III. AN EXCURSION AT THE SEA
In a secluded area of castle, three men stood before the king. Rowan was directly before the king, holding his head high to disguise his shame. Robin was behind him to his left side, his eyes fixated on the king. Eider stood the furthest away on Rowan's right side with his gaze on the floor.
King Argus sat on one of his many thrones, sending only disgust towards his son. "You've returned already as a failure. As expected, you've wasted my money once again. What's your excuse this time?"
"There was an unexpected complication. I already explained that to you." Rowan mentally prepared himself for the futile battle of words.
"Yes, the dragon. Now, from what I understand, you were aware of this risk when you took this path and you knew there was a much lower risk option." The king feasted on a shank of meat as he dismissed his son's words. For all the formalities he expected of others, he applied little to himself.
"That option would have cost far more time and money. Winter is about to begin."
"Winter always comes. You should know how to deal with that by now." King Argus was unimpressed.
Rowan expected this. He kept his calm, though his patience was dwindling. Just seeing his father's face already filled him with rage. "Regardless, I did not have enough money to take the long path. I barely had supplies for the shorter route."
The king sneered at him. "No, in fact, you never had enough supplies for that route. I've taught you to take calculated risks, not act foolishly. The other path was clearly the better option. What you chose was stupidity."
"Excuse me, your majesty, but it was my idea to take that path. And I will note, our original plans were under the presumptions of having more resources. Had you not so foolishly given less than what was needed, we wouldn't be standing here right now." Robin stepped forward in front of the prince. He matched the king's look of disgust with one of his own.
"Robin, be quiet." The prince's calm facade was broken instantly. He was in such a state of mental disarray he forgot to remain formal. When he realized that, his composure suffered more.
Eider snickered at Robin's outburst. He cared for no one in the room. Their bickering was his favorite kind of entertainment, the more aggressive it got the better.
"Oh, so it is the Knight of Cailean that I have to blame? I should have expected that. You more than anyone in this court do not know your place. You speak out like that again, and I'll see you hang in the morning." There was a bitterness in the way the king spoke that was specifically reserved for Robin.
"I should think not, unless you wish to lose the war. As a king, who's had the luxury of the finest education of anyone in this land, I would hope you aren't so stupid as to toss aside your most valuable resource. Even if you gave your son ten times what you give him to pay for soldiers, you still wouldn't be able to replace me and you know it." Robin grinned in arrogance. He knew all too well how empty the king's words were.
Rowan raised his voice. "Robin, you are dismissed!"
The king's voice was even louder. "How dare you!"
"How dare I speak the truth when you lead us into our own destruction with your greed? I dare say your tone would be entirely different if it were you who had to stay out on the fields with soldiers who can barely hold a sword."
The king rose from his throne, angrily shaking his fist at the knight. "I built this kingdom by my own efforts. I've fought in battles, same as you, and had to deal with all kinds of odds against me."
"Then, if you think I'm so replaceable, why don't you come down from the comfort of your throne and test me? I can assure you I won't lose." Robin put his hand over the hilt of his sword.
"Son, get him out of my sight immediately, or you will
"Yes, sir." Rowan took hold of Robin's arm to lead him out of the room. Robin opened his mouth to say something, but Rowan muttered under his breath, "Not another word."
He grit his teeth as he followed the prince out of the room. Robin looked back at the king and gave him a death glare.
The king was left uneasy. He knew very well Robin wouldn't hesitate to kill anyone, regardless of social or government rules, if Rowan asked. He would have killed the man long before now if he didn't still need him. There was no denying that Robin truly was a highly valuable resource he had the fortune of acquiring, but Robin was equally dangerous to him as anyone else. He was a rabid dog that needed to be restrained to be of any real use.
King Argus turned his attention to Eider, who was still laughing. "Do you find that funny? We'll see how much you're still laughing when I report your failings to your father."
"Your majesty, please forgive my behavior. I won't let it happen again." Eider bowed deeply. He stepped back a few feet. "I am most sorry for my actions."
"Good. You are excused as well, as I know you have nothing important to tell me. On your way out, make sure my son comes back. I haven't finished speaking with him."
"Yes, your majesty." Eider was all too eager to remove himself from the situation when the attention was on him. After leaving the room, he returned to his usual self. Eider chuckled. "Well, well, the bitch has his fangs out today. That was more entertaining than I thought it'd be."
"What do you want? And stop speaking so distastefully to Sir Robin." Rowan tried to regain his composure, but he couldn't contain his annoyance.
Eider spoke in an obnoxiously childish voice. "Daddy still wants to speak to his little prince."
"Ugh, what more could he possibly have to say?" Rowan looked back at Robin before opening the door. "Robin, stay put."
"As you wish." He calmly smiled and bowed slightly.
After the prince left, Eider shot a suspicious look at Robin. "He's been forgetting your title all day. Is that how it usually is?"
Robin smirked, but didn't answer.
"What? Is the bitch not gonna speak to me without the prince around to bark orders? Well, that's fine with me. I've got other business to attend to. I'm sure plenty of the ladies of the court will be all to eager to welcome me back." Eider strolled down the hall, Robin glad to be rid of his presence.
Robin waited patiently in front of the door. He couldn't clearly hear what the king and the prince were saying, but he could tell they were both yelling. After a while, only the king's voice remained that same harshness. He had presumed Rowan would lose the argument from the start. Still, he kept his hand rested on the hilt of his sword.
When Rowan returned, his face was pale. He sighed. Robin expected to be lectured himself for speaking so boldly, but Rowan didn't mention it. He glanced down the hall before taking Robin's hand. "Take a bath with me. I want to wash."
Robin leaned closer to Rowan and held his hand tightly. Jokingly, he replied formally. "Yes, your majesty."
Just as with their ritual after a battle, Robin carefully prepared everything and undressed the prince in a timely, patterned set of motions. As with that ritual, he was as reckless with tossing aside his own garments then too. There was less need for that inside the castle, as the water could stay heated. Robin simply wanted to get in the bath quicker.
Rowan was silent during the entirety of the undressing process and getting into the bath. His face displayed a heavy tiredness. Robin took measures to be especially light with his touch as he bathed the prince. Now that they were alone, he decided to tell Rowan what he had wanted to tell him on their way back to the castle. He had kept quiet about his idea with Eider always near.
"I have a plan on how we can get out of the castle for a while." Robin washed the prince's back.
Rowan face brightened at those words. "Oh? What are you scheming?"
"I'd like to visit an old friend, someone who doesn't abide by the rules and regulations of the court."
"Oh, you mean you want to go to the place where your mother is? You're bringing me there again? Isn't that risky?" He laughed, thinking back on the other times he had wandered from the lands of human control with Robin.
"I won't let them take you. I know how to reason with them better than I do with humans."
"I don't like going to that place. Every time I've been there, someone has either wanted to eat me or fuck me." While he walked amongst the boundaries of his father's kingdom, Rowan received more insults towards his appearance than anything. In the other lands, the creatures there were far too eager to compliment him at every turn. He wagered at least half those were empty comments meant to lure him to his demise. Still, he was amused by the reaction. Outside of that place, only Robin and his mother ever called him handsome.
"And none have ever laid a hand on you. You needn't worry. Ignore their words and stay near me. Everything will be fine." Robin washed the prince's shoulders. He lowered his voice. "Moreover, I'm tired of being around other humans at the moment."
"I am too." Rowan turned around to face Robin. He ran his fingers through Robin's hair. "I suppose we can go there, if you want. Anything's better than staying here. You know, father wants me to have the wedding this Spring."
"Are you going to go through with it?" Robin didn't let his thoughts show on his face.
Rowan lowered his gaze and withdrew his hand. "...I don't know if I have the choice to put it off. I told him I wanted to wait until the war was over, but he's not accepting that as an answer anymore. Maybe I can find a way to persuade him..."
"Well, we'll have to hope Wren makes some progress when we're gone." Robin took hold Rowan's hand under the water.
Rowan looked up at Robin. The words in his mind were difficult for him to express. He took a deep breath. "What about you? You know if he's pressuring me, it will only be expected that you..."
Robin silenced him with a kiss. Rowan returned his affection and wrapped his arms around him. Rowan sensed the restlessness in his movements. Without a word, he diligently fulfilled Robin's unspoken wants to the extend he could. He knew this was only a temporary satisfaction. His own mind was imprisoned by the same anxiety that was consuming Robin. This solution wouldn't be enough.
Around midday, as Robin prepared for their journey, Rowan waited outside along the castle walls deep in thought. The air was so cold he could see his breath, and the clouds suggested there could be incoming snow instead of rain. There couldn't have been a worse time for them to travel.
"I heard you're leaving again." Wren stood behind Rowan, leaning against the wall. He had his arms crossed and an agitated expression.
"Yes. I am." Rowan said, keeping his eyes on the land before him.
"It's just the two of you this time, right? Where are you going?" Wren wanted to get closer, but couldn't get himself to close the distance. He waited for Rowan to approach him.
"Somewhere others needn't go." Rowan couldn't allow himself to say where.
Wren took a step closer. "Does that mean it's dangerous?"
"Yes, but not in the way you're thinking."
Wren raised his voice. "Why are you doing something like that now? Winter's just begun. Shouldn't you wait till Spring to go anywhere?"
"Time is not on my side with this. I need to make my move before Spring to correct a previous failure of mine." Rowan found bitter amusedment in being lectured on the same issue twice in the same day by two people who had no idea what he was actually dealing with. 'At least one of you have actually been in a battle before.'
"Do you have to bring him with you?"
That question was inevitable. Wren seemed to always ask him that when he was already at a mental breaking point. He buried his true thoughts deeply and kept his gaze on the horizon. "I can't do this without Robin."
"He shouldn't have to go do something dangerous at a time like this just because you're a failure."
He wasn't going to let Wren's insults get to him. He reminded himself that Wren, unlike their father, was largely powerless. Wren couldn't control him the way their father could. "Wren, Robin's a knight. It's his job to serve me. He's trained for this most of his life. You dishonor him by thinking so little of his abilities."
"...I didn't mean it like that." He took a step back and looked away. Wren continued verbal attack. "He may serve you, but you shouldn't needlessly put him in danger."
At that, Rowan turned to face his brother. He fired back at Wren with an enraged look. "I've never, and I would never. You insult me by saying that."
Wren spoke coldly. "I don't owe my brother respect for being a prince."
"You can only say that because you're my younger
brother. No one cares what you
do. And absolutely no one owes you
respect. And you should be grateful for it. I am in no mood for your whining. Now, go on and leave me be." Rowan motioned toward the hallway.
"What freedom do I have? I can't..."
Rowan cut him off. "Leave me alone.
"Fine." Wren left in the same quick pace he had come in at, giving no time to hear if his brother would say anything else or give himself any time to think of a better response himself.
Resentment filled him. From his view, Rowan always kept Robin nearby in the most dangerous ways. If he were in Rowan's place, he wouldn't be so careless. 'It's your mistake. Fix it yourself. Why does he have to go?'
When he was a child, he had always followed the two of them around wanting both their attentions. Rowan mostly reciprocated by teasing him, but Robin treated him kindly. He became very attached to Robin, idolizing his every action. Still, no matter how close he got, there would be Rowan blocking him from getting any further. If Rowan was there, Robin's entire world seemed to shift to please him. He admired that devotion in Robin, and hated his brother for being on the receiving end of that and treating such a gift so casually. Rowan didn't deserve to have someone like that. Even now, he was putting Robin in danger again, knowing the lengths Robin would go to for him.
He often wondered if his brother had any feelings for Robin at all, or if he was merely using him as a tool like every other person around him did. Their father certainly had no qualms looking the other way about Robin's affections if it kept him a valuable asset around.
As his mind circled around in his cruelest thoughts, he pictured Rosabella. He cursed his brother for that too, for being engaged to her and pushing them together. For putting her honor on the line for his own schemes, and using the both of them for it. 'I'm not a pawn for you to use against Father.'
His steps slowed. Wren sighed. He shook those negative ideas from his mind. He knew most of what he was angry over were his own projections, wicked thoughts to justify his own insecurities.
Wren lingered down the hall and looked back at his brother. Rowan watched the horizon. Something about him was different from his mental picture of his brother. It had been like that for a while now, but Wren didn't want to admit it. Strange as it was, he was missing his brother's brattiness and teasing. He never stopped interacting with his brother the way they used to, perhaps out of a secret hope that would make things as they were. It was still there, a little, but he knew that was fading away the same as he could feel bits of himself eroding into something else.
He wanted to apologize, but Wren couldn't find the courage to walk back. A dark thought flashed in his mind. He stared back at his brother. His mind envisioned those castle walls where his brother stood in a clear, cold emptiness.
Wren banished that thought too from his mind, and as usual, ran away from the problem.
Rowan cursed himself for being so tactless. He hadn't wanted to fight with Wren, especially not over something like that. Swallowing his pride, he turned toward the hallway. He walked down for a while, but Wren was nowhere in sight. Sighing to himself, he returned to waiting for Robin.
Robin returned shortly after. He noticed the prince's frustrated appearance. "Something wrong? Still bothered by what the king said to you earlier?"
Rowan looked up in confusion. "What? Oh, no, it's not that. It's nothing important. Let's go."
The expression on Rowan's face was easy for Robin to read. He didn't ask any further questions.
As they were leaving for their trip, they happened to pass Wren on their way out. Wren appeared to be heading out somewhere himself. Unable to face his brother properly, Wren kept his gaze away from them both.
Rowan got down from his horse and approached him. "Are you going out in this weather?"
"I can do as I please. I don't need your permission." The guilt of earlier weighed on his mind, but Wren's words still came out rude.
"That's not what I mean. Here." Rowan took off his cloak and hung it around Wren's shoulders. The black and red didn't suit him, and the size of it looked too big despite them being the same height. Wren's more peaceful life also meant he wasn't as physically fit as his brother. "It's cold out. This should keep you warm."
"Don't treat me like a child." Wren rolled his eyes.
"It's easier if I lend you mine than you go back to the castle to get yours. Don't take everything as a personal insult."
"What are you going to wear?"
"Where we're going is somewhere a bit warmer. I wouldn't have needed it for very long." Rowan looked his brother over. "Oh, is that all you're taking out with you? Where's your bow? You should bring it if you're going into the forest."
"I won't be out there long."
Rowan handed over his own equipment. "Take mine."
"Oh, come on. I'll be fine." Wren was getting annoyed.
"If you don't want me to treat you like a child, then stop being immature and let me help you. You know better than to go outside the castle walls without protection. Lady Rosa will be sad if you get hurt."
He wanted to point out that was precisely who he was out to see in the first place, but Wren didn't want to give his brother the notion that his little plan was going to work. "Don't you need these too? Nothing's going to happen to me anyway. Nothing ever does."
"I'm ordering you to keep that until I return. Even you can't disobey my orders." Wren never argued with him after saying something like that. The word "order" worked well in reminding Wren of their difference in power.
Wren thought to himself. "How long is that?"
"It won't be long. We'll need to return again long before Spring, or this will have been a pointless trip. Don't stay out too long in the cold."
Robin smiled. "Rowan, stop worrying. He'll be fine. We need to go now if we want to make it there in good time."
"Thank you, Rin." Rin was Wren's nickname for Robin. He kept mispronouncing his name as a child, and the name eventually stuck. "I wish you luck."
"Thank you, Prince Wren. But you really should listen to your brother. I would hate to return and find you have become ill from the cold." Somehow, Robin always managed to break up the tension between the two brothers.
Wren's expression changed to a calmer one. "Well, if you say so, then I will be more careful. Please return soon."
"We will." Robin patted him on the head. With that, both of them left.
Wren lingered outside the castle gates, watching the hills long after the two of them were out of sight. When he could no longer see them, he couldn't get himself to move from that spot. His brother's scent lingered on his belongings. Faintly, he could also pick up Robin's scent on the cloak. It reminded him of visiting Robin in their room in the early parts of the morning.
"Prince, you are still here? I thought you had already left with the Knight of Cailean."
Confused, Wren turned around to look for his brother. Rosabella stood behind him. "Rosa?"
"Wren? What are you doing wearing your brother's clothes?" She cocked her head.
"Well...he...forced them on me. I look ridiculous, don't I?" The black and red cloak clashed horribly with the blue and white clothes underneath it. He hid his own clothes further under the cloak by holding the front shut.
"Very." She laughed. "Those colors don't suit you. Are you carrying his bow too? Why on earth would he leave without it?"
"Because...he seems to find entertainment in treating me like a child." Wren's cheeks burned.
"I don't think that's really true, but that said, you should keep all that on while we're out." Rosabella slipped her arm casually around Wren's.
"Rosa, what are you doing?! People will see us." Flustered, he tried to keep his voice low. He looked around to see if anyone was nearby.
She leaned against him and smiled. "No, people will see me with the crown prince."
"I don't think this is a good idea."
"Do you not wish to hold me?" She stared up at him and put on a fake teary-eyed look.
"That is not what I meant..."
Rosabella pulled the hood of the cloak up to cover Wren more. She leaned in for a kiss. Wren's thoughts were telling him to control his movements and keep distance between them. His body ignored his commands and pulled her closer. There was a rush that came with kissing her in such a public place, but it only deepened his fears.
Pulling away, she took hold of his hands. "Take me down to the old garden near the forest's edge."
"I'm afraid you still won't find any flowers there."
"I know. It's not the flowers I want to see. That place is special."
Wren escorted the lady down to the garden. There were gardens inside the castle walls, but she never wanted to visit those. He didn't mind coming out to this place, despite it being somewhat dangerous. Out here, very few people ever passed through. It wasn't a complete freedom, but it was more than they enjoyed elsewhere.
Rosabella led him over to their usual meeting spot underneath an ancient tree in the center of the garden. He hadn't liked that place before. The queen was fond of the tree's beautiful red berries and white flowers, and named his older brother after it. Childish as it was, he had disliked the area because it only made him think of Rowan. So many of his memories of Rosabella were spent under the shelter of the tree's great branches that he had long lost that association. Now, that place wasn't ruled by his brother's image. It was their secret sanctuary that no one was allowed to enter in on.
"It's a shame the two of them had to leave again so soon. Your mother was wanting to have another private archery contest." Rosabella sat down against the tree. "Though I wish she didn't make me participate. The four of you far outclass me."
"I think you're doing well, given how recently you started learning. You're nearly as good as I am." He meant his words truthfully. Rosabella, in time, would likely surpass him in skill. "But I agree with you. I'll never win either. The results are always the same..."
"Your brother's valiant knight never let's anyone else win at all." She mimicked Robin's usual overly chivalrous public actions.
"Rin's very...competitive in front of my brother, even when they're competing against each other." Wren laughed. "Despite his noble qualities, he has quite the vanity streak."
"I find it amusing. Your brother always seems to have the strangest reaction to losing to him--a bizarre mix of enchantment and annoyance."
Wren cringed. "Well, I'm glad you find it amusing. I can't stand to see him looking like that. I can guess what's going through his head when he's off guard like that. Just the idea that my brother is thinking something deeply romantic anywhere in his mind makes my stomach turn."
"At least his thoughts are purer than my brother's. My brother only sees intimacy and courtship as a means to an end. He cares not whom he touches or how they feel." Rosabella winced. "Or where he is, for that matter."
"Well, my brother's not as sneaky as he thinks he is. I've caught them a number of times."
"How much did you see?" Rosabella set a trap for Wren.
Wren face lit up. "Nothing too indecent. Most of the time, it's actions that would not have caught anyone's attention if their situation were different. Though once when I went to visit Rin in the morning...uh, you know, why don't we discuss something else?"
"I thought you said nothing indecent?" She teased. It was all too easy to embarrass Wren.
"Well, it wasn't...exactly entirely indecent..." Wren's face turned a deeper red. He cleared his throat. "We are not going to talk about that."
Rosabella pulled the cloak over herself and leaned against Wren's chest. "Yes, I agree. I came out here wanting to see you
With a smirk, she slid her hand down Wren's chest and below his belt. Wren's heart pounded in his ears faster with every motion she made. She began to undo Wren's pants.
"Shall I escort you back to your room?" He took hold of her hand reluctantly. "You've been out in the cold long enough."
"I feel warm where I am." She nuzzled against him.
"I can warm you up more inside."
She blushed at his words, knowing very well he meant them innocently. "Then, take me."
Before he knew it, Wren had walked himself into a dangerous situation. He could contain himself more easily outside in the garden despite it being a freer place. The thought of doing something indecent out there was completely out of the question for him. By inviting her inside, he had trapped himself into a much more challenging game of temptation.
The moment he shut the door to her bedroom, the two of them were locked in a deep embrace. His brother's things were quickly set aside, and half his own clothes as well. 'Don't. I mustn't.'
Still, he ended up on her bed and his hands cared not to follow his commands against exploration. For every touch, guilt filled him. He wanted to make her happy. He needed to protect her. He knew what would happen if they were caught. And he deeply resented that he'd be fulfilling his brother's personal agenda.
"Wren..." She whispered into his ear. "I want you to--"
"Shh." Wren held her tightly. "Don't say it. If you say it, I will."
"But I want..."
"You mustn't say it. I can't..." Wren pulled away. "I shouldn't be here."
She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Stay."
"If we're caught..." Wren couldn't completely pull himself away. His body remained locked in combat with his will. "I can't. I love you, so I can't. I won't allow any harm or humiliation to come to you to satisfy myself."
"I can handle anything they say." The resolve on her face rivaled Robin's noble appearance. Wren admired that trait in her. No matter how he tried, he was lacking in that.
"I know that. I'm not thinking lightly of your strength of mind. But should we be caught, your father may call off your engagement and then you'll be gone from me forever. I've seen how your family is. I don't know what sort of disgusting thing they might do to you over it." Her brother and step-mother were bad enough. On the occasions he had interacted with her father, that man had done things to soldiers and servants that still haunted his nightmares. "Please, don't say it. If you say it, I will. If you don't say it, everything is fine."
"You are very much like your brother." She fixed her garments and gave him a kiss. She couldn't tell him her family was much worse than he knew. "For you, I will say nothing for now. But you know there is only so deep I can bury what I feel, and you are no different. When one of us reaches that point, what will you do?"
Wren could not give her an answer.
Far from the castle, Rowan followed Robin into a thick, wooded area. The area didn't look unusual, but something about the atmosphere of the place made him feel unnerved to be there. He knew they had to have left the human lands. The feeling of being in the other lands was always the same. He couldn't see anything strange, but he knew that very moment there were all sorts of bizarre creatures watching him. Some were likely plotting already how to lure him away from Robin for what would be a fleeting amusement to them.
"This place...I don't think you've taken me here before." Rowan kept close to Robin, as he had been advised to.
"I haven't. We're going to see someone very important today." Robin stopped in front of the entrance of a cave. Moss grew around it, and vines hanging from above hid the appearance of the inside.
This place gave Rowan the most unpleasant feeling of all.
At the back of the cave, there was a small waterfall. The water created a ring around the center of the cave. Holding tightly to Rowan's hand, Robin walked them to the center. Robin sat down and Rowan followed. The cave was quiet, and Robin hadn't said a word since they had entered it. Time was uncertain inside, but Rowan felt like they had been sitting there for ages.
Growing tired of waiting, Rowan rested his head in Robins lap. "When will this person come?"
"Soon enough." Robin assured him.
Robin caressed Rowan's face and hummed a strange melody. Robin often hummed and sang songs he had learned from when he lived away from the human lands. No matter how many times he sang, Rowan could never remember any of the melodies afterward. He found this one oddly comforting, and still tired from traveling, staying awake was becoming difficult. Soon, he had drifted off into a peaceful dream.
As Rowan slept, the energy in the room changed. Robin stopped humming and smiled.
"What mortal knows that song?" A woman in a dark robe walked out from behind the waterfall. Her hair matched her cloak, and her eyes the water. A light flickered underneath her cloak, but she kept the iridescent glimmer mostly concealed.
"It is I, the human child of Liliana." He said.
The woman examined his face. "Is that really you? My, you've grown. Humans age so fast...Have you come to visit that river nymph?"
"No, I have business today. Though, if you see her, tell her I send my love."
"What sort of business do you have with me, child?" She leaned down and looked at Rowan. "Is this an offering you've brought me?"
"He's mine. My offering is something else." Robin tightened his hold on Rowan. He knew very well how their kind took whatever they wanted, even when it wasn't theirs to take. That was how he had ended up with his mother to begin with.
"I see. So, child, what is it you want?" The woman waited to hear his request.
"I need a quest. Something to defeat that will distract a king's anger and clear a path for me to the other side of the mountain without needing to cross it or trek around it." He ran through his words in his mind, contemplating how much vagueness had been in what he said. Vague requests could leave open room for unexpected fortune, or disaster. With them, it was never clear what to expect.
She turned away from him and stepped through the water back toward the waterfall. "I do know of something that may be what you want. But first, you must offer me something for that information."
Robin pulled out a dagger and held it to his left palm. He cut across it quickly and let the blood fall from his hand over the pool before him. As the blood dripped into the glowing blue water, it turned a shimmering gold upon contact before fading. The glowing subsided and an image of a massive whirlpool appeared in the water.
"If you want to advance, you must cross through here." She touched the water and showed the location on what looked like a map. "Or rather, you must remove this obstacle to get to where you want to go."
"This...I know where this is. But, how am I supposed to get rid of a whirlpool?" He kept asking questions. There was a limit to what she would give him, but if he didn't ask, she would never reveal all she was willing to say.
"By defeating what is creating it. The beast, to mortals with careless glances, is nothing more than a great whirlpool. Underneath, you'll find her. Her weak point is her belly. She was once a beautiful water nymph like Liliana, but she was cursed with her current form long ago. It is a silly curse. She no longer has a mind to know what she is. Put her out of her misery, and the path will be clear for you."
"May I ask why you do not end her suffering yourself?" Robin asked.
She waved her hands in the air dismissively. "It is not my business to interfere in. But you are of the realm of man, even if you are free to walk between with ease, and so you will not face any consequences for your actions. If anything, I presumed she'd been put there exactly because her tormentor hoped for her to be slain by human hands."
"What did she do to anger someone so?"
The woman thought long over the question. "Hmm...I can't remember. Even at the time, it seemed trivial. Oh well. It doesn't really matter to me. Was that all you wanted?"
He wasn't surprised by the queen's nonchalant attitude about the nymph's fate. Those who lived in this realm were often like that. "Can you tell me any more than that? I'm currently dealing with a king who's getting in my way."
"You want him killed?" She appeared behind him. He held tight to Rowan, knowing what she was considering doing.
"No, I need him alive for now. What I need is money." The idea was tempting. He wasn't particularly bloodthirsty by any means, despite the amount of people he had killed, but there was one person he wanted to rid the world of.
"Ah, I see." She pointed toward the water. "You will need to make another offering for that. Your blood alone will not do. I will need gold as well."
Robin cut off a lock of his hair. He dropped it into the water as he had with his blood. The water glowed a brighter color. As the woman touched it, another image appeared in the ripples. He saw a small farm and a very tired looking farmer.
"Clearing away the beast will grant you the king's favor and more than gold your way, but this will still not be enough. If you take the eastern path, you will encounter a farmer who's wisdom will give you the rest you need. To gain that, you must be willing to work for his words. Along the way, you will get what you want." Her words were more ambiguous this time.
"Is that all you can tell me?"
"Unless you wish to offer me something more, then that is all you will get." She leaned down and looked over Rowan. "Are you sure you don't want to offer me this human? He's rather handsome. I think I'd like him as a plaything."
This was what she had actually wanted the entire time. He had used that to his advantage to get what he wanted out of her, but he had no intentions of letting her have her way. Everything in this realm was a mind game between people who worked purely off of whims and passing emotions. He knew he wouldn't lose. "He's mine. He is not to be traded."
"Oh, come now. Surely, there's something you would trade him for. I can give you anything. You know this. Give him to me. I'll reward you greatly. Humans are so fickle. You will forget him before you know it." She tried to touch him, but Robin unsheathed his sword as she drew closer.
"Your kind is just as fickle as any human. But I am not like any of you. He is mine, and there is nothing you can give me that is worth a moment of his time. If you weren't so fickle and forgetful yourself, you should know why. Or do you not recall the conditions under which I was returned to human hands?" That day, he sat before this same waterfall. He remembered it clearly, likely more than she did.
Her face brightened with amusement. "Oh...this one is that
human. I know you returned to your human family to find him, but I would have never thought you actually found and stayed with him. I presumed you'd have grown tired of him, or gotten distracted along the way and forget."
Robin pointed his sword at her. "You wouldn't understand. The moon cannot forget the sun after seeing it's beautiful light. Without that light, it is only darkness, existing in emptiness."
"You seem confident my words that day were truthful."
He wasn't going to fall for such an obvious trick. "I have never once been confident in the words of anyone who exists in this realm or that of man's. You simply happened to be speaking the truth that day, even if you intended to lie."
"How can you be so certain of that?" She contorted her face in a bizarre way to disturb his thoughts.
"I can't explain it to you, but it is the only thing I know for certain is truth." Robin didn't budge from the stance he was in. "You cannot have him. If you dare try to take him, I will kill you. I swear
to that, even if it is impossible."
She laughed. "That nymph mother of yours said the same thing when I asked her if I could have your bones. Very well. For your audacity and amusing me, I will not bother you any further. Take your leave now. I have others to see today."
"Yes, your majesty." Robin spoke in jest. He respected no titles, no matter what boundaries he entered.
Rowan awoke outside of the cave, Robin sitting beside him. He sat up, confused. "What happened?"
"I've completed our business." Robin said, as if nothing strange had happened.
"What?" Rowan figured Robin wasn't going to explain. He was usually mysterious about things related to that place. It likely wouldn't make any sense to him if it were explained. Fairy logic was completely illogical.
"There is a water beast that lives in the sea area south of here. It's the reason no boats ever manage to cross through. If we kill it, we can take that path to the other side and continue fighting. We will still have the winter to contend with, but this will be a move our enemies won't be prepared for."
"How are we going to kill the beast?"
"I have help for that. The parting gift from my mother when she returned me to my human family. The charm she gave me acts as a protective spell. Whoever wears it is untouchable in water." He pulled out the charm. It appeared to be a simple necklace with a single blue, teardrop shaped stone. Nothing about it looked magical.
Rowan focused on another detail. "So...we have to get in the water...And we're going to travel by water to get to the enemy..."
"Don't worry. I will be the one defeating the beast." It was the most obvious choice. Robin was more skilled in water than he was on land.
"But what if I...you know I can't..." He had learned so much to please his father, but that was one skill he had never mastered no matter how he tried.
"You will be fine. I'll make sure of that." Robin put the charm away and got up. "There is one more thing we need to do along the way, a human we need to see. A farmer nearby has information we can use in some way to aid our advancement. It was in the information I was given, but we must do him a favor of some kind in exchange."
"Of course. There always has to be side nonsense along the way." Rowan sighed and mounted his horse.
Following the directions given, the two of them were able to find the farmer. He appeared to be somewhat older than Robin, and lived with his wife and two daughters. His family was helping him out on the land, with his children both looking completely exhausted. Robin and Rowan exchanged looks, knowing exactly what the favor was.
The farmer was confused and delighted to have help. The girls and his wife went inside to rest while the three of them worked outside. This wasn't a new experience for Rowan. Due to his father's greed and foolishness, there had been times when he and Robin had taken to finding jobs like this to get more money for supplies. Technically, Rowan could have simply demanded to be given money by commoners, but that method didn't sit well with him.
The farmer paused for a moment to rest. "It don't feel right having the two of you working out here with me. Especially you, your highness. It is really unnecessary. I would give you anything you want if you only ask. Everything of mine is really yours anyway."
"Please, don't worry about it. I asked this of you." Rowan spoke kindly to the farmer.
"Then please accept dinner. We don't have the sort of food that someone such as yourself would be used to, but..." The farmer treated them nicely, but Rowan noticed the distance he was keeping between them.
"I would be grateful for any food you have to offer. We will also be needing a place to stay for the night."
The farmer grew pale at that request. "You are welcome to stay at my house, Prince. We don't have very much room, I'm afraid."
"It's more than enough, I'm sure. Though with all the girls in the house, I would prefer to sleep somewhere else. May we use your barn instead?" Rowan added to ease the farmer's worries, though he had his own reasons for wanting that himself.
"If you wish...but that really isn't necessary." The farmer noticed that Robin hadn't said anything the entire time. He recognized by his appearance that he was the one some of the young men in town called the Hellhound. The farmer was being polite, but in truth, he didn't want that man staying anywhere near his daughters. Knights as a whole were bad enough. He didn't need the most vicious one in the kingdom inside his home at night. "What brings you two out here anyway? Seems an odd place for you to come out to."
"We're planning on taking a route through this area to battle, but there are some things that need to be taken care of before we can use it."
"I know the quickest way to the coast. It'll save you a few days travel." The farmer's motives in giving that information were more to get rid of them as quickly as possible. He was impressed by the prince's willingness to do such work and politeness, but he couldn't let his guard down with Robin present. The crown prince had a violent title of his own, and he couldn't forget that either. No amount of kindness was going to remove that from his mind.
To keep things peaceful, the farmer gave them what they wanted. Rowan and Robin listened closely to the farmer's advice. Near sunset, the farmer's wife called them in to eat. The table was barely big enough for the farmer's family. Dinner was bread, rice, and lentils. Rowan preferred this sort of food over the luxurious dishes his father had made. Those were far too filled with spices and overly sweet things for his taste.
The wife sat nervously in between her daughters. With two strange noblemen at her table, he couldn't blame her. Rowan knew very well the sort of behavior many of his knights got up to in little villages and isolated farms like this.
The younger daughter did not share her mother's concern. She had not yet been exposed to such cruelties and spoke casually to the prince. "Are you really the prince? The people in town always say both the princes are ugly-looking."
"Maria, mind your tongue. How dare you say such a thing!" Her mother covered her mouth quickly, her entire body shaking. "Please pay her no mind. She has very poor manners. I will discipline her later."
"No, it's fine. I don't think she meant to, but in a way, she gave me a compliment." Rowan face was a little red.
The little girl pushed away her mother's hand and continued. "You're not as short as they say you are neither. You're the same height as Father."
"I think that's Sir Robin's fault. He's always standing beside me. I look short next to him." The prince joked. Rowan and the little girl spent most of dinner going back and forth over rumors she had heard in the nearby town.
The farmer's older daughter said nothing during dinner. She spent the entire time staring at Robin, flustered. She fumbled through every movement. Robin was amused at this, reminded of how Wren used to behave around him in his early teen years. After dinner, he gave her a pouch of money secretly and whispered to her to keep it safe. Her innocent infatuation would keep that money from being spent unless an emergency presented itself. There was no particular reason he felt the need to do that, but the family was kind to them and most families were always in need of more than what they could acquire.
As Robin gifted the older daughter, Rowan gave the farmer a small amount as well. Initially, the farmer didn't want to take the money, but eventually accepted it. He wasn't completely won over by their behavior, but he wondered if some of the stories in town were highly exaggerated. The farmer gave them a map with the route he mentioned earlier marked out for them.
When night came, the farmer took the two of them out to the barn as promised.
"Are you sure you do not wish to stay inside? We have little room, but I do not feel right letting the crown prince sleep in a barn." The emptiness of his words were apparent.
"I would prefer it. Please, I told you. You don't need to think of me as a prince right now. My very presence here is something that needs to be kept a secret. Treat me like any other guest. With two young ladies in the house, I think it would be more appropriate for us to sleep out here." His true intention was wanting to sleep without worrying as much over how the two of them might naturally eliminate distance between each other unconsciously.
"If that is what you wish, your majesty..."
"Thank you. I appreciate your kindness."
The farmer bid them goodnight and went back to his home.
There were many odd places the two of them had slept, but this was the first time they had spent the night in a barn. The hay was warm, but somewhat irritating. Both had slept in much worse conditions, so that issue hardly mattered. Rowan wanted to keep some distance between them as they slept in case the farmer met with them in the morning before either had woken yet, but he knew one of them would likely get closer without meaning to.
Robin had no intentions of being apart from him. He wrapped his arms around the prince and kissed his neck.
"We can't do that here." Rowan whispered.
Robin slipped his hand under Rowan's shirt.
"Do I need to punish you?" Rowan knew he should stop where this was leading, but he was a little excited by the location that he allowed it to continue longer.
Robin undid Rowan's pants and pulled up his shirt. Rowan rolled over and pinned Robin down. "You're misbehaved."
"Aren't you going to punish me?" Robin's voice didn't hide his excitement, nor did his body.
Rowan whispered in Robin's ear. "Be glad we aren't home. I'd tie you up for being so disobedient."
"You know I only obey properly for an audience."
Despite his plans, Rowan woke up with Robin in his arms. The farmer had not come by to check on them yet. He quickly fixed his clothes and woke Robin. They departed after thanking the farmer again and continued on toward the beast.
To test the farmer's advice, they took the path he had suggested. As they traveled, Rowan made note of the best ways to get supplies to the area by water and land. The whirlpool was so dangerous that the entire area was typically avoided, and there was little practical information on it. If they could clear this area open, his notes would be very valuable for future endeavors as well.
Robin was enjoying the time alone with Rowan. Completing the task before him was still on his mind, but he was enjoying being completely alone with the prince. Selfish as it was, he sometimes wished he could keep Rowan completely to himself. That mindset was something he had picked up from his mother, but he knew it was harmful. He would never do something like that himself, but forcing someone to cast aside all their other cherished people was inhuman. No matter how ill-fitted he was to the society he lived in now, he was a human the same as everyone else.
Unlike the night they spent at the farmer's place, Rowan didn't entertain any ideas of messing around after that. Time was his enemy. Every moment was dedicated to moving, gathering information, and basic needs. Robin was slightly annoyed at that, since what he had really wanted was just to be alone with Rowan. He didn't express this. Faithfully serving Rowan was his main priority, even if it meant little time for what he actually wanted. Still, he was glad to be out of the castle at least. Closed, restricted places like that were the one human thing he could never adjust to.
When they reached the shore, they got a boat from a local fisherman. He warned them about the area, but they assured him they weren't going to go near the whirlpool.
Neither of them had seen it in person before. It was huge. Rowan, already nervous to be out on the water, could hear his heartbeat ringing in his ears at the sight. He kept his fear from showing on his face, but Robin could pick up on the subtle cues his body was giving off. He said nothing of it, knowing mentioning it would likely only make Rowan more on edge.
Robin removed his shirt and shoes. He started to tie his hair back, but Rowan stopped him.
"Let me do it." He started to braid Robin's hair. "Are we really going near that?"
"Yes, we have to. The beast is under the whirlpool."
Rowan kept his eyes away from the whirlpool to distract himself. "How exactly are you planning on killing it?"
"Its underside is vulnerable. I'm going to cut it open, straight across the stomach."
Rowan tied off Robin's hair. "How long do you think it'll take you?"
"I'm not sure. She didn't give me very much information beyond what I've already told you." Robin touched Rowan's face. "I'll be fine. Wait for me here. I'll return safely, I promise."
Robin kissed him before getting into the water. Anxious, Rowan sat in the boat, trying to see through the murky waters to watch him, but it was too dark for him to make out anything.
Underneath the surface, Robin had no trouble finding the beast. A large, blob-like, green creature sat on the sea's floor. It didn't appear to have any feet or eyes, or much of any other discernible feature. At the top, there was a giant opening sucking in water. He assumed that was the mouth of the creature, and was the reason for the unusually dangerous whirlpool above. Around the rest of the body were countless tentacles. Each one stretched out beyond the distance between the beast and the boat. They didn't appear to be pulling anything toward the mouth, suggesting the features were more for self-defense and gauging its surroundings.
Cautiously, he maneuvered past the long arms slowly sliding across the sea floor. Near the lower part of the body, a part of the skin was different than the rest. 'This must be the weak point.'
Robin pierced through the beast's skin. It was tougher than he expected. He had slayed more humans than he could count, but the skin of this beast was giving him a difficult time. Sinking his sword in just a little deeper demanded a large amount of strength. The creature swung its tentacles around to knock him away, but he cut through those more easily.
The beast, enraged at the injuries Robin was dealing, swung its tentacles around haphazardly. The whirlpool it created grew in power and pulled the boat Rowan was on closer. One of the tentacles rose up from the water and made contact with the side of the boat. The impact knocked Rowan down for a moment, but he quickly got up and looked around for signs of the beast.
From behind, he heard a loud splash. Rowan reached for his bow, but his hands met with nothing. The beast wrapped one of its long tentacles around him and dragged him over the side of the boat into the murky sea.
A blue light glowed in the dark waters. The beast's tentacle boiled and melted where it touched Rowan's body. Free from the beast's grip, he sunk deeper. To his confusion, he wasn't drowning. He could breathe normally.
Robin caught sight of the blue light. He dug his sword deeper into the beast and pulled the blade across its stomach. Amidst the bloody mess, he couldn't see anything. When the water cleared up enough for him to regain some visibility, the beast appeared to be motionless. The whirlpool had also stopped. He swam over to the blue light at the sea floor.
Rowan met him with a glare. Robin expected that reaction and smirked. He took hold of the prince and brought him back aboard the boat.
Rowan wrung out his clothes. "The whole time...the charm was on me..."
"I slipped it into your pocket before we got on the boat." Robin spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, as if he saw nothing wrong with what he had done.
"...You mean you went into those waters without it...fully knowing you could die?!"
"Your safety is more important to me. Besides, I'm far more capable of handling myself in water than your average human. My mother saw to that with her magic. You know I'm incapable of drowning."
"You can still die in water without it being by drowning." This sort of behavior was exactly why he was hesitant to let Robin fight in battle. Completely reckless, overly violent, and with only a single thought in his mind--he was a danger to everyone around him, most of all himself.
Robin untied his hair and kept his calm demeanor. "Well, yes, of course. But I was confident I wouldn't need the charm."
"I assumed you'd likely end up in the water at some point, and I'd need to save you. So, naturally, I would have no choice but to defeat the beast."
This wasn't the first time Robin had given an answer like that. It was precisely that line of reasoning he gave as to why he couldn't be defeated in battle. It was no more logical here than with that either. Rowan glared at Robin for something else. "...You promised me I wouldn't end up in the water."
"I promised no such thing. I told you you would be fine. And you are. I never lied."
Rowan replayed their earlier conversation in his head. That did seem right. He wanted to smack himself for not seeing through what Robin was planning. "Of course, fairy logic. Why did I expect anything different?"
"You're angry with me, I know. I'm sorry, but it was necessary. You can punish me if you want." Robin awaited being lectured for his actions, but he saw what he had done as being the only option available. If getting Rowan what he wanted made him angry somewhere along the process, he didn't mind so long as Rowan got what he wanted in the end.
"Yes, I have exactly the perfect punishment for you." Rowan smirked. He wrapped his arms around Robin and kissed him passionately. Robin was shocked. Smiling, Rowan said, "Don't expect any until we get home."
"Any what?" Robin asked. Rowan dropped the smile and shot him another glare. Robin sighed. "I suppose I deserve that."
Returning home with good news didn't guarantee the king would be happy. There was no avoiding the issue of Winter, but opening up a new path would help gain the king's favor again. The information received from the farmer would aid them further. To Rowan's surprise, the king was in a good mood when they returned and granted them more money than he would normally. He said nothing about Winter.
Testing his luck, Rowan managed to persuade him on pushing back the date of the marriage again. He wondered what sort of bargain Robin had made.
There was no time to celebrate, however. Plans needed to be made, resources collected and replenished, and he had an ally to contact. He sent Robin off to get some things while he took some time to rest for a moment. He laid on his bed, the weight of his exhaustion catching up to him again. He turned over, wishing he had gone with Robin himself since he didn't really want to be alone then. Robin had insisted he lay down. Rowan thought to himself, 'How is it you're never tired?'
Someone knocked on his door. Assuming it was Robin, he said, "You know it's unlocked."
Instead of Robin, Wren hesitantly entered the room. Rowan quickly got off the bed and met him halfway across the room. Wren held in his hands his brother's borrowed items. "I've come to return your things."
"Oh, thank you." Rowan took them and tossed them on the bed.
In a quiet voice, Wren asked, "You're leaving again soon, aren't you?"
"Not quite yet, but soon." He noticed how close Wren was standing to him. He didn't mind it. Wren always seemed to be keeping some artificial distance between them lately. "Lonely? You'll have Rosa to keep you company."
"How long are you going to be gone?" Wren fidgeted with his hands.
"Can't say. If everything goes according to plan, a few months. We're expecting more help from one of our allies. We were previously blocked from reaching them, but the new route we opened up should fix that."
"I don't really know anything about that. I have a hard time remembering the names of the people in our own castle." Absentmindedly, Wren let his thoughts slip out unguarded. "I wish people would take my words more seriously, but perhaps I'm not really cut out for that kind of responsibility in the first place."
"I think you are quite capable for that role, more than most who are privileged in such ways. You would make a far better king than our father, or myself." Rowan let his own inner thoughts out without concern. It was necessary, he understood, for him to say that every now and then.
"Well, I've always had a hard time imagining you as a king myself. It seems absurd. You're far too ordinary." Wren quickly elaborated on his comments. "I don't mean that in a bad way. What I mean is..."
"Wren, is there something you wanted to talk to me about?" Rowan put his hand on Wren's shoulder.
Wren couldn't get himself to say what he was thinking. He could only stare at Rowan blankly. Glancing away, he managed to defeat himself with his words again. "...I needn't bother you with it."
"You know, you can burden me if you need to. You're the only person who truly has that right, when all formalities are taken away."
Wren was taken aback at Rowan acting in a way that seemed to be too noble for who he was. He wanted to be happy at that, but it only bothered him more. "This is something I can't burden you, specifically, with."
Rowan sighed. "You can tell Robin I'm putting off planning until after dinner when you see him. That should give you enough time, right?"
"I'm sorry for..."
"Don't worry about it." He waved his brother off and half-heartedly smiled.
Wren quietly excused himself and went on his way. Rowan waited for Robin to return to plan their next course of action. The air was already frigid, and the wind piercing and brutal. Spring seemed like a distant dream.
IV. The Third Knight of Cailean - TOC