II. AT THE EDGE OF WINTER
A few hours after dawn broke, Robin sat sifting through papers. Rowan lay beside him, still asleep despite the time. There was no one to report to this morning. Robin didn't have the heart to wake him. A full night's rest was something neither of them had known in years. Thinking back to his childhood, he laughed at himself for hating when he was made to go to bed early and wake at sunrise for training. Even if the war ended, simple times like that were long gone. He wasn't a child anymore. There was no doubt in his mind once Rowan was wed, the king would be expecting him to follow suit and become more of a proper knight. At their ages, what was once assumed to be rumors was becoming obvious.
In truth, he would rather the war go on forever. For every new battle, there was an excuse to wait.
Robin glanced down at Rowan. A peaceful expression was on the prince's face, one Robin cherished seeing. Only at times like this, when the mornings weren't filled with obligations and formalities, did he have the luxury of watching this display. Gently, he brushed aside Rowan's bangs as he listened to the steady rhythm of Rowan's breathing.
"I should have known I'd find you like this." Wren closed the door behind himself. "It's late in the morning. Why are you in bed?"
"Shh, keep your voice down. He's still asleep." Robin put a finger to his lips.
"Why?" Wren did as he was told and lowered his voice.
"He hasn't had time to sleep much lately. Let him rest." Robin softened the truth for Wren. It was a courtesy to Rowan, though Rowan would never admit to wanting it.
Wren understood from Robin's tone not to argue. Leaning over on the bed, he stared down at his brother. He sat down near the edge of the bed and lowered his voice more. "It's strange seeing him like that. He looks kind when he sleeps."
"Your brother is kind." Robin said matter-of-factly.
Wren fidgeted with his hands. "To you, perhaps. Does he always show that face to you when you're alone?"
"No. That face is a bit different. I don't think you'd like it." There was a hint of amusement in Robin's voice.
Wren tilted his head, his expression half amusement and half disgust. "Is it something romantic?"
"Something along those lines." Robin smiled brightly.
"You're right. I wouldn't want to see that." Wren laughed at the strange image his mind conjured. The only Rowan he knew was the formal one he showed the public and the bratty, rude person he became behind closed doors. "You know, I don't understand it. I can see why he'd pick you. It's the other way around that makes no sense. Why on earth would you want to hand your heart over to him?"
"It's only natural you can't understand it."
"You're brothers." Robin grinned.
"Mmm...I don't know if it's only that. My brother is so...well, him
Robin shook his head. "All siblings talk like that."
"I suppose." Wren sighed and leaned against the footboard of the bed. "I'm surprised Father still lets you stay here. Does he not know?"
"I would presume he knows. He would have to be rather oblivious to not." From the kind of words Argus used when interrogating Rowan, he was certain the king knew, and had known for a long time. The lack of blatant evidence before him seemed to be the only thing keeping the king from admitting it. The king likely felt if he didn't vocalize the truth, he could keep some denial about it himself.
"Has he ever caught you?"
"No, I don't think so. If he has seen anything, he hasn't said anything about it." Robin could sense Wren's anxiousness. He put his hand on Wren's shoulder and smiled. "You needn't worry about me. I know very well how to maintain the king's favor. He knows he cannot replace me."
Wren looked over at Rowan. "It's not you displeasing him that I'm worried about."
Robin grinned, containing his laughter. Wren's innocence kept him blind to what was obvious to his brother. "I appreciate your concern, Prince Wren, but I do think you worry too much. What brings you here this morning? I'd expect you
to be with Lady Rosabella down by the old tree in the garden."
Wren blushed. "Well, you see, I wanted to talk to you about something. I'm not sure if I'm properly courting Lady Rosa. I want to be more forward, but I...I don't want to be too persistent."
Robin gave Wren a suggestive look. "I'm most certain Lady Rosabella will not be displeased by any of your
Wren's face went a deep red. "Be that as it may...I do not wish to give the court anything indecent to gossip about, especially with her engaged to my brother. It would be completely inappropriate if I were to ask for what I want."
"Who is more important to you, the court or your lady? Protecting her reputation and doing what she asks of you may not align. If you truly are faithful to her, you should put her word above any other. And there's nothing wrong with asking if she has any favors she wishes you to fulfill that she hasn't voiced."
Wren, face still flushed, shot a suspicious look at Robin. "I feel as though you have ulterior motives."
"You would be correct, but I suspect you came to me wanting me to say precisely that."
"I can't ask her."
"It's not something I should ask of a lady. I should control myself. I know I should do as she asks, but I must also protect her. There's no contradiction unless I ask first."
Robin shrugged. Listening to Wren circle around his own thoughts was tiresome, though somewhat entertaining.
Wren turned away. "How did...you...now, I don't want the full details...but..."
"Well, you see..." Robin started to say.
Before he could finish, Rowan sat up and glared at both of them. "What the hell are you two talking about? And why are you on my bed, Wren?"
Wren moved off of the bed towards the door. "Do you need me to leave, sleeping beauty?"
"I don't care. I simply don't understand why you're in my room."
"I came to see my friend, but I'll be taking my leave now." Wren and Rowan exchanged dirty looks. Robin laughed to himself.
After Wren left, Rowan then glared at Robin. "You weren't really going to tell him, were you?"
"Oh, you heard that? How long have you been awake?" The annoyed look on Rowan's face made Robin laugh. "You heard everything, didn't you?"
"Don't tell him such things. He doesn't need to know about that."
"I was merely hoping I could give him some guidance on how to get further along with Rosabella. After all, we need him."
"Still, couldn't you use someone else as a reference? We see plenty of fooling around."
"I would never give him advice from any of those sort. Wren's a gentleman and Rosabella's a lady."
"I suppose it would be a bad idea. I do want them to actually get together. Though I don't understand what Rosa sees him in. She could do better than that." Rowan sighed, getting up from the bed. "Do you want me to tie up your hair or are you going to do it yourself?"
"I'll do it before we leave. Is there anything you wish for me to do before we set out?" Robin watched the prince's movements attentively. There was still a tiredness to his motions.
"No, not right now." Rowan washed his face. Robin quietly walked up to the prince, embracing him from behind. Rowan paused for a moment and then leaned back. Glancing back at Robin, he reached back to touch the knight's face. "You know what I will be asking of you today."
"Yes, I am prepared."
Rowan's hand lingered before he silently went back to washing.
By noon, the prince and his knight had their backs to the castle once again. Rowan managed to replace more of the men he lost in the previous battle than he expected, but there was no denying they were going in underprepared in the best of conditions. The order he knew he would be forced to make weighed heavily on his mind.
Robin kept silent as they marched. He knew well Rowan was displeased, but he could hardly contain his excitement. It was rare he was given permission to unsheathe his sword. He wasn't bloodthirsty by any means. What he anticipated was not the red against his blade but answering to his prince's need--one only he could. To be the only one the prince could call on was the epitome of satisfaction. If Rowan needed it, he would drench the entire earth red.
Rowan kept the distance between the two of them to a minimum, riding very close beside him. Today, there was something about Robin's appearance that made him more handsome than usual, but he couldn't place it. He had put his hair up in a tight French braid, though the front was still a bit messy. His armor was as spotless and brilliant as ever, almost blinding in the sunlight. Before leaving, Rowan had ordered Robin to put his helmet on, but this was an order Robin disobeyed every battle. Rowan wondered if there was some narcissism in that, as the helmet would obscure his features--or perhaps arrogance that he would not need it. Rowan was convinced it was more the former than the latter, as he couldn't help but stare at the knight. The bright yellow shade of his hair matched the warm sun above, and his eyes the earth below. Something about him always made Rowan feel as though Robin was most alive out in the wilderness. This liveliness, he presumed, must have been causing the subtle difference.
His mind soon drifted back to what he needed to do. There were many things he wanted to say, but he kept them inside.
Breaking the tense silence, an unwelcomed figure rode up beside the prince. Rosabella's older brother, Eider, came forward with his usual tactlessness. "What's with the gloomy face, your highness? Another battle, another town full of treasures to take. I hope this one has some real beauties."
Robin ignored Eider's words. He had no intention of letting Eider ruin his mood, and he was far enough away that Eider likely wouldn't speak directly to him.
Rowan was not as lucky, and knew to expect the rest of the trip to be filled with annoyance. "You should concentrate on preparing for the battle. If we lose, you'll be the one collected up."
"Ah, we won't lose. I've been fighting just as long as you have, and most of that with you. I know what will happen if it gets rough. You'll let loose the Hellhound, and it'll all be over. All I have to do is keep myself alive until it's done. Then, I'm free to do as I please. I plan on getting more than last time. Three is hardly enough."
"Shouldn't your wife be enough?" Rowan kept his eyes ahead.
"Can't bring my wife out to a battlefield, now can I? I gotta make do. Besides, you know she ain't good for nothing aside from making boys." Eider had five sons, and his wife was already showing for the next child. Rowan had rarely spoken with her, but he could tell in the few stuttered words she managed the sort of home Eider kept. He felt guilt in mentioning her, as he didn't want Eider forcing her down either, but the village beyond the pass was a more immediate concern.
Rowan resigned to the fact that his efforts would be in vain, but he continued. "You could control yourself more."
"What for? Winner of the battle takes what he wants. That's the rules, that's my rightful reward. Why do you care? They're just peasant girls. It's not like I'm ruining princesses. And what about you? I never see you do anything, and I know you're far from some noble prince. Does the bitch over there swing his sword for you in private too?" Eider, despite his long history of fighting beside the prince, did not know about the true nature of Rowan's relationship with Robin. His comments were made only in jest. Robin heard clearly what Eider was saying about him, but it only amused him.
Rowan scowled. "Don't say such distasteful things."
"I kid. Speaking of women, is that what you get up to with Bella?"
Rowan dodged the question. "You know Rosa hates being called that."
"So? I call her what I want. So, you have any fun with her? She's not pretty, but she does have a nice view below her face."
"That's even more distasteful than what you said about Sir Robin. As her brother, you shouldn't comment on her in such a way." Eider's words were nothing new to the prince. It didn't make them any less grating.
"I only speak the truth." Eider rode closer to the prince. He grabbed at the prince's back.
Rowan noticed Eider's movements and knocked his hand away. "What are you doing?"
"You're still carrying around that bow? We've got plenty of archers." This was a point Eider often fixated on, but Rowan didn't see why what weapons he carried mattered so much to him.
"We have plenty of poorly paid archers. You know my aim is better than any of them." With their latest budget, he wasn't certain half of them could even string a bow.
"Don't matter. We don't need more archers. Or is that some tradition from wherever the hell the king picked up your mother from?"
Robin shot a glare in Eider's direction, opening his mouth to say something. Silently, Rowan ordered him to be quiet with a hand gesture. Robin grit his teeth, and followed the command without objection. Eider caught none of this.
"It's nothing of the sort." Rowan's words were filled with agitation.
The banter between the prince and Eider kept the same pace the rest of the way to the pass. Robin regained his composure by keeping his mind on the coming battle. He could let those disgusting words go so long as he got what he wanted.
The trek through the pass was quiet, but Rowan never let the beast that dwelled in the mountain slip his mind. His thoughts were equally filled with attentiveness towards the upcoming army and the dragon laying out of sight.
Rowan had the men set up camp near where the battle was to take place. Once everything was ready, they marched in. Rowan ordered Robin to stay behind him until he ordered otherwise. Eider took his leave from the front to the back of the army as usual.
As expected, they were heavily outnumbered. Rowan himself fought far better than the average experienced soldier. He knew he could take out a significant amount of the soldiers on his own. He too had his limits though. His plan had been to hold on giving his unwanted order until he had reached his limits.
Rowan knew better than to think anything would go according to his plans.
Barely into the start of the battle, a loud crack echoed around them, followed by screams. Judging by the mix of distraction and fear on the faces of the enemy soldiers before him, he knew what lay behind him. Rowan muttered under his breath. "Just my luck. The bastard shows up on my side."
This early in and he already needed to use his trump card. He cursed at himself for being so careless.
Rowan didn't need to utter any words for his next order. He merely snapped his fingers, and in a blur, a flash of brilliant metal was drowned out underneath a wave of deep red. Before he could move any further, his own body was splashed with the aftermath his knight's first few swings forward. There was no display more horrifying and graceful than the one before him. For a moment, he was mesmerized despite his welling disgust. Gritting his teeth, he turned away from Robin and strung his bow.
Behind him down the hill, his own army was helplessly scattered about. The dragon played with their bodies like a cat with a dead bird before scorching them further. As he had expected, his archers couldn't get a single shot out under these conditions. Instead of fighting, everyone was running around aimlessly, perfect entertainment for the beast to swat at and crush.
He took aim for the beast's left eye. With a steady release, he watched his arrow fly. Right on target, the arrow hit dead center in the dragon's eye. It immediately closed it, snapping the arrow. Out of anger, the dragon scorched everything around it. He aimed for the other eye. He needed to make sure he didn't miss. There was no use shooting arrows at the tough hide of a dragon.
The right eye was more difficult to aim for than the left from where he stood. He moved down further to get a better view, keeping himself mostly hidden behind rock. The dragon's breath couldn't melt stone. He waited for his opportunity.
An opportunity for a clear shot appeared. He moved instinctively and took out the beast's other eye. Now the dragon was completely enraged, charging blindly at anything it could hear. As quiet as he could, he scaled back up the hill and over to the rocky cliffside the dragon was against.
He pressed himself against the cliff, each step made as carefully as possible. One wrong move could cause him to fall, or attract the attention of the dragon. When he was directly behind it, he leaped onto its back and quickly scaled its long neck. Despite its tough exterior, the beast was also very slippery.
By sheer will, he managed to climb to the top of its head. As he clinged to the top of its head, he aimed his sword to one of its eyelids. With all of his strength, he held on to the creature with one hand and forced the sword completely through its eye and into the brain. The dragon let out a ungodly shriek and burst of flames before going completely silent and collapsing.
As the beast fell, he pulled out his sword and held on to the creature's head until it hit the ground. He stayed on top of the dragon for a while to make sure it was dead, and not wanting to be directly in front of its mouth in case it wasn't. The beast remained still.
Certain the beast was finished, Rowan ran back up the hill to check on Robin. The other side had already begun to retreat but Robin was still fighting. He whistled at him to get his attention.
Finishing his last swing, Robin immediately sheathed his sword afterward. He stood proudly smiling at the prince amongst the carnage, soaked from head to toe. Rowan was used to the goriness of battle, but seeing the aftermath of it on his knight made him wince. He shook it off as him being too soft.
He motioned for Robin to come down to him. Robin swiftly joined his prince's side as the prince gave out orders to those who were left. There weren't as many as he had hoped would survive. Eider, as usual, had managed to come out of the battle without a single scratch and was busy gloating to the other men about it.
Eider's survival was a given. The casualties Rowan suffered here were even greater than he had expected. If he had more men, or at the very least, men with more skill, it wouldn't have been as bad. He would have to return home to stand a chance of winning again. If he couldn't move forward now, he would have to wait until Spring before making his next move. Frustrated, he retired to his tent with Robin.
Inside, he looked down at himself and then at Robin. "Prepare some hot water. I want to wash."
"Yes." Robin said, immediately going to set a fire. When the water was ready, he walked over to the prince to remove his clothes.
With the same diligence he exhibited on he battlefield, Robin undressed the prince. His actions were more hastily done towards his own garments. There was no time to waste on himself. He wouldn't allow the prince to be washed in cold water. At the castle, this task was much simpler with a tub filled with water. While the king could afford it, taking such a luxury with them was out of the question. For now, the prince would need to settle for a bucket of warm water and a wet rag.
The prince sat down on a stool. Robin kneeled before him and started with Rowan's face. Robin enjoyed this ritual of theirs after every battle. He didn't mind all the blood himself, but he did enjoy cleaning off the prince.
Rowan dipped one of the spare rags into the bucket and washed off Robin's face. Dried blood easily left the skin, but he would need to clean Robin's hair more thoroughly. The red didn't stand out on his own hair, but it shown brightly on Robin's blond hair. Every strand was so soaked it completely masked the yellow underneath. He wanted to wash it immediately, but he knew he needed to wait until after everything else was washed first.
Robin didn't stop cleaning as he spoke to Rowan. "You don't need to do that. Save the warmth for yourself. I can clean myself after you."
"I want you clean now." Rowan moved down to the knight's shoulders.
The two worked quietly, focusing on each other's hands. When their bodies were clean, Robin first went to wash Rowan's hair with what was now almost cold water. Finishing up, he handed the remaining water to Rowan.
At last, Rowan could do what he wanted. The last of the dirtied red soaked the ground as he returned that beautiful shade of gold back to its full shine. He ran his fingers through the long strands. Robin had kept it long at Rowan's request. Rowan knew it was an inconvenience, but he knew Robin would allow him such selfishness.
"Are you satisfied?" Robin pulled Rowan's hand to his face.
"Is there anything else I can do to satisfy you?" Robin kissed Rowan's hand, still kneeling before him.
Rowan smirked. "You've done enough. Why don't you satisfy yourself?"
Robin wrapped his arms around the Prince's waist and gave him a more devious grin. "If that is what you wish."
That night, Rowan slept less than usual. The battle, despite the setbacks, had been won. Robin had managed to push the other side to retreat earlier. If they left now, they would be safe until Spring, though they could also not advance themselves until then either. There was no getting through the mountain after the snow began, and he couldn't continue on without getting more supplies and men. He knew his father would lecture him for failing, even though it was his father's own greed that had left him so disadvantaged to begin with. Reasoning with him would be a battle itself.
Rowan dreaded a full winter at the castle, especially after the high losses he had. He mulled over ideas on other ways to keep himself out. Morning came too quickly, and his mind remained blank.
III. An Excursion at Sea - TOC