Winter in Drwloc is the longest coldest thing Branoic has ever known. Everything is new and so strange, the way the snow piles up in heavy drifts on the iron-hard ground, the icy winds that blow constantly across the lake, stealing all warmth from anyone foolish enough to spend too long outdoors. Inside, the silver dagger’s barracks are warm enough, but even that is strange, to sleep on a hard narrow bunk in threadbare blankets among half a hundred rough and noisy men. In his father’s dun Branoic was a bastard, but favoured, honoured, given his own small chamber to sleep in alone. Here Branoic is just another mercenary, not yet even a silver dagger.
It is a good winter, even so. There is the Prince to follow, the men to learn from, the promise of future glory that soon enough will come Branoic’s way. He is more aware of himself than he has ever been, the solid weight of his body, the strength and quickness of his muscles. He trains and spars with the other men and knows that despite the shame of his fall in position there is nowhere else that he would rather be. What more could any man want, than to be a warrior on the road to glory?
These are good times for it, Branoic thinks, and feels only happiness that he was born here, now, in these days of war; that his wyrd has led him onto the long road and to Maryn. What else could ever match this?
Out in the ward on a rare fine day, Branoic swings his sword alone in careful precise movements, progressing through the motions of attack and defence. The air is cold but he’s stripped down to his shirtsleeves, warmed by the exertion. Even without a real opponent to fight there is something so satisfying in this, in the easy way his body obeys him.
And then he’s jerked back into awareness of the world around him, as he hears boots moving across the muddy ground nearby.
“Looks like Branoic’s finally found himself an opponent he can beat,” says a drawling voice behind him. “Mind you don’t cut yourself on that air, now.”
Branoic has to close his eyes, clench his teeth. Sheer willpower alone forces him to sheath his sword before he turns around.
Owaen is smirking behind him, grinning with an arrogant toss of his head. His eyes run over Branoic’s bare arms and clenched fists casually, dismissively.
“Your stance is all wrong. Keep your knees close together like that and next time you fight a real enemy you’ll end up flat on your face in the mud with someone’s sword sticking in your back.”
Branoic lifts his head to meet Owaen’s eyes: the bastard is smiling. Every nerve in Branoic’s body is singing with the need to swing out, make him hurt. No matter that Owaen beat him last time, no matter that Owaen is right with his cursed advice. Branoic aches with the need to fight.
When he looks into Owaen’s eyes Branoic sees the same emotions mirrored there: Owaen wants the fight as much as he does. He breathes in, body loose and ready; takes a step forward, smiling, watching Owaen smile…
A hand lands on his shoulder. “Come away, lad. Leave it be.” Maddyn’s voice, soft and calm in his ear.
Branoic tenses just for a moment, fights it; but Caradoc is across the ward, walking towards Owaen with a grim look on his face, and finally Branoic lets himself get pulled away.
He looks back once, and finds Owaen looking back at him. Their eyes meet, just for a moment. But Maddyn’s hand is still warm and steady on his shoulder, and Branoic walks away.
“Owaen’s an arrogant little shit,” Aethan says bluntly, and Branoic snorts. They’re stretched out across their bunks in the near-empty barracks, only a single late sleeper snoring in a bunk across the room.
“You’re right about that,” Branoic says bitterly. “If he’d just leave me alone…”
“I’ll speak to him,” Maddyn says, quiet.
“Again? Because you think he’ll listen, this time?” Aethan scoffs, his laughter low and scornful.
“I’ll speak to him,” Maddyn repeats, and Aethan falls silent, half-smiling. It makes Branoic ache, sometimes, to see how easy they are with one another. It is jealousy, Branoic supposes, the fear that he will never find a friend as close and dear as Maddyn and Aethan are to one another.
He has darker thoughts, sometimes, when the firelight falls on the curve of Maddyn’s smile, the crinkled laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. Darker thoughts, night thoughts – but they mean nothing, surely. They mean nothing at all.
And then the first signs of spring are on them, and the long ride to Cerrmor. And Aethan is lost to them in a shallow battlefield grave.
In Cerrmor Maddyn is a pale quiet ghost of himself, as if the bard has followed his friend halfway to the Otherlands himself. It aches somewhere deep inside Branoic, to see him this way. And Branoic is grieving too.
Still, with the warming weather comes the raiding season, and there is little time left for grief. Men pour into Cerrmor, following lords who turned to Cantrae only out of desperation and who would do anything to follow a Cerrmor king again. It is exciting, exhilarating, and when they ride out for the first time with Maryn’s swelling army, bright and open and honourable behind the banners of the prince – it is the best thing Branoic has ever felt.
Even Maddyn smiles sometimes, and laughs.
Even Owaen has lost a little of his edge. He keeps away from Branoic most days, and Branoic is relieved by it, he is.
Then comes a battle that finds them six miles north of the Cerrmor lines and unprepared for it, their reinforcements still miles away, caught on the wrong side of a meltwater-swollen river. There are many deaths, though somehow Maryn’s name is enough to rally them and keep it from becoming the disaster it ought to be. They drive the Cantrae men away, in the end.
Maryn makes it through the battle without a scratch, joyful, laughing as he kills. The king, their true king…
They camp behind an ally’s dun that night, while Maryn and the other lords are hosted with honour inside. The fire Branoic shares with Maddyn is set a little apart from the others, further round the curve of the hill on a dry patch of ground, and for a long while Branoic is alone, with Maddyn still up in the dun with Caradoc. He watches the fire in silence, glad of the quiet. His thoughts are drifting away.
And then Owaen strides up, a dark silhouette against the firelight.
“You piss-proud arrogant bastard,” he says. And Branoic wants to choke on it, the unfairness of Owaen calling him arrogant. “Saw your fight with that Hendyr man today. You ought to be dead, pulling tricks like that. You little shit.”
“Go to hell,” Branoic says steadily, looking away. He won’t be drawn into this, he won’t – he’ll make Maddyn proud of him – but helplessly, his eyes are drawn Owaen’s way. Something about him, something about the bastard…
“What do you want from me?” The words burst out of Branoic, coming out angry, and hard. Finally he lets himself meet Owaen’s eyes. The other man is smiling, tight-lipped and so arrogant, and Branoic knows already what he wants, what he came here to do. He steps into a ready stance, and it feels so good, to let all the frustrations and fears of the day fade away. It does not matter that the last time this happened Branoic lost, and lost badly. In a moment, there will only be the fight.
There’s a voice coming behind Branoic. Dry, familiar, a little mocking. “Yes, Owaen," Maddyn says. "You going to tell Branoic what you want?”
If Owaen hesitates at all Branoic does not see it. “I want to beat the shit out of his smug little face again,” Owaen says, almost casually. It is the again that sticks in Branoic’s throat, makes him step forward with tight-clenched fists.
“Bran,” Maddyn says, quick and commanding. Maybe it is only the sound of the nickname coming so easy and familiar off Maddyn’s tongue that makes him stop.
Maddyn takes a step closer to Owaen. “You and I both know that that isn’t all of it. You going to tell him?” A breath, a pause. “No need to be ashamed of it, Owaen. But you shouldn’t make him suffer for what you feel.”
There is a little half-smile on Maddyn’s face, small and cold. He is a gentle man, Branoic thinks; but now, tonight, he is showing a new face, and it is vindictive, angry.
His stare is focused and intent on Owaen. And Owaen – Owaen looks away from that steady gaze.
Even in the firelight, Branoic can see the flush rising up bright red on Owaen’s cheeks. He still doesn’t understand what Maddyn’s saying, not quite.
“Go to hell,” Owaen says thickly. “Go to hell and rot there, you bastard. You think I haven’t seen the way he looks at you? So sweet, the way he follows you around like some kind of dumb puppy. You like it pretty and sweet like him, don’t you?”
Branoic watches them both. There is an insult there, he knows it, but still he does not understand – until all at once, abruptly, he does.
Shame washes over him, a burning tide. Maddyn thinks – Owaen wants – Maddyn knows – he’s choking on it, speechless.
Maddyn and Owaen turn to watch him as he stumbles blindly off into the darkness, but neither of them speak again.
Branoic eats, sleeps, banters, fights; all of it just the same as he as always done. There is a shame in him now, a shame he sees mirrored sometimes in Owaen’s face: the other man like his own unwanted reflection.
Branoic ignores it, shoves it down.
If there is something else rising up from an even deeper place, some emotion made out of Maddyn’s weary smile and the quick deft movements of Owaen’s hand on his sword in the field… Branoic does not let himself see that, does not let himself feel it.
All his life he’s heard jests made about things like this, things that are womanish, and soft. Branoic is not like that – he would never – he is not –
And yet, even so, there are still quiet sunlit afternoons, shaded by green leaves, watching the light catch on Maddyn’s hair…
“Listen, lad,” Maddyn says to him one afternoon. Branoic knows what is coming. He can feel shame and dread rising in his stomach, looks away.
“Bran," he says. "Here, just listen? I know you don’t know what to think right now but it’s alright, Bran, it is. There ought to be no shame in this, you don’t need to let it worry you this way. The other men, the ones who talk, they're wrong.”
Maddyn reaches out then, rests his hand steady and warm on Branoic’s shoulder.
Branoic does not speak.
“It’s alright, you know. What you’re feeling. How could it ever be wrong, to love your brothers?”
Maddyn’s smile is sunny and open, his broad hand so warm. Branoic tenses, flinches, shivers all over. It is as if he can feel every callus, every scar, burning into him like brands against his skin.
“I can’t,” he stammers out. Pulling away. “Don’t – I can’t – ”
He walks away fast, feeling the blush rising on his cheeks. And does not look back, even once, to see Maddyn’s soft sad smile left behind him.
Maybe, just once, there is a cool autumn night, fog rising up from the Cerrmor harbour to wreath the ward in moonlit greyness. Branoic walks alone, wading through the mist as heavy as smoke. He’s had strange dreams, that night and every other night for the past month or more. Despite his exhaustion he cannot sleep.
And then he hears a noise behind him, and knows that someone has followed him out of the barracks.
It is Owaen, of course.
Branoic can barely see his face in the darkness, but Owaen’s eyes are burning into him all the same.
“What do you want,” he says heavily, slowly. The tiredness makes another fog behind his eyes.
For an answer Owaen steps forward and shoves him hard against the wall.
“This,” he says, leaning forward, closer - too close. And for once there is no arrogance in his voice, only raw honesty.
Maybe, just once – when their mouths touch, Branoic kisses back.
It isn’t much like kissing a lass. He’s had a woman or two who like it rough, who kissed him with this same brutal bruising hunger, but there is a gritty rasp against his face from Owaen’s unshaven chin that is all new. It almost hurts, and there are other pains: Owaen’s hands digging into his hips, the rough scrape of the uncut stone at his back.
All of it makes a spell, the ache and the hunger and Owaen’s mouth and the night. Branoic is lost in it, Branoic cannot breathe.
“Yes,” Owaen says, murmuring against his mouth. “Let me. Yes.” His hands grip tighter for a moment and then wander, slipping up Branoic’s shirt, caressing his back, and then drifting lower.
Branoic closes his eyes and kisses harder. It is like a spell, a dream, and just once, just this once he does not want to wake.
Owaen’s mouth, Owaen’s hands…
Branoic gasps and presses closer. Half-astonished at his own boldness he slips his hands inside Owaen’s clothes to touch him where he’s being touched. And he does not know what he is doing but this seems so simple, so familiar. So right.
Lust spikes through him when Owaen moans.
They press close and tight together, closer even than all the times they’ve fought, rolling with brutal punches round the ward. Part of Branoic is amazed at this, at Owaen’s sudden yielding softness. His eyes are closed, the curve of his mouth somehow vulnerable in the diffused foggy light.
Just for a moment, just once… And then the thing is done.
Afterwards they pull apart, watch each other for a long moment. Branoic feels spent and empty, no words left for him to say.
Owaen’s mouth curves into a crook-mouthed smile and then he walks away, in silence.
Maddyn is waiting there, at the barracks door. Branoic knows his mouth is red and swollen, knows he should speak, feel shame – Maddyn’s hair is damp and wet with the fog. He’s been outside, then. And somehow Branoic knows already, what he has seen.
Maddyn nods at him once, and walks inside. That sad, soft smile…
Branoic turns and walks away from it, walks away from it all.
There in the dim moonlit ward he makes a choice. All the fear and shame and panic, the feelings, the longing – he pushes it down, deep down. The life he has is the life he wants, and there is no room in it for all the things that Owaen and Maddyn make him feel.
He thinks of Maddyn’s smile then, just for a moment. Maddyn knows…
He pushes it down.
Once, just once, in a moon-dark ward…
Just once. It is enough.
The thing is done.
Every year, all through the long summer raiding season, Branoic sleeps easily and well, lying down on the bare hard ground amongst the other silver daggers, his brothers. There is a rightness even to the cuts and bone-deep aches, to the constant stink of smoke and sweat and horse and blood. He carries a fine long sword and a dagger made of dweomer silver, and with them swings and kills and knows that he fights for the one true king, the High King of all Deverry. No-one can ever even touch him.
The future is a short straight road and at the end of it is glory, the Holy City, Maryn on the throne that is his by right of blood and honour.
Sometimes true dreams still come to Branoic, though far less common or clear than they had been when he was a child. It does not matter; there is only one dream that is important.
Maddyn speaks to him sometimes of grief and regret, the bitter briefness of a silver dagger’s life; but Branoic cannot understand it. How can he fear something so small as his own death?
His own life, his own desires are unimportant, Branoic knows that now.
He knows that he will see Maryn crowned High King before he dies.
Some days Branoic wants to cry out aloud with the wonder of it, shake the men around him until they can see the same bright future, the same glory. They ride together for a dweomer king, marked themselves by Maryn’s shining wyrd. If he could live a thousand lives how could he ever choose anything but this? Even when Maddyn’s eyes meet his for a second too long, even when Owaen looks at him with shame and anger and deeply buried desire.
The future is so clear, so beautiful –
And yet, when winter comes, Branoic has other dreams.
Clear and bright they come to him, perfect in every detail, yet they are not, cannot be true dreams. It is no future he sees. Instead Branoic dreams of rough-walled stone duns, low-roofed and scantily furnished. The men and women there wear strange old-fashioned clothing, like the tapestries he has seen in the oldest rooms of the dun in Cerrmor.
Branoic walks amongst them all, and everywhere heads turn to watch him as he passes. Silks and velvets rustle around him, the most beautiful dress he’s ever seen – and yet he smiles to be wearing it, a small and secret smile. The dress seems the fittest thing he’s ever worn.
The most beautiful lass in all the kingdom, he hears a voice say behind him, low and husky with something like lust; but it is not shame but wonder and pride that fills him then, at the thought of being named so.
(When he wakes, that is the greatest shame of all.)
But in the dreams – in the dreams he dances light-footed and beautiful amongst beautiful lasses, and laughs when every head turns his way. This is the true power, the true glory – I hear she’s snared the Prince himself, another voice says. He feels the rightness of it down to his bones.
And sometimes he sees two blond heads bent together, two young warriors smiling and leaning close as brothers, and at the sight of them a new grief wraps him round. Their faces are strange, as strange as the woman’s face he sees when he looks into his dream-self’s cloudy bronze mirror, and yet, and yet –
I loved you, he thinks – you loved me – you loved each other. Oh, we loved each other so – and he longs to go to them, to speak, to force the dream to go some other way. But it always ends there, in that long poised moment before he can act. The dream always ends before they have even looked his way.
The grief does not leave him after he wakes. Deep and slow it sinks its claws into him, that heavy ache, colouring the short winter days with some pain so deep and old it seems like it’s always been a part of him. It is made up somehow of his dreams, and of Owaen’s cruel desperate anger and Maddyn’s wry glances and even the way Branoic’s sword fits so familiar and right in his hands. And something else, something nameless and so much older.
The prince is the only bright thing left in the world, it seems, and yet even the prince is not enough to drive the grief away.
In the winter, Branoic still knows the shape of the future, as sure and certain as he has ever done. He knows his fate, knows that he has chosen glory.
Yet even so, it seems he will never be free. Still at night he dreams, and still the old grief rises up, deep and cold as a winter river, swirling round to drag him down.