XIII. ON A MISTY MORNING
Collin's death was followed by several more. Francesca committed suicide, and in route to the double funeral, Justine and Brandr were both assassinated. Jane's group was attacked, and lost three servants and a guard. All the bodies were brought to the funeral, and the remainder of the family, sans Hollis, said their goodbyes. Hollis begged to be allowed to go to the funeral, but his recent amputation left him too weak to get out of bed. He missed both the funeral and Mark's crowning as king, and agonized over his isolation in the confides of his lonely tower.
Finch informed the family of why Hollis was absent. Before the funeral, none visited him except Jane. Hollis was asleep at the time. Jane was the second youngest child out of Hollis's siblings, older than him by three years. Much like Hollis, she rarely participated in events involving the family, choosing to keep to herself with her chronically ill husband and her two young children. For all that Death stole across their kingdom, she was grateful to be married to a man who lived at the farthest reaches of their lands a long ways away from the battles and enemy territory. Though her husband did not approve, she left her children behind with their father when she set out. After everything that happened, she was glad she trusted the uneasy feeling she had the morning she set out.
When her carriage was attacked, her servants huddled around her to protect her, the six of them cowering in a corner on the opposite side of the door. She recalled the horrid sound of the door creaking opening before a strange man rushed inside and pierced his spear straight through one of the women with her. The other two who fell attempted to take the spear from him, but another man, carrying a sword, cut them down. The one with the spear came close to finishing her, but one of her guards intervened. The journey to the castle felt like an eternity as she shared the space inside the carriage with four corpses. She couldn't bare to bury them along the road, as they deserved a burial befitting the honor they gained in death, but she could not sleep beside the lifeless bodies of those who had spoken to her and dressed her not long ago. Their forms became like the snow--cold, empty, and silent.
She tried to put the memory away when she entered her younger brother's room, but the air inside was the same frigidness she found within that carriage.
"He is very ill, isn't he? He's come down with something." Jane said. She sat at the edge of the bed and looked down at her younger brother. His skin was pale except for his face. He breathed heavily. She silently worried another funeral would be held soon.
"It appears so. The physician is keeping an eye on him, but his...condition is not improving." Finch placed his hand on Hollis's forehead to check his temperature. He was burning hot. Finch removed the wash cloth on Hollis's forehead and soaked it in water. He placed it back on the prince's forehead.
Jane examined the place where the surgeon cut Hollis's arm at. "At least this isn't infected. Baby brother, you can't die. If we lose Mark and you, the only males we can pick from are all under ten years old unless we move out to cousins and uncles."
"Perhaps for such a situation, we could break from tradition and have a woman rule? Patricia is the oldest sibling." Finch suggested.
"There will absolutely be in-fighting if we take that route, but there will be if we go with a child or a more distant male relative. Henrietta is still causing trouble over her son not being king. I can't imagine what it would be like if someone further out is chosen. A queen ruling might be our best option if it comes to that. At the very least, we could make it temporary until a boy comes of age." Jane pulled the blanket higher up on Hollis.
"How old are your uncles?" Finch asked.
"That's another issue. One is sixty-three and in failing health, the other is sixty-eight and senile. We're not exactly doing well with male cousins either. Most of my male first cousins are dead now, thanks to this damn war. There's only three left, and I wouldn't trust the lot of them with anything." Jane shook her head. With the way the war was going, she wondered if it would matter. In time, she may be facing a sword at her neck or being forced into a new marriage after her husband would receive the blade instead. She didn't think often of the future. It was too painful. Jane turned to Finch. "What about you? What's your connection to us? You're clearly a nobleman and a friend of Hollis."
"Do you not recognize me? I'm Finch." Finch said, somewhat amused at Jane's assumption.
"I'm afraid I don't know that name. Are you a second cousin?" Jane asked.
"I'm Hollis's servant and companion." Finch cracked a smile when he answered her.
"You're a servant?!" Jane looked him over in disbelief. "Why are you dressed like that? And why do you speak so well and so freely to me?"
"I told you, I am his companion. I've been trained in the ways of finer things to keep him entertained." Finch said. He forced himself to not allow a grin to slip through.
"You must be lower nobility, at least. No commoner could behave or think like you." She said.
Finch couldn't help himself. His smile widened. "I was born to a servant of your mother in this castle."
Jane was not completely convinced he wasn't playing a joke on her. She decided to let the matter go. "You're a peculiar one. If you are really so close to him, tell me...do you think he will live?"
The smile disappeared from Finch's face. His shoulders sunk. "It's hard to say. Right now, I think it could go either way. His spirit is broken and his body is ill. The best we can do for him is to keep him comfortable and try to mend his heart."
"I haven't really spoken with my brother much in years. I know he skipped the last two funerals. What do you think of him in the position of king? Be honest with me." Jane felt her brother's cheek to see how high his fever had gotten. The heat she felt on his skin terrified her.
"He would immediately seek to end the war by political means or by surrender. He would not continue to fight." Finch said.
"Hmm...we're losing anyway. If Mark keeps fighting, he may kill us all. If we surrender, we may die anyway. Father was foolish to fight against Argus, just as my grandfather was." Jane patted Hollis's hair. She leaned down to kiss his forehead. "Stay alive, baby brother. We need you as our spare. We were nine, and now we are six. Don't bring us down to five."
Jane visited once more after the funeral, but Hollis was asleep for that visit as well. His condition worsened in that time. Hollis's only other visitors were Aderyn, who came to check on her fiancé's condition; Roibín, who was brought there by Finch to cheer up the ailing prince; and Mark, now king, who wanted nothing to do with him. Finch led him up to the tower, carrying Roibín with him.
Mark knew nothing about the child. He pointed to the baby. "That child, is it yours?"
Finch looked down at Roibín, then back up at Mark. "Oh, I suppose you haven't heard. This is Prince Hollis's son, Roibín, by Princess Aderyn. They're engaged now."
"When did that happen?" Mark asked.
"Very recently. Collin postponed the wedding after an assassin followed Hollis and myself one night, and well, it seems right to continue to postpone it for the time being." Finch explained.
"Baby's already born. The child is the reason for the marriage, right?" Mark said. He always assumed Hollis would get married under such conditions. Hollis had a reputation for fooling around since his late teens. It was only a matter of time, he thought, before some woman would eventually demand he take responsibility for his reckless desires.
"Yes. Prince Hollis wants the baby." Finch said.
"How do we really know it's his? Aderyn gets around a lot, from what I've heard." Mark said. He didn't really care either way, but he had his suspicions about Aderyn. From how weak her father was, he was certain her father likely gave his daughter a push to persuade Hollis as well.
"Look at him. He looks just like your brother." Finch got in front of Mark and showed him the child. Roibín looked up at Mark.
"Haven't gotten a good look at Hollis in a while." Mark coldly turned away from the child. "Don't you think it's a bad idea to bring a baby near a sick person?"
Finch noted Mark's reaction. He walked ahead of him, up the stairs of the tower. "I do have my concerns, but seeing the baby is one of the few things that seems to lift his spirits. I don't let the child stay too long."
When they reached the top of the stairs, Finch adjusted his hold on the baby so he could use his hand and open the door. Once inside, he put the baby on the bed and changed the wash cloth on Hollis's forehead. His fever was still high. Mark kept his distance, staying near the door. The cold air in the room made him pull his hood down and keep himself well covered under his black cloak. He looked to the window. It was closed, but the winter air managed to creep in despite that.
"Prince Hollis, I've brought Roibín to see you." Finch lightly shook the prince to wake him.
Hollis opened his eyes a little. He vision was distorted and blurry, but he recognized Finch and Roibín's voices. He reached over for where he heard Roibín's voice coming from. The baby grabbed his father's hand.
"Papa! Nigh' nigh'?" Roibín asked. He couldn't form complete sentences yet, but Hollis understood him well enough.
"Sorry, I'm really sleepy right now. I'll play with you soon." Hollis put his hand to the child's face.
"Papa sick?" The baby wrapped his tiny arms around his father's wrist.
"That's right. Papa's sick. I'm sorry." Hollis struggled to keep his eyes open.
Roibín crawled over and tugged at Finch's shirt. "Fin-nuh, Papa sick! Medi...medi..."
"Medicine? I'll give it to him soon. It's not quite time yet." Finch reassured the child. He patted the child on the head. "Why don't you tell your father goodnight? It's about time for you to go to bed."
"No nigh' nigh'. Wan mik." Roibín said.
"Alright, I'll take you to the nurse first, then bed. Now, say night night." Finch said.
The baby crawled back to Hollis and kissed him on the cheek. "Nigh' nigh', Papa. No sick soon."
"Goodnight, little one." Hollis said, his eyes hanging heavily.
Finch picked up the child. "I'll take him to Lena to have him fed. When I get back, I'll give you your medicine. Your brother, Mark, is here to see you too."
Hollis was already half asleep. He didn't catch half of what Finch said to him. He nodded at him, not sure if what he heard was real or part of a dream. Finch left with the child. When Finch was gone, Mark approached his brother. Hollis tossed and turned in the bed, kicking the blankets on top of him away. His hair was drenched with sweat. With the covers at his knees, Mark saw what no one had informed him of. His brother's left sleeve hung down against the bed, empty.
'That's all you got?'
Mark thought, his anger and pain billowing to the surface. His memory of the contents of Hollis's letter enraged him. For a decade, he'd been out fighting for the kingdom and his stubborn little brother who fought not a single battle in his life was writing to him, begging him to end the war if anything happened to Collin. The only male in his family to never train with a sword was now his only brother left, with the one who fought the hardest alongside Mark now deep in the cold earth. His weakest brother, who was in the same room as his strongest brother during the attack, was alive instead of Collin. A cruel part of him born from his recent sorrow cursed that Hollis lost only his arm.
Hollis coughed and wheezed, his breathing sounding very strange. He turned over and finally saw Mark. He reached out and grabbed hold of Mark's cloak. His grip on it was weak. He bowed his head to Mark, and said, "I'm ready to go. Please, today...I want to see Collin..."
Mark didn't understand. He wondered if his brother was delirious from his high fever, or in denial over Collin's death.
Hollis coughed several times before he could speak again. He breathed heavily. Mark noticed how strange his breathing sounded. Hollis tugged on his cloak again. "Can I not see him again? I see. Well, if I'm to go to Hell, then I guess I deserve to be there. Please, take me."
Mark pulled down his hood. He said, "Hollis, you're speaking nonsense."
Hollis looked up at him. "You're home...It's really you..."
He reached upward at Mark, but went into another coughing spell. He collapsed against the bed, struggling to breathe. Mark took a glass of water from the table beside the bed and handed it to him. Hollis drank some of it. His breathing calmed somewhat.
"Do you have medicine you're supposed to take?" Mark asked.
"I don't need it." Hollis put the cup back on the table with a shaking hand. He tried to sit up. "I'll get ready."
"To fight. Collin told me I couldn't, but I know you will." Hollis reached out for his brother's cloak again in hopes of drawing him closer. "Whatever you need, I'll do it."
"What are you talking about? Why would Collin refuse to let you fight? You shouldn't lie about things like that." Mark stepped away from him. "You're a coward. You always have been."
Hollis stopped reaching for him. He went quiet and lay back down in the bed. His eyes dulled, and his breathing became shallow. Then, he reached out once more, for someone unseen. He tugged at the air, pleading for a relief Mark couldn't fathom.
"You're mad." Mark scoffed at him. His anger for his brother only grew. He started to wonder if his brother was pretending to be insane to get out of helping.
As he was about to leave the room, he felt a sudden rush of cold air pass through. The entire room went from cold to freezing. The candles lighting the room flickered rapidly. Mark looked over at his brother. The strands of wet hair on his brother's forehead moved, as if something invisible were touching him. Then, he saw the fabric of his brother's shirt move as a force slid across and pressed down on it. Hollis stopped holding onto whatever Mark could not see, his arm dropping and hanging down over the side of the bed. His brother gave out a single heavy breath, and then no more. The candles in the room extinguished themselves all at once.
Mark's eyes widened. He realized who it was Hollis had been reaching for, and who Hollis had mistaken him for earlier. His heartbeat pounded in his ears. No strength nor skill could protect him from that force, but still, he called out to it out of pain and fear. "You...have you come to take my entire family? Am I next?"
On his left cheek, he felt a cold, bony hand brush against him. His body shook, and he could not move from that place. At the center of his chest, something cold touched him and reached inside. The cold sensation reached his heart. He squirmed in agony at the frigid, horrid sensation inside his chest and stepped back.
The candles came back on, and the room warmed a little. Mark went over to Hollis. His chest sounded strange, but he was breathing again. Mark felt over where that coldness was. He looked back at Hollis and wondered why Death decided to leave Hollis behind. He contemplated if it was him calling out that was the reason, but before he could think any deeper on that, he heard a scream coming from down below, where the tower's entrance connected with one of the hallways. From the shouting going on below, he gathered that one of their cooks had hung himself. Death would not be leaving empty-handed that night.
Mark sat down on Hollis's bed to regain his composure. He touched his brother's face to check his fever. He was ice cold. Mark didn't want to be in that room any longer. He put his hood back on and got up to leave.
Hollis tugged at his cloak.
Mark looked down at him. In his brother's empty gaze, he realized his brother's intentions. Hollis continued to tug at his cloak. Mark brushed his hand aside. He looked around the room. On the table, he saw a small vial near one of the candles. He picked it up to give the medicine to Hollis. He poured a spoonful of it. "Hollis, take your medicine."
Hollis refused him. He kept his mouth shut and turned over in the bed.
"You need to take your medicine." Mark said.
Hollis would not answer him.
"Damn it, take it. What are you trying to accomplish? Dying won't fix anything!" Mark's anger rose in him again. He yelled at his brother in frustration.
Finch entered the room. He saw Mark leaning over Hollis, holding his chin and trying to force him to open his mouth. Finch pushed him aside and took the spoon from him.
"Stop. I'll do it. He won't let anyone else give it to him." Finch held the spoon close to Hollis's mouth. "Hollis, it's time for your medicine."
"Please, don't make me." Tears welled in Hollis's eyes.
"You have to take it to get better. Roibín needs his father." Finch reminded him of the baby, hoping it might persuade him.
"He doesn't need me. No one needs me." The tears fell from Hollis's face.
Finch used the only weapon he had left to get through to Hollis. He whispered softly to Hollis. "Please, don't force me to say goodbye to you. I need you."
Hollis reluctantly opened his mouth and took the medicine.
"Thank you." Finch gave him a small smile.
Mark saw in their closeness something he didn't want to think about. From rumors, he'd heard that Hollis slept around with men as often as he did with women. Mark found the idea of two men being involved like that nauseating. It was one of the few things Collin engaged in doing that bothered him, but he let it go because he cared deeply for Collin and Collin only did that sort of thing when they went out drinking. It didn't matter to him either way. Mark couldn't care less who Hollis loved or hated. He only wanted Collin back.
What lingering doubt that remained in Mark about their relationship vanished quickly. Finch ran his fingers through Hollis's hair and said, "Shh...get some rest. I'll bring Roibín by again later."
Mark grimaced at the affectionate display.
Finch grabbed Mark by the arm and led him out of the room. He held on tightly as he walked with Mark down the stairs. Mark was initially shocked that a servant did such a thing, but chose not to say anything about it to him. Finch wasn't the slightest bit apologetic about his use of force either. "Excuse him. He hasn't been well since that day. The amputation nearly killed him. I think he's been flirting with Death since then."
"His arm, you didn't tell me about that." Mark pulled his arm free of Finch's grip.
"You didn't ask." Finch stayed close as they walked away. "He got that from fighting with Collin's assassin, same as those marks on his neck."
"What marks?" Mark asked.
"Next time you see him, look closely up here. From what he told me, the assassin attempted to choke him. Hollis stabbed him when it was happening. That distracted the man enough for Collin to get his revenge. Cut his head clear off. The arm happened first. He was overpowered by the assassin, and that happened." Finch showed him where the marks would be on Hollis's neck as he recounted what happened that day. "He keeps asking me to slip arsenic into his water, as punishment for living instead of Collin. Please, if you have anything you wish to say to him out of anger, hold it in for now. You'll kill him with those words."
Mark said nothing more. The two walked in silence. When they were halfway down the hallway, Finch turned around and went back to the tower. Mark had a number of things he wanted to say to Finch, but he let it go. For as many injuries as Finch had endured, he was quite strong. Mark was impressed by that strength, even if how he used it was uncalled for. Finch could be of use to him at some point. "For what purpose has god given you such great strength, servant? I won't punish you tonight, but don't think you can catch me off-guard a second time."
That night, Mark lay down to rest it the bed that had once been his father's, then passed through two of his brothers. As he lay there with his wife, his mind was not eased by her touch nor by the temptations of sleep. Eleven children, his nieces and nephews. Over the last year, eleven children were now missing at least one parent. If he died, that number would go up to sixteen. If Hollis, twelve. At the foot of the massive bed, his small children slept. As with all his other siblings, no child of his was old enough to lead anything. He hadn't been with his wife and children like that outside of the last two funerals for over a year.
He looked over at his wife, who rested peacefully against him. She was crying when she saw him again. He thought of confessing how many times he was unfaithful to her in the time they spent apart, but he chose to keep quiet. There was no reason to upset her. Given the reason for their marriage was merely about property, he doubted she didn't know what he did out there. The war had gone on long, and that time away from home, when blood drenched the earth and Death loomed quietly behind him, he could not contain his loneliness nor think of anything beyond living long enough to see another sunrise.
Still, when he saw her that morning, he ran to her and embraced her. She held on so tightly to him. She was holding on tightly to him now. Laying there, he couldn't deny he had come to love her in spite of the reasons for their marriage. Though he told himself that, he knew the moment he was out there again, sword in hand, he would repeat his sins again and again. He assumed she had committed sins of her own, and he had no intentions of asking her of them. That was the way they lived. They acted out of primal necessity.
He thought of Collin's children, who had finally come to the castle, only to see their father one last time. Collin's wife, he assumed, would likely remarry within the year to protect her young children. Collin would never see the sun rise again. Time would move on without him, and the place Collin once occupied beside him on the front lines would continue to be filled by someone else.
His thoughts shifted from Collin to Hollis, and his anger returned. Hollis had spent the last ten years not knowing any of that pain nor fear. He sat up in his tower, enjoying whatever he wanted and ignoring what went on beyond the safety of his walls. He refused to believe what Finch told him about what happened the day Collin died. There was no way, in his mind, that his cowardly brother would have fought to save any life but his own.
Mark spent the night in an insomniac state, full of rage and pain. When dawn came, he made his decision. They would continue fighting. Mark sent word for the troops closest to Argus's lands to continue forward while he tended to matters around the castle. Once he had everything ready, he would rejoin his men. He had no intentions of stopping until he could return home with the Bloody Raven's head as a trophy to mount on a spike.
As much as he hated it, he saw there was still use in his cowardly brother. He went to see Hollis again. This time, they were alone. Hollis hadn't woken yet. He coughed in his sleep. Mark looked along his neck for what Finch described. He saw deep bruises and scratched along the back of his throat. His anger blinded him from accepting the evidence before him. Mark woke him.
Hollis, not quite awake, immediately reached for Mark's cloak and tugged at it. Mark ignored the gesture and brushed his hand away.
"Hollis, I'm going to speak to the public later today. We're going to keep fighting for now." Mark said.
"I see." Hollis covered his mouth to cough.
"If you are able to stand, I want you to come speak as well. I know you don't agree with the war, but your words would stir the public. I'm really not in a mood to argue. Do what's best for the kingdom." Mark left no room for dissent in his words, though he was prepared for it.
"Alright." Hollis pulled back the blankets and tried to get out of bed. When his feet touched the ground, he fell. He'd lost much of his strength in the time since the amputation.
Mark waited for him to get up. His temper left no room in his words for comfort. "Are you doing this on purpose or are you genuinely unable to? Be honest."
"My legs are weak. I'm not pretending. Give me a moment." Hollis's face flushed in embarrassment. He grabbed onto the side of the bed to use as support. With that, he managed to stand, but only just barely. His weakened legs shook under his weight. "I may need some assistance, but I can do it. I can do it if you get me a cane."
"If you can't stand, stay in bed. I don't need you that badly." Mark turned away from him.
Hollis lowered his head and held back his tears. Under his breath, he said, "Forgive me."
"Get back in bed. That's my order for you until you are well again." Mark glanced back at his brother.
Hollis fell back to his feet. He tried again to pull himself up by using the bed. As his legs were weak, so was his arm. He paused for a moment to rest. He faced the ground, humiliated to be seen in such a state in front of anyone.
"Can you not do it?" Mark asked.
Hollis couldn't face his brother. His legs betrayed him and he fell down again. "I'll manage to. You can go on now. I'm sure you have something important to do."
Mark sighed. He leaned over and held onto his brother. He pulled him up to his feet. Hollis's body was surprisingly light. In holding him, Mark realized how frail and thin Hollis had become since he last saw him. His skin was as pale as snow, save for the bright red color in his cheeks. Mark helped his brother into bed. He saw in Hollis's eyes he was trying hard not to cry. Mark felt a tight knot in the pit of his stomach. When he looked down upon his brother, it felt as though he had already died and simply hadn't been collected up yet, like a ghost lingering on aimlessly. Absentmindedly, he thought to himself he should send on for a coffin to be made soon.
For a moment, Mark's anger subsided. He was horrified and disgusted with himself that he so casually thought of such a thing as if it were simply another miscellaneous task to complete before heading out. That disgust did not last long. His anger quickly drowned out those thoughts when he noticed a stack of papers on the table.
He mocked his brother. "Even like this, you can't stop?"
"Those are trivial documents I needed to sign. Nothing like that." Hollis said. He coughed a few times before continuing. His eyes were empty. "I couldn't possibly do that again."
"Is that so? Let's see what you've been signing off on." Mark picked up the papers and read the top sheet. It was an order for a coffin. Pain filled him, then rage. He threw the papers back down. "Why do you want to die so badly? Your servant said my words could kill you. Do you want to hear them?"
The bright red drained from Hollis's face. He stared at his brother with a blank face, then nodded.
"You've always gotten on my nerves. You're five years younger than me, and you've never been expected to do much of anything for the family because you're the baby. For all their complaints, our parents always let you hide away in your tower because everyone else was doing their part. Lewis let you stay in your room and complain. Collin allowed you to even sway him. Our sisters have never cared much for you, but say nothing. I've always thought of you as weak and I was amazed that you made it to fourteen, much less into your twenties. Death's taken the strong from our family, and left me with you. When I received the news, I wished it were you instead of Collin." Mark let all of his anger flow out of him. He kept nothing inside. "I don't need any weaklings lingering by my side. Either get well and get to helping me, or hurry up and die."
Hollis's expression did not change. He gazed at the ceiling and asked, "Which would you prefer?"
"I won't refuse aid, but if you're useless in helping, I don't want you." Mark said. "The choice is yours."
Mark expected that his words, harsh as they were, would finally break through to his weak brother and toughen him up. He always thought it was his parents greatest mistake with Hollis, allowing him to be so pampered and babied. Given how Hollis reacted earlier, he was certain Hollis would tell him he would be well soon and want to fight.
He was so certain of that it did not register in his mind for a while when Hollis sat up and opened up his drawer to get out a vial of poison. As he poured it into a glass, Mark still refused to believe what was happening in front of him.
Mark presumed Hollis was bluffing to make a show out of him being weak, and thus be allowed to not help. Mark gave him no sympathy. "Is that your answer?"
Mark crossed his arms. "You don't need to use that much. Just drink it already."
"I want to make sure there's no chance of messing it up." Hollis emptied the vial into his cup of water and drank until there was nothing left.
"You're a coward." Mark muttered under his breath. He waited for Hollis to confess it was a ruse. After a few minutes, Mark realized he was deeply wrong in his interpretation. Horror washed over him. "You didn't really. Tell me you didn't."
Hollis broke down in tears. He clawed at his face and screamed. "Why?! Why am I not dead? Why won't you take me?!"
The room turned ice cold. Mark felt something brush against him. When he looked back, there was nothing there.
Hollis sat up and looked at Mark with a fierce intensity. He got out of bed. "Give me your dagger."
Confused and angry, Mark yelled at him. "Why are you so desperate to die?! Why won't you follow my orders?! Why do you..."
Hollis used all the strength he had to lunged at Mark and grab at the dagger his brother carried on his belt. He snatched the blade away and sunk the tip into his own neck. Blood dripped down where the dagger cut through the skin. Hollis pushed it in deeper and started to cut across.
Mark yanked Hollis's arm away from his neck and forced him to drop the dagger. "What is wrong with you? Are you insane?"
Hollis fell to his feet, slipping through Mark's grasp. He tugged at his brother's cloak. "Let me die...let me die...please...I need to die."
"You know suicide is a one way path to Hell." Mark said. "You were supposed to reject my offer, not off yourself!"
"Hell, that's where I belong. Let me go!" Hollis cried as he begged on his knees.
"Why are you like this? Why do you run away from everything? Face what you've done and live like a real man. Stop being such a child! Suicide is a weakling's path. You're my brother. You're supposed to be strong!" Mark yelled at him as he pushed him away.
"Supposed to be. That doesn't mean I am. I'm sorry...I have shamed you so. I should have died instead of Collin. I don't understand why...why am I here? He should be here...Every time I sleep, he's here with me, but I wake, I am alone in this room." Hollis coughed several times before he spoke again. He pleaded with his brother, though he did not reach out for him again. "If there is any part of you that loves me, please, give me the dagger. I'll be gone, like that. You could use my corpse to rally up the public. I'd be better dead than alive. Even if I fought with you, I'd die and the result would be the same. Or do you want me to fight a battle before I die? Would my death serve you better that way?"
Mark turned away from him. "Go back to sleep."
"I'm trying. Please, please, give me your dagger."
The door opened. Finch came in carrying Roibín. He rushed over to Hollis. "Hollis, what are you doing out of bed?"
Hollis didn't answer.
Finch saw the dagger on the floor, the papers scattered around, and the empty vial on the table. He glared at the king. "Your majesty, I warned you about this."
Mark did not respond to Finch either.
Finch put the baby on the bed and helped Hollis get back in bed. He handed the child to Hollis, who held the child close. Hollis couldn't stop crying.
Finch wiped away his tears. "Keep Roibín company for a while. He's missed you so."
"Does he really?" Hollis asked.
Roibín reached up and touched Hollis's face. "Papa!"
Through the tears, Hollis smiled for a moment.
"I need to talk to your brother alone. I'll be right back to give you your medicine." Finch said. The kind expression he wore for Hollis disappeared when he faced Mark. He grabbed Mark's wrist to lead him out. Mark pulled to free himself, but could not get out of Finch's hold. Mark didn't understand how Finch had such strength. Finch forced him out of the room. He led him halfway down the stairs. "I warned you not to do that. You've made him worse. What did you think you were going to accomplish by doing that?"
"I thought it would wake him up and toughen him up. I didn't think he'd actually try to kill himself." Mark snapped back at him.
"All you did was make him collapse deeper. If you can't hold your tongue around him, do not bother him!" Finch yelled.
"Who are you to speak to me like that? You are a servant. I am your king. I'll have your head for such insubordination." Mark attempted to backhand him, but Finch caught his hand mid-swing.
"I am speaking to you like this because you need to hear it before you cause yourself more pain. This is for both your sakes. He is very unwell, and I mean that more of his mind than his body. Do you really wish to bury the last of your brothers? That'll be six of your family buried in less than a year. You're acting out of anger for losing three family members at once, and you're taking it out on Hollis because he survived. You should be grateful you are not a six and that it was five instead." Finch released Mark's arm. "I'm doing everything I can to keep him alive, but he is still declining. He may survive, but I...you shouldn't do anything to push the date of the funeral closer. You should be making peace with him right now. You may not get another chance."
Mark felt over his wrist. "Make peace? I haven't done anything. He's the one who..."
"Then forgive him. Let him at least hear that." Finch cut him off.
"I don't have to forgive him." Mark countered.
"If that is your choice, leave him be." Finch walked back up the steps. "I'll inform you of when you need to announce his funeral."
Mark wanted to have Finch punished for his actions, but he let him go. Frustrated, he wandered outside into the cold. It was snowing again. This winter had brought so much more ice and snow than the last winter. The earth had been kind to them that year, giving them little snow at all during those months. Now, he wondered if the earth was punishing them for letting the war go on so long.
He kept walking until he reached the church's graveyard. The storm had already covered the freshly dug graves in a soft blanket of white. He brushed away the snow from Collin's tombstone and sat down. Mark stared out at all the recently added stones. His mother and father were to his left, and Lewis and Justine were to his right. In between all of them, the sight that pained him the most, was Collin's grave. Though the snow covered the earth, he could smell the fresh dirt in the bitter air. He traced his brother's name on the stone with his hand.
"You've left me here alone. We were always a team, you and me. You've left behind four children. They're so young. They don't understand why you're not here." He pulled his hand away. Collin was gone, but somewhere inside him, he hoped a familiar voice would call out to him. The only sound that filled the air in between his breaths was the winter wind. "Three years is all that separates us. It was supposed to be you'd go three years before me, when we were old and grey, or together in a glorious battle. We fought together for so many years...How is it you are here now in the grave, died in the home you were born in? Why have you left me with him? I need a warrior to help me with this war. I'd give anything to trade him for you."
The distinct sound of snow crunched underneath feet came from behind him. Mark looked back and saw the footprints in the snow, but no one stood where the owner should be.
A deep voice spoke directly into his mind. "Is that so? I can arrange for that."
Mark froze. Before him, a bony, gloved hand appeared. It was being extended out toward him.
"Who are..." Mark could barely speak.
"You know who I am." The voice answered.
"Why...why would you make me such an offer? What would you get in exchange?" Mark asked.
"It doesn't matter to me who stays and who goes. I can trade your brothers' places, but your older brother will only gain the amount of life left that your younger brother has. I will also need to take some strength from the land itself to make the exchange." The voice explained. The hand moved closer to him, as if whoever it was attached to were leaning down.
"Hollis is already very ill. How long would such a bargain really give me?" He asked the spectre.
"I can see his lifespan. There are several roads his life can take. From what I see, if you do not bother him tonight, he will live until the end of the month. If you mock his weakness once more tonight, he will die before morning. And if you were to make peace with him, he would live to an old age. To use your older brother to end the war and protect your kingdom, tell your younger brother you forgive him and then I will take his soul." The spectre's hand touched Mark's face.
"That...seems so cold a thing to do. I should trick him into thinking I care for him before letting you rip his soul out of him and drag him to Hell? What sort of monster are you?" Mark crawled backwards away from the spectre, hiding behind Collin's tombstone.
"I am no monster. I only told you what I can do. If you choose to make such a choice, it is you alone who is will carry that guilt. Of course, given the state of affairs in your land, whether that action is wicked or not is also for you to determine. Changing the fates of two lives could save thousands." The voice spoke louder in Mark's mind.
"If...if I do this...I will win the war?" Mark asked.
"I did not say that. I said it could happen. Many things could happen. Whether or not you think that chance is worth the price is for you to decide." A vial of white liquid appeared in the palm of the unseen figure. The spectre handed the vial to Mark. "If you choose to make the exchange, pour this in his drink and I will switch them."
Mark took the vial, more out of fear of upsetting the unseen force than from conscious intention. "How would I explain things?"
"You're human. It is your kind's talent to make up nonsense and believe it." The spectre said.
"Why can't I see you?" Mark cautiously rose to his feet.
"My form is concealed by my cloak to those who fear dying. You more than most are very afraid of that." The spectre brushed up against him again. "But you wish to see me, don't you?"
"I am not afraid of anything." Mark said, lying to the spectre and himself.
The spectre's cloak fell away to the ground, revealing it to be black in color. What that cloth had concealed was now clear to Mark. Dressed in black, a skeleton with a long beard stood before him. Inside its eye sockets, Mark saw red flames burning. In his bony hand, the spectre carried a massive scythe. The spectre spoke, but his jaw did not move. "Are you satisfied, child?"
Mark's shoulders and hands shook. "Y-yes..."
"I await your answer tonight." The spectre reached down and picked up his cloak. He vanished underneath it.
Mark stayed in place for a while, waiting to see if anything else would happen. After several minutes passed, he looked down at the vial. "What do I do?"
Mark sat down in the snow and put his face in his hands. He couldn't believe what he was thinking. The spectre's words were tempting. If there was a way he could trade Hollis for Collin, he would have his best friend back and they would stand a better chance of winning the war. He really could save hundreds, possible thousands of lives at the cost of one person's death.
However, if they lost the war, he may lose Collin for a second time, and Hollis's death would have no meaning at all.
Could he really take his own brother's life, he wondered to himself. For as much as he hated how Hollis lived and behaved, he was family. What unsettled him deeply was the manner in which he would have to do it for it to have any meaning. He would have to convince Hollis he forgave him for everything, and then trick him into death. That sort of deception sickened him.
Mark looked out at all the new graves.
How many more, he thought, would there be if things continued as they were?
Night came before Mark was ready. With what the spectre told him, whether he accepted the bargain or not, his actions tonight would dictate how long Hollis would live. Knowing that, he had to make a choice. If he did not see his brother tonight, his brother would die in the near future. The only way for Hollis to survive the winter at all was for Mark to make amends with him. He hated the idea, as he still held much anger inside, but that foreknowledge lessened its effect on his mind. He chose to visit his brother, undecided on what he was going to do after that, the vial hidden on him.
Mark found Hollis sleeping. He was wheezing and sweating profusely. His face was red. Mark sat down on the bed and watched his brother sleep, debating with himself over what to do. Mark didn't really want his younger brother to die. That, he knew. His cruel words to his brother before were out of anger, but he didn't mean most of what he said. To forgive his brother, that was another matter. Collin was gone, and if his brother had fought alongside them from the start, perhaps the war itself may have turned out differently. Collin might still be with them.
He pictured Collin in his mind, wishing his brother were there to tell him what was the right thing to do. If Collin knew of this exchange, he couldn't see him being happy about it. He certainly wouldn't find it honorable, and for his life to be restored at the cost of another, Collin would feel immense guilt for such an exchange.
"Collin..." Hollis called out, half awake. He searched the room, then quietly cried. Hollis turned over to Mark and pulled at his cloak. "Please, stop tormenting me...Take me...I'll go wherever you want without a fight. I don't fight."
Mark pulled his hood down. "Hollis, it's me."
Hollis let go. He covered his mouth as he coughed. Mark heard the odd sound again that Hollis was making when he breathed. Hollis forced himself to keep his eyes open. "Mm...do you need me to do something? I'll try."
Mark felt Hollis's forehead. He was burning hot. "Your fever is very high tonight. Where's your medicine?"
Hollis pointed to the table. Through heavy breaths, he said, "Over there...I think?"
Mark picked up a vial. He assumed it was the one he saw there before. He asked to make sure. "Is it this?"
Hollis nodded as he coughed again.
"Sit up so I can give it to you." Mark picked up a spoon that was beside the medicine. Hollis tried to, but he didn't have enough strength. Mark helped him up and poured the medicine out. His brother's body felt limp against him. "Take it."
Hollis did not resist him this time. He took the medicine.
"You're being cooperative tonight." Mark lay him back down on the bed.
"Nn..." Hollis breathed heavily. Sweat dripped down his face.
Mark pulled the blankets off him. Hollis's clothes were completely soaked through. "Where is your servant?"
"F-Finch...went to get more...water for...tonight..." Hollis's breathed harder.
Mark helped Hollis out of his clothes to cool him down. He looked around the room. A tub sat in the center, partially filled up. Mark picked up his brother and carried him over to the water. He placed him inside, then opened the window to let in the cold air.
Finch entered the room with a yoke over his shoulders and four buckets of water hanging from it. He realized quickly what happened. "King...thank you. How bad is it?"
"His clothes are soaking wet." Mark said.
"Could you help me? It'll be quicker if we both work at it." Finch walked over to the tub.
Mark grabbed two of the buckets and dumped them in the water. Finch dumped the other two, making sure to pour the water over Hollis as he dumped it in. Finch and Mark then placed the buckets in the window to gather snow. Finch patted down the upper part of Hollis's body with a wet rag. When the buckets were roughly halfway full, Mark poured the contents of two of them into the other two, then emptied the snow onto Hollis. The snow melted quickly on his skin.
"He's so hot still..." Finch's voice was filled with worry.
"What did the physician say?" Mark asked.
"He said it's lung fever, but he shouldn't be getting this hot." Finch wiped Hollis's face.
"Go and get him. I'll keep at this." Mark knelt down beside him.
Finch nodded. He handed Mark the wash cloth. Before leaving, he spoke to Hollis. "I'll be right back. I have to get the physician. Stay strong."
"Finch...I can't..." Hollis coughed. He clutched his chest. "It hurts."
"I know. I'll be right back and the physician will help you. Mark is here. He'll take care of you while I'm gone." Finch petted Hollis's hair.
"Don't leave me." Hollis begged.
"I don't want to." Finch caressed his cheek. "I promise I'll be right back. Please, hold on."
Finch ran out of the room to find the physician. Mark watched him. He was surprised at how agile Finch was, given his permanent limp, missing arm, and being half blind. Mark went to check the buckets again, then poured snow over Hollis's body. He sat back down on the floor and checked Hollis's fever. His body was cooling down, but still hot. Hollis coughed several times, then spit up yellow-green mucus. He leaned over the side of the tub, breathing heavily. Hollis looked up at Mark, eyes heavy and dull. His fever made him dizzy and disoriented. Speaking was hard. He couldn't concentrate on anything. Frustrated, Hollis broke down in tears, his cries only interrupted by his coughing.
Mark held him close to calm him. "The physician will be here soon."
Hollis pulled his knees in against his chest and rested his head against them. Mark went to check the buckets again. He carried the snow over to the tub. As the snow tumbled out, he remembered something he hadn't thought about in a very long time.
It happened around this same time of year, less than a year before Hollis was born. Before Hollis, he had another younger brother, one also named Hollis. That Hollis was a year younger than him, Justine's twin. One winter, that Hollis came down with lung fever and died. It was the first funeral Mark ever attended. He was so young, but he remembered how small the coffin was and not understanding why they were putting all that dirt on his brother. He kept asking his mother how the child would get out when he was done sleeping.
When the next baby was born, his parents decided to give the new baby the same name as the one they lost. It was childish, but he was resentful about that. From his childish perspective, he thought his parents were acting like the new baby was a replacement. Now that he was older and had lost a child of his own to illness before, he understood it better.
There was something else lingering in that memory, something leftover from that childish misunderstanding. He treated the new baby coldly, wanting his other brother back. He even once asked his parents why he couldn't trade them, not realizing, in his innocence and ignorance, how such a question would pain them. He never played much with Hollis when they were young. There was always a lingering resentment, though in time, he had forgotten why. Mark wondered why he had been carrying that anger around all this time.
Mark checked Hollis again. His body was a normal temperature now. "That's better."
Hollis relaxed a little, leaning back in the tub. His breathing and coughing were no better than before, but he was regaining his mind. Mark stayed beside him. He felt over the spot where the surgeon cut off his arm. For all the battles Mark had survived, he'd never needed such an agonizing procedure done on him. He knew soldiers who had gone mad after amputations and were never the same again. It was possible his brother would always be somewhat disturbed from it. His anger faded away.
Mark washed the stitches. "You really are the baby of the family."
Hollis looked at him in confusion.
"But I guess that can't be helped." Mark washed off his tears. "I'm sorry about what I said to you yesterday. Your servant was right. I wasn't really angry with you. It's not your fault. Even if you'd been a warrior, it'd be the same. You'd have been out fighting with me, and Collin would be all alone back here. It was unavoidable."
A little light returned to Hollis's eyes. "Mark, please, let me go into battle."
"Hollis, you have one arm." Mark said.
Hollis put his hand over the place where his left arm once was. "I only need one to fight with."
Mark rejected him again. "Forget it. You'd need years of training to be of use to me, realistically. Sending you out would do more harm than good. You need to stay home and recover while I go back out to fight. At the very least, that will leave us with someone to run the castle. That's still important."
"I know...you said it's not my fault, but...I'd give anything to trade places with him. I wish so badly that I died and Collin..." A stray tear slid down his face. Hollis wiped it away and buried his face in his brother's shirt. "It's not fair! I need him, and no one needs me."
A sharp wind blew into the room, nearly extinguishing the candles inside. Mark's heart sunk. The spectre let his cloak fall from him, revealing his skeletal form. Though no words were muttered aloud, Mark heard inside his head, 'Have you decided?'
The spectre placed his hands on Hollis's shoulders and stared at Mark. The flames where eyes should have been glowed brighter than the candles around them. The spectre leaned in closer to Mark, his skull only inches from Mark's face. 'It will be quick. The poison I gave you will kill him in seconds. Choose now. He will drink it if you give it to him.'
Mark looked down at his brother. "Hollis, are you thirsty?"
"Let me get you some water." Mark got up. He kept an eye on the spectre.
"Alright." Hollis didn't notice what was right behind him, or simply did not care. Mark couldn't tell which it was.
Mark poured him a drink and came back. He handed him the cup while he checked his forehead to make sure the fever was not returning. "Here."
"Thank you." Hollis drank from the cup. He rubbed his eyes and rested against Mark. He couldn't keep his eyes open.
Mark picked him up out of the water and carried him back to the bed. He dried his body off, redressed his bandages, and then put a light blanket over him.
"I'm sorry..." Hollis mumbled as he drifted from consciousness.
"That's enough apologizing." Mark closed the window. He took a deep breath and approached the spectre. Mark handed him the vial. "I don't need this. Please, leave my family alone."
"Very well. I doubt you will regret your choice." The spectre said. He vanished without another word.
Shortly after, the door swung open. Finch came in, holding Roibín, with the physician close behind them. Finch, out of breath, asked, "How is he?"
"His body is cooling back down." Mark said.
"Oh, thank god." Finch gave a sigh of relief.
"I'll take a look at him." The physician approached the bed. He opened up his bag of tools.
Mark held up the medicine from the table to show Finch and the physician. "Oh, I gave him some of this before I put him in the bath."
"Thank you. I was going to give it to him after I got the bath ready." Finch said.
The physician examined Hollis's body. When he was done, he opened a bottle and gave Hollis a dose of a different medicine. He packed up his tools and spoke to Mark. "I'll check on him again in a few hours. He seems stable for now. I've given him something else in case the fever returns."
Mark nodded. The physician left. Finch let the baby crawl on the bed. The child went over to Hollis and patted him on the head.
Hollis rubbed his eyes. "Roibín?"
"Papa." Roibín giggled.
Hollis patted him on the head back. "Did you come to visit me?"
"He's been crying to see you again." Finch sat on the bed with them.
Mark watched the three of them for a while. He decided to forgive Finch for his previous inappropriate behavior. If it weren't for him, Mark would need to be ordering another coffin by now. More than that, he was a little amused at how happy Hollis seemed to be with the baby. He didn't expect his spoiled little brother to make a decent father, and he didn't mind that change at all. Mark smiled. It was about time, he thought, to let Hollis have some privacy with his new family. "I'm heading off to bed. Get me if his condition changes."
"I will, your majesty. Goodnight." Finch said.
Hollis turned to face his brother. "Mark...I'm sorry...for everything...I know that won't bring Collin back, but..."
"Let it go, Hollis. It's not your fault. Get some rest. I'll visit again in the morning." Mark shook his head. He waved to them on his way out and finally rested in bed without the weight of anger on his mind.
Mark wasn't the only tired one. Roibín curled up against his father's chest and yawned.
Hollis put his arm around the child. "Are you sleepy, little one?"
Finch lay down on the bed with them, on the other side of Roibín. "I think you're through the worst of it. It might be alright to let him stay a little longer."
Hollis looked down at his son. The little baby was already asleep. He thoughts were filled with worry. "I'm so weak now. I was weak before, and now I'm..."
Finch stopped him. "This won't make you weak. Do you think I am weak?"
"You'll have to learn to do some things differently, but you'll recover and move on. You're alive. That's what matters." Finch reached over and touched Hollis's face. "Try to find something positive in this."
Hollis laughed at the absurdity of that statement. "What could possibly be positive about me losing my arm?"
"You're right-handed. You lost your left arm, like I did. That will spare you from having to relearn quite a few things, and you don't need both hands to write poetry." Finch pointed out.
"I'm not sure I want to write poetry anymore." Hollis's voice softened.
"You're saying that because you're overcome by sadness and pain. It will pass in time. Do you remember how I was when I was in your position?"
Finch caressed his cheek. "Now, it is my turn to stay with you and keep you here. I won't let you wither away, no matter how many times you give up or try to poison yourself."
Hollis stared into Finch's eyes. In them, he saw the night sky and a wintry landscape far from their borders. "So, you're the reason why it didn't work."
"I filled the vial with water. Don't think you can hide anything from me. I've kept your secrets since as long as we've been on this earth. I already know what you're thinking." Finch met his gaze, finding himself lost in the same scenery.
Hollis broke eye contact. He looked at the sleeping child between them. "Roibín really shouldn't be here. I don't want to make him ill."
"I won't leave him here long, but he doesn't appear to be catching anything from you." Finch said. "He's a strong one."
"Yes, he is." Hollis held the baby close against him. "I'm sorry, little one. Forgive me. I've been weak, and I haven't been thinking of you. Don't worry. I'll keep you safe."
Hollis looked back up at Finch. Though Finch was smiling at him, Hollis noticed heavy bags under his eyes. His skin was pale, and his body had a tired look about it.
Hollis asked, "What are you so happy about?"
"Tonight, I really thought you'd die. I'm so glad I was wrong." Finch said.
Hollis pulled the blankets up higher to keep the baby warm. "I'm glad he hasn't caught my sickness either. What sort of magic do children possess? When I look at him...I don't know why, but I'm happy and worried and...so many other things at once. I could die for him, and I'm not afraid of that. It's not as if I've known this child long."
Finch laughed under his breath. "The moment I looked into his eyes, I wanted to keep him safe. I think it's simply the way we are. What I don't understand is why his mother does not feel the same. You'd think she would feel it stronger than both of us, having carried him in her womb for nine months."
"Some people, I suppose, are unfit to be parents. I didn't expect she and I would differ in that regard. My life has been full of impulsive and reckless decisions." Hollis said.
"Yes, but you haven't exactly been like that for a while now, anyway?"
"You're right...I suppose, I haven't." Hollis saw parts of himself in the little child. The boy's hair and eye color were the same as his, and the shape of his eyes were identical to his father's. He tried to imagine what the child would look like as a man. He could almost see it in his mind, that future. He wanted to make sure the little one beside him would live long enough to reach adulthood. Before soldiers, recent mothers, and the elderly, no one dominated the space within a graveyard more than that of young children. "What do you think he'll be like when he's older? I want him to be a good man, kind and strong enough to protect those he loves."
"I'm sure he'll be a good man. He's already such a sweet little thing." Finch said.
"Well, we'll see how he is when he turns thirteen." Hollis commented, thinking back on himself at that age.
"I don't think he'll be that much trouble." Finch sat up to pick up the child. "He's well into sleep. Should I take him back now?"
"Could you wait a little longer? I know...I really shouldn't be around him right now, but could you give me a few more minutes? I haven't gotten to be around him much since...since that day." Hollis put his hand on Finch's.
"I suppose a little longer won't change anything." Finch said.
Not long after that, Hollis drifted back into sleep. Finch kissed Hollis on the forehead before taking the child back to his nurse. The following morning, Hollis was still too ill to leave his room, but the physician remarked that he was on the path toward recovery. Mark had already sent out word for his men to continue fighting. With the events of last night weighing on his mind, he spent some time with his wife and children, then with each of his siblings. He visited Hollis last.
"I've heard you're doing better today." Mark said.
"My appetite has returned, as has some of my strength." Hollis took his medicine on his own. Roibín sat beside him on the bed, playing with a toy. Hollis picked it up and dangled it above the baby for a moment, watching the child reach for it. He handed it back to the child, who immediately stuck part of the toy in his mouth to chew on. Hollis stopped him. "You can't eat that, you silly thing."
Mark watched the weather from the window. "It's getting worse. This must be the worst winter we've had since the war began."
"Do you think it's wise for us to continue? We could wait until spring. I doubt Argus and his allies will get that far in this weather." Hollis said.
"I've already received news that Argus has sent the Bloody Raven our way. We don't have a choice in the matter." Mark sighed.
Hollis took a deep breath. "Mark, I'm not trying to avoid helping you. If you ask me to fight, I'll do it. But I want to know...if we cannot defeat them, what are you planning on doing? Are you going to fight until the end? Should I send Aderyn into hiding with my son?"
"I don't know yet. If they reach our walls, surrendering may do us no good. When Argus reached our walls last time, we survived thanks to King Christopher's mercy. Argus is nothing like his father. He may order his son to slaughter us all no matter what we do." Mark leaned against the wall. "However, perhaps, the raven could save us from the pheasant. He has shown far more mercy to those he captures than his father. I don't intend to surrender, but you should brief your fiancée on an escape plan in the near future."
Hollis's heart raced. "What should I do right now?"
"Rest and pray."
Mark's words send a cold chill down his spine. Hollis looked down at his son. The child smiled at him, blissfully unaware of the situation they were in. He held the child close, and did as his brother asked.
Mark prayed too. He prayed for mercy and the impossible. 'Bird of Death, will you shield us? I beg you.'
The snow piled up higher and higher outside the castle, and all across the lands. While Mark contemplated his own death, Rowan marched his soldiers onward through the cruel winter weather. The cold took some men in the night. They were buried quickly in the morning, then they continued on. Rowan received word that Mark's men were on the move and coming with more soldiers and supplies than their last battle, but he didn't care. He knew what he was going to do.
The sharp wind was so cold against his skin it burned. He covered his face. "Robin, I know you're going to tell me no, but can't you do something about this?"
"I cannot go against the will of the Lady of Winter. This is by her design. Someone as insignificant as myself has no right to interfere." Robin said loudly so that Rowan could hear him over the wind.
"This is nothing like last year. Is this a punishment?" Rowan asked.
"No, she doesn't concern herself with human matters. The Ladies of the Seasons work together for a purpose beyond what one with a human lifespan could comprehend. This has nothing to do with us." Robin said. "It won't matter for long. We'll be there soon."
Rowan's attention was drawn away from Robin by one of his other knights. The man said, "Your majesty, we must turn back. Many of the men are too weak to go on. This weather will kill us."
"I cannot give that order. My father has forbade me." Rowan replied.
"The men will mutiny you if we don't have shelter soon." The knight warned him.
"Then, let them. You can all abandon me, if you wish. Only Sir Robin and I have been forbidden from fleeing. Go home, if you wish." Rowan yelled his words, wishing for as many to hear him as possible. They did not know it, but he was hoping they would do precisely that.
A few men left, but most stayed and grumbled about pay.
At the back of the army, there was one more who had been forbidden from giving up. Eider rode in silence, staring ahead at the prince and his loyal, reckless knight. His father left him with an order when they set out.
"You've done well causing chaos, you stupid boy, but I've grown tired of your weakness. For all you've been talking lately, about honor and whatnot, I expect to hear you fought at the front. Get some scars. We're going to roast that wolf up. People love when a new hero rises at the slaying of a monster. Do you understand?" Egret's words would not leave him.
For all he promised Fleur about becoming a better man, in the time since then, he'd accomplished nothing more than making a liar out of himself. He'd been unfaithful, cowardly, and wicked. He could be nothing else when he stood in his father's shadow. No matter where he ran, that darkness followed him.
'Fleur, I was a fool for thinking I could be anything else.'
Eider's mind retraced his time on the way home from the battles he fought alongside his father and Silvanus's soldiers.
He recounted how many whorehouses his father made him visit on the way back, how many village girls his father encouraged him to snatch up for fun, how many corpses he looted, and how much he drank hoping to forget all of it. In spite of all that, he was determined to be that person he promised Fleur he could be when he returned to the castle. That was why he had to do that, why he had to say something about the prince's plans involving his sister. It was the noble thing to do.
His actions now left his sister humiliated, and his father annoyed. 'Father, if I survive this, will you throw me away the way you did with my mother? Will you send Bella with one of your special drinks? Why can't I escape you? Why can't I do anything right?'
Eider stared out at the front of the group. If everything went right, even if there were none lost during the fight, one death was guaranteed. When they returned, Robin was set to be executed by fire. During the trip, Robin never said anything to him whenever they stopped to rest.
'You never say anything.'
Eider thought. 'What are you thinking about now? Why don't you run?'
Eider first met Robin when he was nine and Robin was ten. When they were children, they played hide-and-seek together. As teenagers, they teased each other about stupid things. When the war started, Robin rarely spoke to him. Eider never really liked the man, but he had always been there. They were blood related, though nothing like brothers. He saw Robin as he was, a cousin who he mostly didn't get along with, but largely tolerated. He was familiar, and mostly safe.
He saw it clearly, how Robin would look tied to a stake and how the fire would never be hot enough to stop him from calling out to Rowan until the end. He could see Rowan watching in horror.
There would be no repairing that connection. Rowan would hate him until he died.
Eider lost himself in his thoughts, but he found no solution to fix what he started. He could only continue on. His father liked chaos. That was the only part Egret was satisfied with.
Then, it dawned on him. 'It's not me that you're bored of...That's why...'
The realization of his father's plans hit him hard. Rowan would not need to wait long to be reunited with his knight in death. Once the knight of Cailean was out of the way, poisoning Rowan would be easy. Knowing his father, though, he would take out Rowan and Argus at the same time, leaving Wren to take the throne. Egret would push for Rosabella to marry Wren, and then Wren would be next. She was already pregnant. They didn't need Wren for anything else. She held the heir right now in her womb. Egret would rule the kingdom through Rosabella and the child.
If he did what his father wanted, he might get more than what he had now. His wife and children would be safer from his father's whims. Fleur would hate him for doing what Egret wanted, but if he could protect her, it didn't matter. He could beg for her forgiveness again when it was all done.
Robin rode back to him while Eider was lost in his thoughts. Eider was alarmed by his presence. He expected the man may be seeking revenge. Nervously, he gripped the hilt of his sword. "What do you want?"
Robin spoke quietly, so none nearby could hear. "You should go."
"Run away." Robin said.
Eider stared at Robin, confused. "I've spent my whole life dishonoring my family. I can't run away now. Why are you telling me to run?"
"He intends to win, no matter what. Most will die today. We've known each other a very long time. I don't know what's plaguing your mind right now, but you should go." Robin gave him a pitying look.
That look both terrified and angered Eider. "What are you playing at? You're the one who's going to die."
"Yes, I am, but that doesn't mean you have to. He's not going to give you mercy, so I will. You should go." Robin reiterated his suggestion. He had his horse walk slower to give more distance between them and the rest of the men.
"Why would you want to show me mercy?" Eider asked.
"You're my brother's friend, that's why, and I've known you a long time. Your sister and I are also friends." Robin said.
"I'm not his friend, and I'm not yours. You certainly aren't hers with how you've waged her reputation in your schemes." Eider made his decision. He would always be in his father's shadow, and so he chose to do what needed be done to gain his father's approval. Being kind to Robin did not serve that purpose. If he did anything that might upset his father's chance at stealing the kingdom, his father would make him suffer for it. Robin was not his friend and never was, he repeated to himself. He needed to, to give himself courage and hold his head high in the face of the tragedy he would be aiding. "Leave me be. I'd rather die than call either of you friend."
Robin sighed. "Tell me you didn't say that to Luke. What's happened to you?"
"Nothing you can fix, demon." Eider looked away.
"I am sorry for you." Robin rode off back to Rowan's side.
Eider watched him as he went back to the front. "Pitying me, when you've been sentenced to death? What are you?"
When sunset drew near, many of the men were relieved that the weather was warming. Some hoped it meant the weather was changing in their favor. Others were suspicious, and questioned Rowan about the direction they were going in. They had long strayed from all the usual paths in the region. Rowan told them it was a shortcut, and refused to elaborate any further.
In the morning, within an hour of walking, they reached a place without any snow. The air was humid, and the ground littered with bones.
One of the knights approached Rowan. "Prince, are you mad? You've led us into dragon territory."
"I know what I'm doing. We're leading Mark's army here on purpose." Rowan said. "This is a trap."
"This is an exceptionally dangerous trap. We could all be killed simply for being here." The knight countered.
"Listen. I want you to tell everyone to remain quiet as we march through here. We are bait for Mark. I intend to hide us and use these beasts to decimate Mark's forces. We will be fine, so long as no one does anything stupid." Rowan said with a knot in his throat.
"What will we do if someone does make a mistake?" The man asked.
"Then, we fight as much as we have to, and run. I expect my soldiers to follow my orders. There should be no mistakes." Rowan's eyes dulled as he spoke. "Go, and tell everyone what I said."
The knight informed everyone of the plan. When they were deep into dragon territory, on the other side of the border between man and magic, Rowan hid parts of his army in different locations. They waited and watched as Mark's army came following after them. Everyone was ordered to remain hidden, and only fight if absolutely necessary. Realizing where they were, the other side too stayed quiet and cautious.
Robin and Rowan kept themselves near the Cailean River, which carried no name there. Eider didn't trust the plan. He followed them to the river to see what they were planning. He did not intend to let them escape. His father would want them killed at the castle. The pair knew what Eider was up to, and said nothing. They didn't need to.
Rowan listened closely to the caves nearby. He walked along the river until he found what he was looking for. He took a small charm out of his pocket and walked into the water, his back to Eider and Robin.
Robin prepared himself. He called out to Eider one last time. "I will say it to you again. Please, run."
"I told you already. I can't do that, and I won't. I have to fight here, and make sure you come back to die. My father won't allow me anything else but that." Eider refused him. He stood his ground before Robin, convincing himself he was ready to fight. His legs shook beneath him. "What he wants is all I'll ever hope to be."
"Then, I am sorry." Robin took Rowan's bow from his back. He strung it and took an arrow from Rowan's quiver.
Before Eider could draw his sword, Robin shot him in the chest. By the time Eider hit the ground, Robin had left three in him. Robin stepped backwards into the river and held Rowan's hand, the charm cradled in between their palms.
Eider's screams echoed through the nearby caves. He writhed in agony on the ground. "You bitch! You bitch! Traitor!"
From the nearest cave, a female dragon emerged. Her mate followed behind her. Their young watched them from the cave entrance. Eider saw them and attempted to get to his feet. The female lunged at him, and her mate came around the other side to cut him off from running anywhere else.
Eider froze in place. He looked over at Robin. "Why?"
The female grabbed him around his midsection with her mouth and shook her head back and forth. Eider's screams sent shivers through every man hiding in the brush and woods. The male dragon raised his snout in the air and sniffed. He let out a low, billowing rumble, then stomped at the ground. Several men from both sides ran in panic. The male dragon took flight and scorched them.
The mother dragon slammed Eider to the ground. Barely alive, he cried out again. The mother pressed down on Eider's chest, then sniffed the air. She glanced to her side and saw Robin and Rowan standing in the river. The dragon breathed fire at them, but a shield formed around them. She tried again, then, as they were not fleeing nor approaching her, ignored them. She bit at Eider's right arm and ate it whole.
Rowan did not look back. He refused to watch, and wished to go deaf as more screams joined in with Eider's. Robin watched it all, never flinching.
Eider's finally moments were in agony. His body endured a pain he could not comprehend, and his mind, delirious from his injuries, led him down another path of pain.
He would never see Fleur again, nor his children. His sister likely hated him. For all he did and planned to do for his father's wishes, Egret would shed no tears for him. That was the man he let rule his life and stray him into darkness again and again.
It was his father who slipped the poison in his mother's drink and asked him to give it to his mother without telling him what was in it, all while smiling. That was the day when he started to change. She died in his arms, as confused as he was. He couldn't do anything for her but cry out for help. The blood that dripped from her mouth was forever etched into his soul, the same as the way his little sister, barely old enough to comprehend death, crying into his mother's dress would never leave him.
The pain he felt then broke him down, but it was the fear that rushed over him when he realized what his father had done that destroyed him completely. It was then he saw how disposable he was to his father, how worthless everyone around him was in that man's presence. Whatever strength could have blossomed in him withered away. If he were braver, he thought, he would reject his father the way Robin did, but he didn't that kind of courage. Instead of pushing the man away, he became a slave to him in hopes of preserving his own existence. He would become whatever his father wanted, no matter how cruel he had to become to do it. He could never be a mighty warrior, but he could lie, trick, and cheat his way through anything, and that at least left him free from his father's whims.
Rosabella, he watched her grow into a fragile flower, hiding from anything and everything. Somehow, in the company of the prince, she'd changed in ways he couldn't. The delicate rose decorated herself in thorns she forged from within. He swore to Fleur he would change and become stronger too.
In that time, his words turned to ash, burned away by his father's demands. He managed to shield his soul from that corruption for a little while, when that female squire fought beside him. Her natural chivalry and strength banished those wicked thoughts of his for a while. In her presence, the mist in his mind cleared. When he returned home, he would make Fleur proud and reconnect with his sister.
After he parted ways with Avis, the mist returned and thickened into a blinding fog. His father ruled him again. He drank himself into a stupor to forget himself and everything he did. The more he drank, the angrier he became. He pushed people away and he spoke cruelly to his family. When he didn't drink, he found himself sickened with his behavior, and attempted to live as close to the law of the land and church as possibly until his father wanted something out of him. He was caught between these two desires, to be a good man for his family and to escape the ire of his father, and he could find no stability in either. His actions came out as a disastrous mess of conflicting behaviors that only made him drink more.
From Avis, Eider's mind summoned memories of one other.
He saw himself drinking by a fire after a battle. Luke came to sit with him, and had been acting strange. In his drunken state, he didn't care about that. His body only knew anger. Eider couldn't remember what they talked about. The scenery faded in and out.
"Come on, no one cares about you. You know that." Eider heard himself say. He looked down at himself opening a new bottle.
Luke sat in silence for a moment before rising. His last words to Eider were, "I know. Sorry to bother you. I'll go."
Luke walked away, out to the cliff near them. Eider didn't care at the time. He saw Luke look out over the edge, putting one foot over the side. The red and black Luke wore contrasted beautifully against the snow, and the wind moved as if Death were pushing for a new companion.
It was snowing the day they met. Luke wore a red dress that night. The make-up Luke wore was smeared on his face from messing around with several men that night. They ended up in bed together. In his drunken state, he thought Luke reminded him a lot of Fleur.
He remembered how hard he pressed on Luke's wrists when he held him down, how much it hurt when Luke kicked him off, and how much he remembered laughing when they drank into the night.
He used to laugh like that with Fleur, when they went to parties together they weren't supposed to be at or when she'd pull him away from all the dancing into a private room. He remembered the scars he left on her, and how she curled inward on the bed after he touched her.
Eider saw Luke sleeping beside him that night he rescued him. Luke went into such a deep sleep, nothing could wake him. The way he looked when he slept, it reminded him of Avis when he saw her napping once after a battle. Faolán stayed near her, her ever faithful watchdog. He didn't deserve to see such a sight.
The way Luke leaned over that cliff, he was wearing that same face then too. An expression of calm vulnerability no one had a right to witness. He shouldn't have seen that. He shouldn't have caused that.
The world went black for longer and longer. His sense of time left him.
He saw himself partying with Luke again, on another night. Luke, barely conscious, came onto him. Eider wasn't quite as drunk as him, but was drunk enough to reciprocate. He took Luke up to a room where they kissed for a while. At some point, Eider pushed Luke away to seek out a woman. Luke begged him not to leave. He stumbled after Eider and fell to his knees. The more Luke begged, the angrier he got. He grabbed Luke and tossed him back on the bed. Tempted by his annoyance more than desire, he pinned Luke down and considered taking him. Eider changed his mind, and got back up. Luke cried on the bed and pulled at his own hair.
"You need to go to sleep. You're out of your mind." He said.
Luke stopped and stared at him blankly. "I feel sick."
"That's not my problem." Eider fixed his clothes and grabbed his bag.
Luke curled inward and dangled a bag of money in the air.
"What's this for? I'm not fucking you."
"For carrying me here." Luke said.
He took the money and left. On his way out of the room, some men asked if he knew where Luke was. Eider let them in the room and told them to have fun. He spent the night with a prostitute. The next morning, Luke inquired about what happened that night.
Luke looked pale that day. "Hey, um, do you remember anything about last night? I think I drank too much."
"You were acting strange. I sent ya to bed."
"Oh, thank you. Ugh, I feel so sick." Luke held his head. He offered Eider a strip of dried meat.
Eider ate with him, saying nothing of what he remembered.
Luke put his hand on his lower back. He sighed. "I need to stop drinking so much...This is going to kill me one day. Oh well. Probably for the best."
"What is?" Eider asked.
"There was blood on the bed. Did I get in a fight?" Luke didn't answer his question.
"Dunno. Don't think so."
"Hmm." Luke examined his hands. There was blood under his fingernails too. "I suppose if someone comes to fight with me today, I'll know then."
Eider noticed something. He brushed back Luke's hair to get a better look at his neck. There were several scratched on his throat. "You've got something here."
"I must have fought with someone. Damn, I don't remember anything." Luke touched his neck. He felt over the area for a while, then offered Eider more of his food.
They sat together for a long time that morning. He felt no guilt then. In that moment, he found Luke cute, in the same way he did with Fleur when he was fifteen and they were breaking into the expensive wine at castles that belonged to neither of them. When they were together, and not completely drunk, he often enjoyed Luke's company. He was certain if Luke were a woman, he would have made Luke his lover. It was an amusing thought, but he knew it would end the same way as with Fleur. He already hurt Luke plenty.
He hurt everyone around him.
Where the dragon should have been, he saw Fleur standing over him. She held her belly. "You're coming back soon, right? You know, I...I think I might be pregnant."
He wanted to say something to her, but he couldn't.
"It'll be a girl this time, a strong girl. She'll be waiting for you." Fleur smiled at him, and then the world went black.
The female dragon, satisfied with her kill, took flight and scorched the earth with her mate. When the screams stopped, and the dragons returned to their cave, Robin led Rowan out of the river. Fire raged all around on that side of the river. Rowan stripped off his armor. He ripped his cloak and tossed it to the ground. His bow and quiver were thrown away to the banks on the other side of the river. He dropped his sword in a puddle of blood. Robin did the same, discarding everything connected to his identity as a warrior.
Rowan took a good look at what little remained of Eider. The sight disturbed and disgusted him, but he forced himself to not look away. He dipped his hands in Eider's blood and unsheathed the dagger his mother gave him. The prince approached his lover. He reached over his shoulders to grab hold of the knight's braid. With his other hand, he cut the braid through, bloodying the hair with his dirty palms. Robin's hair, free from the braid, unfurled and curled at the ends. The front messily clung to the sides of his face.
The two lovers locked eyes as the flames grew brighter around them. In Robin's eyes, Rowan saw a river of stars stretching out toward infinity. Robin shared this vision with him. Rowan averted his eyes, and tossed the stained gold strands on the other side of the river, beside his bow.
On the other side of the river, Rowan stood in silence. His eyes were empty. Robin held his hand and coaxed him away from the flames, wandering with him along the river and deeper into the other realm. They wandered for a while without saying a word. Rowan's steps were heavy, and Robin could feel the weight of Rowan's soul breaking underneath his pain. He stopped them at a very secluded portion of the river and asked Rowan to bathe with him.
Rowan accepted the offer by undressing. He sat down in the water and said nothing. He only stared at his bloodied hands, watching as the water carried away the red.
"We're really far in now. It's so warm here." Robin said.
Rowan didn't respond to him. He pulled his knees in against his chest and cried.
Robin held him as he cried. "Shhh...We're free now."
Rowan buried his face in Robin's chest. He couldn't say anything. All he could do was cry. Robin, though he felt no shame in crying as many human men did, held his tears back. He needed to stay strong in front of Rowan. Gently, he wiped away Rowan's tears and kissed him. They stared into each other's eyes, lost in something only they could see. Robin kissed him once more, and then again.
Rowan started to react more. He wrapped his arms around Robin's neck as they kissed. Robin lifted him out of the water and sat him on the bank. He kissed down the front of Rowan's body. Seeing Rowan getting aroused relieved Robin somewhat. He'd take any positive reaction he could get out of Rowan. He initially pleasured Rowan orally, but after a couple of minutes, Rowan stopped him. Rowan pulled at his arms, suggesting to him to come up to him. Robin followed Rowan's lead. Rowan, arms around Robin, pulled them both down into the grass. With Robin on top of him, Rowan aligned their bodies up. He stroked them both at once. Robin kissed him deeply, and Rowan reciprocated with the same passionate intensity. Robin moved his hips while they kissed.
Rowan broke the kiss. He moved his hand faster. With his free arm, he held on tightly to Robin. His cheeks burned as he let out several short, breathy moans. Robin came within seconds after him, hiding his voice through a long kiss.
Robin broke the kiss to catch his breath, then he led Rowan back into the water to clean off. A little light returned to Rowan's eyes, but he remained silent. Robin washed him slowly, letting his hands linger on Rowan to comfort him. He kissed Rowan's cheek before they got out of the water.
After they dressed themselves, they rested underneath a mountain ash. Rowan seemed calmer, from what Robin could tell. He rested against Robin, half in a daze.
Robin sensed a presence coming their way. He held Rowan closer. The presence revealed himself.
"I've found you." Elios said. He approached them in his human disguise.
"Elios...what do you mean? Were you searching for me?" Robin asked.
"Yes, it was a request from your mother. She's asked me to bring you to her. I'll take you on my back." Elios cast off his illusion to return to his true form.
Robin stirred Rowan to rise. "Come, my love, we need to go."
Rowan slowly got to his feet, his body moving with a strange tiredness. Robin helped him onto the unicorn's back, then mounted the creature himself, sitting behind Rowan. Elios ran along the river, the earth appearing to move underneath his hooves. Before long, they were at Liliana's waterfall, on the side of the realm of magic.
Liliana was waiting for them, with Flannán and Elios's mother beside her. Flannán looked different than when he last saw her. The greys in her hair were gone, and she had traded the red she always wore for a short, light blue dress made of water and a crown of stars upon her head. Robin helped Rowan down. Elios shifted back to his human disguise.
"Liliana, I have returned with your son!" Elios called out to her.
Robin greeted his mother. "Hello, Mother. I've returned home."
Liliana ran over to her son and hugged him. "You're here. You're staying this time, right?"
"Yes," Robin glanced over at his lover. "We can't go back."
Liliana put her hand to Rowan's face. "You will always be welcome here."
Rowan looked up at her, but couldn't respond.
Robin put his arm around him. "His spirit is weak from our departure."
"I can see it in his eyes. Let him rest by the river. Both of you should rest." Liliana said.
Robin led Rowan down to the water. At this place along the river, flowers bloomed year round. Roses of every color grew around them. Neither their scent nor sight could put Rowan at ease. In their delicate petals, he could only conjure thoughts of Luke. His reflection in the river created illusions of Wren, and in the dagger he did not discard, he saw his mother's face instead of his own.
Robin reassured him again. "I know you are in pain. I am too. We will both be in pain for a while, but we are free. I know Wren will accomplish everything you hope he can. He will be a great king."
"I know." Rowan managed to say. A single tear slid down his face. He leaned against Robin.
Elios sat with them. "If there is anything I can offer you as a comfort, let me know. As my dear friend's lover, I wish to look after you too."
"Thank you, but I don't need anything." Rowan said.
"Poor thing." Elios said with a pitying look. "What of you, my friend? What can I do for you?"
"I'm alright for now." Robin caressed Rowan's hair. "What happened with that human you were seeking? Did you ever find the one calling for you?"
"Yes, I did. We're married now." Elios laughed.
"Married? Isn't marrying at your age a little young for a unicorn?" Robin asked.
"We can't have children. It's fine." Elios waved his hands.
"Well, I'm happy for you. I wish you the best with your marriage." Robin said.
Liliana, Flannán, and Elios's mother discussed something away from them. When they were done talking, they approached the three by the river. Liliana carried two golden chalice in her hands.
Robin asked, "What are those for, Mother?"
"Oh, nothing yet." She grinned.
"Why were you looking for us exactly? How did you know we were here?" He asked her.
"Oh, a little bird told me. A bird wishing on a charm, begging me to make sure you were both safe." Liliana smiled. "One of you must have made that charm, but I cannot tell which. Your magic is so similar in the presence it leaves behind."
Rowan's eyes widened. He held back tears.
"Now that you're here, son, don't you think it's about time?" Liliana leaned down to get on level with Robin's face.
"Time for what?" Robin asked.
"You are now free from all the laws of man. Isn't there something you've been wanting?" Liliana teased him.
Robin felt a rush over his body. He took hold of Rowan's hand and kissed it. "Rowan, let's get married."
Rowan's mind couldn't comprehend what Robin said at first. It was too absurd, too impossible to believe. "Married?"
"We can do that here. No one will stop us." Robin held Rowan's hand against his face. "Will you marry me?"
A hot flame replaced the emptiness inside him. He embraced Robin. "How could I say no to you?"
Robin returned the embrace. He looked over at Elios. "Will you be our witnesses?"
"Of course, my friend." Elios smiled at him.
"My son returns to me and has a wedding the same day. What a wonderful day." Liliana beamed.
"It's hard to believe that wolf is your father." Flannán commented.
"What do you mean?" Robin asked.
"Nevermind me." Flannán laughed to herself. "That hair looks good on you. You should keep it short."
"You think so? I think I like it too." Robin said.
"Speaking of appearances, I'd say they're in need of some new clothes, don't you think?" Liliana said.
Elios's mother nodded. "Oh, definitely. Should I make them some or would you prefer to, Liliana?"
"Their my sons, so it should be me." Liliana raised her hands. "Will you two please stand for me?"
Robin and Rowan stood up before her. Liliana lifted her hands higher and raised water from the river. The water wrapped around them, washing over them and washing away their old clothes. Robin now wore a light blue robe. On his shoulders hung a light blue cloak. Embroidered around the clasp were rowan flowers. He stood barefoot before his mother, and on the back of his robe, he bore the image of a white wolf. Upon his head, he wore a crown of rowan wood and white water lilies. Rowan lost the black in his clothes, dressed only in red. He retained his look of pants, boots, and a long sleeve shirt. His cloak was decorated with robins, and the back of his shirt with a rowan tree in bloom. His crown was made of the same wood, with rowan flowers instead of lilies.
They faced each other. Robin smiled and took hold of Rowan's hand. He led him in front of the waterfall, standing on a stone in the center of the river. Taking Rowan's other hand, Robin pressed his forehead against Rowan's. He stared into Rowan's eyes. "I love you. From this moment on, I am yours forever. I swear to you, my eternal loyalty. My home is your home, and my family is your family, as my soul is yours."
Rowan tightened his grip on Robin's hands. "And to you, I swear all my strength, my life, and all of eternity, for I will not part from you, not even in death. With you, I am whole and I will always love you."
When they first met years ago as children, they swore oaths of devotion to each other without knowing why. The spark between them, that connection, once felt, could never be broken. Both felt themselves going mad in their desire to stay at one another's side, but there was no stopping it.
They kissed before the waterfall. Rowan cried again, this time tears of happiness.
Rowan wiped off his face. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm..."
"Don't apologize. There's no reason to hide your feelings here." Robin kissed him again.
Rowan hugged him tightly. He never wanted to let go.
Their witnesses clapped and cheered. Robin and Rowan walked hand in hand back to them. Elios's mother nudged Liliana.
Liliana cleared her throat. "We have another gift for you, a wedding present from all of us."
"You don't have to give us any presents." Robin said.
"Please, let me spoil you." Liliana offered them each a golden chalice filled with some sort of liquid.
The newlyweds drank from the cups without questioning their contents. They did not see what had occurred until they looked at each other. The effects were most obvious on Rowan, who's hair was now jet black without a single strand of grey.
"Rowan...your hair..." Robin touched Rowan's hair, searching for the grey strands. "Mother...what did you do?"
"I gifted you with immortality, and I turned back the clock for you a few years." She grinned widely.
"Immortality?!" Rowan was so shocked he dropped the chalice.
Robin was just as shocked. "Why did you...I...What do I...?"
"You swore to eternity and beyond death. What, are you regretting your vows already?" Flannán joked.
"No, I...I don't know...what I...I need a moment." Robin put his hand to his head and leaned against a tree.
Liliana, still smiling, said, "If you're going to stay in our realm, you should be one of us. You will begin to age again at some point, but you will age very slowly. You can't avoid getting old forever."
Rowan stared at his hands. "Immortal...I'm...what..."
"Now, it's my turn. My gift isn't as magnificent as theirs, but I want to give you two something as well. As a wedding gift, allow me to give you a proper home." Elios said. "I've been around humans enough to know what you like."
Elios tapped the ground with his foot. The scenery changed to a dense forest. Elios touched the diadem on his forehead. It glowed brightly. He then pointed at a spot in the forest. The space he pointed to was enveloped in white light. The light burst, and where trees once were, a cabin sat in its place.
Rowan stared in amazement. "How did you do that?"
Elios shrugged. "I'm a unicorn. Only four hold greater power than us."
Liliana touched the ground. Plants grew up around the house, and around the back, a stone wall appeared. "Nothing wrong with your work, Elios, but I've added a little on to it."
"No, it's beautiful." Elios shook his head. "Shall we go inside?"
Elios opened the front door. Inside, the house was already furnished. The furniture was simple, like the house itself, but that suited them just fine. There was an area for cooking with a stove, a counter, and shelves for storage filled with dishes and dried herbs. A bed was against the wall, opposite the front door, with fur blankets. A table large enough for six people to sit at was in another corner, by a window. An assortment of tools sat in a wooden crate beside the door, containing possible necessities, like an ax and a handsaw.
Rowan didn't want to be rude, but he noticed something missing that he was used to having in a home. "Uh, this is very nice. I'm grateful for all of it, and I will be fine without it, but is there a tub in the house?"
"Oh, yes. Actually, I added a little bit of magic to give you something special for that." Elios opened up a door Rowan thought was a storage pantry. "Come inside and look."
Rowan went in. The inside of the room was much larger than he expected. A large, oval-shaped tub took up roughly half the room. On the other side of the room was a toilet, and between the two, a sink. Rowan leaned over into the tub to touch the smooth wood. "This is beautiful. It's nicer than the one I used in the castle."
Elios propped open a small window above the sink. "I haven't shown you the exciting part yet."
"What? Does it fill itself or something?" Rowan joked.
"Yes, it can, in two different ways. Step back and I'll show you." Elios waited for Rowan to move. He touched the shower head hanging above the center of the tub. Water poured down and circled around into the drain.
"How did you do that? Where is the water going?" Rowan asked.
"When it goes down that drain, I've made it so that it purifies itself, then turns to air. The water coming down is also being created from the air. It's enough for the toilet and the sink in here, but if you wish to bathe, keep that window open to drawn in more air." Elios tapped the head again. He then put his hand on the spout attached to the wall and put a plug inside the drain. "And that's how you fill the water for a bath."
"You said the air in here was enough for everything else...does that mean...wait, what does that mean for the toilet?" Rowan went to examine it.
Elios pulled down a small lever. Water washed over the inside of the toilet, and disappeared down a hole.
"Where does that go?"
"It purifies itself from there. I would give it a clean every now and then." Elios said.
"You mean to tell me I don't have to empty it out anywhere? And it doesn't just dump it out nearby?" Rowan stared at it in disbelief. "You could revolutionize the human world with this. And the sink...it self fills without needing a water source like the tub?"
"Yes, give it a try."
Rowan tapped the faucet and watched the water pour out. He put his hands in the water. "This is my favorite part of the house."
"I'm glad you like it." Elios laughed.
"Are things like this common here? When I stayed with Robin's mother, she didn't have anything like this." Rowan said.
"It varies. People live all sorts of ways out here. There are cities that dwarf anything in the human realm with things humans won't think to conceive of for centuries, and there are those who live simply on the land. You are free to choose to live however you wish." Elios tapped the faucet. "You have all the time in the world to explore. I left the home intentionally sparse. In time, I'm sure you'll find things you wish to fill it with."
"How vast is this side?" Rowan asked.
"Oh, it is far greater than you can comprehend." Elios smiled widely. "You should explore it with him. That little bird has been in a cage for far too long."
"You say that, but I don't think I'll be able to get him to leave this room when he realizes how the bath works." Rowan said.
"Perhaps. He is like his mother. He enjoys simple things." Elios walked with him out of the room. He whispered. "Oh, and I've stocked the house with lots of honey and jam. I know how he is."
"Haha. Thank you. I'm sure he'll love that too." Rowan said.
"Why don't I show you the backyard?" Elios asked.
Rowan nodded. They walked around the garden in the back. Liliana and Elios's mother prepared something in the kitchen area. Flannán and Robin were left alone. She sat down at the table and looked out the window. Robin sat down with her.
"I see you found a new home." He said. "I'm happy for you."
"I'm surprised you stayed over there as long as you did. I gave you to her for a reason. You weren't supposed to return." She looked over at him, studying his features. His resemblance to Faolán, in both appearance and voice, should have terrified her, but it did not. His personality shined over that.
"Couldn't help it." He shrugged.
"I suppose Faolán's the odd one out." She said.
"What do you mean?"
She leaned her head against her hand. "You, myself, your brother, your sister...not a one of us has any interest in being with the opposite sex."
"That's...something strange there." Robin thought over that. The number of individuals in one family being like that. He took it as an amusing coincidence. The subject did bring up something he wanted to ask Flannán about. "I didn't know until recently I had a sister. How old is she?"
"She should be nineteen right now. She's with your father, chasing after some princess. Avis was the one who finally convinced me to come here." Flannán said.
"Avis, I wonder if I'll ever cross paths with her. What does she look like?"
"She looks a lot like Luke." Flannán said. "I heard you spent a lot of time with Luke recently. How is he?"
"Rowan was helping him with his drinking problem, but I suspect as soon as he hears the news of our 'deaths', it's going to be a while before he's alright again. Rowan told me he had some sort of plan set up to arrange for him to meet his soulmate, so perhaps it won't be so bad for too long." Robin said. Rowan had made it clear to Luke they would leave in the near future, but Robin doubted that information would be enough to keep Luke well. He hoped Rowan was right about that man being able to help his brother.
"Luke has a soulmate? I'm terrified to ask what that man must be like." Flannán laughed.
"Rowan told me he was a very gentle person." Robin said.
"Huh. Who would have thought?" She smiled absentmindedly at the idea. "Lily told me that is the way you two are, that you are one."
"Lily?" He raised an eyebrow at that. Robin tried not to laugh. He thought to himself, 'She's given her a nickname. That's adorable.' Robin teased her. "You two seem to be getting on well."
Flannán blushed. "Well, yes."
Robin said to her, "You should send Luke a message some time. He loves you."
"You really are nothing like your father, though you look like his twin." She looked him straight in the eyes. "You're the mask he wore when we were young. I wonder, are you hiding a monster inside too?"
"Oh, I've definitely been a monster plenty of times. I had to be a monster to come here. Perhaps, we're not that different." Robin said.
"No, you're definitely nothing alike." Flannán watched Elios and Rowan through the window. "He seems to be doing better."
"The excitement will die down after you all leave. His sadness won't pass that easily." Robin said.
"And what of yours?" She asked.
When the food was ready, everyone sat down to eat at the table. The house was full of warmth and happiness until all the guests left, one by one. Liliana and Flannán were the last to leave. Sunset came soon after, and Rowan returned to his quietness. His eyes dulled again, and he retreated underneath the blankets on the bed. Robin sat on the floor beside the bed.
"My love, I am here." Robin held his hand.
Rowan stared at him with empty eyes. "The blood, I can't wash it away from my hands."
"Shh...don't think on that." Robin kissed his hand.
"How can I not? The deaths I have caused today..."
"You have caused many deaths over the last decade, as have I. Soldiers die on the battlefield every fight. Dying is always a possibility for a soldier." Robin said.
"I had my own men killed. There's no excusing that." Rowan pulled his hand away and turned over in the bed. "I am a monster."
Robin sunk down. "Perhaps, we should part ways. You can return home and..."
"I can't do that." Rowan sat up. "My damn father will kill my brother and Rosa if I return without you."
"Then, we could return together and let him..."
"Don't you dare even suggest that! I'm not having this blood on my hands only to lose you anyway. I made my decision. I have to live with what I've done." Rowan buried his face in his hands. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to raise my voice at you. I'm just..."
Robin sat on the bed and hugged him from behind. "The pain will ease in time. I know you feel horrid for what you've done, but this will lay the stage for Wren to end the war. There's no way both sides will want to continue after such a devastating event when morale and supplies are already so low. The blood shed today will be the last for this war."
Rowan cried into his hands. Robin held him until the tears stopped.
"You should focus your mind somewhere else." Robin kissed the back of Rowan's head. "Why don't you work on helping Luke? I know you've sorted out dream magic. Though I suppose you could sneak into Philip's castle to see him."
Rowan wiped off his face. "It's too risky right now. We should both stay out of sight for a while. I'll seek him in my sleep. Shouldn't you try as well?"
"He loves you. He'll be more open to listening to you than me. Are you going to speak to Wren that way?" Robin asked.
"I'm...going to try, at some point. I don't know if I'm ready yet...to see him, even in a dream." Rowan felt a knot in his throat. "I'm...I'm going to outlive him. So much of what I've done has been to protect him, and I'm going to live long enough to see him die anyway."
"If he wishes for it, I could arrange for him to be given that same gift, but he may not want it and you will have to accept it." Robin said.
"Your mother didn't give me a choice." Rowan gazed at the sheets. They were beautiful, but strange. Nothing smelled like his old bed.
"There is a way to undo it, if you hate it so. Should you decide that, I will follow suit." Robin told him.
Those words stirred something unexpected in him. "I...have not decided how I feel about that yet."
"You know, if he chooses a mortal life, when he dies, you can still speak with him in the realm of dreams. It's not as though his soul will cease to be." Robin added one last offer to comfort his lover. "Actually, if you wanted to see that place, I could arrange for you to visit in person."
"What? What do you mean?" Rowan asked.
"The realm of the dead. My mother's twin sister resides over where the dead go to rest. She is bound to the endless river of stars, and her soul is what sustains all that is there. She is the lady of that realm, half-creator of the Lord of Death." Robin said.
Rowan turned around and stared at him in shock. "What? What do you mean by that? I thought your mother was a river nymph among many other nymphs. How is her twin sister...?"
"My mother is more than who you think she is. Don't worry over that right now." Robin cupped Rowan's face. "Let's not think that far ahead right now."
Rowan nuzzled his face into Robin's hand. "Sometimes, I think meeting you was a curse. There has been so much pain in my life since then, but...having known you, I would not want to live a life without you. I can't. What I regret most...is that in the time we were there, I didn't spend it better. I should have spent more time with Wren and my mother...Ronan...everyone."
"You can't change the past. Cherish the memories you did make, and never forget them." Robin kissed Rowan. Robin pressed his forehead against Rowan's. "I'm sorry. Really, this is my fault. It's because I'm weak."
"There is no point in us staying there if it was killing you inside." Rowan said. He picked up something he'd kept hidden on him when he left. His mother's dagger rested in a pouch. Rowan presented it to Robin. "I wasn't the only one who could see it. I think she knew it was the only option left to us when Father started to try and pit Wren against me. I am the weak one, allowing myself to be shackled by my father's demands. If I had been stronger..."
"There was no place for us in that world as we are. That's the only real truth. To be there, we would always need to cloak ourselves in lies." Robin pulled away. "Living like that, I can't..."
Rowan pushed the dagger into Robin's hand.
"Why are you giving this to me?" Robin asked.
"She said it was a present for you." Rowan tried to smile. He managed, but it hurt. "I'm sorry I've been like this...I love you. It may take some time for me...to return to myself. Please, be patient with me."
Robin took the dagger and unsheathed it. He looked at himself in the blade's reflection. He put the dagger on his pillow and took his husband's hand. He kissed it. "I am quite good at being patient. Don't hurry yourself."
"Thank you." Rowan pulled his hand away and took Robin's. He kissed it. "This time, let me play this role. Let me be your protector, my prince."
"I am no prince." Robin's face flushed.
"Would you prefer king?"
"That's more embarrassing. What would I even rule over?" Robin laughed.
"This forest. That's our kingdom." Rowan said.
"Oh, is that so?" Robin was relieved to see Rowan in better spirits. It would take a while before Rowan could be like that most of the time. Robin decided to play along to make him happy. He gazed into Rowan's eyes. "Eternity is a long time. Are you sure you really want me for that long?"
"I told you. You may have me only if for eternity. You already agreed to those terms the day we met." Rowan reminded him of their first promises to one another upon meeting as children.
Robin hid the night sky's bright lights with a rainstorm. He didn't need to see them outside his window. The brilliance of the endless stars was there before him. "I know...and you will always be mine. For eternity, I won't let anyone else have you."
It rained through the night in that forest far from the realm of man, there in that place beyond seasons and time.
Several days later, Argus was having dinner with the few people left in the castle. To his annoyance, Father David hadn't left with the army. He was ordered by Rowan to stay behind to be near Rosabella. Officially, the reason was her pregnancy as dangers existed for the mother even before birth and he claimed he wanted him there if she needed her last rites. David knew that wasn't the real reason, but he did not inquire further about why. He kept watch over Rosabella whenever the king forced Wren and her to be separate for a while. A single knight was also ordered to stay behind, Sir Sparrow. He was given a task to perform, but he would not reveal what it was to anyone. This angered the king, who ordered Sparrow to stay close to him. Allon and Dove stayed near. Argus demanded they leave, but Wren prevented it, as he already promised them they could stay for the winter.
During dinner, a group of scouts arrived carrying sacks of items. Sparrow let them in the near empty dining hall.
He addressed the king. "King, the scouts we sent out have returned."
"And? What did you find?" Argus asked.
The head of the group bowed before the king. He had an uneasy look about him. "I am sorry, your majesty...it appears your son has fallen in battle, as well as yours, Lord Egret."
The room went silent. Everyone exchanged looks.
"What?" Wren was the first to say anything. "What about everyone else? What's happened?"
"Everything was scorched. Dragons. It appears they crossed paths with Mark's army while passing through dragon territory, and...we could not investigate the area for very long. It was too risky, but we...did not find signs of any survivors on either side. We spoke with scouts sent by Mark to confirm this." The scout said.
"Even the Hellhound fell?" Egret narrowed his eyes.
"Yes, even that one. We have...brought back what we could..." The leader signaled for the others to start emptying out the contents of the sacks. They placed items belonging to Rowan and Robin on the table. "Your majesty, here are the prince's things. His bow and quiver, his breastplate, a part of his cape, and his sword. All but the bow and quiver were set ablaze. We couldn't find his body...but given what appears to have happened, it's possible there was nothing left to find. The knight of Cailean...we were able to bring back his shield, sword, a portion of his clothes, and what is likely part of his hair. There were no other remains of his body either. The hair appears to have survived because it fell near water. I regretfully must say it is likely he was killed by beheading."
Ran stared out at the items before them more intently than anyone else. Allon turned away in sadness.
"What of my son?" Egret asked.
"We...were able to find...some of his remains. We were able to retrieve his head and his shield." The leader said.
The shield was placed down first. The head, covered with a bloodied cloth, was sat down beside it. Rosabella put her hands to her mouth, then buried her face in Wren's shirt. Wren held her close.
"I am sorry...from what wasn't burned, animals took much of the rest. The dragons may have feasted on them themselves." The leader said.
"What the hell were they all doing in the other realm?!" Argus yelled at him.
"We don't know. When we spoke with Mark's scouts, they claimed they knew nothing about planning to fight there. We don't know why anyone was there." The scout said. "We suspect something must have taken them off course. The weather was horrendous out there. It's possible they were lost in the storm, or intentionally sought out the place for relief from the frigid weather."
Ran stood up. She walked over to the items. The blond hair, she held in her hands, examining the blood dried on the strands. Rosabella wiped her face and joined the queen in examining the items. She picked up her former fiancé's bow and quiver.
Wren recalled what his brother told him. He shouldn't believe anything without absolute proof. There were no bodies before him. Wren nearly laughed at how undamaged his brother's bow was compared to everything else on the table. He understood. Wren stood up and said, "This is too much. It's time to end the war."
"Precisely. We will launch one final attack. Mark won't expect it on the heels of that." Argus said in response.
Wren raised his voice. "No, absolutely not! We should negotiate peace with them."
"Peace? We've nearly won. Are you going to let your brother's death be in vain?" Argus stood up now.
"My brother? You're sitting here demanding for more bloodshed and it didn't even cross your mind to give me a moment to mourn. When is my brother's funeral? Was that not important to you?" Wren argued back at him.
"We can worry over that later. There's no body to bury. It doesn't matter when we do that." Argus said coldly.
"How dare you!" Wren walked over to him. "How worthless is my brother's life to you? How worthless am I? Are we all expendable so long as you get your damn territorial expansion?!"
Argus got up in his face. "Your brother was willing to shame me before the entire court! He should wait. If he wished for better, he should have done as I ordered him instead of fucking around with some..."
"Shut the hell up!" Wren was unmoved by the display. "Don't you sit here and lie to everyone. That has nothing to do with anything. And you know what? I'm done lying for you
. You and that bastard over there are the only traitors here."
"Traitor? How am I a traitor? You're mad." Argus said. "What are you scheming, boy?"
"You think I'm going to bow to you? I know what you've done. I heard from my brother, and I confirmed it through other sources. The reason I have no aunts and uncles, the reason my grandparents were dead before I was born, you had them killed to take the throne. And that monster over there was the one who did your dirty work. You're the traitor, and that you expect me to stay loyal to you, after you not only tried to get me to kill my own brother so you could blame it on the other side for more support along with threatening my life and Rosa's life to torture my brother before he left...Do you think I am a fool?" Wren pushed him. Rage burned in his eyes.
"What nonsense are you talking? Did your brother set you up to do this? No one would believe any of that nonsense." Argus stepped back.
"You are not fit to be king. Abdicate the throne now, or I will take it from you. I won't allow you to get anyone else killed for your selfish schemes." Wren threatened him.
Egret stood up now. "Argus, your boy seems to want a noose around his neck."
"Abdicate the throne? Hah! I will do no such thing. It's clear you are the traitor." Argus pointed at Wren. "Guards, seize my son, and put him in a cell for the time being. I have more important things to deal with than..."
Wren lunged at his father and brought him to his knees. He unsheathed a dagger. He pressed the blade against his father's throat. "I will say it again. Abdicate the throne, or I will take it from you by force."
"See, he's the traitor!" Argus yelled.
"No, everyone look. Look at the blade in my hand. My father gave me this blade, one stolen from the other side, to assassinate my brother with to stir up more chaos. He told me I could even wait until this war was won, then kill him and start a new one. I've kept this dagger on me, not out of loyalty to you, but loyalty to my brother. He told me I should hold onto it, to fool you." Wren pressed harder to draw a little blood. "The other assassination attempts, those were people you hired too. How little did you think of my brother? You want nothing but chaos and war, so you can swallow up the world. How many sons will you take from this land, how many brothers?"
Egret moved toward the two. He drew his sword. "Boy, put that blade down. I'll kill you before you accomplish anything."
"Stay back, Bird of Poison." Wren said to him.
"Father, I won't let you." Rosabella took Rowan's bow and strung it. She grabbed an arrow from Rowan's quiver.
Egret laughed at her. "Girl, be quiet. You're no threat. All you're good for is spreading your legs."
Rosabella knocked the arrow. She pointed the bow at her father.
"Really? You can't shoot that bow. The prince was no weakling in battle. That bow is far too heavy for you." He laughed at her again. "You won't hit me, girl. You can't pull that string back."
Rosabella pulled at the string. She didn't care that the draw weight was more than she could handle. Her shoulder ached as she pulled and her hands shook.
Everyone in the room watched on, not knowing what to do. The scouts and the guards were confused as to who they should take orders from.
Egret's arrogance got the better of him. He walked closer to Rosabella, to taunt her weakness. "Put the bow down. You'll only hurt yourself."
Ran observed her. "Rosa, keep your back straight."
Egret stared at the queen. "Taking her side, huh? You're as weak as she is."
Rosabella's anger grew. She had to do it. This was the time. With all her strength, she pulled back. She let the arrow fly from her, and did not look away when it went clear through his head. It only registered to her later how much her arm and shoulder hurt. She lowered the bow as he fell to the ground.
She hovered over him. "This is a punishment, as requested by your former wives, both of which you personally handed over to Death. I won't let you take another."
As he bled out on the floor, drifting in and out of consciousness, Egret swore he saw three women standing over him instead of one.
Ran came over to Rosabella to check her arm. Rosabella couldn't lift it without pain. She didn't care.
Argus shrieked at the guards. "Guards, do your jobs! Take them both to the dungeon! The girl has murdered her father! She's spreading lies!"
Father David came forward. "No, you are the liar. I swore my allegiance to you long ago, but I told you. Before you, I serve a higher power. I will not keep hidden what I have seen you do. I bore witness to you give your older son a drink with poison to force him into confessing anything he may be plotting against you. He had nothing to say, but your actions...you are a wicked man."
Allon stood up, to support Wren. "My birth is a testament to your wickedness. You raped my mother, and now that I've come to have a family again, you've caused me to lose my older brother and a good friend."
"They're all in on it! All of them!" Argus shouted. "Guards!"
The last to stand against him was Sir Sparrow. "Guards, stand down. This is an order from the fallen prince."
"What?" Argus asked.
"Before the prince left, he gave me a special task, one I refused to tell any of you about. He told me that the king was not to be trusted and he suspected he had gone mad long ago. If the king were to threaten to harm Prince Wren or Lady Rosabella in any way, I was to ensure the two would be protected from harm and the king removed from power." Sir Sparrow drew his sword. "It is my assessment that the king is no longer fit to rule."
"Why are you betraying me?" Argus yelled at the knight. "That man is dead! He was bewitched."
"Nonsense. I've fought alongside him for ten years. That man never had any spell on him. He committed sin, I'll give you that, but there is nothing magical in succumbing to earthy desires." Sparrow pressed the tip of his blade into Argus's chest. "He told me you were likely planning on going on with another war, and that he suspected you had done a number of wicked things. The words of those who stand against you confirm to me what he said. You intended for your older son to die soon, that has long been your goal. That fool, Eider, interrupted your plans, but you saw fit to rile up the fairy into his own doom. You knew very well, if this battle did not take him, the prince's death would be in short time. He was weak when he left, you made him leave when no one should be fighting, and now he is dead. As far as I'm concerned, you killed him. I stand with Prince Wren, and I will slay anyone in this room who attempts to save you."
The guards and scouts looked at one another. One by one, they all stood behind Sparrow.
"What are you all doing?! He's in on it too! Egret has been murdered!" Argus shouted at them.
One of the scouts came forward. "Your majesty, I cannot stand by a king who cares not of mourning his own children. You already took a son from me. If these confessions are all true, you will take everyone's sons. Who's lives will you spare in your thirst?"
One of the guards, an older man, said. "Kill him. He killed King Christopher. That's reason enough for me. Toss him and the poisonous demon in the moat."
"No, that's too easy." Wren said. He kicked Argus to the ground. "We'll report him dead. Died of sorrow from loss of his son, killed himself. No, I won't give him the luxury of a quick death. He will be housed in exile on an island as a nameless prisoner, under the sentence of madness and murder. For every time he declares himself king, he will only prove to others his insanity. Guards, take him and cover his head. No one is to know his real identity. As for Egret, he turned out to be a traitor, and upon discovering his treachery, Rosabella killed him. He's already dead. There's nothing we will gain by changing the story to punish him."
"Why are you doing this? Wren?" Argus pleaded with him. "Let's talk this over."
"No, you will live in a tiny cell I have chosen for you, alone, where you can hurt no one and no one will care who you are. You will die owning nothing, and ruling over nothing. As you are dead, I also dissolve your marriage to my mother. She is official now a widow." Wren glanced over at his mother. "And she is free to remarry or leave here, if she chooses."
"Ran, you can't let them do this to me. I am your husband. Stand by me! You must come with me." Argus demanded.
She stared at him, then turned her nose up. "I do not recall being sentenced to anything, nameless prisoner."
"You can't leave! You are mine!" Argus yelled to her.
"I belong to no one, and I will not be caged again." She said. "In fact, I have already decided on a new lover. He has always kept my garden beautiful while you slept around with every woman you could get your hands on."
"You're running off with the damn gardener?! You whore!" Argus started to get up.
Wren kicked him down. "Do not touch my mother, nameless man."
Argus turned to the guards and pleaded with them one last time. "I am the king! I am the rightful king! This is treason!"
"Shut up, you old bastard." The oldest guard grabbed him. "Let's go. We're taking you somewhere special, no name."
"No, you can't!" Argus tried to free himself, but he couldn't.
The guard twisted his arm. "Shut up! You've had enough time to talk."
Wren gave another order. He pointed to Egret. "Get rid of this body. This man deserves no funeral."
Sparrow approached him. "What now, your majesty?"
"Tell the public what I told you. Everyone here must swear to secrecy about what you witnessed. Aside from destroying his ego, it is best for the public as well. We don't need any more chaos. Tomorrow, we have three things to accomplish. My crowning, a funeral for those we lost, and my wedding to Rosabella."
Allon looked up at him. "You're marrying her so soon? Wouldn't that be a little distasteful?"
"That would depend on how I presented it. I intend to inform the public I am doing so to honor my brother by taking care of the woman he was supposed to marry. Rosa, do you have any objections?" Wren turned to her.
"I have none." She said. Rosabella winced in pain.
Wren looked over her arm. "David, take her to the physician. I want her arm thoroughly checked."
"As you wish." David bowed to him. "Come with me, Lady Rosa. Let's make sure you get what you need to heal properly."
The room was soon almost empty. The two who remained behind were Ran and Wren. Wren addressed his mother. "You're leaving, aren't you?"
"I was thinking about it, that I might find my home again." She said.
"I will miss you." Wren hugged her. "I love you. Please, go make yourself happy."
She hugged him back. "And you as well. I hope your brother is happy too."
Wren pulled away. "How did you know?"
"I know my sons well." She said. Ran walked towards the door. "You will make a great king. I'm sure that is what he is thinking."
Wren, now alone, picked up his brother's bow. He unstrung it and felt over the wood. Wren pressed the wood against his forehead, hoping in vain to catch a hint of his brother's scent. "I know."
The nameless prisoner, once king, was taken away to an island of nobles banished for various absurdities under Argus's rule. Rather than stir any chaos among the people, it was reported that the king killed himself out of grief for the loss of his son, Rowan, and Wren ascended the throne without any complaints. Queen Ran was reported to the public to have left the kingdom after her husband's death to live as a nun in a land far away. The gardener and all of the queen's dogs left with her. In the morning, a funeral was held. After the funeral, Wren was made king, and a wedding followed that.
Wren chose not to wear his father's crown. Instead, his older brother's crown was placed upon him, as everything else he wore once belonged to Rowan. His announcement of intentions to marry his brother's fiancée was met with cheers and praise from the crowd. They wed in front of a church, matching in red and black.
For Egret, he was labeled a traitorous madman, slain for his previous crimes of murdering much of the royal family and having intentions of killing more. Rosabella, having slain her own father for his crimes, did not receive any ridicule. She proudly showed off her injured arm. Those who were present in that room that day kept their oaths of secrecy about what really happened.
Elsewhere, the news about what transpired between the two armies and the crowning of the new king reached King Mark. Mark secluded himself away from the public while he debated over what to do. Hollis was well enough to walk, though very weak. He confronted his brother about the news in private.
"I've heard everything." Hollis said. "I don't mean this because I am afraid of fighting. If you want to keep fighting, I will stand by you, but...it is my personal opinion that now is the time to surrender or make negotiations."
"I know that you are right, but..." Mark rested his chin against his hand. "I don't want to say it."
"Why?" Hollis asked.
Mark hung his head low in defeat. "I've been fighting so long, for a war my father started. That it has come to this...is truly disgraceful."
Hollis put his hand on his brother's shoulder. "It is not disgraceful to protect your kingdom, even if it must be through a surrender. What is more important? Victory, or the lives of our people?"
"I know you are trying to be kind, but it is disgraceful. I must accept that." Mark said.
"Let me do this. Let me negotiate with them." Hollis offered.
Mark shook his head. "You are still ill. You shouldn't be traveling in this weather. It could kill you."
"I'd rather die trying to end this war than sit in bed and die anyway. Let me go. If it kills me, so be it. So long as I end it, it doesn't matter to me." Hollis said.
"I am the king."
"And I am a writer. Words are my domain, and using them is my only talent. Let me go. It should be me that does this." Hollis countered his brother.
Mark sighed. "If you're that pressed to go, we can both go."
"Now is not the time for one of us to not be here. You should stay. Let me go. If something happens, it's better if you're here. And if their new king decides to betray us, better he kill me than you. I am the best choice."
"You are sure?"
Hollis put his hand over his heart. "This is the only thing I am useful for. I won't disappoint you this time. I'll end the war with my quill, or I'll die in the pursuit of peace."
Mark stood up. He took a deep breath. "You have my permission. End it."
"I swear to you, I will not fail you. I'll be leaving immediately." Hollis bowed to his brother, then left.
Mark glanced out at the snow piling up. "Were you mocking me that night, spectre? Have I handed him over to you?"
Hollis sent a messenger out a head of himself to inform Wren of his coming. It was risky to do so, but Hollis brought several others with him. Finch came to aid him as his servant, as always. Aderyn, Roibín, and Aderyn's servants were also brought along. Hollis considered leaving the baby under Mark's care, but he didn't trust Aderyn enough. He had her bring the child along, and hoped for the best. Along the way, a messenger met with them to inform them Wren wished to meet with them. Hollis took this as a good sign.
When they arrived, it was now mid-January. Hollis and his group were greeted warmly. Wren got straight to the point, and offered to sign a peace treaty. He informed Hollis he had already invited Silvanus and Philip to come and sign as well. Hollis agreed to signing. Still uneasy, Hollis had all of those he brought with him be in the room at the time of the signing, including the baby. Wren, also weary of what may happen, had many close to him stay in the room as well.
"Forgive me for bringing my son. I am uneasy leaving him out of my sight for long." Hollis apologized.
"I understand. Your child is welcome to stay as we discuss matters. My wife is here right now for the same reason." Wren said in a soft voice. "My family has become very small as of late."
"As has mine. I don't want it to get any smaller." Hollis offered him his hand to shake. "Let's end this officially. I don't want any more blood spilled."
"Neither do I." Wren shook his hand. "This won't undo anything my family has done to yours over the last ten years, but I am sorry for your losses. I take it that injury is also my family's fault."
"Your father liked his assassins." Hollis said.
"Yes, I am aware. He liked them within our walls too." Wren said under his breath. He cleared his throat. "This war went on this long because of him and his strange thoughts. I can do nothing that will compensate for his actions. Ending the war is the best I can do to begin apologizing."
"My father attacked first. My family is also in the wrong for all of the lives lost. My father's greed ruled his mind, and many paid for it." Hollis said. "Today, let's put that behind us."
The prince and the king signed their names on the treaty. Wren proudly held up the document. "And with this, the war is over, finally."
Hollis asked, "Can you send a messenger to my brother right away? I want the news to reach him as quickly as possible."
"That's a good idea. I'll send several messengers. Silvanus and Philip should be here soon. Then, we can know peace again." Wren put the document back down. "You're free to stay here as long as you need, even after they sign. The weather is rough out there."
"Thank you. I appreciate it. The journey here was difficult." Hollis covered his mouth to cough.
Roibín fidgeted in his nurse's arms. He reached out toward Rosabella. "Wan! Wan!"
Lena brought the child closer to Rosabella.
The child reached out and touched her stomach. "Hewo!"
Everyone stared at the child.
Wren looked at Hollis. "Seems your child is quite perceptive."
"Is your wife pregnant?" He asked.
"Yes. Looks like your son wants to be friends." Wren said.
David commented. "It must be a sign from our lord. The next generation will not know the turmoil of the past."
Roibín now reached for Wren. "Wan up! Up!"
"Ah, Prince Hollis..." Lena turned to the prince.
"It's alright." He said.
"He wants to meet you." Lena held up the child.
Wren carefully took the baby. He cradled the child in his arms, thinking about how he would expect one of his own soon. "Hello, little one. What is your name?"
"His name is Roibín." Hollis said.
Wren and Rosabella exchanged looked. Wren rocked the baby. "Roibín, is it?"
The baby giggled, then stopped and looked uncomfortable. Wren felt something wet on his hand. He thought quick enough to hold the baby away from his body. The child ended up soaking his own gown and getting the floor wet.
Hollis was mortified. "I'm sorry! Please, forgive him. He's only a baby."
"It's alright. He can't help it." Wren handed the child back to his nurse when the baby was done.
Lena took him. "I'll change him. Um...is there somewhere I could use?"
"You may use the desk over there." Wren pointed to a desk in the corner.
"Thank you." She said as she hurried over to the desk. She put the child down.
Finch handed her a bag containing a change of clothes for the child. He opened it. "Lena, did you bring any towels?"
"Yes, in the bottom bag." She said.
"I'll clean up the floor." Finch grabbed a few towels and went to clean up the puddle.
"You don't need to do that. I can call a servant to." Wren tried to stop him.
"I am a servant." Finch said.
"Oh. I thought you were a nobleman." Wren said.
"I've been getting that a lot. Thank you for the compliment, King Wren." Finch got on his knees and cleaned the floor.
Allon asked his brother, "Should I help him?"
"And you need to remember you are nobility." Wren said. "Don't worry over it."
Hollis put his face in his palm. "I apologize again. This is...most embarrassing."
"He can't control it yet. I'm not angry." Wren said. He asked, "Could I borrow a hand towel though? Ah, he got my hand."
"Yes. I'm sorry. Lena, give him a towel and some water." Hollis ordered the nurse.
"Yes, your majesty." Lena wet a small towel and handed it to Wren. "Here."
Wren washed off his hand. He laughed. "Well, that was...quite a way to end the war."
"For his sake, we should probably leave that part out when we tell everyone about this day." Finch finished cleaning up the floor.
Rosabella watched Lena change the baby, making note of how she handled the child. Lena dressed the boy in a dark pink and green gown. Embroidered around the collar were holly leaves and berries.
She smiled. "Oh, that outfit is so adorable! Who made it for you?"
Aderyn answered her. "Ah, my family's seamstress."
"Oh, I'd love to have her make my baby some clothes. These are so pretty...May I hold him?" Rosabella asked.
"Yes." Aderyn said.
Rosabella held the child. He smiled and giggled at her. She couldn't help but find the child adorable. "What a cute little thing you are. Do you want to play with my baby when he comes out?"
Roibín waved his arms in the air. "Baby!"
Rosabella carried him around and returned to her husband's side.
The baby reached for Wren again. "Wan! Wan!"
"He still wants you to hold him." Rosabella said. She handed him off to Wren.
Wren took him. "Hello again, little one."
The baby touched his face. "Hewo."
"He's quite talkative for how little he is." Allon commented.
"He is." Hollis went to Wren. He spoke to Roibín. "Roi, this is King Wren. Say Wren."
"Wen." The baby said.
"Good try." Hollis praised the baby. He said to Wren, "He has trouble with certain sounds."
"Wen Wen Wen!" The baby started laughing again.
"That's right. I'm Wren. Here. Why don't you go back to your father?" Wren handed the child to Hollis. "It's getting late. It'll be a few days before Philip or Silvanus arrive. We should all eat something."
Everyone went to the dining hall to eat. Prince Hollis and King Wren sat beside one another. Hollis coughed several times during their meal.
Wren asked. "Prince Hollis, are you ill? You've been coughing a lot."
"I'm unwell, but I'm fine enough." Hollis covered his mouth to cough.
Wren leaned over the table and looked down it to find where David sat. "Father David, do you think you could make anything for him?"
"Of course. Might be wise to make something for everyone, especially Queen Rosa and Prince Hollis's little one." David replied.
"I wish Rin were here to help. I'm sure he'd know better than us what to do." Allon said.
"Yes...we will have to carry on with our best judgement. He did leave behind a vast wealth of knowledge." David said.
"Who are you talking about? Someone you lost in the war?" Hollis asked.
"Yes, he spent his early life amongst those in the other realm. He learned many things over there, including many remedies and cures. I've recorded every one that he taught me." David explained to him, not revealing who he was speaking of.
"I didn't know you had such a skilled healer." Hollis said, surprised. "I had always heard of those in your land as mighty warriors who drenched the earth."
"Well, he was more known for his strength than his medicinal knowledge. Medics don't get titles from the public, but great warriors always do. I doubt there is anyone in these lands who has not heard of the Hellhound of Cailean." David revealed the identity of their healer.
Those in Hollis's party whispered amongst each other.
Hollis turned to Wren. "Wait...you mean...that is who you are speaking of?! All I've ever heard about him is that he's more frightening than the Black Wolf, that there is no greater monster in all the lands...you're telling me that man was also a healer?!"
"He would have been an even better one if he practiced more. But the prince needed a warrior more than a healer." David lamented.
Wren forced himself to smile. "His magic is still with us. Our water is forever pure, thanks to a spell he placed on it."
Hollis was astounded by what he heard. "I am saddened to hear of your loss, and truly, it is a loss for all of us. If this war never started, think of how much good that one man alone could have done if a sword was not needed in his hand thanks to the greed of another generation."
"It is unfortunate. But, well, there is nothing that can be done about that now." Wren tried to block out his thoughts. He changed the subject back to the original topic. "Nevermind that. We'll get you something to help with your sickness, and you too, little one."
After dinner, David prepared everyone a remedy to take. Those within the castle walls rested easy.
Word took longer to get to King Philip's castle. Snow blocked the main path to reach them, while on Philip's side, the weather hit them with an unusual warm front. Melted snow flooded the land, and a constant downpour only worsened the situation. A messenger informed Philip during a meeting of the battle, the casualties included.
The messenger mentioned that Rowan and Eider were among the dead to the group. When he brought up Robin, he spoke to Luke directly. "Sir Luke, I must sadly inform you, that your older brother was also among the dead."
Luke said nothing. It was too much for him to process the names he heard. He went quiet, then ran out of the room. Martin got up to chase after him, but Philip told him to stay and leave Luke be for a while.
Luke had no destination in mind when he ran away from that meeting. He just kept running. Eventually, he hid himself away in a cellar. He grabbed what ever was around him and smashed it. Glass shattered on the floor. He picked up pieces in his bare hands and threw them at the wall to break them again. Other pieces, he put to a different use. He destroyed until he exhausted himself.
With a bottle in hand, Luke slouched against the wall. He drank, the red wine dripping down his face. It matched well with the red dripping from his arms.
The more he drank, the easier it was for him to cry. He cried alone in that place, too empty to take himself to the tower. He knew if he walked over there, he might know some comfort, and so he refused to go to it.
Martin left the meeting early. He found him by all his shouting and the sound of broken glass. He stayed outside the cellar, waiting patiently for Luke to come out. When the shouting stopped, only Martin could hear Luke's whimpers in that dark, cold place.
Philip left the following day. Silvanus was not far behind. By the end of January, the war was officially over. Hollis stayed for a while longer to rest. Wren had one last visitor to the castle before Hollis left. Faolán arrived to discuss his son's passing with the young king. Wren greeted him in front of the castle. He led him to the room that once belonged to Robin and Rowan.
"I am sorry that we are meeting again under such circumstances." Wren said.
"There is nothing to be sorry about." Faolán said.
Wren showed him a collection of items piled up on the bed and floor. "These are your son's things."
Faolán inspected a few of them. He flipped through some books and held Robin's sword. "You may keep them, if you wish, or give them to Luke. I have no use for them."
"Do you not wish to mourn your son?" Wren asked.
Faolán picked up an old diary and read through several pages of it. "You cannot mourn someone who is not dead."
"How...what makes you think he is alive?" Wren nearly let it slip. He corrected himself quickly.
"No child of mine will be consumed by flames." Faolán continued to read the diary, not once facing Wren. "I heard your brother is gone too. How convenient."
"What exactly are you implying?" Wren asked, unsure of the man's intentions.
"So, you chose to serve your brother's wishes after all. What did you do with that worthless father of yours?" Faolán laughed.
Wren looked away. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Faolán didn't press the issue any further. He changed the subject. "You are friends with Luke, right?"
"You should write to him regularly while you have the chance." Faolán said.
"Are you...saying something is going to happen to him?" Wren asked.
"Something happens to everyone in life, doesn't it?" Faolán shut the diary and opened another one.
"Then are you implying he will...die soon?"
"You're quite obsessed with death without seeing any bodies." Faolán repeated himself. "None of my children will be consumed by flames."
Before Wren could ask what that meant, he saw a vision in his head. The man before him was engulfed by flames, pouring out from within and burning away everything around him. "But you..."
Faolán looked back at him. "Oh, is there magic about you too? Were you cursed to see the future?"
"I don't think I was cursed. My mother sometimes saw glimpses." Wren said.
Faolán returned to looking at the diary. "Can you see when?"
Wren thought over how to say it. There was no point in lying to him. "You don't look much older than you are now."
Faolán laughed. "I'm honestly surprised I lasted this long. Goes to show how heartless I really am."
"What is your curse?" Wren asked.
"I don't know what you're talking about." Faolán put down the diary. "You should write to Luke."
"I'll write to you as well." Wren said.
"What for?" He asked.
Wren walked over and stood beside him. "You're not as frightening as I thought you were."
"The stories you have heard about me, they're all true." Faolán said.
"Those stories are from a long time ago. People change." Wren picked up one of the diaries. "You seem interested in these. Why don't you take these back with you?"
"I don't need to hold onto anything. I'll read them before I leave." Faolán added. "You said it yourself. I don't have much time. It would better for you or Luke to keep them."
"I don't know if Luke wants to read those." Wren laughed, assuming there was likely some things about his brother and Robin Luke would not want to hear all the details about. "I'm a little surprised you do. Curious?"
"My oldest child and I have only spoken a few times. I was wondering how much of the stories about him were true, and what was a lie." Faolán commented. In those words, Wren wondered if Faolán was hoping to see some of himself in his son.
"What do you think of him now?" Wren asked.
"From what I've read, he hates your father as much as I do, and he seems to enjoy writing extensively about sexual fantasies." Faolán commented rather bluntly.
The last part caught Wren off guard. He awkwardly laughed. "Haha...I had wondered what might be in there. Yes, I'm definitely sure Luke won't want to read that."
"I don't know. I think if you changed a few details and names, you could sell this and make decent money with the right people. He writes erotic scenes quite well. His poetry is terrible though. Those would best be forgotten. It's almost shameful how bad he is at poetry." He closed the diary in his hand.
"That's not very nice." Wren laughed harder. "Though I have...read some of his poetry before and..."
"You know it's bad. Don't lie for him." Faolán laughed with him. He brushed his hands over the top of the book. "He loved you too. He always thought of you as family."
Wren's smile disappeared. "I know."
"I think you should read them. You can skim over the dirty parts. He talks a lot about you." Faolán sat down on the bed. He opened up another book.
"I might, when I'm ready." Wren sat down beside him. "My brother left behind several diaries too. Those will be harder to look through."
Faolán stayed for a week, leaving after Silvanus and Philip. Hollis left the day after him. Wren spent much of his time with Rosabella and Allon, hiding his pain as best he could.
When Philip returned home, his first order of business was to give a new task to Luke. The war ending that way didn't sit well with him, and he needed a certain prisoner guarded well while he plotted his next course of action. The land was still being hit by storm after storm, with only brief periods of calm in between. The cold didn't return that winter. It stayed wet and warm. The day the king returned, he summoned Luke within an hour of his arrival. The following morning, during the worst thunderstorm of the season, Luke started his new job. With the heavy, old key in hand, he stood before the tower.
Hollis arrived home safely. He greeted his brother first thing when he arrived.
"I'm home." He said.
"I've heard from a messenger that things went well. So, it is done then?" Mark asked.
"The war is over."
Mark noticed Hollis wasn't coughing anymore. His skin looked radiant, and he seemed to be full of energy. Mark said, "You look well. I'm surprised you are not worse off for going out in that weather."
"King Wren had a priest give me a remedy for my sickness. Seems their kingdom has medicinal knowledge from the other side. I had a book made of the recipes the priest collected up from the Hellhound of Cailean." Hollis opened his bag. He pulled out the book to show his brother.
"Huh. I didn't know he knew such things." Mark took the book from him and flipped through it.
"Neither did I. Looks like it was their little secret. I'm going to have more copies made of the recipes to be spread around our kingdom." Hollis said.
"I fought for ten long years and got nowhere. You leave the castle to meet with our enemy, and you come back with the war ended and a book of medicine in tow. Fate is laughing at me." Mark shut the book. He shook his head.
"I know you have fought long, and to have it end this way is...well, it didn't gain us any land nor glory. But it is done, and you can rest now. All our people can rest. When spring comes, we should start rebuilding. Wren's agreed to send us whatever aid he can in that time. He also allowed me to take a good amount of food from their storage for the winter." Hollis put his hand on his brother's shoulder.
"Why would he do that?"
"Wren wants to keep the peace. I can say that he won't threatened us unless we threatened him first. He isn't a warrior king. We've lucked out that the new king is a poet instead." Hollis said. He sat down in a chair near his brother.
"You're joking. I hadn't heard much about him before now, but I assumed his absence on the battlefield had more to do with him being several years younger than his brother, not from lack of training. His family has long been known for being warriors." Mark sat down across from him.
"His older brother did not wish for him to endure the hardships of war, so he kept him isolated. It was the Bloody Raven, who felled countless men over this last decade, that desired nothing more than to never allow his brother to be stained in red as he was. For that, I am grateful. Wren is a kind man. He will make a great ally." Hollis had only seen Rowan a few times in his life. He barely recalled what the man looked like now, as it was so long ago. He wished he could thank him.
Hollis's words worried Mark. "His lack of strength may make him easy to conquer."
"He is not weak willed. If he needed to protect his home, he would find a way. His spirit is one that could easily rally men to his side. He won't need to search long for warriors." Hollis remembered something. "Oh, we are invited to come see his child when the baby is born. I think he's looking for a friend for his child already. I accepted the invitation, though it is several months away. I've offered to write a book of fairy tales for his child, and he gave me one for Roibín before I left."
Mark was taken aback by that. "I take it you hit it off well with that young king."
"I was surprised when I met him, and a little angry. All this time I've felt so isolated in my home. To think someone like that existed on the other side...I could have been exchanging poems with him all these years! Imagine how I could have improved by now." Hollis said, mostly joking.
"I don't understand you artistic types, but if you can make friends with him, that's better for us. There's no way we could endure another long war." Mark said. "You should get something to eat. I know the journey here must have been difficult."
"Thank you. I will. Later tonight, I'll have the cook make that remedy for you, as a precaution." Hollis got up.
"Don't worry over me." Mark said.
"But I must. You're my brother." Hollis walked to the door. "I'll see you later tonight."
Mark watched him leave.
"So, that trip cured him." He laughed at himself. "You knew I wouldn't accept that bargain, didn't you? Was your offer mercy in disguise?"
After a lengthy investigation and a difficult trial, Henrietta was found guilty of treason for conspiring with Argus's spy to have Collin assassinated and attempting to have Hollis assassinated. Her nobility did not protect her from the scaffold. Hollis did not attend the execution. His time was spent keeping Lewis's children away from the scene and discussed with them the situation. The confused, now orphaned children cried for their mother, and for themselves. Caretakers were appointed for them while permanent guardians were sought through relatives.
Peace did not come easy to the other two kings. Within a year, King Philip's kingdom collapsed after attempts at igniting another war. Through flames, rain, and metal, Philip met his end when Mark's men showed up at his castle after a string of battles. Luke was pronounced dead after he went missing during the last battle, but his father, Faolán, could not identify him among the dead. Wren didn't worry over that announcement. He knew better.
With much of the royal family gone, Martin came to Wren for help in rebuilding. In a controversial move, the next in line to Philip's throne and King Mark agreed to give the land to Wren to oversee in a peacekeeping measure. The decision split those who remained within those borders initially, but faded after time. Wren gave them nothing to complain about.
A few years after Philip fell, Silvanus followed. In a strange occurrence, a great fire started in the woods and burned everything away. He never knew what happened to Faolán, if he survived or, as Wren wondered, was the spark itself. In his last letter to the young king, Faolán confessed, through coded words, that he suspected Silvanus was trying to assassinate his own daughter and pin the blame on Mark to begin another war.
Faolán wrote to him, "A wolf is content with its kill until it is hungry again. A worm never stops consuming and a spider, weaving."
What remained, of which was largely a few scattered villages and all of Cailean, was again turned over to Wren to rebuild. That time, there were less protests about the decision, and the dissent soon faded away as Wren's efforts brought life back to the scorched earth. Mark and Hollis were busy themselves with rebuilding their kingdom and helping their old allies. No battles ever occurred between Mark and Wren. Prince Hollis and King Wren quickly became good friends, frequently visiting one another and exchanging poetry.
During those years, Wren and Rosabella had three children together. Their first child was a boy, born small but healthy. Wren gave him the name the boy told him in his vision, Rowan. The little boy was dressed in pink, then red when he grew older. He was a shy, reserved boy, and very obedient. Everywhere Wren went, the boy followed right behind him, asking him if there was any way he could alleviate his father's daily burdens as king. Wren loved the boy dearly, but the boy's devotion worried him. He wanted him to be freer.
The other two came as a set, a boy and a girl. The boy, they named for Rosabella's mother, Eleonora. He was given the name Leon. Their only daughter they named after Robin. From infancy, she crawled along trying to keep up with her older brother, Rowan. Leon was a mischievous child, constantly out to cause trouble or get out of it, and his twin sister was trouble in her own way. The twins often switched clothes with each other and pretended to be one another to get out of something they didn't want to do or gain access to something denied to them otherwise. Rosabella attempted to make them easier to tell apart by fixing their hair differently and giving Robin many accessories to wear. Somehow, they would find a way to mimic what she'd done with the hair and traded every piece of clothing. The only thing that gave them away was that neither could copy the other sibling's way of speaking.
Fleur came to live with Wren and Rosabella shortly after the war ended. She helped Rosabella in raising the children, bringing her own in tow, including her last child with Eider, a daughter she named Nina. Allon's wife, Dove, became good friends with the two of them as well. Hollis often brought his son with him during his visits, and the children all became good friends. No two were closer than Roibín and Rowan. When together, they rarely wanted anything to do with anyone else. This friendship helped put many in both kingdoms at ease about the future much the way the friendship between their fathers did.
Wren's efforts to keep peace and rebuild took much out of the young king, but he didn't mind. Three years after Silvanus's kingdom fell, the lands within the merged kingdoms were largely stable again. Wren never needed to worry over the mad demands of his father nor see his brother and his close friend in pain, and his home was filled with many he cherished. None of that could keep at bay the pain he sometimes felt when he walked past a certain door or when he drew his bow. That pain returned again and again no matter how much time passed.
It came to him most in summer more than winter, when his mind was filled with warm memories of when they were young and the war had yet to begin. He spend most of his time out in the field, calling out for someone.
Six years since the war ended, in early July, the two families came together to celebrate Roibín's birthday on the seventh. Wren hosted the party, and Hollis's family intended to stay for a month after the party, as Wren's eldest son's birthday was the tenth of August and they both wanted to attend each other's parties. There was no sense in the constant back and forth travel, according to the king. The morning of the party, the children played together while the adults in the castle prepared everything. Rosabella and Finch watched the children together.
"Robin, you've messed up your hair again. Hold still." Rosabella was fixing the hair of one of the twins. She noticed the strings on the back of the blue dress were not tied how they should have been and one of the bows was in a different place than it was earlier in the morning. She sighed. "You're Leon. Robin, are you wearing your brother's clothes again?"
The one in the red outfit hid behind the older children. "I'm not Robin. I'm Leon, Mama."
"No, you're not. Leon would have said something more sarcastic." Rosabella said.
"That's true." Leon, wearing his sister's dress, couldn't help but say.
"What am I going to do with you two?" She shook her head. Nearly every day, they caused trouble like this.
"Let them be. It's not like it matters right now. They can't even write their own names yet." Finch picked up Robin and carried her over to Rosabella. "She's managed to keep up appearances. Just fix the boy's hair and no one will notice. When they're this young, they all look the same anyway."
"I suppose. Easier to touch up his hair than do hers all over again." She brushed Leon's hair. "Now, don't mess up your hair, alright? The party's in two hours."
Leon grinned. "I won't. I'm not messy like her."
"You're both naughty." She tied a blue ribbon around a part of the boy's hair. "Rowan, will you be a dear and go get your father? It looks like it's going to rain."
Rowan ran over to her. "Yes, Mother. Where is he?"
"Same place he usually is." She smiled slightly. "Do you want someone to walk with you?"
"I can go alone. I'm almost six. Besides, I'll be coming back with Father. He'll protect me." Rowan said.
"Very well. Don't stray too far off." Rosabella kissed him on the cheek.
"I won't, Mother." He said. Before heading out, he went over to Roibín and held his hands. "Excuse me. I'll be back."
Roibín asked, "Would you like me to accompany you?"
"No, I'm fine. You should go inside soon. It's going to rain." He pointed up at the grey clouds above them. Wind howled. The walls of the castle kept them safe from the beginnings of the storm.
Roibín gave him a quick kiss. "Be careful."
Rowan's cheeks turned bright red. He looked away. "I-I will..."
With that, the boy ran off to find his father.
Nina rolled her eyes at Roibín and shook her head.
Roibín laughed. "What?"
"You know what." She said.
Rosabella sighed as she put another ribbon in Leon's hair. "I should probably do something about that too."
"They're young. Let them have their happiness before they have to hide it." Finch said.
"I fear their names have sealed their fates to hold one another's hand." She glanced out at the storm coming their way. "I pray it will not end the same way."
"Are you saying you hope they fall out of love?" Finch asked.
"No, it is more I am wishing for things that likely won't be." She said, unable to voice her real thoughts.
Roibín stood between them now. "You two speak of me like I am not here."
"And you speak too well for your age." Rosabella remarked.
"It is because Finch and Father have taught me so well. Rosa, why do you say these things about Rowan and me?" Roibín asked.
"Many do not think boys should fall in love with each other. Some would even kill a man for loving another man." She said.
"Why?" He asked.
"Some say it damns the soul to Hell." Finch replied.
Roibín crossed his arms. He frowned thinking on the matter. "Well, if that's the case, then why do they get to punish people if they're already going to Hell anyway? That seems excessive."
"You're not worried over the Hell part, huh?" Nina commented.
"I don't believe a god could create something and think to torture their creation for something that god made in them to begin with, unless that god was very cruel. But I don't think that is the way the world is. No one that cruel could create the feeling I have when I hold Rowan's hand. They wouldn't think to." Roibín said.
"I don't know. A lot of cruel things exist too." Nina said in response.
"That is true. Then, I think god must be a neutral being. He probably doesn't reward or punish anyone." Roibín concluded.
"Words like that could also get you killed." Finch warned him. He was somewhat amused by the boy's words. They showed both deeper thought than one would expect for a child his age, and yet all of the innocence that gave away a child had thought it.
"That wouldn't make me wicked. Killing another outside of defense or by accident is murder, no matter what." Roibín proudly declared.
Finch patted him on the head. "You're absolutely your father's son."
"My father is a very good man." Roibín said. He toned down his boasting and addressed the queen. "But, if you want me to be more discrete to protect Ro, I can do that. I wouldn't want anything to happen to him because of someone else's wickedness they insist on inflicting upon others."
"How...how is it you are like this and you are not even ten years old?" Rosabella stared at the child in confusion.
"It's because he spends all his time reading when he's not stuck to Ro." Nina said.
"Perhaps you could talk some sense into my twins about switching clothes." Rosabella finished up with Leon's hair.
"I don't see the problem with their clothes. If they're happy, why does it matter? We were born naked." Roibín said.
Finch laughed under his breath. "You're all going to cause so much trouble when you're older."
"They're causing me trouble now. Robin keeps demanding Wren teach her how to use a sword, and Leon keeps playing with my make-up and jewelry. Maybe they'll change their interests soon. Children are so passionate about things and so quick to change their minds about those passions." Rosabella sighed deeply. The previous day, she found Leon in his sister's clothes again, with a full face of make-up. She was both unsurprised at seeing that, and impressed he managed to put it all on so well. Given the way the world was, she worried most about him and what he might be like as an adult.
"Maybe they're souls went to the wrong bodies in the womb?" Finch suggested in jest.
The twins didn't like this implication. Both shouted at Finch.
Leon yelled, "Nuh-uh! I'm a boy! I just like pretty things!"
Robin yelled louder than her brother. "I'm not a boy! Why can't I have a sword?!"
Roibín, excited, came up with a solution to the twins problems. "We should work on writing some laws to reform all these restrictive practices."
"Roi, you're seven." Finch said in a blunt tone.
"I don't see your point." Roibín said.
"I say no more pants. They're ugly." Leon said.
"No, I want pants!" Robin shouted.
"Hmm...well, if Robin wants to wear them, we shouldn't get rid of them entirely." Roibín rubbed his chin.
"I'm not wearing pants. Leon's right. They're ugly. Dresses are prettier." Nina said.
"I think Allon's daughter is the only one who isn't going to be a handful when she's older." Rosabella said.
"How is he doing?" Finch asked. "I heard he might not make it for Rowan's party."
"He's doing well. His and Dove's second child should be due soon. They're staying in Cailean until the baby's born." Rosabella said. She stood up from the bench. The wind was getting stronger, and she was growing worried. "Finch, take the children inside. I'm going out to meet Wren and Rowan on their way back."
"Worried about Rowan?" He asked.
She nodded. "I won't be long."
Rosabella went beyond the walls, while Finch led the children in.
The king wandered out into the mists beyond the castle walls, searching for a vibrant color. His hair had grown long since the war, and a quarter of it grey, though he was only twenty-six. He kept it back in a low ponytail that hung over the side of his shoulder. His brother's cloak blocked the howling wind. He dressed himself in red and black, and bore the symbol of a raven on his chest. The mists revealed enough for him to follow before it thickened into a dense fog to conceal his secret.
Rowan wandered there, searching for his father. The grey mass disoriented him. He couldn't see more than a foot in front of himself. "Father, are you here?"
The child tripped over the roots of an old tree. He didn't tumble to the ground. Someone grabbed him and helped him to his feet. Rowan saw the red of the man's sleeve. "Father?"
He didn't recognize the voice that answered him. "Be careful, little one."
The fog thickened, and then dissipated entirely. There was no one there behind him.
"Rowan?" The king called out to him.
Rowan followed the voice. Wren soon came into sight. Rowan dashed over to him and hugged him. "Father, I found you!"
"Rowan, what are you doing out here alone?" Wren patted his head.
"Mother sent me to get you. What were you doing? You're always out here. Are you looking for someone too?" Rowan asked.
"Your uncle." Wren said.
"But isn't he gone? Can you still see him?" Rowan asked. He was told his uncle was dead. Rowan had somewhat an understanding of what death was.
"Sometimes. Don't worry over that." Wren lifted the child up and carried him. "Let's go see your mother."
Rowan held a few strands of Wren's hair. He compared the two colors in his palm. "Father, your hair. Why is it turning grey?"
"I'm getting older. That happens to everyone." Wren laughed.
"Mother doesn't have grey hair." Rowan said.
"She doesn't worry over things as much as I do." Wren said.
At those words, a pain Rowan could not name yet started to fester. He let the strands slip out of his hand and asked, "Did I cause these?"
"What? No, of course not. This is my own doing, for worrying over things I shouldn't." Wren reassured him.
Rowan rested his head on his father's shoulder. "When I'm older and stronger, I'll make sure you don't get more."
"When you're older, I'll be much older too." Wren said.
"I'll make your worries go away. I promise." Rowan held tightly to his father's cloak, burying his face into the fabric and taking in that safe, familiar scent.
"You needn't do that. All I want from you is for you to be happy." Wren rubbed the child's back as he carried him across the field. A strong wind swept through. Wren sensed someone watching him. He looked back and saw the rain coming down over the horizon. Distantly, he swore he heard humming. Rowan covered his face when thunder echoed across the field. Wren stopped to cover his son completely in his cloak. "Don't worry over the storm. I'm here. Why don't I tell you a story while we walk?"
The child peeked out from underneath the heavy fabric and nodded.
"This story begins with a wolf. A beautiful maiden, dressed in scarlet and rubies, used to meet a young boy in the woods at night. One night, under a bright full moon, the boy turned into a wolf and..." Wren stopped. He saw his wife running over to them. "Ro, look, your mother's come to meet us."
The boy pulled the cloak back more to see her. He waved at his mother. Rowan retreated back underneath the cloak when lightning danced across the sky. Wren whispered to the child. "Shh...It's alright."
As the queen drew closer to them, Wren sensed the same presence behind him. His wife stopped and stared. He looked back once more, before the mist turned to fog again. He smiled. "Thank you. It's enough."
King Wren ruled for many decades, and not once during his life did his lands ever know another war.