The Old One

In a land that nature spared from the long winters of the far north and the heat of the south, a king and a queen welcomed their second son and fifth child into the world. The kingdom celebrated the little prince's birth. None were happier than the eldest child, the crown prince, Christopher. 'Finally,' he thought. 'Another boy.' Five years separated the brothers, but Christopher hoped for nothing more than to be best friends with the little one. At the first chance he got, he held the child and carried him around the castle. "Look Brin, this is all our home. Learn to walk soon, so I can show you all the secret places." The brothers became inseparable until the war started. At seventeen, Christopher and his father, Aled, went off to war. Brin stayed behind with his three sisters and mother, Samantha. Brin spent his days training, frustrated he might be denied the glory his brother would be receiving. He was only twelve, too young to be of any real use in battle. As the only other male child in the family, Aled did not want to risk the boy joining them even as minor support. If Christopher was killed, Aled needed Brin alive to inherit the throne. During the war, Christopher gained a reputation among the soldiers as a great warrior and leader. Christopher, kind-hearted as he was, hated fighting, but he swore to protect his family. He justified his bloodshed with promises of smiling faces waiting on his return. Those around him could see his true nature. The war took five years of his life, but his family stayed safe. Peace came, and Brin's frustration turned to jealousy. Midway through the war, still worried about heirs, Aled had Christopher married to the young daughter of one of his closest allies. The girl, sixteen, was named Abigail. Christopher was four years her senior at twenty. He met her the day of the wedding. Christopher was unsure of the marriage, but made no complaints. He would do anything for his family's protection. Out of duty, he would take Abigail to bed whenever he returned home. His first child, a son he named Gale, was born in the fourth year of the war when Abigail was seventeen and Christopher was twenty-one. Aled rejoiced at another male added to the family, but Christopher lamented he could not be home to see his child much. Infants so often died. Returning to his son became a new driving force for him when he was on the battlefield. When the war ended, he thought not of the glory he had gained, but of the happy days he would get to spend with his child in the future. Aled's obsession with preserving the family did not let up. He reminded Christopher every chance he got that he didn't need one boy, he needed two. The year after the war ended, Abigail gave birth to another son, Senan. Christopher and Abigail's relationship remained somewhat strained. He attempted to get to know her more, but she remained distant. He couldn't blame her for that. She had been taken from her home against her will to be forced to be with a man she had never met. Though he never voiced it to anyone, he wished his own marriage had been under different circumstances. He sometimes wished he was a peasant so he may have had a chance at marrying some girl he fell head over heels for across a river in some distant forest. Christopher was to be the next king. Such romantic dreams would never be. But, he thought, at the very least he was able to live in his own home. As a man, he wouldn't have to be forced to say goodbye to all his familiar places nor risk the perils that came with childbirth. He'd survived a war. Barring another starting, he understood he had a better chance of reaching old age than his wife in spite of her being younger than him. He hoped that would not be the case. He had heard that peasant women also seemed to withstand childbirth better. Their bodies were stronger from work, and they married later than noblewomen. The men around him seemed to wish to push their daughters off to some man in an engagement not long after they were regularly bleeding. His engagement to Abigail lasted a year before their wedding date. She was fifteen then to his nineteen. From conversations he overheard between their fathers, Abigail had been menstruating since she was fourteen. Her father boasted she never missed a month. He knew from all the dresses she soiled from heavy bleeding. Christopher didn't know if his wife's bleeding was excessive or not. He couldn't ask such a thing. Her father boasted her young age as making her ripe for birthing and raising into whatever mold his family desired. Aled told Christopher something similar one night, but it seemed Aled was the one who wished to "raise" Abigail. He expected Christopher to embed every idea of Aled's own into Abigail's mind, in turn molding Christopher through the process. He performed this routine in front of his father, but did not carry on with this "teaching" outside of this. Christopher did not know how to have a happy marriage or please his wife, nor could he ever seem to please his father enough. He focused instead on his children. At the very least, he knew loving them was easy. Every morning, when he woke, he smiled at seeing his little ones curled up in bed between him and his wife, lost in their dreaming worlds. Brin's own journey into starting a family began earlier than Christopher's. At thirteen, a year into the war, Brin sent his father endless letters begging for his own bride. Aled was less concerned with finding a bride for Brin, but was happy to see his younger son already so focused on expanding the family. More boys meant more opportunities for power to Aled. He didn't care which son ruled after him. The usual order of matters meant it would be Christopher, but Aled didn't think much of that. He himself was the last born of seven, and he was now king. So long as the most powerful man became king, the order of birth was irrelevant. He had no love for his sons. They were tools to be used for gain. Daughters were worthless outside of using in making deals. They could not be warriors. A daughter could not carry the family name without shamefully birthing a child out of wedlock. A bastard child was the worst scenario; a child any man could claim was his, and an open door to outsiders to steal power. He wished often that his daughters would simply fall ill and die, so that he did not need to worry over who to arrange them off to. When Brin was fourteen, Aled found a girl suitable. She was very young, eleven, but had began to bleed when she was ten. Her father was eager to have her wed young. Such a young girl already able to become pregnant was always a risk to her father. Girls could not be trusted. Temptation was in their nature, Aled believed. He agreed to the arrangement. The following year, when the girl, Tamara, was twelve and Brin was fifteen, they were wed. Their first child was born the following year. Tamara barely survived the birth of their daughter. Disappointed with a girl, Brin suffocated the child. Officially, they reported the baby girl as being a stillborn. As soon as Tamara was able to become pregnant again, she was. Brin wasted no time in seeking another child. This time, Tamara birthed a son. She became very ill from an infection after the birth. Brin was pleased for a while, but wanted another boy. There must be at least two. His father always made that clear to him. Once it was possible again, Brin made sure Tamara was pregnant as early as possible. Tamara had remained bedridden from her severe infection during the time between the second birth and the start of her third pregnancy. She remained weak throughout the third pregnancy. Their third child, another boy, was born. Tamara died that night at age fifteen. Brin shed no tears. He was only disappointed his wife had only given him two sons and not more before departing from him. With two sons, Brin fantasized about training them to become powerful warriors stronger than Christopher and his sons. He wanted them to dominate all the lands around them. He dreamt of kingdoms in ruin with him ruler over the remains. But soon he became paranoid. The boys he once was proud to have soon became monsters in his eyes. They were weak right now as infants. Without a mother to care for them, he had to resort to keeping several wet nurses around at all times, along with their husbands and children being often near his boys. He couldn't shape them in isolation the way he desired. He could marry again and make new boys. A year after his second son's birth, Brin quietly suffocated both of them. He poisoned all of the servants and their family members that had ever come in regular contact with the boys. Brin would find a better wife, after he stole the throne from Christopher. Christopher was more powerful than their father at this point. He was in his prime and Brin would always be five years behind. Eventually, he would be the one in his prime while Christopher would begin to decline. He needed to wait for that time to strike him down. In the mean time, he went about getting rid of all the other potential obstacles in his way. On Christmas morning the same year he killed his sons, Brin pushed his mother down a flight of stairs. Servants found her at the bottom of the long steps, head split open. With so many deaths close to Brin, Aled assumed it was Christopher at work, getting rid of obstacles in his way. He performed the necessary funeral rites for his wife, but did not think on her. She was past the age of bearing children. His ever faithful wife, Samantha, had served her purpose. After that, she was dead weight. Putting her in the ground freed up more resources for the next generation. He only worried over his own life. While he wanted the strongest son to rule, he did not want to die himself. He would kill either son, if necessary. He could always marry again and have more children with a young bride if he had to kill them both. The next to die were Aled's three daughters and their families. First was Aled's oldest sister, Peony. An assassin was paid to kill her, her husband, their two daughters, and their son. Their deaths came in the early hours of the first of January following Samantha's death on Christmas morning. January second came, and by another assassin's blade took Aled's second daughter, Dawn. She, her husband, their daughter, and their son had their throats slit. Brin had freed this assassin from a prison who had been placed there for torturing girls to death. He had been imprisoned rather than executed for being the son of a well respected baron. Brin instructed this assassin he was free to do with the bodies as he pleased. By first light, the bodies had been left in such a way that the only way the four were able to be identified was by their decapitated heads neatly arranged on their pillows. The third morning of January, a third assassin took the lives of Brin's third sister, Elain. Her husband, two daughters, and son were found dead beside her on their balcony. Aled knew he would be next. He knew he would be targeted before the two sons would inevitably fight each other. He kept a close eye on Christopher at all times. He warned Brin to not be alone with his older brother one night. He spoke with his son alone out of fear any of the servants might be in on the plot. Brin laughed, and stabbed his father in the back with his sword. The old warrior fell to his son who had never once known a battle. In his final moments, Aled realized his foolishness. After all, he had used this same tactic on his own father, the same one his father had used on his grandfather and his grandfather on his great-grandfather. Their narrow line managed to keep on as each generation cut down every tiny branch off. Aled died wishing he had killed both sons and married a new girl. February began with the death of King Aled and the crowning of King Christopher. Christopher, well aware of his family's long, bloody history, also realized what was coming. Brin had wanted to wait until Christopher was older, but so freshly covered in blood and the high of closing in on his goals, he couldn't wait. He wanted Christopher dead. The night of Christopher's coronation, Brin waited for him at night in a dimly lit hallway. He charged at his brother and was quickly beheaded in one strong, swift swing. Christopher mournfully buried his brother the following day. As it had been in his family for more generations than anyone could remember anymore, Christopher was the only one left of his generation. He feared his family's cursed fate would continue on through his sons, as it always had through the Blackwell line. Christopher and Abigail had many children together, nine in total, four boys and five girls. Abigail seemed to be happier the more children they had, Christopher noticed. She, as he did, buried her frustration with her position in caring for her many children. Through this mutual love of their children, Abigail gradually grew closer to her husband. A year after their last child, a daughter, was born, Abigail approached her husband about the subject of marriage and their daughters. "We have five girls. Must they all be arranged to someone? Couldn't we let a few do as they please?" She asked. "Surely, if more than one of our children have children of their own, wouldn't that be enough?" Christopher agreed. "Yes, I'd rather avoid forcing them into an arrangement, if it is politically possible. My brother's wife died so young. I don't want my children to die before they're twenty. When they're older, let's see how they feel. I'm sure they will have ambitions and dreams of their own we can't predict. Who knows. One may wish to become a powerful queen. Another may wish to devote herself to spiritual teachings." "You would allow one of the girls take that path?" She asked. "It is a noble pursuit. If one of the boys wishes to serve a spiritual path, I would allow it. We only need one heir. Only one boy must take my crown, and one more must be prepared to take it if that one is lost. That leaves two free." Christopher said. "I will still train them as warriors. One can never be too careful. Another conflict could come at any time. I will ensure they are strong enough to survive and wise enough to choose their own paths. The girls will receive all the usual education suitable to a princess, of course, and whatever else they may wish for in their studies." Abigail blushed. "I wish I had had a father like you when I was a girl. I used to want to study the stars, but Father told me a girl has no use to have a mind of her own." Christopher was shocked. Abigail never revealed much about her interests. He mostly inferred from observing her what they might be. "But my dear, you are a queen now. You can study the stars as much as you desire. I will not stand in your way." Abigail's eyes watered. "Would it really be alright for me to indulge myself in such silliness? I cannot become a scholar." "I am the king, and I say you can do as you please." After this day, the husband and wife began to see one another as friends. Their lives were becoming happier by the day, until one afternoon when their third son, Valentine, had a bad fall. He had always bled more than his siblings, but that afternoon, he soaked the floor. The servants quickly wrapped him up while the family waited for the physician to arrive. Christopher and Abigail waited outside of the room Valentine was examined in, pacing back and forth. The physician was taking a long time inside the room. Around sunset, the physician called the couple into the room. The boy was asleep on a bed. "Your majesty, my dearest queen, please take a seat." The physician said. "I have something very important to discuss with you." "Jonathon, your face tells me I am not going to like what you are about to tell me." Christopher sat down beside the bed. "No, you will not, my king. I will not lie to you. Please, prepare yourselves. There is no good way to say this." Jonathon sighed. He glanced over at the boy with a pitying look. "Valentine's condition is incurable. He will not live a long life. The most I can offer you is to extend it as long as I can." Abigail burst into tears. Christopher held back his own, trying to stay strong in front of his wife. "How long can you give us? How little time do we have left?" "The best outcome is...well, we might be able to get him to his twentieth birthday, if we are lucky. Getting him to his mid-teens would be a more realistic goal, but I will try my best to get him as many years as we can. If it's possible, I'll get him to twenty. Any more than that would be a miracle." The physician said. "I'm sorry. I wish I could give you better news. I doubt there is a doctor in any lands who would give you a different answer. I know someone who is an expert in treating this condition. I'll get in contact with him for advice on the best methods to keep him alive." "Ten years at most then. That's what you can give me." Christopher repeated the worlds. He didn't want to believe them. "Yes, that's the best we can hope for. I'm quite familiar with how to treat this myself. If we follow the methods of the more successful physicians, we should be able to manage his condition and with great care, get him to twenty. I will do my best, as I've always done, to look after the boy. He's made it to ten already. That's much longer than many children with his condition. I'll do everything in my power to ensure he lives as long as possible." Jonathon added. "However, given the nature of his condition, even the smallest of accidents and cuts could take his life. He must never take up a sword and shield. It will absolutely kill him to do so. He cannot be a warrior like the other men in your family." "I understand. I have plenty of boys. They're more than strong enough to make up for what he cannot give." Christopher had no objections to that. "Do you wish for him to have an heir? If you marry him young enough, you may be able to get a grandchild or two from him." The physician suggested. "Would it be safe for him to have sex at all?" Christopher asked frankly. "I think so, if he and the woman approach it gently. But there is another issue...this illness seems to run in families and take away the sons. If he has a son, the son may be doomed to the same fate, but it's not a guarantee. Only one out of every few boys seemed to be affected, and the girls seemed to largely not be affected at all. Within your own family, he is the only one of your children who is ill like this. The child or children may be perfectly healthy." The physician said. "There is much still unknown about this condition." "I have many children already. If he may only live until twenty, then...I will let him decide for himself if he wishes for children. I cannot bare the thought of putting any pressure on this one who is already so frail." Christopher said. "Whatever makes him happy, that's what he will have. If that is a child, I will do anything to make sure he can have that." "I'm sorry I cannot give you better news. I would suggest you make the most of your time with him. Going forward, I would advise against him playing outside for too long and to keep his skin covered up to avoid cuts." Jonathon looked over the young boy again. "Poor thing." The bright future Christopher dreamed of for his children was dimming before him. When Valentine woke the following day, Christopher had the difficult conversation of explaining to his young son that his father would very likely outlive him. Valentine spent the rest of the day crying in bed. In another room, Abigail told her other children about Valentine's condition. The children, except the youngest son, Argus, cried for their brother. Argus fake cried as he held his hands over his face to hide his grin. Argus, being the youngest son, knew his chances of being the next king were slim. If Valentine died young, that only left two brothers in his way. Christopher and Abigail followed all of the physician's advice. Valentine not longer trained with his brothers. He was given more artistic and scholar forms of education. Painting and poetry became Valentine's favorite activities. He was made to wear gloves while he wrote, read, and painted. To keep him from being lonely while the other children played outside, Abigail found Valentine a playmate among one of the young servant girls. The girl, named Megan, was instructed on how to paint, read, and write so she could do the activities with him. Valentine was happy to have a friend to paint and write with. He wrote her many sweet poems about her beauty and begged her to bring him flowers from outside so he could enjoy them up close. Megan was happy to do so. She picked him flowers in the early morning. They would paint them after breakfast. At lunch, they wrote poems. After dinner, they read stories together by a fire. The two became inseparable, so much so the king allowed the girl to move into Valentine's room. Christopher had the physician train Megan so she could attend to him for minor things. Megan became to Valentine his servant, his best friend, his fellow pupil, and his caretaker. Christopher spoke with Megan's father about delaying marriage for her until after Valentine's passing. Her father agreed to it. When the other children were busy, Valentine would come to his father to bring him poems and paintings. He bound his own books with stories he wrote and his own illustrations to give as gifts. Christopher gladly accepted all of them, and hid his best to hide his sadness when Valentine would suggest the storybooks could be passed down to everyone else's children. When Valentine was fourteen, Christopher decided to have a talk with Valentine about his future. The physician said he might make it to twenty, but making it to his mid-teens was more likely. Regardless, Valentine's time was dwindling down. "What do you think of getting married, my son?" Christopher asked. "Married? Aren't I too young for that?" Valentine asked. "You are young, but nobles often marry younger than peasants." "Well, if it's what you want, Father, then I will. Who do you want me to marry?" Valentine frowned. "It's not about what I want. Do you want to get married? If you do, we should get to arranging it right away to give you as much time as we can for you to enjoy it." Christopher hated having conversations like this with Valentine, but there was no avoiding it. "You want a grandchild out of me, don't you?" Valentine was clearly upset. Christopher could tell by the tone Valentine was speaking in. Valentine never let his anger show to his father, but the way he spoke when he was upset was different than his usual voice. "Is that what this is about?" "No, of course not. It is entirely your choice." Valentine looked his father in the eyes. "Father, be honest with me. It's because you know I won't live as long as them." "Valentine..." "It's alright, Father. I know I'm going to die before my other siblings. I've accepted that, the same as I've accepted I'm of no use to you as a warrior. As your son, this is the only thing I can do for you, right?" Valentine's words pierced Christopher deeply, deeper than any blade had ever cut him. "You don't have to. I want you to live your life happily." Christopher put his hand on Valentine's and held it. "I only suggested this for you, if you wanted to know marriage or have a child of your own." "If I married, my wife would be a very young widow and not through any glory of my own. That seems a cruel thing to do." Valentine looked away. "I've heard you and Jonathon talk. If I have a child, that child may end up sick like me too, right?" "That could happen, but your brothers and sisters all came out healthy. The child may be healthy too." "I don't want to leave behind a young widow and a fatherless, sickly child, much as I could live like everyone else." Valentine lowered his head. "If you want me to do this, I will, but it is not my wish. I've already decided I want to keep my heart from others in that way, for it pains me to think of breaking the heart of another through my death. There is no future in a girl loving me." Christopher could not offer anything to Valentine to ease that pain. It was the truth of the matter. "I'm sorry. I wish I could give you a thousand years to live. If I could give you all the years left of my life, I would." "It's simply fate. Jonathon told me I've outlived most people with my condition already. That means in a way I am still lucky. I am that lucky because of you." Valentine looked back up at his father. "I understand what you're really getting at. You're trying to make sure I don't die with regrets. I am already living like that. Barring myself from romantic love is part of my way of doing exactly that. I don't wish to cause any more unnecessary pain to anyone." Not long after their conversation, Valentine began to distance himself from the rest of his family. Christopher understood Valentine was doing so in preparations for the end of his life. The only one Valentine kept close at all times was Megan. Valentine's younger brother, Argus, was growing more distant with the family as well. He spent his time picking fights with his brothers and arguing with his sisters. He soon became friends with one of Brin's old friend's son, a boy named Egret. Egret was a strange child. Christopher didn't trust him. The boy was obsessed with death. Sometimes, they would find him outside at night with a dead chicken, covered in its blood and playing with its organs. Once, after they had put down a badly injured horse, they found Egret had drug it up and was sitting inside the corpse, making knots out of the intestines. When Christopher approached Egret's father, Fearghus, about the boy's behavior, the man simply shrugged and said the behavior ran in his family. "Don't worry on him. It's best to send ones like that to fight skirmish and battles as often as possible. It keeps them occupied from more disturbing behaviors." Fearghus told him. "Whenever you need someone to hold a blade for you, take my son. He needs a purpose, or he will find one." It wasn't long after that conversation that Fearghus's wife, Eileen, was found dead in a way that sent the maidservant who found her into such shock she died of fright. Christopher feared that boy's influence on Argus. Argus and Egret quickly became close friends. At Argus's suggestion, Egret began to study medicine, plants, and poison. Egret marveled at the concoctions he could create to deal death without a blade. Egret would practice on animals. He enjoyed most of all the poisons that caused violent, prolonged pain before death. Argus would tell his father, "Think of how useful he'll be in a war!" Soon enough, another war did come. Christopher and his sons, sans Valentine, went off to battle. Early into the first year of the war, Christopher suffered a severe leg injury that left him unable to fight anymore. He returned home while his sons continued fighting. He spent much of his time with Valentine. He wished he could support his sons in battle, but he was grateful for the permanent limp his injury had left him with as it meant he too was bound to the castle. With Valentine's life likely to end at any moment, he was glad to get to spend as much of that time with his son as possible. Argus had been right. Egret's skills in both torture and poison became very useful in dealing with the enemy. If it was known Egret would be present, some simply surrendered out of fear for what the "Bird of Poison" might do to them. Argus, by extension, gained his own respect for his ability to control the "demon bird". It wasn't that Argus could control Egret. He simply was very good at finding things that would entertain him. If Egret was not entertained regularly, he would quickly begin to make disturbing comments at Argus himself. Egret was a dangerous, but useful tool to be used. If he became too dangerous, Argus was prepared to slay his pet bird. Gale and Senan were great warriors themselves, but they were both overshadowed by the monstrosity of the Bird of Poison and his keeper. Their tactics were too bound by noble rules of battle. They garnered respect from those who followed them, but not fear. For his conquering of the disturbed and leading the way to the end of the war, Argus became known as Argus the Great. Whispers amongst the commoners fearful of future wars after this one were that Argus was better suited to rule them than Gale or Senan. Argus never failed to bring up these words to his father in his letters home. Christopher knew very well what Argus's ambitions were. It was the same story that always repeated in their family. Christopher had hoped he raised his children in a way that would avoid that fate. Valentine's twentieth birthday came, as did his twenty-first. Jonathon called it a miracle. They continued on with Valentine's treatment. Jonathon warned Christopher that as he had never heard of anyone with Valentine's condition living past twenty, every single day could be the end. Christopher considered himself both blessed and cursed. When Valentine was twenty-five, Megan became pregnant. She begged the king to allow her to stay beside Valentine. "Is the child his?" Christopher asked her privately. Megan could not face him. She held her hands behind her back. "I do not know the father. I was attacked one morning. I did not see the man's face." "Is this true?" Megan nodded, but could not look him in the eyes. Christopher did not question her any further. Valentine was ecstatic about the child. He loved to rest his head against her belly and listen to the child kick, grinning from ear to ear. The girl was born the following year, when Valentine was twenty-six, having lived six years past the age the doctor predicted for him. He named the girl Valerie. Valentine's storybooks were soon written only for her. Megan and Valentine stayed in their own world away from everything with the little girl between them. Two years after Valerie's birth, Valentine passed his twenty-eighth birthday and the war was drawing closer to an end. Tragedy struck the family. On the first of March, less than a month after Valentine's birthday, all five of his sisters were murdered. The women of the family had gotten together to plan a party for the coming spring. The sisters had been sitting together at a table discussing plans, when one by one, they all fell into a deep, final sleep. Abigail was so devastated by the deaths, she had to be stopped from killing herself. Rather than his sickly son Valentine, or his sons' coming home from a lost battle, Christopher buried all of his daughters first, two of whom never married and had no children of their own. He knew this had been the work of Egret at Argus's scheming, but Argus pretended to mourn and blamed their enemies. Christopher expected Argus would attempt to kill him or his brothers soon. He kept a close watch over Abigail. The war ended at the beginning of the following year. All his sons returned home safely. Christopher wondered if he had been wrong about Argus. Perhaps, he thought, it really was an act of war rather than Argus that took his daughters. He hoped this was the case. He didn't want to believe his son had caused the death of all his daughters. Shortly after the war ended, Christopher held a great celebration at the castle. All of his allies were invited to attend. Christopher had hopes of seeing what young people from his lands and those in his allies' lands were like, as he didn't get to spend much time on the battlefield himself. From his own men, a young squire named Ronan had left an impression on him. For a warrior, the man was quite gentle and had a calm, polite demeanor. He planned on knighting the young man as soon as he was old enough. Ronan was from the western most coastal part of Christopher's territory. Having someone competent in that area reassured him. To observe him further, Christopher invited the young man to sit beside him at the feast for the first day of the celebration. Ronan was a handsome young man. Christopher noticed how many of the women and teenage girls kept glancing his way, whispering and giggling amongst themselves. The young man seemed to be oblivious to his popularity. He had no attraction toward men, but even Christopher could not help but notice he appeared to be unusually beautiful, almost unnaturally so. To Ronan's right, a teen boy sat down beside him. Much like Ronan, he was quite handsome, with long, wavy blond hair much the same as the older squire. The women and girls did not give him the same attention. When he sat down, most of them moved away. Right away, Christopher could tell this boy was very different from the one who sat beside him. From the red and black attire and the wolf on his shirt, Christopher knew who this was; Lonán's wicked, beautiful son, the one they called the Black Wolf, Faolán. Faolán, already very drunk, downed a mug of beer. He grabbed a chunk of Ronan's long hair and yanked at it. "You're not human." "Excuse me?!" Ronan pulled away. "Selkie, where's your seal skin? Do you want to seduce me? I doubt you can." Faolán laughed loudly. He accidentally knocked his own mug off the table. The teenager grabbed Ronan's mug and drank from it instead. Ronan looked over at the man sitting beside Faolán, Lonán. "I am sorry. He's been drinking all day. I don't know how he's still conscious." "I'm a wolf, you know." Faolán stood up, then nearly fell over. He howled. "You're drunk, Faolán." Argus shook his head. He jabbed the knight sitting beside him. "You're the one who's supposed to be training him up, right? Do something about him." "I don't have a death wish." The knight sighed. Heavy bags were under his eyes. He downed his own drink. Argus looked over at Lonán. "Please, forgive my son." Lonán said, bowing his head. "I'll kill them. I'll kill you too, if you bother me. You know I will. I've kicked your ass before, little cock." Faolán openly threatened Argus. He grinned at Argus's embarrassment. "What's wrong? Does the fancy bird not know how to do anything but strut about? Did I ruffle your feathers? Perhaps you should fly to your poison bird to get me a drink. That's the only way you know how to kill. My fangs are bigger than yours." Argus balled his fists. Christopher expected the two of them to fight, but Argus sat and took the boy's words. The king wondered what had happened between the two of them before. Faolán did not speak to Argus for long. He was quickly distracted by the daughter of one of the neighboring nobles. Faolán pulled the girl into his lap. "Hello, there, beautiful. Why don't you come to my room tonight?" "Um...your majesty?" The girl looked over at her king, Silvanus, who sat beside Lonán. "Faolán, leave the girls alone." Silvanus said to him. "Hell no." Faolán picked up the girl in his arms. He walked off with her. "Let's go." "He's so disrespectful." Argus glared at him. "My apologies, Christopher...Faolán is only sixteen and he is our strongest warrior...none can defeat him and none can calm him. I hate to admit it, but we are all...afraid of him. He didn't used to be this monstrous." The knight who sat beside Argus said. "He was a very kind child...I don't know how he became like this...His mother's heart aches every day. She blames herself, but some children simply turn out rotten. Please, forgive me, Christopher, Silvanus. I cannot control him. I don't know why he is so evil now. I feel I have been cursed." "Perhaps he is a changeling." The knight suggested. Ronan winced at the word. "Changeling?" Christopher asked. "There was a fairy once that used to be obsessed with my wife. In time, he grew bored of her like all those fickle creatures always do with humans. My son's change in behavior wasn't but a year after that fairy vanished. Sometimes, I wonder if he stole the child and left me with that monster instead." Lonán said. His eyes watered. A hint of red rose in his cheeks. "Foul monsters, those fairy creatures. They come to us humans with their beautiful faces and unholy pleasures, then they vanish, unconcerned for the broken hearts they leave behind." Christopher raised an eyebrow at Lonán's words. At first, he had assumed the fairy Lonán spoke of must've attempted or succeeded in seducing the man's wife. The way he acted and spoke of that fairy almost sounded like Lonán was the one with the broken heart. He seemed more upset at the fairy than at the child's change in behavior. Argus leaned in. "So...then fairies really do exist. How does one go about finding one? Are they really as powerful as they say?" "You should never try to deal with them. No matter how clever you think you are, they will outwit you and they will always do so because it amuses them to deceive you." Lonán warned him. "Is that so? Interesting." Argus grinned. He looked over at Ronan. "He called you a selkie. Why is that?" Ronan rolled his eyes. "There has been a dumb rumor for many years that my mother was a selkie because my mother was very beautiful and he found her on the beach, then she vanished on a ship that never returned. My mother wasn't a selkie. She arrived on the shore when the boat she was traveling on was shipwrecked. And she died that way too. Her body is at the bottom of the sea. I would really appreciate it if people would stop spreading that nonsense around. Both of my parents are human." "Well, it might help if you didn't wear a seal on you." Argus pointed to Ronan's shirt. Ronan looked away. "That's been our symbol for centuries. I didn't choose that. Do I really look magical to you?" "Well, you do look like someone who could seduce most women in this room. Isn't that what male selkie do?" Argus teased him. Ronan turned his nose up at him. "I intend to hold onto my chastity until my wedding night next month." Argus laughed. "Oh, excuse me. We have a fairytale knight in the making here. Interesting. You could be quite useful to me." After that night's party, Christopher paid a visit to Valentine. Megan and Valerie were already asleep. Valentine walked with his father. Now twenty-nine, Valentine had exceeded his expected death date by nine years. A part of Christopher wished that since Valentine had lived this long, somehow he would defy all odds and live a long life. It was unlikely, he knew, but as a father, he couldn't help but wish it could be true. Christopher hoped, by the following year, he could proudly tell everyone Valentine had lived for three decades. The war was over now. He had lost his daughters, but he still had all of his sons. Perhaps, Argus would find some other purpose with Egret fighting skirmishes at their borders and forget about ruling. The cursed fate of his family could finally end. Christopher prayed for that every night. Then, the deaths began again. Gale was murdered July 7th, 1423. That was the date when Christopher knew without a doubt Argus was the same monster as his brother, Brin. It was burned into his mind. Gale was murdered in his sleep. It wasn't long after that Gale's wife and children were also murdered. There was a lull in deaths for a while. Then Senan's death came in late September. Of all his nine children, only Argus and Valentine remained. Christopher expected the next deaths would either be Gale and Senan's wives and children, himself, Abigail, or the husbands and children of his daughters. Some had already died under strange circumstances, but at the time, he hadn't thought anything of it. There was no point to going after Valentine. Valentine could not rule in his condition, though he was now Christopher's technical heir. Christopher informed Argus and Valentine separately that he would make an announcement that Argus would be his heir. Christopher did not want Argus to rule. He would only lead the family down a path of more destruction. But with his only other living son being Valentine, there were no other options left. He hoped making this announcement would appease Argus and the deaths would stop. "You will be king. Please, no more death. Our family has known so much of it. I will concede the power you desire to you without a fight. Valentine will not fight you either." Christopher pleaded with Argus. "Father, what on earth are you talking about? Are you accusing me of killing my own siblings? Why would you think I would ever do such a thing?!" Argus put on the best performance of his life, complete with real tears this time. "I am so hurt that you would think I would do this to my beloved brothers and sisters. Do you think I would hurt Mother too?" Christopher wanted to believe Argus. It hurt his heart less to believe him. "I don't want to think such things. Has it really not been you this whole time?" "No, of course not, Father! I would never do something like that!" Argus fell to his knees, continuing to cry. "How could you believe such a thing...Father..." Christopher's heart ached. "I am sorry, Argus. Forgive me for thinking such things of you. I have been blinded by our family's past." Argus wiped his tears off, using his hand to hide a brief grin. "Oh, Father, I cannot be angry with you. I know you were only worried about our family being destroyed further. I swear to you, I will lead us into a better future." The father and son shared a hug, then parted ways. Christopher made the announcement the next week. Everything was calm again until the final night of October. Valentine had gone on a walk that night after Megan and Valerie had gone to sleep. Megan was pregnant again. Valentine had been going on a lot of night walks since her second pregnancy started. The night air filled him with ideas for stories to tell and poems to write. He was nearly finished with a new storybook for the second child. Though he was supposed to avoid going out, lately Valentine had been wandering through the garden on his night walks. With everything but his face covered, he felt it would safe enough and since he was long past the age of twenty, he felt more bold in doing things he was told to avoid before. What he considered dying without regrets had changed over time. Valentine wanted to bring back a rose for Megan. He used the moonlight to guide him in choosing a beautiful one for her. He picked one of the big, white roses. Under the moonbeams, the rose gave off a ghostly glow. Valentine watched the moon for a while. A hand covered Valentine's mouth as a blade cut through his shirt and his frail body. The blood rushed out, spreading fast through his white clothes. The rose, now discarded to the ground, was painted a brilliant red. With what little strength Valentine had left, he glanced back at his attacker. Argus glared at him. Valentine managed to move Argus's hand from his mouth. "I was never in your way." "I know, but I have always hated you. I simply wanted to kill you because of that and that reason alone." Argus held the knife to Valentine's throat and cut lightly through the skin. For most, such a small cut would result in little blood loss. The wound gushed. Argus threw Valentine to the ground. "Father's favorite. What a waste of time your life has been. Go on now to Hell with the rest." Valentine looked back at Argus. Twenty-nine. In four more months, on the day he was named after, he could've become thirty. He wouldn't be able to finish the storybook now. He wouldn't be able to say goodbye to Megan, Valerie, or his parents. By morning, he would be dead. He was barely able to maintain consciousness as it was. Valentine turned over on his back and looked up at the moon. Resting in the middle of the garden, Valentine took in the scent of the flowers on the breeze. 'At least I could die here, in this beautiful place I had been forbidden for most of my life.' As Valentine awaited the end, someone else came to him. "No...not you...not again..." Christopher looked down at him. He fell to his knees and cradled his son. "Why has he done this...Argus...why?" "Father, don't cry. The physician said the most I'd get was twenty years. I almost made it to thirty and I'm only dying now because of my brother's hands. That's pretty impressive, don't you think?" Valentine touched his father's face and wiped his tears away. His blood stained where the tears once were. "I kept you longer than I should've been allowed, but I don't want to let go of you." Christopher said. "I love you, Father." "I love you too, my son." "Listen...There is something I must tell you...I need you to keep my love safe. My servant the mother of my children. The little girl she takes around with her is my daughter, and the baby in her belly right now...are both mine. I'm sorry I hid that from you, but I've never trusted Argus. If he finds out the children are mine...I know he will kill them too." Valentine pleaded with him. "Please, Father, promise me you won't let them die..." "I won't. I'll hide them from him. I'm sure he already suspected the truth." Christopher's tears washed away much of the blood Valentine had left on his face. "Why...why must it be this way...If only I could've found a way to break this fate...this curse of ours..." Christopher remembered that night when he met Faolán and Lonán. There were beings more powerful than him. Perhaps, he thought, powerful enough to change their family's fate. With no hope left, Christopher called out for any being that would answer him for help to end the cycle of death. A shadow was cast behind him. Valentine's eyes widened. "Fairy...a fairy..." Christopher looked back. An old man with long grey hair and a long beard stood behind him. He wore a green cloak and a crown of antlers. The man looked down at the two of them with eyes both empty and full of things neither man could comprehend. "You have called me. What is it you wish for?" "Can...can you grant my wish?" Christopher asked. "What is it you wish for?" The being asked. "My family has been cursed to a horrid fate, though I do not know why. Every generation, one seeks to kill all the others for power. Is there a way to stop this?" Christopher asked. "Your blood is cursed from your ancestors. Have you forgotten why you are called Blackwell?" The being asked. " know who we are?" Christopher cowered in the being's presence. "I know the names of all life on Earth." The being spoke. His eye color changed to pure black. "You wish to know of your curse? I will tell you. Long, long ago, a weak man wished for his son to become a king. He made a deal with one much older than himself but far younger than me, a mad creature obsessed with consuming everything around him. At that time, he had been confined by me to a well I had marked with pitch and a gate of iron in front of a solitary oak in a field devoid of any life that did not grow up from the soil. He was there at the bottom, drowning and unable to drown, in black water made of rotten remains I would leave for him. In his sickness, he was satisfied with this filth, but he desired fresh meat. He had magic of his own, but none that could free him from his prison. Your ancestor heard of him and sought him out for his power. He was all too keen to offer his oldest son, chopped to pieces so he could fit through the iron bars, to that being under a summer storm. In exchange, his youngest son became a king. But there was one more price to pay for this gift. For every generation, one son would annihilate all the other family members until only the strongest son remained to inherit the power. Your ancestor accepted this too, believing since he had already sacrificed the eldest son that meant he would be spared. His youngest son killed the rest of the family, including him. And here you are now, once more, with a son killing all the others. He will kill you and your wife in time too." Christopher bowed his head in shame. "I had no idea one of my ancestors had made such a wicked deal with a monster. Please, is there any way to undo this?" "Those of us with power to manipulate fate do not do so without sacrifice. If we did, the balance of the world would be upset. I can grant you a reprieve and a way to end it, but both will require a sacrifice." The being said. "What do you want from us?" Christopher asked. "You will need to undo your curse yourselves somewhere down the family line with the being you made it with. If your descendants can find him again and get him to swallow the greatest of darknesses in a land far from your ancestral home, in another field in another summer storm and cast aside all ties to your family name, the curse within your blood will be broken. Until that time such that your descendants can accomplish this, so long as you stay within the borders of your ancestral lands, the bloodshed will not continue down the generations after your sons. But to grant this, one of you must offer your soul as guardian to the family in exchange, for as long as it takes to end the curse." The being pointed at them. "What do you mean? Offer our souls?" Christopher didn't understand. Valentine did. He offered his hand back to the being. "Take me. I am already dying. It is only natural that I am the one. This deal means death, does it not?" "The one who accepts the position must die to take on the role." The being confirmed it. "Valentine, wait...let me..." Christopher started to say. "No, Father. I am dying now. I am going to die tonight. There's no need for there to be two deaths. It is more fitting for it to be me anyway. I am the only man in this family who has never once held a sword against another." Valentine forced himself to his feet with what little life remained in him. He shook the being's hand with his own bloodied hand. "Valentine, wait..." Christopher begged him. "Father, please, for once in my life, let me be useful to you." Valentine looked back at his father. "Protect my love and my children. I'll protect everything else." "And so it will be done." The being reached inside of Valentine's body and ripped his soul from him. His body went limp. Christopher caught his son's corpse. He stared up at his son's ghost. The being said to Valentine's spirit. "For until the curse is broken, you will not be able to move on and you will be bound to only wander within these borders. If the time ever comes, Death will judge you when the curse ends. If you've remained strong in spirit to your purpose, you will move on. If this task turns you wicked like that beast in the black well, you will be stricken down and taken out of existence itself. This ends our negotiation." Christopher called out to the being. " will our family find this place? What is this darkness?" "You did not ask for that information. And I will not give it. You've already asked for far too much." The being began to fade away. "Find the lonely oak...under the the field, that summer a land far from here..." The being was gone. Valentine's spirit stared down at his father. He spoke, but Christopher could not hear his words. His blue, transparent form could not be touched. Christopher cried. "I cannot hear you." Valentine tried to touch his father's shoulder, but his hand went through him. He knelt down and smiled at his father, before he too vanished. Christopher was left in silence with his son's bloody corpse and the white rose painted red. Christopher thought of murdering Argus that night, but he believed the being would uphold his promise. He wanted to believe Valentine's sacrifice meant something. Rather than killing his only living child left, Christopher went to Megan. In secret, they buried Valentine in the garden behind the rowan tree that sheltered the white roses. The king gifted the mourning woman a large sum of money, two horses, a wagon, and many other items to help her settle somewhere else. She left before sunrise, so none would see which way she went. With her, Christopher entrusted most of Valentine's storybooks, poems, and paintings. He kept a few of them for himself. She was not to contact them again. For having to deny her access to her lover's grave, he had cut a lock of Valentine's hair for her to take with her. Christopher would not tell Argus where Valentine was buried. He knew his wicked son would want to desecrate the grave. Abigail went into a deep depression. The following month, more deaths came. One by one, Argus arranged for his sibling's remaining family members to be killed. To avoid looking as suspicious, Argus disappeared for a while. He left a note he was on a trip. Egret let them in on a little secret Argus had been keeping from them. Argus had been living a double life for nearly two years now. "He met a fairy during the war." Egret told them one day at a winter festival. "He was having a laugh at you all this whole time. He got a kick out of pretending he didn't know anything about magic and fairies. This one, he offered her ten maidens in exchange for an item that could move him thousands upon thousands of miles in an instant. He was having so much fun in that other place, he wanted to stay there longer. I'm sure he'll get bored and return again soon." "Thousands of miles in an instant?" Christopher couldn't believe it. "What sort of item does that?" "It was a stone. I don't know what kind. I went with him a few times." Egret laughed. "Good way to get away with murder. You could kill someone, then vanish from the scene." Christopher sent Egret out on a mission to the most southern part of their territory. He didn't want that man lingering in his halls for long. 'Thousands of miles...where has he been living all this time?' Christopher wondered. In Argus's absence, Ronan came of age to be knighted. Christopher gladly arranged for that to be done as quickly as possible. Though there was nothing he could do to change who Argus was, he hoped Ronan might have an influence on the next generation, Argus's future children. He kept his dealings with Silvanus to a minimum, fearing for the influence of Faolán and any sons that wicked person might bring about existing in the world. In February the following year, around what would have been Valentine's thirtieth birthday, Argus returned with a heavily pregnant girl from the far east. He demanded a wedding be held at once. Christopher could not refuse. The girl, just barely eighteen, gave birth a week after the wedding. She spoke almost no words of their language. Argus was teaching her. He spoke her language fluently. The baby she gave birth to was a boy. She had asked for the boy's name to be their word for her favorite tree, Rowan. Argus revealed his magical item to them upon his return. He and his bride had traveled to many locations after he took her from her home. He tossed the stone out a window. "And so it ends. The fairy said it would only work for two years. There's no magic left in that rock." Argus laughed. He took his newborn child from his wife's arms and handed him to his father. "Look at him, Father. The next king. I'll make him the most powerful warrior these lands have ever known." Christopher held the tiny child gently in his arms. "A warrior...wouldn't it be something if we had a poet for a king for once. I wonder what our lands would be like then." Argus sat beside his father. He laughed again. "A poet? What a useless thing to be. The one who comes after me will be the greatest warrior yet in our family. I'll make sure of it, by whatever means necessary." Christopher sensed Argus's bloodlust was growing again. He knew Argus would do him in soon. The little boy in his arms raised a hand. He grasped his tiny fingers around his grandfather's thumb. He feared for the boy, and prayed for him. As he prayed, for a brief moment, out of the corner of his eye, Christopher saw something strange and impossible. A watchful gaze, kind hearted and powerful looked down at him on some secondary plane from a landscape in blue. The sight gave him peace, though he did not know if it was real. Argus killed his father a few weeks after his son's birth. He killed his mother at the start of the following month, in April. The son who became king after Argus was his spare, Wren, a poet.