Ronan walked out to a hidden clearing in the forest, down by the river. The young men he was meant to train were both late, and he knew he'd find at least one of them here. As he expected, someone was at the edge of the river. It was the crown prince, Rowan, but Ronan's squire, Robin, was nowhere to be found. Beside the crown prince was his younger brother, Wren. Ronan approached them.
"You're late for training." Ronan said to the older prince. "Where's the river child?"
Rowan crossed his arms. "I don't know. He was supposed to meet me here fifteen minutes ago."
"He stood you
up?" Ronan held back his laughter. His squire and the prince were in a forbidden relationship, but he didn't fault them for it. He kept their secret, as he couldn't help but be soft on those he loved most.
"I'm sure there's a reason. He wouldn't do that." Rowan faced the ground.
Ronan turned to the other prince. Eight years his brother's junior, Wren clung to his brother's cloak. Ronan greeted him. "Hello, Prince Wren. How are you?"
"Bored. He won't play with me. He only cares about Rin." Wren said. Rin was Wren's nickname for Ronan's squire, born from the child failing to pronounce Robin's name correctly when he was learning to speak.
"I didn't tell you I wanted to play with you. You're interrupting my date." Rowan said. He tried to free himself from his brother, but his brother held tight to the cloak.
Wren yanked the fabric. "I wanna play with Rin too."
"I don't play
with him." Rowan rolled his eyes.
"Leave him be. He only wants to spend time with you." Ronan said. "Prince Wren, your brother's a little grumpy right now because his beloved isn't on time. He'll play with you later, after he completes his training for the day."
"I wanna play right now." Wren pouted at him. He tried to put on as sad of a face as he could in hopes of gaining Ronan's favor.
Ronan was a father of three, and had largely raised Rowan and Robin to a lesser degree. Wren's tactic had no effect on him. He smiled at the child and said, "It'll have to wait. Do you want to watch us while you wait?"
"I guess." Wren sighed.
"Well, let's begin. Since my squire is late, you'll spar with me until he gets here." Ronan unsheathed his sword.
Rowan took off his cloak. He stood up and readied his own sword. Wren watched them spar from the riverbed, still holding onto his brother's red cloak. His brother's scent lingered strongly on the cloth. As much as his brother was annoying him, Wren felt safer holding it.
The knight and the prince sparred for a while. Ronan watched the sky grey. As he swung his sword, he said, "He is really late now. Where is he?"
"Who knows." Rowan swung at him with more force than usual. His annoyance with his lover shown in his form.
"You are mad." Ronan couldn't help but laugh at him.
"I love you, but I hate training. If I must endure this daily ritual, I should be allowed a moment of happiness before it. He didn't show, and so I wasted away that moment." Rowan swung again.
Ronan blocked the prince. He grinned. "That's a dramatic way of complaining you didn't get to roll around in the grass before training."
Rowan's face went bright red. "You make it sound so much dirtier than it is."
Ronan laughed at the prince's embarrassment.
Wren interjected himself into the conversation. He turned his nose up in the air. "It's gross. I don't get why you like all that kissy stuff."
"You don't get it because you're a child." Rowan said.
"What's that got to do with anything?" Wren asked. "I'm not that little! I'm almost nine!"
"You'll understand in a few years." Ronan said to the boy.
Wren wanted to ask why, but he was distracted by the sound of footsteps coming their way through the forest. Wren crouched down, holding tighter to his brother's cloak. Ronan and Rowan stopped and faced the direction of the approaching noise, their swords raised at whatever may be coming their way.
Ronan's squire ran out into the clearing. The knight and the crown prince lowered their swords.
Robin caught his breath. "I'm sorry I'm late."
"Where have you been?!" Rowan demanded to know. He didn't hide his annoyance.
"I received a message from my mother that I needed to respond to immediately." Robin said.
"Something happen?" Ronan asked.
"Uh...it's complicated. Fairy business...family business..." Robin watched the sky. A heavy wind swept through the forest. He pulled his cloak in around his body.
The three before him assumed by family Robin did not mean his biological relatives. Robin was raised by a river nymph for roughly a decade before coming back to the human realm. Whenever he spoke of his mother, he always meant the nymph who raised him.
"You stood me up. I expect more than that." Rowan put away his sword. He approached his lover.
Robin kissed him in an attempt to make up for the time lost. "I'll tell you about it later. It's not really something that would interest you, but I..."
Ronan interrupted him. "You owe me an explanation as well, young man."
"To make it short, if I did not stay to discuss matters with her, we'd likely be getting hail right about now. We're probably still going to get some very bad weather soon anyway. My aunt's tempter is...well, I know I'm late, but we should probably cut training short at the first sign of lightning or thunder." Robin looked uncomfortable as he vaguely explained his absence.
Ronan cast doubt on the young man's words. "Is it going to really be that bad, or are you summoning the rain to get out of training?"
"I am being honest. She intends to send a storm through here. Not at us, but at a king who offended her elsewhere. We happened to be in the path between them." Robin said.
Ronan glanced up at the sky. The grey before had turned so dark it was nearly black. The wind rushed through the forest again. Ronan resigned to what was coming. "Alright. If it starts to storm, we'll go inside, and train indoors instead."
"Awe, come on." Rowan said.
"You're not getting out of it." Ronan said with a smirk on his face.
"We shouldn't be messing around with metal in a storm even indoors." Robin added to Rowan's complaint.
Ronan already had an answer for that. "You can use wooden training swords."
"You think of everything." Robin said.
"That's my job." Ronan said. He took Robin's sword out of his sheath and handed it back to him. "Now, get ready."
"Yes, sir." Robin said.
Above them, the sky grew ever darker. The energy in the air put Robin on edge. Wren sensed it as well, though he did not know the anxious sensation building inside him was from the magic in the air and not the from the storm, as he thought it was.
Robin couldn't get into proper stance. The energy around him was too much. He disobeyed Ronan and put his sword away. "Won't be long now. We should go ahead and go back."
"We've still got time." Ronan said. Within seconds of him speaking, lightning completely illuminated the sky. He changed his mind quickly. "Let's go."
Wren carried Rowan's cloak and ran to his brother. Loud thunder echoed across the land. Wren's body shook from the sound. Rowan looked down at his little brother. He took the cloak from his and put it on. Then, he covered his brother in the cloak. "Stay close to me."
They hurried to the castle. The rain drenched the land within minutes of them getting inside. Ronan had his squire and the prince resume their training inside, as he told him they would. Wren stayed with them, less from wanting to play and more out of fear. Nowhere to him was safer than standing in his brother's shadow.
Outside the castle, the rain came down relentlessly and the wind howled. It shifted the rain's descend near sideways. Hail hit against the window. Wren wrapped himself up in his brother's cloak.
Ronan sat down by the boy. He patted him on the head. "It's alright, little prince. You're safe in here."
"Why does it have to be so loud and dark?" Wren asked.
"I don't know." Ronan sat with him the entire time Robin and Rowan trained together.
When training was over for the day, the sky had yet to give the earth a break from the storm. Rather than calm, the storm only worsened as the day went on. Robin made them all some apple cider while Ronan wrote a letter to his wife. Rowan sat by the window, watching the rain, Wren sitting directly beside him.
He took a sip of the cider Robin made. "It's really coming down. What was your aunt so mad about?"
"That king called her a whore after she slept with him." Robin said. He crushed up herbs he had been drying.
"What?" Rowan asked.
"And he tried to cut her wings off. That didn't go over well. The rain is only part of what she's sending him. Mother and I had to calm her down to stop her from burning down his entire kingdom." Robin breathed out a heavy sigh.
"Why did she sleep with him?" Rowan asked.
"Apparently, he was a very handsome man." Robin put the herbs into a wooden container. "I don't understand it either. She doesn't really like humans in general."
"But didn't she help in teaching you magic?" Rowan asked.
"She and my mother are lovers." Robin said. He added in more herbs to prepare.
"Wait...so are they sisters and lovers?" Rowan winced at the idea.
"No, definitely not. They're not related. I call her aunt because I don't want to call her mother. Step-mother might be more accurate, but I simply refuse to call her mother in any form of the word."
"I take it you don't like her then." Ronan said. He looked up from his letter for a moment.
"She's a bitch."
"I can't believe you
said that." Ronan looked up at him again. Robin wasn't the type to use insults like that.
"Her kingdom bows in fear of her wrath. I've seen what she does to her subjects. For her hatred of humans, she sure does rule like many human kings. She doesn't treat my mother nicely either. I don't get what she sees in her." Robin pressed hard against the leaves in his bowl.
"Does your fairy mother not care that she went and slept with some human king?" Rowan asked.
"Oh, no, that's fine between them. I don't like it, but many on that side are very...well, it's considered normal in many places there to potentially have many lovers, especially among the older ones." Robin explained. Lightning struck down very close to the window Rowan and Wren were sitting beside. Robin slammed the bowl down and stomped over to the window. He opened it widely and yelled at the sky. "That's enough of that! I didn't do anything!"
Robin held up his hands and concentrated his energy. Above the castle, the sky opened up and the storm moved around them. Outside the space where he cleared the clouds, the storm became even more intense in response and the wind howled louder.
The king, Argus, entered the room in a rage. "Where is that damn fairy? Are you doing this, boy?"
Robin yelled back at him. "No, I'm trying to stop it. And stop calling me boy! I'm nearly nineteen."
"Seems a powerful fairy is intending to send this storm as a punishment to a human king nearby." Ronan put away the letter he was writing. He took Wren's hand and tried to pull the boy away from the window, but Wren refused him.
Rowan stayed close to his lover, and so too Wren stayed where he was.
Argus complained to Robin. "Why the hell can't the witch just make it start wherever that man is? What do we have to do with it?"
"She likes collateral damage." Robin wanted to tell the king to be quiet, but he knew he would be lectured by two other people in the room if he did.
Outside, the wind turned violent and broke through the barrier Robin placed around the castle.
Wren buried his face in his brother's shirt. Rowan held him close. He whispered. "Shh...it's going to be okay."
The barrier Robin put up completely collapsed and the castle felt the full force of the storm. The very earth beneath them shook. Rowan knelt down to keep himself stable and put his hand over the back of his brother's head to further protect him.
"What the hell is going on?" The king held onto the doorway.
Ronan did the same.
The queen, Ran, stumbled into the room. She fell forward. Ronan caught her. "My queen, are you alright?"
"Yes, thank you." She lingered in his arms longer than she knew she should. The queen slipped from his grasp to check on her children. She sat down beside Rowan and Wren. "Neither of you are hurt, right?"
"We're fine." Rowan said to his mother.
Robin dropped his arms and collapse to his knees. He caught his breath.
Ronan ran over to him. "What happened?"
"I'm out of energy. I can't compete with her. Bring me a bowl." Robin's body ached. His fingertips bled.
Ronan did as Robin asked. He handed him a bowl. "Here."
Robin performed a small spell to fill the bowl with water. His fingers stung as he worked the spell. When the bowl was full, he placed one hand in the bowl and closed his eyes. Quietly, he communicated to the fairy woman creating the storm. None but him could hear the conversation they had. The blood dripping from his hand turned the water red. Everyone in the room watched him.
Rowan asked, "What are you doing?"
"I'm begging." He said.
The room went completely silent, and the storm worsened.
Robin held his other hand out to Ronan. "A knife. Bring me a knife."
Ronan handed Robin the dagger he kept on his belt.
Robin took the blade and cut a lock of his own hair. He let the yellow strands fall into the bowl, mixing with the water and his blood.
"What sort of black magic are you performing over there?" The king asked, disturbed by the sight.
"She's demanding an offering." Robin said. He opened his eyes and looked at Ronan. "May I take from yours? She only wants golden hair and blood from one with golden hair."
Ronan grabbed the dagger and cut some of his hair. He handed it to Robin. "Is this enough?"
"Yes. I don't need much blood either. A few drops is enough." Robin dropped the hair into the bowl.
Ronan pricked his finger with the tip of his dagger. He held his finger over the water to let the blood drip in. "Why golden hair?"
"She uses that shade for a specific kind of magic." Robin said.
Outside the castle, the storm calmed. The earth stopped shaking and the wind faded away. The contents of the bowl vanished.
"Has she been appeased?" Ronan asked.
"For now." Robin said, then fell against Ronan.
"Robin?!" Rowan's eyes widened. His heart raced.
Ronan checked his pulse and his breathing. "He's unconscious. Prince, will you help me get him to bed? I think he used up every bit of energy he had left."
Rowan nodded. He looked down at his little brother. "Come. You can help too."
Wren agreed. He followed his brother over to Ronan. Ronan took one of Robin's arms and placed it over his shoulders. Rowan took the other arm. Wren followed along behind them as they carried Robin out of the room.
Ran held the door open for them. "Take care of him, and thank him for me for calming the storm."
"I will, my queen." Ronan said.
The queen smiled at him, her cheeks rosy. She felt her husband's glare on her skin and averted her eyes.
Argus cleared his throat. He spoke to Ronan. "Don't let him sleep long. If any more of this magic starts up again, I fully expect him to do something about it."
"Yes, your majesty." Ronan said.
They carried Robin to the room he shared with the crown prince. They placed him in the bed. Ronan put away Robin's things while Rowan removed his shoes.
Rowan brushed back Robin's hair. He kissed him. "Rest well, my love."
Clanking and cawing came from the corner of the room. A giant birdcage sat there with two agitated crows inside. Wren pointed at them. "Your birds are upset."
Rowan looked over at them. He got up and made sure the window was shut tight before opening the cage. The crows flew out of the cage and rested on their owner. One bird perched on the prince's shoulder and the other on his arm. He spoke gently to them. "Did the weather scare you too?"
The male crow sitting on his shoulder chewed on his hair.
"Apollo, stop that." Rowan laughed. The bird's beak was tickling his face.
Wren crawled onto the bed. He looked down at Robin sleeping. Robin looked at peace in his dreams. Wren's face flushed as he watched the man sleep. His heart fluttered, but he could not identify the feeling inside him. All he knew was that it caused him great jealousy when he watched his brother kiss the man.
Ronan checked Robin's temperature. "Well, he's not running a fever. That's good. I'll come by to check on him in an hour. Keep an eye on him."
"I will." Rowan said. The female crow hopped up his arm to his other shoulder. She rubbed against his cheek. "I love you too, Artemis. Why don't you two play with Wren?"
Apollo cawed at him, then went back to chewing on his hair.
"If he's still worn out tomorrow morning, we'll skip training for the day." Ronan put a blanket over Robin.
"Does that include me?" Rowan asked.
"Yes, but we can't skip too many days. It won't be long before we'll be at war."
Rowan looked away from Ronan. "How long?"
"Late summer or fall, I suspect. It depends on what happens from here on out. Brion's already been making moves, and your father wants another war. He wants Brion's land. They'll clash sooner or later." Ronan said. He got up from the bed and headed toward the door.
"When the time comes, I'll be right there with you. Remember that. You won't be fighting alone." Ronan attempted to comfort him.
"I'm going out to check on the grounds, see if there's been any damage from the storm. I'll see you an an hour." With that, Ronan left.
Wren hopped down from the bed and joined his brother. He asked, "Brother, how come you have to go to war?"
"Because I'm the crown prince, and I'm the son of a warrior king." Rowan coaxed the birds to fly around the room.
"But you're sixteen." Wren said.
"I'll be seventeen soon enough, and I'm already grown." Rowan watched the rain out the window.
"That's not very old. Rin can't be knighted until he's at least twenty-one. Why can you go fight at sixteen?" Wren argued with his brother, wanting an excuse to keep them both home.
There was no answer Rowan could give him to make him happy. Rowan put his hand to the glass. "Because that's the way it is. Children come on the battlefield. Pages and squires will be there. Robin's still a squire, and you can bet Father will be expecting him to fight as hard as Ronan in spite of his age and position. That's how he is, that's what we're known for. Fighting."
"Why can't I come? I'm old enough to start training." Wren said. In his childish thinking, if he couldn't keep them home, going with them was the next solution.
"You're not going to be training in anything but scholarly ways." Rowan told him.
"But why? I'm not weak. Father wants me to fight. I heard him say that." Wren kept arguing.
"I forbid it." Rowan raised his voice slightly. When he caught himself doing that, he changed his tone. "I need you home. Father won't live forever, and I don't intend on being a warmonger after he's gone. I'm going to need someone with intellectual skills at my side, not another warrior. Besides, if I die, it would be unwise to send you out and not have another spare in case something happens to you. Father doesn't think straight."
"You're not going to die." Wren said.
The room went silent.
Rowan stared at his little brother. He wasn't sure what to say, so he changed the subject. "You wanted to play, didn't you?"
"Let's play a game while Robin sleeps." Rowan forced himself to smile. Inside, his heart ached. He got down a chess board and put it on the floor. "If you beat me, I'll give you something."
"What do I get if I win?" The game distracted Wren enough. He didn't ask any more questions about the war.
Rowan opened a drawer from the dresser on his side of the bed. He pulled out a piece of rolled up cloth. He unwrapped it to reveal several long peppermint sticks. "I'll give you one if you win."
"What if I lose?" Wren asked.
"You have to write me a poem."
"Deal." Wren smiled.
The two of them played together. Rowan often played this game with him when it rained. Wren wondered why, but he didn't think much on it. He got what he wanted. Rowan was playing with him.
Wren really wanted the peppermint. He thought over each move. The longer they played, Wren noticed something. Rowan was making very obvious mistakes every other turn. He wondered if his brother was testing him or if he had a much grander plan and those mistakes were actually traps. Wren tested his brother back by making the move he assumed his brother wanted him to make. Rowan continued this pattern, and no larger trap came into Wren's view until Wren found himself close to winning.
Wren moved his queen into position to take Rowan's king. "Check."
Rowan pretended to be surprised. "Oh, you're right. Hmm...what will I do?"
By his brother's tone, Wren realized there was no greater plan. Rowan was giving him a handicap. Rowan moved his king out of check. Two moves later, Wren had him completely cornered. "Checkmate."
Rowan looked over the board. "Damn, you've got me. Guess you win."
He handed Wren one of the sticks.
Wren refused to take it. "Best two out of three."
"But you've already won."
"I want to keep playing."
"Alright. Let's start over." Rowan put the candy away. They set the board back up and played again.
This time, Rowan set up slightly more difficult little puzzles for his brother to solve across the board. The increased difficulty wasn't too much for Wren. He had to think about it longer, but he saw through his brother's moves. To impress his brother, he tried to think further ahead and lay more complicated traps for Rowan.
Once again, he defeated his brother.
"Checkmate." Wren said.
"You've beat me again."
"Best three out of five."
Rowan laughed. "Do you want to lose?"
"No, I want to keep playing." Wren said.
"One more game." Rowan handed Wren the peppermint stick. "This one's just for fun."
It took about three seconds before the candy went right in Wren's mouth. While they set up the board, Wren started to work out a new strategy for beating his brother. This time, Rowan didn't go easy on him. Nothing Wren tried worked. For every move Wren made, Rowan was three steps ahead of him, ready to trap him.
It didn't take long before Rowan won. "Checkmate."
Wren mentally retraced the moves in the game, wondering what he could have done better. He stared up at his brother. "Why didn't you play like that before? You let me win."
"I did not. I wanted to see if you could avoid the traps I set up for you. You did. You beat me fair and square." Rowan said.
"You could have made the game a lot harder on me."
"That's not the point."
"Why beat me so badly this time?" Wren asked.
"That was a test too, to see if you could win. I'm sure you noticed each game got harder, didn't it?" Rowan picked up the pieces.
"I've shown you your skill level. Keep improving. Maybe next time you'll beat me if I play like I just did now." Rowan put the game away.
"You're being a lot nicer to me now than you were earlier. You never want to play with me." Wren complained as he sucked on the peppermint stick.
"Sorry." Rowan glanced over at his sword resting against the wall. "I've been a bit of an ass lately, haven't I?"
"You're always grumpy." Wren said.
"Yeah." Rowan said. His voice was soft and his gaze distant.
"What's wrong?" Wren asked.
"I don't feel well."
"Are you sick?" Wren hugged him.
"I don't know." Rowan looked at the sword again, then patted his younger brother on the head. He called his birds over to put them back in their cage. Rowan opened the window up to let in the warm spring air. Outside, the rain was barely a drizzle. "The storm's calmed down. When it stops, do you want to play outside?"
Wren smiled. "Uh huh."
Around evening, the brothers played hide-and-seek out in the field, using the mist rolling through to hide themselves.
Summer came in time, and the talk of war became constant within the castle walls. Rowan and Robin spent most of their time out by the river, avoiding others as much as possible. Wren snuck out in hopes of playing with them. One sunny, warm day, he found them where they usually were. Robin ran his hands through the water, catching the sunlight on the river's surface through his fingers. Rowan leaned against him, slipping him sweet words he would be too embarrassed to let anyone else hear.
Wren wished to run over to them, but judging by the look his brother was giving Robin, he knew his brother would be mad at him if he did. He stayed quiet and watched from afar, waiting for the right time to talk to them.
"Isn't it beautiful, how the sun dances on the water?" Robin lifted his hands out of the water. He watched the water drip from his hands and return to the river.
"It is, but I'd prefer a rainstorm. Could you make it rain for me?" Rowan asked.
"As you wish, my love." Robin raised his hands in the air.
"No, not like that. The other way you showed me. Sing for me." Rowan pressed a finger against Robin's lips. He stared at Robin with hungry eyes.
Robin took hold of Rowan's hand and kissed it. His eyes matched Rowan's. For one alone, he sang a wordless song and sent his voice to the sky. The surrounding air shifted, growing warmer and the sky darker. Wren felt something inside himself when Robin sang. His heart felt different, and his body calmer.
A light, warm rain fell upon the forest. The trees nearby shielded them largely from the storm, but enough slipped through to make Rowan happy. He loved the rainstorms Robin summoned, and he loved hearing Robin sing.
Rowan caressed Robin's cheek, then kissed down his neck. Robin's song turned to heavy breaths. He put his hand on Rowan's waist. "I can't sing if you do that."
"It's raining already." Rowan grinned at him mischievously. He pushed Robin down into the grass and got on top of him. Robin wrapped his arms around Rowan's waist as they kissed.
Wren told himself to look away. He didn't want to see that. Seeing his brother kissing Robin always upset him. Yet, he couldn't look away. Curiosity overtook him. He watched them closely. He felt a mix of disgust and something he couldn't name when the kissing involved tongue or any time they put their hands on each other in strange places.
This wasn't the first time he saw someone do what they were doing. He'd stumbled upon his father doing far more indecent things with maidservants, things he greatly wished he could forget. What the lovers before him were doing was nowhere close to that, but it stirred up something different in him. When he walked in on his father, he only felt disgust. Right now, his disgust was mostly about his brother being involved, but not at the actions themselves. It looked more gentle, how they touched each other, compared to how his father behaved around women. It reminded him of how his mother often approached Ronan when she thought the two of them were alone, but Ronan always rejected that contact. More than disgust, and whatever that other strange feeling was, Wren felt jealousy. He wanted Robin to touch him like that.
Rowan pushed up Robin's shirt. He ran his hand down Robin's chest and started to undo Robin's pants. Wren stood up and said something, horrified at potentially seeing something very indecent.
"Why do you do stuff like that?" Wren asked very loudly.
"Wren?!" Rowan looked up, mortified at his brother catching him. His blushed deeply. "How long were you there?!"
"Do what? Kiss?" Robin sat up and looked back at him. He quickly fixed his shirt.
"No, that...um...nevermind." Wren didn't really have anything in mind when he said that. He only wanted them to be aware he was there and stop.
"Wren, stop spying on us like that. It's not right." Flustered and embarrassed, Rowan turned away from him.
"Why?" Wren asked.
"Because this is private! And you are too young to be seeing such things!" Rowan covered his face. "If you had been watching a few minutes longer...I'd have to kill myself."
"It is rude to watch people who are trying to be alone, Wren." Robin said to him.
"I'm sorry." Wren sat down beside Robin.
"I forgive you." Robin patted him on the head. "But please don't go around intentionally doing that anymore. It isn't right."
"I won't." Wren blushed. His mind fantasized again about kissing Robin and having Robin hold him. He couldn't compete with his brother. Only two years separated Rowan and Robin. Ten years stood between him and Robin. Robin would only ever see him as a child. He wondered why he even wanted it. Kissing mostly still disgusted him, but when he thought about it with Robin, it didn't seem so bad. It gave him a strange, good feeling he didn't know. Perhaps his brother and Ronan were right. He might want to seek out people to kiss in a few years. Wren looked up at Robin. He was so handsome. He cursed fate for those ten years. "Rin, did you make it rain?"
"I did." Robin said.
Wren knew that, but he just wanted to talk to Robin about something. "Can you make the thunder stop?"
"Are you afraid? You don't need to worry. This is my storm. I'll keep you safe." Robin smiled at him.
Wren's cheeks burned deeply. His heart raced, and then he reminded himself Robin was nineteen.
He promised he'd stop spying on them, but he did it again a few times. He kept those images in his mind, and thought about them when he lie in bed at night. That strange feeling only got stronger. He decided to explore it, and confessed to the priest in the morning. He didn't really understand what he did, but he vaguely knew from church it was something bad. Wren was overcome with guilt and shame when he confessed. The priest assured him he was forgiven and encouraged him to better control himself. The second night he did it, he was too ashamed to confess.
He became so ashamed of himself, he stopped going to church for a few weeks. One Sunday morning, instead of going to church, he went to his brother's room. Robin wasn't in the room anymore. Wren assumed he went to get breakfast, as Robin wasn't Christian. Rowan was sleeping in bed, too deep in his dreams to hear the church bells. His brother, like Robin and his mother, was not a Christian either. This upset their father, but he didn't force them to convert. Robin's faith lied with those in the other realm, with those beings that raised him. His mother's faith was in some other religion, the one practiced in her homeland. He didn't understand anything about that. His father didn't want him to be like her. That's why he alone was expected to go to church. His brother's beliefs lied somewhere in between Robin and the queen's, existing as something without a name. He wasn't forced to go to church. It was another thing Wren was jealous of. Their father would surely lecture Wren once he found out he was skipping church, as he was sure Ronan would tell on him at some point. His father, Argus, rarely went, but he told Wren that was because he was too busy. That was why he sent Wren to go with Ronan, but Wren didn't really believe his father.
Wren got on the bed and poked his brother's face. "Wake up."
Rowan rolled over. Wren shook him. Rowan pushed him off. "Wren, what do you want?"
"I want to play."
Rowan rubbed his eyes and looked over at the clock. "Wren, aren't you supposed to be going to church?"
"I want to play." Wren repeated. He noticed something strange. A single strand of grey hair amongst the black. Wren pulled it out.
"Ow! What did you do that for?" Rowan pushed him off again.
"It's grey." Wren held up the strand.
Rowan looked at it. "So what?"
"Why do you have a grey hair? You're seventeen."
"I don't know. It's hair. What does it matter?"
"Are you going to turn into an old man?" Wren teased him.
Rowan opened his mouth to say something, then he stopped himself. He turned over. "Wren, go play by yourself."
"Please! Mother says you'll be leaving soon and I won't get to play with you for a while." Wren pushed on him.
Rowan's eyes dulled. He sat up. "Right. I'm sorry. I'll play with you."
Rowan got out of bed and got dressed. His body moved sluggishly, and his eyes never brightened as they played chess together. After the game, Rowan let out his birds. They sat on his shoulders, cuddling up against him. Rowan offered his brother some candy.
"Do you want one?" Rowan held out a stick of peppermint.
Wren took the candy. "Brother, what's wrong?"
Rowan leaned down and patted him on the head. "Nothing."
The whispers in the castle about war only grew. As Ronan predicted, the official announcement came in the time frame he suggested. Rowan played with Wren more than he had in years. Every trivial request Wren had, Rowan gave into, but each time, his gaze was a little more distance and his skin a little paler.
Soon enough, their time to play was over. The king gave out the orders for the soldiers to head out. Rowan played with Wren late into the night, and rose quietly before sunrise to get ready. At dawn, Rowan packed up his things onto his horse. Robin stood beside him, packing up his own things.
Wren joined them outside the castle. The early morning air chilled his skin. He tugged at his brother's cloak. "Where are you going?"
"The war has begun. I must go fight now." Rowan said.
"When are you coming back?"
Rowan stared blankly at him. "I don't know."
"I want to come." Wren pulled again at his cloak.
"You can't." Rowan said.
"It's not fair! I want to go! Why do I have to stay home?" He whined.
"You're nine years old."
"There are seven years olds going. I can hold your shield." Wren pleaded with him.
"Wren, you're not going. I forbid it." Rowan raised his voice.
"Why do you hate me?" Wren pushed his brother.
Rowan sighed. "I don't hate you."
"You're so mean to me!" Wren's eyes watered. He ran off back to the castle.
Rowan's eyes widened. He reached out for his brother, his hand shaking. "Wren, wait! I..."
Wren ignored him and kept running. Rowan stared in shock for a moment. He lowered his hand and his head. His shoulders dropped. The prince mounted his horse.
"Should I go get him?" Robin asked.
"No, there's no time. We have to go now." Rowan said. There was no hint of emotion in his voice. "It's alright. Let him hate me. So long as he stays home, that's all that matters."
He rode off with the other soldiers, looking only ahead and trapping his voice deep inside himself.
Wren went to his father. He tugged at his father's sleeve. "Father, why can't I go with everyone?"
"Blame your brother. I want you to go." His father said.
"Why can't you let me go?" Wren asked.
"I told you. Blame your brother, the spoiled brat." Argus cut a piece of meat on the plate before him. He thought nothing of the soldiers leaving his domain to fight.
"When's he coming back?" Wren asked.
"That depends. Might be a few weeks, or a few months. We'll see what happens. With all the training I've made him do, he better not be so foolish as to return here for a funeral." Argus bit into his steak.
"What do you mean?" Wren's body went cold at the word "funeral".
"What do you mean, what do I mean? Dying. What else what that mean? I have no use for a weak son who can't hold his own in battle." Argus spoke coldly about his older son.
"He won't die." Wren said to protect himself.
"He better not." The king said without a care.
His father's words gave him no comfort nor allowed him what he wanted. Wren ran back outside in an attempt to persuade his brother again. When he got there, his brother was already far away, barely on the horizon. Wren's anger with his brother grew.
He yelled at him. "Fine! Don't come back!"
Wren spent the rest of the day inside the castle, angry at his brother for leaving. Near the end of the day, he went to visit his brother's pet birds. Apollo and Artemis were cawing to be let out. Wren checked the window and let them out for a while. He played with them, but they were as upset as he was. Their master wasn't home, and they didn't understand why.
"He's stupid. He left us here." Wren said to them.
Artemis flew over to the bed and hopped onto Rowan's pillow. She rubbed her beak against the pillow. Apollo flew down and pulled at the blanket on the bed, as if looking for his master.
"He's not here. Don't you get that?" Wren said. Wren's eyes watered again. "He's not here. He might not come back."
Wren sat down on the floor near the bed. He pulled his knees in and cried. "He might not come back."
The young prince pressed his face against the blanket. His brother's scent lingered there. He cried against it, wishing for his brother to hold him. Like the birds, he was searching for a warmth out of his reach.
Wren put the birds back in their cage and cried himself to sleep on his brother's bed.
Sleep offered him no relief. He walked into church. Everyone there dressed in black, and the sun seemed dim and far away. Three coffins were lined up, but only one was open. Wren went up to the coffins. He peered inside the open casket. Ronan rested there, his body covered in frost. A wound with blackened skin around it was partially exposed on his chest. Wren went to kiss him on the forehead, but the coffin filled with water and he sunk away from him. Wren went to the second coffin. The outside of this one was decorated with a white wolf and painted flames. He opened it, but there was no one inside it. Instead, he found a bloodied, ripped cape and cut, braided blond hair. Wren closed the coffin and went to the third coffin. The outside of this coffin was decorated with a raven and the phases of the moon. He hesitated to open this one, and the wood of this one weighed more than the second coffin's. Wren's hands shook as he opened it, but once again, he found no body inside it. A bow and a quiver rested there, covered in blood.
He recognized it as his brother's bow. Wren reached in to take it, but the coffin filled with smoke. Through the thick smoke, all he could see was the red of the blood on the wood.
Wren woke up crying. He wanted to forget the dream, but he wanted to know more why two coffins were empty. The wolf, he assumed and feared that was related to Robin. Robin's father was known as the Black Wolf, and some often called Robin a wolf as well. The third coffin was definitely his brother's. Why were there no bodies inside them? What did it mean, he wondered. He wanted to ask someone, but all the people he would usually ask about his dreams were gone, fighting somewhere far away. He didn't want those coffins to ever be real.
Wren didn't want to see his father. His father was the reason they were all gone. Wren went to see his mother.
She was kneeling on the ground, praying.
Wren sat down beside her. He asked, "Mother, when is everyone coming back?"
"I don't know, little one." She said.
"Can Father make them come back?"
"He's not going to do that." Her eyes showed her great sadness. "Perhaps you should pray for their safe return?"
"I thought you didn't believe in Jesus, Mother." Wren said.
"I don't. I don't pray to him."
"Who do you pray to? Do you pray to spirits and fairies like Rin does?" He asked.
"No, I pray to Buddha."
"Who is Buddha? Is that a god?"
"No, but he can offer protection." She said. Ran held her son's hand. "I pray every morning for him to watch over my children. Would you like to join me?"
"Will Jesus be mad if I pray to Buddha?"
"You don't have to pray to him. You can pray to Jesus instead. I'm sure at least one of us will be heard, don't you think?" She said.
Wren nodded. He put his hands together and lowered his head to pray. Wren asked for forgiveness for skipping church so often and for speaking cruelly to his brother, and then he asked for those he loved to be protected. 'Please, please let them come home soon.'
When they had both finished their prayers, Wren asked his mother another question. "Mother, can we send letters to them?"
"Of course. Let's write them letters to encourage them. I'm sure they'd be happy to know we are sending them our love and support." She said.
Wren wrote short letters to Robin and Ronan, telling them how much he missed them and how he hoped they come home soon. He saved his brother's letter for last. He had much he needed to say to his brother, but little of it felt right to say through a letter. His letter to Rowan ended up being the shortest out of the ones he wrote. He couldn't bring himself to say more. He told himself he'd say all the things he wanted to say to him when Rowan came home.
'I'm sorry I got mad at you when you were leaving. I love you. Please come home soon.'
Wren read over the message. He folded it up and handed the three letters to his mother. "Do you think he's still mad at me? I yelled at him and didn't say goodbye."
"I don't think he's mad at you." She said.
Wren wasn't sure about that. He went to his brother's room again to play with the crows. Artemis was less energetic than yesterday. She stayed mostly inside the cage.
A few weeks later, Wren received three letters. Robin's letter was cheery as he expected. Ronan asked him how he was doing and if his mother was well. As he'd saved writing Rowan's letter for last, he read Rowan's response last too. It was short, like the message he'd sent him, but it was enough. Wren read over it several times.
'It's alright. I wasn't mad at you. Are you keeping up with your studies? You mustn't fall behind.
I don't think I'll be coming home soon. I'm sorry. I've sent a gift for you. I'll bring more if I come home.
I love you,
The gift Rowan sent was in a bag the messenger brought with the letters. Wren opened it up. Inside the bag was a sachet of lavender and white rose petals, a wooden cup with the moon carved on it, and a shiny stone. Wren picked up the stone and looked at it in the light. The light danced across the surface.
Wren carried the gifts with him to the garden where his mother was. She was sitting alone, reading a letter from Ronan. Wren sat beside her on a bench. He showed her the sachet. "Mother, can you make me a drink from these?"
"Oh, of course. Is that a gift from your brother?" She asked. She quickly folded up the letter.
"Uh huh. He gave me this pretty stone too. Do you know what it is?" Wren held up the stone.
"It's a moonstone."
"Did Rin and Ronan send you anything?" She asked.
"Rin sent me some honey and Ronan sent me candy." He said.
"Why don't I use some of the honey for your drink? That'll make it a little sweeter." She said.
"Did you get a gift?" He asked her. "Your letter's really long. Is it from my brother?"
"Ah, no. I already read your brother's and Rin's letters. This one is from Ronan." Her cheeks had a hint of red in them. She tried to hide something resting beside her with her dress.
"What's that? You did get a gift." Wren climbed over her to see what it was. He found a book of poetry with dried forget-me-nots inside. Wren looked up at his mother. "Mother, is Ronan in love with you?"
"Ah, no, don't be silly. He is a married man, and I am a married woman. He only sends me gifts to show his chivalrous devotion to me. There's nothing more than that."
"What's in his letter?" Wren asked.
"That's private. You shouldn't look into other's private matters." She hid Ronan's letter away and tucked the book into her bag. "Why don't I make you that drink right now?"
"Alright." Wren didn't believe her. He saw how his mother and Ronan looked at each other, and how little time his father gave Ronan to visit his wife and children.
He also had seen his mother attempt to get Ronan to kiss her and hold her, but he only ever saw Ronan refuse her. Wren thought about how much his brother wanted physical affection from Robin, and Rowan was always near Robin. He was too young to really fully understand it, but he imagined if adults wanted things like that, Ronan must be a very lonely man as he rarely got to see his wife. Wren's own father shared a home with his mother, but he refused to stay in the same bedroom with her and never sought her out for those indecent, adult activities. His mother, he thought, must also be a very lonely woman.
He wanted to tell his mother it was alright if she loved Ronan, but he said nothing out of fear he might accidentally shame her.
Ran prepared him the lavender rose drink and added a spoonful of honey. She poured it into the cup Rowan gave him. Wren drank it by the window, watching the moon and comparing its shine to the little round stone in his hand. Wren slept in his brother's room again.
Winter came and Ran found Artemis at the bottom of the cage one morning when she came to feed the birds. Apollo stood beside her body. Wren came in shortly after his mother did to see them. When he came in, she was scooping the bird out of the cage.
"Mother...what's wrong with Artemis?" Wren asked.
"I'm sorry, Wren. Her spirit has left her." Ran wrapped the bird up. "Come say goodbye to her before I bury her."
Wren walked over to the bird. He touched her body to pet her. She was cold. He withdrew his hand. A tear fell from his face. "What do we do? Should we send a letter or wait till he comes home?"
"I'll send him a letter later." She carried the bird in her arms. Apollo flew out of his cage and sat on her shoulder. "Do you want to come too?"
Wren walked with his mother out to the forest. She dug a hole deep into the earth. Before putting the bird into the ground, she plucked a few feathers off of her and put them in her bag to give to Rowan when he returned. The queen placed the bird in the earth and covered it. All the while, Apollo sat on her shoulder, supervising the burial. He hopped down for a moment and inspected the earth. The bird cawed at the earth.
Ran picked up the bird and carried him back to the castle. She put him in his cage. Apollo became less interested in leaving the cage after that. A few weeks later, Apollo died. Wren helped his mother bury the bird. She collected a few of his feather and prepared herself to write another letter to her older son.
Wren cried as he helped cover the bird. "Why did they both have to die?"
"Shh...they were old birds. They were both nine years old. They lived long lives for crows." She held him close to her.
"But Brother's not here. He should have been with them at the end." Wren cried into her chest.
"I know, but we can't do anything about that." She petted his hair.
Rowan wouldn't return until the following year, in late autumn. He came home dressed in red and black, eyes as empty as the sky he returned under. Robin rode alongside him and Ronan behind them. Wren was happy to know they all returned home safely, but his brother's shift in appearance frightened him a little. This was not the end of the war. They were merely returning home due to the changing seasons. Winter was coming soon, and no one fought in winter. The previous winter, they all stayed at Ronan's home. Wren wanted to visit last winter, but his mother wouldn't let him leave. She said it was too dangerous to go, and likewise, Ronan kept Rowan from going home for the same reason. Brion had sent out assassins to Ronan's home last winter.
For their return, Argus threw a massive feast. He announced that King Philip agreed to join their side, and he was in the midst of negotiating with King Silvanus to help them as well.
While Argus made his speech, Ran presented Rowan with the feathers. "These were from Artemis and these are Apollo's."
"Thank you for saving these for me." Rowan accepted the feathers.
Robin stood beside him. His face shown the pain Rowan refused to. At the feast that was being held in his honor, Rowan ate nothing. He shifted the food around on his plate, staring at it with disinterest. Wren watched him.
He lightly pulled at his brother's sleeve and whispered. "How come you're not eating?"
"I'm not hungry." Rowan pushed his plate toward his brother's. "Here, you eat mine. You probably need it more than I do."
"You're still growing. I'm not going to get any bigger." Rowan rested his elbows on the table and his face against his palms.
Wren did as his brother told him to. Rowan looked over at him and patted him on the head.
Wren was happy for the contact. He smiled and asked, "Did you bring anything back?"
"Oh, you want your present? Have you been studying like I told you to?" Rowan asked.
"Yes, I have. I finished both of those two books you said I should read."
"Really? What else?"
"I wrote a bunch of poems."
"That's good. Since you've been studying so hard, then I suppose you deserve a reward." Rowan half-smiled for him. Wren noted his brother looked very tired. He assumed it must have been from the long trip back. Rowan opened his bag and handed it to Wren. "Look inside. These are for you."
Wren looked in it. Inside the bag were moonstones and garnet, peppermint and cinnamon sticks, a small jar of honey, two books, and a sachet of lavender, white rose petals, and chamomile. Wren reached for the jar of honey and opened it. He dug his fingers straight into the jar and licked the sticky mess off his fingertips. Rowan cringed.
Robin laughed. "Rowan, you never let me do that."
Rowan didn't want Wren doing it either, but he wasn't going to say anything about that right then. "Because we share, and you don't wash your hands often enough for that to not be disgusting."
"You're so concerned with cleanliness." Robin laughed again. He leaned over and said to Wren in a playful voice. "I have gifts for you too."
Robin leaning in that close to Wren made Wren's face flush. He swore somehow in the year they'd been away that Robin was more handsome than he remembered. He worried Robin would notice him blushing. "Really?"
Robin didn't think anything of it. He handed Wren his presents, which were wrapped up in a silk cloth. Inside the cloth, Wren found candies and more honey along with a pair of white wool mittens. The mittens had a blue pattern embroidered on them.
Wren hugged Robin. "Thank you!"
Robin smiled at him. "I'm glad you like them."
Wren didn't want to let go. He wanted to hold onto Robin as long as he could. Robin's gaze quickly turned to Wren's brother. "Do you want to take a bath tonight?"
"Yeah. Haven't bathed all week. I smell horrible." Rowan picked up his cup to drink. He held it to his mouth, then put it back down. His stomach turned. "Think I'm done here."
Robin unconsciously leaned away from Wren. "Are you alright?"
"Think I'm going to puke." Rowan hurried out of the dining hall.
Robin got up from the table.
Ronan called out to him. "Is something wrong?"
"Rowan's sick." He said and walked away.
Wren's jealousy grew once more. Robin was twenty now, and he was ten. His brother was eighteen. He would never catch up, but he refused to let go. Wren got up from the table to follow after them.
Ronan stopped him. "Where are you going, little prince?"
"I'm going to see my brother."
"He's sick right now. You might get sick if you go to him." Ronan said.
"I don't care. I've been sick before." Wren argued.
"You really want to see him, don't you?" Ronan asked. With a smirk, he leaned closer and whispered, "Or is it my squire you want to chase?"
Wren blushed. "N-no..."
Ronan put his finger to his lips. "I won't tell a soul, but I don't think you're going to get anywhere. You should chase after someone you're own age."
"I could win." Wren said, and dashed off. He said that more for himself than Ronan, but he couldn't admit that yet.
Wren found his brother and Robin with ease. He'd followed them enough over the years to know their general meeting places. Clutching his stomach, Rowan leaned against a wall. He wiped off his face. Robin cleaned something off the floor.
Robin stood up. "I'm going to get the bath ready. I'll come get you when it's done."
"Alright. I'm going to lay down for a bit." Rowan said.
Robin leaned over to kiss him. Rowan blocked Robin with his hand. He looked both ways down the hall to see if anyone else was around. Wren was too well hidden for him to notice. When Rowan was sure no one was there, he said, "Not here. Someone might see."
"So what if they see?" Robin tried to kiss him again.
Rowan kept Robin at a distance. "I can't lose you. I have to have something or this is going to kill me."
Robin stopped. "Your father isn't going to do anything to me because of that. I could care less about my human relatives, but the man who is technically my father is a knight and serves a man he wishes to make his ally. He won't harm me in the midst of negotiating with Silvanus."
Rowan leaned back against the wall. "I know, but...he might send you away. I have to have you here. He's already sending me paintings of girls he thinks I should marry."
"How the hell am I supposed to sleep with a woman? I can't. I don't...I can't do that with a woman." Rowan lowered his voice. "It's not fair. I don't want to be with anyone but you."
"I know. We'll figure something out. Maybe someone else can be the father in your place?" Robin suggested.
"Who else could do that? Look at me. No other man in this kingdom or any kingdom neighboring us looks like me." Rowan said back. It was true. No one did look like him. Both princes inherited most of their looks from their mother, who came from a string of islands far from their kingdom. He could not easily pass another man's child off as his own.
"We could run away."
"Why not?" Robin asked.
Rowan mumbled something Wren couldn't hear.
"We'll talk about this more later. You should lie down." Robin hugged him. "I'm allowed to do this at least, right?"
"I'm sorry. I love you." Rowan hugged him back.
"Don't worry over me. We'll sort something out." Robin said. He caressed his lover's cheek. "Your head will clear up some after a bath. Go lie down."
Rowan and Robin went their separate ways. Wren originally wanted to follow Robin, but he was getting more worried about his brother. Rowan looked so pale. Wren followed his brother to his bedroom. He wasn't ready to reveal himself yet. Rowan would hide anything that was really wrong. He cracked the door open slightly and peeked inside.
Rowan sat on the bed, staring at the empty birdcage. He stared in silence, then bowed his head and cried.
At first, the cries were soft. Wren barely heard him. Rowan rested on his pillow and cried a little louder. Wren had never seen his brother cry before. To him, crying was something children did. Adults only cried when something really bad happened. Terrified as to why his brother might be crying, Wren started crying too. He cried much louder than his brother.
Rowan heard him and looked back, his face wet. "Wren?"
When their eyes met, Wren cried harder.
Rowan got up from the bed. He ran over to his brother and held him close. "What's wrong? Are you alright?"
Wren couldn't stop crying. He didn't know why he was crying. The tears wouldn't stop.
"Shh...shhh...everything's alright..." Rowan spoke softly to him.
Wren kept crying as he held tightly to his brother. He cried until he fell asleep in his arms. Rowan carried him over to the bed. He tucked him in.
Robin came in to tell Rowan the bath was ready. "Something happen?"
"He cried himself to sleep."
Robin's heart stung. "Poor thing. He's probably been worrying about us since we left."
Rowan brushed back Wren's hair and kissed him on the forehead. "Do you mind if I let him sleep here tonight?"
"That's fine with me." Robin said.
The next morning, Wren woke up in between Robin and Rowan, both of whom were fast asleep. He touched each of their faces to prove to himself he wasn't dreaming. Resting there between them, he prayed for the war to end when spring ended, so they could enjoy the summer together. He pictured the three of them down by the river in the warm air, listening to Robin sing to call the rain. He promised he'd do so many things if that one wish could be granted. As soon as they woke, he begged them to play with him.
Ronan had them training the following day. Wren complained to Ronan about it.
"Can't you give them a break?" He asked. "Everyone just got back."
"Winter isn't a long time. I have to keep them well trained like this. I understand you want them to rest. I do too, but I'm doing this because I want them to come home next time. There will be other times to play some day. Right now, I have to make sure they live to see those days." Ronan said to Wren.
"It's not fair. They have to go, and I can't go to help."
"I know want to help. That's really very kind of you, but if you really want to help your brother, stay here. Stay, and do the things he asks of you. You keep his spirit going more than you know. Don't forget, I'll be with them. I won't let anything happen to them, even if it kills me. I promise you that." Ronan knelt down and put his hand on Wren's head.
"I don't want you to die either. You have to come home and play with us too." Wren said.
Ronan smiled, but would not promise him that.
About a decade later, as the newly crowned king, Wren signed the peace treaty between his kingdom and the kingdom that now belonged to Mark, one of Brion's sons. Ronan was not there to see it, nor were his brother and Robin. He composed the words skillfully, a testament to all the years of scholarly studying his brother made him do. He adorned himself in his brother's clothes and wore his brother's crown instead of his father's. Peace would come to the lands, as his brother wanted. He sent a letter to Ronan's widow asking her to come visit him.
The night he signed the treaty, Wren prayed. With a moonstone pressed between his palms, he prayed to the moon to watch over his brother and his friend's souls and that he may be gifted a chance to see them again soon. For when he gave the sermon before their empty coffins, he knew, unlike that knight who tried so hard to protect them, they had not met yet with that shadowy spectre who always loomed near the battlefields.
To free his brother from all the pain he endured in that decade, Wren participated in that grand lie while the two lovers ran away. He didn't mind it, as much as it pained him to not have his brother always near. He'd cast away his childish anguish at not being able to always have his brother's company. His brother's heart was more important, and so he helped free him. He was certain, some day, his brother would reveal himself to him in secret in the mists on some rainy summer day.
"I'll rule this side, and you be king in the other realm." He whispered his words into the wind, hoping it would carry them far.
The moon bathed his castle in the darkness, and in his dreams, he walked out to the river to find those who had left those walls.