Rowan and held his hand. Rowan couldn't believe he would make such a blatant move in front of so many people.
"Sir Luke, get your ass to the back before I slap you." Martin motioned for him to move.
"Why? He's not bothered by my words. Are you, Prince?" Luke held Rowan's hand tighter, as if he was trying to keep the prince from running away.
Rowan shook his head. "I am not bothered, though I must decline your invitation. I do not drink."
"What a pity. I'm sure I could find some other way to entertain you." Luke turned over Rowan's hand and put his face against it.
Robin got down from his horse. He unsheathed his sword and held it to Luke's throat. "Do not touch the prince again."
"Sir Robin, you do not need to go that far." Rowan waved for him to move back.
Luke looked over at Robin. He stared at him for a while before removing his brother's helmet. The two nearly looked like mirror images of each other, with Luke being a strange distorted version of Robin's more clean image. "Well, well, well. Brother, you're here too? Still attached to the same prince, I see. Not that I can blame you. He's grown into quite the handsome man."
"Sir Luke, this is your last warning." Martin started to walk over to Luke.
"Yeah, yeah. I'm going." Luke handed Robin his helmet back and turned to Rowan. As he was walking past the prince, Luke blew him a kiss. Soldiers from both armies laughed. "I'll see you later, Prince. And Eider, it's your turn to buy the drinks!"
"Ah, I was hoping he'd forget." Eider shrugged.
With a heavy sigh, Martin bowed. "My apologies again, Prince."
"Don't worry about it." Rowan gave a fake smile.
The journey to reach their enemy was a much longer distance. Most of each day was spent traveling, with a few breaks for eating and resting. As time went on, there was more banter among the soldiers of the two armies with each other, but the knights stayed mostly quiet. Rowan was running through plans in his head constantly.
For once, he had more help than usual, and it didn't cost him anything. They also had the element of surprise. He couldn't shake his worries over failing despite that. Winning the battle didn't mean he would win his father's approval either. Every little detail would be scrutinized. He needed to win in a way his father found acceptable.
That was a difficult task to accomplish. His father's ideas of what was best were always vague and ever-changing. Rowan resigned himself to the fact that his father likely wouldn't be pleased with his results no matter what he did.
When they were close enough, Martin and Rowan set out to decide an appropriate place to set up camp. Martin sent out one of his men, Lark, to find a source of clean water for after the battle. Martin, Rowan, and several of the other knights went with Lark after his return to further inspect the water. Luke and Eider were both missing, but no one bothered to look for them.
"This water appears to be clean." Lark had led them to a secluded stream. Martin and his men were satisfied with Lark's assessment.
Rowan was the only one to object. "Wait. Let me have it inspected as well."
"Prince, I assure you that Sir Lark knows what he's doing." Martin reassured him.
"I'm sure he does, but I have someone who can measure the purity of water beyond what an ordinary human can. Sir Robin, please give me your opinion of the water." He waved for Robin to come forward.
"Yes, sir." Robin kneeled before the water. He removed one of his gloves and put his hand over the surface of the water.
"So, it is true then. The Hellhound really did walk among the people of the forest?" Martin whispered to Rowan.
"Yes. Sir Robin was raised by fairy hands before entering my service." Rowan responded. There was no point in hiding the fact. Robin certainly wouldn't, even if he ordered him to.
"Prince Rowan, I have assessed the water." Robin put his glove back on and stood before the prince.
"How do you find it?" Rowan asked.
"It is of a fair condition, but we will find cleaner water further ahead and to the west." The manner in which Robin spoke to Rowan in front of a crowd was devoid of emotion.
"Please, lead the way then." Rowan's words were just as empty.
"If it pleases you." Robin bowed. He led them through the forest toward another part of the stream.
"For someone raised by monsters, he is very obedient." Martin watched Robin from afar.
"I've gotten him accustomed to following human rules. It was difficult at first. I still have trouble getting him to keep his shoes on sometimes."
"I find it strange something so wild would choose to serve a king." Lark commented, lingering further behind than Martin.
"He doesn't. He only serves me." A bit of pride slipped through in Rowan's tone.
"I suppose that's not surprising. Did you trick him to gain his servitude?" Lark moved from behind Martin to closer to Rowan.
The idea of tricking Robin into serving him was so amusing to Rowan he had trouble keeping a straight face. "No, he came to me on his own."
Martin went for the obvious question. "For what purpose?"
"It's hard for to me to explain in a way that would make sense to you." This was the easiest way for Rowan to get out of answering. If pressed further, he would just answer that it involved too many fairy ideals to explain easily. The real reason would reveal what he needed to keep hidden.
"Does he know any magic?" This was a common question Rowan got asked about Robin.
"Yes, though he's never really shown me exactly the full extent of it."
"What sorts of magic have you seen him perform?" Martin asked.
"For my fifteenth birthday, he made it rain because I said I was tired of so much sun." Rowan was quite shocked by that display. Until that point, the only magic Robin had shown him was much more simple kinds, like sensing where water was. He had chosen to mention that particular feat in front of the knights on purpose. While he hated it, it served his needs better if those around him were afraid of what Robin could be capable of without having to make him put on a display.
The knights were impressed by this detail. Martin stopped the prince and asked, "He can do feats like that? I would have never assumed from watching him. He's very good at acting human in front of others."
"He is human." Rowan was annoyed anyone would say something like that while Robin was still close enough to hear them.
"Physically, he may be. But I would hardly call something that one of those creatures raised truly human anymore. It's a good thing he's in your hands. You have trained him well in obeying. A monster like that is an excellent asset to have in battle." Martin put his hand on Rowan's shoulder. Rowan kept what he wanted to say inside.
Camp was set up shortly after that. Rowan had Robin wait in their tent while he finished up some business with Martin. On his way back, Rowan ran into one of the two knights who had gone missing during the earlier water inspection. Luke leaned against a tree and smiled. Rowan wasn't in the mood for playing games.
Luke approached Rowan, getting far too close for comfort. "We meet again, my dear prince. This must be fate."
"I highly doubt that." Rowan backed away from him.
Luke caught him in an unwanted embrace. "I wonder, where are you sleeping? I could provide you with a little extra warmth on this cold night."
"My tent is warm enough, thank you." Rowan pushed at him to get free, but Luke's grip was tight.
Luke forced Rowan against a tree to hold him further in place. He pressed up against him and whispered in his ear. "You seem plenty cold to me. Should I warm you now?"
Luke went in for a kiss, but Rowan knocked Luke forward to free himself. "I would proceed with caution, Sir Luke. If your brother sees you do something like that, I am certain he will chop off your hands in the best of moods."
"Possessive, isn't he? Though I can see why. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw you. You're far more beautiful than any man I have ever known." Luke grinned. He was more excited than before.
"Thank you. It is rare for me to receive any compliments." Rowan's usual politeness was out of place in this scenario. He was so used to putting up a front.
"You must be joking." Luke caught him from behind this time.
"I'm sure you hear what the others say about me." Rowan kept calm.
"What? About your mother being a foreigner? I've met plenty of foreign men, and had plenty of fun with them too. That makes little difference to me. Beauty is beauty." Luke played with Rowan's hair. "Prince, you mustn't listen to their foolishness. They have no taste. Come with me, and I'll shower you with affection you have never known."
Rowan was growing very tired of this. "I thank you again for your kind words, but I must decline."
Luke released his hold on Rowan. He gave the prince a deep bow. "Very well. Let's part ways for now. My apologies for my advances earlier. I see I will need to approach you in a different manner. Good night, Prince."
"Goodnight, Sir Luke." Rowan left the area in a rush.
He had never been in a situation like that before. A part of him was flattered at being pursued so blatantly, and another part of him was unnerved by it. Luke, unlike Eider, didn't seem to be the type who would outright force him into anything, however. Rowan wagered that behavior served Luke well in a pub setting, and his usual type may prefer such blatantness.
In the back of his mind, he wondered if he would have been more likely to enjoy that display if he weren't already in love with someone else. Robin had never been particularly subtle either, but something in the way Luke acted left him more unsettled than interested. He questioned if Luke would really change his behavior in approaching him, and if that change would be to some behavior worse than that.
Rowan finally reached his tent. Robin was polishing his armor. Rowan rested on the cot, tired from the events of the day. "Your brother is very persistent."
"Did he come on to you again?" Robin stopped what he was doing.
"Yes. He even tried to kiss me." He knew this would anger Robin, and that was exactly why he mentioned it.
Robin got up from the chair he was working at and moved to the cot. "Did you kiss him?"
"No, of course not, but he certainly has a way with words. If I didn't have you, I think he would have seduced me." Rowan meant his words jokingly.
"He is more dangerous than I thought." Robin took him far too seriously.
"Robin, don't worry about it. He can flatter me all he wants. I am eternally faithful to you." Rowan held Robin's hand.
"I know you are, but that's not what I'm worried about. Don't eat or drink anything around him."
"Surely, you don't think he would do something like that." The idea had already crossed Rowan's mind.
"I don't trust him, and he's friends with Eider. I know
Eider would. I know Eider has
." Robin had overheard Eider brag about things like that before to some of the other knights.
"I'll be fine. Let's change the subject to something else. Tomorrow's battle should be an easy victory. I shouldn't need your services to win." Rowan glanced over at Robin's armor and sword. "With that said..."
"They're going to expect me to fight. You know that." Robin didn't hide how excited he was to fight again.
"I know. I hate being forced into this position. They'll want me to show you off, and I need to assure them about our chances." Rowan felt over the front of Robin's shirt. Tomorrow, the blue and white colors that usually adorned his knight would become the same as the violent color that lined his own attire.
"I don't mind. You know I'll do anything for you."
"I know that. I have to wonder if you also have ulterior motives yourself. Making Luke jealous, perhaps?"
"Nothing of the sort." Robin laid down beside Rowan on the cot. "But he would do well to learn some humility."
"I could say the same of you." Rowan pulled Robin over against his chest. "You're far too excited for this. Do you wish to taunt your brother that badly?"
Robin got comfortable, content to listen to the sound of Rowan's breathing. "No, not at all. I was thinking that if I fight with you, I'll get to bathe with you again."
"You and Luke are more alike than you think." He petted Robin's hair.
Morning came too soon. Rowan cursed the sun for not waiting another hour. When he left his tent, Martin brought him forward to see something. Overnight, the enemy had already prepared themselves and was waiting for their attack. No one should have expected them.
As was his usual luck, Rowan knew something would go wrong. "Looks like someone let it slip that we were coming."
"It wasn't you, was it, Sir Luke?" Martin shot a glare at Luke over his shoulder.
"How rude. King Philip pays me quite well." Luke's expression was of pure disgust.
Martin turned back to Rowan. "What do you think, Prince? Any suspicions?"
"No, though it's not as if I know all of my soldiers personally. I can only speak for my knights that they would not betray me." He didn't really think that was true, but he was sure they were loyal to his father at least.
"The same goes for me. Well, what's done is done. We can worry about that later. We have a battle to fight." Martin rode on ahead.
"Try not to get in my way, Brother." Luke taunted Robin. Robin didn't respond to him.
"Well, I'll be getting into my position." Eider turned his horse around.
Luke laughed. "You mean in the back?"
"I don't need to hear that from you. I'm sure you've been behind far more men than I have." Eider responded with his own rude comment.
"For that, I'll buy you a drink later. If you're still alive, that is." Luke rode ahead, following Martin.
Eider made his way to the back while Rowan and Robin went forward. There was no need to give Robin a signal today. He was to put himself on display for the entire battle. Not wanting Robin to get too carried away, Rowan fought nearby him at all times to lessen the amount of blood spilled by his knight's hands.
The advanced warning had done little good for their enemy. The two armies greatly outnumbered the other side, and had more skill between them.
When there was no one left to defeat in their area, Martin and Luke watched Rowan and Robin. Robin was already covered from head to toe in blood, and Rowan didn't look much better.
"Look at those two. They hardly need us here. They're both like demons, especially your brother." Martin watched in awe and horror.
"There's certainly no room for pity in his movements." Of all the men who were fighting, there was no one as brutal as Robin. His movements didn't come from a place of unskilled butchery, but highly calculated maliciousness. Luke was reminded of watching his father fight. "The prince, however, is more beautiful than ever."
"Sir Luke, you are truly a strange one. All I see is a massacre happening." Martin saw no difference between Rowan and Robin's actions.
"You're not looking carefully. There's a gracefulness to his movements." The results were similar, but Luke could see a subtle difference in the way they moved. Rowan wasn't a wild beast rampaging around. His swings were full of carefully planned actions guided by desperation. Luke had never been so impressed by someone in battle before. As he watched, something unfamiliar started to burn inside him.
When there were no more enemies left to defeat, Rowan called out to his knight. If he didn't, Robin would keep looking for opponents. "Robin..."
"Was that enough?" Robin rushed over to his side, smiling and panting. There was nothing on him not stained red.
The scent of blood, dirt, and metal filled the air. Rowan saw his own reflection in his blade. A heavy, writhing pain filled him. He sheathed his sword and put his hand on Robin's shoulder. "Yes, more than enough."
Martin rode up to them. "Prince, I must say, I am impressed with your skills, and the Hellhound as well. Let my men take care of everything until we move on. I wish to discuss our next move in private. I'm sure you understand why."
"Yes, that would be wise." Rowan agreed. "Sir Robin, wait for me back at my tent. I have a task for you to complete when I'm finished with Sir Martin."
"Yes, your majesty."
Rowan and Martin discussed battle plans in private. Rowan didn't like leaving Robin out of the discussion, nor did he want to stay in his blood-soaked clothes for long. Their conversation shifted to the earlier issue of leaked information. It was agreed they would continue to do all their planning in private and monitor their men for any suspicious behavior.
Concluding his business with Martin, Rowan made his way back towards his tent to bathe with Robin. Along the way, he passed by Eider, who was already drunk and hadn't bothered to clean up. He considered lecturing him about it, as it was risky to keep so much filth anywhere near wounded soldiers, but Eider was far cleaner than he was at that moment. He wasn't in the mood to hear his drunken rambling either.
Continuing with his bad luck, Rowan stumbled upon Eider's drinking partner shortly after. Luke had decided to bathe in the stream. At a glance, Rowan mistaken him for Robin from behind. When he realized his mistake, he tried to leave the area before Luke noticed him.
Luke approached Rowan, not bothering to cover himself. "Prince, would you care to join me for a bath?"
"No, thank you. I prefer to have Sir Robin handle that." Rowan declined, not interested in repeating the previous night.
"Oh, come now. It's only a bath." Luke kept more distance between them than last night. It was still closer than Rowan wanted him to be. "You don't need to be so coy with me, Prince. No one has to know, if that's how you prefer it. I see the way your eyes linger on men."
Rowan averted his eyes. He did find Luke to be very attractive. The water clinging to his skin and his disheveled hair only added to his handsome appearance. "I am afraid you are mistaken."
"No, I know very well that I am not. And I can tell by the way you look at me, you quite like my appearance." Luke posed, showing off his best features. "Come, bathe with me. I won't do anything you don't want."
"I find that hard to believe."
"I am a gentleman, I assure you. Come in. I'm sure you look even more beautiful without those pesky clothes covering everything up." Luke lightly tugged on one of Rowan's gloves.
"I must decline."
Luke took hold of Rowan's hands and pulled him towards the water. "Don't be so shy. I promise I won't be as aggressive as last night."
A sword held to the throat kept Luke from moving any further. Robin stared at him, rage filling his eyes. "You don't know how to listen, do you? The prince told you no."
"You again? Can't you go somewhere else? I'm trying to have a little fun with the prince right now." Luke didn't display any fear. He stayed in place, still holding the prince's hands.
"He doesn't want to play around with you." Robin pressed the blade against Luke's skin.
"I see why the other name people call you is the Bloody Raven's bitch."
"Sir Luke, please do not say such distasteful things in my presence." Rowan interrupted.
"My apologies, my dear prince. It won't happen again." Luke bowed and kissed Rowan's hand. "Why don't you think over my offer from last night? I would love to keep you company in the darkest hours."
"I'm afraid I must decline again." Rowan stood beside Robin.
"What a pity." Luke backed away, continuing his bath.
Finally alone again, Rowan went straight to work on undressing Robin. Robin did the same. The water they shared wasn't heated this time. Rowan didn't want to wait for it, wanting to get clean right away. He didn't question why Robin had been out there when he had ordered him to stay in the tent. He was glad he had left, for whatever reason it was.
"Your brother doesn't seem to want to give up." Rowan cleaned off Robin's face.
"If he keeps it up, I'm going to have to castrate him."
"Robin, that's ridiculous. He can't help himself if he finds me attractive." Rowan grinned, seeing a perfect opportunity to tease Robin again.
"I have to convince you you're beautiful, but he says it..."
"It's different. I know you would tell me that even if I had scars and burns all over my body. Your brother's very...interested in outward appearances. If he thinks I'm beautiful too, maybe I really am."
Robin realized Rowan was setting out to play with him again. This time, he decided to play along instead of being bothered. "Do you need some time alone with him?"
Rowan got on his knees to wash Robin's legs. "Of course not. Someone like that could never actually satisfy me."
"Why's that? Didn't you say he could probably seduce you?"
"He would be competing with your years of experience in knowing all of me, in body and mind. You really think Sir one-man-a-night could even comprehend what I'm looking for?"
"You do have a point." Robin nodded.
"And you're more handsome anyway."
"Another good point."
Rowan put aside the wash cloth. He kissed Robin's stomach, then gave him a devious look. "Shall I show you how well I know you?"
Robin returned the expression as he ran his fingers through Rowan's hair. "Remind me."
The following morning, Rowan met with Martin again to discuss their next course of action. Martin had been told by one of his knights about some of their soldiers having acted strangely shortly before the battle. He was having his men look more into the issue. Further planning on the matter was put on hold for Martin's lingering questions.
"Prince, I am still quite impressed by yesterday's display. The earth itself was dyed red. I wonder if your prowess in battle is natural, or something that was not acquired by ordinary means." Martin's implication was another familiar one.
"It's far more ordinary than you think. There is much you can force yourself to do when you don't have a choice." Rowan's skills were hard earned. If he didn't become as strong as he had, he would have died by now. When faced with death, strength becomes easier to acquire.
"What about the Hellhound? You can't expect me to believe he became that way out of necessity. Just watching him made my blood run cold."
"I can't say for sure. The woman who raised him did put some protective spells on him. But judging from how his brother fights, I would say talent for combat runs in the family." Out of curiosity, Rowan had kept an eye on Luke during the battle to see how their skills compared. With more discipline, he was sure Luke would be evenly matched with himself in battle. Luke's narcissism seemed to be the only thing holding him back from becoming better.
"Sir Luke is quite skilled, though he's nothing compared to your beast, nor his father for that matter."
"You have fought alongside their father?" That man, Robin had met only twice. Rowan had been afraid to be near him both times.
"When I was much younger. I never dared speak to him after seeing him fight. There's a reason they call him the Black Wolf. Death and destruction follow him. They say his bloodline itself is cursed to shed blood." Martin's face went pale.
"You don't believe in such things, do you, Sir Martin?"
"I don't know, but it is unnerving. Are you sure your dog is as obedient as you think?"
"I trust him with my life."
"I hope for your sake you are correct in your judgement of him." Martin left him to return to his tent.
Rowan didn't think anything of his words. Superstitions meant nothing to him, and he knew Robin in ways those outsiders could never understand. Much like himself, all they saw was something strange and foreign. They didn't care to understand, so he didn't bother trying to make them.
The battle had been a victory. Rowan was ready to move forward across the lands, but his plans were put to a halt again. A messenger came from King Philip ordering both armies to return to his castle. There was no further information on the reasoning. As he desperately needed help, Rowan agreed. On the ride there, it began to snow.
V. Three Words - TOC