RAVEN AND HOLLY
During the darkest days of winter, a young prince came to visit his dear friend. His friend was the crown prince of another kingdom. Before they were born, their grandfathers were at war with one another and the two sides fought until the princes' fathers settled everything peacefully. Now, their kingdoms were the closest of allies. Their friendship was seen by many as another symbol of hope and peace after so many years of bloodshed. But the public's memories of then were fading. That war ended almost twenty years ago, in the middle of a frigid January.
He was born the year prior and his friend in the latter half of the year the war ended. At twenty and nineteen respectively, neither had ever known a battle beyond small ones at the borders of their lands defending their homes. Mostly, when they were not in each other's company, they exchanged letters and poetry. Before he departed, he'd received a letter from his dear friend. He read over it as he rested in his carriage late at night.
'To my dearest friend, Roibín,
It's been several months since we last spoke in person. From your last letter, I recall you told me you were doing well. I hope that is still the case. Lately, I've been feeling ill myself, but my physician says it will pass in a few days and I will be well again soon.
My sister's been sneaking off at night. She won't tell me where she's going, but Leon heard her talking to her favorite servant about learning magic. That would be something. The idea is a little frightening with her quick temper. Don't tell her I said that.
As for Leon, my brother's been his usual self, leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him. There is one girl that I think he may be falling for. Do you know Lady Roísín? She's a bit on the shy side. My silver tongued flirt of a brother can never keep his words in order when he speaks with her. Father hopes she might get him to settle down some. I don't know about that.
Father's hair keeps getting greyer. Mother teases him about it, but it worries me. I know some would love to rule as early as possible, but I want Father to live a long life. I don't know how I will bear the weight of his crown when the time comes with how my heart will be breaking. How is you family doing? I hope they are all well.
I've been thinking about you a lot lately. I'd like to see you again. If you're not busy, would you like to visit? I love my family, but sometimes a deep loneliness hangs over me. When you're here, it vanishes from me like the night at dawn. I don't know what I'm saying. I miss you. I know I've been sending you so many letters lately. Is it too much?
Thank you for that last poem. It was very beautiful. Your words always capture me. Lately, I find it hard to write like that. My mind is full of so many things my hands cannot express, as if there's something in me holding back an ocean and I'm waiting for a storm on the sea to tear it all down.
I'm sorry if I've been writing to you too much. Please, if it is too much, let me know. I'll learn to contain myself better. I await your next letter.
May the moon illuminate your darkest nights and the sun guide you on your days,
At the end of the letter was a drawing of a raven beside the moon, the crown prince's personal symbol. He'd chosen the raven as his uncle, whom he was named for, was known as the Bloody Raven for his prowess in battle and jet black hair. As he inherited his name, Rowan, he'd chosen to adopt many things associated with his uncle, such as wearing the color red. The moon and the shortening of his name were his own additions to distinguish himself from his uncle. Most still called him Rowan, but he'd gained his own title from the public--the Night Raven. The nickname came from his penchant for staying out late and being a rather private person. Some also called him the Moon Prince for the same reason. He himself imagined his friend writing the letter at two in the morning.
He'd already sent his own reply. The carriage was now in the other kingdom. By morning, he'd be at the castle. He knew he should be asleep himself, but the sight of the moon excited him. Sunrise was too far away and he had too many things locked away inside him he wanted to say. The dam within him was breaking.
For the remaining hours of the night, he wrote poem after poem, discarding all except one.
At sunrise, he arrived. Before the castle gates, a familiar face was waiting for him. He rushed over to hug his friend.
Roibín kissed him on the cheek and said, "To see you awake so early, what a rarity."
"I couldn't sleep," Rowan said.
"So, insomnia afflicted the both of us."
"I was too excited to sleep." As he spoke, he noticed his breath before him. They were standing in half a foot of snow. He laughed. "Perhaps we should continue this inside?"
"Yes, that would be a good idea." Rowan pulled his cloak in tightly to shield more of himself from the wind.
The two princes continued their exchange in the library over hot cider and stew.
"I'm sorry to ask you to come here so late in winter. Was the journey here hard on you?" Rowan asked.
"It wasn't that bad. Your father's done an excellent job at ensuring the major roads between our kingdoms are kept clean year-round." Roibín sipped from his mug. "How have you been? You said you were lonely. Is the weather getting to you again? You always seem sadder in the colder months."
"I don't like being trapped inside. You know I like taking walks out at night. When it's this cold, I can't go anywhere." Rowan stared down into his mug. "You don't visit as often either."
Roibín teased him. "Do you need me that badly?"
"I'm sorry. That sounds indecent, doesn't it?" Rowan's face was deep red.
Roibín laughed. "I won't tell anyone what you said. Would you like me to stay in your room again? It'll make things easier at night. The walk back to my guest room is so long when I'm half asleep."
"I shouldn't keep you up so late."
Roibín smiled at him. "I don't mind it. That's why I'm asking about staying in your room. It's easier to turn in when the bed's only a few feet away."
"If you'd like, but if it's too much..."
"Ro, you worry too much over everything. If I didn't like it, I wouldn't suggest it in the first place." Roibín looked him right in the eyes. "I'm here because I want to see you. When we're apart, I miss you too. You think you're the only one who gets lonely?"
"It's not normal for friends to be like this."
"Do you really care so deeply about normalcy?" Roibín asked.
"I..." Rowan looked away. "I want to make my father proud. I cannot do anything that would tarnish his name."
"Knowing your father..." Roibín spoke in a serious tone. "Those two wants may not be as in line with one another as you think."
"He tells me that all the time." Rowan sighed and looked out the window. He put his mug down and went to stand in front of the window to watch the sky. Snow started falling again, deepening the white across the land.
Roibín joined him by the window. He smiled. "You should listen to him. I'll tell someone to move my things."
Rowan turned to look at him. "You don't listen either."
"I can't help it." Roibín stepped closer to him. "I've written a new poem. Would you like to hear it?"
"Come. Let's sit back down. The wind's getting worse. You don't want to get sick again." Roibín brushed back Rowan's hair, then took hold of his hand to lead him back to the table.
The two princes sat down. Roibín moved his chair closer to Rowan's and took out a piece of parchment from the bag at his side. He unrolled it. Rowan put his hand on the paper.
"May I recite it?" Rowan asked.
"Go ahead." Roibín handed him the paper.
Rowan held the paper before him. In a gentle voice, he brought the words to life. When Rowan read his poetry aloud, Roibín saw beauty beyond what he envisioned when he wrote those words. He listened attentively, a slow building warmth growing inside of him.
"Across the fields of white and skies of grey,
in the silence of winter's embrace,
the walls of my home are my prison
when I cannot reach you,
even a word, stained into my heart
keeps the fire burning
but I grow weak in this storm
just once more, let me hear your voice
To the winter birds, I call
and ask for favors
I send my song with the robin
and hope he won't lose his way in the ice
I see a raven at my window
with wings covered in snow and moonlight
I pray you sent him, but he shifts
with the wind and vanishes
Are you calling me in the night?
in my dreams, the summer sun warms us
despite the holly upon my head
sometimes, I think we're dancing with the spectral snowflakes
when I reach for you, I cannot hold onto anything
you've locked away our crowns of oak
in this eternal winter
let me carry the sun back to you
Do you remember when we were children?
in spring, I covered you in white
the scent of roses, soft petals in your hair
the wind scattered them around us
in a garden we shared with none
even then, you moved with the wind
I want to capture you
but you are the king of winter and I am dressed in holly"
Rowan put the parchment down. His expression was hidden by the moving shadows the winter gale cast into the room. "It's beautiful. What's it called?"
"Oak and Holly." Roibín leaned closer to Rowan. "I wrote it for you."
"Are you trying to tell me something?" Rowan asked, knowing very well the answer to his question.
"What do you think?" Roibín allowed the atmosphere between them to send his true intentions.
The unspoken words between them filled the space, growing thicker than the snow outside the castle walls. Roibín waited, hoping he could overcome the barrier between them.
Rowan looked at him with a longing gaze, then turned away.
Roibín felt the winter wind upon his skin. He rose to shut the window. "I haven't seen the king yet. I should go and greet him. Will you take me to him?"
"Yes, of course." Rowan stood up and led him to the dining hall.
The king, Rowan's father, was sitting at the end of the table. To his right was Rowan's mother and to his left were his younger silbings. Rowan brought Roibín over to his father's side.
"Father, Prince Roibín has arrived." Rowan said.
"Good to see you, King Wren." Roibín said.
"The same to you. Will you be staying with us for a while?" The king asked.
"For a few weeks, unless your son gets sick of me." He joked.
"Oh, I doubt that. You should visit more. Rowan's always in better spirits when you're here." The king said with a kind smile.
"That's an understatement. He's been watching the horizon for the last week." Leon commented.
"From dawn till dusk and all through the night." Rowan's sister, Robin, smirked.
Her twin brother kept up the teasing. Leon said, "I hardly think he slept at all."
Rowan's face went bright red. "That's enough out of you two."
The king and queen laughed. The queen said, "We're glad you're here, dear. You are always welcome in our home."
"Thank you, Queen Rosabella, King Wren." Roibín said. "Oh, my father told me to tell you he wishes you well and he may visit once the weather improves."
"Well, thank you. I look forward to seeing him." King Wren shifted his gaze from Roibín to Rowan. "I'm sure you want to spend more time alone with each other. Don't let us keep you here."
"Are you sure you don't need me for anything today, Father?" Rowan asked.
"No, not today. Enjoy your time with your friend. I have everything handled." The king reassured him.
"Please, Father, don't overburden yourself. I'm here for you. Whatever you need, I can..."
"Ro, I'm fine. I'm not so old and feeble yet. Go have fun. That would make me happier than having you help me with paperwork." King Wren waved him away.
"I keep telling him that. He was born old, I'm afraid." Roibín grabbed the crown prince's arm to lead him away.
"Unfortunate. You should work on making him young again." The king gave him a knowing look.
Roibín caught his intentions, and the warmth in him that spread when he thought of the crown prince burned deeper. He led Rowan away into the hall, a little more hopeful.
"Please, forgive them. They're ridiculous." Rowan's face was a deeper crimson.
"I didn't hear anything ridiculous." Roibín leaned over. "I watched the horizon too, every day and night. I am not ashamed of that."
"I am sorry. I...they were not lying. I've been watching since I received your letter." Rowan's cheeks were burning so brightly Roibín was certain his face would be hot to touch.
"I am flattered that you thought so often of me." Roibín decided to make a bold move. He caught Rowan in an embrace and whispered into his ear. "I am always thinking of you. Nothing else can eclipse my sense of reason the way you can. Your voice alone can destroy me."
"Someone might see us." Rowan whispered. "Please, don't do this in public."
Roibín let him go. He did not move any closer to him. "Forgive me. I won't touch you again."
Rowan flinched. The bright color in his face drained away. "No, that's not what I meant. I don't mind if you hold me, but please wait until we are in private. You know I've never refused you then."
"You used to allow me to in public." Roibín said.
"We were children then. No one thought anything of it."
"You allowed it when we met under the sunrise earlier."
"You know that's different."
"I know." Roibín said softly. "Forgive my selfishness. I know one day I'll have to give you away completely anyway."
The air between them stung like ice. Rowan lowered his head. Roibín could tell he wanted to say something, but the words were trapped inside.
Roibín sighed and broke the silence between them. "I recall you telling me the new tower was completed. I'd like to see it."
"Yes, it's finished now. Let me take you there."
They shared the day in this same dance of longing, cold words, and pain. For the last two years, this tension between them continued to build. He wanted to confess to someone who would return his feelings. As things were, the crown prince was incapable and the unnecessary barrier he placed between them was wearing down their friendship. Out of desperation, he wanted to say it anyway. Holding it within him was agonizing. He wanted to walk hand in hand with Rowan, as they did when they were young. He wanted to freely embrace him without worrying over prying eyes. He wanted to kiss him for longer than a peck on the cheek when they said their goodbyes.
'Friendship is only half of what I want. Why won't you admit you feel the same?'
He knew the answer to that. Devotion. It was Rowan's devotion to protecting and serving his father. Though the king did not care what his children did so long as they were safe and happy, Rowan struggled with allowing himself that luxury. For every grey upon his father's head, Rowan's worries grew. The king himself told him many times to relax and do as he pleased, and sometimes Rowan managed to. But for this, he struggled to let his real wishes free. He loved his father too greatly to ever risk doing anything to harm his image. 'I wish I could make you see how you worry him more being like this.'
At night, they retired to Rowan's bedroom. The servants moved Roibín's things to the room. Tired from the trip and exhausted from their strained interactions, Roibín quickly got into bed. He said nothing to Rowan as he lay there. Rowan wrote beside him, bearing down on a slab of oak. Roibín wanted to reach over and pull him down to cuddle with him, as they often did, but tonight, he turned away. Lately, he was always the one reaching out. If he stopped, he wondered, would that be the end of it?
Some part of him was regretting coming.
He fell asleep easily. In his dreams, Rowan held his hand and led him through a summer field. He laughed with Roibín in a way he hadn't since they were children. Mischievously, he pulled Roibín down into the grass. Desire got the better of Roibín, and all his passion overflowed.
Roibín woke in a daze hours before sunrise. An uncomfortable sensation between his legs embarrassed him.
To his side, Rowan slept cuddled against him, one of his arms wrapped around Roibín's waist. Carefully, he moved Rowan aside to change clothes. In the darkness, he couldn't see the hands of the clock, but the bells signaling a new hour told him it was four. He tried to be quiet as he changed.
Candlelight brightened the room.
"What are you doing?" Rowan asked.
"Ah, well...something happened. I needed to change clothes. Did I wake you?"
"Don't worry over it. Are you going back to sleep right away? I was thinking I'd like to go on a walk." Rowan sat up in bed.
"In the snow and cold? That's dangerous, especially at this time of night." Roibín said with concern.
"I only meant around the castle, not outside. You know I don't like the cold." Rowan got out of bed. He walked over to Roibín and put his arm around Roibín's. He leaned against him. "I'm sorry about yesterday. I invited you here and I haven't been a very good host. I'm sorry. My mind is very distracted lately."
"I wouldn't call that distraction. The word you mean is distant..."
"I'm sorry." Rowan looked up at him. "That isn't quite right either. The truth of the matter is...I'm conflicted. The distance is merely a side effect of that."
The moon cast its white light upon the raven-haired prince. Illuminated in those moonbeams was a look of desperation. Roibín lost himself in that gaze. He could not contain himself. He pulled Rowan into an embrace and locked eyes with him. "Why do you deny what we both know?"
"I've denied nothing. I've refused to act on it." Rowan did not avert his eyes. With unsteady hands, he caressed Roibín's face. "Come walk with me."
Roibín refused to move from that spot. He wouldn't hide anything any longer. "No. I don't want to speak to you over a barrier. If you won't let me in, let me go."
"That is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about." Rowan ran his fingers through Roibín's hair. "Please, indulge me once more. This will be the last time."
Neither anger nor sadness filled him. He laughed, his mind consumed by all the things he couldn't say. "You're a liar. Go on. Take me where you please."
Rowan showed him an expression he'd never wore before Roibín. A seductive gaze made his body forget the winter's breath. Through the dark halls, the raven led the prince whose heart was caged in holly. They walked, hand in hand, without concern as no one else stirred so early before dawn. He took Roibín over to the newly finished tower, up to the room at the highest point.
It was a guest bedroom, with holly and mistletoe hanging above the door. The bed was adorned with green pillows and a green blanket, both with white trim. On top of the blanket was a very detailed quilt embroidered with scenes of every season--snowy mountains, forests of amber and gold, rainbow gardens, and green fields under a summer rain. The furniture was made of oak and on the floor were spruce needles and rose petals. Dried marigolds hung from the walls with pine straw, and from the window hung a branch of rowan still covered in red berries. The moon's light on them made the berries shine so brightly they appeared to glow. Earlier in the day, Rowan had not shown him this room. He wondered why.
Rowan placed two chairs in the room by the window. "I know we can watch the night from my room, but when I saw this view from here the night it was finished...Don't tell anyone, but I've been coming here a lot at night. I'm already jealous of any guests that get to stay here."
"Rowan, why did you bring me here?" Roibín stood in the doorway.
Beside the suspended branch, the bright red of Rowan's clothes also became more radiant in the moonlight. He sat down in the chair and pointed to the one beside it. "We need to talk, about a lot of things. Before dawn, let us both say everything we've been holding back."
Roibín crossed under the holly and mistletoe over to the window carrying the rowan. "Did we really need to do this here?"
"This may sound strange, but I feel more myself in this space," Rowan said.
"I see." Roibín sat down beside him. "Should I start or...?"
"You may." Rowan put his hands together in his lap.
Roibín's earlier determination faltered. Now that Rowan was offering him the chance, he didn't know what to say. His heart rang in his ears. 'No, I mustn't lose courage now. I may never get another chance.'
He took a deep breath. "For a very long time, I...You and I both know how I feel...how we both feel. Every time I've attempted to let my true feelings show, you turn cold to me. Every time you send me a letter, your words are more enchanting to me than the last time. And every time I come to you, you bury me deeper in ice and snow. I'm tired of winter. I'm tired of climbing a wall you keep building higher. If you don't want my love, please, say it so I can move on. Whenever I am by your side...I am breaking in two when I once knew the truest happiness."
Rowan looked away from him. "Forgive me. I knew I was hurting you, and I planned to push you away, but I've realized I cannot."
"You will call me foolish, as my brother and sister often do." Rowan smiled and laughed under his breath. "How long have you known I was in love with you?"
"Since you and I were fifteen and fourteen, I think."
"To tell you the truth, I didn't realize I loved you like that until I was seventeen even though, looking back, I am certain you have always owned my heart." Rowan looked out the window at the moon. "I've been hiding from myself for a long time, desperate to be perfect for a man who loves imperfection so that I may protect him from all who wish ill will upon him."
"Your father doesn't want that from you. He only wishes for your happiness." Roibín said.
"Perhaps it's because of my namesake. Father gave me my uncle's name, and I've been spending my life wanting to serve as his protector the way my uncle once did." Rowan touched the branch hanging from the window. "For that purpose, I shut away myself. Father's been trying for years to undo all the mist I've shrouded myself in. It was only two years ago that I could admit to myself it was alright for me to be in love with anyone. You may be angry with me for this, but Father gave me his approval to see you in secret before I had ever admitted you were the one I loved. Despite that, I still could not bring myself to chase you out of fear of being caught and causing another strand of grey to appear on his head."
Roibín grabbed hold of Rowan's right hand. "You'll cause him more greys behaving like this."
"I know that now. I've been afraid for so long." Rowan stared into Roibín's eyes. "The night before you came, Father took me up here and told me for the thousandth time he wanted me to be happy as his son, not perfect as a prince. And he told me, 'Confess already. You won't be young forever!' That's been on my mind since, but when I saw you, I was afraid again."
Rowan got up from the chair and knelt down on his knees before Roibín. He took Roibín's hand and kissed it. "I have always loved you, and tonight...I think I'm ready to finally let go and live. Do you still want me?"
"More than anyone." Roibín joined him on the floor in an embrace. Bathed in moonlight, they shared their first kiss as lovers.
Dawn, they watched from the bed, holding tight to one another. Roibín pulled the quilt up higher to keep his lover warm. His hands brushed against the embroidered emerald field and the pure white mountains. They rested against the oak frame on pillows matching those two scenes. The snowstorm had not returned that morning, and the sun's light made streams out of mounds of sparkling white.
Rowan laughed as he played with Roibín's hair. "You can't write any more poems about me and holly trees now."
"That still leaves me mistletoe for the wintry imagery." Roibín laughed with him.
"I'd much prefer that, but I'm more fond of roses."
"Red has always gone well with you." Roibín kissed him on the cheek.
"No, not of red." Rowan pulled him close into a deeper kiss. "Of blue. Cast me in your vision of eternity."
Some time after sunrise, they came down to the dining hall to share a meal with Rowan's family. They sat beside each other, holding hands under the table. The blissful gazes they exchanged did not go unnoticed by Rowan's family. The queen nudged her husband, wearing a silly grin on her face. His brother and sister snickered amongst themselves. Neither of them caught their reactions, too engrossed in each other's presence. After breakfast, the king asked to speak with Roibín alone.
"You wanted to see me, King Wren?" Roibín asked.
"I take it last night went well." The king grinned.
"What ever do you mean?" Roibín played dumb.
"Thank you." King Wren said.
"Who knows." King Wren shrugged. "That is all. I shouldn't keep you from Ro any longer. He's been wanting to be with you so badly."
"King Wren...I heard from him you gave your approval, but should you really be..."
"I don't know what you're talking about." King Wren winked at him. "Please, make him happy for me. He worries too much, something he unfortunately got from me."
"I'll do my best, but you can't fault him for caring so much."
King Wren laughed at his words. "I don't. I'm only worrying over him worrying. Haha, he and I truly are father and son."
Roibín put his hand on the king's shoulder. "You should relax yourself. Let me take care of him."
King Wren smiled. "Thank you. Now, go on. He's waiting."
Roibín nodded and went on his way, back to his close friend and lover. Outside, the ground was drenched. They walked out to the garden to check what survived the storm. The winter took many, but plenty survived.
In the center of the garden, an old rowan tree was growing strong. Many years ago, before Rowan was born, that spot was his parents' secret place to meet. They cleared off a bench underneath the old tree, and Roibín dried it with his cloak before they sat down.
Wearing his own crown, made of rowan wood, raven feathers, and moonstone, the crown prince gifted his lover with a crown made of oak. He said, "From here on, the days will start to get longer again."
Roibín adjusted the crown on his head. "I look forward to it. It's been cold for far too long."
"It certainly has." Rowan leaned against his lover and whispered. "I'll keep you warm tonight."
Roibín kissed him on the head and watched the snow melt under the morning sun.